Feelings are like precious metals mingled and trapped in rocks. They’re not always valuable in their raw form. They must be processed and refined to become something beautiful.
Writing poems has provided many writers a way to process and refine emotions. My own poems reflect all sorts of states: worship, whimsy, rage, rapture…poems are passion pendulums swinging all over the place.
Grief has provided me with poetic ore many times in my life. Below is a poem I wrote after my grandmother died. It appeared in my first book, The Wind and the Shadows.
My grandmother was an accomplished painter so painting was a theme in more than one of the poems I wrote after she died. I’m thankful to have some of her paintings so that, from time to time, I can pause to remember what a gift she was.
Frames of Dust
An autumn wood,
a billy goat,
a Japanese woman,
a scroungy old cat,
a piece of driftwood on the beach…
painted by grandma
now laid on the couch,
now leaning against the piano,
now in piles
with all the other things
we are sorting through,
trying to decide what to keep
and what to discard.
And how do you make such a choice?
How do you mark off borders
for a whole life?
What stays in the field of view,
and what is excluded?
It depends on your perspective.
My interest is in the paintings.
I hoped to have a few, and, surprisingly,
no one wants
the ones I like.
The next morning,
we pack our treasures into cars
and prepare to leave.
Life goes on.
I take one more look
to make sure
we left nothing
My eyes trace
phantoms of knick-knacks,
depressions in the carpet,
and the walls,
where the dust that accumulated
on the edges of each painting
Tanka is a Japanese form of poetry I learned about last year. Haiku is a related form that started as part of Tanka. Haiku has a 5 syllable line followed by a seven syllable line, and ends with another 5 syllable line. Tanka begins with the same arrangement but adds two seven syllable lines at the end.
Tanka and Haiku are both sparse, impressionistic forms due to their small size. Tanka is a nice choice when you need just a skosh more room to complete your thought😉
Below is a Tanka I wrote last year, which will appear in my next book, Event Horizon. I am hoping to self-publish Event Horizon in June!
Then you realize—
too late—the day slipped away,
and you catch the sun
looking back at its zenith
over a hill’s hunched shoulder.
I am grateful to announce that my poem, “The Vineyard,” will appear in Heart of Flesh Literary Journal, issue seven, 5/6/22! This makes three poems published in two different journals.
“The Vineyard” is a free-verse poem made up of four quintains (five-line stanzas). It is more or less a meditation on the kingdom of God using imagery from the old and new testaments. In the poem I look at God’s kingdom as a vineyard that grew from Jesus’s death, and how the vineyard shares Jesus’s character.
“The Vineyard” will also appear in Event Horizon, my second book of poems, which I plan to self-publish in the next few months. Below is a shape poem I wrote called, “The True Vine.” It is based on the fifteenth chapter of John. “The True Vine” appeared in my first book, “The Wind and the Shadows.”
Sometimes, I read a poem that is everything I want a poem to be. The poem below, by Philip Larkin, is just such a poem:
An April Sunday brings the snow,
Making the blossom on the plum trees green,
Not white. An hour or two, and it will go.
Strange that I spend that hour moving between
Cupboard and cupboard, shifting the store
Of jam you made of fruit from these same trees:
Five loads—a hundred pounds or more—
More than enough for all next summer’s teas,
Which now you will not sit and eat.
Behind the glass, under the cellophane,
Remains your final summer—sweet
And meaningless, and not to come again.
There are many things I love about this poem. There is a simplicity and immediacy to the imagery, yet it carries such deep feeling. The events happen as seasons are changing, hinting at the transition in the poet’s life. The snow fades quickly (like our lives); he spends that time rearranging jams made by his wife (presumably) who, like the snow, has passed. “Behind the glass, under the cellophane” evokes his feeling of separation, while describing her final summer as “sweet / And meaningless” brings home the grief underlying the whole poem.
One reason this poem is so effective is because of the way Larkin tells the story. The key to the whole poem—his wife’s death—is held to the end. It seems he’s telling a rather mundane story about moving jam as winter is changing to spring. When he reveals that the jam was made by his late wife, the meaning rushes through all the preceding imagery. It’s like wind hitting a waiting sail. The gust of surprise carries the reader right into Larkin’s emotional current.
Best of all, the poem is short—twelve lines, three stanzas. Rather than exhaust us with a tragic saga, Larkin leaves lots of energy to feel with him. To me, the best poems distill beauty into a delicious concentrate…like the juice you might use to make jam 😉
Villanelle is a form of poetry I became interested in last year. It is a highly structured form comprised of 19 lines: five tercets (three line stanzas) followed by a quatrain (a four line stanza). The first line is repeated at the end of the second and fourth tercets. The third line is repeated at the end of the third and fifth tercet. The first and third lines then form the last two lines of the ending quatrain. Confused? Just wait. We haven’t even got to the rhyme scheme yet!
The first and third lines of every tercet rhyme with each other, as do the first, third, and fourth lines of the final quatrain. The second line of every tercet and the quatrain rhyme with each other.
I have written a couple villanelles and hope to write more. Tight structures like the villanelle require hard work and a different type of creativity than free verse. But I enjoy the challenge. In fact, I might engage more fully with writing when I’m not sure I can succeed. Call me crazy 😉
Below is the first villanelle I wrote, which will appear in my upcoming book, Event Horizon. Hopefully, it helps readers make sense of my explanation of the villanelle as well!
Clouds upon the Wind
The trees’ leaves burst in blazing orange and red
when summer ends; they turn to ashen hues
then drift away in clouds upon the wind.
A fair and rodeo revive our bored
stiff town and rescue us from feeling blue
as trees’ leaves burst in blazing orange and red.
Each skirted bauble, cowboy, and kiddie rides
the rides, eats, laughs, and kicks up dust with boots,
which drifts away in clouds upon the wind.
Around the town’s a glow we’d soon forget:
a 90,000 acre fire that grew
as trees’ leaves burst in blazing orange and red.
All briefly green and flowering things are fed
to lapping flames while low smoke crawls and broods
then drifts away in clouds upon the wind.
As carousel and funhouse are interred
in trucks, the setting sun’s a livid jewel;
the trees’ leaves burst in blazing orange and red
then drift away in clouds upon the wind.
In my family, we’re cat people. We love each cat’s quirky personality, and that they’re often walking contradictions: graceful and dignified one minute, neurotically spazzing out the next; desperately affectionate, then callously indifferent. If I could get one to wear a mood ring, what a light show that would be!
Since cats are in my house and in my thoughts, they often end up in my writing. Below is a poem I recently finished. It was inspired as I put my shoes on to go to work and noticed my cat napping on the bed, oblivious.
Who hasn’t envied the life of a cat?
To sleep in late and still take naps,
To saunter about, free from all care
With the mien of a rare aristocrat;
To pedicure claws on the leg of a chair,
To suddenly flail at dust in the air,
To yawn and to stretch and indifferently preen,
And then (when pristine) to throw up some hair.
As a Christian, Jesus is a very real presence in my life and writing. Spirituality isn’t the only subject I write about, but it is the backdrop for everything I think or pen.
Christians believe every person born has good and evil hopelessly combined within. It is like a cup of water that someone has spit in. The whole cup isn’t spit but the whole cup is ruined for drinking. At best, every action I take is mixed. Even the most glowing actions cast a shadow of evil. In Christianity, it is impossible to be moral based on what I do; morality is only gained by believing in Jesus’s execution on the cross.
To explain why faith in Jesus makes a person moral would take waaay too long and be too technical for this blog. My other blog, thevoiceofone.org, delves into my spiritual beliefs. But below is a poem I wrote years ago to encapsulate the Christian view of morality.
The Difference Is the t
I am happy to say that another of my poems will appear in the journal Better than Starbucks this August! The past couple months, I found myself writing a number of haiku and tanka, poetic forms that originated in Japan. Better than Starbucks has a section of their journal dedicated to haiku, so I decided to send in a few. After its publication in August, I’ll post a link so readers can check it out as well. For now, I just wanted to share the good news 😊
While visiting my mom a number of years ago, I learned of a haiku contest a local zoo was running to honor endangered frog species. This provoked my mischievous side, and I sent in the haiku below. I didn’t win. I didn’t even hear back. But it made me laugh 😆
Out of the Frying Pan…?
Frogs’ legs can be fried,
but you have to catch them first:
catapults of green.
Sometimes, a thing crashes through the skull and lodges in the brain with such force it becomes a lifelong interest. Other interests are like a person you see regularly out of circumstance until, one day, you realize you love them.
While I was aware of poetry through school or family for many years, there was a moment in high school when the emotional power of poetry exploded in my head. In one of my high school lit classes we were required to read a poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson called “Richard Cory.” Until the last line it seems a rather pedestrian story about a wealthy man named Richard Cory. He is known for his noble mien and fine manners but otherwise is admired from afar by people where he lives. The last line blows the reader in completely different and shocking trajectory.
Robinson’s poem also encourages us to look past the surface. Throughout history, the “haves” have been an easy, popular target for the “have nots.” Envy often hides behind its pointing finger. Robinson humanizes Richard Cory and helps us connect with those we would be tempted to exile as “other.”
Last year, my daughter was learning about the Fibonacci sequence. This is a sequence of numbers in which each succeeding number is the sum of the previous two numbers: 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, and so on. Mathematically, this can be used to describe a spiral:
Ideas for poems come to me in all kinds of ways. After my daughter taught me about the Fibonacci sequence, I started wondering if I could write a poem based on it. The result was Fib. The numbers of syllables in each line follow the Fibonacci sequence, and the poem plays on the word fib as well.
It was fun trying to fit into the form provided by the Fibonacci sequence. For a literary-minded guy, this was also one of the few times I had fun with math! Fib will appear in my second book, Event Horizon, which I will self-publish in the next few months.
grows once told:
lie added to lie
in sequence, the whole thing spirals
out of control, a twister with wreckage in its wake.