friday roundup: to recapitulate, understatement, and ‘failures like rented rooms’

Hopper's "Sun in an Empty Room"

Hopper’s “Sun in an Empty Room”

I won’t bother with a “since the last roundup” list. Even I don’t want to know.

Oh, but wait — there was a kid-free trip up to The City (as peninsula-dwellers call San Francisco).

And two critical response papers finished and sent off.

And as much po-time as I could squeeze out of two weeks of half-days of school.

And now:

to recapitulate  I’m always interested in the concept of truth in poetry. I know of some who vehemently feel that anything that is not actually (factually) true does not belong in a poem. I know of others who believe that the facts are only important insofar as they support a truth. Truth as concept, I mean — not necessarily what happened but the universal truth of the experience of what happened (if that makes sense).

I place my feet firmly inside the second camp.

Real-time digression: This makes me think of Beth Ann Fennelly‘s poem “Mother Sends My Poem to Her Sister with Post-its.” The poem is a series of short passages that read like what’s written on the post-its. Here’s one:

“She got this wrong / it was me not her father / who sang her ‘Irish Rosie’ / she was so sick with measles”

Real-time digression: I also love, love, love Fennelly’s poem “Poem Not To Be Read at Your Wedding.” Here’s a link (scroll down) and an excerpt:

“Well, Carmen, I would rather / give you your third set of steak knives / than tell you what I know.”

Ahem. But I digress. What I was planning to share was this quote from Louise Glück, the X-acto Knife of Poets:

“To recapitulate: the source of art is experience, the end product truth, and the artist, surveying the actual, constantly intervenes and manages, lies and deletes, all in the service of truth.” (from Proofs and Theories, Ecco Press, 1994).


understatement One of the things I wrote about in one of my papers due this week was ambiguity. I’m interested in how a certain quality of ambiguity invites the reader to engage more deeply in the poem, and to continue the work of the poem through that engagement. I won’t bore you with the criteria I propose create that quality of ambiguity, but I will share a couple of quotes from the section on understatement and the withheld image in the old work-horse Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry:

“Never tell a reader what will leap to the mind without your telling.”


“Mature writers prefer to understate, to say less than they might rather than more, so that the meaning can explode within the reader.”

Yes — that explosion of meaning — that’s one of the things I love about reading poetry. How you can read the poem at 5:30 a.m. (or whatever time you read in your neck of the woods) and then two Tuesdays later, while you’re wiping the counters at 9:00 p.m. it hits you, a possible meaning for that poem/line/image. Yes.

failures like rented rooms Short poems. I adore them. I read them. I study them. I cannot seem to write them. I aspire.

Here is a short poem by a poet I’ve only just discovered, thanks to another poet who wrote about her work on Facebook (I pause to admit mixed emotions and eternal gratitude for the tribe-building function of Facebook). The poet is Deborah Digges. As with my recent discovery (thanks to another poet — though not on Facebook) of Jack Gilbert, I cannot conceive of how I’ve lived 42 years on the face of this earth and never read Deborah Digges’ poems until now.


Custody by Deborah Digges

The first warm evening in April
I unpack my summer clothes, dresses
in which you knew me, hanging
from the lights and mirrors and windows.
Once our idea of heaven meant
all the dead relatives waiting
on the kept lawn of the many mansions
as if, suddenly sinless, they had nothing
to do. Now I’ve come to see our failures
like rented rooms to which the boarder
returns and falls asleep fully clothed,
only to wake at a cat’s cry
or a child’s, locked away in
one of the neighboring houses.


I love how that “like rented rooms” can be read both literally and figuratively. And how she brings sound in at the end to keep the poem ringing in our ears.

And that’s a wrap. Have a good weekend. Thanks for reading.

just words

many words, free for the taking

many words, free for the taking

Sometimes poetry is hard. Don’t say “bacon” — I’ve already tried that. And while bacon is delicious, poetry is still hard.

Also sometimes people have two weeks of half-days of school. And/or an eye infection, the medication for which requires a trip to San Jose. And/or sometimes the babysitter cancels and/or the Husband works late or both. And/or it is 90 degrees and the Wee, Small House has no air. And/or other things.

Then, sometimes, the poet-mother can begin to feel down.

But then she remembers something: words.

And then she reaches for her little green notebook of words. She begins writing down words, any words: dreadful, machinery, pistol, shoebox, gate. She feels a bit perkier already.

Then she decides to write down plant/flower/tree words: firethorn, rockrose, bindweed, oak. Beebalm, bugbane, bleeding heart.

Then words that belong to metal: clang, forge, slag, mill, melt, hammer, plate, rust, coin.

Earth words: salt, sand, clay, kiln, crevasse, fault line, dune, shore.

Landscape word (well, sometimes she can only think of one): aeolian.

Motion words: gallop, shoal, bend, curl, orbit, leap, buck, sluice, skim.

Words to love for their sound: paperweight, taxidermist, cinnamon, labyrinthine, lemon, redolent, root.

She could go on.

Then she remembers love. Love of words. The joy of them. That they are everywhere and belong to no one. That you can put one next to another and surprise yourself. That you can say them out loud. That you can make things of them. Just words.  (!!!!!!).

She does not go on to write the Great American Poem or even Any Poem. But she feels better. The best she can say is that it’s like finger-painting, which everyone should do once in a while. Amen.


friday roundup: nothing is wasted, seeing things, and “trying to see the rope.”

Yesterday I wanted to break up with poetry. Forever. It just gets tiring sometimes, doesn’t it? — the long, slow slog. The days spent taking a comma out, then putting it back in. But poetry always has the upper hand with me. It knows I’m not going anywhere. That, in fact, I have already tried to break up with it and failed. So instead I just took the day off from poetry yesterday — the whole day. Didn’t read. Didn’t write. One must occasionally take a day off. Then it was back at my desk this morning where I learned once again that…

nothing is wasted  One thing that can sometimes feel hard about poetry is the time spent on failed attempts. And yet, over and over again I’ve learned that nothing is wasted — that every failed attempt gets us closer to the poem we want to write.

A couple months ago I did a little inventory of recent work. I sorted poems into piles: those I wanted to work on, and those I wasn’t sure of. Of the “wasn’t sure of” stack, I then made three more stacks: “workpapers” (for those that were done for now); “meh” (for those that were kind of, well, meh); and “I abandon.” I guess that last category speaks for itself.

And yet, as I put poem after poem on the “I abandon” pile, I noticed that many, many of the poems had been warm-ups for poems that I had later written, and much more successfully. Of course, I didn’t know at the time I wrote them that they were warm-ups.

So, there’s this poem I’ve been trying to write since 2002. About a little beach that had an enormous rock in the shallows from which my brothers and I gleefully jumped for what seemed like hours (and may have been). And about how the next summer when we went back to that beach, the rock was gone. That beach, that rock, that disappointment have stayed with me since the late 1970s. I’ve tried over and over to write about it and failed. As of this morning, when the rock came out of nowhere into the draft I was working on, those failed attempts were worth it.

This is a very long way of saying: keep on.

seeing things  Sometimes it’s easy to go through the day and not really see anything. Because we are busy doing the things grown ups do every day: working, tending to our responsibilities, folding socks and the like. In one of my new favorite books about writing, there is a whole chapter on seeing things, about training yourself in observation. In that chapter, Priscilla Long notes that

“The truth is that insight begins with sight — with seeing what is there.”

She recommends a regular practice of writing for 15 minutes each week on what is in front of you here and now, wherever it is you are. She recommends writing only about what you see, hear, touch, taste or smell. No reflection, no feelings. She says,

“These writings connect you to the world, to where you are. The more you do them, the  more aware you become. They are pure training in sensory observation.”

I confess, I have not yet undertaken this weekly practice. What I have done is, every day, to write down six things I observed. Even this has made me a better see-er, I think, a better noticer of details, particularly of sensory details. Also, it has this great way of becoming a spiritual practice — because it helps you to be present in the moment. Something to try, maybe, if you’re not already doing it.

trying to see the rope  And speaking of which, here is a little stunner of a poem by my new favorite poet, Jack Gilbert. Whose work I had somehow never read until last month. Which now seems impossible — that I existed for 42 years without knowing this poet’s work?? That just doesn’t make any sense. But now I have Jack, and I’m moving forward with my life (trying not to think about the fact that there are Many Other Poets whose work I have never read and probably can’t live without), and here is his poem:


The wall
is the side of a building.
Maybe seventy-five feet high.
The rope is tied
below the top
and hangs down thirty feet.
Just hangs down.
Above the slum lot.
It’s been there a long time.
One part
below the middle
is frayed.
I’ve been at this all month.
Trying to see the rope.
The wall.
Carefully looking
at the bricks.
Seeing they are
umber and soot
and the color of tongue.
Even counting them.
But it’s like Poussin.
Too clear.
The way things aren’t.
So I try not staring.
Not grabbing.
Allowing it to come.
But just at the point
where I’d see,
the mind gives a little
and I’m already past.
To all this sorrow again.
the skip between wildness
and affection,
where everything is.


That’s a pretty god (oops I meant good) keeping at it poem, I guess. Have a wonderful weekend and thanks for reading.

one reason, amongst many, to memorize poems

Abraham und die drei Engel, Anonymous, 27th centure

Abraham und die drei Engel (with many hand gestures), Anonymous, 17th century

[Bedtime in the Wee, Small House. A mother is tucking in her daughter.]

Daughter: Mom, can you say that poem you know?

Mother: Which one?

D: The one you said yesterday in the car?

M: Yes. [recites poem]

[Appropriate period of silence after experiencing an amazing poem is observed]

D: Mom, what does that mean — ring around of roses told?

M: Well… you know that game ring around the rosy? I think the poet is playing with those words to make us think about childhood.

D: Oh. Mom, what’s your favorite line?

M: “It is only a dream of the grass blowing / east against the source of the sun / in a hour before the sun’s going down.” What’s yours?

D: “She it is Queen Under the Hill.”

M: Yes, that’s a good one.

[brief lull in conversation]

D: Mom what does that mean at the beginning where it says it’s mine but it’s not mine but it’s near the heart?

M: I think that means… well… you know when you have a memory or a place you like to imagine? And you know it’s not real, but it feels real? I think that’s what it means.

D: Mom, why are you using hand gestures?

M: I don’t know.

D: Do poets do that or something?

M: Goodnight, dear.

The End

friday roundup: the x-acto knife speaks, turning a poem, and “I woke in grief…”

Reader, gotta make this quick. Papers to write, milk and eggs to buy. I’ve bribed myself into looking forward to these items on my to-do list by promising a trip to a lovely little cafe I’ve discovered in the next town up the Peninsula. Where I will drink my tea from a bowl. With honey. Where I will indulge in a little pastry. We do what we have to do. Onward:

the x-acto knife speaks  Poets&Writers interviewed the x-acto knife of poets, known also as Louise Glück (here, I swoon), in their September/October 2014 issue. My first encounter with Louise Glück was her book Ararat. Which I did not love at all. But I had the good sense to think I ought to learn from what I don’t love, so I bought her First Four Books. And I loved, loved, loved. Now she is one of those poets (and her First Four Books is one of those books) I could never live without. Probably many of you have already read the interview, but I am behind as usual. Here are a few things she said that I thought were interesting and/or heartening:

On tone:

“If you can get the right tone, it will be dense with ideas; you don’t initially know fully what they are, but you want by the end to know fully what they are or you won’t have made an exciting work. For me it’s tone — the way the mind moves as it performs its acts of meditation. That’s what you’re following. It guides you but it also mystifies you because you can’t turn it into conscious principles… . It has to remain mysterious to you. You have to be surprised by what it is capable of unveiling.”

On living your life:

“But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.”

On dry periods:

“I go through two, three years writing nothing. Zero. Not a sentence. Not bad poems I discard, not notes toward poems. Nothing. And you don’t know in those periods that the silence will ever end, that you will ever recover speech. It’s pretty much hell… .”


turning a poem  I’ve been reading the assigned work from my program, reading at breakneck speed — for me, anyway, and for poetry — and discerning topics for the papers I have to write after reading. One thing I’ve been paying close attention to lately is the turn of the poem. Classically called the volta and embodied in the sonnet, a poem’s turn takes us to a place that is both surprising and inevitable (well, ideally anyway). I’m keeping a running list of all the moves I’m noticing in my reading, moves that help the poem make its turn. Here’s my list so far:

  • Ask a question
  • Allow the speaker to enter the poem explicitly (“I…”)
  • Tell a story within the poem (Ellen Bass does it in this poem)
  • Shift to direct address
  • Use dialogue
  • Apostrophe
  • Use of a conditional phrase (If…)

Would it not be handy to have this list around during revision (or, as I often think of it: redrafting)? I have a feeling I’ll be adding to this list as this day and this life go on.

“I woke in grief…” I started my week — at least, I think I did, I think it was Monday — with a beautiful little poem set to music that showed up in my Facebook feed. I love it when two art forms come together — in this case, poetry and song. Here is a link to Kathleen Kirk‘s poem “I woke in grief and beauty” and the song it inspired by Joe Robinson. I hope you enjoy it.

Happy weekend!


friday roundup: imagination radiating, modifier or amplifier, and “Pale / by the road to the North”

Klimt: "Mountain Slope at Unterach on the Attersee" 1916

Klimt: “Mountain Slope at Unterach on the Attersee” 1916

Hello, Reader and happy Friday. Since the last roundup there has been one, actual FULL week of school (the only one since school started a month ago — and don’t worry, this week was not a full week again, so the kids aren’t getting exhausted or anything. Ahem.); three critical response papers and one creative packet completed and turned in; one novel abandoned (reading, not writing), one Nutcracker audition (not me); two cross country meets (not me); two tennis lessons (not me); one allergy appointment (not me); one orthodontist appointment (not me); one four-point plan (every single one of us). I think if I hear of even one more four-point plan in my lifetime I’m going to have to consider becoming a space colonist despite my fear of flying. **I’ve come back to add a nuance here, because I am no expert about what should be done about QSIS (which some call ISIS or ISIL), but I abhor the slick packaging of words of war.**


Oh also: one marathon drafting session and two worthwhile revisions. Also one measly submission. Alas. This week I bring you:

imagination radiating Last week I had to take a break from le Bachelard. He was starting to get under my skin. It was when I got to “the increased intimacy of a house when it when it is besieged by winter” that I knew I was in trouble. Then when I read, “Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons” and “on snowy days, the house is too old,” I said to myself, Okay then. Enough of that. I put the book aside. (I used to do that with boys, too, and later men; if they started to get under my skin I was like, See ya!)

But Bachelard, Bachelard. I couldn’t stay away. I went back to it. And now I accept the Feeling of Doom that comes when one reads a book they know they will never again live without. Wherever I go in my life, I will be carrying Bachelard along with me — literally and figuratively. It’s like a marriage.

Anyway, here is something to think about regarding images and what Bachelard calls “poetic revery”:

“Poetic revery, unlike somnolent revery, never falls asleep. Starting with the simplest of images, it must always set the waves of the imagination radiating.”

No pressure.

modifier or amplifier  A poet-friend introduced me to this article on line by Rebecca Hazelton. In it, Hazelton says:

“Line can be difficult to talk about because it doesn’t operate independently of other poetic elements, as sense, syntax, sound, and rhythm can. Instead it is a modifier or an amplifier of sense, syntax, sound, and rhythm — which is precisely why an exploration of line can so illuminate poetry as a whole.”

The article then goes through close examinations of line in various poems, and suggests several exercises we can use to explore the options opened up to us by different uses of line in our own work. I have read, marked, scanned and tagged this article as a keeper. I hope it’s useful to you.

“Pale / by the road to the North” Here is the poem I was planning to post last week. Then, Life. It’s by the late Johannes Bobrowski, a German poet who was imprisoned in Russia during WWII and was relatively unknown in the U.S. until his work was translated in the 1960s. I, for one, am glad to have found his work. Here is:

NORTH RUSSIAN TOWN by Johannes Bobrowski

Putoshka 1941

by the road to the North
falls the mountain wall. The bridge,
the old wood,
the bushy banks.

There the stream lives,
white in the pebbles, blind over the
sand. And the caw of crows
speaks your name: Wind
in the rafters, a smoke
toward the evening.

It comes,
a glowing in
the cloud, it follows the winds,
it watches for the fire.

Remote fire breaks forth
in the plain,
far. Who dwell near
forests, on streams, in the wooden
luck of villages, listen
at evening, lay
an ear to the earth.

!!!”the wooden luck of villages”!!! Yes. Also, note his very astute use of “an” in the last line, rather than “your” (I know this was translated, but, let’s assume the translation is faithful). “Your” would’ve limited the power of that ear. The ear would’ve belonged to those “who dwell near forests… .” The “an” allows the ear to belong to the dwellers, yes, but also allows the town itself to become an ear laid to the earth. Well, that’s my reading anyway. Also: O, how he builds tension with his syntax and line. I aspire.

And now, since the kids don’t have school today I guess I will go do a bunch of mom stuff. Happy Friday, happy weekend, and write on.