Shape and Structure in Poems

June 27, 2022

One of the most wonderful things about poetry is how it takes you to unexpected places.  I had several thoughts on what I wanted to write about today.  I knew I wanted it centered entirely on The Poem Itself, on how a poem is put together.  I wanted to do that close looking at the construction: What’s the point of view/ who’s speaking?  What about the lines: metrical or free verse?  Long, medium, or short?  What about the sentences, and how they entwine with the lines?  Are the lines mostly end-stopped, or mostly enjambed?  Are there regular stanzas, irregular stanzas, or no stanzas?  What’s the poem’s connective tissue: how does it get from one thought or one image to the next? (Along with point of view, that’s the most interesting piece to me.)  And of course, what’s the tone of voice, whether that voice is attached to a body or not (as in omniscient point of view)?  What are the poem’s emotions?

I started pulling books from the shelves, thinking of poets who might be useful for this, and turned to Ashbery’s “Some Trees,” one of my favorite poems since I first read it.  Then I looked at another poet I was thinking of–and opened the book to a poem about trees I didn’t remember reading before.  And then there were trees everywhere.  I haven’t changed the topic, it’s still Shape and Structure, but I think it’s interesting to have this constant among all the variables.

Add your thoughts as you read to the comments here, and plan to join us for this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.  I’ll send the zoom link later in the week.



John Ashbery

These are amazing: each
Joining a neighbor, as though speech
Were a still performance.
Arranging by chance

To meet as far this morning
From the world as agreeing
With it, you and I
Are suddenly what the trees try

To tell us we are:
That their merely being there
Means something; that soon
We may touch, love, explain.

And glad not to have invented
Such comeliness, we are surrounded:
A silence already filled with noises,
A canvas on which emerges

A chorus of smiles, a winter morning.
Placed in a puzzling light, and moving,
Our days put on such reticence
These accents seem their own defense.



Adrienne Rich

The trees inside are moving out into the forest,
the forest that was empty all these days
where no bird could sit
no insect hide
no sun bury its feet in shadow
the forest that was empty all these nights
will be full of trees by morning.

All night the roots work
to disengage themselves from the cracks
in the veranda floor.
The leaves strain toward the glass
small twigs stiff with exertion
long-cramped boughs shuffling under the roof
like newly discharged patients
half-dazed, moving
to the clinic doors.

I sit inside, doors open to the veranda
writing long letters
in which I scarcely mention the departure
of the forest from the house.
The night is fresh, the whole moon shines
in a sky still open
the smell of leaves and lichen
still reaches like a voice into the rooms.

My head is full of whispers
which tomorrow will be silent.
Listen. The glass is breaking.
The trees are stumbling forward
into the night. Winds rush to meet them.
The moon is broken like a mirror,
its pieces flash now in the crown
of the tallest oak.



Jericho Brown

In my front yard live three crape myrtles, crying trees
We once called them, not the shadiest but soothing
During a break from work in the heat, their cool sweat

Falling into us. I don’t want to make more of it.
I’d like to let these spindly things be
Since my gift for transformation here proves

Useless now that I know everyone moves the same
Whether moving in tears or moving
To punch my face. A crape myrtle is

A crape myrtle. Three is a family. It is winter. They are bare.
It’s not that I love them
Every day. It’s that I love them anyway.



Dorothy Tanning

Not that anyone would
notice it at first.
I have taken to marveling
at the trees in our park.
One thing I can tell you:
they are beautiful
and they know it.
They are also tired,
hundreds of years
stuck in one spot—
beautiful paralytics.
When I am under them,
they feel my gaze,
watch me wave my foolish
hand, and envy the joy
of being a moving target.

Loungers on the benches
begin to notice.
One to another,
“Well, you see all kinds…”
Most of them sit looking
down at nothing as if there
was truly nothing else to
look at until there is
that woman waving up
to the branching boughs
of these old trees. Raise your
heads, pals, look high,
you may see more than
you ever thought possible,
up where something might
be waving back, to tell her
she has seen the marvelous.



Stanley Plumly

It looked like oak, white oak, oak of the oceans,
oak of the Lord, live oak, oak if a boy could choose.
The names, like ganglia, were the leaves, flesh

of our fathers.  So Sundays I would stand
on a chair and trace, as on a county map,
back to the beginnings of cousins,

nomenclature. This branch, this root…
I could feel the weight of my body take hold,
toe in.  I could see the same shape in my hand.

And if from the floor it looked like a cauliflower,
dried, dusted, pieced back together, paper–
my bad eyes awed by the detailed dead and named–

it was the stalk of the spine as it culminates at the brain,
a drawing I had seen in a book about the body, each leaf
inlaid until the man’s whole back, root and stem, was veins.







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American Identity, continued

June 21, 2022

  I hope you’re reading and listening to the poems at the Library of Congress site  I wrote about last time, where fifty contemporary poets each read and discuss poems they think express something distinctly American.  If you’ve already done some exploring, you know that the pages include a transcription of the poem and also the poet’s comments about it.  I’m finding the discussions illuminating and often surprising.  I’m posting four of the poems that have drawn me so far, hoping that you’ll continue to the site to hear the discussion.  While you’re there, choose a favorite of your own–you can just post the author and title on the blog, and people can read the poem at the site.  You can see that I’m hoping to lure you all in to having a look and a listen.  Plan to read and talk about them at this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom discussion.  As usual, I’ll send the link later this week.  And let me know if someone would like to be added to the mailing list.



Randall Jarrell


The child saw the bombers skate like stones across the fields
As he trudged down the ways the summer strewed
With its reluctant foliage; how many giants
Rose and peered down and vanished, by the road
The ants had littered with their crumbs and dead.

“That man is white and red like my clown doll,”
He says to his mother, who has gone away.
“I didn’t cry, I didn’t cry.”
In the sky the planes are angry, like the wind.
The people are punishing the people—why?

He answers easily, his foolish eyes
Brightening at that long simile, the world;
The angels sway above his story like balloons.
A child makes everything (except his death) a child’s.
Come to the stone and tell me why I died.


–read and discussed by Laura Kasischke




HOWL   part III

Allen Ginsberg

Carl Solomon! I’m with you in Rockland
   where you’re madder than I am
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you must feel very strange
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you imitate the shade of my mother
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you’ve murdered your twelve secretaries
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you laugh at this invisible humor
I’m with you in Rockland
   where we are great writers on the same dreadful typewriter
I’m with you in Rockland
   where your condition has become serious and is reported on the radio
I’m with you in Rockland
   where the faculties of the skull no longer admit the worms of the senses
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you drink the tea of the breasts of the spinsters of Utica
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you pun on the bodies of your nurses the harpies of the Bronx
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you scream in a straightjacket that you’re losing the game of the actual pingpong of the abyss
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you bang on the catatonic piano the soul is innocent and immortal it should never die ungodly in
   an armed madhouse
I’m with you in Rockland
   where fifty more shocks will never return your soul to its body again from its pilgrimage to a cross in the
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you accuse your doctors of insanity and plot the Hebrew socialist revolution against the fascist
national Golgotha
I’m with you in Rockland
   where you will split the heavens of Long Island and resurrect your living human Jesus from the
superhuman tomb
I’m with you in Rockland
   where there are twentyfive thousand mad comrades all together singing the final stanzas of the
I’m with you in Rockland
   where we hug and kiss the United States under our bedsheets the United States that coughs all night
   and won’t let us sleep
I’m with you in Rockland
   where we wake up electrified out of the coma by our own souls’ airplanes roaring over the roof they’ve
   come to drop angelic bombs the hospital illuminates itself    imaginary walls collapse    O skinny legions
   run outside    O starry-spangled shock of mercy the eternal war is here    O victory forget your underwear
   we’re free
I’m with you in Rockland
   in my dreams you walk dripping from a sea-journey on the highway across America in tears to the door
   of my cottage in the Western night
–read and discussed by Mary Jo Bang


James Tate

What made anyone think I was a Communist I don’t know.  I never went
to any of the Communist meetings.  I didn’t know any other Communists.
I didn’t believe in any of their tenets.  It’s true, I hunted elk in the
winter.  I never actually shot any, but I followed them.  And I laced my
cranberry juice with vodka.  But these things didn’t make me a Communist.
I stood on the bridge and watched the boats go out to sea.  I dreamed
of going with them one day.  I danced alone in my apartment.  I hated my
job with the government.  I went to parties where I didn’t know anyone.
I went to the zoo and talked to the animals.  I dreamed I had an affair
with a zebra and its stripes rubbed off on me.  I met a woman I
liked and called her on the phone.  She said she liked phone sex and I
didn’t know what she meant.  I lay on the couch and counted my blessings.
There were none, or so few they slipped through my fingers.  I got up and
looked out the window.  A cloud of sparrows flew by.  I made myself a can
of soup.  I thought of my relatives, all gone except for one.  I called
her on the phone.  She didn’t remember me.  I told her I was Edna’s son.
She said, “I remember Edna.  I never liked her.  She cursed too much.”
My mother never cursed, but I wasn’t about to argue.  I went to the movies.
I saw Hopalong Cassidy.  I wished he didn’t wave so much.  But I liked
the popcorn.  I walked about the city, feeding the pigeons.  I bought a
soda on the street.  I sat down in a garden.  A woman came along and sat
down beside me.  She said, “Nice day, isn’t it?”  I said, “Yes, very,
I like it.”  “What do you do for a living?” she said.  “I’m an accountant
in the government,” I said.  “That must be nice,” she said.  “But most
people I know think I’m a Communist,” I said.  “That’s a joke, right?”
she said.  “To me it is,” I said.  “To me, you look more like an
Argonaut,” she said.  “What’s an Argonaut?” I said.  “It’s somebody
who swims in the deep waters of the ocean in search of treasure,” she
said.  “I found a penny in my bathtub once when I was a kid,” I said.
“Then you’re an Argonaut,” she said.

–read and discussed by Matthew Zapruder



Lisa Suhair Majaj

If they ask you what you are,
say Arab. If they flinch, don’t react,
just remember your great-aunt’s eyes.

If they ask you where you come from,
say Toledo. Detroit. Mission Viejo.
Fall Springs. Topeka. If they seem confused,

help them locate these places on a map,
then inquire casually, Where are you from?
Have you been here long? Do you like this country?

If they ask you what you eat,
don’t dissemble. If garlic is your secret friend,
admit it. Likewise, crab cakes.

If they say you’re not American,
don’t pull out your personal,
wallet-sized flag. Instead, recall

the Bill of Rights. Mention the Constitution.
Wear democracy like a favorite garment:
comfortable, intimate.

If they wave newspapers in your face and shout,
stay calm. Remember everything they never learned.
Offer to take them to the library.

If they ask you if you’re white, say it depends.
Say no. Say maybe. If appropriate, inquire,
Have you always been white, or is it recent?

If you take to the streets in protest,
link hands with whomever is beside you.
Keep your eyes on the colonizer’s maps,

geography’s twisted strands, the many colors
of struggle. No matter how far you’ve come, remember:
the starting line is always closer than you think.

If they ask how long you plan to stay, say forever.
Console them if they seem upset. Say, don’t worry,
you’ll get used to it. Say, we live here. How about you?


–read and discussed by Naomi Shihab Nye







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American Identity in Poetry

June 13, 2022

  I need to go back and read my own blog posts more often.  At last week’s Fridays at 4 I mentioned this notion of what it is to be an American poet, and said I hope to have the poet Ed Hirsch join us sometime to discuss new anthology The Heart of American Poetry.  As I was reading back through some earlier blog posts I found several that talk about American poetry, including one titled “I Hear America Singing: The Poetry of American Identity,” that mentions a Library of Congress site where fifty contemporary poets read and discuss poems they consider respresentative, in one way or another, of what it is to be American. I’ve just heard a few so far, and it’s fascinating listening.  I’m still thinking about how this overlaps with the question: “Do you think about yourself as an American poet?”

Check out the list–it includes readers James Tate, Alicia Ostriker, Naomi Shahib Nye, Marilyn Nelson, Joy Harjo, C. D. Wright.  Listen to some of them–or all, for that matter.  Maybe make some notes.  Then come back and comment here with your recommendations and thoughts.  I think this is going to make for terrific discussion, but the next Fridays at 4 (eastern time) will be two weeks from now because I have to be somewhere else this Friday.  I think you’ll find these recordings really exciting in the meantime, and I’m looking forward to seeing your responses here.

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Charles Simic

June 7, 2022

Following up on last week’s post about Polish poet Wisława Szymborska, I want to talk about another Eastern European poet, Charles Simic, who was born in 1939 in what was then Yugoslavia.  I first read his poems in about 1970, when I was just beginning to write seriously, and his work opened doors in my mind that I didn’t even know were there.  That first excitement only deepened over time.  The tone reminds me some of Szymborska’s in its humor in the face of great tragedy.  But Simic’s work also summons up the magic of fairy tales–the impossible described very matter-of-factly.  In addition to his numerous books of poetry, he’s also published several that collect his essays and memoir fragments, which I find as compelling as his poems.  He won the Pulitzer prize in poetry for a collection of prose poems, The World Doesn’t End, which remind me of Joseph Cornell’s boxed assemblages.  Simic wrote an insightful book on Cornell’s work, and I think of Simic’s poems as similar to those boxes.  I’m including here one of the earliest poems of his I read, from Dismantling the Silence, one  about wartime from The Book of Gods and Devils, a prose poem from The World Doesn’t End, and three brief prose passages from his memoirs.

Simic didn’t arrive in this country until he was sixteen.  Why has he always written in English, and not his native Serbian? “For poetry to be used as an instrument of seduction, the first requirement is that it be understood. No American girl was likely to fall for a guy who read her love poems in Serbian as they sipped Coke.”

Please comment, add your own Simic favorites, and plan to join us for this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.




This strange thing must have crept
Right out of hell.
It resembles a bird’s foot
Worn around the cannibal’s neck.

As you hold it in your hand,
As you stab with it into a piece of meat,
It is possible to imagine the rest of the bird:
Its head which like your fist
Is large, bald, beakless, and blind.



for Charles and Holly

An old dog afraid of his own shadow
In some Southern town.
The story told me by a woman going blind,
One fine summer evening
As shadows were creeping
Out of the New Hampshire woods,
A long street with just a worried dog
And a couple of dusty chickens,
And all that sun beating down
In that nameless Southern town.

It made me remember the Germans marching
Past our house in 1944.
The way everybody stood on the sidewalk
Watching them out of the corner of the eye,
The earth trembling, death going by…
A little white dog ran into the street
And got entangled with the soldiers’ feet.
A kick made him fly as if he had wings.
That’s what I keep seeing!
Night coming down. A dog with wings.



We were so poor I had to take the place of the
bait in the mousetrap.  All alone in the cellar, I
could hear them pacing upstairs, tossing and turn-
ing in their beds.  “These are dark and evil days,”
the mouse told me as he nibbled my ear.  Years
passed.  My mother wore a cat-fur collar which
she stroked until its sparks lit up the cellar.


One night the Gestapo came to arrest my father.  This time I was asleep and awoke suddenly to the bright lights.  They were rummaging everywhere and making a lot of noise.  My father was already dressed.  He was saying something, probably cracking a joke.  That was his style.  No matter how bleak the situation, he’d find something funny to say.  Years later, surrounded by doctors and nurses after having suffered a bad heart attack, he replied to their “how’re you feeling sir” with a request for some pizza and beer.  The doctors thought he had suffered brain damage.  I had to tell them this was normal behavior for him.


There was an old cemetery nearby [where Simic lived with his pregnant mother in Belgrade during WW II] with a huge church, and beyond it the fairgrounds, where supposedly, they were shooting German prisoners.  We met a pack of children on the way who said that they were from the circus.  It was true.  There used to be a circus tent on the fairgrounds in the early years of the war, but now only a few trailers were left on its edge.  These were odd-looking children.  They wore the strangest clothes–unmatched, wrong-sized costumes–and they jabbered, speaking a foreign language among themselves.
“Show him what you can do,” said my friend, who had met them before.  They obliged.  A little boy stood on his hands.  Then, he removed one hand and was left for a moment standing on the other.  A thin, dark-eyed, dark-haired girl leaned back until her head emerged from between her legs.  “They have no bones,” my friend whispered.  The dead have no bones, I thought.  They fall over like sacks of flour.


All able men were conscripted and the fighting was fierce.  Belgrade was a city of the wounded.  One saw people on crutches on every corner.  They walked slowly, at times carrying a mess kit with their daily ration.  There were soup kitchens in which people got their meals.  Once, chased by a friend, I rounded the corner of my street at top speed and collided with one of these invalids, spilling his soup on the sidewalk..  I won’t forget the look he gave me.  “Oh child,” he said softly.  I was too stunned to speak.  I didn’t even have the sense to pick up his crutch.  I watched him do it himself with great difficulty.


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