One of my esthetic ideals is density. In any work of art, I like to find a lot going on, a lot to think about.

Here are the first three lines of Earth.

The earth was bashed together from rocks,
The bunnies of dead stars’ dust, stark raving sparks
Thrown when the burning universe broke.

The three lines tell four steps of the history of the universe leading up to the formation of the Earth, in reverse chronological order. Each step is presented, not as the creation of the new, but as the destruction of the old. If you think the way I do, this literal meaning should be easy to understand. (Does anybody think the way I do?)

The lines also tell metaphorically, in forward order, a relationship history ending with a breakdown. The time reversal of the two stories makes the symbols interact in a fun way; I don’t want to go into detail because it’s more interesting if you find your own interpretation, and besides, the reading I intended as I wrote is not the only reasonable one. I don’t think it’s possible to realize the metaphorical meaning without closely reading the rest of the poem.

Other elements add to the density: The sound effects, the light tone (which took me several reworkings to come up with), and the familiar images of dust bunnies and of a log breaking in a fire. Everything is supposed to work together, though whether it does is for you to decide. Ideally, I want a poem to appear bottomless. I want you to feel that you could study it forever, and forever keep discovering new ideas and connections that illuminate the central intent.


Unfortunately, a dense poem may be hard to understand. When I squeeze in too many ideas, I take the risk that they’ll be smooshed beyond recognition. Some, though not all, of my favorites are poems that others have trouble making sense of.

I can’t read Latin, but I own a book of translated Catullus poems that I treasure. I think Catullus had some ideas about how to be dense and understandable at the same time, so I hold out hope that I can learn too.