The Leaves Begin to Fall

I was talking to an MIT senior the other day about her application for a scholarship. In it, she said that life doesn’t have a prescribed arc. Agreeing that this was true, I pointed out that an individual life tends to move in spirals, that the things that were minor interests might a decade or two later become an obsession (a larger loop), and obsessions from one age might become minor background noise many years later (a smaller loop). But we are likely to continue to care about the same or at least similar subjects throughout our lives.


For example, I have always been more or less religious. I came “this” close to becoming a Roman Catholic nun thirty-some years ago. With friends, I co-founded Middlebury College’s Interfaith Council. After I left the Roman Church and became Episcopalian, I got a Master of Arts in Christian theology. This all happened across twenty-five years.

I have always been a martial artist. I started out in high school doing Aikido, went to college and did Japanese karate. Thirty years later, I practice Chinese kung fu. Although years of therapy have taught me that not all interactions are inherently competitive or combative, I still tend to face the world prepared to do battle. So sue me.

I am a poet, have been since high school. I’ve published in professional journals, was nominated once for the Pushcart Prize, and have taught in university night school. I write (sorta! sometimes!) this blog. I see the world in pictures and turns of phrase.

I have in other places described these patterns as being my watermark: the Battling Bard of Boston, who wrestles with God and man. Yeah, it’s a little over the top, but it works for me.

The point is that these pieces of my identity are always going to be the first I will draw on when I am faced with troubling times.

And, let’s face it, children: these are troubling times indeed.

When tiki torches are not being used to lend a quiet glow to gatherings of families and friends, but to lend the element of fire to make an American Nazi rally more terrifying, we’re doing something wrong.


When a disturbed young man drives an SUV into a crowd at a peaceful protest that he disagrees with, killing a woman, and state legislatures contemplate legislation that will legalize “accidental” death when a car hits people in a road, we’re doing something wrong.

When we see two Category 5 hurricanes in two weeks–with more on the way–and dozens of our legislators, who ought to have the education to know better, still deny the existence and increasing power of climate change, we’re doing something wrong.


So yes, I am deeply troubled, but I am done being troubled and silent about it. I don’t want to spread pain around. That never goes well. But I do want to question power structures that support unegalitarian regimes of social interaction:

  • Confederate statues that lionize the losers of an attack on US unity, for the purpose of making people of color feel attacked;
  • gerrymandering that prioritizes white communities over communities of color in voting–just as they are in environmental and educational justice;
  • and the lag in money for infrastructure in communities of color, compared with affluent white communities.

And don’t even get me started on the whole GOP attack on Obamacare. God knows that American healthcare, while having the potential to be the best in the world, lags sorely in people’s ability to access and pay for it.

Troubling times, in a country whose founding principles call us to do much, much better.


In 1775, Patrick Henry encouraged the convention in Virginia to allow him to organize a company of volunteer cavalry in every county in Virginia to protect themselves from the attack that he saw soon to come from the British. He said:

The question before the House is one of awful moment to this country….  Mr. President, it is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? Are we disposed to be of the number of those who, having eyes, see not, and, having ears, hear not, the things which so nearly concern their temporal salvation? For my part, whatever anguish of spirit it may cost, I am willing to know the whole truth; to know the worst, and to provide for it….

“Sir, we have done everything that could be done, to avert the storm which is now coming on. We have petitioned; we have remonstrated; we have supplicated; we have prostrated ourselves before the throne, and have implored its interposition to arrest the tyrannical hands of the ministry and Parliament. Our petitions have been slighted; our remonstrances have produced additional violence and insult; our supplications have been disregarded; and we have been spurned, with contempt, from the foot of the throne….

Gentlemen may cry, Peace, Peace, but there is no peace. The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!”

I am not quite ready to say the same thing, and I hope I never have to. But at times like these, we need to remember that the people of this country have endured times like these before, and like them, we will overcome them if we, like they, stand up.


Source: Wirt, William. Sketches of the Life and Character of Patrick Henry . (Philadelphia) 1836, as reproduced in The World’s Great Speeches, Lewis Copeland and Lawrence W. Lamm, eds., (New York) 1973.

33 Years of Poetizing!


Well, it does not seem possible, but I have been writing poetry seriously for 33 years. Such a landmark seems to require a thoughtful contemplation of what I have learned, and also a giddy Snoopy dance of celebration. First the contemplative bit.

Some of my poetry is conversational. Conversations in different languages have their own music. English tends to march along, which is why iambic pentameter is historically such a popular rhythm in our literature. Japanese is more takataka takataka, as they say, at least in the cities. The romance languages are more fluid and flowing. One way to achieve this kind of music is through internal rhyme and slant rhyme. Rather than putting a perfect rhyme (bright light) at the end of lines, you put them in the middle of lines, and not necessarily at the same distance from each other. A slant rhyme (light bide) pulls the reader’s attention without drawing too much attention to itself, a bit like the difference between a cat tapping you on the arm rather than jumping into your lap. You can see examples of this at poetry slams, spoken word events and other performances.

I have learned a lot about why and how revising happens. This post by Ann Michael on gestation says it quite well.

I have learned about dealing with rejection, which for me is having many eggs in many baskets, and only caring deeply about the eggs I am currently laying, rather than the ones I have sent off to become omelets. Many writers struggle with this. There are even whole books about it.

One of the hardest things for some people is abandoning projects that are going nowhere. I remember the utter aghast looks on my college classmates’ faces when a visiting poet said that if the work in his Not Yet drawer still didn’t work after half a dozen passes with weeks or months in between, he chucked it. But honestly, sometimes it make sense to, you should forgive the phrase, Let It Go. Though as one of my colleagues has recently shown, it is not always easy.

Lastly, I have learned that although we all write alone, we are saner and wiser if we also surround ourselves with a community of other writers and artists and people who are trying to make order out of chaos.

And when you have the opportunity, do the Hokey Pokey to bagpipe music.

Line Endings, Line Beginnings


I was first made aware of the importance of line endings in the mid-1990s, when a friend of a friend was taking a class with Bill Knott, a professor at Emerson College. Apparently, this young man was sitting in a workshop and Bill was reading his poem. Bill looked at him over his glasses and asked, “Why do you break your lines where you do?” Baffled, the young man just shrugged. Bill balled the poem up and bounced it off the young man’s head.

Whether or not that caused enlightenment for that student, the story of it sure did for me. I spent the next two years studying how different poets broke their lines. I read somewhere that the last lines of a poem should, on their own, sound like a poem. (Obviously, they were talking about free verse, since formal forms or even Hallmark Card Crap have their own logic for ending lines, whether with rhyme or with repeated words, etc.) Here is an example taken at random from one of my college textbooks, Beginning with Poems: An Anthology, the end words of Wallace Stevens’ “The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man”:

baths soul clouds leaves gold white wind sky

suddenly rays myths gods grenadine occurs stars alone life life bronze

That is the easy part of line breaks. What took me much longer to realize is that, just perhaps, the first words of the lines might also be a poem, though they rarely are. Let’s take the first words from the same poem:

one’s one’s occur occurred of as came threw

could would around the to and and it has that that.

You see the problem. We get so caught up with our last word that our first words tend to be articles, auxiliary verbs, prepositions and conjunctions–grammar words, not sensory words. Now there is nothing wrong with grammar; we couldn’t very well communicate without it. But if I am going to put a word in a power position of a poem, I probably don’t want that word to be “of.” Or at least not often.

HOWEVER, having just looked at the few poems I have in a file on my computer here at MIT, I realize that I have not been paying very close attention to this lately. (Bad poet, go sit in the corner!) So I wrote a new poem.

“My cat is a poem with claws,” she said,

mopping up the blood that still spilled

from her arm where that fluffy ebony

ninja clung hard before leaping off the bed

and onto the dresser. “Most poems,” I said,

hesitantly, “do not draw blood.” But she

laughed and threw the tissue away. “Most

poems also do not eat kibble and poop in a small

sandbox. But some poems snuggle up to you,

tangled in the blankets of a Sunday morning. Some

poems see your hands resting on the keyboard and lie

down upon them, purring. Some poems will even

pat your face to wake you up at four in the morning

on a day when you didn’t need to rise early.”

Her cat watched me with narrowed, golden eyes.

Brower, Reuben A., Anne D. Ferry, and David Kalstone, eds. Beginning with Poems: An Anthology. New York: Norton, 1966. (Its date explains why the examples are mostly British with a few Americans and why, out of 62 poets, only 3 of them are women.)

Bonus points if you recognize the pun in the picture.

Poetry and Cathedrals: An Introduction

When I think about poetry, I often think about cathedrals.

This does not mean that I think poetry is a place to get lots of people who believe more or less the same thing, and a bishop who would probably LOVE it if they actually did, together to sing really loud so it echoes a hundred feet up in the rafters where the gargoyles can sing along, although that is nice too.singing gargoyle

Nor am I necessarily thinking of it as a place where a thief on the run could claim sanctuary from the posse carrying torches and pitchforks and chasing him down, although, now that I think of it, it would be very cool if poems could do that.

No, I am thinking about the architecture, the repeating fractals of the arches and windows and niches for statues of saints, repetitions like rhymes in stone. Salisbury_cathedral_plan

I am thinking about how, back in the twelfth century or so in Europe, they did not have a single consistent unit of measurement. A foot in a particular building was based on the length of one guy’s foot, say, Geoffry the masterbuilder. Then they figured out a good solid square size, say, twenty feet by twenty feet, and they repeated that square size outward to create the cross-section that made the plan of the cathedral. Given this apparently random style of measurement, the classic Gothic cathedrals of Europe are remarkably consistent, each within itself, even if not compared to each other.

Poems are like that. Even when there is a formal form, like a sonnet or a haiku, each poet is going to interpret it in his or her own way, turning something that is, after all, just a rule driven construction into a piece of art, a place where we can go to inhabit the poet’s ideas and imagination and hopefully his or her love of language. (I say hopefully because, unfortunately I think many poets are so in love with rhyme for its own sake that they don’t give the words they choose enough thought. And that can’t be good.)Salisbury_Cathedral_Detail_Arches

This blog will examine these kinds of ideas about poetry. There is a great line, attributed to Martin Mull, that says, “Talking about music is like dancing about architecture.” It is difficult to talk about one sense without referring to the other senses. Similarly, trying to elucidate structure means we use whatever language we have for structure, which is often architectural. I believe that to best represent the work of creativity that is poetry, I am going to have to draw on a lot of fields and the language of a lot of different arts. (Whoo hoo! Research party!)

I also intend to be very opinionated, because after all, I have been writing poetry for over thirty years, publishing it for more than twenty, and I feel that I have a right to my hard-won professional opinions. I can tell you what I have learned from my students, and also hopefully teach you the things I taught them that they have found useful.

We will also have fun, because I grew up reading the poetry of Ogden Nash, Dr. Seuss and Walt Kelly, and if I had only read the Terribly Serious Poets, I would most likely not be a poet today. So I will end with the words of Dorothy Parker:

“In youth, it was a way I had,
To do my best to please.
And change, with every passing lad
To suit his theories.

But now I know the things I know
And do the things I do,
And if you do not like me so,
To hell, my love, with you.”
Dorothy Parker, The Complete Poems of Dorothy Parker