Sunday, September 7, 2008

Dear Landlord

There are few poems that make me what to laugh out loud, that fully place me in the world of the speaker; this is one of those poems.

by Hattie Gossett

it is raining in my apartment! yes, thats right. raining.

the water is falling freely in the living room, in the hallway, and
in the bathroom.

i have had many promises from you and the super that the holes
in my ceilings would be fixed. but somehow the promises have not
been kept, and so now it is raining in my apartment. (perhaps its
your empty promises and not raindrops that are falling?)

i would like to pay my rent. especially since i owe so much. i have
even purchased money orders and made them out to your corpo-
ration. but to tell you the honest truth, there is something inside
me that just wont let me mail these money orders to you as long
as it continues raining in my apartment.

so i am sending you these xerox copies of the money orders instead.
(see enclosed documents marked exhibit a, exhibit b, etc.) as soon
as the holes have been repaired and it stops raining in my apart-
ment, i will be more than happy to mail the original money orders
to you.

as ever,

tenant 777#6k

Everything about this poem works. From the ironic humor to the lack of punctuation to the formatting of the letter, everything is perfect. Hattie Gossett has a series of poems along this vein, and each one is better than the next.

I’ve always wanted to try to teach my students about the joy of the “found” poem, but I’m always afraid that they will laugh it off and say that it’s just nonsense. As I’m typing now, I’m thinking that this might be the perfect way to introduce that concept.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Yeah, I don’t have much to say for this poem. It sort of speaks for itself.

by Timothy Murphy
Had I known, only known
when I lived so near,
I'd have gone, gladly gone
foregoing my fear
of the wholly grown
and the nearly great.
But I learned alone,
so I learned too late.

I don’t have time to post any comments. I have to go call my grandparents. I’ve been so lax.

But I do have to point out that this is one of the rarest of poems, one that rhymes but is still more dire in tone.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Did I Miss Anything?

I’m pretty sure that ever teacher out there has read this poem already, but still, with the first day of school finally upon us I feel compelled to post it anyway.

by Tom Wayman

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 percent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring the good news to all people
on earth.

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been
but it was one place

And you weren’t here

I know that when I was a student, both in grade school and in college, I must have asked this question to every teacher and professor I ever had. It was innocent enough, I’m sure, and I never meant to offend. But now that I’m a teacher, there is no more annoying and disrespectful question out there (except maybe “can I go to the bathroom” when I’m in the middle of what I thought was an insightful and interesting lesson). Many times have I responded in a sarcastic manner, saying something like, “no, we sat around and discussed our varying degrees of sadness over your absence.” This poem is a much better response.

There are some days when it feels like class has gone so well and the kids are so interested that I really have opened up the secrets of the universe to them. And on those days (which are few and far between, of course) this poem rings so true. The next day is never as effective, despite how much I may try to emulate what worked so well the day before. So when, on that next day, a student asks this question, it is doubly hurtful. What am I supposed to say? “Yeah, you missed a good class, but I know that you’re really just asking if anything is due or any new assignments were given, and since the answer to that is ‘no,’ you’re going to think you didn’t miss anything.” And if I just give in and say “no, you didn’t miss anything,” I’m just giving in and accepting the mindset that every day isn’t important.

So the moral of the story? Rephrase the question! Don’t ask if you missed anything; ask what you missed and what needs to be made up. To all those teachers and professors that I wronged over the years, I truly am sorry. I feel your pain.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

What Do Women Want?

I just finished going through The Poet’s Companion by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux, and I didn’t hate it. I’ve been leafing through it for most of the summer trying to find ideas for and poems to share with my upcoming Creative Writing class, and I’ve found a whole gaggle of potential lessons. So, in honor of the book, I thought I’d post one of Addonizio’s poems that I really like.


by Kim Addonizio

I want a red dress.

I want it flimsy and cheap,

I want it too tight, I want to wear it

until someone tears it off me.

I want it sleeveless and backless,

this dress, so no one has to guess

what's underneath. I want to walk down

the street past Thrifty's and the hardware store

with all those keys glittering in the window,

past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old

donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers

slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,

hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.

I want to walk like I'm the only

woman on earth and I can have my pick.

I want that red dress bad.

I want it to confirm

your worst fears about me,

to show you how little I care about you

or anything except what

I want. When I find it, I'll pull that garment

from its hanger like I'm choosing a body

to carry me into this world, through

the birth-cries and the love-cries too,

and I'll wear it like bones, like skin,

it'll be the goddamned

dress they bury me in.

I guess what I find so appealing about this poem (and all that I’ve read from Addonizio so far) is the clear, specific voice of the narrator. Despite the utter lack of physical description, I can totally see the speaker as she searches for this dress, tears it off the hanger, and wears it proudly through the dusty streets. The imagery is very nice, as depicted by the “slinging pigs” and “slick snouts” at the midway point.

All of this, of course, leads to the obvious question of what women want. Having been happily married for five+ years, having a good relationship with my mother and my mother-in-law, and working in a profession where the male-female ratio is something like 20-1, I feel I am as qualified to answer this question as much as any man alive. The simple answer is: she wants whatever the opposite is of what she wanted yesterday. It’s that easy. I’m guessing the speaker of this poem wanted black jeans yesterday, or maybe a nice fancy pair of boots; whatever it was, it was NOT a red dress.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Second Skin

Here’s a poem about a lying kid. Since I have been known to make up some whoppers in my day, I have always felt a certain kinship with this poem.

by Theodore Deppe

It’s not true that the tornado stripped Billy’s father
before it hurled him to the quarry,

nor that his mother rode the same wind two miles
and was set down, alive, in a field of sprouting corn,

but this is what he told our fifth grade class.
Students raised their hands for details

and, as if he were the teacher, Billy called on us,
explained how firemen split he dress to treat

the countless wounds and found the storm had sealed
each cut with a second skin of weeds and rubbish.

For one day, until Miss Clemency phoned
his baffled father, Billy’s family was lifted

into neighborhood legend. And when she made him
admit his lies, when the red-faced truth

stood before our class with its nose pressed
to a little circle on the chalkboard,

I learned how the storyteller, when the teacher
turns her back, can wink at the audience,

then mime for the pure hell of it
the whirlwind and his mother’s flight.

For whatever reason, whenever I read this I just laugh and picture a younger version of myself as the kid in front of his classroom telling his classmates a wonderfully amazing lie. I guess that means something, though I’m not sure what.

First the kid invents this story about his parents and a tornado. Then he tells it so convincingly that his classmates not only believe him but they go home and tell their parents. But the topper has to be the image of the kid miming, “for the pure hell of it,” his mother’s flight through the air. I’m sure that this is going to be very popular throughout school, and probably grow up to be a game show host or a politician.

What makes this poem work is the completeness of the picture of the kid. Imagery is always something that I appreciate more than anything else in contemporary poetry, and this is a perfect example.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

*Tomato Piles

So I've been working on this poem in my head for a couple months now, and I know that it's still not done, but I wanted to get it out there because it has to be posted in the summer.

Tomato Piles
by Me

Scout died in the spring and that
summer was the first summer
that tomatoes didn’t grow all over
the yard. I was twelve
and confused.
I didn’t see the connection between
the death of our beloved German shepherd
runt, who understood English and
wore a bowtie in our family portrait,
and the random growths of
tomatoes splattered throughout our
For that matter, I didn’t understand
why my father always planted those
random little
plants, why he didn’t
just keep the tomatoes in the
vegetable garden where they belonged.
The plants got in the way of everything—we
even used one of them for
third base one summer.
But when I asked my father about
the lack of tomatoes that summer,
he just grinned and
pointed to the small tin urn
that sat on the top
shelf of a bookshelf
in the living room.
“Scout,” he said through
his unshaven orange beard,
“loved to eat tomatoes.”
I knew that already—we all knew that.
The running joke was about
how Scout’s only flaw was that he
kept eating the tomatoes out of the
garden, no matter how
much chicken-wire we put up.

I'm sad to say that, while the dog was real, the story is not (though I've been tossing the idea around in my head for so long that it seems real to me, so maybe that counts). I actually heard the story while having lunch with a couple friends (Billy and Wilbur) and one of them looked at me and said "that sounds like a poem to me." And I agreed.

I really don't know if the point of the poem is clear, because I never explicityly state, "the tomato piles are from Scout's poop." I'm hoping I don't need to, but this is one of those things that is hard because obviously I know what I mean, but will the reader? Well... do you???

Monday, August 25, 2008

My Husband Discovers Poetry

I found this on Okay, that’s sort of a lie. I found this in the book, but that really doesn’t matter. So now I’m wondering why I don’t just delete that first sentence and start over. Hmmm… I don’t have a reason for not doing that… I guess I’m just feeling defiant.

Anyway, title of this poem appealed to me right away because I love poetry yet my wife has never been a fan (well, I shouldn’t say never—I’m pretty sure she loved Shel Silverstein when she was a kid).

by Diane Lockward

Because my husband would not read my poems,
I wrote one about how I did not love him.
In lines of strict iambic pentameter,
I detailed his coldness, his lack of humor.
It felt good to do this.

Stanza by stanza, I grew bolder and bolder.
Towards the end, struck by inspiration,
I wrote about my old boyfriend,
a boy I had not loved enough to marry
but who could make me laugh and laugh.
I wrote about a night years after we parted
when my husband's coldness drove me from the house
and back to my old boyfriend.
I even included the name of a seedy motel
well-known for hosting quickies.
I have a talent for verisimilitude.

In sensuous images, I described
how my boyfriend and I stripped off our clothes,
got into bed, and kissed and kissed,
then spent half the night telling jokes,
many of them about my husband.
I left the ending deliberately ambiguous,
then hid the poem away
in an old trunk in the basement.

You know how this story ends,
how my husband one day loses something,
goes into the basement,
and rummages through the old trunk,
how he uncovers the hidden poem
and sits down to read it.

But do you hear the strange sounds that floated up the stairs that day, the sounds of an animal, its paw caught in one of those traps with teeth of steel? Do you see the wounded creature at the bottom of the stairs, his shoulders hunched over and shaking, fist in his mouth and choking back sobs? It was my husband paying tribute to my art.

While this is hardly an event I’ve experienced, I do find it very funny how the author manages to take a somewhat comical situation to a somewhat serious place, and then end it with an image of her crying, howling husband as he reads about her former lover. And it does make me wonder how a writer of any sort avoids offending/upsetting his/her loved ones when writing about awkward things.

The last line somewhat strikes me. The speaker has greatly upset her hubby, and then writes “it was my husband paying tribute to my art.” You hear that sort of mentality all the time from Hollywood-types: “there’s no such thing as bad press,” and I have to wonder how true that is. Is the speaker okay with the fact that her husband is feeling the part of the cuckold because it means that she has written a successful poem?

This question has been on my mind lately because of the movie Tropic Thunder. Today there was an article in the paper all about how offensive the movie is because of the use of the word “retard” and all it’s forms throughout the film. I remember seeing previews for it months ago and thinking that it looked terrible and wondered who would want to see it, but now it’s considered a box-office hit. And I have to wonder: is part of its success due to all the publicity it’s gotten from the many protests that have taken part all over the country? The article I read today was actually an editorial from a parent of a child who has downs syndrome, and how offensive she feels that the movie actually is. But I’ve seen multiple news stories on tv about the protests, and the internet has been full of calls-to-action from angry activists.

Has the publicity for the protesters helped fuel the movie to box office success? I don’t know the answer, but when I read this poem yesterday I immediately thought they were a good parallel.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Jeep Cherokee

So it’s been nearly a month since my last post, and that’s pretty embarrassing. The only excuse I have is that I’ve been so immersed in finding poems for my new creative writing class (school starts in less than two weeks… ugg) that all my “poetry time” is spent on searching, reading, and copying rather than on posting on my blog. I hereby vow, however, to make at least one post each day from now until the start of school (Sept. 2nd).

I’m going to do something that I’ve never done before on my blog: I’m going to post a very long poem (I say “very long,” but you have to look at the relative scale of my previous posts. I found this poem while searching online for something else. The first few lines captured me right away and made me want to read the whole thing, despite the fact that I generally get bored easily by longer poems.

by Bruce A. Jacobs

You’ve never known
a single Indian
who wasn’t painted
onto a football helmet
or branded in chrome
on a tailgate, but there you go,
off mashing the landscape
like some edge-city explorer,
flinging yourself toward
new worlds beyond the driveway,
Lewis and Clark
with a seat belt.
Go ahead, you trampling trooper,
you goose-stepping little
Godzilla, you shining beast
of raging fashion,
riding the big teeth
of your tires as if you
would ever follow a dirt road
anywhere but to a car wash.
This is America,
and you’re free to drive
anything you can buy
but I will tell you:
Hitler would love this car-
a machine in which even the middle class
can master the world,
purchase their way through peril
safely as senators.
This is a car for
a uniformed strongman,
a one-car motorcade
through a thatched village
of strangers.
This is the car that will
replace Prozac.
This is the car that Barbie buys
with mad money
after the date with Angry White Ken.
This is the car that makes it safe
to be hateful in public.
Go ahead. Climb in. Look
at yourself, way up there
on the bridge of this
thick-windowed ship of enterprise.
Everybody knows
the only way today is to
buy your way through,
be bigger, be better,
be a bully, be a barger,
be sure you’re safe from the poor,
bustle your way through
each days bombardment
with the muscle of royalty.
You’ve got the power
to bring back the monarchy
four fat tires at a time.
Go anywhere. You’re entitled.
You have squashers rights.
Onward! Accelerate,
you brawny bruising winner,
you self-saluting junta on wheels,
you reclaimer of gold-bricked streets.
Democracy is for people
stuck in small cars
and God has never ruled
through traffic laws.
Get used to the feeling
of having your way.
Each broad cut of the steering wheel
is your turn at conquest.
The power-assisted triumph
of the me
in heavy traffic.
You are rolling proof
that voting is stupid,
that the whole damn machine is fixed
before it leaves the factory,
that fairness is a showroom,
that togetherness is for bus riders,
that TV has the right idea:
there is just you in a small room
on the safe side of glass,
with desire spread out before you
like a ballroom without walls,
and you will not be denied,
you’ve got the moves and the view,
you don’t need government, unions,
bank regulation, mercy,
the soft hands of strangers.
You’ve got 4-wheel drive
and a phone, you’ve got
the friendship of a reinforced chassis,
you’ve got empathy for dictators
without knowing it,
you’ve got freedom from read-view mirrors,
you’ve got wide-bodied citizenship,
you’ve gained Custer’s Revenge:
caissons packed with children and soccer balls
coasting across the plowed prairie,
history remodeled with one great
blaring of jingles and horns:

Hail Citizen King!
Hail the unswerving settler!
Hail the rule of logo!
Hail Jeep Cherokee!

“This is the car that Barbie buys with her mad money after the date with Angry White Ken”!!! What an image! “This is the car that will replace Prozac.” Oh, so true. Why do we buy these big, gas-guzzling cars if not for the thrill of driving up so high above everyone else? How many mothers and teenage rich kids really need the giant car for their off-roading habits?

The best line, though, comes soon after the two above: “This is the car that makes it safe / to be hateful in public.” Now I’ll admit that I have a touch of road rage but I really think that 99% of New Jersey drivers can relate to that. When I’m driving my small Honda Civic and get angry, I just lay on the horn and curse at the idiots in the other cars (usually from Pennsylvania); but when I’m driving my wife’s SUV, I have no qualms about honking, cursing, and then riding the tail of the aforementioned idiot—and I feel perfectly safe doing it. After all, “Democracy is for people / stuck in small cars / and God has never ruled / through traffic laws.”

Thursday, July 31, 2008

Henry Clay's Mouth

Here’s a poem that is just good for no real reason. It makes me happy when I can get all the way through it without having to reread a couple lines… you’ll see why.

Thomas Lux

Senator, statesman, speaker of the House,
exceptional dancer, slim,
graceful, ugly. Proclaimed, before most, slavery
an evil, broker
of elections (burned Jackson
for Adams), took a pistol ball in the thigh
in a duel, delayed, by forty years,
with his compromises, the Civil War,
gambler ("I have always
paid peculiar homage to the fickle goddess"),
boozehound, ladies' man -- which leads us
to his mouth, which was huge,
a long slash across his face,
with which he ate and prodigiously drank,
with which he modulated his melodic voice,
with which he liked to kiss and kiss and kiss.
He said: "Kissing is like the presidency,
it is not to be sought and not to be declined."
A rival, one who wanted to kiss
whom he was kissing, said: "The ample
dimensions of his kissing apparatus
enabled him to rest one side of it
while the other was on active duty."
It was written, if women had the vote,
he would have been President,
kissing everyone in sight,
dancing on tables ("a grand Terpsichorean
performance ..."), kissing everyone,
sometimes two at once, kissing everyone,
the almost-President
of our people.

There are so many brief clauses here that make sense when spoken or heard aloud, but it’s very difficult to read this cold. The second sentence alone is made up of TWENTY clauses! That’s insane! But somehow, Lux makes it work. Lux always makes it work.

Besides the clauses, this poem contains that trademarked Lux humor (out of nothing). “The ample/ dimensions of his kissing apparatus/ enabled him to rest one side of it/ while the other was on active duty.” Ha! “If women had the vote,/ he would have been President….” Seriously, when I finally untangled this poem and made sense of it, I laughed out loud.

I can say beyond any shadow of doubt that I never in my life expected to either read or laugh at a poem about Henry Clay. Lux is the man!

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Baseball and Classicism

I don’t really remember where I first came across this poem, but as the summer drones on and I find myself wasting away in front of the tv watching baseball games, baseball highlights, and baseball news, I often return to this one simple question: why? Why do I care so much who starts in left field for the Blue Jays against lefties (Kevin Mench) or how many runs are scored on average in day games at Seattle (8.3/game)?

And when I get carried away and find myself absorbed in the minutia of score cards and box scores, I think of this poem:

by Tom Clark

Every day I peruse the box scores for hours
Sometimes I wonder why I do it
Since I am not going to take a test on it
And no one is going to give me money

The pleasure’s something like that of codes
Of deciphering an ancient alphabet say
So as brightly to picturize Eurydice
In the Elysian Fields on her perfect day

The day she went 5 for 5 against Vic Raschi

It’s easy for me to imagine just what Clark was thinking when he wrote this, and I think that even a non-baseball fan can relate to this too. It’s really just a portrait of (healthy, non-threatening) obsession. In terms of things non-physical/sexual, why do we love what we love? What makes us care about the things we care about, even if we’re “not going to take a test on it/ and no one is going to give [us] money”???

What I don’t easily see is why Clark chose to use Eurydice as his main allusion. She was, according to Greek mythology, the loving and loved wife of Orpheus, the poet and musician. In the Oedipus trilogy, she was the wife of Creon, the selfish king of Thebes and uncle/brother-in-law to Oedipus. I can cay beyond any shadow of doubt that I have no idea what either of those references has to do with baseball.

In can tell you, though, that Vic Raschi was pretty good pitcher for the Yankees, Cardinals, and A’s in the 40’s and 50’s. He’s well-known among baseball fact-junkies as the guy who gave up the first of Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Jersey Rain

Robert Pinsky was one of the first “contemporary” poets heard read. I remember it very clearly; I was a senior in high school on a trip to the Dodge Poetry Festival, and he was reading in the big tent just before the bus was scheduled to go. We waited to hear him and then hit the road for the long drive back home. I was always glad we waited, and I’m sure that that was a defining moment in my love of poetry. Pinsky was spell-binding. He was serious and silly at the same time, and he read with such passion and grace that I was sure the guy was the greatest writer who ever lived.

Yet despite that experience, I have never been a big fan of Pinsky’s writing. I wanted to love him. I really did. I read through one of his books while in college and was bored to tears. Every now and again, I look up a poem or two of his and go through it, hoping to capture some of the magic of that day 12 years ago, but it’s never been the same. I’ve actually seen him read since then, and again was fascinated by him. So I have been left to think that he’s the type of person who is just better in person and doesn’t translate well into reading.

And then I read this:

Robert Pinsky

Now near the end of the middle stretch of road
What have I learned? Some earthly wiles. An art.
That often I cannot tell good fortune from bad,
That once had seemed so easy to tell apart.

The source of art and woe aslant in the wind
Dissolves or nourishes everything it touches.
What roadbank gullies and ruts it doesn't mend
It carves the deeper, boiling tawny in ditches.

It spends itself regardless into the ocean.
It stains and scours and makes things dark or bright:
Sweat of the moon, a shroud of benediction,
The chilly liquefaction of day to night,

The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:
It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River,
Fair Haven, Newark, Little Silver, Bayonne.
I feel it churning even in fair weather

To craze distinction, dry the same as wet.
In ripples of heat the August drought still feeds
Vapors in the sky that swell to drench my state -
The Jersey rain, my rain, in streams and beads

Of indissoluble grudge and aspiration:
Original milk, replenisher of grief,
Descending destroyer, arrowed source of passion,
Silver and black, executioner, source of life.

Man, was I missing something! This poem actually took my breath away. I read it late last night and have had it on my mind since. (I recently discovered the joy of the Amazon Marketplace, where you can buy “used” books for next to nothing, and I’ve purchased a dozen poetry books in the last month. Jersey Rain by Robert Pinsky was one of them.)

Pinsky creates a vivid image of a dull reality. I knew that he was a NJ native, but so few people not named Bruce Springsteen have been able to capture that sense of tough vulnerability that so defines this state. “The chilly liquefaction of day to night,/ The Jersey rain, my rain, soaks all as one:/ It smites Metuchen, Rahway, Saddle River….” Ahh…. just perfect lines. And he manages to do it all while maintaining a very effective and subtle rhyme, which helps create a rhythm of rain throughout.

Now, after reading this poem, I am looking back over the rest of the poem in this book and realizing that, one-by-one, I have been wrong. I’ve gone through the first six or seven poems in the book and loving each of them.

Mr. Pinsky, I apologize. I have been wrong about you for years and I regret wasting this time. What can I say? I wasn’t ready, I guess.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Traveling Through the Dark

Here’s a nice and thoughtful one for today. Don’t know why I wanted to post it but I woke up this morning with it on my mind after reading it last night, so I guess it had the desired effect of the author.

by William Stafford

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River road.
It is usually best to roll them into the canyon:
that road is narrow; to swerve might make more dead.

By glow of the tail-light I stumbled back of the car
and stood by the heap, a doe, a recent killing;
she had stiffened already, almost cold.
I dragged her off; she was large in the belly.

My fingers touching her side brought me the reason--
her side was warm; her fawn lay there waiting,
alive, still, never to be born.
Beside that mountain road I hesitated.

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;
under the hood purred the steady engine.
I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red;
around our group I could hear the wilderness listen.

I thought hard for us all--my only swerving--,
then pushed her over the edge into the river.

When I first read this, I was absolutely appalled that the speaker didn’t try to save the unborn fawn. What kind of monster would kill a helpless, tiny baby deer? But, as usually happens, practicality swept over me and I realized that the did the right thing, as the deer would have most likely been killed on the road just like it’s mother. But just the fact that I’m still thinking about this poem after a full and long night’s sleep tells that it’s quite powerful.

On a possibly unrelated sidebar, I’ve never read a William Stafford poem before but I do have a history with him (maybe). I spent five great years at Monmouth University (four for me, and one for my wife), and one of the buildings there was named after him (or someone else with his name). It occurs to me now that I’m quite lazy for having gone to that school for so long and never actually finding out exactly who the person whose name is on the building was. That’s somewhat shameful, especially finding out that it was a poet’s name, and I pride myself on the fact that I know poetry. I guess I’m lazier and less informed than I thought.

I’ll probably sleep fine tonight.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

*Wilbur's Son

So this poem was inspired by a get-together with a couple friends, including Wilbur, a fellow poetry lover and teacher. Suffice to say, I was struck by something that he said and it stayed with me enough to want to write about it.

I did something I've never done with this poem, and that is I took a different perspective. Most of my writing is from my own perspective using my own voice and my own opinions; with this one, I felt it necessary and more affective to write from my father's perspective. I hope it's clear why I did that and I hope it helps the poem be more real.

by Me

Today Wilbur told me about his son.
It was perfect, he said.
Wilbur looked down at his forearm,
He fit right there;
and, with his right hand,
he measured out the length from the crook of his elbow
to the bottom of his wrist.
Now, he told me, my son is nineteen,
in college, and smarter than me
But it was perfect.
He looked me in the eyes, rare for him, and said it
like a great lost troubadour announcing a
universal truth to a desperately quiet audience.
When my son was born, I replied quite easily,
he went bloolp--
I motioned my hands together in front of me
and rushed them both forward,
displaying the suddenness of the moment.
--just like that.
We finished our coffee, talked of other things less
substantial, and went home.
As I made the left to enter the southbound side of the highway
I waved simple salute to Wilbur, heading north,
and I thought of his eyes as he told me of his son.
It was perfect. Bloolp.
How many times have I made that sound
and waved my arms in that gesture?
How many times have I told that story?
Wilbur looked at his forearm and made that hand measurement
as though he’d done it every day for nineteen years.
My car exited the ramp and I accelerated onto the highway,
and thought of Wilbur’s son in college, and mine,
much older. I can’t remember if I ever held him on
my forearm and gazed down at him,
and Wilbur’s wife made him stand next
to her head during their son’s birth.

Saturday, July 5, 2008


Here’s one I just found online and I really like a lot. Maybe it’s because I’m such a positive, sun-shine-y person. Obviously.

By Jane Hirshfield

More and more I have come to admire resilience.
Not the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and over to the same shape, but the sinuous tenacity of a tree: finding the light newly blocked on one side,
it turns in another.
A blind intelligence, true.
But out of such persistence arose turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs--all this resinous, unretractable earth.

I read the first line and thought I was reading a dull poem about overcoming struggle or lost love or something like that. Boring, I thought. But then the second line hit me like pillow in the face. What an amazing image, “the simple resistance of a pillow, whose foam returns over and over to the same shape.” That is so brilliant and so true. It’s quite impressive to note how stubborn, how “resistant,” the foam of a pillow or a mattress truly is.

Then the poem turns into a simple statement of nature. The “blind intelligence” of trees and leaves turns slyly into the grown of other creates (“turtles, rivers, mitochondria, figs”); I was not expecting the author to connect the ideas of resilience and optimism with those of evolution and geology. The leaps from the first line are surprising and yet easy to connect, which is a very difficult combination of elements.

So I have to wonder why the poem is titled as it is, rather than “Resilience” or something like that. Are trees being “optimistic” when they move their leaves to face the sun? It’s one think to ascribe intelligence to plants, but to give them emotions is a bit of a stretch. So if that’s not it, then what am I missing? When things are not working out, we move on and create something else? I guess that seems logical.

I’ve heard of Jane Hirshfield, and even read a few of her poems in various magazines, but this poem makes me wonder if I’ve missed something somewhere. I’m going to be looking up a few more of her poems soon.

Thursday, July 3, 2008


This has been one of my favorite poems for a couple of years now, ever since my best friend Tucker came into my life.

by Jane Kenyon

The dog has cleaned his bowl
and his reward is a biscuit,
which I put in his mouth
like a priest offering the host.

I can't bear that trusting face!
He asks for bread, expects
bread, and I in my power
might have given him a stone.

Tucker spent Tuesday and Wednesday of this week at daycare. I take him there a few days a week during the school year so he can play and socialize with other dogs, rather than sit and sleep on his little doggie-bed all day long, but he’s very sensitive and now that I’m not going to work every day, his routine is thrown off. So I took him to daycare and plan on taking him every other week or so, just so he doesn’t get too out of whack. I’d take him more often, but it’s a 45 minute drive and I’m not getting paid during the summer, so a couple of days every other week is the best compromise.

Anyway, this poem is as true a poem as I’ve ever read. The dog has complete and utter trust in his owner, and so he truly believes that all his owner would give is something good. Tucker is the same. He doesn’t waste time looking at what I’m giving him; he simply opens his mouth and gobbles down whatever was in my hand. If I chose to put a rock in my hand, he would probably eat it without thinking twice.

I’ve wondered if this poem is an allusion to Cronus and how he was tricked into swallowing a rock, which gave birth to Zeus (and the other Titans). This could simply be a coincidence, but I like the idea that there’s something epic about this poem.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Sunday Morning

Lately, my wife has been watching Jon and Kate Plus Eight on TLC, and she’s gotten me into it a bit Today, we were watching an episode where the kids were in a pumpkin patch and then a corn maze, and my wife and I just had to laugh at how absurd the whole idea of having that many young kids to take care of would be for us. And that made me suddenly remember this poem that I read a few years back. The connection is somewhat obvious.

By Corrine Hales

Crowded around the glowing open mouth
Of the electric oven, the children
Pull on clothes and eat brown-sugared oatmeal.

The broiler strains, buzzing to keep up
500 degrees, and the mother
Is already scrubbing at a dark streak

On the kitchen wall. Last night she’d been
Ironing shirts and trying her best to explain
Something important to the children

When the old mother cat’s surviving
Two kittens’ insistent squealing and scrambling
Out of their cardboard box began

To get to her. The baby screamed every time
The oldest girl set him on the cold floor
While she carried a kitten back to its place

Near the stove, and the mother cat kept reaching
For the butter dish on the table. Twice, the woman
Stopped talking and set her iron down to swat

A quick kitten away from the dangling cord,
And she saw that one of the boys had begun to feed
Margarine to his favorite by the fingerful.

When it finally jumped from his lap and squatted
To piss on a pale man’s shirt dropped below
Her ironing board, the woman calmly stopped, unplugged

Her iron, picked up the gray kitten with one hand
And threw it, as if it were a housefly, hard
And straight at the yellow flowered wall

Across the room. It hit, cracked, and seemed to slide
Into a heap on the floor, leaving an odd silence
In the house. They all stood still

Staring at the thing, until one child,
The middle boy, walked slowly out of the room
And down the hall without looking

At his mother or what she’d done. The others followed
And by morning everything was back to normal
Except for the mother standing there scrubbing.

The tension in this poem rises very slowly and very subtly, but when you look back at the first few stanzas, it’s there and it’s powerful. It’s the slow pace of the rising tension that makes the poem so uncomfortable. The woman snaps, obviously tired from the constant pressures of her children, and she does something horrible to the kitten. But the author has already hooked us from the start, so when the terrible event starts to happen, we’re too much invested in the poem to stop reading.

There are a lot of clues early on about the direness of the poem, especially in the colors. The “brown-sugared oatmeal” and the “dark streak on the kitchen wall” help to paint a very uneasy image. And then the sounds the woman hears (the kittens “insistent squealing,” the screaming baby) complete the sensory impressions.

But the most disturbing part of the entire poem, I think, is that the woman “calmly stopped.” She didn’t get upset or angry. She had not yelled at her kids or the kittens, and she had never given any outward signs of her building anger. But it’s there, under the surface, building since the first lines of the poem. Brilliant stuff.

I’m not trying to imply that the mother from Jon and Kate is going to snap and kill a kitten, but you do have to wonder how anyone is able to have the patience to deal with the constant stresses of being the mother of eight toddlers.

Monday, June 30, 2008


I was reading The Poets Companion today because I’m starting to think already about ideas for teaching creative writing in September and the book has lots of brainstorming exercises. Why I’ve already decided, here at the end of June, to start working on school lesson plans for September I have no idea- what can I say- I’m excited to get started.

Anyway, I was going through the chapter about imagery and came across this poem. I loved it from the start and don’t know how I’ve gone this far without reading it.


by Gary Soto

The first time I walked
With a girl, I was twelve,
Cold, and weighted down
With two oranges in my jacket.
December. Frost cracking
Beneath my steps, my breath
Before me, then gone,
As I walked toward
Her house, the one whose
Porch light burned yellow
Night and day, in any weather.
A dog barked at me, until
She came out pulling
At her gloves, face bright
With rouge. I smiled,
Touched her shoulder, and led
Her down the street, across
A used car lot and a line
Of newly planted trees,
Until we were breathing
Before a drugstore. We
Entered, the tiny bell
Bringing a saleslady
Down a narrow aisle of goods.
I turned to the candies
Tiered like bleachers,
And asked what she wanted -
Light in her eyes, a smile
Starting at the corners
Of her mouth. I fingered
A nickel in my pocket,
And when she lifted a chocolate
That cost a dime,
I didn't say anything.
I took the nickel from
My pocket, then an orange,
And set them quietly on
The counter. When I looked up,
The lady's eyes met mine,
And held them, knowing
Very well what it was all

A few cars hissing past,
Fog hanging like old
Coats between the trees.
I took my girl's hand
in mine for two blocks,
Then released it to let
Her unwrap the chocolate.
I peeled my orange
That was so bright against
The gray of December
That, from some distance,
Someone might have thought
I was making a fire in my hands.

Lots of poems paint pictures, but so few are able to so completely force the reader into the world as this poem does. I was only a few lines in before I started thinking about how nervous I was while walking to meet that girl—and it wasn’t even me! And thinking about that made me remember the first dates and nervous conversations of my teenage years (which I don’t miss at all, by the way). But for a poem to create such perfect image is a rare treat and so I wanted to share it.

I wonder what the woman behind the counter said to the boy, what she silently said to him when he handed her a nickel and an orange instead of the dime that he owed. Somehow, he managed to get his girl her chocolate, so the woman must have understood. But just the fact that I’ve thought this question means that the author managed to make this “story” real to me the reader.

When I write poems, I always try to focus on imagery because it’s one of the few “literary conventions” that really strike a cord with me (in case you can’t tell). I will definitely use this poem as future motivation when I try to paint a clear picture.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Wild Geese

I recently bought a Mary Oliver collection. I’ve never particularly like her writing and for some reason I’ve always found her to be quite dull. But lately, reading this book, I seem to be coming around.

By Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I suppose that it’s taken me awhile to get used to her simple, natural style. She never tries to do “more” with her poems—she does just enough. She paints a very clear image and connects it to a very clear message and comes out with a very clear poem. (Notice a pattern?)

This poem is very representative of her style. It’s probably her most famous poem, or at least one of her most famous, though I’m not positive about what separates this one from a lot of others. The idea is just that you can always find comfort in the wonders of nature. It’s nice, clear and understandable—but certainly not original.

The first three lines of this poem are wonderful. Walking on your knees is hard enough, but to say “you do not have to” do so implies that there is a reason for doing something so difficult; which in turn implies that you have committed a great sin. Coupled with the first line (“you do not have to be good”), this idea is somewhat disconcerting. You do not have to do things, but maybe you should do them.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Season at the Shore

Here’s a poem that makes me want to go to the beach—which is odd considering that I hate the sun, hate the sand, and hate shore crowds. But the amazing repetition and sound devices that the poem uses make this one absolutely amazing.

by Phyllis McGinley

On, not by sun and not by cloud
And not by whippoorwill, crying loud,
And not by the pricking of my thumbs,
Do I know the way that the summer comes.
Yet here on this seagull-haunted strand,
Hers is an omen I understand -

Sand on the beaches,
Sand at the door,
Sand that screeches
On the new-swept floor;
In the shower, sand for the foot to crunch on;
Sand in the sandwiches spread for luncheon;
Sand adhesive to son and sibling,
From wallet sifting, from pockets dribbling;
Sand by the beaker
Nightly shed
From odious sneaker;
Sand in bed;
Sahara always in my seaside shanty
Like the sand in the voice
of J. Durante.

Winter is mittens, winter is gaiters
Steaming on various radiators.
Autumn is leaves that bog the broom.
Spring is mud in the living room
Or skates in places one scarcely planned.
But what is summer, her seal in hand?
Sand in closets,
Sand on the stair,
Desert deposits
In the parlor chair;
Sand in the halls like the halls of the ocean;
Sand in he soap and the sun-tan lotion;
Stirred in the porridge, tossed on the greens,
Poured from the bottoms of rolled-up jeans;
In the elmy street
On the lawny acre;
Glued to the seat
Of the Studebaker.
Wrapped in the folds of the Wall Street Journal;
Damp sand, dry sand,
Sand eternal.

When I shake my garments at the Lord’s command,
What will I scatter in the Promised Land?

I know absolutely nothing about Phyllis McGinley other than the fact that she won a Pulitzer in 1960. When I read this poem, I had that feeling of sheer joy and I just smiled. It’s wonderful when something like that happens, especially when you weren’t expecting it.

The repetition of the word “sand” throughout the poem is powerful, and, like I said in the intro, that’s even more amazing given that I hate the feeling of sand on my skin. What’s more is that the repetition is more than just a literary device; it’s used as a literal representation of the fact that sand really does get everywhere when you go to the beach. The speaker finds it in the house, the car, the newspaper, etc, and that’s absolutely true to life.

In that last stanza, the poem takes a turn into something light-hearted and fun to something maybe a bit more significant. “When I shake my garments at the Lord’s command,/ What will I scatter in the Promised Land?/ Sand.” Great stuff. Sand is a very biblical element; just seeing a picture of a desert makes me think of The Ten Commandments and Charlton Heston’s strong Shatner voice declaring “Let my people go.” (Which is immediately followed by Yul Brynner demanding “So let it be written, so let it be done.”—what great lines!) Are there any biblical stories that don’t take place in sand? So is this poem more of a statement about the fact that sand connects people and places and stories, that it can be a central element of life?

Or maybe the poem is just light-hearted fun. Ah, who cares. I like it either way.

Monday, June 16, 2008

*In the Waiting Room

So today I burned my hand on the grill. I was using cedar planks for the first time, and they caught on fire. But that's not what burned me. I also was using a metal vegetable container to roast potatoes and broccoli, and the oven mitt I was using wasn't big enough. It hurt. A lot. So I went to the E.R.-- I didn't want to go, but my wife insisted. Since she's not one to over-react (her normal line is "walk it off") I agreed to go. Well, to put it mildly, it was a wonderful evening. Here's what came out of it, totally unplanned. (incidentally, the salmon came out great, and the potatoes were really flavorful; the broccoli was a bit hard, tough)

in the waiting room
by Me

sitting in the crowded emergency room,
burns on my hand from the surprisingly hot grill,
the woman across from me talks to herself.
she complains about how long she’s been sitting there,
waiting to be seen by a doctor,
watching other people be taken ahead of her.
behind me, another woman,
who says she has had a headache since yesterday,
has been waiting since noon.
she’s on the courtesy phone yelling to the answering service
about how long she’s been ignored by the doctors.
she’s angry about the wait, the headache,
the lack of answers from the infuriatingly calm staff,
and she wants to file a formal complaint.
I’m not sure what the courtesy phone is for,
but I don’t think that’s it.

the elderly nurse calls me in after only a few minutes,
takes my blood pressure, assures me that the wait won’t be long.
I comment on the colorful prints on her staff hospital smock,
I laugh at her unfunny joke about the thermometer,
I make cute flirty small talk with her,
and then retake my waiting room seat.
five minutes later, I’m seeing a doctor.
twenty minute later, I’m walking back through the waiting room,
signing the paperwork to leave.
the burns on my hand have softened
and are now covered in balm and gauze.
the woman talking to herself glares at me silently,
then comments to the woman on the courtesy phone
about the unfairness of it all.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


Here’s a Rita Dove poem that I’ve liked for a few years now. It makes me think of my mother and wonder if she ever felt this way.

by Rita Dove

The conspiracy's to make us thin.
Size threes are all the rage,
and skirts ballooning above
twinkling knees are every man-child's
preadolescent dream.
Tabla rasa. No slate's that clean--

We've earned the navels sunk in
grief when the last child emptied us
of their brief interior light.
Our muscles say
We have been used.

Have you ever tried silk sheets?
I did, persuaded by postnatal dread
and a Macy's clerk to bargain
for more zip.

We couldn't hang on, slipped to
the floor and by morning the quilts
had slid off, too. Enough of guilt--
It's hard work staying cool.

Do mothers get this way universally once their children are grown and they’re not having any more babies? Is this something all mothers feel, or just the ones who define themselves as “mother”? (You know the type: the one who, at the end of the day, is nothing else but ‘mom’ and would choose to be ‘mom’ over every other single mark of identification.) It’s not a knock on women who are not this way; my own mother would probably define herself as “teacher” before “mother.” Maybe I’m wrong about that, but even so, I wonder if she ever felt this sort of empty feeling that Dove describes.

My mother slept in my old bedroom on the night I moved to college. I didn’t find this out until years has passed, and I don’t know why she didn’t tell me so when we spoke a few days later. When I left home, she never seemed to have a problem with it. She never had an overly sentimental moment of motherly affection, and I’m grateful for that. But if she was feeling “empty” enough to sleep in my bed, why did she not tell me? And a few years ago, when I was ending a call with her on the phone and accidently said “I love you” in that casual way I end calls with my wife, did she stammer through “uh… I love you too”? That lead me to think about the last time we’d said this to each other, and I honestly couldn’t remember. Needless to say, it hasn’t happened since. (And again, it’s not that I mind. I know my mother loves me. I’m just pointing out that I don’t think she’d define herself as “mother” if she were given the choice.)

It’s weird what poems can bring out. Songs are like this too, and I suppose most art forms are. I had no intention of writing anything about my mother when I sat down at the computer to post this entry, but when I read this poem, it just sort of happened. Someday I’ll write a poem that does this to someone, and then I can die happy.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Big Grab

I think this poem originally came from one of the humor issues of Poetry. If not, it could have.

By Barton Springs

The corn chip engineer gets a bright idea, and talks to the corn
chip executive and six months later at the factory they begin
subtracting a few chips from every bag,

but they still call it on the outside wrapper, The Big Grab, so the
concept of Big is quietly modified to mean More or Less Large, or
Only Slightly Less Big than Before.

Confucius said this would happen: that language would be hijacked
and twisted by a couple of tricksters from the Business Department

and from then on words would get crookeder and crookeder until no
one would know how to build a staircase, or to look at the teeth of
a horse, or when it is best to shut up.

We live in that time that he predicted. Nothing means what it says,
and it says it all the time. Out on route 28, the lights blaze all
night on a billboard of a beautiful girl covered with melted

See how she beckons to the river of latenight cars; See how
the tipsy drivers swerve, under the breathalyzer moon!

We're in the wilderness now, confused by the signs, with a
shortness of breath, and that postmodern feeling of falling behind.

In a story whose beginning I must have missed, without a name for
the thing I can barely comprehend I desire, I speak these words
that do not know where they're going.

No wonder I want something more-or-less large, and salty for lunch.
No wonder I stare into space while eating it.

I feel like this poem should be an email forward or something. It’s just like that stupid old cliché (when a butterfly flaps it’s wings…). There’s not much depth to it or hidden meaning; it’s just fun to read.

The last stanza makes me laugh out loud. “No wonder I stare into space while eating it.” I dare you not to think of this poem the next time you see some idiot on the street or in a car or at work who is staring blankly ahead while eating chips from a small crinkly bag. I dare you. I’ll bet you can’t do it.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

I Finally Managed to Speak to Her

This is a poem that makes me glad that I don’t have to go through the nonsense of dating anymore. Not that I ever really had to, seeing as how I married my “high school sweetheart” and all; but still, watching all my single friends do the whole dating thing makes me want to vomit. (Lovely image, I know.)

By Hal Sirowitz

She was sitting across from me
on the bus. I said, "The trees
look so much greener in this part
of the country. In New York City
everything looks so drab." She said,
"It looks the same to me. Show me
a tree that's different." "That one,"
I said. "Which one?" she said.
"It's too late," I said; "we already
passed it." "When you find another one,"
she said, "let me know." And then
she went back to reading her book.

This poem illustrates just how hard it is to meet someone. If you’re an introverted person, like the speaker, you have a hard time striking up a conversation with someone. And when you finally do find an opening line, it’s usually quite meaningless and trite. An observation about the trees or the weather is so banal that it puts the intended audience on defense, thinking, what does this weird guy want???

But at least the speaker in this poem finds someone who will (a little bit) play along. Rather than just saying “uh huh” or “okay,” she actually responds with a question and a half-joking statement. That indicates that she is either a very nice person or that she is maybe interested in him too. But either way, she goes back to reading her book, so the speaker obviously thinks that he failed.

When I first read this poem some time last year, my friend Scott had just changed jobs and was working in the city. He took the bus there and had a two-hour commute every day. Sometimes he would call me from the bus while he was riding home (he had to do something to pass the time, I guess). Every now and again, he mention a beautiful woman that was sitting near him, or a “hottie” who was near him on the subway. But my friend is just like the speaker: way too nervous to know what to say to a woman to whom he is attracted, and so, every time, when I asked him “did you talk to her?” he would respond with some excuse as to why he couldn’t have gone up to her this time. There was always an excuse.

So to see this speaker make the move makes me think of Scott on that bus heading home from the city. I always wonder if anyone is looking at him thinking the same thing; I guess that’s human nature though.

Thank god I’m not part of that nerve-destroying world.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

What the Doctor Said

Here’s a poem that I have always found to be somewhat perplexing. Not that it’s difficult or deep or anything like that; it’s just that it states a simple truth of life that baffles me (and I’m sure everyone else too).

By Raymond Carver

He said it doesn't look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I'm glad I wouldn't want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I'm real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who'd just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may even have thanked him habit being so strong.

Carver points out something that confuses and astounds. Why do we say “thank you” to doctors who give us bad news? We all see it, we all know it, and we all know it’s ridiculous—yet we all do it when we’re in that situation.

I have led a very sheltered life, and have been very grateful to the Fates for it. I come from a stable household; my parents love each other and love me; we never struggled for money but never had so much excess that we got spoiled; I never had a best friend betray me or commit suicide or take ill with caner; my grandparents all lived long enough to attend my wedding. I could go on, but I’ll spare you the Little House on the Prairie speech. My point is just that I don’t know much about loss or suffering or sorrow. So when I read a poem like this, it reminds me of that one moment that stands out as the most painful I can remember.

My wife and I got Spaz when we first moved in together about seven years ago. He was a September 11th cat, one of the abandoned ones whose owners must have either been lost or simply lost track of him. So we adopted him, fell in love with him, and, two months after he arrived, lost him. He had feline AIDS and he was suffering. We had to put him down because it was the only responsible thing to do. But it hurt. A lot. We had him just long enough to be sure that he was a member of our family, and we were comfortable with our routine with him. So that night, a Friday, we took him to the vet and put him down. He had his little green catnip mouse in his paws as he lay on the cold metal table, and we left it with him when we numbly went out of the office. As we walked through the front door, we both were sobbing, practically unable to walk. But for some reason, we both, through our tears, felt compelled to say “thank you” to the vet techs behind the counter. What they were thinking I can’t say, but all these years later I still think of that moment and wonder why did we say that? They just killed our baby and we thanked them!

So this poem rings true, even to me.

Friday, June 6, 2008

*Homonymic Translation

This poem is my second attempt at a homonymic translation. The original work was a 13th Century Middle English poem called "The Cuckoo Song." I wrote this a few years ago and don't remember why I chose this particular poem as my jumping-off point, but I do remember that I was (at that time) reading a few books about the origins of English diction. So here's the "translation" that I wrote:

Summer is coming in,
The cuckoo sings loudly!
Grow strong and blow more
And spring the world anew.
Sing, cuckoo!

All bleed after the womb,
Lost after calling clues,
Bulling streets, barking underneath.
Merrily sing, cuckoo!
Cuckoo, cuckoo,
The cuckoo sings well.
Day swallows the newest news.

I really love the first line of the second stanza, and I've been trying for years to come up with a way to use that line as the focus of a totally original poem; so far, I have failed. But I love the idea that we're born in blood that is not our own and then spend the rest of our lives bleeding ourselves. Juxtapose that with the image of a merry bird singing a happy spring song and it creates an eerie tone that I'm usually at a lost to find in my writing.

This is one of my favorite exercises to do when I'm suffering from writer's block. I will grab any ol' poem in a foreign language that I don't speak (which is all of them) and try to translate it based solely on sound. The result makes no sense at all, but then if you take that translation and attempt to use it to make something new, you can usually find inspiration for something you didn't know you had.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

The Rejected Husband

I don’t know if I have ever read a more depressing poem than this. I’m adding it to the blog now because of a daydream I had yesterday that made me think of it.

by Wendell Berry

After the storm and the new
stillness of the snow, he returns
to the graveyard, as though
he might lift the white coverlet,
slip in beside her as he used to do,
and again feel, beneath his hand,
her flesh quicken and turn warm.
But he is not her husband now.
To participate in resurrection, one
first must be dead. And he goes
back into the whitened world, alive.

So, want to cry yet? Nothing like a good ‘ol “dead wife” poem to kill a mood, huh? A guy in my Dodge group read this a few years back and I’ll always remember his sadness when he read it. He was married, but there was something powerful and resonant in his tone as he read it that made everyone see immediately that there was a real connection between the man and the poem.

The imagery is what makes this so affective (and effective, too!). There is a very clear picture of the graveyard, the stone, the man, and it all comes together perfectly. The poet doesn’t say “he remembers her”; instead, he describes the memory of touching his lost wife. A perfect example of the “show, don’t tell” philosophy of writing.

As for me, I had a terrible daydream yesterday about what I would do if I lost my wife. She didn’t answer the phone when I called her, and that’s not like her at all. So being the eternal worrier that I am, I of course imagined her hit by a bus or a bitten by the all-too-common NJ poisonous viper snake. And that was followed by a series of alternating panic and sorrow, and then the realization that I would be just like the subject of this poem: alone, rejected (by death) and sad to even be alive.

What a depressing post. Sorry.

Sunday, June 1, 2008


I was meandering around (as I often do when I’m killing time on my laptop) and I came across a poet that I’d never heard of. This is not an altogether unfamiliar experience, but here’s the catch: I in the list of “The Top 500 Poems of All Time”! So I was very surprised to see a poet that I’d never heard of listed as having written number 15. I clicked the link and read the poem, and here it is:

by Jenny Joseph

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn't go, and doesn't suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we've no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I'm tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people's gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

How much fun is this poem? My wife and I love to laugh at the old ladies in their Red Hats and purple pantsuits; we get a good chuckle at their “kid at heart” mentality, knowing full well that she could one day be among them. But the voice in this poem is hilarious. She knows that she’ll be cranky and cheap when she gets old, and so she’s setting the stage for it now “so people who know me are not too shocked and surprised/ when suddenly I am old and start to wear purple.” What a great concept.

Today we are younger, and thus, have to be more responsible. We can’t do the things that the clichéd “old lady” does because we have to appear mature and “adult.” Why is it that it’s socially acceptable for an old man to take the sugar packets from the restaurant table but if I did it I’d be arrested for petty theft? I’m only half joking, but the idea is true nonetheless. Do the elderly do the strange things they do (as noted in the first two stanzas) because they have forgotten the social norms or do they do them as a sort of self-fulfilling prophesy? Do they realize that the arrogant young (me) make fun of them behind their backs and not care? Or are they ignorant of how they are perceived? I would try to pose these questions to my grandparents (my pop-pop Fred is turning 90 next month) but something tells me I wouldn’t get a serious answer. He’d probably look at me as though he didn’t understand—which makes me wonder if he does understand and just chooses not to give an answer….

Whatever the answer, I’m glad that I found this poem. I tried to look up the author but I haven’t had much luck with it yet.