I’m sorry to say that a family emergency has thwarted my efforts today. I’ll hope to have a prompt up on Saturday.
Two weeks in a row, it’s a bummer. Hug your dears tonight & every day.
Much love ❤
I’m sorry to say that a family emergency has thwarted my efforts today. I’ll hope to have a prompt up on Saturday.
Two weeks in a row, it’s a bummer. Hug your dears tonight & every day.
Much love ❤
I don’t have the energy to write a whole post today because one of our cats passed away this morning
But then I already skipped a week so
I’ll just drop a couple poems abt pets here & maybe a prompt or two, without the usual analysis. Hopefully it’s better than nothing ❤
H/T to Poetryfoundation.org where I found these
Mine, says the cat, putting out his paw of darkness.My lover, my friend, my slave, my toy, saysthe cat making on your chest his gesture of drawingmilk from his mother’s forgotten breasts.Let us walk in the woods, says the cat.I’ll teach you to read the tabloid of scents,to fade into shadow, wait like a trap, to hunt.Now I lay this plump warm mouse on your mat.You feed me, I try to feed you, we are friends,says the cat, although I am more equal than you.Can you leap twenty times the height of your body?Can you run up and down trees? Jump between roofs?Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.My emotions are pure as salt crystals and as hard.My lusts glow like my eyes. I sing to you in the morningswalking round and round your bed and into your face.Come I will teach you to dance as naturallyas falling asleep and waking and stretching long, long.I speak greed with my paws and fear with my whiskers.Envy lashes my tail. Love speaks me entire, a wordof fur. I will teach you to be still as an eggand to slip like the ghost of wind through the grass.
My dog has died.I buried him in the gardennext to a rusted old machine.Some day I’ll join him right there,but now he’s gone with his shaggy coat,his bad manners and his cold nose,and I, the materialist, who never believedin any promised heaven in the skyfor any human being,I believe in a heaven I’ll never enter.Yes, I believe in a heaven for all dogdomwhere my dog waits for my arrivalwaving his fan-like tail in friendship.Ai, I’ll not speak of sadness here on earth,of having lost a companionwho was never servile.His friendship for me, like that of a porcupinewithholding its authority,was the friendship of a star, aloof,with no more intimacy than was called for,with no exaggerations:he never climbed all over my clothesfilling me full of his hair or his mange,he never rubbed up against my kneelike other dogs obsessed with sex.No, my dog used to gaze at me,paying me the attention I need,the attention requiredto make a vain person like me understandthat, being a dog, he was wasting time,but, with those eyes so much purer than mine,he’d keep on gazing at mewith a look that reserved for me aloneall his sweet and shaggy life,always near me, never troubling me,and asking nothing.Ai, how many times have I envied his tailas we walked together on the shores of the seain the lonely winter of Isla Negrawhere the wintering birds filled the skyand my hairy dog was jumping aboutfull of the voltage of the sea’s movement:my wandering dog, sniffing awaywith his golden tail held high,face to face with the ocean’s spray.Joyful, joyful, joyful,as only dogs know how to be happywith only the autonomyof their shameless spirit.There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.So now he’s gone and I buried him,and that’s all there is to it.
Week Seven: Repetition, part I
This week’s discussion & prompts will describe a common device used in all types of writing–repetition.
One style of repetition that needs a bit of defining (courtesy of Poetry Foundation) is anaphora: anaphora is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive phrases, clauses, or lines to create a sonic effect.
I will, for the purposes of limiting this week’s scope, not write about popularly-known forms such as sestina & villanelle, which have interesting formal necessities of repetition—this, I will write into in one of the coming weeks. The poems we’ll we looking at are more individualized in their uses of repetition, meaning that the authors have devised or chosen their own methods.
This doesn’t mean that the repetitions we’ll read now don’t have a form to them. In fact, Jenifer DeBellis uses a fairly strict pattern for each stanza of her poem, “The View from Room 102” (Blood Sisters, Main Street Rag, 2018). Thus, we must interpret a repetition of words, but also of sentence & line structure:
We covered the windows with rags
& sheets the way clouds do a pre-storm
sky: tacked our shadows to the pane.
We cleared cobwebs with a broken
broom the way autumn does
dead leaves: breath by brushed breath.
We collected the rain in pots
& pans the way the moon does tears
from heaven: one drop at a time.
We buried our secrets in shallow
graves the way enemy soldiers do
war casualties: soul atop crushed soul.
Notice how each stanza repeats the same structural idea: “we [past-tense verb] [object] [with/in] [noun] the way [noun] [do/does] [object]: [comment by speaker]. This form mechanically enacts one of the ideas I see in the poem: drudgery. In this poem, DeBellis’s speaker can only escape the drudgery of life in the small imaginative space between a task at hand & how the task makes them feel. Moreover, the images added by the speaker in that small space are archetypal, so does the speaker break past constraint in those moments?
I see a process of escalation in the form & idea structure of the poem. Returning to the same “we”, who seemingly perform actions not of their own will but out of necessity, evokes in my mind an image of family members who must perform tasks for the family rather than themselves again & again. They are stuck in a room, & the room has many problems. Therefor, the people in the room end up with crushing secrets they have no room for. I could write much more, so this is obviously a truncated analysis which you may disagree with at will. What do you think?
The repetitive structure of this poem therefor not only sounds good but means more. Effective repetition can do both.
In the previous poem, DeBellis used repetition to scaffold meaning over the course of four stanzas. I put her poem first because the strict form is so brilliantly clear to see & describe. Let’s dig into a different (no less or more valid) example of a poet who uses unique repetitions to build & complicate meanings over the course of a longer work. Martha Collins, a prolific poet whose work often uses repetition, wrote small sections of poem every day for each month of the year. Her October offering, “Over Time” (DAY UNTO DAY, Milkweed Editions, 2014), shows adept (if subtle!) strategies of repetition. We’ll look at a few days of the poem, but you can read the full poem.
2Air pockets threehawks. Cat gotthe bird got the cat.Overflown. A habitof flight. Worn cloudon the edge of edge.Wisps. Little tongues.
“Cat got/ the bird got the cat” reminds me of the food chain specifically, but the cycles of nature more generally. The way air moves, how sky & clouds share the sky, animals share the earth–those develop & will return in later pieces of the poem.
In this little piece, words that don’t necessarily make a grammatical sentence make an idea that floats just above the surface of understanding. I’m unabashedly a fan of Collins’s work, so don’t mind me. Let’s follow the poem a couple more days:
3Tongues at work. Talk TodayShe could did for an hour or more.My first her, who gave me words.Then at the end, before, merely Oh!A moment of… of more, perhaps.Oh sweet and blessed could be.Oh my soul4Soul slept, called in sick.Late sun cloudsthe lake with clouds.Katydid downto -did -did.Nothing to be done.Little sun, quarter moon.
We see how the last word of the previous day’s work becomes the first word in the next day’s section. In this way Collins reinforces her quotidian agenda while fusing together the pieces into a whole.
She needn’t repeat every word for emphasis; nor need she repeat for the same reason every time. While section 2 repeats “cat” to evoke a cycle, the use of “oh” in section 3 makes me hear the sound; recognize a speech pattern; & feel the interjection of emotions, particularly desire, into a speaker’s thoughts.
In section four, clouds return, katydids call their short calls. How do these feel to you? The clouds from section 2 reappear, which evidences the quotidian conceit of the poem in the poem’s lines.
By the end, “air” & “soul” reappear, too (section 30). If you have read the whole poem, how do you feel about where words repeat, recur, & maybe even blur the individual days into a whole?
One thing that I’ve been skirting around is how anaphora builds intensity. I know I looked at a Yusef Komunyakaa poem last week, but let’s dive into another this week. His book Dien Cai Dau (Wesleyen, 1988) is seriously well-crafted & precise. In “You and I Are Disappearing”, he uses anaphora to depict the abject horror of war:
The cry I bring down from the hills
belongs to a girl still burning
inside my head. At daybreak
she burns like a piece of paper. She burns like foxfire
in a thigh-shaped valley.
A skirt of flames
dances around her
We stand with our hands hanging at our sides,
while she burns
like a sack of dry ice. She burns like oil on water.
She burns like a cattail torch
dipped in gasoline.
She glows like the fat tip
of a banker’s cigar,
silent as quicksilver. A tiger under a rainbow
She burns like a shot glass of vodka.
She burns like a field of poppies
at the edge of a rain forest.
She rises like dragonsmoke
to my nostrils.
She burns like a burning bush
driven by a godawful wind.
Notice how “she burns” repeats—brutally. The burning keeps on going. The horror keeps on forever. As the poem churns out metaphors & descriptors of the burning mental image in a soldier’s mind, the speaker finds no relief, just as a soldier must watch & participate in the atrocities of war. In the anaphora we see the cost of war, which impels us to consider hideous feelings of inevitability (war), desperate regret (see also: PTSD), & questions about complicity: is the speaker watching this at fault? Is there anything they could have done?
Think of your own list of significant ideas behind the anaphora, “She burns”.
Who is the “we”?
Is the girl real, or a metaphor?
We’ve studied three methods of repetition &/or anaphora in this post, now let us create:
Assignment 1: Repeat identically the structure of one sentence over a few (3-4) lines to tell a story describing a habitual or recurring feeling in your past.
Assignment 2: write down brief lines (10 lines max) at different points in a day or over the span of a few days.
Assignment 3: Repeat a two-to-four-word phrase throughout a poem.
Use a brief explanation of the phrase (max 3 lines) at the beginning, then spiral out into the rest of the poem
As always, if you use the same structure of a poem, please credit them! Thanks to Poetry Foundation‘s excellent website that I rely on for both definitions & examples.
& thank you for following along!
Let’s be honest; it’s often unfortunate that people exist. On the other hand, they make great SUBJECTS for POEMS. This week’s prompt will examine a few of the ways one can populate poetry with interesting people who demand attention.
I like trees, too, but generally they can’t expertly play the drums.
I’d like to remind us of the terminology from common writing practice: first person, second person, third person. It may be helpful to refresh our understanding of these terms for this assignment. Here’s a guide from grammarly which reads:
First person is the I/we perspective.
Second person is the you perspective.
Third person is the he/she/it/they perspective.
-Distance & Meaning-
One way to include character in a poem is to narrate a story that involves a third-person character doing things in the world. This character may interact with the world, get in a car accident, have sex, or react to late capitalism in instructive ways. Putting the actions to a “she” instead of an “I” might allow for irony, impartiality, & balanced perspective that’s harder to achieve in first person. Notice how a third-person narrative drives Julia Story’s poem, “How She Was Tempted”:
It was a dark night in a dark bar. He told her he was from Grand Rapids, Michigan. They played darts and had a belch contest. Later in bed, she learned he kept ears, teeth, noses, fingers in an old heart-shaped candy box. He fixed her Ford Fiesta, but he made it worse. The muffler never quite worked. She went off the road into a ditch in darkest New Hampshire. The couscous she made for a potluck went all over the windshield. It was so dark she couldn’t see the hundreds of trees.
A relief, at first, when she realized it was all a kind of dream. That she was a dream: one of many layers inside the mountain. Spiraling up and up, pulling her one way into the green voices of earth, and in another way toward sleep. She stretched between both, slowly becoming a hard-rooted tree, and then he reached in, pulled her out, and shook her.
from Julie the Astonishing (2019, sixth finch books)
Interesting play happens between the omniscient narrator of the poem & the character. There’s a distance between the narrator & the character—in first person “she” might be expected to react to or evaluate these experiences. It would be easy to add a YUCK here, a DAMMIT there, but excluding these things makes the poem move much more quickly. The prose structure of this poem also facilitates that quickness, as we don’t need to pause at the end of lines.
“He fixed her Ford Fiesta, but he made it worse.” It’s droll & humorous; there’s enough of an idea there to make what he specifically fixed (the muffler? What about it?) feel ancillary. Description is kept to a minimum in Story’s narration, which relies on readers to fill in the colors of cars, the smell of the couscous, etc. In this vein readers can fill in pieces of the subject’s story that make sense to them, letting them open the piece themselves. Do you imagine a specific mountain? What does the man look like?
In third person, the character may simply go through these motions unaware of the poem “observing” her. Would a first-person narrative awareness change the narrative?
Note the prose structure of the poem, too. Would you line break this poem? How?
-from me to you-
Having looked at an observational poem, I’d like to dive into first-person now. Even *gasp* a bit of second person. The contrast between Story’s poem & this modern classic, “The Wild Iris” by Louise Glück, is instructive:
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
from The Wild Iris (Ecco, 1992)
That first sentence! Here’s a poem that uses a direct address (from a flower? to a human gardener?) to build urgency & demand attention. Glück literally demands that we listen; she speaks to us. It feels close to us, which invests our attention.
I use my own personal (read: not authoritative) interpretation of the poem here: as the flower talks to me it becomes clear that what the flower is saying goes beyond a literal winter of literal hibernation. It speaks to my own winters, my own fallow or underground moments. The flower speaks of a moment when the dark subsides. I have known these moments, though maybe they aren’t always as clear as breaking through soil to the sun. It is clear that when we return from the dark place, we do so with something to say: “whatever/ returns from oblivion returns/ to find a voice”.
Let us recap:
-in a crowd-
While many poems, including the two I’ve already discussed today, have a small cast, one may also find oneself (brace yourself, INFJs) in a larger group of people. They might all have a small part in a larger play. In Yusef Komunyakaa’s “A Break from the Bush” (Dien Cai Dau, Wesleyan Poetry Series, 1988) the many soldiers in a U.S. military unit stationed in wartime Vietnam form a picture of military life—a picture steeped in irony & trauma wherein togetherness & aloneness exist in tandem:
The South China Sea
drives in another herd.
The volleyball’s a punching bag:
Clem’s already lost a tooth
& Johnny’s left eye is swollen shut.
Frozen airlifted steaks burn
on a wire grill, & miles away
machine guns can be heard.
Pretending we’re somewhere else,
we play harder.
Lee Otis, the point man,
high on Buddha grass,
buries himself up to his neck
in sand. “Can you see me now?
In this spot they gonna build
a Hilton. Invest in Paradise.
Bang, bozos! You’re dead.”
Frenchie’s cassette player
unravels Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.”
Snake, 17, from Daytona,
sits at the water’s edge,
the ash on his cigarette
pointing to the ground
like a crooked finger. CJ,
who in three days will trip
a fragmentation mine,
runs after the ball
into the whitecaps,
Komunyakaa’s snapshots of individual soldiers tell us more about the overall unit than any single interest-focus could. We see the underage Snake, his curling ash foreshadowing death. There’s the most-vulnerable-to-enemy-fire point man, Lee Otis, somehow planning to lead the country to a blissful Sandals property. The only person laughing will end up dead. The sea brings in not an individual, but a herd. Komunyakaa describes the loss of personhood to both unit & death by describing the people! This helps him show the dehumanized/killed people in the course of the war, maybe even re-humanize them. I feel like the person watching these fighters is documenting them.
More notes from my pre-readings of this poem:
People in poems can be distant or close to the narration, few or many in number. The choices to include people & to write the poem from a specific perspective imbue the piece with different meanings, dependent upon which choices are made. If there’s a larger theme developing in this series I’d like it to be intentional choices.
Assignment 1: Write a poem in third-person omniscient perspective
Assignment 2: Write a poem in first-person that isn’t you TO a second person
Assignment three: create a poem that has several characters described in one sentence.
This week we’ll discover ways poets tip their craft-hands—that is, they flex the mastery of language that drives their ability to craft meaningful text in the first place.
First, I should mention that I took the week off last week due to anxiety about the burning, exploding world; also I was a bit busy, but honestly it’s difficult to manage my sad feels sometimes. ANYWAY, I’d planned a whole thing that seemed a little too patently didactic & this is a lesson to all of us:
sometimes the words don’t come! & that’s okay!
I literally couldn’t even last week. I’m back with what I hope is a renewed energy. I’ll endeavor not to miss another week for a while.
I thought it would be nice to start with a favorite poet of mine, Visława Szymborska, whose work is doubly delicious in English because it relies on translation (in this case, by Claire Cavanaugh & Stanislaw Barańczak). As you read this poem, please consider how precise the poet AND translators are in merging the craft of grammar with the craft of poeming:
Subject King Alexander predicate cuts direct
object the Gordian knot with his indirect object sword.
This had never predicate entered anyone’s object mind before
None of a hundred philosophers could disentangle this knot.
No wonder each now shrinks in some secluded spot.
The soldiers, loud and with a great glee,
grab each one by his trembling gray goatee
and predicate drag object him out.
Enough’s enough. The king calls for his horse,
adjusts his crested helm and sallies forth.
And in his wake, with trumpets, drums, and flutes,
his subject army made of little knots
predicate marches off to indirect object war.
(from Map: Collected and Last Poems, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015)
The point here is that the relationship between the parts of speech develops as the poem does. While the King is the “subject” in the first line, by the end “his subject army” has dual meanings: as grammar but also as an exposition of the power dynamic. Calling war an indirect object is a powerful political statement—think of drone strikes & war rooms versus the front lines. Subject, predicate, object: the patterns of language march as inexorably as an army. Or do they? Szymborska interrupts as a poet can interrupt: she interrupts grammar in writing the poem & interrupts story with a perspective that challenges the soldiers whose cheers are shown. In this way, the interjections of the parts of speech facilitate a subtext that explains the message behind the rest of the poem.
But not every poem must drip with political subtext. I’d like to share a funny poem that teaches us some grammar while introducing us what the poetic form of villanelle is. I first read this Steven Kowit poem in his writing guide, In the Palm of Your Hand (Tilbury House, 1995) which I was assigned in my undergraduate Poetry Writing class, & it taught a novice (me) the following:
I will briefly explain what a villanelle is, but you can find a fuller explanation of it here. A villanelle has six stanza. Each has three lines, except the final stanza that has four lines. The first and third lines of the poem repeat throughout in a specific pattern, with all the stanzas’ first lines & third lines rhyming, and all second lines rhyming. Many are written in iambic pentameter.
The Grammar Lesson
A noun’s a thing. A verb’s the thing it does.
An adjective is what describes the noun.
In “The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz”
of and with are prepositions. The‘s
an article, a can‘s a noun,
a noun’s a thing. A verb’s the thing it does.
A can can roll — or not. What isn’t was
or might be, might meaning not yet known.
“Our can of beets is filled with purple fuzz”
is present tense. While words like our and us
are pronouns — i.e. it is moldy, they are icky brown.
A noun’s a thing; a verb’s the thing it does.
Is is a helping verb. It helps because
filled isn’t a full verb. Can‘s what our owns
in “Our can of beets is filled with purple fuzz.”
See? There’s almost nothing to it. Just
memorize these rules…or write them down:
a noun’s a thing, a verb’s the thing it does.
“The can of beets is filled with purple fuzz.”
Tension can crop up between a developing poem & its rigid form. Not all of the lines have perfect rhythm or ten syllables. Please recognize this if you end up writing a form poem in the assignments—sometimes the poem wants us to deviate (slightly? wildly?) from the form, & that’s okay. Play with it, for the form is a tool, not a handcuff.
The playful language doesn’t stop with the form itself, as Kowit uses surprising repetitions of words (“can can”, “Is is”). Repetition is a frequent strategy of poets to make a poem surprise or sound musical.
Maybe I’m just very into teacher things, as a writing tutor myself, but I love how Kowit’s humorous sentence about a moldy can of beets returns again & again like an English teacher’s peculiar joke. It’s a neat trick to have us diving into such a strange sentence.
Form that dictates line length, positioning, & sound is very familiar, but how about restricting the sound of every word? Here’s an extreme example by Cathy Park Hong, courtesy of Poetry & Poetry Foundation:
Ballad in A
A Kansan plays cards, calls Marshall
a crawdad, that barb lands that rascal a slap;
that Kansan jackass scats,
camps back at caballada ranch.
Hangs kack, ax, and camp hat.
Kansan’s nag mad and rants can’t bask,
can’t bacchanal and garland a lass,
can’t at last brag can crack Law’s balls,
Kansan’s cantata rang at that ramada ranch,
Mañana, Kansan snarls, I’ll have an armada
and thwart Law’s brawn,
slam Law a damn mass war path.
Marshall’s a marksman, maps Kansan’s track,
calm as a shaman, sharp as a hawk,
Says: That dastard Kansan’s had
and gnaws lamb fatback.
At dawn, Marshall stalks that ranch,
packs a gat and blasts Kansan’s ass
and Kansan gasps, blasts back.
A flag flaps at half-mast.
(Poetry, April 2010)
One vowel to rule them all! Mastery! Aplomb! But again, this is not artifice for its own sake. Hong’s brutal consistency of tone brews obsession as the two characters stew & escalate unto the point of murder. Maybe it’s because I hear the music of language mostly as the vowels go, but the sound of this poem just drives me places.
& did you notice the exceptions to the only use A rule? The one in the title might get a technical pass, & the “I’ll” in the poem might easily sound like an A in the drawl of the right speaker–not that any form must be maniacally perfect.
This is also a ballad, in the sense that it is a narrative written in quatrains. Read more about ballads if you’d like. One more resource for further study: Poetry Foundation has Christopher Spaide’s excellent analysis of it.
Interestingly, I was challenged to write the opposite poem: a poem that could NOT use the letter A. I found myself making interesting word choices to hold to the challenge; it forced me to consider how using either a synonym or no-so-similar word would affect my originally-intended meaning. The resulting poem was therefore consciously imbued with intention or thoughts that are maybe more unconscious in my usual process of writing. One must linger over words to choose those that really fit.
We’ve looked at three poems which use the mechanics of grammar and/or structure of words to create & complicate meaning in the poems. These are gimmicks/challenges, so the prompts will be challenges:
Assignment one: Write a poem that dissects its own language.
Assignment two: Write a villanelle
Assignment three: Write a poem that only uses one vowel, or omits entirely one vowel
Hey, I hope this has introduced you all to some fun-making strategies to combat the grief & work I belabored y’all with in previous weeks! Thanks as always.
Week Four – work
Work is fairly ubiquitous, yeah? Many of us will spend a third of our lives working, so it’s easy to find an empathetic audience for work poems. Moreover, since work generally makes up so much of our lives,there’s so much there! Let’s dig into three poets writing about the world of work & business around us to see how we can approach the subject.
1. Workplace culture
One aspect of working life is the people & the way they move in cliques, interact, grate on or get along with each other. Can we be real at work or do we become bots? Grey Held, whose book WORKaDAY (FutureCycle Press, 2019) is perfect for this week’s subject, writes about a fire drill that exposes many of the interpersonal dynamics of an office:
9:35, a fire drill—beeping, beeping—
as my entire department climbs nine
flights down the designated stairwell
according to posted evacuation plans,
all of us bound by the practice of single file.
Outside, sales folks gravitate in one cluster
on the lawn, techies in another.
It’s cold for spring and the poor
main-lobby receptionist is sleeveless.
her goose bumps by jumping up and down,
all the while complaining about fake
fire drills, fake bacon bits, fake
people. On the concrete sidewalk,
colored and molded to simulate brick,
I’m standing, wearing my motorcycle jacket.
Check the label. It’s leather.
Did you notice the vowel sounds in the first two lines? All those hard (& a few soft) I sounds, with the two hard E BEEPS. Genius! Anyway, this poem confronts norms & social anxiety. In the first stanza, the company rules that make us move in designated ways: single file, designated stairwell. In the second, it shows how people who work together stick together, even outside the building. Having worked in a produce department for 18 years, I distinctly remember going on break at exactly 10 AM with the crew. Third, we zoom in on a particular coworker who maybe has a lot to say; you know the one! She’s not portrayed negatively, but as a character we may know in our lives. Last, we have the speaker of the poem, looking at how they fit into the scene. They want to be seen as meeting muster. The receptionist is a convenient judge of whether the speaker is genuine enough. It’s more than a jacket & one coworker. People want to fit in.
2. Workplace self
Next, we have a first-person prose poem from Dzivinia Orlowsky’s Bad Harvest (Carnegie Mellon, 2018).
My first day working the night shift at Electric Lady Studios switchboard was also my last. All I wanted was a chance to hang out with the musicians: on break when they would talk to me, ask me where I got my brown suede lace-up boots, or when I buzzed them in the back door to sign in. I’d be in charge of who comes in to lay down some tracks and who checks out for a quick smoke or to walk to the liquor store for a pint of Johnnie Walker. Maybe sit in on a recording session or two— there, right next to the soundboard. Party lines? Private Branch Exchanges? No problem. That first day, Johnny Winter was scheduled to come in. On my shift. Oh, hey. Yeah. Was gonna rock like my back ain’t got no bone. Was gonna roll like a wagon wheel… Female jacks? Trunk lines? How hard could it be?
Orlowsky’s speaker has an ironically sweet naïveté that sings. There’s, on the one hand, a desire to do all the cool work things. On the other hand, there’s an unpreparedness for the technical work things. Do you have coworkers who literally can’t even, but want to think they can? Or the person who only does certain job tasks but does those with glee? Or, have you been that person?
Notice as well the terminology scattered through the poem. I think the fact that the speaker’s younger self seems confused about what some of the things are makes it easier for me as a reader to have a similar ignorance. I relate to this poem because I kind of have it figured out what a soundboard is, but I’d definitely need assistance/guidance to work it. Does work ever throw you in over your head? Did you try to skate by as the cool kid?
3. Workplace product
Here’s a poem of industry, longing, volition, & strife from Kwame Dawes:
A truckload of fresh watermelons,
lemon-green goodness on a slouching
truck, cutting through so many states:
Arkansas, West Virginia, Maryland,
into the smoke-heavy Pennsylvania cities;
from red dirt like a land soaked
in blood to the dark loam of this new
land—from chaos to the orderly
silence of the wolf country—Pittsburgh’s
dark uneven skyline, where
we have found shelter
while the crippled leader
waits to promise healing
for a nation starving
on itself. Two men, dusty
from the Parchman Farm,
their eyes still hungry
with dreams, laugh bitter
laughs, carrying the iron
of purpose in them. Hear
the engine clunking, hear
the steel of a new century
creaking. There is blood
in the sky—at dawn, the city
takes them in like a woman.
Inside them all memory
becomes the fiction of survival—
here the dead have hands
that can caress and heal,
hands that can push a living
body into a grave, hold it there,
and the living get to sing it.
This is a nation of young men,
dark with the legacies
of brokenness, men who know
that life is short, that the world
brings blood, that peace
is a night of quiet repose
while the dogs howl in the woods,
men who know the comfort
of steel, cold as mist at dawn,
pure burnished steel.
(from Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems, 2013, Copper Canyon Press)
This lovely, vivid poem describes the world as a physical plant for work. There’s pollution, landscape, & fruit. There’s blood that’s the sky but also the men. There’s the exhaustion of the work day, the repose of home, & anxiety whether one can make it in late capitalism. It’s hard work! Have you met dawn at work? Have you laughed bitterly at how hard life is? Work is of course much of what might make us bitter, but echoes of politics & class bounce around this poem. We start with ripe melons but end up with steel. I can feel the pre-dawn air in this poem. I can feel how the men feel.
As one may see, work poems can tell us how we feel about people, ourselves, & our society. The three prompts based off these three type are:
Assignment 1) Write a poem about workplace culture
Assignment 2) Write a poem about a job you used to have
Assignment 3) Write a poem that uses the setting, machinery, or product of a job to describe the people who do the job
Thanks, friends ❤
Okay even I’m surprised I made it two weeks without making this the theme. These three acts I present for you are: how did it happen?, what do you want to know?, & how did it feel? If you’ve read my book you know that I have written some grief poems. Grief is a frequent subject in poetry, & some of the poems I hold most dear are such poems. Many poets write poems to process their grief, which then helps readers do the same.
When my step-father passed away ten years ago Marie Howe’s What the Living Do stayed on my mother’s kitchen table for weeks & we’d read to each other or to ourselves. I offer you a poem that helped me as much as any poem has: “The Gate” (courtesy of Poets.org):
I had no idea that the gate I would step through
to finally enter this world
would be the space my brother’s body made. He was
a little taller than me: a young man
but grown, himself by then,
done at twenty-eight, having folded every sheet,
rinsed every glass he would ever rinse under the cold
and running water.
This is what you have been waiting for, he used to say to me.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This—holding up my cheese and mustard sandwich.
And I’d say, What?
And he’d say, This, sort of looking around.
Notice Howe’s interesting sparseness, in the lack of quotation or emphasis when the people speak & the plain, easy to recite voice. The mundane, one would be tempted to say if it wasn’t so vivid, so real. Stark. Howe’s stark, vulnerable storytelling here puts the reader in the. I could get carried away in a textual analysis, BUT, I’ll try to stick to the usual prompt-making here. Look at this poem, how it doesn’t oversell what needs no overselling. I feel like the writing is brilliantly transparent in the sense that we can read easily to the beauty of the moments. Precise imagery, too.
The chosen images: folding sheets, running water, a sandwich, are so essentially quotidian! Doing chores together is a level of closeness in a relationship. It’s a different kind of love; not dramatic but sustained. The two people talking to each know each other well enough to talk directly & tell each other hard truths. That, to me, is one of the themes of What the Living Do: honesty & truth as acts of love.
The Night Where You No Longer Live
By Meghan O’Rourke
Was it like lifting a veil
And was the grass treacherous, the green grass
Did you think of your own mother
Was it like a virus
Did the software flicker
And was this the beginning
Was it like that
Was there gas station food
and was it a long trip
And is there sun there
Was it a blackout
And did you still create me
And what was I like on the first day of my life
Were we two from the start
And was our time an entrance
or an ending
Did we stand in the heated room
Did we look at the painting
Did the snow appear cold
Were our feet red with it, with the wet snow
And then what were our names
Did you love me or did I misunderstand
Is it terrible
Do you intend to come back
Do you hear the world’s keening
Will you stay the night
This poem! Asking all the questions she wishes she could ask her mother forms a passionate conceit. So, this whole poem is addressed to you, so that’s a strategy—an immediate, direct address. Also, the questions are so interesting but without getting too cute. What I mean is it stays grounded in what might again be called a vivid mundane, a lovely lack of pretension. The speaker sounds inconsolable, not slake-able. None of these questions have any answers, which allows them to linger & build upon each other. How do you hear this poem? do you agree with its white space & its lack of punctuation? In my opinion, it’s choppy, it’s haggard, it’s raw, just like any new grief.
There are other types of loss, of course. You could write a poem of divorce, moving on, or regret. Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art” is a good example of a famous poem that describes a non-mortal loss. Look to your own. Do they balloon in your head? Do you ruminate until things are more dire than needs be? Have you ever lost a whole continent? In Bishop’s poem, the speaker speaks both more directly & abstractly about loss, so we get more of a sense of what a longing person might miss.
This week’s assignments:
1) Write a poem that uses your memories of the everyday to build I picture of something you miss.
2) Write a poem that asks a bunch of questions, some of which do have answers & some of which don’t.
3) Write a poem that pretends to be okay even as it becomes more shrill.
I was going to talk about one of my poems, then thought that’d be too self-serving. I’ll release that as B-side at some point. Thanks for reading <3.