5 posts

Snapshot-in-Time Poems: A Mix of Concrete, Abstract, and Economy


For a successful poem, sometimes a snapshot in time is all it takes. You don’t even need to get into narrative beginnings, middles, and ends, because your poem is that brief, almost like something you’d drive by, briefly take in, and draw your own conclusions about.

In a way, writing about a brief moment in time is akin to ekphrastic poetry. Recalling the picture from memory hits you emotionally, so you ask yourself, “Why?” Answering that “why” is the trick.

For starters, the first line has to jump right in. No needless exposition, thank you. No clearing of the throat before you get to the important stuff. This is a snapshot in time, after all. Just get to it.

Then, the necessary details. The descriptive elements you have taken the time to trace to your own emotions. Concrete is always the driver of abstract, after all, but connecting the dots requires both honesty and careful thought. It also requires deletion of superfluous elements as you revise your work.

Here, in Joseph Mills’ poem, the opening line provides essential information to the meaning of the last. That’s economy. It also bridges the man’s situation—a wife with a terminal illness in the hospital—with the snapshot described—a quick game of catch with the fatherless boy next door.

Keep your eye on the tennis ball they’re tossing, though. It’s more than a tennis ball, and because it’s more than a tennis ball, it’s a poem. A successful snapshot-in-time poem.


Joseph Mills

She’s been in the hospital a week,
this time with no improvement,
and I’ve come home to shower,
change clothes, and feed the dog.
As I’m about to get back in the car,
the boy next door, whose dad left
years ago, asks if I’ll play catch,
and I agree because it’s something
I can do. We toss a tennis ball
back and forth in the driveway;
after awhile his mother comes out
with two beers and a juicebox.
She watches, without speaking,
because we have known each other
a long time, and, as it gets darker,
the ball seems to become lighter,
floating through the gloaming.
Maybe I should say it looks
meaningful, like a radioisotope
or a pill, but I’m not thinking
anything like that or about how
we probably look like a family
to passersby. I’m not thinking
at all. I’m just swinging my arm,
grabbing and releasing yellow,
slowly becoming indistinct.

Walking the Thin Line: Nostalgia vs. Sentimentality

No matter how long it has been since you sat behind a school desk, you carry that school desk with you throughout life. For better or worse. With memories good and bad.

For teachers, the bittersweet memories consist of two pasts harmonizing fitfully: a student past first and a teacher past second. Perhaps no poems nails the teacher past as nicely as one of Edward Hirsch’s appearing in the September / October issue of The American Poetry Review.

“Days of 1975” treads on tricky territory. We’ve been here before. Some call it sentimentality (negative connotation) and some nostalgia (positive). Totally avoiding the former and going lightly on the latter is one of the tougher tasks a poet can undertake. Take a look at how Hirsch handles it here:


Days of 1975
by Edward Hirsch

It started with the tattered blue secret
of Bashō, that windswept spirit,
riding my back pocket for luck.
It started with a walk
through the woods at dawn,
mud on my new shoes,
high humming in the trees.
I was not prepared for the scent
of freshly turned soil
to pervade the empty classroom
or the morning to commence
with a bell that did not stop
ringing in my head.
So many expectations filed
noisily into the room–
I was ready to begin.
From the tall windows
I could see a storefront church
opening on the other side
of the polluted river.
I remember walking past the rows
and rows of bent heads,
scarred desks,
and gazing up
at the Endless Mountains.
In those hopeful days of 1975
I drove the country roads
in honor of radiance.
O spirit of poetry,
souls of those I have loved,
come back to teach me again.


Starting with an invocation to one of the greatest masters of haiku gives Hirsch immediate leeway. Both the Japanese and the Chinese poets were masters of brevity, imagery, nature, the senses. More still, they were masters of the unstated, which plays no small role in Hirsch’s poem.

Thus, the luck of Bashō in the back pocket of this (probably young) teacher beginning his journey; thus, the walk through the woods before school and the smell of mud under new shoes in the classroom. The spirit has entered!

For teachers, the sad beauty of the poem lies in phrases like “So many expectations filed / noisily into the room” and “I remember walking past the rows / and rows of bent heads, / scarred desks….” Perhaps others don’t know how difficult it is to fulfill the hopes of so many who are at such different levels of skills and who bring into the room so many different metaphorical crosses and satchels from home. But the good teacher must and the good teacher does his best.

The poem’s timelessness is evident when the teacher views the “Endless Mountains” outside those “tall windows” of what no doubt is a huge old brick structure with giant windows of the old style. The endlessness could be interpreted in many ways, whether it is one dealing with nature’s profusion and constant cyclical growth (from Bashō’s time to ours) or with the regenerative nature of students—each year the teacher ages but his students do not. They reappear each September, always in the same grade and always at the same age.

In the end, Hirsch goes where only the ancients and the confident dare tread by using the word (letter?) “O”: “O spirit of poetry, / souls of those I have loved, / come back to teach me again.”

Now the scarred desk is turned. Now the teacher, apparently aged and looking back many years, is pleading for the return of innocence and beauty — the “radiance” — that once filled his being, something he tried to share with his students.

I like how “souls of those I loved” is used as an appositive for “spirit of poetry” here. In that sense, observing beauty and capturing its transient essence in a poem is love. It is also the reason we write.

Marie Howe Teaches Us How

You meet new old poets in the strangest ways. A “new old” poet is not something found in the oxymoron section of Dewey’s Decimals, but rather an established poet who is new to you (a great name for a consignment store).

My daughter, who likes to gift me poetry, gave me a copy of the new book Magdalene, by Marie Howe for my recent birthday. Ostensibly about the Biblical character, this short book, every poem double-spaced, is more about Marie Howe, mother, and the everyday questions of wonder she gets from her daughter. These questions allow her to contrast the vast questions of life with the simple, quotidian ones of childhood. The chasm is vast–and grist for Howe’s mill.

Here is a poem from Magdalene right up my wheel house (and why I have a domicile for wheels is beyond me). See if you like it, too:


October by Marie Howe


The first cold morning, the little pumpkins lined up at the corner market, and

the girl walks along Hudson Street to school and doesn’t look back.


The old sorrow blows in with the scent of wood smoke

as I walk up the five flights to our apartment and lean hard against


the broken dishwasher so it will run. Then it comes to me: Yes I’ll die,

so will everyone, so has everyone. It’s what we have in common.


And, for a moment, the sorrow ceased, and I saw that it hadn’t been sorrow

after all, but loneliness, and for a few moments, it was gone.


© Magdalene: Poems, W.W. Norton & Co., 2017


The double-spaced couplets, as is. The quotidian subject of seeing a daughter off to school and returning to an empty apartment, as is. And the swallow-me-alive topic of death, as… is? Maybe not.

Thus, the balancing act of these poems. I’m looking forward to Marie Howe’s opus. It is, as they say, in the mail and heading my way, even as I type….

What Lights YOUR Muse’s Campfire?

It’s a fact of life: Famous writers inspire famous writers. Don’t believe it? Doubting your inner Thomas? You need only read Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler, wherein dozens of writerly-types share snippets of works that lit their muse’s campfire. Curious, I read the book–mostly–and here are a few for you:

  • Aimee Bender chooses Wallace Stevens’ poem, “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour,” particularly the line “How high that highest candle lights the dark.”
  • Sherman Alexie chooses a poem, too–one by the Paiute poet Adrian C. Louis called “Elegy for the Forgotten Oldsmobile.” Alexie takes a shining to the line, “O Uncle Adrian! I’m in the reservation of my mind” because the metaphor gives him license to be an Indian and write like an Indian, which he has done with great success.
  • Elizabeth Gilbert waxes poetic for her namesake (unrelated), Jack Gilbert, who I have written about on this blog before (I took him on an Amtrak ride last spring and wrote a poem about the experience, too, which landed in my new book). Gilbert comma Eliza swoons to Gilbert comma Jack’s poem “A Brief for the Defense,” particularly the lines “We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness on the ruthless / furnace of this world.” That Jack. He comes out metaphors a blazing, doesn’t he?
  • Amy Tan makes a more predictable choice: Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself.”
  • Junot Diaz taps Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved. He especially loves this: “She is a friend of my mind. She gather me, man. The pieces I am, she gather them and give them back to me in all the right order. It’s good, you know, when you got a woman who is a friend of your mind.”
  • Andre Dubus III tips his hat to Richard Bausch’s “Dear Writer.” In it, Bausch writes, “Do not think, dream.” That advice is for first drafts, by the way. After that, Logic, who has been pounding on the door, can be let in. See Dubus’s essay for particulars.
  • Billy Collins selects W. B. Yeats’ famous poem “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” I will give that choice and Billy’s reasons its own post tomorrow. I love talking with BC.
  • Kathryn Harrison gives a shout-out to Joseph Brodsky. She cites the poem “On Love” and the lines “For darkness restores what light cannot repair.” If you like mysteries in the dark, you’ll take a shining to her essay.
  • David Mitchell? The talented novelist chooses a poem (God bless him, everyone!) by James Wright– perhaps Wright’s most famous: “Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota.” It’s the equally famous finish he cites: “I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on. / A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home. / I have wasted my life.” Those last five words serve as a warning not only to Mitchell, but to all of us wasting time with stuff like “writer’s block” and other malware of the mind. Just do it! (That’s Nike for the sport of writing.)
  • Curiously, Tom Perrotta is inspired by Our Town, the Thornton Wilder play. “At least, choose an unimportant day. Choose the least important day in your life. It will be important enough.” The play moves Perrotta to tears to this day. And here I still have to read the thing!
  • Jonathan Lethem likes his Kafka, especially the short piece “Leopards in the Temple.” He notes the quote, “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the  sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony.” Let the leopards in, Lethem says. Spot on, I’d add.
  • Charles Simic is the second writer to point to Whitman. But it is a less well-known Whitman: the poem “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim.” The line noted here is “Young man I think I know you–I think this face is the face of the Christ himself, Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.” Simic’s own wartime experiences as a boy in the Balkans creates the camaraderie with Whitman’s poem.
  • Emma Donoghue is one of two in the book who point to Emily Dickinson, the pride of Amherst, Mass. It’s the poem “Wild Nights–Wild Nights”: “Rowing in Eden– / Ah, the Sea! / Might I but moor–Tonight– / In thee!”
  • Claire Messed resurrects an old favorite seldom read nowadays, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land. “These fragments! I have shored against my ruins.” It’s an admittedly cool line, for those of us with both shores and ruins.
  • T.C. Boyle acknowledges Raymond Carver (also written about on these pages this past year). He loves the ending of the short story, “Cathedral,” specifically the lines “My eyes were still closed. I was in my house. I knew that. But I didn’t feel like I was inside anything. ‘It’s really something,’ I said.” In that scene, the narrator has his eyes shut, trying to reimagine life from a blind man’s dark point of view. You can see how that might connect to the writing life, no? Carver is the man.

Anyway, that’s a a sampling. In each essay, the author explains why the lines noted inspire, why they “light the dark,” so to speak, and feed their muse’s inner fires.

You can play the game, too, of course. It’s a popular pastime for writers to keep a quote posted to the wall above in their favorite writing spot, after all. For me, it’s Wislawa Szymborka’s poem, “The Joy of Writing.”

And you?

Waiting for Ideas (vs. Godot)


Sometimes waiting for an idea for a poem is like waiting for Godot–some kind of existential joke. You can see Camus laughing in the barn. Or Sartre’s mirthful eyes through his thick glasses. Or angst from the corner of your wary eye. But after a while, you grow impatient.

So I flipped open good old Ted Kooser’s good old The Poetry Home Repair Manual to the section titled “But How Do You Come Up With Ideas?”  A reading, then, chapter and verse:

“The poet Jane Hirshfield wrote: ‘A work of art defines itself into being, when we awaken into it and by it, when we are moved, altered, stirred. It feels as if we have done nothing, only given it a little time, a little space; some hairline-narrow crack opens in the self, and there it is.’ She goes on to quote Kafka: ‘You do not even have to leave your room. Remain sitting at your table and listen. Do not even listen, simply wait. Do not even wait, remain still and solitary. The world will freely offer itself to you unasked. It has no choice. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.'”

A lovely image, that. The world rolling at your feet like a submissive spaniel. An idea bringing you a stick called “brilliant poem.” And all because you waited, because you said to the Muse, “Heel!”

See how easy? You may now begin writing….