friday roundup with ruins, ars poetica, and laundry

Tintern Abbey (wikimedia)

Tintern Abbey (wikimedia)

Reader, GREAT NEWS: this time the laundry is not mine!

(not that there isn’t some laundry in the vicinity…)

Since the last roundup there have been two trips to the mall. It’s a miracle that I’m still here to tell the tale — that’s how much I hate the mall.

On to poetry:

ruins  I’ve been reading A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, recommended to me by one of my po-friends. The essays are short, therefore manageable, and often inspiring (although a few I’ve classified as trying-too-hard-to-be-clever). Here are some highlights:

From Kasim Ali:

The line is a means by which we “explore the fleetingness, uncapturability, and pure tragic drama of a single moment that passes and has to pass.”

“To proceed line by line means not to feel yourself forward in the dark but to throw yourself with abandon into the arms of darkness.”

From Scott Cairns:

“A sufficiently textured line (that is a troubled and troubling line) is the poet’s best defense against the tyranny of syntax.”

“… (E)ach line, in turn, avails a momentary opacity that can extend, or complicate, or otherwise enrich the syntactical overlay of meaning… .”

And, my personal favorite, from Catherine Barnett:

“…poetry is a ruin of prose…”

!!! “a ruin of prose” !!! I swoon.

ars poetica  I wrote a short ars poetica this week. It goes like this:



Poetry is a greased pig.


Then I read an ars poetica by Anne Hébert: her poem “Mystère de la Parole (The Mystery of the Word).” It is actually much more inspiring than mine, especially the last two stanzas:

“Oh my blackest brothers, all feasts secretly carved; human breasts, calabash musicians where captured voices clash

Let the one who’s been given the work of the word accept you like an extra dark heart, and don’t let him stop until he has justified the living and the dead in a single song at dawn among the grasses.”   –Anne Hébert

!!!! “An extra dark heart” !!!!  I swoon again.

laundry  I’ve also been reading Tess Gallagher’s Moon Crossing Bridge this week. One of my favorite poems in the collection is “I Stop Writing the Poem.” Here it is:



to fold the clothes. No matter who lives
or who dies, I’m still a woman.
I’ll always have plenty to do.
I bring the arms of his shirt
together. Nothing can stop
our tenderness. I’ll get back
to the poem. But for now
there’s a shirt, a giant shirt
in my hands, and somewhere a small girl
standing next to her mother
watching to see how it’s done.


I love how the poet widens the lens just a touch at the end of this poem in order to complicate it (something to try for your next ending, perhaps). If you read the collection, you discover that someone actually has died, and that “watching to see how it’s done” at the end is even more devastating.

And now, I must gird my loins for attending the costume parade. In the rain. I hope you have a spooky day and a spectacular weekend. Thanks for reading.

friday roundup: being the cannibal, sensory detail in the brain (and also the heart), and the title for this post has too many words in it



Happy Friday, Reader. Did you know that in some species of insects and arachnids the females eat the males after or during the act of procreation? I have been thinking about this lately, not because I’m eyeing my spouse thinking ‘snack.’ No. Rather, because I’ve been cannibalizing old poems. Let me tell you a little bit about…

being the cannibal  The Manuscript That Will Never Say Die, Or For That Matter, ‘Done’ (as I fondly refer to my manuscript) has been sniffing around my desk asking to be fed and watered. Dear Manuscript, I sometimes feel like saying, I have nothing more to give. Except that I’ve learned again and again when I feel that way it’s time to go back.

By this I mean go back to old poems, old not-quite-poems, and old just-writing-in-my-notebook-not-even-close-to-poems. Because, guess what: the different, fresher, stronger, more resonant images that you think you need for what you’re working on today might be there.

In other words, let your poems be cannibals. Let them go back and eat the pinky finger of the poem you’ve decided is just not crucial enough to work on anymore, but whose seventh line you know is really strong.

And also, friendly reminder: All the poems in the ‘I Abandon’ file? Those, as you page through them, will tell you the story of how you got to the poem you are writing this week. Oh yes, the poem I finally wrote that stuck has twenty-seven failed poem attempts behind it. Nothing is wasted.

Which is not to say you never have to push through to new lines, images, metaphors, etc. It’s just to say: don’t forget what you already have. And, to repeat: Nothing is wasted.

(I can never think of the phrase “to repeat” without thinking of this scene in When Harry Met Sally).

sensory detail and the brain (and also the heart)  So, I’ve been memorizing a new poem this week (the poem’s not new; the me memorizing it is). It’s Jack Gilbert’s “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart,” and if you glance at it you’ll see that it starts out making an argument, and then moves into a meditation on language. An image-heavy meditation on language. A full-of-sensory detail meditation on language.

And I’ve noticed an interesting thing about memorizing the poem. Usually I go in line order to memorize. But this time, I’ve learned the last half of the poem first — not for want of trying to memorize the lines in order… it’s just that the latter half of the poem has stuck with me in a way that the first half has not (yet).

Which  made me think of a Poets&Writers article I read last summer, “The Heart and the Eye” (sorry, not available online). In it, J.T. Bushnell explains the neuroscience behind the power of sensory detail:

“When we read about an odor (or image or sensation), it engages the exact same part of the brain as actually smelling it (or seeing it or touching it), and those parts of the brain reside in the lower region, alongside our emotional centers.”

This, Bushnell says, is why writing full of images, smells, and other sensations “can take such precise aim at the heart.”

This (I think) is why I’m having a hard time remembering the more rhetorical lines of Gilbert’s poem, but also why when my husband sends a text that he’s at the airport in Singapore getting on a flight to come home, the following line from the poem comes out of my mouth before I realize it, “My joy is the same as twelve / Ethiopian goats standing silent in the morning light.”

And it’s why when the air cools and the ginko trees begin their slow walk from green to gold I can cry out (to the embarrassment of my children), “O Lord, thou art slabs of salt and ingots of copper”!

Note to self.

the title for this post has too many words in it  What can I say, I’m tired. But I’ve been thinking about titles and what they can do for a poem (or how they can sabotage a poem) — pithy titles, mysterious titles, unique titles, boring titles, luxuriant titles, and especially the title of a Jane Hirshfield poem, which is “For the Lobaria, Usnea, Witches Hair, Map Lichen, Beard Lichen, Ground Lichen, Shield Lichen.”

This poem is in her collection Come, Thief. Both in the table of contents and in the magazine it was first published in, it was titled “For the Lichens.” Space constraints, I’m sure.

But I’m so in love with its long, luxuriant title, which adorns the page above the poem in the book. Say it out loud! It’s amazing! And I like the poem, too — the way it’s a celebration of lichens but also of language and of survival. And, beyond that, of plain old keeping at it.

Here it is in The Atlantic.

May you have a luxuriant weekend. May you always keep at it, whatever ‘it’ is.

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!