Tag Archives: poetry

“Why Don’t People Write More Poetry?”

Why I Wake Early book cover by Mary Oliver

That’s the question my friend G. asked me today. She’s just a few years older than me and has had a dozen strokes; the doctors don’t know why. She struggles with words — fidgets with her hands as if trying to create  words out of invisible clay — and her short term memory is shot. But she gets poetry.

During my visit today, I brought along “Why I Wake Early” by Mary Oliver, the poet known for revealing the marvelous in her minute observations of nature. For some reason, I’d dog eared the poem “October.” When I started to read it, I immediately thought I’d made a mistake. It’s written in seven numbered sections with abstract imagery in which Oliver seems to hover above a scene. Gail was intrigued, had me read it seven times. As she listened she closed her eyes, enraptured.

When I read “Peonies,” she picked up on the phrase “beauty the brave,” and repeated it over and over. That one we read three times. Then “Goldenrod.” She loved the language of it, the assonance of “rumpy bunches,” the alliteration of “dumb dazzle.” She rolled the phrases around in her mouth like marbles. I don’t know how many times we read that one.

When I read her the last few lines, in which the goldenrods “bend as though it was natural and godly to bend,/they rise in a stiff sweetness/in the pure peace of giving/one’s gold away,” I told her that she has gold to give — her unfettered love and sense of humor. Though her abilities have changed, her value has not. If anything she is more cherished than ever by those who love her.

We almost didn’t make it past the first line of “Blue Iris”: Now that I’m free to be myself, who am I?

Each time I started down the 15-line poem, she laughed and stopped me.

Why don’t more people write poetry, or at least read it?



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Finding Your Own Voice: O’Keeffe On Writing


Here at Ghost Ranch, there’s a library that’s open 24/7, chock full of books on geology, Native American culture and traditions, poetry… and of course, all things O’Keeffe. I’m reading C.S. Merrill’s “O’Keeffe: Days in a Life,” a collection of poems written, with O’Keeffe’s permission, based on her experience of working for the artist as librarian, secretary, cook, nurse or companion, from 1973 to 1979, the last years of O’Keeffe’s life.

Here in number 77, Merrill describes an exchange about writing for a community.

Sunday morning O’Keeffe and I

discussed how to find your own voice,

your own vision.

I argued a painter can get off

alone and work in color 

but a writer must use words

which requires a community

of minds, you write to a community

of minds, I said.

She spoke harshly, very loudly,

“Do you think that

community of minds cares a moment

for what you have to say?

Of course they don’t!”

She answered herself.

She said I was writing

like others told me

said it was a very difficult

thing to listen to yourself

and write from that

said the key is free time.

Give yourself an hour or two a day.

all to yourself

everyone has free time

but they don’t use it

I said I have time when I am walking

to school — she said that wasn’t free

yes I was walking, but I was walking to

that wasn’t free time.

March, 1978

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Finding Poetry

Screen Shot 2014-10-02 at 9.34.45 AM

Dear lovers and writers of poetryThere’s nothing for you here today, nothing at all, except the first mewling cries of someone who is trying to understand why and how poetry is speaking to me even though I hardly understand a word. Read on at your own risk.

For everyone else: This is a short story that is a love letter to a friend I have lost and found.

I thought I wanted to raid poetry for its words. Poetry contains a well of words (see? there’s a metaphor already, though not a very good one since it isn’t novel; the best metaphors link unlike things) that I thought might inspire me as I attempt to write memoir.

I picked up Louise Glück’s Faithful and Virtuous Night, a dreamy collection of poems that the book cover says are meant to tell a single story, although it’s not like any story I’ve ever read. That said, I couldn’t put it down and I can’t stop thinking about it.

I read this scene from the title poem about sharing a room with a brother in a candlelit room at night:

[Note: WordPress is deleting the spaces between stanzas, so I put a “/” where a space should follow]

I was alone with my brother;

we lay in the dark, breathing together,

the deepest intimacy./

It had occurred to me that all human beings are divided

into those who wish to move forward

and those who wish to go back.

Or, you could say, those who wish to keep moving

and those who want to be stopped in their tracks

as by the blazing sword.”

So much unspoken mystery as Glück floats through her dream-night. I confess to feeling pretty lost but I keep thinking about the symbols she strews along her way. There is something here, I thought, more than words. Something that is affecting me.

I looked for answers in Edward Hirsch’s “How To Read A Poem and Fall In Love With Poetry.” And I read this: “Reading poetry is for me an act of the most immense intimacy, of what the poem finds in me. It activates my secret world, commands my inner life. I cannot get access to that inner life any other way than through the power of the words themselves. The words pressure me into a response, and the rhythm of the poem carries me to another plane of time, outside of time.”

Glück took me somewhere with her when she wrote of “the blazing sword,” the kind of metaphor that Hirsch calls “a concealed invitation,” which invites the reader to figure it out. Throughout her poem there are such references to the sword in the stone, and I’ll admit I find them a puzzle. Is the narrator the heir? The heir to memory? I’ll have to get one of my poet friends to explain it to me.

But besides the riddle, I was struck by Hirsch’s description of poetry’s ability to give him access to an inner life. I understood what he meant. I don’t always “get” poetry, but something in my shifts when I read some of it. The words and their rhythms go to a place within me that is beyond words, beyond logic. To a place of longing, of pure feeling, of community, of prayer.

And now I will give you a short story.

Yesterday I spent time with a dear friend who used to be my boss. In the professional world, she was my first true teacher and mentor. The place she holds in my heart cannot be filled by another. Just a couple of years older than me, she has been set upon by a series of strokes that the doctors don’t seem to understand. The smartest woman I’ve ever met is now much different. I won’t go into the details. Her brain is like a bog, with bits of organic material occasionally floating to the top. Thinking is hard. Putting names on things is impossible.

But feeling, feeling is still there. So much love it can light up her face.

So I decided to read her poetry. She cannot name images, but I wondered if words could form images in her mind, pictures that would bring her joy. I read from Mary Oliver’s “Why I Wake Early,” a book that I have taken to bedsides and even deathbeds.

The fourth poem that I read to her, I think, was “Peonies.” My friend closed her eyes when she listened and I remembered that was her pose of reflection. When she wanted to listen deeply with her head and heart she would press her eyes shut so that the only thing that existed was what poured into her ears. She always heard what one said, but she listened for the meaning underlying the words, tipped off by the telltale tone of voice, the choice of words. This is what she did yesterday: she tilted her chin down and her lashes floated onto her cheeks.

Poetry is a soul-making activity, Hirsch says. I wrote this poem, as terrible as a poet would find it, because I can’t seem to capture in prose my confusing stew of feelings: the deep grief I feel for the loss of my old friend, and the momentary joy we found together reading of peonies. Thank you, Mary Oliver, wherever you are, for the gift of that moment.

My old friend is someone new

I can’t say a stranger because she is familiar

diminished to some but polished to my eye,

silky of spirit./

Strokes like ordnance have reordered her brain.

Like a prize fighter, her husband says:

Too many hits to the head./

So we read of wild iris and humble sunflowers

But it was the peonies that swayed her

Lacy pools, white and pink./

She closed her eyes, lashes dancing

As we read of green fists opening, black ants tunneling

The words watered the parched patches in her soul./

When the poem ended we read it again

Delighted, her face sparkled

And then we were silent, two wet souls./

Shall I read more, I asked?

Sometimes you should let it sit, she said.

So we sat in the sunshine

Old and new friends.


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The Kingdom of the Wing Chair

I knew that when Dad died, it would be hard to have a room in my home that was so linked to him in my mind. I didn’t want it to be a mausoleum nor did I want to purge it of his presence. I want it to be a sanctuary where guests are welcomed but where I can still retreat to remember the last seven years that he lived here. My big idea is to have a friend create a painting that honors my memory of him. And as time has gone on – now four months since he died – I realize there is no way to create something about Dad that doesn’t include Mom. Though they were strong individuals, they were that rare couple that becomes a single entity through the strange chemistry of attraction and the catalyst of shared experience.

When I initially imagined a painting, I thought about it honoring my parents as I knew them at the end of their lives. But now I picture it drawing upon a long-ago period, a period when they were the pillars of my world, and I was small.

I don’t write poetry – at least I haven’t in years – but somehow thinking about the painting prompted this:

It should have a wing chair in it.

We always had wing chairs.

It was where Daddy let the stress of the day ooze out of him

While he read the paper, sipped a scotch on the rocks,

And maybe another.

Sometimes his hand would rest lightly

On the head of one of our spaniels,

Who sat stock still for his attention.

It was where I sat on his lap.

Where he read to me about the Land of Oz.

I wanted to be like Ozma who rescues Dorothy

From the terrors of the disturbing Wheelers.

People shouldn’t have wheels where hands and feet should be.

But then Daddy’s shouldn’t have heart attacks,

And dogs shouldn’t bite you in the neck,

And Nana’s shouldn’t die.

I wanted to be brave.

Sometimes Mom would stand next to the chair,

Her hand resting lightly on the wing

The hand with her wedding ring

Loose at her side.

Smiling as a present was opened,

Laughing at a joke,

Meeting Daddy’s eyes and sparkling.

Sometimes he would look at her and quote something

About a barge with purple perfumed sails and love-sick winds.

Next to her I could smell the delicate scent of her bath powder,

Which she applied with a fluffy puff that made me sneeze.

There were fights sometimes, and those scared me.

Mother’s voice rising, then father’s, and mother’s right back.

I knew bad things could happen to parents,

Would it happen to mine?

But when it was over it was over.

But nothing bad ever seemed to happen in the kingdom of the wing chair.

It was sacred space.

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Understanding my Dad through poetry

A cartoon created as part of a book given by Dad's colleagues at Canadian Armed Forces Staff College in 1957

Communication has become very difficult for my Dad: bad hearing, slowed comprehension, harder articulation. But my Dad has something most people do not: a bottled up store of memorized passages that seem to uncork of their own accord.

As my Dad lay on a gurney in an Emergency Department exam room last Sunday, he suddenly exclaimed:

I am Ozymandius, King of Kings. Look on my Works ye Mighty, and despair!”

I don’t think the ER staff was impressed. In fact, if I hadn’t been there, they might have though he’d jumped the track. But I knew exactly what was going on. My Dad’s unconscious mind summoned up a passage that he felt was germane to the situation.

Though I wasn’t familiar with it, I quickly googled the phrase on my iPhone and found it in a poem written by Shelley in the 19th century.

The poem describes an old statue with a powerful visage that survives despite being shattered and sunk in desert sands. Dad’s exclamation was the inscription on its pedestal.

The more I thought about it, the more I felt it was the perfect passage for a unplanned visit to the hospital. It was Dad’s way of saying, “I may be diminished by age and illness, but I am still here.”

Then, later in the week, another fragmentary bit of poetry served as Dad’s way of saluting his nurse, Dawn. He offered, “And the dawn came up like thunder, outer China ‘crost the Bay.” Kipling’s poem “Mandalay” celebrates his love of the Orient. While Dad’s memory was jogged by his nurse’s name, I’m not at all surprised that he came up with a poem that celebrates a “neater, sweeter maiden in a cleaner, greener land.”

And then today, after Dad was complimented for his meticulous oral hygiene during his six-month check up at the dentist, out came this one: “My strength is as the strength of ten, because my heart is pure.”

I’m sure my Dad meant it a little self-mockingly. But while he may not be everyone’s idea of Sir Galahad as described by Tennyson, I think the phrase somehow fits him. He’s always been a straight-up-no-bullshit kind of guy; in fact, that trait almost got him court martialed during the war when he disregarded an order that he knew would have been a mistake.

He may not be everybody’s idea of Sir Galahad, but he is my Sir Galahad.


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