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.
With apologies to Marvin Bell!
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 utters
words 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
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
© 2010, Donald Harbour