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.

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

  1. Oh, Jack Gilbert is my favorite! “The Forgotten Dialect of the Heart” is probably my favorite poem, if I had to choose one. Thanks for always making me feel like I’m not alone in this weird process of creating.

  2. It can be a slog, yes, but a worthwhile one.

    The observational poem is a really good exercise and surprisingly difficult. I took a workshop with Billy Collins this summer (I know!) and that was the first thing he had us do: Write an observational poem strictly modeled after a sample he gave us (syllable counts, lines, etc.) with absolutely zero reflection, sentimentality, emotion or anything except what is literally there. It was surprisingly hard to do well, but valuable. Leaving that stuff out somehow permits the reader’s mind to make the emotional connection and fill in those gaps, as the mind naturally wants to do. So the meaning for everyone was different, and seemed to be exactly what they needed the poem to be about, in a way. All this to say that it’s a good practice for the writer, but also valuable for the reader. The poet allows them a certain freedom to make associations rather than serving up suggestions, which isn’t something every poem offers.

    • I’ve been thinking a lot about gaps this week — and how they let the reader in. But had not connected it to a focus on seeing/description. So thanks for giving me something more to think about and hooray that you took a workshop from Billy Collins!

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