friday roundup: bidden, notes on line, and a little song

"Abend an der Ostsee" (Evening at the Baltic Sea) by Ernst Oppler

“Abend an der Ostsee” (Evening at the Baltic Sea) by Ernst Oppler, wikimedia

Hello, Reader, and happy Friday.

I’m a little low on words today, but have found a few gems — some new to me, some not — to share.

Let us commence:

bidden In a letter to his mother 1923, William Carlos Williams wrote:

“Art is a curious command. We must do what we are bidden to do and can only go as far as the light permits.”

In my experience, sometimes the light lets us see all around a room, or a good way along the path in front of us. Other times, it barely lets us see our own shoes. This week, I needed this reminder —  that we must do what we are bidden to do. I think it’s good advice for art and life.

(BTW, have you ever wondered how many possible gems future generations of writers will lose out on because most of us no longer write letters? I mean, my own correspondence exists in the world primarily of texts that say things like: “At dr appt will call after” and “I.cannot.possibly.cook.another.dinner.” But maybe the gems will still be stashed somewhere by poets who are thinking worthier thoughts than I.)

notes on line  Line is probably my favorite craft element of poetry because it can do so many different things. This week I went back to Best Words, Best Order to re-read a few things Stephen Dobyns says about line (in section three of his essay “Notes on Free Verse”).

Many times I’ve been in discussions with poets about whether or not line breaks should be “read” — that is, when reading a poem out loud (or in one’s head, for that matter) should one pause where the line breaks, or not? And if yes, for how long? (Full disclosure: I fervently believe that line breaks should be “read.”).

Denise Levertov famously said that a line break is worth “half a comma” — a pause not long enough to think, but “long enough to register something.” No pressure.

Dobyns lightens our load — I mean, how long is half a comma??? — by saying,

“(t)he exact duration is unimportant. It lasts about as long as it takes to move one’s eyes back to the beginning of the next line.”

I feel like I can commit to that.

Here are a few more things Dobyns says line / line breaks can do:

  • create tension
  • resolve tension
  • allow slips of  meaning
  • influence cadence
  • duplicate the process of thought

He says,

“Where the line breaks can never be a matter of accident since the line break is so much a part of both form and content. Indeed, it is often here that the poet’s most personal rhythms are clearest.”

a little song  Last week I started reading Cecilia Woloch‘s new chapbook, EARTH, recently released by Two Sylvias Press. I started reading it, and finished, and started again, and finished again. I keep going back. It’s that good.

This is a lovely book, both object-wise — beautiful cover art, pleasing look and feel — and content-wise. In fierce but lovely language and image, these poems remember loved ones and lost worlds, explore mortality and inheritance, and allow their speaker to claim his/her Self (yes, that’s Self with a capital S). One of my favorite poems from the collection recognizes the reality that one’s Self actually contains a multitude of Selves. Here is:


Oh beloved, oh afraid
of the bloodstain, dark spot, ticking clock
of what has shone in your life like luck —
too bright to last — oh fortunate
who slipped the licked stones, glittering
inside your pockets, spread your arms
and dreamt your ghost wings would unfurl
from your bony shoulders — angel bones
and that the sky would hold you up
and love — a tree from which you swung —
oh branch you called your father’s name
oh bird who sang your mother’s song
oh little sweeper of the world
whose life inside my life has burned.


(!!!”oh little sweeper of the world”!!!)

One of my Selves now must go off and schlepp some groceries for the Feeders of the Wee, Small House. (I think of them as Feeders. As in, “a person or animal that eats a particular food or in a particular manner.” Forgive me.)

I wish you a happy weekend, ample light to see by, a clear bidding from whatever your art might be, and a little song for your one afraid. Thanks for reading.

one by one

Six Persimmons, Muqi 13th century, wikimedia

Six Persimmons, Muqi 13th century, wikimedia

In my little circle of beloveds — family, friends — there has been a lot of loss and suffering lately.

This morning I woke up headache-y, but needing a particular poem. I couldn’t remember its title, but knew it was by Thomas Lynch. I remembered reading it for the first time when a friend made a copy of a handout she’d received in a poetry class long enough ago that there was no hope of my having filed it electronically.

I remembered: there is a blue bowl in the poem. There is a tree.

I knew once the headache fog lifted, I would have to go out into the garage and paw through old files. I knew this could take me all day (or all week), but I needed that poem.

By some miracle I found it after about five minutes of searching. Thank you, Universe.

This poem reminds me of something a friend of blessed memory used to say: Yesterday is gone and tomorrow is not yet promised to us. Today is all we have.

And although it is hard — probably impossible — to live that way every day (I, for example, am thinking about how I must thaw the meat for tomorrow’s dinner), this poem is a good reminder of Today is all we have.

Here is:



A blue bowl on the table in the dining room
fills with sunlight. From a sunlit room
I watch my neighbor’s sugar maple turn
to shades of gold. It’s late September. Soon…
Soon as I’m able I intend to turn
to gold myself. Somewhere I’ve read that soon
they’ll have a formula for prime numbers
and once they do, the world’s supposed to end
the way my neighbor always said it would —
in fire. I bet we’ll all be given numbers
divisible by One and by themselves
and told to stand in line the way you would
for prime cuts at the butcher’s. In the end,
maybe it’s every man for himself.
Maybe it’s someone hollering All Hands On
Deck! Abandon Ship! Women and Children First!
Anyway, I’d like to get my hands on
you. I’d like to kiss your eyelids and make love
as if it were our last time, or the first,
or else the one and only form of love
divisible by which I yet remain myself.
Mary, folks are disappearing one by one.
They turn to gold and vanish like the leaves
of sugar maples. But we can save ourselves.
We’ll pick our own salvations, one by one,
from a blue bowl full of sunlight until none is left.

from Still Life in Milford by Thomas Lynch
Originally published in Poetry East: Origins (#43)


Hug your beloveds. Say a little prayer for peace and other miracles. Choose your salvations one by one.

friday roundup: this and that edition

juxtapositions in the Mission

juxtapositions in the Mission

Hello, Reader. Happy Friday, Happy “ski week” — which is the week of no school in February when many people in the P-town apparently go skiing (?) and we go to the library. Severally.

There are five children in this house as I write this. One is on rollerblades, two are on walkie-talkies, one is making crepes (I’m basically speechless about this). The other must be…. somewhere.

One of the things that makes me happy about this world are its juxtapositions. A teenager and a stove; crepes and rollerblades; an adorable three year-old and his existential questions (“Aunt Molly, what do you DO wid all dose pens?”).

As you can imagine, my poetry life this week has been high on catch-as-catch-can and low on coherent thoughts. This roundup will be short and perhaps incoherent.

love that dog  What!!?? I know, I was surprised, too, when I found a little book at the library yesterday (4th trip of the week) called Love That Dog. Anyone who teaches poetry to children might want to take a look at this little book, which is a (very short) novel in verse about a boy whose approach to writing poetry goes from “I don’t want to / because boys / don’t write poetry. // Girls do…” to “Love that dog / like a bird loves to fly… .”

It’s both hilarious and heartening, as the boy expresses in his own writing his befuddlement with poetry (“I don’t understand / the poem about / the red wheelbarrow”; “What was up with / the snowy woods poem / you read today?”) and slowly, over the course of the story, begins to write his own singing lines and to fall in love with poetry.

on persona poetry  Last week I wrote a paper on considerations for persona poetry. In the course of my study, I found this article which looks at the tradition and craft persona poetry. You need to have a membership in AWP to access the full article, but here are a couple of my notes from it.

On why we might write in persona:

“The use of a character voice can provide an escape from our biographies, as we write in the voice of someone else. At the same time, the use of a character voice can allow us to go deeper into feelings and ideas associated with our biographies, since it provides a kind of insulation.”

On what the author calls “modulation” (which is a trait of my favorite persona poems, but of course I didn’t realize that until this article articulated it for me):

“(T)he voice of a dramatic monologue also often modulates. In this case, away from character, toward the poet’s actual voice – in order to let us feel the human stakes behind the mask.”

The article is by Benjamin S. Grossman and is worth your time if you’re interested in writing in persona.

fishing The thing about poets is you keep finding more of them. I can’t remember where or how, but a week or so ago I found Talvikki Ansel. The semi-secret super library nerd lending program came through for me once again, and I’ve been reading her first book My Shining Archipelago. I’m particularly fond of her poem “Fishing” and I found it for you on Google books — I hope the link will work. Here it is (you may have to scroll down a bit to find page 14).

“I have tried so many times to take / this photograph: white door frame, / view beyond: green strip of lawn, / sea wall, clouds above breakers, / but I can never focus the inside / and the outside, the kitchen / darkens and the cedars blur.”

(from “Fishing”)

Me too, Talkvikki Anselm, me too.

No children were harmed in the writing of this blog post. Amen.

friday roundup: desperate times, “My memory, my prison,” and Ophelia in her flip-flops

"Ophelia" by Margaret MacDonald (wikimedia)

“Ophelia” (no flip flops) by Margaret MacDonald (wikimedia)

Hello, Reader. This week I felt like I was on vacation. There were no appointments at the orthodontist, the allergy clinic, the rheumatologist, urologist, or radiologist. No urgent care waiting rooms or pharmacy runs. The car did not break down. Nobody broke their pinky. There was a full week of school (to be quickly counterbalanced by a week off next week: “Ski Week.”). Some of the laundry is partly done. I’m willing to chalk this up as a good week. Thank you, Universe.

Without further ado:

desperate times  Desperate: adj. “feeling, showing, or involving a hopeless sense that a situation is so bad as to be impossible to deal with.” From the Latin desperare “to despair, to lose all hope,” from de- “without” + sperare “to hope.”

One has only to pay attention to the news to feel desperate from time to time. This morning I was feeling poetry-desperate, too. For the last few weeks, no matter how early I set my alarm for my morning writing time, someone else would wake up, too (husband, child, dog next door).  Forgive me, I prefer to pretend I’m alone in the world during my early morning writing time.

This morning, I gave up around 6:30 and, while I showered, complained to the Muse that she hasn’t send me any good scraps of language lately (cue the Barbara Streisand) , which is usually how a poem starts for me: with a bit of language that seems to arrive out of nowhere. As if to spite me, she sent a line right then: Somewhere in the loose nest / of my father’s hands / there is a river. Somewhere / is the drawer on which he wrote / in pencil, It’s cold in here / at night. FINE! I said, If you insist! and hopped out of the shower to write it down in the little notebook I keep on my nightstand. Which wasn’t there. Don’t think I didn’t write it down on the nightstand itself. Desperate times call for desperate measures. Reader, I did:


Nightstand with books, writing instruments, glass of water, and poem scraps.


“My memory, my prison.” I finished reading Roethke this week and I’m more in love than ever. So often, he writes deep inside the space of memory. And yet, in selected writing taken from his notebooks after his death, you can get a sense of him wanting to be free of that: “My memory, my prison.”

I, too, have been writing in the space of memory lately. Whether it’s from reading Roethke or facing mortality or seeking comfort in my touchstone images of shore and sand, stone and driftwood, I don’t know. Frankly, with all that’s going on in the world, I’d rather be writing about things that feel more Important and Universal: war, climate change, poverty, disease.

But I’ve been at this long enough to know that you have to write what comes, not what you wish were coming. And here are a couple of things Very Famous Poets have said that give me comfort:

“The way to the universal is through the particular.” (I think many Very Famous Poets have said this, but I first heard it from Ellen Bass in a workshop I took with her)

And Roethke: “I am overwhelmed by the beautiful disorder of poetry, the eternal virginity of words.” (this, again, from his notebooks)

Ophelia, in her flip-flops I’ve also been reading The River Won’t Hold You by Karin Gottshall. This, too, is a book of memory (at least so far — I’m only partway in). I’m taken with her poem “Pretty Stories” which first appeared in The Gettysburg Review. It made me think about all the stories I grew up with — in books and in the memories of those I loved. It made me think I could write a poem about all those stories. Maybe. Notice the way she appropriates well-known stories and sets them squarely inside the speaker’s own life. Notice all her use of connective tissue words: “Meanwhile”; “They say”; “True:”, etc. I’ll wish you a happy weekend and leave you with the poem, whose ending I adore:


PRETTY STORIES by Karin Gottshall

Ophelia, in her flip-flops, writes her paramour’s name
against the dusk with the spitting tip of a sparkler wand.

Meanwhile, the cat leaves a narrow tongue-print
on the butter Mother forgot to put away after lunch,

and two blocks down the children pursue
an ice cream truck’s canned Yankee Doodle Dandy.

They say the owl was a baker’s daughter;
here’s a rue for you and a-down, a-down-a.

True: we were all fooled by Viola the time she dressed
as a pirate and made out with Olivia under the bleachers.

In candlelight Hermia and Helena get out their makeup
kits to blacken their eyelids and shine their lips.

The pet hamsters weigh almost nothing; in the morning
they will turn to soap bubbles and rise over the roofs.

Prospero tells Miranda the same story every night:
water filled the sailors’ mouths with brine

and if you think it’s hot here, you should visit
the belly of the beast. Roses, my love. The end.



on being empty

Sun in an Empty Room, Hopper.

Sun in an Empty Room, Hopper.

Today is Monday. Everyone is at school. I don’t have to go anywhere until it’s time to pick up children. It’s the perfect day for poetry.

And yet I’m feeling empty. Empty of words, empty of ideas, empty of imagination.

Having just made a big push getting my manuscript in shape (again), yes, I have the Poetry Dummies.

When I’m feeling Empty and Poetry Dumb, there are three things I do:

  1. Read
  2. Write anyway
  3. Seek comfort in the words of other writers about their times of emptiness

Such words came to me yesterday via The Writers Chronicle. Here is W. S. Merwin:

“Whenever I finished a poem, all my life, or have come to the end of it, and thought I had to let it go, I didn’t know what else to do. I think, ‘Well, that’s the best I can do. I may never write another poem.’ I don’t know that I’ll be able to write another poem.”

W. S. Merwin, former poet laureate, who began publishing in 1952 and who has published steadily ever since. Whose bibliography on the Poetry Foundation website lists 30 books of poetry, 8 of prose, 25 of translations. Amongst other works.

So, I guess is W. S. Merwin feels empty of poetry from time to time, it’s okay if we do, too.

Write on.


holed up

Hello, Reader.

To the extent that a mother of three whose writing desk is within reach of the kitchen counter (to the left) and the kitchen table (to the right) can be holed up, I have been holed up.

I’ve been reading — Roethke. Roethke is so good to hole up with, with all his muck and soil, his roots and clumps, stems and tendrils, loam and tamping. His “moonless black.” His “kingdom of stinks and sighs.”

And I’ve been revising my manuscript, trying to make every word in every line of every poem sing. Trying to make the order sing. Trying to make the book a poem in and of itself, and singing.

It sits now in a sturdy little pile on the corner of my desk. I can’t say there won’t be more revisions over time. But I can say that I believe in this sturdy little pile of poems.

And also that I am tired of them.

And that I may have forgotten how to write any more poems, but I’m not going to worry about that right now.

I’m going to leave the sturdy pile alone for a bit. I’m going to read more Roethke (“Love, love, a lily’s my care”). I’m going to send some poems off into the world and remember that there are many seasons of a writer’s life: the muck and the lily, the holing up and the letting go.

May all your seasons bear their fruit at one time or another.


friday (mini)roundup in which hell freezes over

Dear Reader,

<warning: this post involves NFL football></warning>

I know — I can’t believe it either.

But yesterday I gleaned some writing advice from a sportser.

And I will get right to it, and keep it brief, since I woke up earlier than early with poem ideas and I want to try them out now that the house is (don’t look now) empty and quiet.

poetry advice from Al Michaels Srsly! I was driving home from an appointment yesterday listening to Fresh Air (I cannot help but hear that in Terry Gross’ voice: “This is… Frrresh-air”). The featured interview was with Al Michaels, who has made his career by announcing NFL football television broadcasts.

I’m not going to be able to give direct quotes here because I was, well, driving — and on the expressway no less, so I couldn’t pull over to write things down. But basically, he said this:

You don’t need to tell people about what they’re already seeing.

Which made me think about image and how if we nail the image, it needs no interpretation. No pressure.

He also said this:

I’ve learned to speak in ellipses.

Which  made me think of something I read somewhere that Helen Vendler said or wrote about the lyric poem:

“(The lyric poem) depends on gaps… it is suggestive rather than exhaustive.”

I tried to source this on the Interwebs and failed. There are thousands of people quoting Helen Vendler on the lyric poem, but not saying where they got the quote. And I am now doing the same. Forgive me. If you know the original source, leave it in comments please?

por ejemplo…  …this poem by Catherine Barnett from her amazing book Into Perfect Spheres Such Holes are Pierced (it appears in the book as the frontispiece):


C minus A and B equals —
Tree with no branch equals —

What grief looks like:
A knife rusted in the side of a goat.

No, no.
A coin falling in water

And the fish dart for it.


I rest my case.

And I’m off to do my own work. Happy weekend and thanks for reading.