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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Monday, June 25, 2007


The near rain and occasional showers of the past few days have vanished like a dream. The backyard is a quarter acre of sunlight in which Dixie lazes. Archie, doing far better now, is curled on the sofa in my office, reluctant to stir from sleep. I spent the morning shaping stray thoughts into something like a poem, and for today at least, the result pleases me. My stomach grumbles, needing sustenance. I hope to carve enough time from the march of hours to read a little, write more, and maybe watch a film. But we shall see.

Lately, with an eye toward graduate school and visions of the impending riches from my fledgling poetry career, I have in all likelihood, thrown myself into one too many projects. I suspect, sometimes, that such pluralistic obsessiveness is not uncommon. More, sometimes I think that this is just a peculiar aspect of my personality: I need, for some reason to multitask to prevent boredom while simultaneously needing a glimpse into single-mindedness to excel. Both explanations may be true, but sometimes, I wonder whether or not such constant busyness might be detrimental to those around me and how I interact with them. Or maybe, I'm simply lining up excuses for failure, as failure is, more often than not, the lot of the life's work I've chosen.


I have heard (and read) that the university I attended for my Bachelor's degree has one of the highest workloads anywhere in the country. Consequently, while there, I learned (quite by chance) the fine art of procrastination. Most of my friends, likewise, learned the advantages of deferring the inevitable and how to strive under an almost unimaginable level of pressure for something as risk-free as an academic curriculum. All of us discovered that we excel under deadlines. We thrived on caffeine-fueled nights, and a few us, myself included, mastered subtleties of explication when explaining to professors why, precisely, a term paper was late.

For me, this peculiar blend of procrastination and faith in my ability to wriggle my way out of any mess lingered on for years. As did my faith in my ability.


As a writer, there are infinite ways in which you can sabotage your own work. Tens of thousands of options allow you easy access to rationale. Don't proofread what you submit. Don’t read aloud what you submit. Don't fret about deadlines. Don't fight your tendency towards procrastination.

The list goes on longer than a 15-minute pop song.


Today, I got another rejection. I’m concerned that my last batch of submissions may not manage more than a single acceptance. This is disconcerting because we're so often unable to see the totality of what any single editor sees. Maybe the journal, for some reason, received an envelope stuffed with poems from Nicki Giovanni, Robert Haas, or Jorie Graham. And come on, who would you print?

Instead, I'm mired in my own context. These poems are important to me. For the most part, they are "finished." They are the core of my first book, a book that should begin to establish my reputation.

Sound familiar?


I've brought Dixie inside into the cool air conditioning. She's curled on a dirty blanket on the sofa in my office. Archie sleeps above her on a mound of comforter. It's funny, but those dogs don't look for ways to fail, as we do. Sometimes they do fail. They may be reprimanded, but they know, without question, even when their tails dip, that we love them. Why is it so difficult for us to offer the same courtesy to ourselves?

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Sunday, June 24, 2007

Stepping in the Same River Twice


Night has fallen with no rain. My wife is inside, flipping through cookbooks in search of something for a late dinner. I’m sitting outside surrounded by mosquitoes while the puppies, full with their dinner, sniff around the yard. Archie is just visible at the edge of the patio. Dixie, staring, as if into the stars that break through clouds above the honeysuckle, stands beside him, her spots blurring into the darkness of night. Our fluorescent porch light staves off the darkness, offering a semblance of safety.

A few miles away, lights are everywhere. The summer fairs have begun. The Westside fair, with its whirling carnival rides, smoldering grills, and milling crowds, churns on towards closing. Until tomorrow.

Michelle needs help in the kitchen, so I retreat inside to the dining room. The dogs wait patiently for their treats and then vanish into my office, which is now one of only two rooms in the house that still needs to be cleaned. The lights flicker as the air conditioner kicks on. My wife takes a break from cleaning to contemplate a decorating idea for the living room. Dixie howls from my office. She and Archie are at play. Michelle howls in counterpoint, stalling the dog’s play for a moment, until Archie, growling, goes after Dixie, and Michelle feels compelled to join the fray.

They are, I suspect, making up for lost time. On Friday, while Michelle’s father and his twin brother visited our newly polished home, I took Archie to the vet to have his stitches removed and hear the results of his biopsy. Good news. The tumor was a histiocytoma. It was benign and the resection had clean edges. Perhaps Archie’s luck has changed—even if he doesn’t think so after his third surgery in such a brief life. But now, there are no more torturous t-shirts and no more seemingly draconian restrictions on what Archie can do (aside from those imposed by Dixie and for the good of the household).

I’m tempted to end here, on that note of something like joy, but for today, despite a general sense of happiness, that seems disingenuous. Let me begin again.


Country rock twangs in from the living room. A xylophone, recorded years ago in Texas, jaunts along a major scale and mingles with the plaintive melody of a hollow-body guitar. Michelle has almost finished cooking a late dinner. Archie, who is no longer trapped by the indignity of a t-shirt, lays patiently in the hall, waiting on his share. Dixie slips in and out of sleep as she curls near my feet on the dining room rug.

Lately, I’ve been reading John Ashbery’s Other Traditions , a little Derrida, and a smidge of Foucault. Much madness of late, I suppose. Of course, it has affected my poetry. I find myself worrying less over images and searching out big ideas that I’ve not yet seen explicated in one form or another. Oddly, this month, I’ve written eight such poems, which seem to me to bask in the shadow of Ashbery’s influence without plunging too deeply into the near hermeneutical mysteries that seem to make his work so difficult for so many. Yet, clearly, if I’ve managed so many poems in such a short time the ideas are either smaller than I’d first imagined or I’m cleverer than Michelle (and the dogs) ever suspected.

Now, we’ve finished our dinner. The lights on the summer carnival are dimmed for the night. I’ve felt a few drops of moisture glance across my skin. I’m having trouble believing it will rain.

For the past few days, I haven’t had time to write. Michelle’s father and his twin brother arrived for a visit on Wednesday night and stayed through Friday morning. Consequently, the early portion of the week was dedicated to making the house seem spotless. Now, only our bedroom upstairs and my office need a good cleaning. Laundry still lurks in the basement, and the yew bush out front could use a visit from the hedge trimmers, but the house resembles what Michelle must have been dreaming of for months of our mutual inaction.

While my father-in-law was here, he helped me unclog a sink, reset the garbage disposal, and install new sconces above the fireplace. He, his brother, and his sister, who also lives in Cincinnati, spent the whole of Thursday together. They drove to Indiana to visit the cemetery where their parents are buried. They circled Cincinnati in search of minor shopping deals. More, they spent time together, without children or spouses, for the first time in many, many years.

Yet, even after a weekend like that, I suspect he still wishes that he had spent the time elsewhere.

On Friday night, the same night his granddaughter was tapping her way through another dance recital, he arrived home after the four-hour drive back and learned that a long-time friend, long suffering the indignity of cancer, had slipped away. It was not unexpected. Only a week ago, he’d refused to get out of bed, as though the fight itself had worn him thin. My father-in-law had gone to his house, cajoled him from bed.


On occasion, prose still seems, regardless of your ability, deeply ineffective. To me, in such moments, poetry, despite its limitations, can come closer to capturing the symphony of emotions, often in counterpoint, that leaves us gasping for the right words. I’ll not argue, of course, that it’s a substitute for the weight of a loved one’s hand or the simple fact of someone else’s breath sharing the same room. Yet, there’s a reason why, with each holiday, we reach for greeting cards and their mediocre verse. There’s a reason why poetry, with its perpetual seeming uselessness, seems to survive. Everyone, I believe, has at one point in their lives been moved by a poem—even if the poem is nothing more than an adolescent’s take on existentialism.

I’m not happy with what I’ve written. I’ve approached the topics twice and found my skills lacking for the day. Perhaps, you’ll disagree, and find something lovely, here or there. But would that change my opinion?

If this were a poem, I’d set the piece aside, let it float somewhere in the recesses of my mind for a while. Maybe a few weeks. Maybe a month. Maybe years.

I’d return, like a young adult returning to her high school, hoping that I could see the sentences, the ideas, and the images anew. Then I’d wield my word processor like a scalpel, excising adverbs and articles. I’d tighten (perhaps) the imagery, so that the metaphors, in one way or another were consistent. I’d eliminate those images that seemed redundant to the imagination, and I would try to look at the structure of the piece, locating those moments when the argument (for there is always an argument) breaks down, meanders, or skips ahead like a first-grader who is too clever for his own good.

Often, I’ll fiddle with the language here and there, checking the rhythm with scansion, looking for motifs (whether they are as simple as iambic pentameter or as complex as something Gerard Manley Hopkins might have imagined) that I can use at key points in the poem. I’ll search out repeated ideas or unnecessarily abstract words and weigh the benefit of keeping such an untoward word in something so small as a poem. And once I think I’m close, I’ll read the little beasty aloud, waiting like an over-cautious driver for potholes that slow my progress.

Of course, this, I suppose, is how I imagine my process. Like our lives, the truth of revision is both simpler and more complex than I can convey here. I often trust my gut and my ears. They’ve been around, after all. More, I’ve not listed myriad thoughts I’ve had and do have about poetry. I’ve not even mentioned the aesthetics of line breaks.

It takes practice.


How would you revise this little essay? What would you say differently? Would your answers to those questions depend on your mood? The weather?

The dogs, at last, have curled on the sofa to sleep. Michelle is lounging in the next room watching television. The revelers at the Westsider Fair have headed home or to bars and diners around the city. The briefest sprinkle of rain has ceased. My muscles ache from a long day of planned and unplanned excursions. On the other side of Ohio, my wife’s family has perhaps found a respite from their grief in a night of sleep. The house is clean, though cold. The lawn, at last, is mown.

If only we could revise our lives as we do our poetry.

I hope you see why it matters so much that we can.

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