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.