Poems with Backbone

April 8, 2016

Watercolor painting of daisies with rock pile

Watercolor painting of daisies with rock pile

“A poem should consist of two parts rocks, one part daisy. . . . If the rocks aren’t in the poem, you won’t be able to appreciate the daisy.  And if you take out the rocks, so all that’s left is daisy, well, that’s all that’s left.  It’s not so yellow anymore.  It wilts.  You want hard language to convey soft thought, because in the end all poetry is about love, and no one wants love without backbone.”
— Roger Rosenblatt, from Thomas Murphy


The Poetry of Letters

April 7, 2016

Did you know that there is a category of poems called “epistolary poems,” that the Academy of American Poets describes this way:  “Epistolary poems, from the Latin “epistula” for “letter,” are, quite literally, poems that read as letters. As poems of direct address, they can be intimate and colloquial or formal and measured. The subject matter can range from philosophical investigation to a declaration of love to a list of errands, and epistles can take any form, from heroic couplets to free verse.”

Because I love writing and receiving handwritten letters, I offer you one example of an epistolary poem in honor of National Poetry Month:

Letter to N.Y.
by Elizabeth Bishop

For Louise Crane

In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl,

and the trees look so queer and green
standing alone in big black caves
and suddenly you’re in a different place
where everything seems to happen in waves,

and most of the jokes you just can’t catch,
like dirty words rubbed off a slate,
and the songs are loud but somehow dim
and it gets so terribly late,

and coming out of the brownstone house
to the gray sidewalk, the watered street,
one side of the buildings rises with the sun
like a glistening field of wheat.

–Wheat, not oats, dear. I’m afraid
if it’s wheat it’s none of your sowing,
nevertheless I’d like to know
what you are doing and where you are going.


Hand-painted card and envelope for my sister


Decorated envelope

I love embellishing my correspondence so sometimes my close friends and family get a hand-painted envelope or card with their dose of news.  I recently stumbled across a blog, The Postman’s Knock, devoted to the arts of and lettering and specially designed letters, and if you want some inspiration, please check it out.  In the meantime, here are a few more of my more recent creations:








“I can’t remember
every spring,
I can’t remember
everything —

so many years!
Are the morning kisses
the sweetest
or the evenings

or the in-betweens?
All I know
is that “thank you” should appear

So, just in case
I can’t find
the perfect place —
“Thank you, thank you.”
— Mary Oliver



Watercolor painting of tulips in a vase


Look. Look. Jump. Jump.

April 5, 2016

Dick and Jane reader

Dick and Jane reader

I am a child of the 1950s and I learned how to read with the Dick and Jane books.  I love how Billy Collins looks back on this time in childhood.  And how he hints at the shadow side of schooling, how it habituates us to perhaps standardized responses and crushes our innocent, individual ways of being in the world.  How gradually we forget our true selves, our true ways of seeing the world.

First Reader
by Billy Collins

I can see them standing politely on the wide pages
that I was still learning to turn,
Jane in a blue jumper, Dick with his crayon-brown hair,
playing with a ball or exploring the cosmos
of the backyard, unaware they are the first characters,
the boy and girl who begin fiction.

Beyond the simple illustration of their neighborhood
the other protagonists were waiting in a huddle:
frightening Heathcliff’, frightened Pip, Nick Adams
carrying a fishing rod, Emma Bovary riding into Rouen.

But I would read about the perfect boy and his sister
even before I would read about Adam and Eve, garden and gate,
and before I heard the name Gutenberg, the type
of their simple talk was moving into my focusing eyes.

It was always Saturday and he and she
were always pointing at something and shouting “Look!”
pointing at the dog, the bicycle, or at their father
as he pushed a hand mower over the lawn,
waving at aproned Mother framed in the kitchen doorway,
pointing toward the sky, pointing at each other.

They wanted us to look but we had looked already
and seen the shaded lawn, the wagon, the postman.
We had seen the dog, walked, watered, and fed the animal,
and now it was time to discover the infinite, clicking
permutations of the alphabet’s small and capital letters.
Alphabetical ourselves in the rows of classroom desks,
we were forgetting how to look, learning how to read.



Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Mid pond and residence

Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island, Mid pond and residence

The Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island is another of the gardens featured in Donald Olson’s The Pacific Northwest Garden Tour.  I vaguely remember visiting about 20 years ago, and I resolved to return this year with my camera.

This month is an especially good time to visit because the Bloedel Reserve has on display a special poetry exhibit to coincide with National Poetry Month.  Twenty-one poems are printed on wooden signs that are situated throughout the grounds.  This temporary exhibit was curated by University of Washington professor Linda Bierds and local author/poet David Guterson.  I thought they did an exceptional job selecting poems that fit the unique features of the landscape.  Reflecting on the images in the poems while pausing to enjoy those same subjects in the natural world around you added a deeper meaning to the experience of being there.


You explore the grounds by following a groomed trail and map.  They take you through a typical Pacific Northwest forest — very green, with tall trees swaying in the wind — past ponds and marshy wet areas.  There are more formal grounds around the residence, a Japanese garden with guest house, sand and stone “Zen” garden, a moss garden, and a reflecting pool.  So much variety unfolding before your eyes!

Path in a meadow

Path in a meadow


Trail past the sheep barns

Trail past the sheep barns






Stairs to waterfall overlook

Stairs to waterfall overlook
















Interior, Bloedel residence

Interior, Bloedel residence


The Bloedel Reserve is a perfect day trip from Seattle, and it is very easy to get there using public transportation.  When you disembark the ferry at Winslow on Bainbridge Island, catch the B. I. Ride right in front of the terminal.  The fare is $2, and the Bloedel Reserve is one of the scheduled stops.  It will drop you off at the gates of the reserve.



Living Poetically

April 30, 2014

National Poetry Month. 30




“We do not all have to be poets, but if we do not want to live meaninglessly, then we need to give ourselves over sometimes to the time of inwardness and contemplation, to empathy and aesthetic wonder.  We need to mull and muse. . .”
— Eva Hoffman, Time

Seek to Be Startled

April 29, 2014

National Poetry Month. 29

“Your poem effectively begins at the first moment you’ve surprised or startled yourself.”
— Stephen Dunn, “The Poet as Teacher:  Vices and Virtues,” from Walking Light:  Essays and Memoirs

At the Seattle Aquarium, all manners of strangeness

At the Seattle Aquarium, all manners of strangeness

“Poems, I think, have to be true to the fact.  But they need to defamiliarize what we already know while they are talking about the familiar.  This is the burden of the artist, literally and figuratively to bring the strange home.”
—  Stephen Dunn, “Bringing the Strange Home,” from Walking Light:  Essays and Memoirs

“[Poems] must make available the strangeness that is our lives.”
— Stephen Dunn, “Bringing the Strange Home,” from Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs

“Surely those folks who play their lives and their work eminently safe don’t often put themselves in the position where they can be startled or enlarged.  Don’t put themselves near enough to the realm of the unknown where discovery resides, and joy has been rumored to appear.  The realm of the unknown is contiguous to the realm of failure.”
— Stephen Dunn, “Gambling: Remembrances and Assertions,” from Walking Light: Essays and Memoirs







Off Trail

April 28, 2014

National Poetry Month. 28

Hiker dwarfed by Mount Rainier

Hiker dwarfed by Mount Rainier

Off the Trail
by Gary Snyder

We are free to find our own way
Over rocks — through the trees —
Where there are no trails.  The ridge and the forest
Present themselves to our eyes and feet
Which decide for themselves
In their old learned wisdom of doing
Where the wild will take us.  We have
Been here before.  It’s more intimate somehow
Than walking the paths that lay out some route
That you stick to.
All paths are possible, many will work,
Being blocked is its own kind of pleasure,
Getting through is a joy, the side-trips
And detours show down logs and flowers.
The deer paths straight up, the squirrel tracks
Across, the outcroppings lead us on over.
Resting on treetrunks,
Stepping out on the bedrock, angling and eyeing
Both making choices — now parting our ways —
And later rejoin: I’m right, you’re right,
We come out together.  Mattake, “Pine Mushroom,”
Heaves at the base of a stump.  The dense matted floor
Of Red Fir needles and twigs.  This is wild!
We laugh, wild for sure,
Because no place is more than another,
All places total,
And our ankles, knees, shoulders &
Haunches know right where they are.
Recall how the Dao De
Jing puts it:  the trail’s not the way.
No path will get you there, we’re off the trail,
You and I, and we chose it!  Our trips out of doors
Through the years have been practice
For this ramble together,
Deep in the mountains
Side by side,
Over the rocks, through the trees.


National Poetry Month. 27

Moon jellies, Seattle Aquarium

Moon jellies, Seattle Aquarium


Moon jellies

Moon jellies

“For many writers, the world isn’t real until they have put it into language.  They have to translate it into a medium that, they think, promises to make sense of it.  Then they look at what they have made — a thing that has become an object as much as a vase is an object — and even if they decide it is accurate, they see it is still incomplete.  After all, language is a diminishment.  And so, being hopeful creatures, they attack it again.  This takes me back to the beginning, the youthful perception that poetry was a country whose boundaries were never fixed.  No matter how much I pursue those boundaries, they continue to expand and elude me, offering me a series of essential lessons.”
— Stephen Dobyns, Next Word, Better Word:  The Craft of Writing Poetry

“The main problem with turning the world into language is that it’s, well, impossible.  The word is always less than the thing it is meant to represent.”
— Stephen Dobyns, Next Word, Better Word: The Craft of Writing Poetry

” . . . the piece you make is always one step removed from what you imagined, or what else you can imagine, or what you’re right on the edge of being able to imagine.”
—  David Bayles and Ted Orland, Art & Fear:  Observations On the Perils (and Rewards) of Art Making

“[Language] can collapse the distance, bring us into not just the thoughts but also the perceptions of a writer, allow us, however fleetingly, to inhabit, literally, his or her eyes.”
— David L. Ulin, The Lost Art of Reading


National Poetry Month. 26

Path through Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle

Path through Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle



“I call ‘poet’ any writing being who sets out on this path, in quest of what I call the second innocence, the one that comes after knowing, the one that no longer knows, the one that knows how not to know.

I call ‘poet’ any writer, philosopher, author of plays, dreamer, producer of dreams, who uses life as a time of ‘approaching.'”
— Helene Cixous, “Coming to Writing” and Other Essays