Tag Archives: Poetry

New Haiku

pigeonsCetologists identify whales by the scars and general wear of their flukes, their idiosyncratic calling cards slipping into the deep again, marking years by disappearance and reappearance. When we moved in May, I thought I’d do the same with pigeons.

They must be as distinctive, I figured, and I meant to know my new neighborhood by its non-human citizens. For a time, on every walk exploring the new streets around us, I scrutinized each bird that lingered on the sidewalk. I meant to memorize a few, sure I’d meet some familiarity eventually.

Of course, I failed. The proliferation of pigeon colors and patterns can’t be captured by one mind, at least not one as small as mine. Even if I thought I remembered their odd, mixed variations of gray and white and brown, who could be sure? Was this pigeon a friend?

Over the last eight months, since abandoning my blog, I’ve written little, only haiku, and part of me discounts those seventeen (or so) syllables as frivolity, too easy to matter for much. They’re pigeons, perhaps beautiful if you’re prone to scrutinize but likely just another square of a sea’s surface or a patch of sky… more of the same.

Ezra Pound, a great lover of haiku, said, “The image itself is speech. The image is the word beyond formulated language.” If so, I wonder what those images add up to and how a person might turn so many disparate moments into anything comprehensive or consoling.

In May of 2015, I wrote a haiku,

eventually

enough raindrops will

wet this field

Maybe. If nothing else, belief intends sense. Each haiku promises content, however fleeting. My pigeon friends gather en masse in a parking lot near where I live. A step in their direction sends them wheeling into the air, and every distinction between them vanishes in shuddering wings and new perspectives of their flight. They’re no longer verifiably separate.

If haiku accomplish so much, perhaps that’s enough. When I was four, I remember scooting along the curb after a storm, my feet driving a wave of rainwater ahead of me. That instant persists because I seldom feel such power now. I’d like to write something substantial—a novel, a poem worthy of public attention, a collection of essays or short stories—and instead settle for the fitful awareness in haiku—they might add up, or, at the other extreme, one will be the apparition of faces in a crowd, petals plastered against a background making them visible at last.

One of Basho’s loveliest haiku reads,

winter solitude—

in a world of one color

the sound of the wind

Aren’t we always hoping for that, connectedness and singularity, belonging and the strange joy of feeling so?

I saw a pigeon recently I was sure I’d recall. It was ginger rather than gray, and one wing feather was a white vee, the other not. Turning to me as if it knew me, its strut faced my direction. I thought it spoke, issuing a challenge to be known and understood.

No haiku occurred to me, but I knew then what haiku is.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Four)

basho-loc-01518vOnce again, as part of NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) I’m offering haiku and prose in haibun. I have one more  Thursday in April. The entries below are attempts from the last few days. The numbers communicate how far I’ve traveled in this exercise.

lxxi.

folding a sheet

under a half-moon—a sail

and light put away

As probably everyone does, I turn my pillow to find its cool side. My new posture—collecting the compressed mass under my head and resting on my ribs—discovers my heartbeat, pounding like a wake to a shore.

you maybe said

time was near—I heard bells

clashing

Getting up never seems easy. Slow or fast or delayed or denied, it ruins two states. Dreams end in cataclysm and consciousness starts in shock. I suppose in some past the transition was gentle, dawning birds and light and warmth, but I don’t know that.

already someone’s

steps echo from the corner—

begin again

the day’s first words

skid in my throat—I collect

sound to speak

lxxii.

You told me not to say it, not in words but in your expression—a starched smile, eyes barely alive—and still I went ahead. Light dimmed. The sun seemed hooded through blinds, and shadows strained to reach across the carpet.

in profile,

a crow shows one eye—looking

or not, who knows?

lxxiii.

Nanette Wagoner couldn’t like me, and I knew that, should have known that. Something set her on, and, in three days, she sent me note after note filled with words. I only knew her face and didn’t read the messages really, just weighed their length and followed the loops of letters to the end. One day, she’d be taller than I would, I saw that. We shared no classes, but when she laughed just inside my hearing, the sound buzzed in my chest.

If she liked me, I would like her.

what a wonder

day falls—the sun drowning

over and over

Of course she lost interest, but the notes anchored a drawer for years, proof of appeal, a place.

lxxiv.

I stole a large canvas laundry bin from my dorm and rolled it, full of my possessions, from 123th to 113th where friends lived. My classmate and his fiancé may not both have wanted me but felt sorry enough to let me stay for a time. My year—not even a year—in New York ended, and I wouldn’t return to school. I thought of working while I found a job, pictured bearing satchels while bicycling through traffic. Without prospects though, who could believe something so hard?

green peach,

what sign told you

to drop?

This trip started with my telling my girlfriend goodbye. She’d asked for one more night and cried, still we’d agreed to no more. She’d never left her other boyfriend, the weekends I pretended not to know her were sad, and another year of schooling awaited her and not me. Time expired.

The wheels, barely bigger than casters, danced under the load, and no effort I made to guide my craft by pushing the correct corner kept it from fishtailing, sometimes into a current of pedestrians flowing the opposite direction. I said, “I’m sorry” one hundred times. Early summer heat already rose in the first hours of sun, and by the time I reached my friends’ buzzer, I was soaked, shirt and pants clinging. He laughed to see me exhausted by such a silly journey, but helped with my load, soon to be a pile in the corner of his living room.

beneath the surface,

beneath its skin, beasts move—

the sea still

In another two weeks my brother would drive up from home, and I’d leave for good. My possessions never left their boxes. I watched my friend study at what I’d abandoned and plan his next steps over terrain that slid under my feet.

steady thump

of highway seams, dawn slanted

just wrong

lxxv.

Doing the dishes, I occasionally splash water on my shirtfront and spend the next hour flapping the fabric to dry it. Something about the act reminds me of childhood, restless winging, the tug to what’s next.

I blink

between scenes and still

never move

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Three)

basho-loc-01518vI’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) by writing haiku and prose in haibun. I’m posting them each Thursday in April. The entries below are yesterday’s attempts. The numbers communicate how many I’ve written so far.

 liii.

Wandering the neighborhood when I was young, I passed a juniper bush and pulled dusty, blue-gray berries from branches and squeezed them between finger and thumb. The scent rising from the collision improved on any cologne I knew.

a gust rubs

leaves together—the rough sound

affection

Some smells affect me still. I can’t smell bayberry and balsam without thinking about Christmas or licorice without thinking of Easter.

a child told me

the chalk was hers, the drawing

her sister’s

I can’t smell bergamot without thinking of that afternoon in London when, having spent the day at the National Museum after finding no one to share my excursion, I wandered into a shop and ordered Earl Grey. It was after tea time and too early for supper. The evening stretched over the scarred table, all the pocks and pits craters in my close attention. Then my waitress sat down with me, asking me question after question until I felt I’d had an adventure.

We said goodbye knowing we knew one another.

incidental—

morning’s attention to

a lost glove

liv.

Watch enough sci-fi and you think of meeting extraterrestrials, stretching, stretching, stretching to imagine something outside your conception. If you really reached such possibilities, you’d be lost—words and gestures and emotions disparate, a meeting of rock and rock.

sparrow, I see you—

air separates us, time stalls

between us

lv.

One of my college roommates taught me to drive stick using my other roommate’s car. We never told him. In the Sunday parking lot, I lurched from start to stop, and soon the whole affair became purely laughable. We lifted into an ether of hilarity and sometimes had to pause to breathe enough oxygen. The car complained, but we didn’t. We enjoyed everything absurd in it, as, at that moment, we thought anyone would.

windows filmed:

I look out—the broken

gaze of shutters

Some weeks later, the car’s clutch died. I never spoke to either roommate about it, ducking my head to avoid revelation.

the last page—

notes I don’t understand

in my hand

lvi.

Sometimes reviewing memories means thinking of all I might have said. When my colleague asked, I didn’t exactly say what happened and, when she wanted to know about what he said, well…

outside this room,

arguing—her voice sings

a half-pitch too high

The problem is honesty—it always is—and what the occasion occasions and what transpires. I want to be proud. Instead, I feel flushed with confusion.

 inside this box,

another—another in that—

deep promises

She asked me. She asked what had been said against her and who spoke on her behalf. I remember she wanted to know, “Who was in the room?” and “Did you defend me?” They were questions I’d been instructed not to answer by people I cared less about. They were questions more likely than anyone in the room acknowledged.

Still, I said nothing. I quailed. Maybe I feared for my job.

hens’ posture

in the yard—strutting

inside the wire

 lvii.

When the sun sags toward buildings, I think it’s lazy, exhausted by its relentless, unvarying journey. I know that’s me—I’m tired.

the orchids

take days—grins unopened,

unknown

lviii.

I said you didn’t know me though I know you did.

at the bottom

a message—a moment’s

scrawl, wriggling

A sort of quiet calls for respect. You spoke and waited, watching me form responses from air. You may have known how little could be said, how evidence conspires, how a halting voice says more than words.

leaves reversed

awaiting rain, their gray

an extra face

We barely saw each other through dusk, as was proper. The edge of trees lost themselves in night sky.

 lix.

Consider this: everyone has embarrassment to recall.

two cars both ease

into a crossroad, close

enough to meet eyes

In fifth grade, Mrs. Cullen read my hijacked my note to Linda McClinton aloud. Mrs. Cullen emoted where the text demanded—the moment I said I really liked Linda and didn’t understand why she didn’t like me. The class laughed, especially Linda.

What choice did I have but to laugh too? The moment belonged in a book, the passage underlined.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode Two)

basho-loc-01518vAs I wrote last Thursday, I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) by writing haiku and prose in haibun. The entries below are yesterday’s attempts. The numbers communicate how many I’ve written so far.

xli.

Many days I pass the same man begging. I know his name now—Jimmy—and he often asks for money by saying, “Make Jimmy happy.” Though I’m sure I can’t, I give him a dollar, easy enough for me to spare, a greater source of relief for him than for me. When he shakes my hand, I feel the leather of his palm—winter, summer, a life outside I don’t know. When I smile, he recognizes the sign and smiles back.

His eyes never smile.

this hour

sun takes cover—buildings

won’t hold light back

One day, walking to work, having just given Jimmy his dollar, another pedestrian doubled back from just ahead of me.

“You shouldn’t be giving him money!” he said.

I said nothing.

“He spends it on crack! He’s a crack-head. I know. I was on it too, and he said, ‘Give me some money, I’ll bust your ass!’”

Anger streamed from him. His expression stretched, neither smile, nor snarl, nor surprise. He touched me on the upper arm.

“Sure,” I said, “I hear you.”

at intersections

waiting for clearance—the street

slick with weeping

 xlii.

I suppose it’s nothing special that after some runs—during the time I was really running—steam rose from my shoulders and chest as it does from horses. I felt like an animal.

What must I do to have that moment happen again?

sun glances

from the lake’s horizon and

stops ascending

 xliii.

too early,

your voice blunders into quiet—

we both know now

I wonder if you sensed us stepping around you. The evening creeping from the sliding glass door drew the ornate shadow of the la-z-boy’s reach. Your neck, vulnerable, rolled like a snake to the side. You snored.

“let statues lie,”

she said, as if choice lay

with them

xliv.

In another life as a sleeper, I run from words. They seem too plain to evoke. They define and refine until they speak exactly. Say what you will of abstraction, it eludes reality and the relentless chore of logic.

from the window,

a rectangle of light, marking

a far wall

In a recent dream, I spoke to the freshly departed. They entered the room one at a time and greeted me as old friends even when we’d barely spoken. I tried to be polite, offering what I had, which, in this dream, was a pair of mittens and a broken wine glass—the base, the stem, and half the blossom.

wind ruffles

open books, smiling pages

touched

Finally I settled with someone I didn’t know, exchanging phrases and listening enough to pick up the twisted thread of precedents.

you read loss,

lines of levels dropping—

eyelids half-fallen

Closing time arrived. I rose to leave. I shook a hand I wasn’t certain I knew. I left a card on a table, sure it wasn’t mine.

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Thursday Haibun (Episode One)

basho-loc-01518vI learned this week that I missed NaHaiWriMo (Haiku a Day Writing Month), which was March. But, no matter, I write a haiku a day anyway, and I’m celebrating NaPoWriMo (Poem a Day Writing Month) with extra vigor, writing haiku and prose in haibun. I also cheated by starting early—I’m on spring break right now and won’t be next week—and so I’m writing more than one haibun a day.

As promised, I’m posting them on Thursdays during April. These are today’s output. I’ve kept the numbers assigned to them.

xx.

Some rains keep the world dark all day, and some people appreciate steady half-light, steady pelting, steady captivity. I enjoy rain too if life waits. On days I’m happy to rest, I stand at my window, watch the lake form at a nearby intersection, and study people leaping it as if in a steeplechase or, like ants blocked by a finger, weave left and right seeking the proper place to ford the more-than-puddle before them. It’s just a puddle to me… or will be until the clock demands departure, need calls, or some summons insists. Then I learn all this time my study has been practical, teaching me how to enter the unwanted, to bear it instead of looking from afar.

sitting in a bath

I listen to the faucet’s

persistent tears

 xxi.

In fourth grade, when I returned from Christmas vacation, Molly’s desk sat empty. I wasn’t surprised because she missed so much school, and, when she was there, she skipped music and art and recess to fill worksheets she hadn’t seen yet. Molly’s skin was as near translucent as I could imagine, blue networks visible just beneath the surface—every visible surface—and her blonde hair grew thin like grass in poisoned soil. She didn’t look at me much, and we hardly ever spoke, but I knew her eyes even when I closed mine. They said surrender. Their pale and weary blue slid from the sky, too tired to stay aloft.

chalk dust

on the blackboard’s edges,

ghosts on the border

I was sitting in my desk as Mrs. Mitchell gathered Molly’s things—a few books, some supplies, but nothing that said Molly really, nothing like the eccentric mess under everyone else’s desktop. When Mrs. Mitchell told the class Molly died before New Year’s Eve, some people already knew and a few cried or fought tears. I must not have believed it. The whole day seemed temporary to me, every worksheet another Molly would have to do.

beyond curtains,

outside the window, you see

air stirring

 xxii.

 last night, a cheer rose

from many neighbors’ houses—

I don’t know why

In any alphabetical list I’m almost always the middle. I like to count how many precede and follow me, happy when it’s even.

xxiii.

On the first day of a Shakespeare class I asked the students why they were there. One of them answered, “Because he’s famous.” I’d heard that response before, of course, but never so baldly put.

My daughter was in kindergarten that year, and, on the drive home, I asked her, “Honey, do you know who Shakespeare is?”

“He wears pumpkin pants,” she said.

unbound,

the newspaper still holds

its curl

xxxiv.

When I can’t sleep, I look for morning’s signs—the first defined shadows, a car sweeping by, a word uttered on the sidewalk in front of our house. The alarm often comes first.

in skyscrapers

half a mile away, checkered lights

of company

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On Being An Aesthete

72-1I’ve never really liked aesthetic theory. I studied quite a bit as an MFA student years ago but haven’t continued. As interesting as it is to learn what writers and artists think “good” is, thinking about “good” can be distracting, an invisible, meddling hand.

Impatience also prevents me from learning. Theorists push me toward affirmation or argument whereas I’m improvisational, hoping for discovery and skeptical of restrictions. Artistic goals re-form like horizons as I walk, work. Sometimes, just the next word or mark appears. Sometimes rhythm lays down tracks to follow.

I fail often and hope to see failure rising up the next time so I can skirt it.

Orson Welles despised the necessity of being “with it,” for, he said, “an artist always has to be out of step with his time.” Mostly, I think he’s wrong—who would an artist be talking to if not to his or her contemporaries?—but I get his thinking about being out of step, that required estrangement. I wonder if anyone would read or listen or watch or look if all art verified the perceiver’s own limited experience. In that sense, maybe aesthetic theory could be helpful. It could shake your frame, throw perspective out of angle. Some artists seem to benefit from knowing what others do so they can do their own thing.

But I prefer finding out for myself, trying, trying, trying until some anchor holds.

For the last month or so, I’ve been writing haibun (I posted a sample recently) and have been thinking much more deliberately about what I’m doing. Composing in an established form means, on the most fundamental level, making your work recognizably fit. With haibun, that’s easy enough. The convention requires prose and haiku. If you look at the page and see a paragraph and a three-line poem—or any variation on that order and number of paragraphs and haiku—you’re looking at a haibun.

Form, however, is paradoxical. As limiting as any rule might appear, rules invariably require a higher order of resourcefulness. Dancing on one square meter of floor space would quickly become tiresome, but if you moved brilliantly, inventively, startlingly… your dance might be more impressive than one granted the whole stage.

Restrictions lead into subtle territory. With haibun, you ask how the prose and haiku interact, whether the haiku echoes, complements, or disturbs the prose. You ask which comes first, whether one supersedes the other in flash or substance, which might stand out of the way for the other, or what balance or imbalance creates the greatest dissonance or harmony. Looking at each element independently, you might experiment with purely evocative prose or purely metaphoric haiku. Or reverse that. Or even it out.

Most importantly, you do whatever you didn’t last time and see what happens. Robert Frost’s famous description of free verse—“tennis without a net”—disrespects barriers artists make, form created themselves, rules forged… and then pointedly violated. “Art,” Alfred North Whitehead said, “is the imposing of a pattern on experience, and our aesthetic enjoyment is the recognition of the pattern.” The pattern’s source, convention or invention, matters little. Something tells us we’re in familiar and unfamiliar territory, which is where we want to be.

I’m aware of the hypocrisy of beginning by rejecting aesthetic theory and then writing like an aesthete, but I’ll offer this defense—ultimately, you make any theory your own, never absorbing what you might test instead. Only then do you make making your own.

 

Note: My celebration of NaPoWriMo is to write a haibun for each day of April. I’ve cheated—I’m 16 ahead. But I intend to reach 30 no matter what, and, for April, I’ll be posting a haibun each Thursday in addition to my regular posts on Tuesdays and Saturdays.

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AKA Mr. Haiku

haiku-busonYou may not believe me, but sometimes my daily haiku seem the only important writing I do. They are short enough that I can’t screw up or, if I screw up, their singular utterance seems only cryptic, perhaps ironic, maybe (possibly) deliberate. They are at very least fun and arrive like cinnamon or dark chocolate or wood smoke, a hint of scent elsewhere, even in winter.

Truthfully, I rarely worry about how good they may be. Issa wrote, “What a strange thing! To be alive beneath cherry blossoms” and thus said what every haiku does. If we’re attuned to fresh perception, it visits us continually.

Every early spring a day arrives when I hear birds. I’ve missed their song without knowing, and they seem entirely novel, an alien echo, another dimension intruding. When my life is right, the sudden appearance of sun any time of year elicits automatic exaltation.

Occasionally, trying to write haiku, I sense my mind laboring for profundity, as if this time I’ll dive deeper and hold my breath longer and experience denser reality. What appears instead is the absurdity of wishing and a bemused relief at escaping seriousness.

Most people regard writing haiku as a special sort of serenity. In Haiku Mind, Patricia Donegan describes her encounter with this state as she looked at a sun-bathed orange and felt, “All was perfect as it was, and I felt suddenly at peace as I saw ‘the thing itself’ as if it was in its nakedness without my overlay of thoughts or opinions, and tears rolled down my face.”

Crying isn’t a regular part of my own experience, not just because such high contentedness is hard to come by but also because haiku don’t seem so limited to gratification. I understand “the thing itself” revelation but sometimes experience resignation instead, knowing whatever I feel—serenity, longing, grief, desire, frustration, self-pity, or the unnamable—is okay. The angry haiku, the sad haiku, the elated haiku, the confused haiku all possess similar acquiescence.

I haven’t much patience for people who want to distinguish between hokku and haiku, between haiku and senryu or between strict haiku and free. Those distinctions and requirements seem—I apologize to purists—silly. Haiku are finally clearer in spirit than definition.

My affection for the dark before commercials and silence after a song’s coda comes from every human’s desire to pause. For just a moment, nothing is moving on to better or worse. I’m not serene so much as still.

And, to me, haiku often resemble jokes, springing as they do from simultaneously startling and familiar observations, hinging on changing directions. The flame in wood grain resolves itself as a graph of the day’s troubles, the fire hydrant seems momentarily stubborn, planted sumo-like in defiance, or a dog with a leash but no owner becomes a murder suspect.

Haiku writers place shifts in kireji, cutting words, but revelation isn’t structural. Pay exclusive attention to words or syllables and haiku become too material to flicker and eddy. They sound translated even in home languages. I’m never sure if only the oblique can be conveyed in haiku or if the form of haiku renders everything oblique. In either case, the syllabled joints and angles see life as through a series of mirrors and thus, for once, afresh.

Someone asked me recently if I thought haiku were important to my “practice.” I felt a flood of goodwill—I wanted to embrace him. How wonderful to endow my fixation with such gravity! Yet, truth told, that moment offered validation, the uttered truth of faith. These daily haiku may seem amusement and rehearsal, but they’re central to all I see, sense, and feel as a writer and human being.

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Too Clever

brush_park9No one I know uses the expression “Too clever by half,” but I imagine the person who would: he’s impatient—and a he, obviously—and has little tolerance for pretension calling itself knowledge, insight, or superiority. He objects to “big words” and “college crap” and “posers.” He’s annoyed by anything over-intellectualized, which, for him, seems to encompass almost anything thought about at all.

I’m lucky I seldom encounter him. In teaching, most people laud new observations, their novelty, their precise expression, their fresh wording. Academics appreciate discernment and attention to contradiction, paradox, and mystery. They like disagreement and know the ways dissent leads to redefinition and truth.

Occasionally, however, I meet someone skeptical of any ambiguity. “You’re overcomplicating it,” they say, or, more directly, “That’s just a load of shit.” I try to explain how dangerous it is to oversimplify, to reduce gray to the black and white stripes of a UPC symbol.

“Jesus Christ,” he says, “more fancy explanation.”

Whole swaths of language are out of bounds. No saying “menagerie” or “assemblage.” No saying “beatific” or “sublime.” Those words mark you. You mean, they think, only to say you’re better. You’re trying to “give yourself airs”… if that expression itself isn’t also just. too. much.

Perhaps I’m more hostile by half, but I wonder what we gain by neglecting the full range of language, by outlawing narrow distinctions. I wonder why words might have been invented if each weren’t, in some idiosyncratic and unique situation, perfect.

Recently one of my students, objecting to poetry, said, “What’s its function, that’s what I want to know. So there’s ‘lovely language’ and beautiful ‘word pictures.’” What does it really accomplish? It’s just a bunch of lines no one understands.”

Poetry accomplishes little, I suppose. It achieves nothing other than expression, anchoring with words what can’t really be said, representing without naming. That description too may be a load of hooey, an airy nothing, or an imaginary necessity, but poetry is a compulsion. Poets write because they must. They mean to get at reality, the most subtle of all subtleties, and present their truth.

I celebrate any absolute and confusing illustration of our human condition. What moves me is the feeling someone shares my gray state, my in-betweenness, somewhat beautiful and somewhat agonizing.

Why would anyone tie any artist’s hands? Aren’t we better off with possibilities instead of definitions?

The world suffers as the designation “bullshit” stretches outward. I fear its advance and worry that, someday, it might reach my neighborhood, turning out insight, dousing discovery, and closing the openings through which any light of revelation might flow.

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Starting by Finishing

Library_of_Ashurbanipal_synonym_list_tabletPeriodically, I feel compelled to present capricious visitations of ideas—random brainstorms that never make it as complete essays or posts. Maybe somewhere in these 25 openings is a longer composition, but they seemed complete almost before I finished expressing them…

1. When it comes time to write another post, I often have only the first line, and everything unreels from it.

2. One impulse from childhood has never left me—if I see a branch barely hanging from a tree, or find a hole not quite punched out of a page of loose leaf, or hear a song nearing its end as I leave a store, or notice a speck of lint on a woman’s black sweater, or encounter a gate just ajar—well, you get the idea.

3. As you grow older, you change enough to think your memories might belong to someone else.

4. In third grade, I was always afraid classmates heard when my teacher called me up to her desk to tell me to smile.

5. People sometimes imply I’m not grateful enough—I don’t miss their hints and I don’t think they’re wrong—but agreeing doesn’t seem to get me far.

6. Here’s a list I’ve been idly compiling recently—foods that are just too laborious to eat.

7. Sometimes I imagine famous writers looking over my shoulder as I compose my posts, and they are almost always full of disdain.

8. Whenever someone pauses for comments, or asks some assembly whether anyone has an announcement, or if I visit a place with a guest book waiting for my name, home, and some short note, I’m always tempted to paraphrase Nabokov’s Pale Fire, “There’s a very loud amusement park across from my present dwelling”—for some reason, that sentence is, reliably, the first thought passing through my mind.

9. I’d love to write about the great abiding things in life—stars and seasons, small talk and people in cars glancing my way, the sudden smile of someone who’s just had a revelation or eyes cast down or away—but I wonder if I could make them interesting again.

10. Has anyone who wanted to be funnier ever managed to become so?

11. Perhaps a valuable object is among items I’ve squirreled away in disused drawers and boxes in boxes, but I didn’t put them there to save them—I wanted them out of my sight.

12. My peculiar brand of egotism includes believing I’ve got the market cornered on laments, that no one can speak to feelings of inadequacy better than I can.

13. The other night, when I couldn’t sleep I tried to remember places I only visited once and discovered how very many such places there are.

14. Reading poetry always makes me want to write, and sometimes I don’t finish a poem, half-afraid it will get to what I want to say.

15. Is it terrible that I think humans might have had their chance?

16. All my life I’ve been saving material for the one time I’m allowed to write about having nothing to write about.

17. I use so many analogies in my daily conversation I’ve tried to come up with an analogy for why they seem so useful.

18. It’s occurred to me that not being able to play a single card in solitaire may be far more rare than winning.

19. Once someone asked me, “If you were in an airplane of famous poets, and it was going down, sure to crash, and there was only one parachute left, what poet would you give it up for?” I still don’t have an answer because I can’t get past visualizing the hypothetical.

20. My conversation and writing abound with phrasing and vocabulary I’ve encountered (and reencountered and reencountered) in books and poems I’ve taught, and I keep hoping someone notices.

21. Track workouts in high school taught me how to count tortures. “After this lap,” I told myself, “I can say ‘after this one, I can say, “after this one, one more.”’”

22. “Familiarity breeds contempt” and “absence makes the heart grow fonder,” so I’ve been studying the right moment to get lost.

23. One of my students asked me if I thought I had “a novel in me,” and I wish I’d considered how she’d react before I answered, “Sure, I’m a sack of novels just waiting to rip open.”

24. I’d like to assemble all the people I care about (but lost track of) so I can apologize.

25. In middle school a forensic event called “Extemporaneous Speaking” taught me you can always find something worthless to say.

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Poetry? Oh Noetry.

bad-poetry-oh-noetryHere are some answers (in rough order) I give students who say poems are too complicated to understand:

Don’t worry about that right now, just read the damn poem.

My wife and I went to our first parent-teacher conference when my son was in pre-kindergarten. His teacher spilled the usual preliminaries: our son was bright, enthusiastic about playing with others and happy about learning, curious, yadda, yadda, yadda. As a teacher I awaited the other shoe. Our son, she said in kind, diplomatic terms, was impatient. He wanted the answer right away and wasn’t willing to struggle if he felt she had it and was simply withholding it. He needed to learn to tolerate searching for solutions. I’m not sure much has changed for my son, but he’s hardly alone. Most people loathe the feeling everyone except you already knows the answer. When we asked our son’s pre-K teacher what we should do, she said, “Give him more practice.” Sometimes I tell students that’s all they’re doing, practicing.

What is understanding a poem anyway? Maybe you do understand it and don’t know it yet.

We understand so many things we can’t explain. We know how a piece of music makes us feel and can express how a photograph in a newspaper or a painting in a gallery affects us. T. S. Eliot said that most people apprehend poetry before comprehending it. The music in the words, the quality of the imagery, the very rhythm and thing-ness of the thing speaks what it’s about. We can go back and locate the source of our feelings… or not. Sometimes, when you really admire a machine, you want to discover how it works and take it apart. Sometimes, when you love a game, you love the specific rules and traditions that make it. Sometimes, you appreciate a work of art so much you want to study it, crawl inside it , copy it, and somehow top it. Sometimes, art is so beautiful you want to leave it alone. Fine.

So you’re going somewhere strange. Let it be strange. Try to enjoy it.

The beauty of a story is its connection to our world, the sense that it might happen to someone we know or, at least, in the story’s context, might make sense. A poem is different. It’s more like a dream than a movie—the usual rules of logic are in abeyance—and just as you calmly accept the absurd in a dream, you should accept whatever the poem offers. Part of the fun is the craziness of it. Real life is real and sometimes boring. Leaving what’s real can make it vivid again. We see that everything we accept as true is only a version of truth and that other possibilities, out there floating in poems, enrich what we perceive in “reality.”

A poem isn’t always as complicated as you make it.

“Mr. Marshall,” a student once said to me, “I think ‘The Mending Wall’ may be about World War II.” I didn’t want to mention that the poem was published in 1914 and likely composed years earlier. I didn’t want to shoot down my student’s enthusiasm that he’d arrived at such a discovery. My students are conditioned to believe poems are difficult, and we’ve all been infected by modernists who’ve convinced us complexity is the highest aesthetic value and that, with poetry, complicated is better. Even the simplest poem must be about something more. And when my classes encounter a gentle little poem like William Carlos Williams’ “This I Just To Say” (a poem about Williams eating plums his wife was saving) they want to endow it (and, indirectly, themselves) with Great and Glorious Meaning. Sometimes the hardest lesson is that poetry says exactly what it means. And what it means may be complicated enough without our piling on.

Besides, have you ever written poetry? What if it is complicated?

Writing poetry, you feel a compulsion to achieve elevated speech. You want to define the indefinable and represent that which cannot be named. It isn’t easy, this pressure you feel that this statement, this time, must be right, must be perfect. You might revise and revise and revise until you find love for every word. You might enter the poem so fully you’re lost in rooms you’ve fashioned. And you might lose readers because, try as you might and try as they might, no one ever quite got there, just did the best they could to apprehend subtle feelings that, really, can’t be penned by language or expressed rationally.

People don’t write poetry—or write fiction, or make music or movies, or dance, or paint or do just about anything else creative—because they have answers. They do it because they have questions and obsessions they can never quite settle.

Why do we seek solutions the authors couldn’t locate themselves? Shouldn’t it be enough to know something about their questions, to understand what bothers them and what, if we can be empathetic enough, might bother us too?

If life were clear and sensible, poetry might be too. But as long as life is confusing and neither this nor that but something indefinable between, poetry needs to be too.

Maybe reading poetry requires acceptance. Maybe, in the end, that’s all it takes.

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