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How to Write Poetry and Live Poetically
Chapter 11 (continued): The Morris Chair and Other Metaphors for Love
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I am not into angst. Give me good, honest sadness, if you must, but don’t take me down sordid side streets dead-ending in despair.
Do not write poetry about your feelings, except metaphorically, or in passing. You will get stuck there, in that swamp of emotion, when the point is to uncover what lies beneath the muck.
Let’s say your mother has just died. Please, if she is living, know that I am not ill-wishing her; may she live in robust health and prosperity to 150. My mother — as you know, if you have been paying attention — died in 1974. I did not write much poetry then; it would be another five years or so before I started writing therapeutically, or out of pure joy, rather than to impress someone.
If I had wanted to write a poem about my mother, I would not have begun by recalling how wonderful she was and how much I had loved her and was missing her. Those were sentiments that were going nowhere… that were honest but superficial; my feelings were so much more complicated than sadness and grief. There were anger, regret, a little guilt, gratitude, laughter, bemusement, mixed with emotions that, to this day, I believe there are no words for — a tangle of knots and orphan threads that were going to either crush or choke me.
As it happened, I went into therapy instead of writing poetry. But if I had written poems for and about my mom, I think I would have begun with the little slate — one of the orphan threads in the tangle.
I have said that Mom was an antique collector and dealer. One of her prize possessions was a small slate — a child’s personal chalkboard from the days when paper wasn’t plentiful. I’m sure it was fifty or seventy-five years old; it was about five by seven inches if you count the rickety half-inch frame.
I found the slate in the closet of the spare bedroom a few days after Mom died. Written on it, with white chalk in Mom’s handwriting, was “Merry Christmas 1974.”
Now, this was very odd, enigmatic bordering on spooky. Mom died on August 8, 1974. For what possible reason might she have, that summer, to all appearances glowing with health and vitality, written “Merry Christmas 1974” on the little slate and put it in a closet where it would be easily found among her treasures?
When Dad died, in 1985, I was wiser. I did not go into therapy. Dad had retired about three years after Mom died, had bought an electronic typewriter, and had begun sending to his relatives, periodically, four-page documents printed on the backs of pieces of junk mail. He called this work-in-progress Pappy’s Journal. It contained amusing and sometimes poignant reminiscences about everything from ice-skating on the Des Moines River when he was a boy to a play-by-play of the previous Saturday’s Nebraska Cornhusker football game. Dad had been a CPA and a Scot, and he was thrifty to the core. (He had perfected a way of grafting soap slivers onto just-opened bars of Palmolive.) He always sent four pages, even if the fourth page ended midsentence, because four pages of twenty-pound paper was the maximum you could mail using a single first-class stamp.
So instead of seeking psychiatric help, I edited his reminiscences, sparingly, and wrote some annotations, and I also wrote several poems, one of which won first prize in statewide poetry contests in both Kansas and Arizona.
The Morris Chair
for Dan Campbell, 1913-1985
Once it was merely oak and textile, but you
chose it as your incarnation’s favorite
dwelling place; and since its cast, at first, was
hostile to your contours, something had to
give — the Morris never had a prayer.
As sitting folks do, you made an impression on the
topography of the worsted cushion, and, like the
victim of erosion, the planet was
reshaped: a plateau here, a gully there… a
landscape — where before had been mere
serviceable flatness — was now the sculpted
valley of adamant flesh, bone, and muscle.
After the armistice, you and the Morris were
compatible as the angular pieces of a
jigsaw puzzle, and anyone else venturing
to sit upon the thing would find it
uncongenial, neither rigid nor
relenting, just tenacious of its silhouette,
and true to its architect, and steward to
your indelible effect.
It doesn’t require a death in the family to write an evocative poem, choosing for its fulcrum something small and secretly prized, perhaps. Here is one of mine:
Meditation on a Summer Afternoon
All the riches of the world exist in shadows
of a walnut tree on sunny summer
afternoons: the small, expressive flutter of
a leaf in a listless breeze; the cleaving
scent of earth and pine and grass and
honeysuckle heavy on the vine; the
rough-and-tumble scratching of a
dozen squirrels in a frantic scramble
branch to branch, and suddenly
they’re statues munching fat, firm
nutmeats, littering with shards of
shell my cluttered yard that I shall
rake another day; plump robins, in
shy trepidation, venturing to search
for succulent gourmet delights, then,
frightened off by someone’s slamming
of a door, they dash away on wing
and call a warning to their mates.
Nearby a brash woodpecker hammers,
hammers more, persists in hammering
upon a maple tree. I clap my hands,
applauding, and to see what he will
do. He quits, and then resumes.
A book of poetry sits idly on my lap,
unlooked at. Pages turn upon a
breath of air; perhaps, I fancy, there’s a
spirit there, enjoying Blake. I listen to my
children at the neighbor’s, splashing in a
plastic pool and laughing with the
unrestraint that grace bestows on
childhood; and down the street, somebody
mows a tidy lawn that’s lined by rows of
peonies, exuberant and lush, ridiculously
pink or deep merlot.
Something sighs contentedly. Perhaps it’s
I, or else a pixie living in a tribe beneath
the shrubbery. Nothing weighs on me. I
feel so light that I’m surprised to find
myself still sitting on my rag of quilt upon
the grass instead of simply rising, chasing
birds or playing tag with bees. But I am
earthen still, and glad of it, delighted to
be wrapped in humid air; it moves
sufficiently to cool my skin and curl my
hair. The ground is warm, a comfort, womb
of seed and tiny creature curled in sleep,
As shadows must, they lengthen and the
laughter shrills. The time has come. I will
collect the children and go in. I brush away
the thought, just for another minute’s
taste of pure serenity, but also fond
anticipation of the dinner hour—cheddar
cheese and melon salad, I decide, and
lemon pie, and then the bedtime stories
that transport us to exotic climes. The
time has come, but I have evening yet to
savor. Summer comes in such abundant
flavors—warmth and coolness,
thunderstorm, forsythia and clover, early
sunrise, tall and motley hollyhocks—I feast
upon them all.
Every day if you can — but at least twice a week — choose a moment out of the day you have just experienced and write about it metaphorically in the poetic form of your choice. I hope you will do this for the rest of your life. It will prevent your “running on empty,” as Jackson Browne sang… or, perhaps even worse, running on autopilot. Entire spans of years of my life, when I was not living poetically or contemplating things by writing poetry, are a blur to me now, and sometimes I go back and try to recapture those lost moments, as in “Meditation on a Summer Afternoon,” above.
Send your assignment via e-mail to Mary@LifeIsPoetry.net. I will not grade your assignment, but I will return it to you with comments.
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