Poetry Club, day 13

This poem is in the public domain, so there’s no financial reason why I didn’t include it in The Joy of Poetry. But I feel its absence. It’s a poem I think my mom would have liked because 1) It’s addressed to the Almighty, and 2) It rhymes.

I’m posting it today because April 19 is what E.B. White called a “flagless memorial day.” He used the term in his essay “Death of a Pig.” It’s the day that he would always remember because of what it signified in his life. It’s just That Day.


No Coward Soul is Mine


No coward soul is mine

No trembler in the world’s storm-troubled sphere

I see Heaven’s glories shine

And Faith shines equal arming me from Fear


O God within my breast

Almighty ever-present Deity

Life, that in me hast rest,

As I Undying Life, have power in Thee


Vain are the thousand creeds

That move men’s hearts, unutterably vain,

Worthless as withered weeds

Or idlest froth amid the boundless main


To waken doubt in one

Holding so fast by thy infinity,

So surely anchored on

The steadfast rock of Immortality.


With wide-embracing love

Thy spirit animates eternal years

Pervades and broods above,

Changes, sustains, dissolves, creates and rears


Though earth and moon were gone

And suns and universes ceased to be

And Thou wert left alone

Every Existence would exist in thee


There is not room for Death

Nor atom that his might could render void

Since thou art Being and Breath

And what thou art may never be destroyed.


~ Emily Bronte


Your turn.

Poetry Club, day 12

Pablo Neruda means a lot to me. If you’ve read The Joy of Poetry, you know my parents met in Chile, and that my dad met Neruda.

I found Neruda’s Cien sonetos de amor at a local bishop in Bonners Ferry, Idaho. The day after we returned home was our 25th anniversary of John and I meeting each other. On that blessed day I gave my love … nothing. I wanted to be left alone for some poetry time.

John’s lived with me for a long time. He kindly gave me space. But I’d forgotten he’d be gone that night. When I finally stopped writing, I missed him. So I picked up my Neruda.

If my parents taught me anything, it was to never take your loved one for granted. Neruda was married three times, but I feel sure he would find ways to celebrate an anniversary without working on a stupid laptop.

Yes, Love, we were home that day, and summer had arrived. We traveled to Canada, not Armenia. Sat beside the Kootenai, not the Yang-Tse. Instead of sailing home across the “crackling sea,” we flew home over the Rocky Mountains. We returned to rain — all Memorial Day it rained, and never were the citizens of our drought-stricken agricultural ‘burg so happy. We may have felt like “two blind birds,” but we returned to our nest, to our wall, to our home.



Love, we’re going home now,

where the vines clamber over the trellis:

even before you, the summer will arrive,

on its honeysuckle feet, in your bedroom.


Our nomadic kisses wandered over all the world:

Armenia, dollop of disinterred honey—:

Ceylon, green dove—:and the Yang-Tse with its old

old patience, dividing the day from the night.


And now, dearest, we return, across the crackling sea

like two blind birds to their wall,

to their nest in a distant spring:


because love cannot always fly without resting,

our lives return to the wall, to the rocks of the sea:

our kisses head back home where they belong.


~ Pablo Neruda


Your turn.


Poetry Club, day 11

In The Joy of Poetry I often said there is no secret to understanding poetry. Because I delight in contradiction, I give you a poem about the secret meaning of a poem. I love the turn in the poem where she begins to talk about her poetry and what secrets it might or might not hold.

P.S. Glynn Young wrote a nice essay about Denise Levertov at Tweetspeak a while back.


The Secret 


Two girls discover

the secret of life

in a sudden line of



I who don’t know the

secret wrote

the line. They

told me


(through a third person)

they had found it

but not what it was

not even


what line it was. No doubt

by now, more than a week

later, they have forgotten

the secret,


the line, the name of

the poem. I love them

for finding what

I can’t find,


and for loving me

for the line I wrote,

and for forgetting it

so that


a thousand times, till death

finds them, they may

discover it again, in other



in other

happenings. And for

wanting to know it,



assuming there is

such a secret, yes,

for that

most of all.


Denise Levertov


Your turn.



Poetry Club, day 10

I have a chapter in The Joy of Poetry about poems as songs. This was one I got permission for, but it was a little steep. J. Patrick Lewis has been the children’s poet laureate, and a lot of his poems convey history.

If you don’t know the legend of blues guitarist Robert Johnson, who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads in exchange for the ability to play guitar, well, here it is as a poem. It’s one long quotation, with the devil talking to Mister Johnson.


At the Crossroad, Highways 61 and 49


“Mister Johnson

I see you look to buyin’

Mister Johnson

That all you want is Fame?

Mister Johnson

Now what you got to offer?

Mister Johnson

Salvation is my name

With a rhythm on a riff

That’s practically God

Oh Lord, I’m a pure

Undivining rod

I’m a flickerin’ candle

With the blackest light

I’m the darkest angel

And I own the night

Mister Johnson

That instrument you got there

Mister Johnson

It’s Lucifer’s guitar

Mister Johnson

I’ll tune it for you, baby

Mister Johnson

They won’t know who you are

I’m a cutthroat seller,

The Magician of Deal

Who can stoke sweet fire

That’ll make you feel

Like a hothouse flower

On double defrost

Who won’t give a nickel

For the petals it lost

Mister Johnson

You slink on back to livin’

Mister Johnson

In devil-may-care control

Mister Johnson

Don’t thank me for the favor

Mister Johnson

I thank you for your soul”


~ J. Patrick Lewis


Your turn.

Poetry Club, day 9

I think at some point I gave up on including this one The Joy of Poetry, but it’s so good. Every writer should know it.

Laura Brown referenced this poem on her blog in a short entry titled “Writer’s Daughter.” I already liked the poem, but her personal reflection opened it up to me in a new way.

That’s the best way to take in a poem — personalize it.




Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.


Under my window, a clean rasping sound

When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:

My father, digging. I look down


Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds

Bends low, comes up twenty years away

Stooping in rhythm through potato drills

Where he was digging.


The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft

Against the inside knee was levered firmly.

He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep

To scatter new potatoes that we picked,

Loving their cool hardness in our hands.


By God, the old man could handle a spade.

Just like his old man.


My grandfather cut more turf in a day

Than any other man on Toner’s bog.

Once I carried him milk in a bottle

Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up

To drink it, then fell to right away

Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods

Over his shoulder, going down and down

For the good turf. Digging.


The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap

Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge

Through living roots awaken in my head.

But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.


Between my finger and my thumb

The squat pen rests.

I’ll dig with it.


~ Seamus Heaney


Your turn.



Poetry Club, day 8

I first wrote about this poem in my journal in June 2014 when Laura Brown and I were poetry buddying our way through Kevin Young’s collection Book of Hours. I was really taken with this one and have returned to it over and over.

Originally, The Joy of Poetry was supposed to have an entire chapter about buddying with Laura and about the poems in Young’s collection. Unfortunately, Harper Collins does not offer coupons for permissions. Also, when I rewrote the book, that whole chapter with Laura was condensed down to a sentence, a decision I still regret although I don’t know how I could have rectified it.

There’s a nod in the poem to Robert Browning’s “Andrea del Sarto,” about a man’s reach exceeding his grasp or what’s a heaven for. It makes me think that we have expectations for our children — how can we not? But as they grow and we learn who they are, we let go of who we thought they were. Sometimes we have to let them travel beyond our reach. Sometimes we grasp nothing, and it sure doesn’t feel like heaven. That’s why exceeding is necessary.



(for my stepdaughter)


May you never see

the diseased carp

being carried from the lake

like a lost girl, limp.


May the white dog

of Mercy drag you

from the car long before

it pours into flame.


May Mercy come

when called.


May you never lose

the family dog through

early ice, as your father did,


then weeks later spot

him below, frozen, eyeing you

skating just


out of reach, looking

like heaven to him.


May you exceed

our expectations, not

our reach, our reach

but not our grasp,


our homes

not our arms.


~ Kevin Young


Your turn.

Poetry Club, day 7

Some of you who read my earlier post about poem permissions may be wondering what poem cost $1,080? Well, it was Billy Collins’ “The Lanyard.” (Don’t blame Billy.) It’s one of my all-time favorite poems, and I’ve used when speaking about The Joy of Poetry. Moms connect with it.

Since Mother’s Day is one month away, I’m posting it now. I love the turn the poem takes, that you think it’s going sentimental and it veers toward the confessional.


The Lanyard

The other day I was ricocheting slowly
off the blue walls of this room,
moving as if underwater from typewriter to piano,
from bookshelf to an envelope lying on the floor,
when I found myself in the L section of the dictionary
where my eyes fell upon the word lanyard.

No cookie nibbled by a French novelist
could send one into the past more suddenly—
a past where I sat at a workbench at a camp
by a deep Adirondack lake
learning how to braid long thin plastic strips
into a lanyard, a gift for my mother.

I had never seen anyone use a lanyard
or wear one, if that’s what you did with them,
but that did not keep me from crossing
strand over strand again and again
until I had made a boxy
red and white lanyard for my mother.

She gave me life and milk from her breasts,
and I gave her a lanyard.
She nursed me in many a sick room,
lifted spoons of medicine to my lips,
laid cold face-cloths on my forehead,
and then led me out into the airy light

and taught me to walk and swim,
and I, in turn, presented her with a lanyard.
Here are thousands of meals, she said,
and here is clothing and a good education.
And here is your lanyard, I replied,
which I made with a little help from a counselor.

Here is a breathing body and a beating heart,
strong legs, bones and teeth,
and two clear eyes to read the world, she whispered,
and here, I said, is the lanyard I made at camp.
And here, I wish to say to her now,
is a smaller gift—not the worn truth

that you can never repay your mother,
but the rueful admission that when she took
the two-tone lanyard from my hand,
I was as sure as a boy could be
that this useless, worthless thing I wove
out of boredom would be enough to make us even.

~ Billy Collins


Your turn.

Poetry Club, day 6

Spring training is underway. If you’re a baseball fan, you don’t need me to tell you that fact. I’m not a baseball person, but I know many people who are. It seems no other sport goes so well with poetry as baseball.

I had permission to use this poem, but it fell off in the rewrite. I wanted a poem with unusual form, and this one evokes box scores. It also makes a profound statement by rhyming “fun” with “run,” something any third-grader could do. But May Swenson did it better.


Analysis of Baseball


It’s about                   Ball fits

the ball,                      mitt, but

the bat,                       not all

and the mitt.             the time.

Ball hits                      Sometimes

bat, or it                     ball gets hit

hits mitt.                    (pow) when bat

Bat doesn’t                meets it,

hit ball,                       and sails

bat meets it.               to a place

Ball bounces             where mitt

off bat, flies               has to quit

air, or thuds               in disgrace.

ground (dud)             That’s about

or it                              the bases

fits mitt.                      loaded,

about 40,000

Bat waits                     fans exploded.

for ball

to mate.                       It’s about

Ball hates                    the ball,

to take bat’s                the bat,

bait. Ball                     the mitt,

flirts, bat’s                  the bases

late, don’t                   and the fans.

keep the date.            It’s done

Ball goes in                on a diamond,

(thwack) to mitt,      and for fun.

and goes out              It’s about

(thwack) back           home, and it’s

to mitt.                       about run.


~ May Swenson


Your turn. Thanks so much, y’all, for playing along.

Poetry Club, day 5

Here’s a short one, a haiku. I wanted to have a chapter in The Joy of Poetry with great poems about creepy, crawly critters. Didn’t happen.

Sorry, Darlene. Your poem would have been perfect.



hordes of flapping wings

emerge from slumber caves, swoop

sway, dance, eat black skies


Simply Darlene


Your turn.

Poetry Club, day 4

Originally, the chapters in The Joy of Poetry covered a calendar year, from New Year’s to Christmas, and this was the last poem in the book. The poet, Paul Willis, has a new collection out, Getting to Gardisky Lake. I haven’t read it yet, but I plan to.

I chose this poem because it’s about playing piano, and the piano in my house has been through four students, including me. No one plays it now. But mostly I chose the poem because of the ending: “Sometimes / just a year is enough to learn / to bring joy to the world.”





The summer you were seven

you could hardly sleep

That night before your first recital.

“I’d rather break my arm,” you said.


which is what you did with an hour

to spare. We could blame the dog

who chased you into the glass door,

but that would be dumb. A wish,


you found, is a dangerous thing.

Today, eight years old and nearly

Christmas, you asked to be the first

on the program. As you sat waiting,


sunlight fell on the bowl-cut line

Behind your head. Sometimes

just a year is enough to learn

to bring joy to the world.


Paul Willis


Your turn.