Putting the Pieces Together

February 7, 2023

  It was such a pleasure to see the poems you brought last time, I’d like to try another version of that this week.  But instead of bringing your favorite poems, I’d like you to bring poems you have questions about, poems you can’t get in focus, poems you circle around without ever quite getting in.  I can’t promise answers, but maybe seeing them from different angles will help you put the pieces together in a way that makes sense to you.  I’ll start us off with a poem by Dean Young, a well-known poet I’ve always been drawn to but never read closely.  I’m about to do that, so I have all kinds of questions about how to read his poems.  The most helpful thing will be reading other poems of his, whole books, but I think talking with you about this one will be a good start.

If your poems lose the formatting when you post them in comments, email them to me and I’ll see if I can do it in a post.  As always, I’m looking forward to discussing all of them during this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time).


Dean Young

for Kenneth Koch

You don’t need a pony
to connect you to the unseeable
or an airplane to connect you to the sky.

Necessary it is to love to live
and there are many manuals
but in all important ways
one is on one’s own.
You need not cut off your hand.
No need to eat a bouquet.
Your head becomes a peach pit.
Your tongue a honeycomb.
Necessary it is to live to love,
to charge into the burning tower
then charge back out
and necessary it is to die.
Even for the trees, even for the pony
connecting you to what can’t be grasped.
The injured gazelle falls behind the
herd. One last wild enjambment.
Because of the sores in his mouth,
the great poet struggles with a dumpling.
His work has enlarged the world
but the world is about to stop including him.
He is the tower the world runs out of.
When something becomes ash,
there’s nothing you can do to turn it back.
About this, even diamonds do not lie.



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Poetry Potluck

January 30, 2023

  This week is a poetry potluck.  It’s your chance to bring something to the party–a poem you like or have questions about, a poem you’re drawn to but can’t quite get hold of, a poem you argue with, a poem you turn to for solace.  What we talk about this time depends on you.    Please click on Poetry Pot Luck in red on the right to add your own choices in the comments here,  and say why you chose them, or email them to me so I can include them in this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) discussion.  I’ve provided a couple of appetizers.


Aimee Nezhukumatathil,
Miracle fruit changes the tongue. One bite,
and for hours all you eat is sweet. Placed
alone on a saucer, it quivers like it’s cold
from the ceramic, even in this Florida heat.
Small as a coffee bean, red as jam—
I can’t believe. The man who sold
it to my father on Interstate 542 had one
tooth, one sandal, and called me
“Duttah, Duttah.” I wanted to ask what
is that, but the red buds teased me
into our car and away from his fruit stand.
One bite. And if you eat it whole, it softens
and swells your teeth like a mouthful
of mallow. So how long before you lose
a sandal and still walk? How long
before you lose the sweetness?


Mark Strand

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
The librarian does not believe what she sees.
Her eyes are sad
and she walks with her hands in her dress.
The poems are gone.
The light is dim.
The dogs are on the basement stairs and coming up.
Their eyeballs roll,
their blond legs burn like brush.
The poor librarian begins to stamp her feet and weep.
She does not understand.
When I get on my knees and lick her hand,
she screams.
I am a new man.
I snarl at her and bark.
I romp with joy in the bookish dark.
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First Encounters

January 25, 2023

  Here again is the post from two weeks ago, when something went wrong with the zoom link.  Fingers crossed that it will work this time.

This week I want to try something a little different.  Most of the poems I’ve posted here in the past are ones I know well or at least know a little.  But what I’d like to talk about this week is that first encounter with a poem–what it looks like and feels like, how you decide to keep reading or skip it, how the poem takes you in and you take it in.  So I’ve picked a few poems without reading them, and I won’t post them here, just share my screen during this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) zoom discussion, and we can take them on together.

For me, that first encounter is usually a kind of blur, a necessary beginning.  To begin with, I know only what it looks like on the page–whether it’s long or short, block or stanzas, uses long, medium, or short lines.  As I begin to read I’m listening first for the poem’s music, whether it’s meter or free verse.  Then I get a sense of its voice, and I notice vivid images.  I’m trolling for something that will make me want to stay. As brief and superficial as that first reading is, I’m not going to read the poem again unless something pulls me in–the poem’s music, an image, a compelling speaking voice (voice of the poem, not the poet), language that sparks, lines that are taut, not slack, a surprising thought.  If I don’t find any of that, if the poem is spouting clichés, if it feels plodding rather than energetic, I’m already on to the next.

If something does grab me, I’ll read more slowly the second time, noticing the title and thinking about how it might connect to the poem as I go.  I’ll be paying more attention to the images, and to what the poem is actually saying.  Then I’ll read it another time or two, trying to get it whole in my mind.  Next I’m going to pay attention to where it takes place–in the speaker’s head, or in an external scene?  Does it stay in one place or move around?  And where is it in time–in present tense, a few moments?  Or  does it move from the present, to memories of the past, then back to the present?  Is it a sort of fairy tale or fable, where time is irrelevant?

Somewhere in here I’m going to look up any words I don’t know, or that I have a sense are used in a particular way in the poem.  And I’m going to look up other elements of context I think might be helpful.  Every time I do I’m going to read the poem again, seeing how the new information illuminates it.

Then I’m going to read it again, and read it aloud again, and probably read the book it’s a part of, and maybe everything that poet has written.  But for now let’s stick with one poem at a time.

There are no poems here as examples this time.  Just think about your own reading of a poem, and maybe make some notes.  What draws you in?  What keeps you out?  I’ll bring 4 or 5 poems I haven’t read to this week’s discussion, and we’ll trying going through these steps as we read them a first time and a second and a third.  I’ll send the zoom link on Thursday.

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Celebrating Charles Simic

January 15, 2023

  I hope you’ll all join me in celebrating CHARLES SIMIC’S poetry, prose, and life this week.  I’m repeating the post from June 7, 2022, because it’s a good starting point.  What I’m hoping is that everyone who loves his work will join in and post a favorite poem or prose poem here, and best of all bring it to this week’s Fridays at 4 (eastern time) to read to the group.  I’ll be sending the zoom link on Wednesday this week (please let me know if you haven’t received it by Wednesday night, so I can correct that), and I hope you’ll share it with anyone you know who might be interested.  But please don’t post it on any social media–that’s when we get zoom bombers.  His death is a big loss, but we can summon up his presence by reading his work together.

Here’s the earlier post:

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.”



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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