Making Poetry

I think of myself as a fiction writer and essayist rather than a poet, but I do write poems. Sometimes they come with an image or a phrase (of speech or music). Sometimes they are a response to a question or idea.  Rarely, they are a deliberate exercise (my only successful villanelle was/ is one such).

What is poetry?  Larry Levis, whom I was privileged once to hear speak on the subject, suggested that it is “the ultimate form of language.” Others have spoken of it as a distillation, a crystallization, a discipline, a movement (or movements).  Anthropologists have proposed that our species is hard-wired for rhythm and rhyme in verse just as we are hard-wired for stories in prose and poetry alike.  I am not sure that I agree with Robert Frost that “poetry is organized violence upon language.” (Frost was a violent man, after all, and I am neither a man nor violent.)  I do think he had a point, though: to make poetry is to wrench words into shapes and situations they do not ordinarily take, or take to.

Frost, however, so dominates his poems that he seems still to inhabit them–I hear always in them, as I read, his carefully-cultivated New England twang (he was a native Californian, remember!)–and though I love Frost’s work, I do wonder if his best poems may not be the ones where the hand of Frost the Famous Poet is not so tirelessly evident.  Of these I would choose perhaps “Mowing,” which, while undeniably Frostian in language and construction, is not as relentless as some of his better-known works, like “Acquainted with the Night.” I make the same criticism of Wordsworth, whose equal Frost certainly was.  Compare, if you will, “Lines Composed Upon Westminster Bridge” with Blake’s “London.”  The former celebrates the glittering city in the bright air; the latter delves into the dark streets and shows what lies beneath.  But then, Blake is more to my taste than either Wordsworth or Frost, partly because our politics are akin and partly because I think Frost and Wordsworth found people mostly disappointing, while Blake saw them as worthy of redemption, no matter how debased or despised.

This all goes in service to the obvious: a poet, however new to the craft or advanced in its mysteries, ought to study poems and poets too.  Shake them a little and see what sifts out.  Turn them upside down and notice what falls from their pockets.  Rifle through their desk drawers; snoop amongst their letters and diaries.  Take their poems apart and see how they fit together–and why. The “why” may not show itself for a while.  Be patient but faithful in the pursuit, like any good forensic specialist.  The clues are there, if you have the skill, and the will, to uncover them.

For me, the practice of  poetry is both mystical and pragmatic.  It is mystical in the way that it is rather like trying to make sense out of one’s dreams; how do you find the words to describe the beauty and terror of those landscapes and situations that were so clear in the dream but then vanish like smoke when the dreamer wakes?  How do you suggest feeling, or meaning–“show, don’t tell” is equally as important for poetry as for prose–and how do you avoid the easy tricks that make for what one of my writing teachers dismissed as “unearned emotion”?  And then making poetry is also pragmatic: there are materials, there are tools, there is a degree of skill that, with time and care, can be honed, improved, possibly even perfected.

I like the craft of poetry, the way the words come, not by command but by invitation, and how it almost seems that the poet must let the poem decide which words to accept.  Does the poet also let the poems shape themselves by and through the difficult architectures of form?  And even free verse is a form, though not a formal one.  (That’s a poetry joke.)

I enjoy all of these aspects of making poems– remember that the word “poet” originally meant “maker.”

Here are some poems I have made:





Alexander lives inside himself, inside his angel’s face and golden curls,

his Caribbean eyes and rosebud lips that never speak, two folded shells

that sometimes curve into a secret, tantalizing smile.


Alexander’s nine years old.  He loves amusement parks, pizza, balloons.

He loves his mother, whimpers at the door when she goes out, rages

when she will not let him smear the walls with feces,


or break a glass and dance barefoot, shrieking gleeful among the splinters.

“Where’s Alexander? What’s he into now?”  Slippery minnow, shadow child,

mute stopwatch ticking off the minutes of our lives.


Time, the enemy: “He’s nine. What happens when he’s seventeen–or fifty?”

The answers implacable as stones, we hand them to each other, mourning.

And Alexander flickers through the hours like a rainbow.


After a day apart, the family reunites–a finished puzzle–at the supper table.

And Alexander’s learned to use a spoon! But will he? He laughs and twirls

away from us, waving the spoon above his sunny head,


a silvery baton–the music it conducts, a tune that only Alexander hears.







Driving away from you

Reminds me

There is nothing, ultimately

That we may keep.


Even the memory

(so clear now)

Of our lovemaking

Will one day flicker out


When I die, or when my brain

Refuses to remember

Or behave.

Driving away from you


I push the tape

Into its slot and wait

To hear the music tell me

What’s already plain:


This that we think

Is only ours,

Sweet as Grapelli’s violin.

Rich as those fat red cows


Hock-deep in grass,

Is common as highway weeds,


As the semi on my tail.





“Let Seed Be Grass” (for Theodore Roethke)


Across the road the farmer’s hay grows tall.

Soon he will cut and pile it in rows.

The new grass next will face its turn to fall.


Above the tractor, black crows wheel and call.

Behind it, a green fragrant river flows.

Across the road the farmer’s hay grows tall.


That scent of fresh-cut hay!–and we recall

Summers gone by, harvests of hopes and woes.

The new grass next will face its turn to fall.


The season’s lease is short, its compass small,

As back and forth my neighbor’s tractor goes.

Across the road the farmer’s hay grows tall.


Line of stone marks the field, a gap-toothed wall;

Lines in the earth mark how this year’s crop grows.

The new grass next will face its turn to fall.


As we: the famer, tractor, crows, and all.

The summer day blurs by.  The west wind blows.

Across the road the farmer’s hay grows tall.

The new grass next will face its turn to fall.