Thursday, July 05, 2007

Unfinished Business

To my mind, the previous post was the last of the project. At present, I'm planning to keep this blog up—even though no further updates will occur.

If you'd like to keep track of what I'm doing, please visit my personal website:, which should have occasional news and perhaps a link to a publication every once in a while. Or, if you're simply itching for some great poetry and fiction, check out Ward 6 Review.

If you've not read every post, I'd encourage you to poke around. Perhaps, with a bit of browsing, you'll find something moving or useful to you. There are precisely 100 entries now on a variety of poetry-related topics….from submissions to seemingly random thoughts, and analysis of a few poems I've enjoyed. Feel free to comment on anything, particularly if you find my notions wrong-headed. I'll still watch the comments and add my own thoughts as time and appropriateness allows.

My hope, of course, is that you've enjoyed this little jaunt into the mind of a struggling poet and that you might find a few words of value to you. With this, I'd like to leave you with a revision of the poem "Cryptozoology". I still don't think it's done, but it's closer:


Mornings before I woke, father would be up by five,
sitting at the kitchen table, brewing blended coffee,
boiling water, and spreading mustard (or was it mayonnaise?)
on thin slices of white bread for a baloney lunch.

He would open two paper packets of instant oatmeal,
pour their dried flakes into a bowl dolloped with margarine
and baptize the concoction with boiling water.
Every workday for fifteen years, this was his breakfast.

Hollandaise sauce was as likely as holding hands with a hobbit.
Elaborate omelets bursting with ham were rare as Sasquatch sightings.
Lattes were serpentine tales from Scottish lochs.

Now, I can’t remember a single conversation
we had before he drove twenty miles to cut cardboard all day.
Maybe he told me tall-tales about a bear his grandfather
killed with a ball of twine, a duck whistle, and a bottle of moonshine.
Knowing me, we probably talked about the Diablo
I thought I'd buy when I was old enough to work.

Most days, though, he'd let me float through the ocean
of sleep, spotting narwhals and megamouth sharks
from a bathysphere of bunched up blankets.
He wouldn't wake me until he had to.

Since then, I’ve seen a skeleton of Homo floresiensis.
I've pictured tiny hands reaching forth to grasp mine.
I've learned that, sometimes, nothing is better for breakfast

than oatmeal.

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Wednesday, July 04, 2007

What Is a Poem?

My wife, my sister-in-law, and my sister-in-law's children sleep scattered throughout my house. Dixie, the Jack Russell, barks into the distance at an unseen threat and grabs a branch from a peony bush in her muzzle, shaking it in a show of strength. Archie trots around the edge of the yard, looking to join the fray.

A firework pops in a distant yard. The neighbor's dog barks in response.

My dogs, it seems, weary. They need water. A nap. A woman walking a dog I've never seen strolls down the right-of-way that edges my yard. My dogs explode in growls and barks with as much fury as the finale of a fireworks display.

The robins chirp above the commotion of Archie's instinctual anger.

We all, I do not doubt, have a different notion of what is happening. Even my dogs, in their submissiveness, will never understand the semi-pastoral way in which I've imagined this morning. But you—who may be thousands of miles away and separated from this time by hours, days, months, or more—can.

Such is the miracle of language.

Yesterday, I took my mother to the bus station so that she could return to her home in Dallas. I waited with her for the bus to load. Behind us, an Amish (or perhaps Mennonite) family waited to board.

I've road more bussess than I'd care to admit, but I'd never seen an entire family of Amish, only young men exploring the wider world. Yesterday, I saw three generations of the same family, waiting for the bus. I'd like, of course, to know their story. If this were a poem or a story, perhaps I'd invent one after spending a few hours research ensuring that my notions where feasible. However, such speculation is beyond my purposes here.

A grandmother, I think, held an infant girl. The infant's tuft of bright blonde hair was tucked beneath a tiny black bonnet. Nestled in the crook of her grandmother's arms, she looked about with delicate blue eyes. Her dress, no larger than the slipcover for a throw pillow, was a dark, vibrant blue, unlike anything I'd ever seen. Her sisters, standing beside their luggage, looked around as if trying to take in everything, which for me must have seemed utterly banal: the neon, the video games, the people and their vast variety of skin tones, pre-manufactured t-shirts and jeans, and inflections of language. They too wore dresses that seemed to me more vivid than the most complex graphics on the latest video game. One wore a green dress, well-pressed, that might let you think you could smell pine needles rustling in a light breeze. One wore a tan dress, and despite the way we typically think of tan, I suspect that there are artists who might cut off their ear for the chance to replicate that color on canvas.

They wore, in short, familiar colors that I'd never seen.

In college, I picked up a poster from the AWP conference in Pittsburgh. I think it was an advertisement for a press, perhaps Copper Canyon or Coffee House . Poetry: The Unsayable Said.

For a long time, that seemed a fitting description of poetry to me. I hung the poster at home and in an office where I worked. I stared at it, thinking.

At this point, I could posit any number of definitions about what a poem is. But, I've spent more than a year telling you, in one way or another, how I define a poem, the process of creating one, and how to support that process. You should see, I hope, that such definitions evolve (or perhaps devolve) constantly. More, I think such definitions are deeply personal. My notion of what a poem is and what a poem should do, may not agree with your definition. Now, tell me yours. Or better, show me.

I wish you the best of luck. I hope that someday you will write poems that, like those of Robert Creeley, a young student will encounter one day and only to muse about the nature of poetry, and much, much more. I hope that your desire to write makes you a better reader. I hope that, in poetry, you can find a few moments as meaningful and fulfilling to you as a bit of affection from a pair of tiny dogs is to me.

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Monday, July 02, 2007

Many Volumes, Many Voices

Last night (or was it the night before?) I had a dream that an envelope arrived. Inside was a slip of yellow paper in blurred, blue courier type, like a telegram from another dimension. The message, at first read, was as cryptic as hieroglyphics before the Rosetta Stone was unearthed. Smudged typos. Distorted syntax. I read it several times before realizing what it was. An acceptance to Poetry (I thought). Of course, I shouted for my wife so that I could tell her the news. And that's when I woke.

At the moment, Poetry doesn't have a single one of my poems. They do have a batch of Michelle's poems. Now, she has a better chance of letting loose an excited yell that fills each and every room of our Tudor-style home.

Despite its relatively conservative editorial slant (from the perspective of poetics), Poetry remains among my favorite literary magazines. How could it be otherwise? Although the circulation doesn't compare to The New Yorker or People, no small literary magazine can compare.


A siren wails into the distance. Birdsong breaks against the rhythm of the wind in the sweet gum. Archie and Dixie sprawl in sun, squinting in my direction.

Inside nephews and a niece savor canned ravioli on a respite from a marathon of children's movies and cartoons. My sister-in-law, following a day of back-straining yard work, lounges with her children on the sofa. Laundry tumbles in the dryer downstairs. Michelle is off at work.

My mom, between intermittent interruptions, reads a book beside me. The wind, cooled by a cold front, blows through the leaves.

A burst of cicada song trills from a neighbor's back yard, and is gone.

This is sort of a pastoral.


If you tried to count the number of books you've read in your lifetime, would you even approach the truth? I have no idea how many books I own, let alone how many I've read. I've read hundreds of journals, and intend to read thousands more. I've read hundreds of submissions and will no doubt read hundreds more. Yet, I still feel as if I don't read enough. I'll never, no doubt, read enough. There simply isn't time.


There are a handful of journals (like Conjunctions) to which I do not ever plan to submit. And there are a handful of markets to which I plan to submit annually, at least until they decide to take a poem or two. Today, those journals include: Poetry, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Bitter Oleander, Mid-American Review, Poet Lore, and The Paris Review.

I'm sure, from my reading, that I have poems that might fit each journal. The editors may continually disagree, but when I send a submission, I feel relatively comfortable with the notion.

When I lived in San Francisco, I submitted one story to Zyzzyva. Since they only take work from West-Coast writers, I was thrilled by the opportunity. I still read the journal when I can.


Many of my favorite poets are relatively minor. A few look to be major poets of their generation. Each time I crack open a volume of verse, I have the opportunity to learn something about craft (and occasionally about life). Few experiences are better than finding an unexpectedly lovely poem in a crevice you'd not yet explored. Over the years, my expectations have shifted. I once imagined myself a soon-to-be major poet. Now, I expect myself to be an interesting minor poet—perhaps like Roussell—with a peculiar following. In truth, after my wife, a few friends, and I have slipped this mortal coil, no one may ever read a single one of my poems. I have no qualms with this notion. My poems (and my wife) might disagree.

But, personally, I'm simply thankful that in the quest to write good poetry, I've discovered the intimate intellectual and emotional intensities that can come with the reading good poetry. Hopefully, you've discovered this as well. Certainly, there will always be someone whose verse makes every syllable you write seem like a beggar in tattered clothes. Certainly, you will find poets whose relative fame perplexes you to no end. It doesn't matter.

Just take a look at a literary journal or a recent book, and maybe, just maybe you'll find one poem that makes you catch your breath and say, Aha! Now this is poetry!


When I was in graduate school, I think I had unrealistic expectations of what a poet should do. A poet, I thought, should be part psychologist, part philosopher, part mystic. Most days, I'll scoff at such ideas. Today, I'd prefer to enjoy them and envision that oeuvre.

That is how I like to imagine myself, sometimes. It is a sort of pastoral.

I hope that someday, you write poems like that—or better, that you write poems as you imagine poetry could be.

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Saturday, June 30, 2007


My mother arrived for a bit of a surprise visit late Thursday night. I've not seen her for a while, not done the child's duty of trekking across country for a visit since moving to Ohio. There hasn't been time enough, money enough. It's good to see her, but the timing was awful: the in-laws, excepting Michelle's father, arrived Friday evening for a week-long visit.

Timing is often everything.


When I was on the cusp of my teenage years, I read an edition of Poe's collected works in my mother's apartment. Life would never be the same.


Last night, I tried to teach my nephew and my niece a little about chess. Neither is ready yet to imagine the board beyond the pieces, where lines of force matter as much as position. They are still learning to move. They have not yet grasped the importance of opportunity.


Goose bumps prickle the hairs on my arms. Wind sounds softly through the canopy of the sweet gum that shadows the back porch. Our dogs sniff through near-wild foliage. The rain, for the moment, is gone. A neighbor edges the sidewalk in front of his house with a weed whacker. The grapefruit-sized motor whines. I think of motorbikes dusting through slaloms, careening from beveled mounds of dirt. I always wanted one as a child. What boy doesn't?

Life will never be the same.


Three weeks ago, as is our custom, Michelle and I drove to Florence, Kentucky to peruse one of the enormous chain bookstores. On the two small bookshelves for poetry, I found a crime novel in verse. Others, it seems, have similar notions about what poetry can do.

Perhaps I should have worked more diligently on my verse "fictions." Perhaps, now, the seeming newness will be dulled. Perhaps those poems are not as important as I had thought. Perhaps they are not important at all.


Regrets can handcuff you to the past.


In college, I think Michelle always suspected that she was out-of-sync with the times. Perhaps her rightful place was as an ingénue in the 30s. Such disjunctions in self-image and time are not uncommon. The zeitgeist at any given moment is notoriously difficult to describe. I used to think my poems more suited to the milieu of modernism.


Often, I worry over my time. A conversation about amphibious cars may seem a waste. There are always more important issues to discuss, unless you are a builder of amphibious cars.


My mother is outside with me. She is reading her Bible. Proverbs.


If you give a man a book, he may read it. If you teach a man to write, what have you done?


Timing is everything in business. Writing is a business. Damn it.


I'll never be able to read everything I want to read. Volume precludes it. I'm already lucky to have read more than many, far less than a few. When life ends, I suspect, I'll still have been lucky. Regardless of what becomes of my career(s).


I've only scratched the surface of what poetry can mean and how it can matter. It's up to you if you want to go further. It always has been—even as a small child when you first read Shel Silverstein or Dr. Seuss.


The dogs are barking. Dixie howls for play. I return her invitation. She grapples with my arm. Soon, I'll head upstairs to wake my wife. This is time I would not sacrifice for anyone—even Shakespeare.

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Friday, June 29, 2007


As promised, you'll find my response to the "Oatmeal" assignment of a couple of days ago. Have a look at the poem. Enjoy it if you so choose. But, keep in mind that this is an early draft and, to my mind, not quite finished.

At a glance, it seems to me that I took the middle-ground between the Jim Daniels and the Galway Kinnell poems by aiming for something whimsical, which still explicates a speaker's relationship to another. But is the poem successful? Would it stand out from hundreds of other poems on a similar subject? Would you, as a reader, be drawn back into the poem, allowing it more than one read? Is it memorable? More so than the latest American Idol?

Consider for a moment or two what you would do if this were your poem. What would you do to improve it? Are any words extraneous? Is anything missing? Could any of the line breaks be improved? Does the rhythm falter in any spots?

If this were your poem, what would you do next?


Mornings before I woke, father would be up by five,
sitting at the kitchen table, brewing blended coffee,
boiling water, and spreading mustard (or was it mayonnaise?)
on four slices of white bread for his baloney lunch.

He would open two paper packets of instant oatmeal,
pour their dried flakes into a bowl dollopped with margarine
and baptize the concoction with boiling water.
Every workday for fifteen years, this was his breakfast.
Hollandaise sauce was as likely as shaking hands with a hobbit.
Elaborate omelets bursting with ham were rare as sasquatch sightings.
Lattes were serpentine tales from Scottish lochs.
Lunch at a restaurant was less likely than cornering a chupacabra
that could be tamed with handfuls of chocolate.

Now, I can't, for the life of me, remember one conversation
we had before he drove twenty miles to Fort Worth.
Maybe he told me tall-tales about a bear his grandfather
killed with a ball of twine, a duck whistle, and a bottle of moonshine.
Maybe I've made too much of this poem up.
Knowing me, we probably talked about the Diablo
I thought I'd buy when I was old enough to work.

It doesn’t matter.

Most days, he'd let me float through the ocean of sleep,
spotting krakens, narwhals, and megamouth sharks
from a bathysphere of bunched up blankets.
I wouldn't surface until I absolutely had to.

Since then, I’ve seen a skeleton of Homo floresiensis
and pictured its tiny hands reaching forth to grasp mine.

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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Breaking into Poetry

Dixie, our Jack Russell terrier, normally functions as the most effective alarm clock I've ever owned. Inevitably, between 7 and 7:30, she sits on the bed whining for me to wake so that I can escort her outside into the cool morning air. Today, perhaps because I was up so late, she let me sleep in.

To me this was an inexplicable surprise. Now, of course, I'm ever-so-slightly behind on my plans for the day (write, write, shower, eat, revise, clean), but I can't help feeling that she's given me the smallest of gifts—one for which I ought to be thankful.

Last night's rain has thundered its way further east along the Ohio, but the air remains heavy with moisture. The sky is as gray as an idea of loneliness, and the dogs are exploring our slick and muddied yard.

Perhaps it was on a day not unlike this when I first typed out a line of maudlin verse. I think, after all, it was summer, and such weather, to the very young, might seem a fine excuse for melancholy, and of course, poetry.

If I recall correctly, the line breaks in those first poems were easy to come by. I just broke on the end-stopped rhyme. Anywhere a couplet rang to a close (regardless of how many metric feet had passed), I'd break the line and move on. The only other technical detail I can remember from those poems is that one of them, amid all of its awfulness managed to rhyme "monkey" with "latchkey." I still like that rhyme, perhaps because I'm a big fan of simians.

A couple of months ago, my wife commented on her own difficulty with line breaks, which strikes me as a technical difficulty that all of us, since the modernists, have struggled with in one way or another. A few weeks later, I offered a few suggestions to her about how the line breaks in a handful of poems might be improved. She was uninterested.

But then again, why should she have been interested? On what criteria did I base my suggestions?

Honestly, I can't remember. My suggestions were likely the result of my own personal aesthetic, my own "sixth sense" of where a line should end. Sure, I've been writing poetry for years, and I can be successful with that strategy given the climate of literature these days. After all, how often do you stumble across a sonnet in a literary journal? An alexandrine? Free verse is the primary mode of our era, and in such a context, there's no fixed prescription for whether a line should break
or there.

For me, this has often enough led to avoidance of the question. More, I think such anxiety (along with my respect of tradition and desire to prove to myself that I can do it) may explain why I have a deep affinity for formal poems and alliterative verse. There your line breaks are predefined. A good poet, of course, can still manipulate language so that the line break remains a point of emphasis, but, by and large, once the meter has run its course, you can move on.

Yet, despite its central position in the craft of poetry, I can't recall much emphasis on the use of line breaks in college or graduate school. Sure, we learned the difference between and enjambment and end-stopped, but much of what we learned came through practice. Gentle suggestions from professors or peers were often dotted / about my manuscripts. / / More, by reading widely, / one can glean / in certain poems / why a poet chose to break a particular / line where it was broken.

Let's backtrack for a moment. Why am I "breaking" the above lines as I am? Notice, in this instance, that the line breaks precisely follow the syntax of the sentence. W.C. Williams would, no doubt, approve. So essentially, those line breaks emphasize the syntax of what's been written, highlight natural pauses, and breaths.

But what about the break after "particular"?

To me, this serves two purposes. First, it's a kind of shift in the overall rhythm of the poem. End-stop after end-stop can become tedious. See, for example, a few hundred pages of Alexander Pope. Second, the break emphasizes for the eye the word "particular" and to a lesser degree "line".

Now why would I want to emphasize those two words?

If you're working in free verse (so to speak), every line break you choose should be intentional. It should be there for a reason. In practice, of course, very few of us have the mental acuity to consider all possible variations and meanings implied by a line break. Consequently, I don't want you to approach your next poem with a long laundry list of things you need to accomplish with each line break. Don't let these considerations stand in the way of your writing, use them to augment it. And remember in
revision, one can always adjust the
elements of a poem that aren't quite right.

Let's continue.

Notice all the space I've left on the right-hand side of the page by offering a couple of line breaks, as examples? What does all that emptiness signify? What does the lack of the constant syllables mean? Does it signal anything more than Look, this is a poem?

So, clearly, the line breaks of a particular poem suggest meaning visually. If you've not done so already, have a look at the work of e.e. cummings and Stephane Mallarme. The work of both poets actually uses the page as a sort of canvas (leading us to concrete poetry and reminding us of a few incidental poems by George Herbert, such as "Easter Wings"). Mallarme in particular thrives on white space, letting his lines dance around the entirety of a page, so that the gaps themselves accrue their own kind of meaning.

But both of those, ahem, gentlemen are extreme cases. Generally speaking (and exceptions do remain in contemporary poetry) our use of white space is not as ambitious. Rather, we need to consider, what's the difference between a short-lined poem and a long-lined one? How do such choices affect the movement of a reader's eyes and how he or she perceives the meaning of a poem? What's the difference, to a reader, between lines of a regular length and lines of varying length?

Order? Chaos?

When I was in graduate school, I handed in a poem about drinking alone in a bar. Quite a subject, right? Luckily, I think, the poem is buoyed by a sense of macabre humor that runs throughout the poem, and believe it or not, the professor suggested using line breaks as a way to emphasize that humor.

And why not? Think of your favorite knock-knock joke. Now why is it funny?

Humor, like line breaks and rhythm in poetry, functions by setting up expectations and then eschewing them. For example, take a look at the line breaks in my second "poetry" section above. Who breaks a line on "the"? Or "in"? Did I really want to emphasize those words?

Well, yes, actually, I did. Such peculiar enjambments, I'd wager, gave you pause as you read them, particularly given the context in which they are placed.

I've only just scratched the surface of how line breaks can contribute to the meaning of a poem, but for now I leave you with these few thoughts:

The dogs are sleeping on the sofa
behind me. Thunder shakes
the westward wall of my office.
My wife, I hope, will be home
in minutes. Drenched cardinals call.

May the spaces in your poems
fill with the rhythm of your breath,
familiar as the scent of summer rain.

Now then, how else could you arrange the lines of that little "poem"? Which do you like better? Why?

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I'm stranded in the living room, mesmerized by television. The dogs are curled together on the corner of the sofa sleeping off a frenzy play inspired by my imitation of a chimpanzee. Michelle is sitting on the porch swing outside, reading a science-fiction novel.

It has been a good day. For no particular reason.

On such a day, when an early morning thunderstorm ebbed into a sun-filled day and a two-hour nap capped the day's work, could you imagine yourself sinking into blissful sloth with the merest whisper of conscience being squelched by the notion that nothing worth writing about crossed your path for the entire day? Nothing inspired you?

Once, in a graduate poetry workshop, a peer, who happened to be far more fit than the majority of students in that class, turned in a poem straight from the weight room, about a dumbbell. Now, I can't remember the poem itself or comment it on its quality. I do, however, remember that someone in class thought such content was not the purview of poetry—as though only love, death, and getting laid were acceptable. In retrospect, it seems entirely possible that the poem was, through indirection, about such themes. I don’t know.

Regardless, I remember becoming vaguely irate. Who, after all, were they to tell me what poetry could be? What I could write about? I defended the poem's right to exist and will continue to do so.

The subjects for poetry, you see, are like oxygen. They are everywhere and they, in some way, sustain us. If you can find such inspiration in a gym, a rumpus room, an electronics store, or even a launderette, brilliant!

Of course, if you believe that, you have to question the notion that an average day could bring no inspiration. Think, for example, of oatmeal. What could be more boring? Nevertheless, I've read two poems that use the image of that bland, clumpy substance to marvelous effect.

Consider the poem "Unfolding" by Jim Daniels. To summarize badly, the poem is about a relationship that's destined to break up and, incidentally, the loss of pet. Of course, that summary does no justice to the poem. Imagine for a moment if you decided to write a poem encompassing those subjects. Thinking about how I would fare is worse than listening to Radiohead without a handful of Prozac handy. As I've mentioned before, everyone writes about their pets and some point, typically leaving behind a few trite lines mired in uncommunicative bathos.

Yet Daniels knows this. In the second stanza, he suggests why: "You can't explain about your pets. / People just nod and change the subject." With this acknowledgement, which follows a terse, matter-a-fact description of the speaker's reaction to his dog's dying, the speaker also seemingly changes the subject, offering other ways to describe the relationship:

What country were we living in,
hacking through the tangle of phone lines
and junk mail? We kept our hands in our pockets.
We wore each other's faces on our watches.

and continues on to gloss the inevitable reunion and break up. The poem is an excellent example of a simultaneous narrative at work. Rather than simply describing the turns of the speaker's relationship with a girlfriend, Daniels also focuses our attention, ever so briefly, on another relationship, letting us, as readers, draw our own conclusions about how those two narratives inform each other.

In the final three lines of the fourth stanza, we have three staccato-like sentences. The narrative about the dog re-emerges with the speaker implying, but never directly making, a comparison between the keepsakes. Here, proximity works as a kind of figurative language:

Five shoeboxes full of letters.
I kept them under my bed.
I still have my dog's collar.

Now, look at the penultimate stanza:

Listen, all I can say is
she had oatmeal for breakfast!
Oatmeal! I could almost taste it.

I've carried this image with me for a while now, going so far as to prevent my wife, Michelle, from throwing away a packet of instant oatmeal because it reminded me of this poem. The final line seems to me a perfect execution (and perhaps a simultaneous rebuke) of T.S. Eliot's notion of the objective correlative.

Indeed, in the context of the poem, "Oatmeal!" does fulfill Eliot's criteria that "when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked." As readers, we could almost taste the oatmeal ourselves. More, we can sense the impulsiveness, delight, and apparent intimacy engendered by that young love. Oatmeal, of all things, becomes more than a simple, warm, and hearty meal to start your day (though I suspect Daniels would like us to keep such associations we might have with oatmeal in mind). It becomes a sort of symbol of both age and, well, love.

Nevertheless, don't think that it's necessary to utterly transform the way a reader thinks about a typical object in order to write about it. Consider, for example, the poem "Oatmeal" by Galway Kinnell. Like the poem discussed above, the theme involves loneliness. However, unlike Jim Daniels' "Unfolding," Kinnell uses the image of oatmeal in a manner more consistent with our expectations of that breakfast with a ". . . gluey lumpishness, hint of slime, and unusual willingness to disintegrate . . . ."

From that banal beginning (gorgeously described), Kinnell takes us on a flight of whimsy, imagining himself dining with John Keats because ". . . it is not good to eat oatmeal alone." Yes. That John Keats.

I'll not take you through a close reading of "Oatmeal" as I did with "Unfolding," but take the time to read the poem closely on your own. Enjoy the appropriate little jab at Wordsworth and the close contemplation of poetry itself that Kinnell brings to this imagined dialog. Note the long, flowing lines that evoke the rhythms of the Bible, and finally notice how, from something as simple as a bowl of oatmeal with skim milk, Kinnell manages to work his way to a discussion of the sublime.

Something worth writing about, it seems, crosses our paths every day. To celebrate this fact, I'm planning to write my own "oatmeal" poem over the next week, and I'd like to encourage you to do the same. When I have what I think is a competent draft, I'll post it here, sacrificing notions of publication in a little magazine some day to let you see a brief glimpse of process at work. I can't promise that the poem will be good—only that I'll try.

I hope, if you want to write, you'll do the same.

For now, all the sentient beings in the house, except me, are sleeping. I'll join them shortly. Outside, a bank of cumulonimbus clouds blows in from Indiana. Perhaps my dreams will be thick and lumpy, too.

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Tuesday, June 26, 2007


There are several good reasons not to be a poet. Although I'm tempted to enumerate the handful that flash across my mind or mention the few that have made me actively contemplate whether or not I cared enough to continue thinking of myself as a poet, I think the reasons you would list would be far more valuable to you.

Go ahead. List them.


In college (where so many of my stories take place), I first read Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. I was struck and oddly emboldened by his suggestions that one ought not to write poetry if one can avoid it.

Ich Muss.

More, I adored that book for a while. It set a path out for me, despite the limited interest I have in angels. I gave the book to a dear friend (apologizing for the sexism that seeped through the poet's prose). I have no idea, even now, if she read it. More, I sometimes suspect she followed Rilke's advice the way one would follow some stricture from a holy text and, like the young poet to whom the letters were addressed, decided that her inner life was nothing like the Bohemian modernist, that life could be lived more fully without the constant need to write, or that she had nothing to say.


As this project probably makes clear, I no longer agree with Rilke. One can simply decide to become a poet, put in the work, and perhaps, leave the world something lovely. After all, one can decide to become an engineer or an accountant. Why should poetry be any different?

If you think you can write, and if you want to write, try it. But steel yourself against rejection because, at times, you might feel that you’re trapped in a deluge of those little slips.

Go on try it.


Let's not make ourselves false promises, unless we need to. Only a few poems written each year will survive time's onslaught. Perhaps you can write one of those poems, eventually. The odds are against it. Even still, there are several good reasons to be a poet.

List those, even if they seem silly, and perhaps you'll see, as I have, that the pleasure of a finely wrought line, a glistening idea, or a simple smile from a reader is well worth the hassle. Perhaps you'll see that you (like all of us) have more to say than anyone could have imagined.

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