2 Dead Poets

The first poetry reading I ever attended was by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz . He died this week at the age of 93. Milosz read his poems in both Polish and English in a small chapel on my undergraduate college campus. At the end of the reading, he gave the audience a deep namaste-type bow, palms pressed together. My sense of his bow was this: he really meant it. I saved a poster from the reading, and it’s archived in a box in my garage.

My other favorite association with Milosz comes from a story my friend Charlie told me. Years ago he taught 4th graders through Writers in the Schools (WITS). He led a lesson that he introduced with a poem by Milosz. In order to embrace the poet deeply in a way that made sense to them, the children renamed the poet Coleslaw Meatloaf. The kids referenced their buddy Coleslaw for the rest of the school year. You have to leave behind great poems to transcend a story that silly. I think he’ll do just fine.

Another poet I’ve read for many years, Donald Justice, also died this week. In his poem, Variations on a Text by Vallejo, he predicts that he will die in Miami in the sun. The actual details and circumstances were slightly different; he was in a nursing home in Iowa City. But the third stanza hits it on the head: Donald Justice is dead.

Justice did visit the Iowa Writers Workshop while I was studying there. He had been many of our teachers’ teacher so they arranged for him to lead workshops for anyone who wanted to attend. That meant everybody; we all participated, even our teachers. He gave “homework assignments” that no one understood. I remember him as smart, aloof, eloquent, a little impossible. Let’s put it this way. He was not the type of man you could please by trying to please him.

Here’s the last section of his poem, “The Man Closing Up”:

There is a word for it,
A simple word,
And the word goes around.

It curves like a staircase,
And it goes up like a staircase,
And it is a staircase.

An iron staircase
On the side of a lighthouse.
All in his head.

And it makes no sound at all
In his head,
Unless he says it.

Then the keeper
Steps on the rung,
The bottom rung,

And the ascent begins.
Rung after rung.

He wants to keep the light going,
If he can.

But the man closing up
Does not say the word.

Green Lizard, Green Broom


In science they call it camouflage, the ability to blend into one’s surroundings. To make one’s body invisible and yet there, alive, breathing.

I have an idea, a project du jour that goes like this. Let’s collect green poems. We’ll make a collage out of them. I will get us started with a little bit of William Carlos Williams:

Of asphodel, that greeny flower,
like a buttercup
upon its branching stem-

save that it’s green and wooden-
I come, my sweet,
to sing to you.

P.S. I can’t get the spacing of the poem to appear correctly. The three-line stanzas are arranged like stairsteps. Apologies to everyone for that, and if you know enough HTML to tell me how to fix it, please send me an email.


Signifying in this instance: more on joy. This just in. The most recent online issue of the Mississippi Review is called The Happiness Issue. Jane Armstrong edits this edition. In her introduction, she confesses that she expected a very limited response. Instead she got inundated with poetry.

When I posted the call for stories, essays, and poems about happiness, I didn’t expect much of a response. We don’t do happiness very well, I thought. We’re much more adept with trouble, deception, entanglements, threats, betrayal, despair, and darkness. And why not? Just read the daily news. Sometimes we can manage a “happy ending,” but it’s likely to be ambiguous, bittersweet, or deeply ironic.

So I was surprised to receive almost 400 submissions for this issue, all attempting to interrogate, contemplate, quantify, meditate upon the true nature and meaning of happiness….

You can take a look at her 20 selections at Mississippi Review Online. Bless this Internet is all I have to say.


Lucinda Williams does a great song called Joy. Do you know that one? This song, like most of Lucinda’s, is not gleeful. But she is a blues singer.

One of my friends who teaches poetry workshops told me that he made an assignment once to a group of graduate students. Simply put, he asked everyone to write a happy poem. Not one person turned in the assignment.

Do your poems tend to monopolize one particular emotion? Do you have favorite poems that could be called joyous?


Christa’s post has encouraged me to keep adding to my own story, so here’s a little more of it. After the 2 semesters of freshman English I was really at a loss. By hunting for orange spines or skinny books, I was often able to find some kind of poetry, but I didn’t know a soul who shared my interest.

I carried around a slim volume of poetry for pretty much the entire year. The school I chose to attend was not known as a breeding ground for all things literary, and I don’t recall luring in a single fish with my chosen book-bait, Pieces by Robert Creeley. But by the time I returned it to the campus library, it was soft from my constant revisitations.

20 years later Creeley did a reading in Houston and agreed to visit a group of kids involved with Writers in the Schools (WITS), the organization I work for. The high school students who met with him attend a performing arts program, and they had some great questions. Some asked about writing, but many steered the conversation toward their own chosen art form, so he talked about jazz musicians, painters, and collaboration. I got a big kick out of the fact that he somehow managed to mention being in prison three times.

After the Q & A, I told Creeley the story about how I toted his book around New Orleans for a year. He asked me, “Which one of my books did you carry?” When I told him, he said that was an excellent choice and gave me a kiss on my cheek.

How to Stay Curious

I’ve been considering the possibility of starting a blog about all-things-poetry for many months now. It’s not that I think I have the answers. Or even the questions. I’m not looking for a soapbox. But I am interested in the blog as zocolo, as town square, a place of exchange and conversation.

I attended two grad programs in creative writing, and the thing that struck me then and now is that the conversations both in class and outside of class were sensational. I can remember sitting in the private room at the Brown Bottle (Iowa City) listening to my friends Stephanie Brown and Jeff Hamilton talking about Lester Bangs, People magazine, and the new formalists all at the same time and thinking, This is really something. Twenty years later I feel exactly the same way.

Great conversations are getting rare. In her book, turning to one another, Margaret Wheatley argues for a renaissance of the conversation. She outlines the norms that must exist for honest conversation to take place. My favorite one is, “We must stay curious about one another.”

There’s so much to talk about. Let’s begin the begin.