Archives for April 2017

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.

Poetry Club, day 3

The first day of spring was back on March 20. Imagine that after months of cold and gray, you get a day that finally feels like what the calendar says.

Now think of a relationship that’s been stuck in winter for more months than you care to count. Imagine the first signs of thaw.


The First Warm Rays


after a long freeze

draws people

who wouldn’t think of going sweaterless

into a September evening when it dips to 60 degrees

outside when it’s 40

in shorts and a tee,

just to feel the sun

behaving like itself again.


Like the return of an estranged family member

or a friend you’ve had a falling out with.


It’s clear to us now,

the distinction

between absence and presence.



having gone so long without,

we rush,
arms wide,

eager to embrace

and wash away what’s clung to us

in the interim.


~ Marilyn Yocum


Marilyn graciously gave permission for me to use this poem in The Joy of Poetry, but it dropped off in the rewrite, for which I am still sad. Because this is the kind of poem I love. It’s about something specific (people enjoying the spring sunshine) and also something abstract (“the distinction / between absence and presence.”)

Your turn.

(By the way, y’all were great yesterday! Thanks for playing along.)


Poetry Club, day 2

When I was writing The Joy of Poetry, I tried to address the poetry skeptics, those who hate poetry or at least think they do. Often that’s because they don’t feel they understand it. So most of the poems I used were pretty straightforward.

Except for this one, which dropped off in the rewrite. It raises more questions than it answers. And it’s one in which I suspect the poet was having a little fun.


Some People Think


that poetry should be a-

dorned or complicated I’m


not so sure I think I’ll

take the simple statement


in plain speech compress-

ed to brevity I think that


will do all I want to do.


~ James Laughlin


The line breaks in this poem are weird, especially the two where the word is hyphenated and carried over to the next line — for no apparent reason other than Laughlin wanted to do it that way. And it’s punctuated as only one sentence, despite the fact that it sounds like more than one.

So let’s read it as if it were a single prose sentence: “Some people think that poetry should be adorned or complicated I’m 
not so sure I think I’l l
take the simple statement 
in plain speech compressed to brevity I think that 
will do all I want to do.”

It’s begging for punctuation, isn’t it? It reads like a text message, without any signposts for where to breathe or stop.

How about this instead, which keeps it to one sentence but adds punctuation: “Some people think that poetry should be adorned or complicated — I’m 
not so sure — I think I’ll
 take the simple statement 
in plain speech compressed to brevity; I think that 
will do all I want to do.”

That’s a little more clear. But it loses something.

The original layout of the poem makes you slow down, makes you question. I tend to think of plain speech as being brief, but there are people who speak plainly but go on and on and on. Laughlin’s right; plain speech can be compressed to brevity. A poem can be playful.

Wait. Am I missing something? What if Laughlin intended this to be deep and meaningful? What if I’m all wrong about his use of wit? “I’m / not so sure.”

Friends, it’s OK to be unsure. It’s OK to tell your poetry buddy, “I don’t know what this means,” or even “I don’t like this one.” As I have buddied with poetry people, either one-on-one or in a Tweetspeak workshop, someone will have an insight.

Okay, your turn.


Poetry Club for National Poetry Month

As we kick off National Poetry Mont (aka April), I want to talk about a woman I met a couple of years ago named Sue Andrews.

At the time she volunteered at the Boys & Girls Club in Gatesville, Texas, and started a poetry club there. Sue used to teach high school and then taught college English. Retirement led her to volunteering. Originally, her plan was to do a summer book club with the kids, but it soon turned into a poetry club.

“I had visions of having fun reading three young adult books that would be easy to do and have great discussions and some activities,” Sue said. “It kind of was a flop.”

The problem was that the kids didn’t come consistently — they had dental appointments, or their families went on vacation. The following summer Sue had the idea to do a poetry club.

“It didn’t matter if they were there the first time or only dropped by occasionally. It worked very well because you didn’t have to be there every time,” she said.

The format was simple. They met once a week for about an hour. Sue started with some freewriting. “They didn’t have to share that unless they wanted to,” she said. Then they read two or three poems aloud and discussed them. Sometimes she would have multiple kids read the same poem aloud. She said she would ask, “How did it make you feel? What do you think it means?”

Most of the kids at this Boys & Girls Club had some exposure to poetry, but they also had some misconceptions.

“At the very first session, we spent some time talking about what is a poem, and what does it look like. They knew they didn’t all rhyme. One [girl] said, ‘It has numbers.’ I asked her what she meant. She said, ‘In my book at school, it has numbers next to the line, like 5 and 10,’” Sue recalled. “‘Oh,’ I said to her, ‘they’re there to help you find a particular line.’”

Sue said the goal of the club is to have fun.

“We made posters for National Poetry Month. They did Valentine poems, love poems to boyfriends or girlfriends. We did [found poems] from magazines and newspapers — that was a big thrill,” she said. “One of the most favorite experiences was I had these three girls in sixth grade, and they had brought the witches theme from Macbeth: ‘Double, double, toil and trouble.’ It was close to Halloween, and those three girls took the parts.”

I asked Sue what were some of the other poems the students had enjoyed. She mentioned “The Tyger” by William Blake, Gary Soto’s “Ode to Pablo’s Tennis Shoes,” and “We Real Cool” by Gwendolyn Brooks.

“I’m making more customers for poetry!” Sue said.

Near the end of the poetry club hour, the students, mostly fifth- and sixth-graders, worked on a poem of their own, which they could choose to share or keep private. The final session concluded with a poetry reading, either their own work or one they had read earlier that summer.

The poetry club was such a hit that the kids asked to keep it going once school started. A whole new group of kids came, some as young as first- and second-graders. The next year the poetry club expanded into two groups — one with older kids and one with younger ones.

What Sue did with the poetry club was to set poetry free from its confines in a book with numbered lines. The kids had fun. Their interpretations may change as they grow and mature. They even change from the beginning of the school year to the end.

“I’m not their teacher. I’m trying to inspire them,” she said. “Maybe they’ll be a future poet in that group, who knows?”

So I’m taking a cue from Sue this month, and that’s what we’ll do here — read poems and talk about them. If you’ve ever done poetry buddying with me, this is it on a larger scale. I’ll ask the same questions about the poem that Sue asked her club members: “How did it make you feel? What do you think it means?”

Join us here, every weekday in April.