AP English 12

Poet: Carson Cistulli



            Carson Cistulli was born December 23, 1979 in Concord, New Hampshire. He earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in Classical Civilizations from the University of Montana and a Master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Massachusetts. Since then, he has published essays and numerous books of poetry including Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated and A Century of Enthusiasm. He is now an English professor at the University of Massachusetts. Celebrated as one of the most innovative and original postmodern poets, his works mainly discuss the complexities of life. For this report, the poems discussed are from Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated, his book published in 2006.

            Cistulli’s style, distinctly modern and somewhat unorthodox, most frequently emphasizes the theme or tone of his work.

His poems’ structure, especially in Part One of the anthology, mirrors that of a normal paragraph. Upon first glance, most seem merely a short block of text at the top of a page. But like the size and form of his poems, the content of Cistulli’s work is pithy and direct. He doesn’t waste time with the rhymes, line meter, or stanzas stereotypical of poetry. Each poem is just a short paragraph of fully-crafted, grammatically-correct sentences, very distinct from the broken style of many poets. Cistulli does this for various reasons. Firstly, his poems frequently discuss the darker aspects of life, that less-tasteful side of town that we try to avoid but never really can put out of our minds. His poems don’t try to beautify that which should be raw and poignant. Furthermore, each poem is a sort of stream of consciousness snapshot, a moment so full of emotion and insight that it demands immediate transcription. Very few seem to be reflections of lengthy premeditation rather than inspiration of the moment. The compact form of his poems facilitates the delivery of this emotion, transforming it into a cannonball of figurative language with more power than longer, more complex poems could ever hope to achieve. This is probably a result of the anxiety attacks he suffered as a young man, when he used poetry as an outlet for emotion. Lastly, Cistulli’s poems seem to be targeted toward a younger, more modern audience. His organization, more indicative of the traditional essay, makes it much easier to comprehend, especially as his meaning often becomes so complicated. Thus, his poems can be understood by a wider range of readers, not just university professors. Examples of the technique discussed in this paragraph can be seen in poems such as “Juan and you listened to the tapes” and “The dandelion was on fire.”

Because many of Cistulli’s poems follow this format, it should be noticed when he diverges. A few poems, such as “From Coast to Coast We Run, Etc.” and “from TWENTY-SIX FRIENDS, THAT’S THE SAME AS YOUR AGE,” do conform to stanzaic form, although few poems ever actually rhyme. Furthermore, these poems are also unique because Cistulli gave them separate titles. The poems previously discussed have the same title as the first line of the poem, reminiscent of Emily Dickinson. Whether Cistulli put more effort into the latter type of poem or felt that their content was more meaningful is unclear, but each difference should be noted when analyzing.

The point of view of these poems furthers the impact of Cistulli’s work. His poems are almost exclusively told in the first person, full of rhetorical questions and ostensibly random thought processes that are indicative of stream of consciousness perspective. While this makes the poems more intimate, it also emphasizes the overall point of his style. Cistulli’s randomness and non sequiturs underline his original view on life, how he is not only willing to look where no one else has before but also in ways in which no one has ever before conceived. His fresh perspective is what so many poetic critics value.

The figurative language, diction, and syntax of his poems create a similar effect. Cistulli’s frequent use of paradoxes and irony accentuates the previously mentioned originality. He sees parallels where no one else even bothers to look, and calling readers’ attention to them unlocks doors of new insight previously overlooked. With Cistulli, we must always expect the unexpected. His word choice, also random and somewhat nonsensical, highlights the allusions and near-allusions to everything from the King James Bible to the Civil War to psychology and Pavlov. While he habitually utilizes vibrant, connotative words, he also uses mundane words in unusual ways. A noun will become a verb and vice versa. Readers must be constantly aware of these connotations and allusions, for without them the poem becomes emotionally bare. Some, however, are obscure and difficult to recognize. For example, Cistulli often references the “Slovenes,” as seen in “The dandelion was on fire.” Readers might not know that Slovenes are members of a Slavic people living in Slovenia, a republic of the Balkan Peninsula. Cistulli’s syntax is generally of the same type. In addition to a repetitive use of rhetorical questions, his sentences are most often simple sentences--pithy, yet able to entangle the reader in a spider’s web of meaning in less than twenty words. The syntax, diction, and seemingly disconnected fragments of meaning make it difficult to understand Cistulli’s poems on the first read. Readers should always read this author’s poems several times before they attempt to fully analyze them.

Cistulli most commonly writes about life, its difficulties, complexities, and ironies. His poems freely discuss rape, murder, and selfishness alongside the feelings insignificance, purposelessness, and inferiority we all experience. We have to learn to take proper perspective instead of what we’re told is socially proper. Some important quotes that express central themes are:

Š      “If there is one requirement it is to/be alive, and I mean that in as many ways as possible.” (“There are colonels getting drunk”)

Š      “Somewhere abroad and a hundred years later, you’re/crying for me in a nice liberal café where they wash your dishes./Lot of good that does me!, who must lick the soles of a bully’s/shoes, who must run the streets all night, trying to escape the perimeter of my own disfiguring shadow.” (“The Rue de Bastille”)

Š      “The only thing more beautiful than a beautiful/thing is a beautiful thing’s ruin: that’s the basic message of all I/say.” (“Rimbaud and I in a pastoral context”)

Some poems are more didactic, intended to reveal a life lesson to readers. Some are mere

expressions of emotion. Some poems deal with historical issues of the past in which Cistulli presents himself (speaker) as the one experiencing it all, and some discuss the author’s real, modern experiences. In both cases, Cistulli connects all experience and weaves a complex web, a glistening, colorful web of shadows and light that reflects every imaginable aspect of the human experience. The title of this particular anthology—Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated—points toward a common theme of human hubris and folly to at least look for in each poem.

Overall, many of this author’s poems are of literary merit. A select few are so random as to be pointless, or so short as to be unable to convey any significant meaning. Most, however, promote this author’s status as a reputable modern poet.








Cistulli, Carson. Some Common Weaknesses Illustrated. 1st ed. Casagrande, 2006. Print.


Wikipedia. "Carson Cistulli." Wikipedia.org. Wikimedia Foundation, 27 Feb. 2012. Web. 29 Apr. 2012. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carson_Cistulli.