How Do You Write a Poem?

A simple question in my inbox

from an earnest eighth grade boy,

“How do you write a poem?”

“I am stuck.”

For this student,

a well crafted mentor text

was enough

to move the young writer

from standing still

to a steady jog.

But, in truth,

there are a thousand ways to write a poem…

walk out in the sunshine

or steal away in the night;

close your eyes to rewind a memory

or listen to the notes of your heart;

sit daily at a desk with blank paper

and a pencil

or sketch, paint, color

the outlines of a poem;

play a favorite song

or revel in the quiet.

There is no foolproof method,

no secret guide to

crafting poetry.

Instead,

poems are all around us

just waiting to be read.

Palimpsest

The path to Al Marah horse farm

began at the end of my street.

Into woods of pine, ash, pin oak,

maple and birch I plunged,

across stepping stones

on the broad Booze Creek,

up the tall grassy hill

on the farm’s backside

and into large, welcoming stables.

Although primarily home to

the owner’s elegant Arabian horses,

the stables leased horse stalls to others,

including my friend Mary’s family.

On days Mary invited me for a ride,

my pace and heart quickened.

Driving by the Al Marah farmland today,

I see large colonial houses dotting the landscape.

Well paved suburban avenues,

adorned with bright streetlights,

have replaced the waving grass

and wooden paddocks of my childhood.

Booze Creek’s natural banks

are hemmed in

by residential tidiness.

“Progress” has wiped clean,

the gentle sounds of

whinnying horses on the hill,

summer insects buzzing,

children splashing across a wild creek.

*palimptest — something reused or altered but still bearing visible traces of its earlier form.

Inspiration for this post: Isolation Journal prompt #144

Being Present

Although I walk by the line of pine trees daily,

it required intentionality

to notice them.

Clearing my mind of to do lists,

worries, plans,

I set out to drink in

spring’s early offerings.

The nine towering pines

stand in a straight row.

I imagine the trees began life

as a border between homes,

short saplings offering a measure

of privacy in the outdoors.

Yet, in the half century since planting,

the stately pine trees

have soared above the houses,

standing twice as tall as the nearest rooftop.

Large, nut brown pine cones

nestle in soft grass

below the boughs.

Feathery green needles

shift in the morning breeze.

The leathery, mottled bark

of each tree somehow glows

in early morning light.

The pine trees are magnificent.

As for humans,

they care little for our existence,

offering shade and beauty as an afterthought.

Six Feet Apart

After a year cocooned

in homes large and small,

humans are beginning to peek out

from the chrysalis crafted by Covid-19.

Masks in place,

wings are spreading,

propelling individuals toward

stores, parks, outdoor spaces

and schools.

Students,

the youngest of butterflies,

pack everything needed

for a day spent six feet apart —

from everyone.

The past year has taught us perseverance.

Yet, I argue

it is the students shining brightest.

With a steadfastness

far beyond their years,

my students offer one another

kindness, humanity and

honest words on the page.

No doubt today’s youth

are changed by the past year.

But, if what I see in my concurrent classrooms

is any indication,

a steely new generation is on the rise.

*Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Owl

Walking in the predawn hours,

I startled at the sound of an owl’s call

in the woods to my left.

There is something primeval

about an owl’s song.

Predatory, watchful —

owls can wait patiently

in the dark

for just the right moment

to strike.

The morning’s encounter

lifted me from the ordinary

suburban streets

back to the woods of my childhood —

where sounds were larger

the darkness deeper.

With equal measures comfort and thrill,

I stopped to scan the trees,

the elusive owl

just out of sight.

Yet, the rhythmic, measured hoots

assured me

my company remained.

Afraid to break the spell,

my dogs and I stood still

for several long minutes

before the pull of the day ahead

dragged us forward.

With the sun up and shining,

my mind continually wanders back

to the owl in the dark.

Where is she now?

What happens to the magic of night

when the world pushes on?

As We Age…

Isolation Journal Prompt #142

Select a text to erase. Study the page, and se what rises up.


As we age, we are bound to find comfort from the notion that it takes generations for a way of life to fade. We are familiar with the songs our grandparents favored, after all, even though we never danced to them ourselves. At festive holidays, the recipes we pull from the drawer are routinely decades old, and in some cases even written in the hand of a relative long since dead. And the objects in our homes? The oriental coffee tables and well-worn desks that have been handed down from generation to generation? Despite being “out of fashion,” not only do they add beauty to our daily lives, they lend material credibility to our presumption that the passing of an era will be glacial.    

But under certain circumstances, the Count finally acknowledged, this process can occur in the comparative blink of an eye. Popular upheaval, political turmoil, industrial progress — any combination of these can cause the evolution of a society to leapfrog generations, sweeping aside aspects of the past that might otherwise have lingered for decades. And this must be especially so, when those with newfound power are men who distrust any form of hesitation or nuance, and who prize self assurance above all.                                   

A Gentleman in Moscow p. 144

As We Age

As we age,

the notion we are familiar with…

songs favored by our grandparents,

festive holidays,

recipes decades old

written in the hand long dead,

–in the comparative blink of an eye–

have newfound power.

On Pens & Pencils

When hot August days grew short,

my mother piled my sister, brother and me

into our Country Squire station wagon

for a trip to Bruce’s Variety store.

Notebooks, pens, pencils,

metal lunchboxes, erasers and loose-leaf paper

spread out before us,

occupying two whole aisles of the eclectic dime store.

My brother headed straight for lunch boxes —

the choice could speak volumes in the elementary classroom.

Superheroes, cowboys and The Partridge Family splashed across tin pails

that when unlatched, revealed a thermos nestled in its top.

I, on the other hand,

stood in reverence before trays of pens, pencils,

colored pencils, ballpoint pens,

markers and plain old number 2 pencils.

My mother limited us to the essentials for the first week of school.

I argued one could never have enough writing instruments.

At home, I carefully unwrapped my bounty

onto the soft comforter of my brass bed.

A multi-colored bag served as my pencil pouch.

I thought carefully about the scribing tools needed

on the first day of junior high school.

Today, thinking back on long ago shopping trips,

I need only glance up at my wide array

of writing implements to realize

I may never be cured of this simple obsession.

Two Sticks & a Ball of Yarn

photo: @brooklyngeneralstore

Knitting came into my life

with the first baby sweater my grandmother crafted.

The creamy white sweater

boasts three small buttons

and a spray of spring flowers — candy pink, lemon yellow, sky blue.

The flowers rest on perfectly knit rows

like iced decorations on a petit four.

When I turned ten,

my grandmother presented me

with two long wooden sticks and a rosy red ball of yarn.

It was time I learned to knit.

My first efforts were weak.

Holes dotted my early scarves,

where I let stray stitches wander away.

My grandmother chatted amiably as we knit —

about new plants in her garden,

purchasing corn for the ducks of the nearby pond,

plans for a family mystery trip on the weekend.

Occasionally, she would reach over

to examine my stitches.

She was generous with praise,

but quick to school me on corrections.

“You only get better with practice.”

I did not knit through my middle and high school years.

When a college roommate wanted to learn,

I picked up wooden needles

and my hands fell into

familiar rhythms – knit one, purl one, knit one, purl one.

This evening, I will sit on the couch —

soft, silky cashmerino wool in shades of smoky gray

dancing across my needles

as I knit the lace pattern of a muffler

to guard against an early spring chill.

I can almost hear my grandmother’s voice

regaling me with stories of the ordinary,

woven with two sticks and a ball of yarn.

Adrift

We are tossed at sea

in this pandemic.

Humanity strained,

hugs abandoned.

If our species

relies on connection,

What binds us together in times of trouble?

Love.

Hope.

Stories.

These are the things that hold us together.

Love and hope are intertwined —

each strengthening the other.

And, stories feed us when we are apart.

The pandemic will end.

But,

we will always require

Love.

Hope .

Stories.

Inspired by Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s poem “Hope“.

Mementos

Not long ago,

my father sold his summer home of thirty years.

The large, rambling seaside abode

witnessed fourth of July fireworks,

games of flashlight tag, barbecues and bonfires.

My father called to say five or six boxes

were headed my way.

You see, reader, I collect memories,

family moments documented

in sepia or engraved on old debate trophies.

When the boxes arrived,

I peeled open the cardboard shell

to reveal a lifetime’s worth of gold.

There is my great uncle Nate, 1942,

clad in WWII Marine khakis on Oahu just after Pearl Harbor,

the rifle in his hands

incongruent with the waving palm trees;

my young law clerk father, 1959,

beaming along side Chief Justice Earl Warren;

my mother, 1966, impossibly beautiful,

resting on Cape Cod’s sandy shore.

This summer, I will revisit each moment,

jotting notes for my son and future generations

before the images no longer represent reminiscence,

but rather hold strangers.

Memories are ephemeral.

We must capture them while we can.