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Seeing to Write, Writing to See

Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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Eating Poetry
Mark Strand, 1934 - 2014
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. 
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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Ghazal of the Better-Unbegun
Heather McHugh, 1948
A book is a suicide postponed.
--Cioran
Too volatile, am I?  too voluble?  too much a word-person?
I blame the soup:  I'm a primordially
stirred person.

Two pronouns and a vehicle was Icarus with wings.
The apparatus of his selves made an ab-
surd person.

The sound I make is sympathy's:  sad dogs are tied afar.
But howling I become an ever more un-
heard person.

I need a hundred more of you to make a likelihood.
The mirror's not convincing-- that at-best in-
ferred person.

As time's revealing gets revolting, I start looking out.
Look in and what you see is one unholy
blurred person.

The only cure for birth one doesn't love to contemplate.
Better to be an unsung song, an unoc-
curred person.

McHugh, you'll be the death of me -- each self and second studied!
Addressing you like this, I'm halfway to the
third person.
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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Reading Moby-Dick at 30,000 Feet
Tony Hoagland, 1953
At this height, Kansas 
is just a concept, 
a checkerboard design of wheat and corn

no larger than the foldout section 
of my neighbor's travel magazine. 
At this stage of the journey

I would estimate the distance 
between myself and my own feelings 
is roughly the same as the mileage

from Seattle to New York, 
so I can lean back into the upholstered interval 
between Muzak and lunch,

a little bored, a little old and strange.
I remember, as a dreamy
backyard kind of kid,

tilting up my head to watch 
those planes engrave the sky 
in lines so steady and so straight

they implied the enormous concentration 
of good men, 
but now my eyes flicker

from the in-flight movie 
to the stewardess's pantyline, 
then back into my book,

where men throw harpoons at something 
much bigger and probably 
better than themselves,

wanting to kill it, 
wanting to see great clouds of blood erupt 
to prove that they exist.

Imagine being born and growing up, 
rushing through the world for sixty years 
at unimaginable speeds.

Imagine a century like a room so large, 
a corridor so long
you could travel for a lifetime

and never find the door, 
until you had forgotten 
that such a thing as doors exist.

Better to be on board the Pequod, 
with a mad one-legged captain 
living for revenge.

Better to feel the salt wind 
spitting in your face, 
to hold your sharpened weapon high,

to see the glisten
of the beast beneath the waves. 
What a relief it would be

to hear someone in the crew 
cry out like a gull, 
Oh Captain, Captain! 
Where are we going now?
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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Dangerous for Girls
Connie Voisine
It was the summer of Chandra Levy, disappearing
       from Washington D.C., her lover a Congressman, evasive
              and blow-dried from Modesto, the TV wondering

in every room in America to an image of her tight jeans and piles
       of curls frozen in a studio pose. It was the summer the only 
              woman known as a serial killer, a ten-dollar whore trolling

the plains of central Florida, said she knew she would
       kill again, murder filled her dreams
              and if she walked in the world, it would crack

her open with its awful wings. It was the summer that in Texas, another
       young woman killed her five children, left with too many
              little boys, always pregnant. One Thanksgiving, she tried

to slash her own throat. That summer the Congressman
       lied again about the nature of his relations, or,
              as he said, he couldn't remember if they had sex that last

night he saw her, but there were many anonymous girls that summer,
       there always are, who lower their necks to the stone
              and pray, not to God but to the Virgin, herself once

a young girl, chosen in her room by an archangel.
       Instead of praying, that summer I watched television, reruns of
              a UFO series featuring a melancholic woman detective

who had gotten cancer and was made sterile by aliens. I watched
       infomercials: exercise machines, pasta makers,
              and a product called Nails Again With Henna,

ladies, make your nails steely strong, naturally,
       and then the photograph of Chandra Levy
              would appear again, below a bright red number,

such as 81, to indicate the days she was missing.
       Her mother said, please understand how we're feeling
              when told that the police don't believe she will be found alive,

though they searched the parks and forests
       of the Capitol for the remains and I remembered
              being caught in Tennessee, my tent filled with wind

lifting around me, tornado honey, said the operator when I called
       in fear. The highway barren, I drove to a truck stop where
              maybe a hundred trucks hummed in pale, even rows

like eggs in a carton. Truckers paced in the dining room,
       fatigue in their beards, in their bottomless
              cups of coffee. The store sold handcuffs, dirty

magazines, t-shirts that read, Ass, gas or grass.
       Nobody rides for free, and a bulletin board bore a 
              public notice: Jane Doe, found in a refrigerator box

outside Johnson, TN, her slight measurements and weight.
       The photographs were of her face, not peaceful in death,
              and of her tattoos Born to Run, and J.T. caught in

scrollworks of roses. One winter in Harvard Square, I wandered 
       drunk, my arms full of still warm, stolen laundry, and
              a man said come to my studio and of course I went—

for some girls, our bodies are not immortal so much as
       expendable, we have punished them or wearied
              from dragging them around for so long and so we go

wearing the brilliant plumage of the possibly freed
       by death. Quick on the icy sidewalks, I felt thin and
              fleet, and the night made me feel unique in the eyes

of the stranger. He told me he made sculptures
       of figure skaters, not of the women's bodies,
              but of the air that whipped around them,

a study of negative space,
       which he said was the where-we-were-not
              that made us. Dizzy from beer,

I thought why not step into
       that space? He locked the door behind me.
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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Introduction to the World
Matthea Harvey, 1973
For the time being
call me Home.

All the ingénues do.

Units are the engines
I understand best.

One betrayal, two.
Merrily, merrily, merrily.

Define hope.	 Machine.
Define machine.  Nope.

Like thoughts,
the geniuses race through.

If you're lucky

after a number of
revolutions, you'll

feel something catch.
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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Workshop
Billy Collins, 1941
I might as well begin by saying how much I like the title. 
It gets me right away because I’m in a workshop now 
so immediately the poem has my attention, 
like the Ancient Mariner grabbing me by the sleeve. 

And I like the first couple of stanzas, 
the way they establish this mode of self-pointing 
that runs through the whole poem 
and tells us that words are food thrown down 
on the ground for other words to eat. 
I can almost taste the tail of the snake 
in its own mouth, 
if you know what I mean. 

But what I’m not sure about is the voice, 
which sounds in places very casual, very blue jeans, 
but other times seems standoffish, 
professorial in the worst sense of the word 
like the poem is blowing pipe smoke in my face. 
But maybe that’s just what it wants to do. 

What I did find engaging were the middle stanzas, 
especially the fourth one. 
I like the image of clouds flying like lozenges 
which gives me a very clear picture. 
And I really like how this drawbridge operator 
just appears out of the blue 
with his feet up on the iron railing 
and his fishing pole jigging—I like jigging— 
a hook in the slow industrial canal below. 
I love slow industrial canal below. All those l’s. 

Maybe it’s just me, 
but the next stanza is where I start to have a problem. 
I mean how can the evening bump into the stars? 
And what’s an obbligato of snow? 
Also, I roam the decaffeinated streets. 
At that point I’m lost. I need help. 

The other thing that throws me off, 
and maybe this is just me, 
is the way the scene keeps shifting around. 
First, we’re in this big aerodrome 
and the speaker is inspecting a row of dirigibles, 
which makes me think this could be a dream. 
Then he takes us into his garden, 
the part with the dahlias and the coiling hose, 
though that’s nice, the coiling hose, 
but then I’m not sure where we’re supposed to be. 
The rain and the mint green light, 
that makes it feel outdoors, but what about this wallpaper? 
Or is it a kind of indoor cemetery? 
There’s something about death going on here. 

In fact, I start to wonder if what we have here 
is really two poems, or three, or four, 
or possibly none. 

But then there’s that last stanza, my favorite. 
This is where the poem wins me back, 
especially the lines spoken in the voice of the mouse. 
I mean we’ve all seen these images in cartoons before, 
but I still love the details he uses 
when he’s describing where he lives. 
The perfect little arch of an entrance in the baseboard, 
the bed made out of a curled-back sardine can, 
the spool of thread for a table. 
I start thinking about how hard the mouse had to work 
night after night collecting all these things 
while the people in the house were fast asleep, 
and that gives me a very strong feeling, 
a very powerful sense of something. 
But I don’t know if anyone else was feeling that. 
Maybe that was just me. 
Maybe that’s just the way I read it. 
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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American Sonnet (10)
Wanda Coleman, 1946 - 2013
               after Lowell


our mothers wrung hell and hardtack from row
      and boll. fenced others'
gardens with bones of lovers. embarking 
      from Africa in chains
reluctant pilgrims stolen by Jehovah's light 
      planted here the bitter
seed of blight and here eternal torches mark  
      the shame of Moloch's mansions 
built in slavery's name. our hungered eyes
      do see/refuse the dark
illuminate the blood-soaked steps of each  
      historic gain. a yearning
yearning to avenge the raping of the womb 
      from which we spring
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Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape
John Ashbery, 1927
The first of the undecoded messages read: "Popeye sits 
   in thunder,
Unthought of. From that shoebox of an apartment,
From livid curtain's hue, a tangram emerges: a country."
Meanwhile the Sea Hag was relaxing on a green couch: "How 
   pleasant
To spend one's vacation en la casa de Popeye," she 
   scratched
Her cleft chin's solitary hair. She remembered spinach

And was going to ask Wimpy if he had bought any spinach.
"M'love," he intercepted, "the plains are decked out 
   in thunder
Today, and it shall be as you wish." He scratched
The part of his head under his hat. The apartment
Seemed to grow smaller. "But what if no pleasant
Inspiration plunge us now to the stars? For this is my 
   country."

Suddenly they remembered how it was cheaper in the country.
Wimpy was thoughtfully cutting open a number 2 can of spinach
When the door opened and Swee'pea crept in. "How pleasant!"
But Swee'pea looked morose. A note was pinned to his bib. 
   "Thunder
And tears are unavailing," it read. "Henceforth shall
   Popeye's apartment
Be but remembered space, toxic or salubrious, whole or 
   scratched."

Olive came hurtling through the window; its geraniums scratched
Her long thigh. "I have news!" she gasped. "Popeye, forced as 
   you know to flee the country
One musty gusty evening, by the schemes of his wizened, 
   duplicate father, jealous of the apartment
And all that it contains, myself and spinach
In particular, heaves bolts of loving thunder
At his own astonished becoming, rupturing the pleasant

Arpeggio of our years. No more shall pleasant
Rays of the sun refresh your sense of growing old, nor the 
   scratched
Tree-trunks and mossy foliage, only immaculate darkness and 
   thunder."
She grabbed Swee'pea. "I'm taking the brat to the country."
"But you can't do that--he hasn't even finished his spinach,"
Urged the Sea Hag, looking fearfully around at the apartment.

But Olive was already out of earshot. Now the apartment
Succumbed to a strange new hush. "Actually it's quite pleasant
Here," thought the Sea Hag. "If this is all we need fear from 
   spinach
Then I don't mind so much. Perhaps we could invite Alice the Goon 
   over"--she scratched
One dug pensively--"but Wimpy is such a country
Bumpkin, always burping like that." Minute at first, the thunder

Soon filled the apartment. It was domestic thunder,
The color of spinach. Popeye chuckled and scratched
His balls: it sure was pleasant to spend a day in the country.
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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The Forest
Susan Stewart, 1952
You should lie down now and remember the forest, 
for it is disappearing--
no, the truth is it is gone now 
and so what details you can bring back 
might have a kind of life.

Not the one you had hoped for, but a life
--you should lie down now and remember the forest--
nonetheless, you might call it "in the forest,"
no the truth is, it is gone now,
starting somewhere near the beginning, that edge,

Or instead the first layer, the place you remember 
(not the one you had hoped for, but a life)
as if it were firm, underfoot, for that place is a sea, 
nonetheless, you might call it "in the forest,"
which we can never drift above, we were there or we were not,

No surface, skimming. And blank in life, too, 
or instead the first layer, the place you remember, 
as layers fold in time, black humus there, 
as if it were firm, underfoot, for that place is a sea, 
like a light left hand descending, always on the same keys.

The flecked birds of the forest sing behind and before 
no surface, skimming. And blank in life, too, 
sing without a music where there cannot be an order, 
as layers fold in time, black humus there, 
where wide swatches of light slice between gray trunks,

Where the air has a texture of drying moss, 
the flecked birds of the forest sing behind and before:
a musk from the mushrooms and scalloped molds. 
They sing without a music where there cannot be an order, 
though high in the dry leaves something does fall,

Nothing comes down to us here. 
Where the air has a texture of drying moss, 
(in that place where I was raised) the forest was tangled, 
a musk from the mushrooms and scalloped molds, 
tangled with brambles, soft-starred and moving, ferns

And the marred twines of cinquefoil, false strawberry, sumac--
nothing comes down to us here, 
stained. A low branch swinging above a brook 
in that place where I was raised, the forest was tangled, 
and a cave just the width of shoulder blades.

You can understand what I am doing when I think of the entry--
and the marred twines of cinquefoil, false strawberry, sumac--
as a kind of limit. Sometimes I imagine us walking there 
(. . .pokeberry, stained. A low branch swinging above a brook) 
in a place that is something like a forest.

But perhaps the other kind, where the ground is covered 
(you can understand what I am doing when I think of the entry) 
by pliant green needles, there below the piney fronds, 
a kind of limit. Sometimes I imagine us walking there. 
And quickening below lie the sharp brown blades,

The disfiguring blackness, then the bulbed phosphorescence of the roots. 
But perhaps the other kind, where the ground is covered, 
so strangely alike and yet singular, too, below
the pliant green needles, the piney fronds.
Once we were lost in the forest, so strangely alike and yet singular, too, 
but the truth is, it is, lost to us now.
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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One Art
Elizabeth Bishop, 1911 - 1979
The art of losing isn't hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother's watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn't hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn't a disaster.


—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan't have lied.  It's evident
the art of losing's not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.
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In the Library
Charles Simic, 1938
for Octavio


There's a book called
"A Dictionary of Angels."
No one has opened it in fifty years,
I know, because when I did,
The covers creaked, the pages
Crumbled. There I discovered

The angels were once as plentiful
As species of flies.
The sky at dusk
Used to be thick with them.
You had to wave both arms
Just to keep them away.

Now the sun is shining
Through the tall windows.
The library is a quiet place.
Angels and gods huddled
In dark unopened books.
The great secret lies
On some shelf Miss Jones
Passes every day on her rounds.

She's very tall, so she keeps
Her head tipped as if listening.
The books are whispering.
I hear nothing, but she does.
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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Sonnet [Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,]
Karen Volkman
Nothing was ever what it claimed to be,
the earth, blue egg, in its seeping shell
dispensing damage like a hollow hell
inchling weeping for a minor sea

ticking its tidelets, x and y and z.
The blue beneficence we call and spell
and call blue heaven, the whiteblue well
of constant water, deepening a thee,

a thou and who, touching every what—
and in the or, a shudder in the cut—
and that you are, blue mirror, only stare

bluest blankness, whether in the where,
sheen that bleeds blue beauty we are taught
drowns and booms and vowels.  I will not.
Seeing to Write, Writing to See
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If See No End In Is
Frank Bidart, 1939

 

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Wheeling Motel
Franz Wright, 1953
The vast waters flow past its back yard.
You can purchase a six-pack in bars!
Tammy Wynette's on the marquee
 
a block down. It's twenty-five years ago:
you went to death, I to life, and
which was luckier God only knows.

There's this line in an unpublished poem of yours.
The river is like that,
a blind familiar.

The wind will die down when I say so;
the leaden and lessening light on
the current.
 
Then the moon will rise
like the word reconciliation,
like Walt Whitman examining the tear on a dead face.
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Ars Poetica?
Czeslaw Milosz, 1911 - 2004

 

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How to Read a Poem: Beginner's Manual
Pamela Spiro Wagner
First, forget everything you have learned, 
that poetry is difficult, 
that it cannot be appreciated by the likes of you, 
with your high school equivalency diploma, 
your steel-tipped boots, 
or your white-collar misunderstandings. 

Do not assume meanings hidden from you: 
the best poems mean what they say and say it. 

To read poetry requires only courage 
enough to leap from the edge 
and trust.  

Treat a poem like dirt, 
humus rich and heavy from the garden. 
Later it will become the fat tomatoes 
and golden squash piled high upon your kitchen table. 

Poetry demands surrender,
language saying what is true,
doing holy things to the ordinary.

Read just one poem a day. 
Someday a book of poems may open in your hands 
like a daffodil offering its cup
to the sun. 

When you can name five poets 
without including Bob Dylan, 
when you exceed your quota 
and don't even notice, 
close this manual.

Congratulations.
You can now read poetry.
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The Day I Saw Barack Obama Reading Derek Walcott's Collected Poems
Yusef Komunyakaa, 1947
Was he looking for St. Lucia's light
to touch his face those first days 
in the official November snow & sleet 
falling on the granite pose of Lincoln?
 
If he were searching for property lines
drawn in the blood, or for a hint
of resolve crisscrossing a border,
maybe he'd find clues in the taste of breadfruit.
 
I could see him stopped there squinting
in crooked light, the haze of Wall Street
touching clouds of double consciousness,
an eye etched into a sign borrowed from Egypt.

If he's looking for tips on basketball,
how to rise up & guard the hoop,
he may glean a few theories about war   
but they aren't in The Star-Apple Kingdom.

If he wants to finally master himself,
searching for clues to govern seagulls
in salty air, he'll find henchmen busy with locks
& chains in a ghost schooner's nocturnal calm.

He's reading someone who won't speak
of milk & honey, but of looking ahead
beyond pillars of salt raised in a dream
where fat bulbs split open the earth.

The spine of the manifest was broken,
leaking deeds, songs & testaments.
Justice stood in the shoes of mercy,
& doubt was bandaged up & put to bed.

Now, he looks as if he wants to eat words,
their sweet, intoxicating flavor. Banana leaf
& animal, being & nonbeing. In fact, 
craving wisdom, he bites into memory.  

The President of the United States of America
thumbs the pages slowly, moving from reverie
to reverie, learning why one envies the octopus
for its ink, how a man's skin becomes the final page.
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December 2, 2002
Juliana Spahr
As it happens every night, beloveds, while we turned in the night
sleeping uneasily the world went on without us.

We live in our own time zone and there are only a small million of
us in this time zone and the world as a result has a tendency to
begin and end without us.

While we turned sleeping uneasily at least ten were injured in a 
bomb blast in Bombay and four killed in Palestine.

While we turned sleeping uneasily a warehouse of food aid was 
destroyed, stocks on upbeat sales soared, Australia threatened first
strikes, there was heavy gunfire in the city of Man, the Belarus
ambassador to Japan went missing, a cruise ship caught fire, on yet
another cruise ship many got sick, and the pope made a statement
against xenophobia.

While we turned sleeping uneasily perhaps J Lo gave Ben a 
prenuptial demand for sex four times a week.

While we turned sleeping uneasily Liam Gallagher brawled and
irate fans complained that "Popstars: The Rivals" was fixed.

While we turned sleeping uneasily the Supreme Court agreed to 
hear the case of whether university admissions may favor racial 
minorities.

While we turned sleeping uneasily poachers caught sturgeon in the 
reed-filled Caspian, which shelters boar and wolves, and some of
the residents on the space shuttle planned a return flight to the US.

Beloveds, our world is small and isolated.

We live our lives in six hundred square feet about a quarter mile 
from the shore on land that is seven hundred square miles and five
thousand miles from the nearest land mass.

Despite our isolation, there is no escape from the news of how
many days are left in the Iraq inspections.

The news poll for today was should we invade Iraq now or should
we wait until the inspections are complete and we tried to laugh
together at this question but our laughter was uneasy and we just
decided to turn off the television that arrives to us from those 
other time zones.

Beloveds, we do not know how to live our lives with any agency 
outside of our bed.

It makes me angry that how we live in our bed—full of connected
loving and full of isolated sleep and dreaming also—has no
relevance to the rest of the world.

How can the power of our combination of intimacy and isolation
have so little power outside the space of our bed?

Beloveds, the shuttle is set to return home and out the window of 
the shuttle one can see the earth.

"How massive the earth is; how minute the atmosphere," one of
the astronauts notes.

Beloveds, what do we do but keep breathing as best we can this
minute atmosphere?
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Exquisite Politics
Denise Duhamel, 1961
The perfect voter has a smile but no eyes,
maybe not even a nose or hair on his or her toes,
maybe not even a single sperm cell, ovum, little paramecium.
Politics is a slug copulating in a Poughkeepsie garden.
Politics is a grain of rice stuck in the mouth
of a king. I voted for a clump of cells,
anything to believe in, true as rain, sure as red wheat.
I carried my ballots around like smokes, pondered big questions,
resources and need, stars and planets, prehistoric
languages. I sat on Alice's mushroom in Central Park,
smoked longingly in the direction of the mayor's mansion.
Someday I won't politic anymore, my big heart will stop
loving America and I'll leave her as easy as a marriage,
splitting our assets, hoping to get the advantage
before the other side yells: Wow! America,
Vespucci's first name and home of free and brave, Te amo.