A corporate narrator ("We here at Progressive Health") thanks the poem's addressee (presumably the poet) for "being one of the generous few who've promised / To bequeath your vital organs to whoever needs them." However, the narrator goes on to point out that there is another, even more generous, step he could take, by "acting a little sooner than you expected." In fact, why not turn tomorrow morning's routine physical examination, which wouldn't ordinarily benefit anyone except the poet himself, into a splendid opportunity to save six lives?

Yes, indeed, at this very moment there are six persons whose lives are hanging by a thread in the ICU, and the poet is a good tissue match for every one of them. If he would agree to have his liver, spleen, lungs and kidneys removed, and transplanted into these patients, he would save six lives.

Of course, the poet would die, but look at the situation from a cost-benefit analysis: The poet, who is "an aging bachelor," has perhaps 20 more years of life left in him and the poems he might yet write--even assuming they are better than those he has thus far written--are not going to "raise one Lazarus from a grave / Metaphoric or literal." On the other hand, the six potential beneficiaries have a multiplier effect because of their husbands and wives, parents and children.

The great gratitude of so many people will mean that the poet will be remembered after death--"Summer and winter they'll visit your grave, in shifts, / For as long as they live, and stoop to tend it, / And leave it adorned with flowers . . ."

Alternatively, if he chooses selfishly to refuse, and to grow old and die, his friends will likely forget him after death; and, moreover, his conscience will probably be stricken by having failed to respond to these patients' needs. The poem concludes, "You could be a god, one of the few gods / Who, when called on, really listens?" [48 lines]


This straight-faced utilitarian argument turns meta-ethics into irony. There is no question that a consequentialist or utilitarian analysis favors saving six lives, especially with the multiplier effect, over preserving a single life. Likewise, since the poem is a request for "informed consent," the folks at Progressive Health evidently acknowledge the importance of patient autonomy and self-determination; they want the poet to choose to relinquish his own life voluntarily, as a manifestation of altruism. There is also an assessment of social worth at work in the poem, with poetry scoring very low on the benefit scale, as compared to the vibrant family lives of the six potential organ recipients.


The book in which this poem appeared, Practical Gods, won the Pulitzer Prize.

Primary Source

Practical Gods


Penguin Poets

Place Published

New York