About the dead man and poetry

This particular form of poetry was developed by Marvin Bell and his Dead Man Poetry.

Mr. Bell explains it in his own words:

The Dead Man poem is a form I created a few years ago and then couldn’t shake. Dead man poems come out of an old Zen admonition that says, “Live as if you were already dead.” But you needn’t feel remorse. The dead man is alive and dead at the same time. He lives it up, he has opinions, he makes bad jokes, he has sex. Is he me? No, but he knows a lot about me. Dead Man poems come in two parts. Each line of poetry in a dead man poem is a compete sentence, long or short.

The form is comprised of two sections. One is titled “The Dead Man and …” and the second “More About the Dead Man and … .” All lines are written as sentence lines and enjambment matters quite a bit. The first two lines generally turn back on each other. The two versions seem to discover or expose different things about the Dead Man, one more internal in nature, the other external.

This is not one of my favorite forms, however below is my participatory effort..


Live as if you were already dead.
– Zen admonition

1. About the dead man and poetry

The dead man is not a poet for he does not comprehend
the shades and nuances of meaning.
Even though he cannot understand, the dead man is still
a word with weight.
Arcane in life, the dead man is the papyrus upon which
is written the prose of time.
For him time has no meaning other than dividing day from night.
He has always been and will always be the digger of incantatory
graves, the filler of assonance holes.
The mere existence of him does not create meaning for his
translation into thought lacks content.
In thought the dead man is described by lyrical cantata and
linen shrouded psalms.
There is never music in his rhyme for his speech is not
connected to the song of the universe.
Whenever there is hope, love, vision, purpose: he consumes
them from a burial ash urn.
Lacking the eyes to see other than his self, he has shunned the
visceral meat of satisfaction.
Living is not a choice or an occurrence for in living there can
be supreme gratification without desire.
Yet, for him the skill to convey profound emotional insight is
a death march through a literary nightmare.
He cannot perform his work since he has no ability to create
the most indistinct utterance of sound.
He has become a scapular shell of dried skin hanging in an
ancient stony chapel, weighted down by the chant of hooded
vicars who would utter those poetic verses he could not scribe.
The dead man has become the succulent pupa of belief that shares
no today, no tomorrow, only the injustice of the past where
there is no poetry of life.

2. More about the dead man and poetry

The dead man never could be a part of a slam.
The dead man could not produce a readable chapbook.
His only concern is the stillness and breathlessness of cold marble.
For him the dank earth is a Ginsberg elegy.
The Dead man could not withstand the withering wind of criticism
without disintegrating.
Never having acuity has given him no useful verse.
It could not be said of him that he had a poetic wisdom tooth for
dead man had lost his teeth.
When dead man is want to reason, he fails not understanding
the why.

© 2010, Donald Harbour

15 thoughts on “About the dead man and poetry

  1. That’s what I call a WOW of a response to the prompt. The stanzas contrast incredibly well, and prove to me that I must go back to square one and give the form the attention you have shown me that it merits. I love the way you have linked it with creativity, utterance, poetry.


  2. You’ve taken my own very lukewarm view of this form and expressed it with considerable style and panache. I was even less kind to the dead man. Still, reading all the entries this morning, including your excellent take, he seems to have his legitimate uses.


  3. Donald I love this and the two contrasting pieces. The first being quite serious and the second I found it very “tongue in cheek”.
    A feliz navidad to you and yours.
    muchos saludos!


  4. The prospects for the dead man ain’t good. No poetry either. Hrmph. Rich words describing paucity, dear Donald.


  5. Oh, well done, sir!

    I’m feeling a bit sere around the edges right now, and can sympathize with the poor piece of sod. No poetic wisdom tooth. chuckle


  6. I’m with Viv, Donald, Wow! This blew my socks off! Pieces of it, so visceral, the construction brilliant… A favorite line: “Whenever there is hope, love, vision, purpose: he consumes them from a burial ash urn.” It tightened the poem’s intensity. Now, out of context in my comment, think of the different places the line could take you as a starting point. It is exquisitely interesting.


  7. this is my favorite line of the “come one come all” so far:

    “The dead man could not produce a readable chapbook.”

    ha! i love that. love it. great job!


  8. nicely done Donald…… was going to do the dead man and POETRY also….but did something else….glad you had Ginsberg in there….Happy Holidays my friend


  9. “he does not comprehend the shades and nuances of meaning”

    …but you certainly must, because there are some fantastic metaphors and such in here. I think the “succulent pupa of belief” is my favorite. Awesomely written!


  10. The second poem is my favourite but I loved this line from the first:

    the dead man is the papyrus upon which
    is written the prose of time.

    Wonderful image.


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