Compressed Attention

One of my favorite poems that I didn’t write is “The Art of Blessing the Day” by Marge Piercy. It is framed in a way that uses some of the language of religion to talk about the beauty of the thing-ness of our lives and the events that don’t automatically get celebrated formally. It is in fact about poetry itself, in the widest sense, which is the sense I much prefer to the very narrow sense we get taught in school.


The Art of Blessing the Day


This is the blessing for rain after drought:
Come down, wash the air so it shimmers,
a perfumed shawl of lavender chiffon.
Let the parched leaves suckle and swell.
Enter my skin, wash me for the little
chrysalis of sleep rocked in your plashing.
In the morning the world is peeled to shining.

This is the blessing for sun after long rain:
Now everything shakes itself free and rises.
The trees are bright as pushcart ices.
Every last lily opens its satin thighs.
The bees dance and roll in pollen
and the cardinal at the top of the pine
sings at full throttle, fountaining.

This is the blessing for a ripe peach:
This is luck made round. Frost can nip
the blossom, kill the bee. It can drop,
a hard green useless nut. Brown fungus,
the burrowing worm that coils in rot can
blemish it and wind crush it on the ground.
Yet this peach fills my mouth with juicy sun.

This is the blessing for the first garden tomato:
Those green boxes of tasteless acid the store
sells in January, those red things with the savor
of wet chalk, they mock your fragrant name.
How fat and sweet you are weighing down my palm,
warm as the flank of a cow in the sun.
You are the savor of summer in a thin red skin.

This is the blessing for a political victory:
Although I shall not forget that things
work in increments and epicycles and sometime
leaps that half the time fall back down,
let’s not relinquish dancing while the music
fits into our hips and bounces our heels.
We must never forget, pleasure is real as pain.

The blessing for the return of a favorite cat,
the blessing for love returned, for friends’
return, for money received unexpected,
the blessing for the rising of the bread,
the sun, the oppressed. I am not sentimental
about old men mumbling the Hebrew by rote
with no more feeling than one says gesundheit.

But the discipline of blessings is to taste
each moment, the bitter, the sour, the sweet
and the salty, and be glad for what does not
hurt. The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.

Attention is love, what we must give
children, mothers, fathers, pets,
our friends, the news, the woes of others.
What we want to change we curse and then
pick up a tool. Bless whatever you can
with eyes and hands and tongue. If you
can’t bless it, get ready to make it new.


I think Piercy gets to the heart of the matter when she says:

The art is in compressing attention
to each little and big blossom of the tree
of life, to let the tongue sing each fruit,
its savor, its aroma and its use.
The work of the poet (not unlike one of the tasks of the lover) is to pay attention to the details. God is in the details. We have only to look, and we have to look. We look at everything outside ourselves, and then, if we dare, we can start to look at all the things that are inside ourselves, and then we look out again.

And then we write.

Marge Piercy. The Art of Blessing the Day. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1999.

Grr. Arrgh. More Writer’s Block

In J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, when the wizard Saruman, wears robes “woven of all colors” because he has fallen from the path of the wise, Gandalf (the Grey) says, “I liked white better.” This is Saruman’s reply:

“White!” he sneered. “It serves as a beginning. White cloth may be dyed. The white page can be overwritten; and the white light can be broken.”

Now here’s the thing for me a writer. Saruman is clearly evil here, because he is saying the white page can be overwritten like it’s a bad thing.

For me as a writer, constantly trying to produce, this is definitely not a bad thing. So this past week struggling to come up with blog posts, I have tried a variety of things, but today I actually just broke down and turned to Google Images to find pictures to express how I feel: tired, afraid, studious, interrupted. Clearly Person of Interest (and a little bit of Angel) are helping me out here.


Then I went and found pictures about how I want to feel: badass.


Well, it must have worked, because what we have here, children, is a blog post.

Elevating Experience avec Tous Les Mots Justes

I just had half a discussion about why we read poetry and I am thinking at the same time about why I write poetry. I think during the Teenage Angst Years, I wrote for the same reasons a lot of kids write: to Express My Inner Turmoil. This is not a bad reason for writing, and if you can also make money off it (which some novelists and pop singers do manage to do), that’s even better.

Sometimes I write to experiment with sound, as I did when I wrote a dozen poems about Jack of the Beanstalk with tons of internal rhyme to get a bit more of a constant rhythm going, or when I wrote twice that many about flamenco, using staccato short lines to try to convey the percussion’s feeling.

Sometimes I write to tell stories, as I do when I unpack what I think is going on in a Japanese woodblock. Sometimes I write to take a story that already is out there—Jack of the B, Xena Warrior Princess, the Wright brothers—and go deeper into it, looking at it from a few sides.

But sometimes it seems just a matter of elevating experience, giving dignity to our joys and sorrows as Marge Piercy might say, through finding all the exactly right words to make Truth happen.

Language, People!


So last week my writing students at MIT were given a piece by science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s book About Writing. The passage I like best says, “Use the precise word. Don’t say ‘gaze’ when you mean ‘look.’ Don’t say ‘ambled’ or ‘sauntered’ or ‘stalked’ when you mean ‘walked.’ (And don’t say ‘walked’ when you mean one of the others.) As far as the creative writer goes, the concept of synonyms should be a fiction for high school and first-and second-year college students to encourage them to improve their vocabularies. The fact is (as writers from Georg Christoff Lichtenberg [1742-99] in the eighteenth century to Alfred Bester [1913-87] in the twentieth have written), ‘There are no synonyms'” (4).

Similarly, poet Marge Piercy says (somewhere probably in this book but I cannot find it) that every poet should have, in addition to a good dictionary and thesaurus, a set of Peterson’s Field Guides to trees and flowers and birds. There is a difference between a grackle and a sparrow, a walnut tree and an oak. Similarly, when you get a good thesaurus, that means Roget’s, NOT Mirriam-Webster. For “Color” Mirriam-Webster says things like “hue” and “tint.” Roget’s gives you all kinds of reds, oranges, yellows, greens, etc. Some are from flowers, others from gems. Always look up the thing to see what it came from.

Particulars persuade, people. So watch your language!

Delany, Samuel R. About Writing. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2006.

Piercy, Marge. Parti-Colored Blocks for a Quilt. Ann Arbor: U Michigan P, 1999.

Discovering the Cento


So the other day, I was reading Robert Okaji’s poetry blog and he gave an example of a form of poetry I had never before heard of, the cento, a patchwork poem made from the lines of other poems. Naturally, I immediately wanted to do this, and today I sat down and did. I picked out some of my favorite volumes by some of my favorite writers on my main poetry shelf (the one I can reach without a ladder or chair) and went to work. My cat jumped up on the table, settled himself under his tanning lamp with his feet on my wrist and watched. So here it is. I have listed the poem each line is from below. They are in reverse chronological order because I moved from A to Z and put the stack down backwards. Sigh. See what you think.


Ah, the shining pastures of salt:

Flames bouncing off the river’s back,

A photograph of an eagle just setting down,

Bright fog reaching over the beaches.

How poignant and amplified the world before me seemed.

In this condition I write extraordinary love poems,

Strengthening our embrace.

I mostly chose lines that had roughly similar rhythm and length and ended with a short line, as that feels more musical. I like it because it is sort of representative of the inner geography of my mind when I sit down to write: the inside reality is bigger and grander than the outside reality. And I have been writing love poems of a sort lately; I am not actually in love myself, it is only part of a project. Then again, May Sarton would say that all writing is a love poem because love is attention to details.

Willard, Nancy. Missionaries among the Heathen. Water Walker.

Troupe, Quincy. Snakeback Solo #2. Avalanche.

Piercy, Marge. What Goes Up. Stone, Paper, Knife.

Ursula K. LeGuin. Incredible Good Fortune, Incredible Good Fortune.

Collins, Billy. Marginalia, and Purity. Sailing Along around the Room.

Boland, Eavan. VII. First Year, Against Love Poetry.

OToole, Robert. Eagle Morning Strike. Photo.

The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Writer


In the end, we all write alone.

As a performing introvert, sometimes I revel in the solitude and sometimes I get edgy and want to talk to other people about the things I am writing about. Not imaginary people, like editors of journals and their subscribers. Real people with faces and names and opinions. At least, that is what it feels like.

I don’t know a lot of poets these days. Working in academia, I know a lot of fiction writers, scholars, science writers, bloggers and at least two recovering journalists. This is usually enough, as the issues we all face in terms of writing process and simply putting down the right words in the right order are ubiquitous regardless of genre. Having some writer friends is not only helpful; I would argue that it is necessary for your long-term happiness as a working writer. There are some things that only other writers understand:

  • the habit of leaving a notepad in the bathroom for 3 am inspirations
  • the frustration with having thought of the almost-right word (no, that is not good enough, dammit)
  • the victory of writing 1665 words a day for more than two weeks in a row
  • scribbling the lyrics to a new song idea on the inside of your Dunkin Donuts bag, sometimes before you get around to eating the donut
  • those white-noise days when you stare at page or screen for hours and produce nothing
  • the feeling of “Damn, I’m good!”* when you finish an exquisite bit of writing even you didn’t know you were capable ofdamnfinemug

You can experience the joys and pains alone, but it is exhausting, especially when you are also submitting work to those imaginary editors out there in Journal Land and receiving form rejections back in a much higher proportion than the acceptances. And, alone, you can solve the obstacles in your writing—the clunky transitions, the fifth draft ending that still sucks—but it will go faster with a friend.

When I think of this, I think of otters, who sleep on their backs on the water, holding hands so that they don’t get separated. Sometimes, you just need a buddy.


* A college friend of mine had a mug that said this. I have always thought it would be a great mug for a writer. George Eliot at the least would have found it invaluable.

Inspiration Tip: Revisiting Old Friends


One way I rev the engine of creation when I am stuck in neutral gear is to go back to one of my favorite poets, often Marge Piercy, Billy Collins, or Nancy Willard, but occasionally someone less famous. A while back I was updating the Publication section on my Curriculum Vitae, which entailed digging through contributer’s copies. During the 1990s, I published a lot of my poems about art in a then-new journal called Ekphrasis, which means–get this–poems about art.

It is still around, a great little journal, and one of the best things about it is that it publishes some really cool poetry/poets. One of the poets I discovered there was Simon Perchik, who writes these skinny little poems with lines that just blow my mind. His line “or perhaps your shadow overflowing again” (from “D111”) inspired a poem about a panic attack; “today is missing/the ground is missing” (from “D180”) inspired a poem about an anxiety attack on a hot summer day. I cannot find some of the other poems; they were not all about mental health!

The ending of one of my favorite Nancy Willard poems was put on postcards several years back in a Poetry in Public sort of program. This is from “The Hardware Store as Proof of the Existence of God.”

“In a world not perfect but not bad either

let there be glue, glaze, gum, and grabs,

caulk also, and hooks, shackles, cables, and slips,

and signs so spare a child may read them,

Men, Women, In, Out, No Parking, Beware the Dog.

In the right hands, they can work wonders.”

Willard, Nancy. Water Walker. New York: Knopf, 1989.

Practical Poetry

You might think, if you are not a poet, that poetry isn’t practical. You might recall Ernest Hemingway’s assertion that “Prose is architecture, not interior decoration,” and think, well, maybe poetry is interior decoration… You would be wrong. Or, if right, not in the way you think.

Poetry won’t keep the rain off your head and unless you have a really thick hardback book of it in your breast pocket, it probably won’t save your life. (Teddy Roosevelt once survived an assassination attempt because he had a thick speech in his pocket, but bullets were slower and smaller back then.) Poetry does not protect us the way architecture does. But what is the practical purpose of interior decoration?

Many of us, when thinking of interior decoration in the abstract, might think of the crowded Victorian parlor with its innumerable mementos on tables and mantles, and walls so filled with pictures that the wallpaper is invisible: lots of things that have little value and serve mainly to distract the viewer and make the room feel full. Abundance presumably symbolizes wealth here, with quantity being more important than quality.vic parlor

It is no surprise then that it wasn’t the Victorians who invented the haiku! A lot of us were taught that the haiku is a 17-syllable poem of 3 lines, of 5, 7, and 5 syllables each. Actually that defines a senryu, which can be about any topic. Strictly speaking, a haiku needs to be about nature, the seasons, etc. But here is the problem that nobody explains. A 17-syllable poem in Japanese might have as few as 5 to 8 words. The word sensei, teacher, sounds like only 2 syllables in English, but in Japanese, it is 4 syllables: se-n-se-i. So those brilliant haiku poets, Basho and Issa? They are even more brilliant than you thought!


Similarly Japanese interior decoration is traditionally minimalist. A home might have a room where you would greet guests, and in that room is an alcove called the tokonoma where the family will display a scroll or flower arrangement or holiday decoration. Not ten. One. Keeping it simple and classy. Often the decoration will change with the seasons, making a small artistic statement about how we move through the year, and how the seasons move through us. I think poetry can be like that, a beautiful moment to acknowledge a truth about the world and ourselves. And to me, that kind of poetry is very useful, very practical.

In the introduction to her 1982 collection of poetry, Marge Piercy explained how she wanted her poems to be of use. “What I mean by useful is simply that readers will find poems that speak to and for them, will take those poems into their lives and say them to each other and put them up on the bathroom w all and remember bits and pieces of them in stressful or quiet moments. That the poems may give voice to something in the experience of a life has been my intention. To find ourselves spoken for in art gives dignity to our pain, our anger, our lust, our losses. We can hear what we hope for and what we must fear, in the small release of cadenced utterance. We have few rituals that function for us in the ordinary chaos of our lives” (xii).

This is what I look for in poetry that I read, and this is what I work for in poetry that I write.

Piercy, Marge. Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy. New York: Knopf, 1982.

The Benefits of Levitas over Gravitas

About two centuries ago Napoleon said, “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a single step.” Well, actually, he said it in French, so it probably sounded more impressive, but my high school French is limited, to say the least, so were going to stick with English here. When I think about truly ridiculous poetry, I think of the greats: Ogden Nash, Dorothy Parker, Shel Silverstein, Calvin Trillin, Lewis Carrol, J.R.R. Tolkien, Walt Kelly, and Edward Lear.

But poetry doesn’t have to be ridiculous to be funny, and often a funny poem can move someone who is leery of being moved by a more serious poem. And there are a lot of people like that. I blame fifth grade teachers.

Do not misunderstand me. I applaud the long hard labor of grammar school teachers. I admire their endless patience and willingness to work with Other People’s Children at an age when kids still have too much energy to sit still all day. However, as an English teacher in college for the last two decades, I have seen that a lot of damage gets done to kids by teachers who think they know what poetry and writing should be, even though by definition they probably don’t have time to do much of it themselves.

Whenever I teach a literature class, I first ask my students to raise their hands if they hate poetry. Usually a third raise their hands and one or two say, “Well, I don’t hate it but I don’t understand it.”

To them I promise that they might come to feel differently about poetry, hopefully better. The rest of the students I promise that they will not come to hate poetry because of me. Because I guarantee that if a person hates poetry, it is because a particular person made them hate it. Some teacher, most likely, either insisted that her/his reading of a poem was the Only One Allowable, or she/he insisted that a poem could mean anything at all (which any ten year old can tell you means that the poem means nothing). Neither of these readings is really useful.

And if I have students who Really Detest Poetry, then I give them a copy of Marge Piercy’s “Attack of the Squash People,” which begins:

“And thus the people every year

in the valley of humid July

did sacrifice themselves

to the long green phallic god

and eat and eat and eat.


They’re coming, they’re on us

the long striped gourds, the silky

babies, the hairy adolescents,

the lumpy vast adults

like the trunks of green elephants.

Recite fifty zucchini recipes!”

Now a lot of my students grew up in urban environments, but still most people know the trope of planting “a few vegetables” and ending up with a whole lot more than they bargained for, a whole lot more than they, their families, friends, and neighbors can eat. And the poem isn’t just about the humor of overabundance. It ends with something worth remembering:

“You give and give

too much, like summer days

limp with heat, thunderstorms

bursting their bags on our heads,

as we salt and pickle and freeze

for the too little to come.”

Another lesson that can be taught with a funny poem is how less is, yes, more. My favorite example of this is Lucille Clifton’s “wishes for sons,” which begins like this:

“i wish them cramps.

i wish them a strange town

and the last tampon.

i wish them no 7-11.


i wish them one week early

and wearing a white skirt.

i wish them one week late.”

Understatement gets the job done. No extra details are necessary. We see the speaker’s sons learning the hard way what it is like to be a woman. This kind of gentle humor, stripped-down form and simple diction are characteristic of Clifton’s work. I love how the poem ends:

“let them think they have accepted

arrogance in the universe,

then bring them gynecologists

not unlike themselves.”

This one inevitably wins over the women. I have other poems to help with winning over the men.


Clifton, Lucille. Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems, 1988 2000. New York: BOA Editions, 2000.

Piercy, Marge. Circles on the Water: Selected Poems of Marge Piercy. New York: Knopf, 1982.