Badass Lines of Poetry

I love lines of poetry that just kick ass. Not all great poems include a line that is outstanding just by itself in a knock-you-out kind of way. Many great poems are constructed on interlocking lines in which no one particular line has a starring role. But no matter what kind of poetry I’ve been into at any given point in my life, I’ve always had a soft spot for the kind of poem that has a line that just bowls you over — even if the rest of the lines are extremely good as well. You probably know what I’m talking about — the same thing happens more audibly in song lyrics, and usually that great line is the hook of the song. James Wright’s poem “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota” is one example of this sort of technique. The poem lulls along at its leisurely pace, and then a final line out of right field bam: “I have wasted my life.”

One that’s been on my mind is perhaps Neruda’s most famous line from his most famous collection. “Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente”. I don’t want to take away from the rest of the poem, which is just beautiful. It’s one of the first poems that taught me about the impossibility of translation because, in part, of the importance of sound and rhythm. But I’ve never found a translation of that line that does it any justice, and I’m not sure it’s possible.

Although good books rarely make good movies, some poems can make for great songs. If you haven’t heard it yet, check out this Brazilian Girls take on “Me gustas cuando callas”.

And here’s the text of the poem:

Me gustas cuando callas

Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente,
y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te toca.
Parece que los ojos se te hubieran volado
y parece que un beso te cerrara la boca.

Como todas las cosas están llenas de mi alma
emerges de las cosas, llena del alma mía.
Mariposa de sueño, te pareces a mi alma,
y te pareces a la palabra melancolía.

Me gustas cuando callas y estás como distante.
Y estás como quejándote, mariposa en arrullo.
Y me oyes desde lejos, y mi voz no te alcanza:
Déjame que me calle con el silencio tuyo.

Déjame que te hable también con tu silencio
claro como una lámpara, simple como un anillo.
Eres como la noche, callada y constelada.
Tu silencio es de estrella, tan lejano y sencillo.

Me gustas cuando callas porque estás como ausente.
Distante y dolorosa como si hubieras muerto.
Una palabra entonces, una sonrisa bastan.
Y estoy alegre, alegre de que no sea cierto.

The other one that’s been with me for a long time is “Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi” from the eponymous poem by Cesare Pavese. I think English is kinder to this phrase than to the Neruda line, so I’m willing to let a translation out. “Death will come and she will have your eyes.” Much like the Neruda poem, it’s the opening line, in contrast to Wright’s final line being the kicker. But it’s a heck of a way to open up a love poem. And both Neruda and Pavese know they have killers lines on their hands, and you can see it in the way they reuse them in slightly altered contexts. Pavese revisits the title line after setting it up with a flat restatement: “Per tutti la morte ha uno sguardo.” “For everyone death has a gaze.” But then comes the repetition: “Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi.” “Death will come and she will have your eyes.” There is so much more immediacy to the title line than the set up, and this is what gives it part of its power — much in the same way that a baseball hitter gets his power by transferring his weight from his back foot to his front foot.

Video and reading of the poem here:

Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi

Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi.
questa morte che ci accompagna
dal mattino alla sera, insonne,
sorda, come un vecchio rimorso
o un vizio assurdo. I tuoi occhi
saranno una vana parola,
un grido taciuto, un silenzio.
Così li vedi ogni mattina
quando su te sola ti pieghi
nello specchio. O cara speranza,
quel giorno sapremo anche noi
che sei la vita e sei il nulla

Per tutti la morte ha uno sguardo.
Verrà la morte e avrà i tuoi occhi.
Sarà come smettere un vizio,
come vedere nello specchio
riemergere un viso morto,
come ascoltare un labbro chiuso.
Scenderemo nel gorgo muti.

I invite you to share your examples of badass lines of poetry below.


3 responses to “Badass Lines of Poetry

  1. The fatalism in these opening lines by George Oppen always knocks me out. It sounds like King Lear as interpreted by a hungover James Cagney, smoking a cigarette and talking out of the corner of his mouth.

    Failure, worse failure, nothing
    seen from prominence,
    too much seen
    from the ditch.

    – from “World, World”

  2. thank for nice poem

  3. Have good content on the blog, I congratulate you. I will keep coming occasionally to view updates, since I see that the post is old. kisses

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