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Bringing Color to Your List Poem

Although Dorianne Laux’s poem, “Ode to Gray,” is dedicated to Sharon Olds, for poets it stands as a unique type of list poem, a more challenging one. What Laux did was what any of us could do, and though the concept is a simple one, the execution is another matter.

What you do is start with a color, any color, and then write a poem consisting of words or phrases that match the color. Of course, the order is up to your organizing spirit, as are the stanzas.

Here’s what Laux came up with when she launched with the seemingly-drab color, gray.




Ode to Gray by Dorianne Laux

Mourning dove. Goose. Catbird. Butcher bird. Heron.
A child’s plush stuffed rabbit. Buckets. Chains.

Silver. Slate. Steel. Thistle. Tin.
Old man. Old woman.
The new screen door.

A squadron of Mirage F-1’s dogfighting
above ground fog. Sprites. Smoke.
“Snapshot gray” circa 1952.

Foxes. Rats. Nails. Wolves. River stones. Whales.
Brains. Newspapers. The backs of dead hands.

The sky over the ocean just before the clouds
let down their rain.


The seas just before the clouds
let down their nets of rain.

Angelfish. Hooks. Hummingbird nests.
Teak wood. Seal whiskers. Silos. Railroad ties.

Mushrooms. Dray horses. Sage. Clay. Driftwood.
Crayfish in a stainless steel bowl.

The eyes of a certain girl.



You might wonder how some of the things in the list are actually gray (foxes? Angelfish? sage?), but I suppose, in certain states or parts, all qualify.

More mind-boggling is how many items Laux came up with and got across with specific nouns. By my count, 47.

And poetic items still play a role. Note examples of alliteration (“Silver. Slate. Steel. Thistle. Tin.”) for instance, and repetition (“Old man. Old woman.”)

Using the world at large, both natural and man-made, you can play this game, too, starting with your color and your list. See if you can reach 30 items, and then push yourself further.

Finally, bring some art to the arrangement, and just like that, you have a Neruda-like ode to the tune of “Color My World” by Chicago.

Good luck.

If Every Word Is Suspect, Your Writing Will Be Arresting


Here’s something I learned from the late Polish poet Wislawa Szymborska: If every word is suspect, your writing will be arresting.

What does this mean? It means writing–especially poetry writing–cannot always be a prisoner of denotation. Of course, specific language serves the creative writer’s purposes for imagery, but there has to be more: not only connotation, but something even more unusual at times.

Sometimes you need to stare at a word for an hour until it begins to change shapes like a Protean gift from the Muse. Sometimes you need to consider angles and caroms that wait like a bounce in inertia’s clothing. Sometimes you need to take chances with words and be willing to write something awful on the faith that every pan of mud might contain a chip of gold.

Consider these three words: future, silence, nothing. Wislawa Szymborska did. And from those rather tired, heard-them-before-and-maybe-even-too-often abstractions, she found gold.

How? By simply handing them to her brain to play with for an hour or so while she made dinner. The result? “The Three Oddest Words.” Enjoy:

The Three Oddest Words

When I pronounce the word Future,
the first syllable already belongs to the past.

When I pronounce the word Silence,
I destroy it.

When I pronounce the word Nothing,
I make something no non-being can hold.


By Wislawa Szymborska
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh

And look what happens to words when they return to their natural habitat in “The Joy of Writing”! We even get a cameo from the word “silence” again–still breaking the rules, still escaping the bullets of denotation, still doing what writers do best when they see not only the world, but words themselves, differently. Enjoy again:

The Joy of Writing

Why does this written doe bound through these written woods?
For a drink of written water from a spring
whose surface will xerox her soft muzzle?
Why does she lift her head; does she hear something?
Perched on four slim legs borrowed from the truth,
she pricks up her ears beneath my fingertips.
Silence – this word also rustles across the page
and parts the boughs
that have sprouted from the word “woods.”

Lying in wait, set to pounce on the blank page,
are letters up to no good,
clutches of clauses so subordinate
they’ll never let her get away.

Each drop of ink contains a fair supply
of hunters, equipped with squinting eyes behind their sights,
prepared to swarm the sloping pen at any moment,
surround the doe, and slowly aim their guns.

They forget that what’s here isn’t life.
Other laws, black on white, obtain.
The twinkling of an eye will take as long as I say,
and will, if I wish, divide into tiny eternities,
full of bullets stopped in mid-flight.
Not a thing will ever happen unless I say so.
Without my blessing, not a leaf will fall,
not a blade of grass will bend beneath that little hoof’s full stop.

Is there then a world
where I rule absolutely on fate?
A time I bind with chains of signs?
An existence become endless at my bidding?

The joy of writing.
The power of preserving.
Revenge of a mortal hand.


By Wislawa Szymborska
From “No End of Fun”, 1967
Translated by S. Baranczak & C. Cavanagh


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Hugo’s Rules (of Thumb) for Poetry Writers


Rules. More rules. Sometimes rules are good, if they’re “of thumb,” I mean. Unlike compulsory ones, rules of thumb can be treated like Pied Pipers or given the Roman emperor’s thumb.

Richard Hugo’s book, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, features essays both memoir-ish and poetry advice-ish, making it catnip for poets at all levels.

Which brings us to “Hugo’s Rules of Thumb for Poetry Writing” (my term for them). Here are a few selected ones from his book. See what you think:

  • Make your first line interesting and immediate. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
  • Sometimes the wrong word isn’t the one you think it is but another close by. If annoyed with something in the poem, look to either side of it and see if that isn’t where the trouble is.
  • Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
  • Put a typed copy on the wall and read it now and then. Often you know something is wrong but out of fear or laziness you try to ignore it, to delude yourself that the poem is done. If the poem is on the wall where you and possibly others can see it, you may feel pressure to work on it some more.
  • Use “love” only as a transitive verb for at least fifteen years.
  • End more than half your lines and more than two-thirds your sentences on words of one syllable.
  • Don’t use the same subject in two consecutive sentences.
  • Don’t overuse the verb “to be.” (I do this myself.) It may force what would have been the active verb into the participle and weaken it.
  • Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: one.
  • No semicolons. Semicolons indicate relationships that only idiots need defined by punctuation. Besides, they are ugly.
  • Make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it.
  • Beware certain words that seem necessitated by grammar to make things clear but dilute the drama of the statement. These are words of temporality, causality, and opposition, and often indicate a momentary lack of faith in the imagination.
  • Beware using “so” and “such” for emphasis. They’re often phony words, uttered. “He is so handsome.” “That was such a good dinner.” If “so” is used, it is better to have a consequence. 
  • The poem need not end on a dramatic note, but often the dramatic can be at the end with good effect.

Hugo provides examples and elaboration on some of these rules, but I just wanted to give you a flavor. Interesting, no? And in some cases, almost mathematical in their specificity.

Taking these to my poetry manuscript, you might find some good possibilities and some not-so-good ones. Not using the same subject two sentence in a row? What about anaphora? Maximum sentence length, seventeen words? How will you ever channel Allen Ginsberg? And make sure each sentence is at least four words longer or shorter than the one before it? In the immortal words of four Beatles I once knew, that’s a hard day’s night.

I do like the idea of posting a poem-in-progress where others can read it, though. On the refrigerator at work, for instance. That ought to get a lot of reads, between the “Whose hummus is this? It’s been here for two months!” and the “Who took my Noosa black raspberry yogurt?”

Still, The Triggering Town is an intriguing and at times humorous read. Hugo taught at the University of Montana (of all places!). And, sure as his rules seem to be, he is admirably self-deprecating. In Chapter the First, “Writing off the Subject,” he writes:

I often make these remarks to a beginning poetry-writing class.

You’ll never be a poet until your realize that everything I say today and this quarter is wrong. It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you. Every moment, I am, without wanting or trying to, telling you to write like me. I hope you learn to write like you. In a sense, I hope I don’t teach you how to write but how to teach yourself how to write. At all times keep your crap detector on. If I say something that helps, good. If what I say is of no help, let it go.

Is there a better caveat than that? And so, all thumbs in, one thumb in, or none. As you like it. An advice take-it-or-leave-it guy can do little better than that….

“Apollo and Marsyas” by Zbigniew Herbert

herbert book

After reading Zbigniew Herbert’s small book Mr. Cogito, I was hungry for more. On the web, I found this disturbingly beautiful (and beautifully disturbing) Herbert poem about a Greek myth and wanted to share it. This translation comes from Alissa Valles in 2007. The good news? It led me to The Collected Poems? Riches lead to riches.


Apollo and Marsyas

The real duel of Apollo
with Marsyas
(absolute ear
versus immense range)
takes place in the evening
when as we already know
the judges
have awarded victory to the god

bound tight to a tree
meticulously stripped of his skin
before the howl reaches his tall ears
he reposes in the shadow of that howl

shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument

only seemingly
is the voice of Marsyas
and composed of a single vowel

in reality
Marsyas relates
the inexhaustible wealth
of his body

bald mountains of liver
white ravines of aliment
rustling forests of lung
sweet hillocks of muscle
joints bile blood and shudders
the wintry wind of bone
over the salt of memory
shaken by a shudder of disgust
Apollo is cleaning his instrument

now to the chorus
is joined the backbone of Marsyas
in principle the same A
only deeper with the addition of rust

this is already beyond the endurance
of the god with nerves of artificial fibre

along a gravel path
hedged with box
the victor departs
whether out of Marsyas’ howling
there will not some day arise
a new kind
of art—let us say—concrete

at his feet
falls a petrified nightingale

he looks back
and sees
that the hair of the tree to which Marsyas was fastened
is white


Who’s Afraid of The Big Bad Poetic Device? (Maybe You)


Handle with care. We’ve all seen the sticker on packages of fragile goods. We should see it on packages of poetic devices, too. Like salt, a little goes a long way.

Thing is, some writers shy away from the simplest of devices completely. Take repetition. I know of one poet who uses Word, highlights her poems, then types in words to make sure she hasn’t inadvertently used any twice—at least in her free verse poems.

But wait. What if you have reason to use a word twice, or thrice, or more? What if it has a role in the poem’s point or mood? Wouldn’t you want it repeated under those circumstances? And isn’t it for you, the poet, to decide?

Well, yes. If handled with care. Let’s look at an example in the form of Hayden Carruth’s poem below. Unfasten your seat belt, though. You’re going to a country road in Vermont late at night and there’s not a lot of traffic.


The Cows at Night
Hayden Carruth

The moon was like a full cup tonight,
too heavy, and sank in the mist
soon after dark, leaving for light

faint stars and the silver leaves
of milkweed beside the road,
gleaming before my car.

Yet I like driving at night
in summer and in Vermont:
the brown road through the mist

of mountain-dark, among farms
so quiet, and the roadside willows
opening out where I saw

the cows. Always a shock
to remember them there, those
great breathings close in the dark.

I stopped, and took my flashlight
to the pasture fence. They turned
to me where they lay, sad

and beautiful faces in the dark,
and I counted them — forty
near and far in the pasture,

turning to me, sad and beautiful
like girls very long ago
who were innocent, and sad

because they were innocent,
and beautiful because they were
sad. I switched off my light.

But I did not want to go,
not yet, nor knew what to do
if I should stay, for how

in that great darkness could I explain
anything, anything at all.
I stood by the fence. And then

very gently it began to rain.


Without counting, what words seem to come at you the most? And what is their overall effect?

The speaker seems to have a Robert Frost moment here, one where he comes across something that evokes a mood, one he isn’t quite ready to leave (“Whose pasture this is, I think I know,” and all that.) No, not yet.

Carruth even hazards a one-line stanza at the finish. This after eleven tercets. Some poets avoid that like the plague as well. Too gimmicky, they say.

But for me, in this poem, it works. The poem slows down, mellows, invites us in until we’re standing by that fence with the speaker. Heck. We aren’t even tallying why we feel this way, but if we did, we’d be less suspicious of the repetition of certain words. When handled with care, I mean.

For those keeping count, the tally looks like so:

dark = 5 times (includes “darkness”)

sad = 4 times

light = 3 times (includes “flashlight”)

beautiful = 3

innocent = 2 (in consecutive lines, yet)

“As If Death Were Nowhere in the Background”


Reading a collection of poetry wall to wall brings out certain themes and stylistic quirks. Certainly this is true of Li-Young Lee’s now 36-year old collection, Rose. For one, Lee trades in plain language only. He is rooted in family and the quotidian rhythms of life. His verse is also infused with nature: fruit, vegetables, flowers.

There’s a thread of sadness in many of these poems, too, as if the family and love and desire all go on despite the presence of death. As the last stanza of his poem “From Blossoms” puts it:


There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.


Here is a representative poem by Lee. Note how the first and last stanza form bookends for the poem’s reflections on a mother and a father. It all seems almost too simple for a poem, but simplicity is the stuff of Lee’s work — and he makes it work well.


Early in the Morning
Li-Young Lee

While the long grain is softening
in the water, gurgling
over a low stove flame, before
the salted Winter Vegetable is sliced
for breakfast, before the birds,
my mother glides an ivory comb
through her hair, heavy
and black as calligrapher’s ink.

She sits on the foot of the bed.
My father watches, listens for
the music of comb
against hair.

My mother combs,
pulls her hair back
tight, rolls it
around two fingers, pins it
in a bun to the back of her head.
For half a hundred years she has done this.
My father likes to see it like this.
He says it is kempt.

But I know
it is because of the way
my mother’s hair falls
when he pulls the pins out.
Easily, like the curtains
when they untie them in the evening.

Pen Pal Poetry


Let’s address the misnomer first and foremost. To exchange poems via post is charmingly retro to the extreme, but if you find a willing poet and want to give it a go, by all means! More likely, this post should be called “E-Mail Poetry” but, like most things technological, it lacks the charm, don’t you agree?

I can up the ante in the charm department, too. The example I’m going to use, pen pals Ted Kooser and Jim Harrison, exchanged poems on the backs of simple postcards. Thus, every mailman (or woman) along the way was welcome to partake of the poetry feast. Can you imagine the postman on his daily rounds pausing at a gate to peruse a poem by two of America’s wilier wordsmiths? It restores one’s shaken faith in the nation.

The postcard poetry exchange occurred some 20 years ago, in the late 90s when Kooser was recovering from surgery for cancer. He captured it in a little book called Winter Morning Walks: 100 Postcards to Jim Harrison.

Correction: He captured half of it, as the poems in the book are all Kooser’s, none of Harrison’s. How much richer the book would have been if it contained both! Still, that’s not the point. The point is the idea–a daily exchange with some like-minded writer as your morning constitution.

Too ambitious? Too difficult? Nah. Kooser’s poems are not world wonder sonnets or anything. Snippets, some more complete than others. The type thing that might land in a journal, but instead alights on a postcard with a stamp. Example:

november 14

My wife and I walk the cold road
in silence, asking for thirty more years.

There’s a pink and blue sunrise
with an accent of red:
a hunter’s cap burns like a coal
in the yellow-gray eye of the woods.

And done! Example #2:

november 28

There was a time
when my long gray cashmere topcoat
was cigarette smoke,
and my snappy felt homborg
was alcohol,
and the paisley silk scarf at my neck,
with its fringed end
tossed carelessly over my shoulder,
was laughter rich with irony.
Look at me now.

What’s more, not every day is postal poem day. Just most of them. Still, you have to admit, it’s a nice old-school idea, and it had to make the daily act of pulling open the mailbox door a lot more enjoyable. I mean, who wants three bills every day when you could pluck a poem instead? (Unless, of course, the utilities and health care/insurance robbers start scaring us by billing in iambic pentameter.)


A Closer Look at Rilke’s First Letter to a Young Poet


This year we passed the 120th anniversary of Rainer Maria Rilke’s first letter to Franz Xaver Kappus. Franz sounds like a lot of young poets today. “Dear Established Poet,” he writes. “Would you please read my poems and tell me if I’m horrible at this?”

If you read Letters to a Young Poet today (there are ten letters in all), you’ll see that the first letter contains the most advice about poetry per se. The rest? Yes. Here and there. But mostly a philosophy on life and insight into the way Rilke thinks.

One thing the first letter establishes quickly is that Rilke falls in with those poets who believe you should write for yourself as opposed to for markets (for others, if you will):

“You ask whether your verses are any good. You ask me. You have asked others before this. You send them to magazines. You compare them with other poems, and you are upset when certain editors reject your work. Now (since you have said you want my advice) I beg you to stop doing that sort of thing. You are looking outside, and that is what you should most avoid right now. No one can advise or help you–no one.”

Sound advice, if you’re one of these poets in a hurry. Poetry writing does not reward the hare. It’s all about the tortoise, the writer willing to let his poetry steep, age, meld its flavors. Look again later and revise. Cut to the bone. Repeat step one. On and on. But does youth have patience for such practice? And, in this day and age, when “youth” lasts well into the fifties, does anyone? Back to Rilke:

“There is only one thing you should do. Go into yourself. Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must,” then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.”

As we now know that Kappus met no success as a poet, we can only assume that, once he went into himself, he learned that he “mustn’t.” Or, shall we say, he felt “he must,” but learned otherwise once he escaped military school and listened to the Sirens of a bourgeois, materialistic life of comfort.

“Then come close to Nature. Then, as if no one had ever tried before, try to say what you see and feel and love and lose. Don’t write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. Describe all these with heartfelt, silent, humble sincerity and, when you express yourself, use the Things around you, the images from your dreams, and the objects that you remember. If your everyday life seems poor, don’t blame it; blame yourself; admit to yourself that you are not enough of a poet to call forth its riches; because for the creator there is no poverty and no poor, indifferent place. And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound–wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories? Turn your attention to it. Try to raise up the sunken feelings of this enormous past; your personality will grow stronger, your solitude will expand and become a place where you can live in the twilight, where the noise of other people passes by, far in the distance.”

We interrupt this letter to reread and pay homage to the line, “And even if you found yourself in some prison, whose walls let in none of the world’s sound–wouldn’t you still have your childhood, that jewel beyond all price, that treasure house of memories?” Dysfunctional childhoods may lead to best-selling memoirs, but the rest of us can only tip our metaphorical hats to Rilke with that line about childhood being “that jewel beyond all price.” Nothing can be exchanged for the innocence and the freedom, the imagination and the dreams that leaven a healthy childhood.

“And if out of , this turning within, out of this immersion in your own world, poems come, then you will not think of asking anyone whether they are good or not. Nor will you try to interest magazines in these works: for you will see them as your dear natural possession, a piece of your life, a voice from it. A work of art is good if it has arisen out of necessity. That is the only way one can judge it.”

Modern-day poets love the capital-R Romanticism in these lines, but do they truly agree? It seems not. It seems most must be validated by other eyes, especially experienced eyes. Namely, those of editors and critics–the latter a breed Rilke particularly despised.

“So, dear Sir, I can’t give you any advice but this: to go into yourself and see how deep the place is from which your life flows; at its source you will find the answer to, the question of whether you must create. Accept that answer, just as it is given to you, without trying to interpret it. Perhaps you will discover that you are called to be an artist. Then take that destiny upon yourself, and bear it, its burden and its greatness, without ever asking what reward might come from outside. For the creator must be a world for himself and must find everything in himself and in Nature, to whom his whole life is devoted.”

In other words, if you find the source of your well and it leads to great art, guard it like a dwarf guards his treasure deep in some cave. If publication and fame come, let them be posthumous.

This hypothetical poet is almost Christ-like in his humility and faith, it would seem. Does he exist in our modern times? And is Rilke himself an example? Rilke met writing fame while alive, after all, so I’m going to go out on a limb and say this was Rilke waxing nostalgic and Romantic in one fell swoop, that writing to a youth attending the same school he once did put him under nostalgia’s spell, bringing to mind, as it did, that “jewel beyond all price,” childhood.

Still, there’s valuable advice here. Go deep. Consider nature (even though it’s out of style in The Age of Identity). Write about the impulses that move you personally. From that, something will resonate for others because we’re all in this together and people are people, no matter what their culture, religion, or time in history.

Sleeping Late and Other Small Delights



For young writers — especially those who say they cannot write poetry — imitation is a teacher’s best friend. Even if they’re too young to know the word “gratitude,” you can ask them to make a list of things they love.

From there it becomes a specific noun exercise, a sensory detail (or “imagery” in poeti-speak) exercise. Ten items will do, although the Laura Foley example below employs 15. Once that anyone-can-create-it list is done, students are ready to make it prayer-like. “Praise be…!”

Whether you want it to be a 14-line sonnet “-ish” poem is completely optional. Once your students (or your own) list is complete, have them read Foley’s poem and mark their favorite lines. I used to tell kids to highlight “the cool lines.” Being “cool” is forever, after all.

Then it’s off to the races. One with a clear and obvious finish line for those with poetry phobia.


Gratitude List
Laura Foley

Praise be this morning for sleeping late,
the sandy sheets, the ocean air,
the midnight storm that blew its waters in.
Praise be the morning swim, mid-tide,
the clear sands underneath our feet,
the dogs who leap into the waves,
their fur, sticky with salt,
the ball we throw again and again.
Praise be the green tea with honey,
the bread we dip in finest olive oil,
the eggs we fry. Praise be the reeds,
gold and pink in the summer light,
the sand between our toes,
our swimsuits, flapping in the breeze.

The Most Precious Gift: Declamation


These days, gift-giving is too much about cursors and clicks to cart. Material goods bought with plastic shipped to porches by UPS.

You don’t need to be a poet, however, to give a better gift to someone you love: declamation. This came to mind while reading the May 2020 issue of The Atlantic. In a piece called “Being Friends with Philip Roth” by Benjamin Taylor, the latter mentions Roth’s 74th birthday party.

Apparently Roth turned to the assembled guests and, casual as all get-out, asked if anyone cared to recite a poem from memory. As if that was still done. As if each guest had brought a poem gift-wrapped in their brain pan.

To kick things off, Roth recited a Mark Strand poem: “Keeping Things Whole.” According to Taylor, Roth “then looks at me as if to say, ‘Your serve.'” Luckily, Taylor was able to return volley. He recited Robert Frost’s lesser known poem “I Could Give All to Time.”

Roth was so impressed that he brought it up on the phone the next morning: “Those rhymes!” he said to Taylor. “It’s as if nature made them.”

And, at the time, I thought, how cool. Shouldn’t this happen more often? Not just between writers of poetry, but between readers of poetry, too?

Anyway, it was enough to set me to the task of memorizing both, starting with the easier—the Strand piece. So here’s to Philip and Benjamin.

Oh. And Mark and Robert, too!


Keeping Things Whole
Mark Strand

In a field
I am the absence
of field.
This is
always the case.
Wherever I am
I am what is missing.

When I walk
I part the air
and always
the air moves in
to fill the spaces
where my body’s been.

We all have reasons
for moving.
I move
to keep things whole.


I Could Give All to Time
Robert Frost

To Time it never seems that he is brave
To set himself against the peaks of snow
To lay them level with the running wave,
Nor is he overjoyed when they lie low,
But only grave, contemplative and grave.

What now is inland shall be ocean isle,
Then eddies playing round a sunken reef
Like the curl at the corner of a smile;
And I could share Time’s lack of joy or grief
At such a planetary change of style.

I could give all to Time except – except
What I myself have held. But why declare
The things forbidden that while the Customs slept
I have crossed to Safety with? For I am There,
And what I would not part with I have kept.