reading poetry

233 posts

Unfurling Ferlinghetti’s Finest

Filling in another hole in the poetry sock, I add Ferlinghetti to the list. Cheating, maybe, by reaching for his “Greatest Poems,” but who’s to say this editor’s (Nancy J. Peters’) choices for “greatest” are actually the greatest? On the savanna of literature, Subjectivity is King of the Beasts (and I ain’t lion).

If you cringed at that pun, you might cringe at a few of Ferlinghetti’s, too, because he wasn’t above dropping them into his poems. Not that he loses points with me for using them. I am a fan. Every time the groaners start acting superior about them, I point to the Bard, who was a master of puns himself, only in his case, said puns were labeled “great literature.”

I would say it’s a funny world, but let’s just say it’s a funny savanna.

If this collection of “greatest hits” was a hamburger, I would be a carb guy. Meaning, the early poems and late poems (buns, if you’re still with me) seemed more entertaining than all the middle protein (burger, medium rare). I would even lean toward the earliest as the better.

Some enjoyable turns of phrases I wrote down in my journal from the early stuff (as is my habit) are the following:

loud dark winter
burnt places of that almond world
poet’s plangent dream
algebra of lyricism
leaf in a pool…lay like an eye winking circles
silence hung like a lost idea
groaning with babies and bayonets under cement skies

No, not show stoppers, but still, enough to snag the eye before the stream of lyricism pulls them loose and continues them on their way.

As for the middle of the sandwich, I was a bit underwhelmed at times. Not much special in the way of metaphor or imagery. Ferlinghetti’s go-to’s seem to be alliteration and assonance, but he was happy to ignore those, too, once he becomes popular (popularity being the Get Out of Jail Free card in Poetry World, that most strange and wonderful and insulated world).

Here, for example, is LF riffing casually (it certainly seems) on underwear, a subject every poet should write about:

Lawrence Ferlinghetti

I didn’t get much sleep last night
thinking about underwear
Have you ever stopped to consider
underwear in the abstract
When you really dig into it
some shocking problems are raised
Underwear is something
we all have to deal with
Everyone wears
some kind of underwear
The Pope wears underwear I hope
The Governor of Louisiana
wears underwear
I saw him on TV
He must have had tight underwear
He squirmed a lot
Underwear can really get you in a bind
You have seen the underwear ads
for men and women
so alike but so different
Women’s underwear holds things up
Men’s underwear holds things down
Underwear is one thing
men and women have in common
Underwear is all we have between us
You have seen the three-color pictures
with crotches encircled
to show the areas of extra strength
and three-way stretch
promising full freedom of action
Don’t be deceived
It’s all based on the two-party system
which doesn’t allow much freedom of choice
the way things are set up
America in its Underwear
struggles thru the night
Underwear controls everything in the end
Take foundation garments for instance
They are really fascist forms
of underground government
making people believe
something but the truth
telling you what you can or can’t do
Did you ever try to get around a girdle
Perhaps Non-Violent Action
is the only answer
Did Gandhi wear a girdle?
Did Lady Macbeth wear a girdle?
Was that why Macbeth murdered sleep?
And that spot she was always rubbing—
Was it really in her underwear?
Modern anglosaxon ladies
must have huge guilt complexes
always washing and washing and washing
Out damned spot
Underwear with spots very suspicious
Underwear with bulges very shocking
Underwear on clothesline a great flag of freedom
Someone has escaped his Underwear
May be naked somewhere
But don’t worry
Everybody’s still hung up in it
There won’t be no real revolution
And poetry still the underwear of the soul
And underwear still covering
a multitude of faults
in the geological sense—
strange sedimentary stones, inscrutable cracks!
If I were you I’d keep aside
an oversize pair of winter underwear
Do not go naked into that good night
And in the meantime
keep calm and warm and dry
No use stirring ourselves up prematurely
‘over Nothing’
Move forward with dignity
hand in vest
Don’t get emotional
And death shall have no dominion
There’s plenty of time my darling
Are we not still young and easy
Don’t shout

As you can see, Ferlinghetti forgoes periods and commas, though he does employ capitalization, which is more than some modern poets do, and other punctuation marks make cameos, too. Getting edgy, in other words, but not going over the edge.

Overall, a fun poet but, like Frank O’Hara, probably not one to imitate (unless you truly understand the meaning of that sign at the edge of a dark wood, “Imitate at Your Own Risk”).

“I Cut Off My Head and Threw It in the Sky”

war of foxes

Poets point the way to poets point the way to poets. This is a corollary of Gertrude Stein’s famous “Rose is a rose is a rose,” a.k.a. “Three ways to hit readers over the head with a dictionary.”

Anyway, while reading Victoria Chang’s Obit, I noted in her acknowledgments that one poem was inspired by a poem in Richard Siken’s collection, War of the Foxes. On Victoria’s recommendation, I found the book and started reading.

Still early on, but let’s look at a Siken poem that looks at painting in an interesting way. What if a man walks through a landscape? And what if we blur the line between artwork and life? We get something like this, which I offer as your “thought of the day.”

Oh. And don’t forget to tell people that you read this via Chang to Siken to Craft.

Landscape with Fruit Rot and Millipede

Richard Siken

I cut off my head and threw it in the sky. It turned
into birds. I called it thinking. The view from above—
untethered scrutiny. It helps to have an anchor
but your head is going somewhere anyway. It’s a matter
of willpower. O little birds, you flap around and

make a mess of the milk-blue sky—all these ghosts
come streaming down and sometimes I wish I had
something else. A redemptive imagination, for
example. The life of the mind is a disappointment,
but remember what stands for what. We deduce

backward into first causes—stone in the pond of things,
splash splash—or we throw ourselves into the future.
We all move forward anyway. Ripples in all directions.
What is a ghost? Something dead that seems to be
alive. Something dead that doesn’t know it’s dead.

A painting, for instance. An abstraction. Cut off your
head, kid. For all the good it’ll do ya
. I glued my head back
on. All thoughts finish themselves eventually. I wish
it were true. Paint all the men you want but sooner or
later they go to ground and rot. The mind fights the

body and the body fights the land. It wants our bodies,
the landscape does, and everyone runs the risk of
being swallowed up. Can we love nature for what it
really is: predatory? We do not walk through a passive
landscape. The paint dries eventually. The bodies

decompose eventually. We collide with place, which
is another name for God, and limp away with a
permanent injury. Ask for a blessing? You can try,
but we will not remain unscathed. Flex your will
or abandon your will and let the world have its way

with you, or disappear and save everyone the bother
of a dark suit. Why live a life? Well, why are you
asking? I put on my best shirt because the painting
looked so bad. Color bleeds, so make it work for you.
Gravity pulls, so make it work for you. Rubbing

your feet at night or clutching your stomach in the
morning. It was illegible—no single line of sight,
too many angles of approach, smoke in the distance.
It made no sense. When you have nothing to say,
set something on fire. A blurry landscape is useless.

“I Love So Many Things I Have Never Touched”


This week I read, then reread (a habit I’ve developed when I discover a particularly effective poetry collection), Victoria Chang’s 2020 outing, Obit. I love it when a writer strikes on a good idea, takes it, and runs with it. Chang does exactly that in this book. Below I share the review I wrote for it.


In her collection Obit, Victoria Chang takes the journalistic standard we call an obituary and puts it through some poetic paces. For most of the book, each poem looks like a column in a newspaper, forgoing stanzas for one tall rectangular block. And while the starting point may be the stroke and death of her father followed by the death of her mother, her poems take matters a step further.

How? The Table of Contents foreshadows how: Title-less poems commemorate her father’s frontal lobe, voice mail, language, the future, civility, privacy, her mother’s lungs, her mother’s teeth, friendships, gait, optimism, ambition, memory, tears, etc. Some of the poems are repeat-obits, including ones for Victoria Chang, the author herself, who feels beleaguered and fundamentally transformed by grief and its effects on who she is.

To give the reader occasional breathers, Chang includes a series of tankas throughout. Then there is Section II: “I Am a Miner. The Light Burns Blue,” where she forsakes the middle tower spaces of the page used for obits and writes poems that expand to the entire page, using white spaces between single words or small clumps of words, forcing the reader to slow down and carefully pick through the wreckage death scatters like so much flotsam and jetsam.

For this to work (and it does), the poet has to be both confident (check) and accomplished (check) with personification. Let’s look, for instance, at Chang’s obituary for Approval:

Approval – died on August 3, 2015
at the age of 44. It died at 7:07 a.m.
How much money will you get was my
mother’s response to everything. She
used to wrap muffins in a napkin at
the buffet and put them in her purse.
I never saw the muffins again. What I
would do to see those muffins again,
the thin moist thread as she pulled the
muffin apart. A photo shows my mother
holding my hand. I was nine. I never
touched her hand again. Until the day
before she died. I love so many things I
have never touched: the moon, a shiver,
my mother’s heart. Her fingers felt like
rough branches covered with plastic. I
trimmed her nails one by one while the
morphine kept her asleep. Her nails
weren’t small moons or golden doors
to somewhere, but ten last words I was
cutting off.

As Chang writes obituaries for abstract things like approval, it gives her time to explore all the feelings that overwhelm her, first while her parents are ill and then while they die, not to mention her grief in the days and months after they die. In that sense, this collection is one long obituary for both her parents and the familiar way of life she had grown accustomed to, only broken down into the form of obituaries.

The form suits Chang’s talents well. It also challenges the reader to consider all the little “deaths” we experience in life, how they change us in big and small ways, and what we notice about them if we take a moment to try. People change, that’s well understood. But seen through this lens, we come to realize that change in life is nothing but a series of little deaths, some planned or expected, many more spontaneous and surprising. Like this book!

Opposites Attract Poetry


Advice works best when you can apply it both specifically and universally. The dichotomy of such things is a rich vein for poets to mine: concrete and abstract, specific and universal, physical and psychological.

We get a taste of this in the directives of Jeff Coomer’s “Some Advice for Clearing Brush.” Take it literally and it works. Take it figuratively and it still works. Therefore, according to my unschooled syllogism, it works.

Read along and see. Note especially the final stanza, how it can be stated in different words, how those words can sound like wisdom being passed down through the ages, how it may work for situations you’ve faced and may yet have to face.

Yeah. Like that. Specific and universal.

Some Advice for Clearing Brush by Jeff Coomer

Walk noisily to declare your presence.
The rabbits and deer will leave
as soon as they hear you coming,
but the snakes need time
to process your intentions.

Take a moment to be certain
of what you’re cutting.
Many stems look alike
down close to the ground,
especially when they’re young.
Look up occasionally.

Don’t begrudge the wild roses
for whipping thorns across
your face and arms,
or the honeysuckle
for tangling your feet
and pulling the pruners
from your hands. You’d do
the same in their place.
Honor them with a clean cut.

Never begin when you’re angry
or you might not stop
until there’s nothing left
to hold the soil.

Always wear gloves
and keep your eye
on the blade.

Where Nocturnes & Aubades Meet


Notice how, as readers, we naturally take the unfamiliar and make it familiar? It’s hardwired, and one of the many reasons readers like to read.

Take nocturnes. I associate them with classical music, but according to Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, “The nocturne became a European musical type in the nineteenth century, a pensive, moody instrumental piece especially suitable for playing at night, and thereafter poetic nocturnes evoke the melancholy feelings or tonalities of piano nocturnes.”

So, yes, there’s a line to be drawn between classical music and poetry, but the nocturne as a poetic genre predates this angle, going all the way back to John Donne in 1633, when he wrote “A Nocturnal upon S. Lucy’s Day, being the shortest day.” (Great title, John.)

For a modern take on the genre that stands opposite to aubades (“a dawn song expressing the regret of parting lovers at daybreak,” according to Hirsch, Romeo, & Juliet… the famous law firm), let’s look at Irish poet Eavan Boland’s poem by that name. As you read, keep the noise down. It’s late!

Nocturne by Eavan Boland

After a friend has gone I like the feel of it:
The house at night. Everyone asleep.
The way it draws in like atmosphere or evening.

One-o-clock. A floral teapot and a raisin scone.
A tray waits to be taken down.
The landing light is off. The clock strikes. The cat

comes into his own, mysterious on the stairs,
a black ambivalence around the legs of button-back
chairs, an insinuation to be set beside

the red spoon and the salt-glazed cup,
the saucer with the thick spill of tea
which scalds off easily under the tap. Time

is a tick, a purr, a drop. The spider
on the dining-room window has fallen asleep
among complexities as I will once

the doors are bolted and the keys tested
and the switch turned up of the kitchen light
which made outside in the back garden

an electric room—a domestication
of closed daisies, an architecture
instant and improbable.

Here’s the thing: As a reader, I’m a horrible audience for this piece. I read it and think: “Ah. Nocturne as ode to late night. Written for night owls by a night owl.”

But as a reader, I have innate strategies that work without my even knowing it. The poem’s speaker likes the feel of “The house at night. Everyone asleep,” and I identify, even though I am reliably the first person asleep in my household and always have been, barring the years when my kids were very young.

Foreign as the concept of the nocturne is, however, my inner reader flips the narrative. It reads, “The house before dawn. Everyone asleep.” Ah. Now that’s a house I know. A pensive and moody time that evokes “melancholy feelings or tonalities.”

Do you think cats don’t “come into their own” and become “mysterious” at 4 a.m., too? I wouldn’t know, having little congress with cats over the years, but I know that dogs are a different breed at that hour, as is the lighting, as are my feelings both when reading and writing. It’s a magical time with richer possibility than other times of the day.

And so, it’s enough. My unconscious, mental “switch” conveniently expands inexperience to encompass experience, a trick that writers and readers count on for both tea and sympathy.

And you know what? It’s darkest before dawn, meaning I can flip a switch and create “an electric room” outside, too. Just like that.

So go ahead. Write a nocturne just after you’ve written an aubade, no matter which you’re familiar with. Opposites attract, and your readers will adjust.

The Fraught Question of a Poem’s “Meaning”

indian ear

What does this poem mean?

Now there’s a question. The kind of question with dangers on each side of it. You know, like the proverbial rock and a hard place. Or Devil and the deep, blue sea. Or, for you classical gases, Scylla and Charybdis.

It’s a question oft heard in schools. Does a poem have a specific meaning? Well, yes, of course. Only one meaning? Well, yes and no. Can it mean whatever I want it to mean? I hope not. But what if there’s more than one meaning? Depends on the reader.

As an example, I give you a poem and a meaning that could get a knight grailing “meaning” in trouble.

Elegy for a Broken Machine by Patrick Phillips

My father was trying
to fix something

and I sat there just watching,
like I used to,
whenever something

went wrong.
I kept asking where he’d been,
until he put down a wrench
and said Listen:
dying’s just something

that happens sometimes.
Who knows
where that kind of dream comes from?
Why some things

vanish, and some
just keep going forever?

Like that look on his face
when he’d stare off at something

I could never make out
in the murky garage,
his ear pressed
to whatever it was
that had died—
his eyes listening for something

so deep inside it, I thought
even the silence,
if you listened,
meant something.

Clearly the poem has meaning to its author. All poems do. And clearly that meaning is not terribly complicated, though complications, like ghosts, tend to show themselves to some people as opposed to all.

What struck me in reading this is two things: the way the father presses his ear to a “broken machine,” and the way the father’s eyes are “listening for something.” I especially like that twist — having the eyes and not the ears listen — because, taken from the context of the poem, it makes little sense, but appearing as part of the poem’s anecdote, it makes complete sense.

I understand Phillips’ intent, that a mystery of life is being passed down from father to son, but I also like how the metaphor works for me personally.

For me, one superfluous meaning for the broken machine is its similarities to the act of writing poetry. You stare into space, musing. You write and then you listen with your eyes. Is it speaking? Is it working now or still broken? A poet who revises, who solves the puzzle of their creation’s “brokenness,” can bring early words to life, but sometimes he or she just has to walk away. The machine truly is broken, no matter how hard the writer listens.

That, it’s safe to say, was not Patrick Phillip’s intended”meaning when he wrote the poem, but it’s safe to say, as long as you’re along for the ride he created, he’s OK with readers who create shadow rides, as long as they don’t imperiously dictate that their shadows are the one and only “true” meaning, negating even his.

Bottom line: It’s safe to say that most poems have a single meaning, but also multiple meanings. They have a correct meaning, but also other meanings. They have wrong interpretations, but the poet is probably tolerant to some of these interpretations and not tolerant to others.

Like I said: What does this poem mean? Now there’s a question. Turns out,  a fraught one.

“A Clean, Green Light”


You can coach youth, teach it, even try to bend it to your will, but it is marvelously self-reliant, something Ralph Waldo Emerson might admire.

Parenting, you see, is about as inexact a science as you’ll ever find. Each child is unique, and while some parents may second guess or regret things done and not done as their child grew up, it is a fool’s errand to find blame in yourself alone.

Kids have their say, in fact must have their say. That’s part of growing up. And how much of their decision-making is independent as opposed to ruled by nature or parent, no one can ever know.

Poets use the parent-child dynamic often. Hope and love are invested in the unfolding project of a child, but the investment accrues its own interest in its own time, and market forces are unpredictable, bear or bull.

Here is an example of a parent-child moment, a concrete anecdote used as metaphor in a parent-child poem:

Nature Walk by Gillian Wegener

The fern fronds glow with a clean, green light,
and I lift one and point out the spores, curled
like sleep on the back, the rows so straight,
so even, that I might be convinced of Providence
at this moment. My daughter is seven.
She looks at the spores, at the leaf, at the plant,
at this wise, wide forest we are in, and sighs
at my pointing out yet another Nature Fact.
But look, I say, each one is a baby ready
to grow. Each one can become its own fern
But she is already moving down the path
toward the bridge and whatever’s beyond.

“Lit Windows Painting Yellow Rothkos on the Water”

good bones

Late to the party (per usual), I found Maggie Smith’s poetry collection, Good Bones. Reading it, I found themes that resonated with me, especially the fascination with time and how it manifests in the form of poems touching on past, present, and future. Other topics she dwells on include childhood, motherhood, marriage, nature, and love.

For a representative piece, I give you “Twentieth Century,” which originally appeared in the Alaska Quarterly Review. Like most centuries (thanks to humans), the Twentieth was pretty ugly, but memory plays interesting tricks, chief among them the propensity to sift out bad and magnify good. Maybe it’s a survival instinct.

See what happens when Smith personifies the Twentieth Century, directly addressing it. The poem has a confessional tone, almost like something out of a diary, something intended for the author’s eyes only but found by another reader, who can’t help but read it.

Twentieth Century
Maggie Smith

I must have missed the last train out of this gray city.
I’m scrolling the radio through shhhhhh. The streetlamps

fill with light, right on time, but no one is pouring it in.
Twentieth Century, you’re gone. You’re tucked into

a sleeping car, rolling to god-knows-where, and I’m
lonely for you. I know it’s naïve. But your horrors

were far away, and I thought I could stand them.
Twentieth Century, we had a good life more or less,

didn’t we? You made me. You wove the long braid
down my back. You kissed me in the snowy street

with everyone watching. You opened your mouth a little
and it scared me. Twentieth Century, it’s me, it’s me.

You said that to me once, as if I’d forgotten your face.
You strung me out until trees seemed to breathe,

expanding and contracting. You played “American Girl”
and turned it up loud. You said I was untouchable.

Do you remember the nights at Alum Creek, the lit
windows painting yellow Rothkos on the water?

Are they still there, or did you take them with you?
Say something. I’m here, waiting, scrolling the radio.

On every frequency, someone hushes me. Is it you?
Twentieth Century, are you there? I thought you were

a simpler time. I thought we’d live on a mountain
together, drinking melted snow, carving hawk totems

from downed pines. We’d never come back. Twentieth
Century, I was in so deep, I couldn’t see an end to you.

Truth is, everything is “a simpler time” when it has the advantage of living in the past. In the wrong hands, this can even be used for nefarious purposes (think: “Make America Great Again”). But in the right hands, it can strike a wistful tone illustrated by a montage of realistic images. Kisses in a snowy street. Opening the mouth a little. Lit windows painting “yellow Rothkos on the water.”

If you, too, are a product of the Twentieth Century, what belongs to the speaker becomes partly yours. Because the century of your birth is capable of two-timing more than one person.

Thus the appeal of poetry — how it is individual yet universal at the same time.

Poetry as Commentary (or Irreverence Imitates Life)


Sure, over 300 people subscribe to this blog, but who knows what percentage actually read each post? Even more obscure? The percentage that bother reading or writing comments.

If you are part of the rare, comment-reading breed here on “Updates on a Free-Verse Life,” you’ve no doubt come across that boisterous peanut gallery known as “carter7878.” Who is this 7878 guy anyway, you might ask? Turns out, his day job is not critic-at-large, but poet. One by the name of Jefferson Carter.

For Carter, comments come easy. He’s been around the bush (just don’t say George Bush) a few times, and he does not lack for opinions. And, as he’d be the first to tell you, he sometimes steps on toes, sometimes regrets what he says, and sometimes doesn’t. At all.

Read his poems, though, and you’ll find more nuance, strains both similar and different from his critic voice. First thing you’ll notice is the simplicity. His is the voice declaring war on wordiness and sentimentality. Eminently approachable, his voice is at home with such quotidian topics as marriage, cats, and the state of America’s sadly-divided State.

As you read the poems below, focus on the voice, which of course belongs to each poem’s speaker and not necessarily its author. The sometimes caustic commentator is there, sure, but so is a softer side, bringing to mind turtles, who are hard on the outside (carapace) but soft on the inside (soup).

How else do you explain such devotion to cats and a wife of many years? In the case of the former, he is similar to Hemingway (just don’t tell him as much, because EH is lower than the bottom of a well on his list) — tough, but sensitive, and happiest when surrounded by cats (who to this day rule Hemingway’s houses in both Key West and Cuba).

Ready, then? Feline fine? Try these two:



I’m watching our little black cat
sitting in the sink, drinking
from the faucet, her eyes closed
in ecstasy. When the world ends,
I won’t mourn my fucked-up species.
I’ll regret our cat’s moment of terror
when the water turns to flame.



The homeless guy who lowers himself
down beside me on the bench
outside the Co-op? He’s generic,
more dirt than human. As if
my father’s ill spirit possesses me,
I almost snarl “Hey! I’m eating here,”
his stink killing my appetite for the bowl
of organic jackfruit on my lap. I stand,
ashamed, give him a dollar & walk away
after dumping the paper bowl
into a trashcan advertising the pleasures
of our historic shopping district.
I swore I’d stop writing about liberal guilt
& about cats too, but I must confess
last night, I groomed our little black cat
with my tongue & watched her perpetually
startled gold eyes widen as I licked her neck
& then her belly, inhaling her scent.
In Japan, childless couples can rent
a cat by the hour to sniff its belly, which
smells like the crown of a baby’s head.


Marriage has always proven fertile ground for writers, especially the Venus vs. Mars angle, creating those sparks we know as conflict and love. “Life Partner,” originally appearing in Rattle, works because it doesn’t forget its sense of humor — by no small coincidence, the secret ingredient to every successful marriage.



For convenience, I & my life partner
(the woman formerly known as my wife)
have numbered our arguments. Number 3,
you’re so negative. Number 8, you’re
naive. Number 11, another beer already?
Number 13, you don’t listen to me.
But I do. I just don’t agree. Now
my life partner’s on the couch, watching
Live P.D. She’s pleased with the police,
so kind to the miscreants & trailer trash
they apprehend. Of course, they’re
kind! They’re on camera! Without
looking at me, she holds up three fingers.
My life partner wants to make a deal:
she’ll stop storing our broken pepper mill
upright in the spice rack, pepper everywhere
like coarse soot, she’ll store the mill
on its side if I stop switching off the light
over the dining-room table whenever
she’s in another room. Why? Why
does she need that light on all day?
She raises both fists & opens each one
twice. Number 20, you don’t love me.


Carter, very much in tune with the political turmoil around him, is not afraid of leaving the door open for politics in his poetry, either. Where angels fear to tread, he marches confidently, taking on race. Here, in a poem which had its original moment during another Jefferson’s Administration, is a poem as current now as it was when TJ was singing his way across Hamilton‘s stage. Check out the alliteration and metaphor, all delivered in a neat, 10-line package.



Our third president owned
a pet mockingbird named Dick.
Let’s not mention what else
he owned. Dick dug Monticello,
that big white layer cake.
He’d click & chatter. He’d mimic
the field slaves’ hosannahs
until he’d almost faint, wobbling
on his perch like a double
handful of dirty cotton.


Give Carter his due. He may hate the term “prose poetry” and bemoan the legions trying (and failing) to write poetry nowadays and express absolute confidence about who the good poets are and who the bad ones are, but at least he puts himself out there, too. Out where other people can comment, pro or con.

It’s only fair. And if it isn’t, I’m sure he’ll say as much.


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.