This is a collection of portraits in verse of 40 "unfortunate" characters. In most cases using a 16 line sonnet-like form, William Baer creates stark, unsettling miniature narratives of men and women who live at the edge, where "normal" people (like you, dear reader?), when hearing their stories, will turn to their companions and exclaim, "Oh, how unfortunate!"

Take, for example, the "Prosecutor" who has lost faith in justice, or the dying woman in a "Hospital" who remembers the day her young lover walked away, or the flashy chic who get her kicks by making-it in a ditch beside an airport "Runway," or the wounded Newark thug in "Trauma Center" who elopes from the hospital as soon as he can stand.

Baer tells his unfortunates' stories in spare, transparent language, claiming no insight, no closure, no chance of redemption. Yet these poems dignify their sad subjects by insisting that we take them seriously, by crying out, "Attention must be paid!"


The Unfortunates is a successful example of the American tradition in which the poet creates a town or community or rogues' gallery of characters. Well-known examples include Edgar Lee Masters' Spoon River Anthology and Edwin Arlington Robinson's Tilbury Town (see Miniver Cheevy and Richard Cory in this database).

The uncompromising flatness of The Unfortunates makes the individual poems seem unfinished--they don't tend to "go" anywhere or achieve resolution. Yet each of these miniature character sketches allows the reader to get beneath the skin of its subject for just a few seconds--time enough to experience a flash of empathy.


New Odyssey

Place Published

Kirksville, Missouri



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