Are You Experienced?: Matthew Lippman on Matthew Dickman’s poetry collection All American Poem

All American Poem, Matthew Dickman, Copper Canyon Press, 2008


When the buzz that Pink Floyd’s new album, The Wall, was to be released in the spring or so of 1980, I couldn’t stand the wait. The anticipation drove me crazy. I was fifteen years old and had hair down to my knees. I waited for what it seemed years, and then, finally, the double album hit the shelves. I ran to Crazy Eddie’s, a record store in Westchester County, and laid down my seven dollars for the double vinyl set. When I got home, I ran upstairs, ripped the plastic wrap off the record, locked my door, and proceeded to drain the life out of the those four sides of vinyl over the next three days. I listened obsessively headphones on, horizontal on my blue rug. I read and re-read every linear note, every lyric, and each piece of language on the inside and out of the record jacket until I was sure I knew everything about the making of the record and every note of the music. I almost didn’t eat.


This experience was not new or exclusive to the Pink Floyd opus. I had it with The Rolling Stone’s Some Girls, Fleetwood Mac’s Tusk, Elvis Costello’s My Aim Is True and countless other records of my youth. It was an engagement with art that was like sex before I knew what sex was. This kind of listening, this desire to bond with the music was a desire to be inside it. And in doing so, everyone of those records delivered.


Matthew Dickman’s first book of poetry, All-American Poem, delivers the way those LPs delivered. It is a great book of poetry, one of the great first books of poetry to arrive in the last ten years. Dickman’s poetry will be compared to Whitman’s, O’Hara’s, Stern’s and Koch’s. His poetic voice is full of singular magic, Dickman magic. It’s a poetry so good, I can’t stand it. This is the kind of poetry that makes other poets want to write better; it makes me want to write better, be a better poet, and sometimes a trapeze artist.  There is a messy freedom in his language, the kind of mess that you might find if you walked into an art room created exclusively for four year olds. Yet, it all makes sense in the way the Buddha makes sense or a garden full of nightingales and daffodils make sense. That’s what you want in poetry, if you are a reader of verse and you are trying to get in touch with your mind and your body all at once—a beautiful mess. Matthew Dickman’s poetry is such a gift. The work is full of love and strain, tenderness and light, and extraordinary intimacy as can be seen in the first nineteen lines of Slow Dance:

More than putting another man on the moon,

more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,

we need the opportunity to dance

with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance

between the couch and dinning room table, at the end

of the party, while the person we love has gone

to bring the car around

because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart

if any part of us got wet. A slow dance

to bring the evening home, to knock it out of the park. Two people

rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.

A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.

It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting

on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.

Your hands along her spine. Her hips

unfolding like a cotton napkin

and you begin to think about how all the stars in the sky

are dead. The my body

is talking to your body slow dance.


Dickman has the beautiful ability to make me feel like I am in my body while I am reading his words. The poetry makes me feel like there is a body that is my own, a body that is my own but ultimately belongs to the world. In one moment you are reading about his body, his love and whiskey and neighborhood, and the next minute he’s talking about Jack Gilbert or Valentin Silvestrov or Peter Parker. This poetry slips between membranes of experience and always at the center is a big, beating heart that won’t stop, that won’t shut up it’s so beautiful. What’s beautiful is this:

Marilyn Monroe took all her sleeping pills

to bed when she was thirty-six, and Marlon Brando’s daughter

hung in the Tahitian bedroom

of her mother’s house,

while Stanley Adams shot himself in the head. Sometimes

you can look at the clouds or the trees

and they look nothing like clouds or trees or the sky or the ground.

The performance artist Kathy Change

set herself on fire while Bing Crosby’s sons shot themselves

out of the music industry forever.

I sometimes wonder about the inner lives of polar bears. The French

philosopher Gilles Deleuze jumped

from an apartment window into the world

and then out of it. Peg Entwistle, an actress with no lead

roles, leaped off the “H” in the HOLLYWOOD sign

when everything looked black and white

and David O. Selznick was king, circa 1932. Ernest Hemingway

put a shotgun to his head in Ketchum, Idaho

while his granddaughter, a model and actress, climbed the family tree

and overdosed on phenobarbital. My brother opened

thirteen fentanyl patches and stuck them on his body

until it wasn’t his body anymore. I like

the way geese sound above the river. I like

the little soaps you find in hotel bathrooms because they’re beautiful. (Trouble)

I give you these long quotes, because Dickman’s poetry is about breadth. His cadence is as much a part of his form as his formlessness as there is a kind of capricious chaos neither capricious nor chaotic. The language is a music, and one has to understand that when you jump into the poems they will take you places you could have never imagined but which feel altogether familiar.


I will say it again—Dickman’s language is music: parts rock, pop, soul, classical and jazz.  It’s the best of America. And I tell you this, I could not believe that he was able to sustain it, the voice and music, in the nine pages of the title poem; he does. The poem is a tour de force that had me, partly out of jealousy, envy, desire and love, comparing it to Ginsberg, Hughes, Whitman, Hoagland and, then, back to Ginsberg. But it is none of these poets; this is all Dickman surprising and somersaulting and making love with and to every piece of language at his disposable. All American Poem is fierce, here is what you are in for:

I want to peel off a hundred dollar bill

and slap it down on the counter.

You can pick out a dress.  I’ll pick out a tie: polka dots

spinning like disco balls.  Darling let’s go

two-stepping in the sawdust at the Broken Spoke.

Let’s live downtown and go clubbing.

God save hip-hop and famous mixed drinks.

Let’s live in a cardboard box.  Let’s live

in a loft above Chelsea, barely human, talking about

the newest collection of Elizabeth Peyton,

her brilliant strokes, the wine and cheese.

You can go from one state to another and never

paint the same thing twice.  In New Mexico

we could live by a creek and hang our laundry

on the line.  Let’s get naked in the cold waters of Michigan.

Let’s get hitched in Nevada.  Just you, me and Elvis.

This is beginning just keeps on burning the pages up. You turn one page, it burns up, and leads you to next. And again and again and again. Fire.


I have read the poems in All-American Poem three, four, maybe five times. I have read this book like I listened to Pink Floyd’s The Wall, 27 years ago. I have read these poems and the linear notes and blurbs and acknowledgements and notes on type over and over again so I could become as close to this text as humanly possible. I have spent hours with All-American Poem and I have destroyed it to the point where it is now part of my being.  All-American Poem is not a book that you read the way Exile On Main Street is not an album that you merely listen to. You have an experience with it—with this voice, with these poems, with Matthew Dickman’s music and spirit—and then you run like hell, away from it, so you can tell the rest of the world as quickly as possible.

6 responses to “Are You Experienced?: Matthew Lippman on Matthew Dickman’s poetry collection All American Poem

  1. Pingback: the crank: a fantasia of the mundane « Read Write Poem

  2. I love Matthew Dickson’s work. His imagery and the sound with each word falls and sinks into the brain is pure genius. I love “My Autopsy”. I’ve adopted the first line form that poem as a mantra of sorts…

    “There is a way

    if we want

    into everything..”

    The recanting of “there is a way” throughout the poem is strong and there is a feel of underlying American hopefulness throughout the piece.

    He is truly of the greats.

  3. Hi! Wonderful! you motivated me to read your long opinion because you accepted me in goodreads so I searched here.You know I am an English teacher in a primary school where is in country-side of Thailand but I got a scholarship to learn in Singapore 4 months. I just went there on 5th Oct. – 1st Nov. 08 for prepare myself and will go there again 3 months. I had homework to read articles and comment,too. I didn’t do it until I saw your text.It’s so cool because I can read and understand it. Thanks so much you are so kind. I love this sentence ” it all makes sense in the way the Buddha makes sense or a garden full of nightingales and daffodils make sense.” ……..Thanks for your wonderful opinion…..Gun / Butako School, Korat, Thailand