Tulips in a garden

Tulips in a garden

Watercolor sketch of tulips in a row

Watercolor sketch of tulips in a row

A favorite book of mine is The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden by Stanley Kunitz and Genine Lentine.  A large part of the book focuses on the poet’s garden in Provincetown on Cape Cod, a garden that he built from scratch and lovingly tended for forty summers.  Needless to say, the garden is full of metaphors, “symbolic of the surprises and ramifications of life itself in all its varied forms.”

One of the tasks in making his garden was choosing the paths through it.  And in this exercise, Kunitz sees its similarity to finding meaning in a poem.  “I avoid straight lines as much as possible,” he says.  “One of my principles is never to try to explain what a poem is about.  That’s a straight line to me.  The path to understanding of the poem is for me always circuitous, it’s a winding path . . . The poem holds its secrets and keeps its tensions by closing out the opportunity to explain.  The fact that it is so secret is what makes it so immediately touching and searching. . . . Art conceals and reveals at the same time.”

Closeup of tulip

Closeup of tulip

With poems and gardens, you can focus on a small part or the big scheme of things.  Both can be enriching experiences:

“Though you learn the meaning of a poem, the sense of a poem, word by word, in the end what you have is a fusion.

In the poem, there is an impulse that moves from line to line, from image to image, but complete revelation is not achieved until the poem arrives at its terminal point, at which time what has been secret before the poem begins to reveal itself, and you really have to mediate on the poem.”

In building his garden, you get the sense that Kunitz was creating a “living poem.”  He says, “I conceived of the garden as a poem in stanzas.  Each terrace contributes to the garden as a whole in the same way each stanza in a poem has a life of its own, and yet is part of a progressive whole as well.

The form provides some degree of repose, letting our mind rest in the comparatively manageable unit of the stanza, or terrace.  Yet there is also a need to move on, to look beyond the stanza, into the poem as a whole.

Often, when you finish reading a poem, the impulse is to revisit the beginning now that you’ve been all the way through it, and then each subsequent trip through the poem is different and colored by having see the whole thing.

Once you have perceived the garden as a whole, the individual tiers of the garden take on a different form because you have seen them both as a part and as a whole.  One of the mysteries of gardening is that the garden reflects the viewer’s own state of being at the time, just as your response to a poem lets you know something about your preoccupations or your susceptibility as you read it.

The garden communicates what it shows to you but you also contribute to the garden some of what you are seeking in terms of your own life, your own state of being.  One reason a garden can speak to you is that it is both its own reality and a manifestation of the interior life of the mind that imagined it in the beginning.”


Dandelion bouquet on stack of poetry books

Dandelion bouquet on stack of poetry books

April is National Poetry month, and I intend to write several posts celebrating poems and poetry writing.

I almost always approach poetry with apprehension or sometimes even dread.  Why is reading poetry stressful?  I think that it carries with it all my past memories of trying to interpret inscrutable poems.  They are often too rich, too full of allusions that I don’t understand, or simply too impenetrable for someone with my life experience.  Thank goodness that I no longer have to write reports or pass tests about the poems I read.  Now I just skim over the ones that are too much for me, and I linger over those that grab me with language that tickles the teeth and tongue, images that come to life, ideas that resonate with my heart and soul, or surprises that simply delight.  Reading poems can be a pleasure at last.

I love this poem by Billy Collins, poet and teacher, that advocates for a little light-heartedness in our reading.

Introduction to Poetry
from Sailing Alone Around the Room by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to water-ski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find what it really means.



Poetry Matters

April 19, 2015

“. . . when people say that poetry is a luxury, or an option, or for the educated middle class, or that it shouldn’t be read at school because it is irrelevant, or any of the strange and stupid things that are said about poetry and its place in our lives, I suspect that the people doing the saying have had things pretty easy.  A tough life needs a tough language — and that is what poetry is.  That is what literature offers — a language powerful enough to say how it is. It isn’t a hiding place.  It’s a finding place.” —  Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

Crossed tulips

Crossed tulips

I graduated in 1976 with a liberal arts degree in English literature, and pretty much all of my adult life the value of this degree has eroded.  It seemed to me that the 1980s began the rejection of all values other than money, and now our culture defines success by one’s monetary and material wealth.  Someone like me, who is not naturally inclined to math, economics, sciences, engineering or technology, but who prefers the arts, philosophy, the humanities feels like a misfit. But when I look back on my life, I know I have been saved by reading.  Books are my “finding place.”  In the words of Lynda Barry, books have given me a world to “dwell and travel in.”

From Lynda Barry's "What It Is"

From Lynda Barry’s “What It Is”

From Lynda Barry's "What it Is"

From Lynda Barry’s “What it Is”

Poetry matters.  Literature matters.  Art matters.  Beauty matters.  They are priceless.

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.



National Poetry Month. 11



“Poetry is the kind of thing you have to see from the corner of your eye.  You can be too well prepared for poetry.  A conscientious interest in it is worse than no interest at all.  If you analyze it away, it’s gone.  It would be like boiling a watch to find out what makes it tick.”
— William Stafford, from Sound of the Ax: Aphorisms and Poems by William Stafford, ed. Vincent Wixon and Paul Merchant



National Poetry Month.10

Everything matters:  spacing, patterns, repetitions, punctuation, line breaks

Everything matters: spacing, patterns, repetitions, punctuation, line breaks

“The organization of white space and ink or the vocal tones that signal “poetry” are instructions to reader or listener to enter the changed consciousness that poetry asks.  Each element of a poem is expected to be meaningful, part of a shaped and shaping experience of a whole:  a word’s placement on the page is significant, not accidental; sound qualities matter, even punctuation is thoroughly alive, responsive to itself and its context. . . . form signals us, in reading it, to listen for concentration’s transforming arc.”
— Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates Entering the Mind of Poetry: Essays

“I believe every space and comma is a living part of the poem and has its function, just as every muscle and pore of the body has its function.  And the way the lines are broken is a functioning part essential to the poem’s life.”
— Denise Levertov, The Poet in the World






April 8, 2014

National Poetry Month.8

The world articulated in sunlight, leaves and shadows

The world articulated in sunlight, leaves and shadows

by Dana Gioia

The world does not need words.  It articulates itself
in sunlight, leaves, and shadows.  The stones on the path
are no less real for lying uncatalogued and uncounted.
The fluent leaves speak only the dialect of pure being.
The kiss is still fully itself though no words were spoken.

And one word transforms it into something less or other —
illicit, chaste, perfunctory, conjugal, covert.
Even calling it a kiss betrays the fluster of hands
glancing the skin or gripping a shoulder, the slow
arching of neck or knee, the silent touching of tongues.

Yet the stones remain less real to those who cannot
name them, or read the mute syllables graven in silica.
To see a red stone is less than seeing it as jasper —
metamorphic quartz, cousin to the flint the Kiowa
carved as arrowheads.  To name is to know and remember.

The sunlight needs no praise piercing the rainclouds,
painting the rocks and leaves with light, then dissolving
each lucent droplet back into the clouds that engendered it.
The daylight needs no praise, and so we praise it always —
greater than ourselves and all the airy words we summon.

The world might not need words, but I believe that humans do.  Words connect us.

“To name is to know.”  I don’t know the name of the tree whose leaves I photographed for today’s post.  Am I seeing it less because I cannot identify the tree?




National Poetry Month.4

The word Poem is derived from the Greek poema “fiction, poetical work,” literally “thing made or created,” early variant of poiema, from poein, poiein, “to make or compose.”

It turns out that the making of a poem is as much a craft and art as making anything by hand.  And vice versa.

“Poetry’s work is the clarification and magnification of being.”
— Jane Hirshfield, Nine Gates Entering the Mind of Poetry

“Anything I create becomes a doorway through which others can access my ideas and concerns, if they care to.”
— Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters:  The Education of a Craftsman

“The simple truth is that people who engage in creative practice go into the studio first and foremost because they expect to emerge from the other end of the creative gauntlet as different people.”
— Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters:  The Education of a Craftsman

” . . . we engage in the creative process to become more of whom we’d like to be and, just as important, to discover more of whom we might become.  We may make things because we enjoy the process, but our underlying intent, inevitably, is self-transformation.”
— Peter Korn, Why We Make Things and Why It Matters:  The Education of a Craftsman

” . . . the process of revising a poem is no arbitrary tinkering, but a continued honing of the self at the deepest level.”
— Jane Hirshfield, Poetry and the Mind of Concentration,” from Nine Gates Entering the Mind of Poetry

“The poet, pursuing a vessel to hold something known, finds what the poem may know that the poet as yet does not.  Poetry’s grammars, strategies, and language have their own wisdom — entering the woods, we find ourselves living with thought-forms that feed only within the ways of the leafy and hidden.”
— Jane Hirshfield, Poetry and the Mind of Indirection,” from Nine Gates Entering the Mind of Poetry



To Live in the World

April 2, 2014

National Poetry Month.2

This year's Seattle Reads choice is For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet's Journey by Richard Blanco

This year’s Seattle Reads choice is For All of Us, One Today: An Inaugural Poet’s Journey by Richard Blanco

“I don’t think poetry is based just on poetry; it is based on a thoroughly lived life.  And so I couldn’t just decide I was going to write no matter what; I first had to find out what it means to live.
— Jane Hirshfield

“For your writing to be great — I mean great, not clever, or even brilliant, or most misleading of all, beautiful — it must be useful to the world.  And for that to happen you must form an opinion of the world.  And for that to happen you have to live in the world, and not pretend that it is someone else’s world you are writing about.”
— Roger Rosenblatt, Unless It Moves the Human Heart:  The Craft and Art of Writing

“I cannot afford to be telling my experience . . . I wish to be getting experience.”
— Henry David Thoreau, from Winter: The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 8, January 11, 1857

” . . . your art comes out of your life, and you have to keep living until you have enough to write about.  Be patient if you can.  Find friends whose judgment you trust and work with them on everything you do.  Read, read, read.  Art begets art, and you need to read — not just English poets but poets of other cultures and times and traditions.  Don’t be discouraged if the world doesn’t beat a path to your door.”
— Jane Kenyon, “An Interview with David Bradt,” The Plum Review, 1996

Poetry is the stuff of the world.  That puts a positive spin on aging for one of the gifts of old age is an archive of experience.  Translating that trove into art takes discernment and (hard) work.  The joy will be in the process, I believe, not necessarily in the end product.


Hyacinths and Biscuits

March 31, 2013

“Poetry is the synthesis of hyacinths and biscuits.”
— Carl Sandburg

White hyacinths

White hyacinths

Hyacinths with tulip

Hyacinths with tulip

White hyacinths

White hyacinths