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Imagery + Contrast = Effective

As Confucius never said, “A two-fer is always better than a one-fer.”

In poetry-speak, this means it’s all well and good to strut your stuff with metaphor, alliteration, anaphora, et and cetera, but it always becomes that much more effective when you yoke two devices together like a pair of oxen.

As a brief example, see Athena Kildegaard’s poem, “Ripe Cherries,” below. Short and sweet, it marries imagery (the taste of cherries) with unexpected contrast (the firing of guns). Granted, you might not call “unexpected contrast” a poetic element, but I call it a tool that writers of all genres should have in their toolboxes.

Let’s see how it’s done:


Ripe Cherries
Athena Kildegaard

I read that the men,
on their way to Gettysburg,
stopped along the road
to pick and eat ripe cherries.

That the fruit should not
go to waste.

That they should take
such pleasure before battle.

That the oldest among them
should shake the trees
and the youngest gather
the fallen fruit.
That they should aim rifles
with the taste of cherries
against their teeth.


Simple, right? Plain-spoken and honest, the speaker gains our trust as someone who knows of what she speaks—Gettysburg. The anecdote sounds right, after all, given the specifics of old soldiers shaking cherries loose while young soldiers gather them from the ground.

Kildegaard also uses anaphora to good effect via four waves of “That the….”

What surprises nicely, though, is pairing the taste of cherries in one’s mouth with firing guns to kill your fellow man. Even if you are a veteran of the armed services, chances are you have never experienced that.

Thus does a simple technique, imagery, become a more complex one on the reader’s palate thanks to the well-aged (in oak barrels) surprise of juxtaposition.

Mmm. Two-fers are better than one-fers! Hats off to apocryphal sayings from The Analects, then!

Leaping Poetry, or When Poems Make Like Frogs


The sedentary reader is often moved by his discoveries. Recently I learned about a style of writing Robert Bly referred to as “leaping poetry.” In 1975, he defined it as “a long floating leap from the conscious to the unconscious and back again, a leap from the known part of the mind to the unknown part and back to the known.”

This sounds a lot like Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit who went there and back again, but Bly took his inspiration from the works of such French poets as Gérard de Nerval and Charles Baudelaire, as well as Spanish poets Juan Ramón Jiménez, Rafael Alberti, and Antonio Machado. Bly also cited ancient Chinese poets who spoke of “riding on dragons,” a term defining moments of “inspiration,” of leaps between planes of thought.

If you read Bly poems that demonstrate “leaping poetry” nowadays, you might not even notice the leaping. Our modern sense of metaphoric leaps seems to fill the bill quite nicely, thank you, but here’s an example anyway. Can you guess which stanza makes like Mark Twain’s Calaveras County frog and leaps?


Driving Toward the Lac Qui Parle River by Robert Bly

I am driving; it is dusk; Minnesota.
The stubble field catches the last growth of sun.
The soybeans are breathing on all sides.
Old men are sitting before their houses on car seats
In the small towns. I am happy,
The moon rising above the turkey sheds.

The small world of the car
Plunges through the deep fields of the night,
On the road from Willmar to Milan.
This solitude covered with iron
Moves through the fields of night
Penetrated by the noise of crickets.

Nearly to Milan, suddenly a small bridge,
And water kneeling in the moonlight.
In small towns the houses are built right on the ground;
The lamplight falls on all fours on the grass.
When I reach the river, the full moon covers it.
A few people are talking, low, in a boat.


If you chose stanza #3, you are correct. The turn comes with the word “suddenly,” and although some imagery anticipates it in the first two stanzas, in stanza #3 Bly leaps to a more emotional, subjective lens to describe sights seen on this drive.

As I said, leaping is less exercise than you thought, so you need not worry about training so much as freeing your mind to the possibilities.

Here is another Bly poem that leaps. Like the last line of haiku, a leaping poem might first focus on a concrete image (in this case, some lovely description of a humble mushroom) and then finish on an imaginative metaphor, such as the trip our migratory souls prepare for near the end of life. By the end of the poem, you might wonder what “A” has to do with “B” but, skillfully done, leaping poetry makes the transition not only reasonable but seemingly obvious.

Leap well done, in other words!


The Mushroom by Robert Bly

This white mushroom comes up through the duffy
lith on a granite cliff, in a crack that ice has widened.
The most delicate light tan, it has the texture of a rubber
ball left in the sun too long. To the fingers it feels a
little like the tough heel of a foot.

One split has gone deep into it, dividing it into two
half-spheres, and through the cut one can peek inside,
where the flesh is white and gently naive.

The mushroom has a traveller’s face. We know there
are men and women in Old People’s Homes whose souls
prepare now for a trip, which will also be a marriage.
There must be travellers all around us supporting us whom
we do not recognize. This granite cliff also travels. Do we
know more about our wife’s journey or our dearest friends’
than the journey of this rock? Can we be sure which
traveller will arrive first, or when the wedding will be?
Everything is passing away except the day of this wedding.

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, and it’s always interesting how students instinctively “like” lines that showcase a poetic element. (Awesome work, students!) Students might also create categories for Foley’s and their own lists. It might help others who are reaching for that old familiar — “writer’s block.” Thus, thinking up favorites from nature, from foods, from sports, from family traditions, etc., breaks the logjam.

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.

Fernando Pessoa & Literary Children


After lazily wending my way through Fernando Pessoa’s The Book of Disquiet, I found a like-minded soul and poet: a quiet man, a homebody, a literary enthusiast.

Most interesting to me is this passage about children and their “literary” way of thinking (as opposed to those conformists like that one in the mirror — a.k.a. “adults”). For me, this brought to mind the video of Naomi Shihab Nye quoting William Stafford about how we are all poets as children and just have to readopt the facility if we want to write poetry as adults.

Here’s the quote from Pessoa:

“Children are particularly literary, for they say what they feel and not what someone has taught them to feel. Once I heard a child, who wished to say that he was on the verge of tears, say not ‘I feel like crying,’ which is what an adult, i.e. an idiot, would say, but rather, ‘I feel like tears.’ And this phrase — so literary it would seem affected in a well-known poet, if he could ever invent it — decisively refers to the warm presence of tears about to burst from eyelids that feel the liquid bitterness. ‘I feel like tears!’ That small child aptly defined his spiral.

“To say! To know how to say! To know how to exist via the written voice and the intellectual image! This is all that matters in life; the rest is men and women, imagined loves and factitious vanities, the wiles of our digestion and forgetfulness, people squirming — like worms when a rock is lifted — under the huge abstract boulder of the meaningless blue sky.”

This is the gospel according to St. Fernando (thanks be to the writing gods)….

The Moment vs. Writer’s Block

Some people are fervent believers in writer’s block. They stare at paper. Paper stares back at them. They stare at screens. Screens stare back at them.

Me? I’m rude. I write on paper and type across screens with little regard for their whiteness.

What’s in a first draft, after all? Mostly garbage. So why so much respect for writer’s block?

Whenever I hear talk of writer’s block, I bring up the pedestrian term moment. “OK,” I say, real casual like, “write about a moment. Could be any moment. Could be this moment, even. Moments don’t care. They’re free and, when it comes to first drafts, every one of them is willing — more than willing — to share.”

All of which means you’ll be doing one of two things: a.) checking into stand-out memories and asking yourself the 5 W’s/1 H (who, what, why, when, where, how) and the five senses (sight, sound, touch, taste, smell), OR b.) drinking in the moment around you right now, hitting you over the head, practically. Clearing its throat. Waving its arms and asking, “What about me, writer? I’m game for the 5 W’s, the 1 H, and the five senses, too.”

You can bet the poet Evan Boland did a. or b. above when she penned the first draft to the poem below, aptly named…


The Moment
Eavan Boland

A neighborhood.
At dusk.

Things are getting ready
to happen
out of sight.

Stars and moths.
And rinds slanting around fruit.

But not yet.

One tree is black.
One window is yellow as butter.

A woman leans down to catch a child
who has run into her arms
this moment.

Stars rise.
Moths flutter.
Apples sweeten in the dark.


If you’re wondering what words appeared in her first draft, I’m worried about you. Go to the concrete imagery first: stars, moths, fruit rinds, a black tree, a lit window, a mother and child.

If that list doesn’t look like much to you, then you don’t understand the writing process. Yes, even a list counts as a first draft in my book, and even a list brings the mighty writer’s block to its knees (assuming blocks have knees, which I do because I have a poetic license as good as any Harry Potter “Creativido!” wand spell).

Consider this: The wonderful simile “One window is yellow as butter” no doubt started as a lit window. Then, in subsequent drafts, the poet asked herself what that soft yellow color looked like as it softly punched its shape into the night. Butter, of course.

Is this a lesson? Probably not. Unless there’s something to be learned in the obvious: Writer’s block doesn’t stand a chance against the moments we live every day.


Inspired by Water: One If By Lake, Two If By Sea

Vacation. For students, its special meaning lies in summer, the granddaddy of all vacations. For adults, however, it’s more narrow. Most full-time workers enjoy but 2 to 4 weeks of paid vacation each year. Compared to the nine-week wonder of childhood, slim provisions indeed.

Conjuring vacations of your childhood is sure to bring back a host of disparate memories. You’ll remember some close to home. You’ll recall a few long-distance car rides. And, if you’re lucky, you might reminisce about a certain long flight to some exotic location.

As fodder for writing, vacations are fertile ground. Water figures largely. Melville-like, we are drawn to the sea (it says so in Moby-Dick, after all). And E.B. White-like, we are drawn to the lakes (check out his beautiful essay, “Once More to the Lake”).

Marge Piercy uses lake vacations for material in her aptly-titled poem below. You can, too, by writing down the memories and the imagery that come to mind when you think of a childhood vacation. Once that’s done, you reach the “If you write it, they will come” phase, wherein metaphors come marching out of the water to give your draft some substance.

Here’s inspiration, Piercy’s last draft:


The Rented Lakes of My Childhood
Marge Piercy

I remember the lakes of my Michigan
childhood. Here they are called ponds.
Lakes belonged to summer, two-week
vacations that my father was granted by
Westinghouse when we rented some cabin.

Never mind the dishes with spiderweb
cracks, the crooked aluminum sauce
pans, the crusted black frying pans.
Never mind the mattresses shaped
like the letter V. Old jangling springs.

Moldy bathrooms. Low ceilings
that leaked. The lakes were mysteries
of sand and filmy weeds and minnows
flickering through my fingers. I rowed
into freedom. Alone on the water

that freckled into small ripples,
that raised its hackles in storms,
that lay glassy at twilight reflecting
the sunset then sucking up the dark,
I was unobserved as the quiet doe

coming with her fauns to drink
on the opposite shore. I let the row-
boat drift as the current pleased, lying
faceup like a photographer’s plate
the rising moon turned to a ghost.

And though the voices called me
back to the rented space we shared
I was sure I left my real self there—
a tiny black pupil in the immense
eye of a silver pool of silence.


I’m sure the Michigan lakes of Piercy lore are the same as the New Hampshire and Maine lakes of Craft lore. Lake or ocean, water is unique yet universal, a perfect brew for the inspiration-sipping writer.

Notice the imagery Piercy uses in stanzas 2 through 5, some of them indoor images, others outdoor. Notice, too, how it sets up the grand finale at the end. Like Fourth of July fireworks, endings often riff off concrete goods to offer an abstract bang. Here it comes in the form of metaphor, the narrator as a pupil (double meaning!) in the “eye of a silver pool of silence.”

So nice. So lake-like. A meditation compliments of the silently-lovely past.

An Abundance of Moments, an Embarrassment of Neglect

Pinch yourself. You’re alive. But how do you know, and what is it you’re hardly noticing as days roll in and out with numbing regularity?

Answer: a lot. Reason: the five senses. Even more so the four neglected senses. You know how partial we are to our eyes. To sight. The favored child among our brood.

But what if the idea is to conjure a moment — pick a moment, any moment — using the senses, not just sight but touch, smell, sound, and taste? Imagery, we call it, is an essential poet’s tool. One willing to share the poetic limelight with figurative language.

Given the heady mix of imagery, figurative language, and the moment, you’d see a direct link between Buddhism and poetry. What’s present around us at any given moment, with focus, with meditation, can become something more than it seems. The insignificance of a world that can become mundane lies in our own prejudices. Moments are always there but, through bad habit, we are usually not.

Sure, picking a small moment and magnifying it sounds simple, but simplicity is a lovely sound, as proven here by Kenneth Rexroth, who leads us to enlightenment at the end of his humble paean to life as simple moment:


Confusion of the Senses
by Kenneth Rexroth

Moonlight fills the laurels
Like music. The moonlit
Air does not move. Your white
Face moves towards my face.
Voluptuous sorrow
Holds us like a cobweb
Like a song, a perfume, the moonlight.
Your hair falls and holds our faces.
Your lips curl into mine.
Your tongue enters my mouth.
A bat flies through the moonlight.
The moonlight fills your eyes
They have neither iris nor pupil
They are only globes of cold fire
Like the deer’s eyes that go by us
Through the empty forest.
Your slender body quivers
And smells of seaweed.
We lie together listening
To each other breathing in the moonlight.
Do you hear? We are breathing. We are alive.


For your own “We are alive” or “I am alive” moment, you can slow down and invite one into your own life. Then honor it by writing a poem rich in the senses leavened with the meaning you give it (or, better yet, it gives you).

It’s how we experience the world, after all — if only we would more often!

The Art of Bottling Nostalgia


I just finished J.L. Carr’s A Month in the Country and didn’t like it as much as expected. Part of the problem is the title. I could use a month in the country along about now, raising expectations.

The other problem is the publisher, New York Review Books. NYRB’s paperbacks are pretty products. Typically, the covers are candy. This one’s so-so, but the lineage is there. Thus, picking the book up, I anticipated great things.

I settled for so-so things. But I did find diamonds in this little patch of English rough. Like this poetic chipt toward the end of the book:

Ah, those days…for many years afterwards their happiness haunted me. Sometimes, listening to music, I drift back and nothing has changed. The long end of summer. Day after day of warm weather, voices callings as night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness and, at day-break, the murmur of corn and the warm smell of fields ripe for harvest. And being young,

Sometimes a little stretch like that makes books worth your while, at least on the given day you pick them up. I especially loved this: “…night came on and lighted windows pricked the darkness….” A nice little image, that.

Then we get the day-break, the personification of the corn’s “murmur” and the lovely “warm smell of fields ripe for harvest.” Dreamy, no? And Carr scores points for trying to bottle nostalgia there. Nostalgia’s tricky stuff. It resists being poured and hermetically sealed. At the blink of an eye, it transforms into a noble gas and disappears.

“A” for effort, then. If not a month, at least a day in the country was sweet. A fleeting thing. The best kind….


Planes, Trains, and Poems


Sometimes poems do the jobs of planes, trains, and automobiles by taking us places we’ve never been, then giving us a taste (a sight, a smell, a sound, a touch) of what that location is like.

This is what happened for me in one of the poems included in Jane Hirshfield’s Ten Windows. It’s called “Facing It,” a poem where Yusef Kanunyakaa has me standing in front of a memorial I’ve never seen: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial.

Notice the images, how some the figurative language mirrors what many of these names went through in that faraway land, that faraway folly instigated by old men back home. This is but one thing that poetry does–and does well.

Facing It by Yusef Kanunyakaa

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn't,
dammit: No tears.
I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way--the stone lets me go.
I turn that way--I'm inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap's white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman's blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird's
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet's image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I'm a window.
He's lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman's trying to erase names:
No, she's brushing a boy's hair.

From Dien Cai Dau by Yusef Komunyakaa. Copyright © 1988 by Yusef Komunyakaa.