"The Way It Is with My Father" by Hayden Saunier

Hayden Saunier is a poet and actor living near Philadelphia. Read the full text of this poem here. You can also read an interview with the poet at How a Poem Happens.

I was hooked first of all by this poem's title, which conveys neutrality (reportage) but also resignation: this is just "the way it is." This attitude of resignation is echoed later in the poem in the statement that there is "nothing to do but be here" at her father's bedside, presumably with her siblings who comprise the "we."

The title also offers two readings of the word "with." It can be read as an informal twist on that idea of reportage, as in "How are things with your father these days?" But the with of the title is also the first clue that the author as narrator will appear somewhere in the poem, however subtly. There's no I in this poem, only the my of the title and the we / us that appear much later, and the implied presence of the narrator "be[ing] here." There's also a very subtle our appearing within the first line in the naming of a "good hour," presumably an hour in which the poet and siblings are able to communicate directly with her father rather than simply sit and observe his state of being "adrift."

In the same way that the poet is referenced only indirectly, the emotion of the situation is not stated but implied—in fact, "tethered" like every character in this story (and like the short lines in stanzas 5 and 6: "Always he's tethered. / / As are we, alongside, watching / his hands worry the sheets"). The only overt emotion word in the poem finds its home in an image, converted into an observed action: "watching / his hands worry the sheets." The poet offers a dispassionate list of water-navigation tools (ways to attempt to control an outcome), "rudder, / paddle, outboard, sail," and a series of knots (ways to hold things in place), "bowline, clove hitch, sheet bend, square," then curves into a brief but powerful list of uncontrollable forces: "wind, current, tide."

As always, I'm taken in by the poem's music, which features an alternating melody of o and a sounds and long/short i sounds that somehow, as a whole, evoke the motion of water. Some of the strings of sound I love in this poem:

  • way, with, one / gunwales / watching, worry, we don't know which / working / we / were
  • one good hour, outboard, narrow, docked, own, nothing to do, long, canoe, above, rowed out, boy, alongside, worry, know, knots, bowline, clove, another force holds
  • adrift, its, tidy, sometimes, finds, Chickahominy river, bright sky, skiff, big ships, which, untie, clove hitch, bitter, if, wind, tide, his
  • days, paddle, sail, narrow / saw grass, father, always, watching, hands / square / all, hands

The reader feels, as the narrator presumably feels, both closely held and set adrift in this poem, with its juxtaposition of sailing imagery with the "tether" of multiple references to hands and holding.

"Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?" by Aimee Nezhukumatathil

I've always liked the tone of Aimee Nezhukumatathil's poetry, which seems to settle somewhere between humor and sadness. I also like her attention to the music of the language she chooses.

Read the full poem here.

The compact, sonnet-like form is densely populated: there's the "I" of the poet, the "you" of the reader (and of the specific audience of readers who have raised the title's question), and the "whole neighborhood of past loves" who rustle around the second half of the poem. But what I love the most about this poem is how it plays with singular and plural. The poet does all but number these imaginary husbands (although she does ask us to imagine "the number of bouquets [and] slices of cake"), and yet she calls them all "single" (as in "every single / one of them") while she is "married / [to] all of them." All the numbers are at odds here, which brings an interesting tension to the imagined world of multiple concurrent marriages: 

  • Singular sensory images: "a shark tooth stuck / in [a] heel," "a finished lollipop stick," "a thumbtack in [a] purse," "every last page," "every nuance," "a bubbling pot," "the stove," "the baby," "a fat chair," "the newspaper," "the shower."
  • The husbands are referenced individually: "one chops," "one stirs," "one changes," "one sleeps," "one flips," "another / whistles while he shaves," and "every single / one of them wonders." 
  • But also as a whole: "I have made them up—all of them" and "I married / all of them, a whole neighborhood."

The poem ends with the uplifting promise to the husbands (or to the reader) that "I am coming home" and yet it's really a lack of promise and a tense question: "every single / one of them wonders what time I am coming home."

And as always, the music:

  • shark, stuck, stick
  • If, finished, bit, whistles
  • by, surprise, bite, slices, times
  • mean, plan, even
  • purse, yes, last, past, us
  • page, wait, made
  • time, home

Somehow the music of the language she chooses gathers the poem together in a way that makes the tension bearable, and even funny.


How sound makes movement.

I'm meandering through The Crafty Poet: A Portable Workshop by Diane Lockward, and today this paragraph by Jeffrey Levine (a poet, publisher, and musician) is staying with me:

Here's what I know. Fully realized poems come from the body and appeal to the body. Words talk to each other with the full range of sounds and silences that life's music contains and fails to contain, embraced at either end by a line (that grid that gives the sentence its shape, that puts sufficient pressure on the words within to come alive). There, in those lines, guided by the gods of specificity and the muses of sensory details (those nine still hard-at-it daughters of Zeus), it is sound that gives life to a poem, gives space to its contents, gives shape to its denizens, and animates time itself, the push and pull of it, the pell-mell of it, the marking time of it, the very feel of movement is conveyed through the device of sound. Artfully done, the sounds of the line become the music of the line, and the music of the next line. They sing. 

"Haiku" by Etheridge Knight

The full text of this poem can be found at Poetry Foundation.

I first encountered this poem in middle school, and it blew my mind wide open to see that haiku (something I associated with gentle philosophical nature imagery) could be employed to convey the stark, sharp imagery of prison life. The poet deftly builds tension and narrative in a series of haiku formations ending with a forceful proclamation. "See this? See this? See this? ... Hear THIS." It's masterful.

The opening haiku/stanza is a marvel of word choice, the way he blurs the nouns and verbs and adjectives to put the reader on edge and demand close attention. Look at all the nouns and adjectives that could be verbs here: guard, tower, [sun]set, convicts, rest. By the time we get to lizards, they seem to have a verbish quality, too.

It was also one of the first poems I encountered whose musicality is unrelenting. The first stanza sets up the slithering soft "i" sound that will carry the remainder of the poem: glints, convicts, lizards. There's also unity in the profusion of "r" sounds just in the first stanza: Eastern, guard, tower, rest, lizards, rocks. By the time we reach the forceful AIN'T in the closing stanza, we've already been doused with long "a" sounds that could almost hold the narrative by themselves: A.M., jailhouse, graves, bare, flakes, aches, rays, making, AIN'T, square. Meanwhile, the "ah" sounds take us the full length of the poem from convicts to job. But boy is musically isolated; the tall boy of the poem, whoever he is, stands alone.


"Unfurlings" by Kathryn Stripling Byer

This poem by a mentor of mine is from her chapbook The Vishnu Bird (Jacar Press, 2015).

It's the last four lines that made me love this poem, the richness and delicious ambiguity of those double meanings. "Kindling" is dry twigs and discarded paper, but it's also potential energy, stuff that starts fires. To "let [something] fly" can mean giving it permission to literally ascend, but it can also mean to let go of an idea or ambition. But then again, to "let fly" could be to allow a furious burst of self-expression. And there's more kindling (potential) implied in the language of the final two lines: "you almost," "you could." We could even read it as implied permission from the poet, if we let the last two syllables of the last two lines ring out: you almost believe you could let fly. It's reader's choice: a lamentation about roads not taken, or an inventory of things that still could be. Or it's both—as these reflective moments in our lives so often are.

The format of this poem, its short lines and single run-on thought beginning with a verb command, is a departure from the slower-paced long lines of most of Byer's earlier work. As in so many of the poems that I love, the music here bolsters the message. This poem is like a dialogue between soft and hard sounds: the easy stretched-out "eh" of every / letter / breakfast / never / rest / itself / spread / left / whatever / let / tell and the gentle "ih" of denim / wrinkled / silly / lists / it / kindling / wings, compared to the sharp decisive vowel sounds of saved / dare / away / day / table / stained, piece / dream / here / believe, unroll / almost / outgrown / moment, tight / lie / grimy / aside / nightmare / wine / fly.

Two other significant choices are worth noting: the lack of hyphenation in most adjective phrases, including "wine splashed" and "cast aside wings," which seems to emphasize the verbs rather than the nouns; and the repeated words: every, you, the ______, here, life, Un- (the title "Unfurlings" and the first word "Unroll"), and—not to be overlooked in its simplicity and power—the frequent use of "and," which shifts to "or" in the last phrase.

Aside from the music that carries it, the power of this poem lies (for me) in the simplicity of its images, which is highlighted by word choice—all one or two syllables. The only three-syllable words in this poem: Unfurlings, recipe, unfoldings, whatever.

"Kitchen Maid with Supper at Emmaus, or The Mulata" by Natasha Tretheway

This poem from 1966 has an epigraph: "after the painting by Diego Velàzquez, ca. 1619." 

The painting is described thusly by curators at the National Gallery of Ireland: "The miraculous event depicted in the background leaves room in the foreground for a display of ordinary kitchen objects, attended by a Moorish servant." This scene from the Christ resurrection story was also painted by Rembrandt and many others.

(A note about the word "Moorish." An online dictionary defines it this way: "Of or relating to the Moors or their culture. Of, relating to, or being a style of Spanish architecture of the 8th to the 16th century, characterized by the horseshoe arch and ornate decoration."—which is telling when juxtaposed with its use in the description above of a person whose presence in a painting seems to be purely symbolic and, shall we say, decorative. For further reading, take a look at this page which states that "Moorish" has long been used as a catch-all reference for indigenous Africans and has no real ethnic or religious significance—also worth noting in the context of this painting.)

I provide this contextual preamble by way of emphasizing how Tretheway has used language to bring alive—might one even boldly say "resurrect"?—the individual personhood of the anonymous and objectified kitchen maid in the painting.

What strikes the reader first about this poem is the concrete physicality of it, the wash of sensory detail that pulls the reader into the world of the image. Vessels, table, copper pot, white pitcher, her hand (mentioned twice), black and red, mortar and pestle, stack of bowls, bulb of garlic, basket, white cloth, rag, white cap. The poet also uses language to move our attention around the "room" of the painting while also noting the physical details of the space: before her, tipped toward us, clutched in her hand, upside down / bent over, at rest in the mortar, angled in its posture, beside it, stain on the wall, size of her shadow, shape of a thumb, framed, behind her, leans into, light...on...her face. The poet uses repetition skillfully to enhance our sense of being in the room, including "she is" / "she's" occurring multiple times, "her hand" twice, and the lovely rhythmic lull of "the mortar / and the pestle at rest in the mortar." "Red" is also echoed in "the color of blood." "White" shows up four times; the use of white in the painting is a major aspect of its composition, of course, but it strikes me that the poet decided to heighten the presence of whiteness in the poem as well, and that the first use of "white" occurs in this phrase: "the white pitcher / clutched in her hand, the black one edged in red" (emphasis mine).

There's also the description of a "basket hung/ by a nail," a visual reference to the familiar image of Christ nailed to the cross. (Given that a black woman is the painting's focal point, and the fact that the poet is a black woman from Mississippi, I also read the use of "hung" at the line break as a reminder of lynchings in the Jim Crow south.)

No single line in the poem ends in a full stop, but the pause following the first line ("She is the vessels on the table before her") brings emphasis to "vessels," which is further emphasized by having no corresponding V consonant sound elsewhere in the poem. (The only other stand-alone consonant in the poem is the J of "Jesus.") Note what the poet has done here, or rather what she hasn't done: not "she is [like] a vessel," which would have further depersonalized the woman in the painting and reduced her to object status, but "she is the vessels"—she is plural, she is everywhere in this image, she is all—a comparison that gives power and universality to the woman while also heightening physicality. And the poem ends, not with any sentiment about Jesus, but with "light" on "her face."

Some of my favorite sounds in this poem: pitcher/mortar/posture, table/nail/stain/shape/framed/face, hand/black/angled/stack/basket/rag/shadow/cap/half, copper pot/posture/garlic/wall/cloth/recalling/falls, bowls/bulb/beside/basket/by/blood, stain/size/shadow/shape, listening/leans/light.

Maybe what's most striking to me about the language of this poem is the choice of verbs, the juxtaposition of "she is" (assertion of being) and "she leans" / "she knows" with all of the verbs that are done to the objects in the image: tipped, clutched, edged, (is) bent, angled, hung, bundled. Even Jesus himself doesn't do anything here, he is done to by the woman's presence: (is) echo(ed), (is) framed.

"The Blues Don't Change" by Al Young

I'd never seen this gem of a poem until last week, when it arrived in my inbox as the Poem of the Day from PoetryFoundation.org:

There's so much to say about this poem, other than my initial reaction, which was pretty much Wow. Wow... Wow.

I won't dive too deeply into content here, except to marvel at the richness of it. The title, I learned, is also the title of a song from a 1977 album of the same title by Albert King. There's so much to explore in the way this poem hints at the blues as musical and cultural heritage and also as destiny ("can't shake you").

The language... oh, what this poet does with language! I won't share all of my two pages of notes, but here are some highlights:

  • The title hints at a contradiction to come: the blues (as an entity/force that endures) don't change, but the blues do change everyone—the blues [verb] every [noun] in this poem.
  • The poem starts with "And" and ends with "but." It's an address to Blues, but there's a repeated shift in focus from "I" to "they" (and the "I" is a part of the collective "they"—no one escapes the blues).
  • The poem as a whole is metaphor-laden, and there's only one simile, "you're like a shadow," in which the verb "are" is tucked away into a contraction to minimize its impact, which heightens the shadowiness of something that's not always tangible but is always present.
  • The verbs! This poem is a riot of verbs. Even the more pedestrian verbs are powerful in this context: you are, you can't be, (you) don't care. Some verbs, like "shake" and "move," are repeated for emphasis, and some just pack a punch on their own—"reared and forwarded" and "stamped" with their double meanings, and the thrilling dance of all the rest: wombed and wounded, table-turning and soul-sucking, outfoxed, sting and scratch, wiggling, juggling, loosening, rolling.
  • Repetition plays a huge role. "You" appears 15 times and is the last word of the poem, as well as the only word other than "you are" that's italicized for emphasis. We also see explicit repetitions of "address" (used as a noun, but a play on the fact that the entire poem addresses Blues directly), _______ing their _______ / "loosening that goose," as well as things that shift slightly into other things on second reference: you can / you know how; can shake / can't shake, and "bodies" (a whole) reappearing as "boodies" (a part). There's also a kind of visual repetition in the similar syntax of "(The) Blues Don't Change" and "(they) can't shake you."
  • My entire second page of notes is about rhymes and alliteration. Man, this poem sings. And the rhymes have a kind of wonderful logic. The reader can choose a key word in the first lines and trace its rhymes all the way through the poem. "You" and "Blues" lead to wombed, wounded, move, into, loosening, goose. "I" takes us to Blue Rider, writing, diamond, style, frying pan. "Change" goes to table-turning, necessary, ain't, paint, stay, same way, shake (plus the visual similarity of "chance").
  • The one perfect-rhyming couplet that closes the second stanza also offers a hypnotic rhythmic pulse: "with color or theory or powder or paint."

This poem changed me on first reading and changes me a little more every time.

"Splinter" by Carl Sandburg

One of the many poetry books I recently brought home from the St. Francis Episcopal book sale is a paperback copy of Harvest Poems 1910-1960. I never hesitate to buy a used copy of a Sandburg collection; there's something about his work that lends itself to having been passed along from to hand to hand.

Sandburg was one of the writers whose work thrilled me when I was young. I recall being about 11 years old and soaking up every available scrap of language originating from Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Langston Hughes, and Carl Sandburg, voices that immediately felt like old friends. They still thrill me.

Carl Sandburg was one of the first poets to teach me that a poem could be very short and still hold enormous power through imagery and word choice. Here's an example:

My notes on this poem:

  • This isn't a quatrain—he could have so easily chosen to contain the image that way, with tidy end-rhymes. Instead, it's a tercet—three enjambed lines featuring two pieces of an image and a statement about the image, three lines that could have been an entire poem in themselves—followed by a final self-contained line that takes the image to a new level.
  • Word choice reinforces the singularity and loneliness/longing of the moment captured: The voice / one kind / It / a splinter. "Voice" is also emphasized because there's no other "v" sound in the poem (except the repetition of the softer end "v" in "of") and no close rhyme, although there is a loose tie to "one" and "so." And "one kind of good-by" implies that there are many kinds, that our lives are rich with endings and losses, which is underlined by the use of "last" and "first" in prominent positions in lines 1 and 2.
  • The last line offers a near-caesura, an almost-pause between the phrases "It is so thin" and "a splinter of singing," but the gap is lightly crossed through the music of "so thin a splinter." (A lesser poet would have ruined it with "It is such a thin splinter of singing.")
  • The "so" provides double emphasis by reaching to rhyme with "one" from within a field of other rhyme: It / is / thin.
  • Such lovely music throughout... voice/one/so, last/across/first/frost, kind/good-by, cricket/is/It/is/thin/splinter/singing, cricket/kind.

From "Notes for a Preface" in this collection (taken from The Complete Poems, 1950), Sandburg's musings on his writing life:

At the age of six, as my fingers first found how to shape the alphabet, I decided to become a person of letters. ... At fifty... there was puzzlement as to whether I was a poet, a biographer, a wandering troubadour with a guitar, a midwest Hans Christian Andersen, or a historian of current events... I am still studying verbs and the mystery of how they connect to nouns. I am more suspicious of adjectives than at any other time in all my born days. I have forgotten the meaning of twenty or thirty of my poems written thirty or forty years ago. I still favor several simple poems published long ago which continue to have an appeal for simple people. ... All my life I have been trying to learn to read, to see and hear, and to write. ... I should like to think that as I go on writing there will be sentences truly alive, with verbs quivering, with nouns giving color and echoes. It could be, in the grace of God, I shall live to be eighty-nine, as did Hokusai, and speaking my farewell to earthly scenes, I might paraphrase: "If God had let me live five years longer I should have been a writer."

He was eighty-nine on his last birthday.


"Mushrooms" by Sylvia Plath

Like her contemporary Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath's reputation proceeds her as a female confessional poet who eventually died by suicide. She seems to be most frequently remembered for "Daddy" or for her novel The Bell Jar, but the first Plath poem that really thrilled me with its language was "Mushrooms."

You can make of the metaphor what you like (as with any poem). The thrill, for me, is in the juxtaposition of the visual images—mushrooms being innocuously ignorable in one moment and seemingly everywhere in the next, with a surprising power that "even the paving" can't stop—with the very playful, almost dully pleasant language (it's "bland-mannered," as she says) that somehow transmutes into chant-like proclamations toward the end of the poem, and then finally resolving with three emotionless but chilling statements of fact: "Our kind multiplies: / / We shall by morning / Inherit the earth. / Our foot's in the door."

Some notes:

  • Emphasis with short lines of brief words
  • Enjambment used to speed up the poem's pace, but controlled somewhat by the capitalization of first lines
  • Sense of exponential growth provided by 3-line stanzas with 5 beats per line (one with 4 beats)
  • Repetition: our/us/we, "we are," "less" (earless, eyeless, voiceless), "nudgers and shovers"
  • take, air, betrays, grains make, paving, tables
  • fists insist, discreetly
  • spite, multiplies, kind, overnight, whitely, quietly, acquire, widen, diet
  • we, discreetly, sees, heaving, needles, leafy, even, earless, meek
  • morning, door, shoulder
  • toes, noses, hold, loam, shoulder through holes
  • room, foot's, door
  • very, bedding, shelves, edible, ourselves, inherit
  • hammers, rams, crannies, shadow, bland-mannered, asking
  • heaving, bedding, paving, asking, nothing, morning
  • All the ways that verbs twist and turn in this poem, giving the sense of both observation and lived experience—take hold, acquire, sees, stops, betrays, make room, insist, heaving, widen, shoulder through, diet, asking, are, multiplies, shall inherit. And the contracted "is" in the last line: "Our foot's in the door."

After spending time with this poem, I can see that the phrase "nudgers and shovers" influenced my own poem "Orientation."


What it is, and what it isn't.

This blog is not:

  • Focused on my own poetry, although this process of interacting with the language of other poets informs what I write. (To see a sample of my work, see What the Sky Throws Down.)
  • Intended as poetry criticism or in any way academic, even if I do use the word "studying" below.

This blog is:

  • A record of my process in studying, taking pleasure in, and getting excited about other poets' work.
  • A notebook of sorts—a digital parallel universe of the poetry notes I keep by hand.
  • An attempt to curate language in my own small, individual, inconsistent but well-meaning sort of way.
  • An invitation to a long human conversation about the important work of making things.

The phrase "seed-hungry fields" is borrowed from Denise Levertov. It appeared in her collection Breathing the Water.