Friday, April 9, 2010

What Maya Angelou Doesn't Want You to Know: Poetry Is Easy

I have taught poetry to high school and college students, and I usually toe the English teacher line.  You know, "poetry enables the writer to pack ideas, imagery, music, and emotion onto the page more densely than does prose."  Then we beat the life out of some important poems from the olden days.

But the truth is that writing poetry (the modern kind that doesn't rhyme) is super-cakey.  Anyone can do it if they just follow these rules:
  1. Figure out what you want to say
  2. Write down what you want to say.  Don't worry about how one thought connects to the next--that's the reader's job!
  3. Polish it up.  If it seems banal, remove some words so that it makes less sense--this makes it seem profound.  Replace common words with words that have some kind of sonic impact and strong connotations.   Don't worry whether they fit in with your original idea; let the thesaurus be the wind beneath your wings!  A boring poem about a "knife" can become an exotic romance about a "scimitar."  Have you used too much punctuation?  Either throw it all out, or leave just a couple marks in random places to puzzle your reader.  Make sure you don't write all the way to the right margin: break your sentences into choppy fragments so that your reader knows this is a poem!
Let's try it!

I took some pictures of stuff I found outside my house (but within range of the baby monitor) while the girls were napping, and I was going to write a clever, jokey thing about how important it is to expose your kids to nature.  Then I decided that was too much work.  So now, I am going to write poetry about these pictures of nature until I get sick of it.  Then, I'm going to ask you to write some too!


My father-in-law,
who learned English mostly through hearsay
calls them dan-DEEL-yuns

With a shift in emphasis, he transforms the ignoble weed, 
a foppish Victorian
cartoon character,
into a forgotten Roman general

A golden invader
at the vanguard of the apocalypse;
sunshafts piercing his tawny carapace

So fearsome and beautiful
he is loathed and dreaded,
most ardently by those who admire him.
Thwarted by empyrean deceit
He drinks the poison


Alley Shitter

Do you feel shame,
or fear,
squatting behind my garage?

Were you surprised
that night,
the one that followed the day
when I installed
the motion detector lights?

Would you recognize me when we pass on the sidewalk?
Are you the kid with the cane and the backpack
who always wears the Pantera t-shirt?
Are you the middle-aged man who sifts through the dumpster
Tuesdays behind the apartments
leaving with one hand steering your bike and the other holding
Santa bags of aluminum and plastic?
Or are you asleep in the park during the day?
The tarpaper I left in the alley 
the roof of your creosote den

Do you feel shame?  Or,
with your back pressed against the yielding vinyl
of my neighbor's fence,
Do you chuckle,
imagining me yelling
Leave it!
As my dog fishes
your turd
from the weeds

Our springtime skin
is silent
Cool and dry

Voices near and
rumble under us
Windblown litter brushes past
but the beguiling paralysis

We dare not move
for the least rasp of skin and scale could break the spell
and send us
from our warmth
back to shelter

Now it's your turn!

See--super easy!  Why don't you take three seconds and write some poetry inspired by the rest of these pictures, and post it in the comments.  I will email your work to Maya Angelou, my close personal friend *cough*bullshit*cough*, and see which one she likes best.  Then I will buy the winner lunch or something.  Maybe I'll give you some slightly used baby clothes.

Feel free to remix or mashup my poems, or write a better one about the pictures I already poeticized.


  1. Is it not deleterious enough
    That any respectable urbanite should
    have to
    Light upon repugnant worms
    without you posting pictures of them
    On your communication portal
    Have more consideration
    I beseech
    I was eating breakfast.

    p.s. I actually liked your poems. Especially Molt. I don't know what that says about me.

  2. The surprise motion detector light was the BEST.

    I actually talked to Maya Angelou on the phone once when I worked with a doctor. She's DOCTOR Angelou. Pronounced Angelo, believe it or not.

    I actually liked your poems, dude. Ain't nothing wrong with a funny poem. If people don't fall asleep while reading them, then you're doing something right.

    for extra coolness dont capitalize anything or use punctuation and make really weird line breaks for awkward reading and insert strange woohooo words randomly

  3. If it seems banal, remove some words so that it makes less sense--this makes it seem profound. LOL love that! I like your poems and I like Anisa's :) I'll write some later...promise...for real...

  4. @Anisa--
    'Twas not my intent
    To befoul the lady's gustation
    Please forgive

    Your fondness for my poetry bespeaks a grandness of spirit and paucity of critical assiduity. (Guess what? "Gustation" is a real word. I thought I was making it up.)

    @Frank--Can you give Doc Maya a holler on my behalf? I think I lost her digits. And yeah--I should have heeded my own advice and eliminated some punctuation. But I'm afraid I'm wound a bit tightly, grammar-wise.

    @Kathy--I will give you until midnight to submit your poetry for full credit. After that I deduct 10% for lateness. (Not for real.)

  5. Lady bug
    happy outside
    please stay there

    i don't want to have to pick
    you up with a tissue and

    stay in your happy place
    let me have mine

  6. Very well done, Tarisa. I especially liked the vertical "flush." If only you could make it swirl! Your poem makes me think of the huge infestations of ladybugs we would get in VA. We had a screened-in porch that would become completely opaque with ladybugs. And it's supposed to be bad luck to kill them.

  7. Flies bathe in ointment
    and chains are for gangs
    of bent back and blistered feet.

    I don't think that's actually a fly but I can't tell what the the hell it is.

  8. Nice, Whit!

    I think it's a beetle of some sort. But that's just my interpretation.

  9. Nasty disgusting things
    this guy finds
    WTF?! WTF?! WTF?!
    Ain't no way he can babyproof that shit

    Came over from Sweet Juniper. I'm enjoying your musings/writings immensely. Please forgive my stupid poem, but I felt compelled to try as I've never encountered such a challenge on a parenting blog. It's also way past my bedtime which can explain a lot.


  10. Thanks, Pam!

    Not a stupid poem. Just needs polishing. Consult thesaurus.

  11. A Dandy Lion
    holds a Demure Ladybug
    in his leafy palm.

  12. Beautiful, James! (Unfortunately, Maya Angelou hates haiku. But maybe she'll make an exception this one time.)

  13. Hey, Worm

    Whatcha doin that for?
    Omnivore, locavore or
    Just the spring garden?

  14. Thanks, Mom! I'll buy you lunch as soon as you get here.

  15. I thought about this for awhile but couldn't get anything other than "There once was a man from Nantucket." I guess poetry is harder than everyone says...


  16. I think we did enough poetry at UVA that I'm excused from this exercise. Perhaps you recall---we even did it on a typewriter! One poem about Aaron Spence was grotesque, but for reasons I won't post about. Do you recall?

  17. Jewel--

    That's a great start! Maybe you could follow with, "Who put all his worms in a bucket"? Anyway, don't give up your day job. We always need yodlers.

    Of course I remember (hazily) typing poetry in your squalid basement apartment. Also, I remember you writing a poetic screed against the editor of the "humor" magazine who butchered my article.

  18. This Is Just To Say

    I have shat upon
    the alley
    that lies behind
    your garage

    you were probably
    planning to leave
    your own shit

    Forgive me
    I couldn't hold it
    and the seven-eleven
    was closed

    Thank you.

    The Scrivener @ Gen X Moms--I don't get to swear on my blog, oh the curse of group authorship!

    Also, it's nice to know I'm not the only at-home parent with an advanced English degree.

  19. what kind of god or demon
    made this world
    oleaginous at its periphery
    void of life at its core
    the promise of salvation dangled from above
    empty empty empty

  20. Shelby--

    That's so beautiful! You can always come swear on my blog. (I'll bet you ate the motherfucking plums too, didn't you?)


    I have no idea what you're talking about, but it's awesome.

  21. the bug, the bucket, the chain:
    the horror, the horror

  22. I did eat the motherfucking plums--but do I dare each a peach?

  23. I mean eat a peach? It's late.

  24. Dash and Slash

    Frivolous Skin skater/
    greywater rainbows
    cast flexshadows

    below: dirtyblonde youth
    Akron pools, blown row of swing-rings
    missing fingerpinch--SPLUNK. Public Red
    -faced Waterplayer/circus yellow
    trunks parade Buzzy fuzzy Buoy boy
    Tongue-slaps, gums up,
    Snorting, bugging bully.
    Hot Spit foams in too-old air

    No sides not slippery.

  25. Shelby--

    Let's each eat a peach!


    I'm a huge fan of your work! But this is much denser than a lot of your classics (Roses Are Red, etc.). I need to think about it for a while. No sides not slippery indeed.

  26. hahahahaha this is exactly what I think of poetry too, I'm of the opinion that it's the most selfish form of writing, as you don't need to consider the reader at all. Don't worry! They'll make up some kind of deep meaning. No sweat. Just keep it confusing and somebody will love it.

  27. I, COBRA

    Whilst Butterbean slumbers,
    Mama toils,
    And Papa rearranges syntax on his

    Who watcheth over me?

    The cold glowing eye of
    the monitor,
    Its sensors my bartender,
    Its batteries my nursemaid,
    Its plastic shell way too cheap-looking
    to cost what it did?


    The rampager canine,
    Whose mind works like a blackberry
    (Somewhat functional, yet not nearly as useful as an iPhone),
    And - face it - whose bladder is worse
    than mine?


    The uncle-slash-godparent to whom my
    has been entrusted for all

    Let's hope not.

  28. "Sam"--

    That's pretty good, Michelle. As if the real Sam Riegel would waste time looking at blogs with hardly any porn on them.

  29. Trout--no duh. What kind of rube do you take me for. (I looked it up as soon as you posted your poems.)


Don't hold back.


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