clarity with louise glück

Came across this week’s poem reading through James Longenbach’s solid book, The Art of the Poetic Line (Graywolf Press). Longenbach does a great read of the poem, noting how the poem is grounded in straightforward syntax in the first line, and returns to this foundation in the poem’s last lines. In between, the poem plays out the ramble and run of memory.

When I read the poem the first time, it was cut and interspersed throughout Longenbach’s prose. Yet, when I read the final lines, I was blown away by them as if I had read it straight through. While Longenbach’s insights added to the piece, of course, it was the power of Glück’s lyricism – it’s ability to remain charged even through essayic insight – that ultimately had me catching my breath.

[Image description: A sketch by Vincent Van Gogh entitled “On the Road to Tarascon.”]

The last two lines of the poem stopped me with their clarity. What’s said there is said as clearly as the first line of the poem; the clarity here, however, rings out in such a way that I was compelled to read and reread the poem a few times. Like flipping a coin and watching the light change, then go back inside the coin when it falls flat, this poem delivers its lyric insight in an urgent way.


Nostos – Louise Glück

There was an apple tree in the yard —
this would have been
forty years ago — behind,
only meadows. Drifts
off crocus in the damp grass.
I stood at that window:
late April. Spring
flowers in the neighbor’s yard.
How many times, really, did the tree
flower on my birthday,
the exact day, not
before, not after? Substitution
of the immutable
for the shifting, the evolving.
Substitution of the image
for relentless earth. What
do I know of this place,
the role of the tree for decades
taken by a bonsai, voices
rising from tennis courts —
Fields. Smell of the tall grass, new cut.
As one expects of a lyric poet.
We look at the world once, in childhood.
The rest is memory.

from Meadowlands (HarperCollins)


Happy looking!


* what a poem does & Russell Edson

What makes them poems is that they are self-contained, and once you read one you have to go back and start reading it again.  That’s what a poem does.
(Charles Simic)

Charles Simic said the above in regards to his own collection, The World Doesn’t End, which consists of a series of prose poems.  I love how true this idea rings – that a poem – sonnet, lyric, or prose poem – exists as a self-contained experience.

However one may feel about prose poems – and there be much controversy even these days – one cannot deny the poetry of something that fits the above.

I mean, there are things that people have said to me in passing that fit these parameters, those parts of conversation you find yourself quoting later, either to others or to yourself.

Makes me think of that George Harrison line: If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there…

In the poem below, Russell Edson goes a few unexpected places.

*the not elephant in the room*
*the not elephant in the room*

The Fall – Russell Edson

There was a man who found two leaves and came indoors holding them out saying to his parents that he was a tree.

To which they said the go into the yard and do not grow in the living-room as your roots may ruin the carpet.

He said I was fooling I am not a tree and he dropped his leaves.

But his parents said look it is fall.


Happy falling!


p.s. Newstand Alert: check out my poem “Reading Hunger” published in the current issue of Gulf Coast!  Info on this issue here.

* photo found here.

* Masaoka Shiki & life sketches

along this darkling

country road

comes the lonely voice

of a coachman

every so often urging his

horse on


The above lyric poem is by Masaoka Shiki (1867-1902), one of the innovators of the modern tanka form *.  Tanka is a Japanese poetic form that differs from haiku in that there is room for the poet.  Haiku traditionally is an image, a moment, a flicker that triggers realization.  With tanka, the poet can present an image as well as turn it a bit.  Tanka means little song, so you could say the poet in a tanka is allowed to sing.

What moves me about the poem above is how it evokes a sense of loneliness and perseverance.  I mean, there are nights where all I have in me to keep me going is the need to keep going.  I read these lines and am taken not only to that country road but to all the roads I’ve been on in the dark.

Shiki had friends who were painters who introduced to him the idea of shasei, which means a sketch from life.  Shiki took this idea and applied it to his tanka, producing ‘life sketches’ whose images embodied the poet’s inner life.

Here’s another, written while bedridden:

no visitors have come

and spring, it’s passing:

on the surface of the pond

these yellow yamabuki petals

fallen, gathered together

– You almost get the sense of a person watching each petal fall as he waits for visitors.


Since learning of Shiki I have myself tried my hand at life sketches.  I find the form pushing me to really see the world around me and what it means.  The idea has furthered my conversation with words and led me to a poetry more my own.  When I sit down to write each day, I delight in taking in details, turning them over, letting them sit together.

Here is a small poem I wrote the day before reading about Shiki.  I came back to these lines the day after and marveled at how in spirit they were with Shiki’s aims and ideals.

wanting nothing

but to start over

a friend points out

the clouds

over the mountains

(J, 021312)


Happy sketching!



* I learned about Shiki and his life sketches from an article by Barry George entitled “Shiki the Tanka Poet” in the February 2012 Writer’s Chronicle.  The poems reproduced are, I believe, a Barry George translation.