Terrible Poem Breakdown: “The Gentle German”

The Terrible Poetry Breakdown series takes a look at heartfelt poems that somehow have gone off the rails. The only two criteria are a) the poems cannot be willfully bad, and 2) the poet must be completely on board with criticism. My analysis focuses only on the effects the poems have on me, the casual but informed reader.


It was one of those party games that couples play

Before anyone has kids. Someone leaves the room,

A name is drawn from a hat, clever questions like “What kind of car is this person…”

You get it. And the German had to describe himself as a natural object.

A cloud, he said. Okay, came the followup.

And what kind of cloud is this person?

A flimsy cloud, he said in his soft German music.

A cloud that wouldn’t hurt anybody.

And it was true. A shaved round head, a wisp of body trailing after him.

He was dying–

Stricken by illness–

First he would go blind, then he would die, it was only a question of when–

But I didn’t know that then. I knew only that he taught German and was a scholar of American literature, writing a thesis on American Psycho

But he himself was gentle, a lamb. His disease had also rendered him “mostly impotent,” which in turn had made his wife crazy with anger and resentment and low self-esteem.

Meanwhile he wanted only to please her.

At times I hated her for the way she treated him.

It didn’t help that she’d grown up privileged, a classmate of Manhattan celebrity kids, with a rich absentee father who funneled money her way until suddenly he didn’t.

I have issues with the rich, I admit.

And when the story circulated that the two of them had been on a crashing plane, one engine ablaze, the other disengaged, and he put his hand on hers and said, I want you to know I love you and our time together has meant everything to me so I can leave the world happy and content.

And she screamed back, Yeah? Well it’s not enough for me!

I took his side and hated her all the more.

No, I thought, he’s not enough for you, because nothing ever is for people like you, is it?

I’ve softened. She had her own reasons to be viewed with pity.

I think she did the best she could trying to salvage an early marriage until it was clear she had not replaced her father and it had been a mistake to try.

She did her best to live a sexless life until it was no longer possible.

She did her best, trying to hold a flimsy cloud in her arms

Before it slipped away.

Jacke’s Analysis:

Another poem about death! What a surprise! It makes it hard to criticize. I feel bad for people who are dying! Do poets know that? Is that why death is such a subject for them?

Or do they face the blank page and think How can I go deep? They come up with one idea, but that’s not deep enough, so they go deeper, and deeper, and deeper, until finally they reach death and they think, Well, what could be deeper than that? The answer: nothing!

Or maybe that’s not the answer? Maybe the smallest speck of life is actually deeper than death? Maybe the ant’s trembling leg on a quivering blade of grass – maybe that miracle, in spite of the fact that the ant is impermanent – maybe that is the deepest mystery of all! Maybe it’s life – not the termination of life, but the existence of it, is the deepest thought you can have!

Get to work, poets! Celebrate life! I look forward to your submission. I’m sure the results will be terrible, but the effort and the sincerity will amuse me nevertheless.

As always, my thanks to the scribbler of “The Gentle German” for agreeing to submit to the crucible of Jacke’s analysis.

Other Poems in the Terrible Poem Breakdown Series:


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