Without Ever Saying It

Several days ago, I read Henry Reed’s “Naming of Parts” from his longer work “Lessons of War.” “Naming of Parts” is, justly, the most famous excerpt of this work, and I cannot get it out of my head.

Take a look. It’s online. Maybe you can tell me why it touches me so. What I know is that it’s a poem that creates a mood and a feeling in an organic way; it brings you into it without ever saying anything about how it wants you to feel.

A lecture, outdoors, on a spring day, about how to assemble a rifle. Imagery of the beauty of flowers and the flight of bees, interspersed with instructions about the rifle parts.

Images of color, of stillness. Images that parody what will come later. But never obvious.

The poet never, even remotely, says, “How ironic that we are assembling instruments of death in a beautiful, living garden.”

The poet never writes, “This serene garden will soon be replaced by a bloody battlefield.”

The poet never says to us, “These young men, attending to these practical lessons, will die far away from this peaceful place, and that is sad.”

If you examine the poem in detail, you can draw the metaphors and parallels from each phrase, and admire the subtlety of the word choices. But, today, I am responding to the poem as a whole.

It did what I would like to get better at doing. It made me feel something and have no idea why; it carved a niche in my brain and made itself at home.

A Tedious Delusion

I came across a poem by Marge Piercy in the library today. It’s called “For The Young Who Want To,” and it begins like this:

Talent is what they say
you have after the novel
is published and favorably
reviewed. Beforehand what
you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting.

Artists of all kinds have felt this way; experienced these attitudes. The thin and blurry line that separates talent from delusion is so nebulous, so subjective–yet the way others see us, and often the way we see ourselves, is based upon it.

We fear not being taken seriously. The young fear being looked at indulgently, their work dismissed as unpolished or shallow. The older fear being dismissed as “not good enough” and not even having the excuse of youth.

We fear. We fear the “tedious delusion” more than we fear harsh criticism. We’d almost rather be called bad than banal.

Why do we expose ourselves to this kind of judgment?
Oh, right. Because writing means too much for us to stop, ever, unless our soul dries up.

And what’s so bad about knitting, anyway?

Feral Phrases

It’s getting crazy there in the cage.

Poets say that when a wonderful phrase or line just won’t fit into a poem, or the desired poem just won’t materialize around it, it’s a good idea to toss it into a box or a drawer and leave it there for later use. This helps keep us from forcing a poem to come into being just because we love our special line.

My box feels like a cage, and my fragments are starting to turn on one another. My brain feels as if there’s a spitting, clawing fight going on. And that’s not all–not only is the cage full, but there are at least five longer proto-drafts that want to be developed into the “rough” stage, and I can’t do it right now.

My current bout of depression has sapped my creativity as well as my confidence, but tell that to the cage. They don’t care. They’re fighting for their existence; their chance to come into the light.

I try to feed them with hope and promises; I tell them that this dulled state of mine won’t last forever. I ask them to have faith that their turn will come. I request them to line up neatly, in the order they arrived, to be considered one at a time in a serene manner.

Yeah, that’ll happen.


It belonged to my husband’s paternal great-grandfather, I think. There are several inscriptions, all with the same surname, inside the cover. A thin book, number 199 of the Riverside Literature Series, it proclaims itself to hold “The Raven, The Fall of the House of Usher and other Poems and Tales by Edgar Allan Poe.”

It was published in 1897, forty-eight years after Poe’s death. Forty-eight years is a long time, but there must have been people still alive who remembered Poe the man, or learned from those who did. The introduction discusses Poe’s life in far greater detail than I have usually seen, and the tone is more personal. Poe is portrayed as a figure of great controversy, rather than the staple of literature he now seems more to be.

He had his admirers and his detractors; he made friends and enemies. His life was punctuated by brilliant successes inevitably followed by excesses or derelictions that brought things tumbling down. He tried again, and again, painting the familiar tapestry of an addict’s struggles as he danced with alcohol and opium throughout the years. Today, doctors would probably also have pegged him as having bipolar qualities.

I’ve written about seeing and judging the poet in the poem. Here, in this fragile old booklet, I see how much it happens. The editor, himself, seemed to think of this when he wrote:

“…it is perhaps equally idle at present to try to bridge over the chasm that separates his lovers from his detractors. Men will long continue to dispute about his life, and they will not cease to assert or to deny his greatness…but it is equally true that it is of the essence of sound criticism that, as the years go by, we should be able to judge more and more dispassionately the men and works of the past; and we may at least hope that our grandsons will be more agreed as to Poe’s merits and demerits than we are.”

Wisely written. But I wonder if he would have predicted the development of Poe’s place in the world of literature? Would he be surprised to see him in school textbooks, or to know that “Annabel Lee” may be the first love poem many of us ever learned?

Poe was only forty when he died from the effects of his addictions. Those of us who read him now may know that he was a troubled person, or even have studied biographies, but the thousand small failures and offenses are blurred by time. His poems stand more on their own, ready for us to project meaning onto them.

“Who am I to write poems?” we might think. Well, who was Poe to do so?

The Whisper

Do you get lines from a poem stuck in your head?

I do, just as often as I get lyrics from a song in there. But lines from a poem linger in a different way; they seem to be trying to tell me something. The choice of lines is diagnostic.

Poets through the centuries have furnished us with a marvelous dictionary of terms describing grief, depression, infatuation, anger, fear and every other emotion. When I’m in a certain emotional state, my subconscious dredges up an appropriate fragment.

“Oh,” I might say to myself, “I’m depressed, so these lines fit.” But I’m cheating myself if I do that, because it’s more subtle than that. There are a thousand nuances to despair, and looking deeper at the choice of lines might give me clues to what lies beneath.

Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is one of my favorite somber and despairing poems. It rings with love, and pain, and twisted hope that seems to ebb with the waves.

But that’s not my whisperer today, or for the last week. What’s whispering to me is from “Bereft” by Robert Frost. Specifically, the end:

“Something sinister in the tone
Told me my secret must be known,
Word I was in the house alone
Somehow must have gotten abroad,
Word I was in my life alone,
Word I had no one left but God.”

If I welcome the whisperer, and consider its words, and apply their shades to my view of what’s going on with me, I get bits of insight. I find there’s a reason for this particular whisper. In this case, I needed a way of painting that cold, bleak feeling that comes when I know it’s up to me; that no human agency is going to have mercy on my soul. I needed to see that I really have been thinking about God a lot, and thinking about my need for God. Frost’s lines beat in my head with a gentle but implacable rhythm, wanting me to stay with this cold and this emptiness until I find the right remedy.

The Poet in the Poem

I have always been someone who likes to let a story or poem or painting speak for itself. When I like a television show or movie character, I sometimes don’t even want to know too much about the actor who plays him or her.

When I take a poem to my heart, I make it my own. Its language is translated into my personal archetypal code and drawn on the cave wall of my mind, and that’s as it should be for me.

That being said, it’s interesting to learn more about the lives of my favorite poets. It’s inspiring to learn about how, when or even why they wrote what they wrote, or see world events through their eyes. It’s touching and motivating to see some of the sources of their personal pain and notice how they’ve given it unique voice and used it as a creative force.

I don’t believe it’s possible to write a good poem without putting something of ourselves into it. So every time I read a poem, I am taking a look into the author’s psyche. I just don’t want to overanalyze–or make assumptions about–what I am shown.

Some poems appear to invite us into a specific realm of a poet’s personal experience. For instance, when a poem’s written in the first person and involves the narrator being sexually abused, it’s not too far a leap to imagine that this particular poet has had this in his or her life. And, if we do imagine this, we might be right a good deal of the time.

But not all of the time. Poets can write in imagined voices, and although what they imagine also says something about them as a person it isn’t a simple one-to-one correlation.

I’m a woman, and I’ve written several first-person poems in which the speaker is a man. I’ve read some amazing poems written from the perspective of a character very different from the author. Some of the poems I fear to write, but know I will someday, might contain the first-person musings of abusers and perpetrators I have known or who have hurt me.

How scary it is to think a reader might be affected by one and think I did everything my poems do! I’ve done many things I regret, but my writing scours the shadows and comes up with things I hope I won’t ever encounter. So I try not to make assumptions–I am honored to be invited into a poet’s inner life by their work, but I don’t presume to think I know them because of it. They remain a juicy mystery, as are we all.

When the Right Word Starts With “F”

I like to swear.

Not all the time, and I’d never want to use cursing as a substitute for the eloquent and nuanced expression of a feeling. But I like to swear sometimes.

I like to use the word “fuck.” It’s my favorite swear word. I like to use it judiciously–infrequently enough that it has an impact when I do it. It has to carry a punch, whether that punch is angry or sensual or irreverent or anything else.

Especially in a poem. Some poems are dripping with four letter words, and that’s good–if the words, and the frequency of their appearance, serve a purpose toward the voice and the emotional impact of of the poem. Look at Ai, or Sharon Olds. When they use certain words, it’s far from gratuitous. And if they make us uncomfortable, it’s because that discomfort has a part to play in the poem’s impact.

But I think some poems make the mistake of thinking that certain language will, in and of itself, make a poem gritty or raw or visceral. It won’t. It’s only a paint color. We still have to paint the picture.

On the other hand, there’s no need to recoil from any words if they are what’s feeling true. We need to treat them with the same consideration, and the same thoughtful editorial eye, needed by any words we’re using to refine a poem.

Let’s play with them the way we try to play with other words to sharpen our craft and pleasure. Play with their appearance, or their absence. We can try putting them in the mouth of a character one might peg as a more demure type, and use the surprise of them to make a tone shift or heighten a moment. I have a 25-line poem in which “fuck” appears only in the penultimate line, and it’s needed there. No other word would have worked, and it also wouldn’t have worked if it had appeared any earlier in the poem.

We can appreciate their qualities of sound. If I write “fuck” in a poem, it needs to work in terms of the poem’s sound and not just the meaning: the fricative f, the shortness and compactness of the word, and the primitive-sounding “uh” vowel should form part of a conscious arrangement.

I love words, and if you read this you probably do too. Let all words be piled around you like jewels, available for your loving and discerning hand.