Michael Palmer

San Francisco poet Michael Palmer was born in New York City and is known the world over for a large and provocative body of work that resists the divide between the personal and the philosophical. He writes dense, analytical – and startlingly lyrical – poems that explore the nature of language and syntax and their relation to form, meaning, society, and notions of self.

According to Publishers Weekly, “Palmer has long and rightly been considered the most lyrical and the most aurally accomplished among poets in the experimental tradition of Louis Zukofsky and Gertrude Stein.” Or, as The Village Voice put it, “Palmer has been one of the most influential writers in recent years, perhaps because he fuses contemporary concerns about syntax and meaning production with some very ancient poetic pleasures.”

Long at the forefront of the avant-guard movement, Palmer has published fourteen books and chapbooks. Each new collection represents a distinct departure from the goals and surfaces of the last, just as one stanza is often challenged and qualified by the next; but everything he writes becomes part of a web of intention and invention in which the process is the subject.

As he wrote in a 1985 essay, “Poetry seems often a talking to self as well as other as well as self as other, a simultaneity that recognizes the elusive multiplicity of what is called ‘identity’…. Poetic speech often becomes paradoxically more direct in its presentation than apparently simpler forms of writing: the evasions, displacements, recurrences, etc., stand as an immediate part of the message….”

In addition to poetry, Palmer has authored works of criticism, edited anthologies and translated poetry from Russia and Brazil, and served as contributing editor of Sulfur magazine. He has also written many radio plays and collaborated with painters and choreographers, including the creation of a dozen dance works with choreographer Margaret Jenkins.

Palmer has won multiple grants from the NEA and the Guggenheim Foundations, and was Co-Winner, with Alice Notely, of the Shelley Memorial Award of the Poetry Society of America. Judge Peter Gizzi said of Palmer’s poems: “Through their gates we re-enter the originary magic of the word.”

Poetry Center Reading:

Spring 2004

The Library is Burning

(Eighth Symmetrical Poem)

The library is burning floor by floor
delivering pictures from liquid to sleep

as we roll over thinking to run
A mistaken anticipation has led us here

to calculate the duration of a year
in units of aloe and wood

But there will be no more dust in corners
and no more dogs appearing through dust

to question themselves uncertainly
Should it finally be made clear

that there’s no cloud inside no body
no streetlamps, no unfoldings at five o’clock

along the edge of a curved path
Masters of the present tense

greet morning from their cautious beds
while the greater masters of regret

change water into colored class
The stirrings are the same and different

The stirrings are the same and different
and secretly the same

The fear of winter is the fear of fire
disassembling winter

and that time the message was confused
it felt the most precise

From THE LION BRIDGE (New Directions, 1998)


You are identical with a wooden match
An ace of spades has fallen from the pack

onto a surface both curved and flat
while visitors pass in the heat outside

unaware of the players of cards
faded figures who are photographs

Does speech break on their lips
at the outside corner of either eye

Do they know the edge where the body ends
Did we listen to part song through a lens

From THE PROMISES OF GLASS (New Directions, 2000)

Autobiography 3

Yes, I was born on the street known as Glass-as Paper, Scissors or Rock.

Several of my ancestors had no hands.

Several of my ancestors used their pens

in odd ways.

A child of seven I prayed for breath.

Each day I passed through the mirrored X

into droplets of rain congealed around dust

I never regretted this situation.

Though patient as an alchemist I failed to learn English.

Twenty years later I burned all my furniture.

Likewise the beams of my house

to fuel the furnace.

Once I bought an old boat.

I abandoned the tyrannical book of my dreams

and wrote about dresses, jewels, furniture and menus

eight or ten times in a book of dreams.

It sets me to dreaming when I dust it off.

Our time is a between time; best to stay out of it.
Send an occasional visiting card to eternity or a few stanzas to the living

so they won’t suspect we know they don’t exist.

Sign them Sincerely Yours, Warmest Regards, Thinking of You or Deepest Regrets.

Brown river outside my window, an old boat riding the current.

What I like most is to stay in my apartment.

So that is my life, pared of anecdotes.

I go out occasionally to look at a dance.

Otherwise the usual joys, worries and inner mourning.

Occasionally in an old boat I navigate the river

when I find the time.

Water swallows the days.

I think maybe that’s all
I have to say

except that an irregular heart sometimes speaks to me.

It says, A candle is consuming a children’s alphabet.

It says, Attend to each detail of the future-past.

Last night the moon was divided precisely in half.

Today a terrifying wind.

From THE PROMISES OF GLASS (New Directions, 2000)