NPM Curated Poem 13: Steve Orlen’s “In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas”

The first time I ever cried in class in front of my students was the day I heard Steve Orlen had died.  Orlen had been my teacher at the University of Houston, when he was a visiting professor and I was second-semester MFA student writing absolute crap.  Until Orlen’s class.  He was such a smart reader and calm person–you felt you could write your real thing, your riskiest thing, and he’d honor it, and tell you how to make it into the poem it needed to be.  In his class, I wrote the poem that got me my first major publication, in the Indiana Review.  I still thought I needed permission to write, and he humored me and gave me that.  When I think of my favorite poems of all time, this poem of his is on the list:


In the House of the Voice of Maria Callas
By Steven Orlen

In the house of the voice of Maria Callas
We hear the baby’s cries, and the after-supper
Rattle of silverware, and three clocks ticking
To different tunes, and ripe plums
Sleeping in their chipped bowl, and traffic sounds
Dissecting the avenues outside. We hear, like water
Pouring over time itself, the pure distillate arias
Of the numerous pampered queens who have reigned,
And the working girls who have suffered
The envious knives, and the breathless brides
With their horned helmets who have fallen in love
And gone crazy or fallen in love and died
On the grand stage at their appointed moments—
Who will sing of them now? Maria Callas is dead,
Although the full lips and the slanting eyes
And flared nostrils of her voice resurrect
Dramas we are able to imagine in this parlor
On evenings like this one, adding some color,
Adding some order. Of whom it was said:
She could imagine almost anything and give voice to it.


It’s a poem about imagination, so that I often can’t help but read it as a metaphor for poetry–that it’s our job as poets to try to give voice to our imaginings as well as Callas did.  And when I had Orlen as a teacher, I told him how much I love the line, “ripe plums / Sleeping in their chipped bowl,” and he said, “Thank you, thank you, that means a lot to me,” in a way that made me believe he really did take my opinion seriously, and then he asked, “What makes it a good line, do you think?”  At the time, I think I said that the verb surprised me, and so I learned you could pack a metaphor into your verb, you didn’t need to spell it out for people, but also I learned that you could use a line break to set up your surprise.  It was a lesson I should have learned in Latin–the first word and last word of the line are places of emphasis and intention, and you could leave your loaded words there.  Often, Latin sentences have the important words, the verbs, as the first or last words of the sentence.


Now when I read that line, I think it’s the rhythm, too.  Here’s how I scan it: “Ripe plums” is a spondee, “sleeping” is a trochee, “in their” is pyrrhic, and “chipped bowl” is another spondee.  All of these are considered strong feet except “in their,” and it’s the perfect softness to set up the precise sound and strength of the “chipped bowl” spondee.  The way you put your lips together for the p’s in “chipped” is broken by the pursed lips you have to make to read “bowl,” so it feels really good to read it out loud, too.


There’s a great hint of alliteration in the middle, when we get the archetypal opera plot information–“breathless brides,” “horned helmets.”  The longer narrative sentences keep going on their imagination, but also on their music.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write an elegy for an artist you love, as Orlen’s lyric is an elegy for Callas.  Inhabit that person’s art in a way that makes a statement about what work that artist did or has made possible for you.  I’m going to write “In the House of Voice of Steve Orlen,” maybe.

NPM Curated Poem 12: Susan Mitchell’s “The Bear”

One summer I found Susan Mitchell’s The Water Inside the Water (Wesleyan UP, 1983) at a small used bookstore in Sonora, California.  I took it back to my in-laws’ house and read the whole thing on their porch in one sitting, completely enraptured by her music and imagery.  Here’s one of my favorites, from


The Bear

Tonight the bear
comes to the orchard and, balancing
on her hind legs, dances under the apple trees,
hanging onto their boughs,
dragging their branches down to earth.
Look again. It is not the bear
but some afterimage of her
like the car I once saw in the driveway
after the last guest had gone.
Snow pulls the apple boughs to the ground.
Whatever moves in the orchard—
heavy, lumbering—is clear as wind.


The bear is long gone.
Drunk on apples,
she banged over the trash cans that fall night,
then skidded downstream. By now
she must be logged in for the winter.
Unless she is choosy.
I imagine her as very choosy,
sniffing at the huge logs, pawing them, trying
each one on for size,
but always coming out again.


Until tonight.
Tonight sap freezes under her skin.
Her breath leaves white apples in the air.
As she walks she dozes,
listening to the sound of axes chopping wood.
Somewhere she can never catch up to
trees are falling. Chips pile up like snow
When she does find it finally,
the log draws her in as easily as a forest,
and for a while she continues to see,
just ahead of her, the moon
trapped like a salmon in the ice.


I love the way the imagery from earlier in the poem shows up in that last stanza–I love that she becomes like a tree when “sap freezes under her skin,” and her “breath leaves white apples in the air.”  My very, very favorite part of this poem, though, is the last image, “the moon / trapped like a salmon in the ice.”  This figure mirrors why the bear has to hibernate in the first place–the imagery is so beautiful because it comes from the bear’s own point of view, the bear’s own imaginary system.


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a stanza of a narrative poem–that is, write a poem that tells a story about a character, and use as much sensory imagery as you can (using all five senses).  Then, write a final stanza that takes that sensory imagery as a metaphor for the main character, or vice versa–as the bear in this poem begins by stretching to reach the apples, she ends by being compared to a tree.  Try that kind of reversal in your poem.  Alternately, you could tell the last stanza from the character’s point of view–how would the character describe this scene in a different way from how you the poet would?

NPM Curated Poem 11: Juan Felipe Herrera’s “Enter the Void””

Hi!  I’m back!  I’ve been sick.  I apologize for my absence!
I was happy to read last week that Juan Felipe Herrera will have a second term as U.S. Poet Laureate.  He’s a great poet, and I read his selected poems last summer–here’s one of my faves (from


Enter the Void


I enter the void,
it has the shape of a viola:


Israel, Jenin, West Bank, Nablus—a rubble boy
shifts his scapula as if it was his continent, underground
Gazaground, I want to say—his only bone,


the rubble boy is a girl, I think,
her hair tossed, knotted and torn under
the green shank of fibers, tubes and shells.


She digs for her rubble father, I say rubble
because it is indistinguishable from ice, fire, dust,
clay, flesh, tears, concrete, bread, lungs, pubis, god,
say rubble, say water—


the rubble girl digs for her rubble mother,
occupation—disinheritance—once again,
I had written this somewhere, in a workshop, I think,
yes, it was an afternoon of dark poets with leaves, coffee
and music in the liquor light room.


A rock, perhaps it’s a rock, juts out, two rocks
embrace each other, the shapes come to me easily,
an old poetic reflex—memoria, a nation underground,
that is it, the nation under-ground,
that is why the rocks cover it.


I forget to mention the blasts, so many things flying,
light, existence, the house in tins, a mother in rags.


It is too cold to expose her tiny legs,
the fish-shaped back—you must take these notes for me.


Before you go. See this
the pools of blood.


I ride the night, past the Yukon, past
South Laredo, past Odessa, past the Ukraine,
old Jaffa, Haifa and Istanbul, across clouds,
hesitant and porous, listen—


they are porous so we can glide
into them, this underbelly, this underground:
wound-mothers and sobbing fathers, they


leave, in their ribboned flesh, shores lisp
against nothingness, open—toward you,
they dissolve again into my shoes—


Hear the dust gong:
gendarme passports,


cloned maize men in C-130’s, with tears
bubbling on their hands, pebbles
en route—we are all en route
to the rubblelands.


I want to chant a bliss mantra—
can you hear me?


I want to call for the dragon-slayer omchild.
I am on my knees again.


On the West Bank count
the waves of skull debris—a Hebrew letter
for “love” refuses me,
an Arabic letter for “boundary”
acknowledges me.


Sit on an embankment,
a dust fleece, there is a tidal wave ahead of me.


It will never reach me. I live underground, under the Dead Sea,
under the benevolent rocks and forearms and
mortar shells and slender naked red green
torsos, black,
so much black.
En route:


this could be a train, listen:
it derails into a cloud.


I love the political consciousness of this poem, and how it refuses to not be lyrical even as its politics are completely unapologetic.  I have less and less patience for people who say that poems can’t be political and still be beautiful, because I have less and less patience for people saying that poetry can’t be X, whatever X is.  Poetry can be everything.  That’s why we love it, isn’t it?


And that’s one reason I love that Herrera takes up poetry writing as an explicit trope in this poem.  He grapples with the poetry of witness and how it skirts “expos[ure],” how it seeks “love” but is “acknowledg[ed]” by “boundar[ies].”  The poet admits that the “tidal wave…//…will never reach” him.  Whatever “this” is–the poem, the situation, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict–it “could be a train.”  There’s danger–it “derails”–but it does so in a location of imagination and safety:  “a cloud.”


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write about a political conflict that’s troubling you.  Acknowledge, honestly and explicitly, your own subject position in relation to that conflict.  What are you able to say from that position, and how are you able to say it?  Write about it directly.  Try to maintain some of the prosodic elements of Herrera’s poem–the assonance of “tossed, knotted,” for example, or the alliteration of “liquor light.”  I love that line, “liquor light.”  It’s so perfect for a drowsy late afternoon of poetry, that may of may not contain literal liquor….

NPM Curated Poem 10: Dana Levin’s “Letter to GC”

So…..I lost the little steno book in which I’d written all the poets I wanted to talk about this month. I’m sure it will turn up. In the meantime, I’m posting all the poets I can remember from it, and at the top of that list is Dana Levin. I introduced her at a reading, once, because I loved her work and was lucky she was coming to my town. I believe that at that reading, in Salt Lake City in the fall of 2011, she read this poem, which I found at

Letter to GC
Dana Levin

I say most sincerely and desperately, HAPPY NEW YEAR!

Having rowed a little farther away from the cliff

Which is my kind of religion

Adrift in the darkness but readying oars

How can there be too many stars and hands, I ask you

I would be disingenuous if I said “being understood” were not important to me

Between the ceiling of private dream and the floor of public speech

Between the coin and the hand it crosses

Mercantilists’ and governors’ and preachers’ alike

The imagination and its products so often rebuff purpose

And some of us don’t like it, and want to make it mean

I would never shoot you, even if you were the only meat around

Anyway, I empathize with your lower division semester (which sounds
kinda Dante, to me)

Snow-bound sounds gorgeous and inconvenient

Like the idea of ending on the internal rhyme of psychics and clients

Though I too privilege the “shiny”

And of course, I want to be approved of, so much

Despite the image I’ve been savoring, the one of the self-stitching wound

Yes, I want to write that self-healing wound poem, the one with
cocoon closed up with thorns

We are getting such lovely flourishes from our poets

Fathomless opportunities for turning literacy into event

It’s the drama of feeling we find such an aesthetic problem,
these days




In his essay “A Few Don’ts,” Ezra Pound says not to “use such an expression as ‘dim lands of peace.’ It dulls the image. It mixes an abstraction with the concrete. It comes from the writer’s not realizing that the natural object is always the adequate symbol” ( Which is why I love Levin’s line, “Between the ceiling of private dream and the floor of public speech,” which I take to the be the room of poetry–it needs to be more dream-like than “public speech,” but still more public than a dream.  I love the reinvention of the metaphor of poetry-as-room, which inheres in our word for a poem’s parts–stanzas, Italian for “stopping place,” or “room.”  Here, the concrete is an imagined concrete–we’re already speaking about an abstract concept, a hypothetical poem, so there’s not much of  “natural object” to take away from–and, if there were, we have a poem right here before us, conveniently, that we can draw from. And isn’t it FUN to mix the abstract with the concrete, anyway?

Of course, the parallel structure is part of what makes this line so good, that contrast of “ceiling” and “floor,” “private” and “public,” and then the pleasantly unexpected and assonant “dream” and “speech.”  That parallelism continues onto the next line, because of the repetition of “between,” but we now have a “mercantilist’s” image–the coin, perhaps the private poem-dream, and the hand that takes it in and “spends” it–perhaps the reader.  I get the sense that I’m the hand, and this poem has been placed in it, this poem that as a letter has a quality of public speech to it.  It seems to be acting the part it claims it wants to act.

And I love that last image the poet has been “savoring”–“the one of the self-stitching wound.”

She’s one of my favorite contemporary poets; her latest book is Sky Burial (Copper Canyon, 2011).  Check it out!


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Read Pounds “A Few Don’ts” (  Then, do all his don’ts.  Or, as many as you can.

Spoiler Alert:  Write a poem that:

  1. Uses superfluous words, particularly adjectives that don’t mean anything.
  2. Uses an expression such as “dim lands of peace,” that is, “adjective plural noun of abstract noun.”  Mix a concrete with an abstract.
  3. Takes a piece of prose and “chops” it into line lengths.
  4. Is “viewy” and descriptive.
  5. Borrows the language of an advertiser of new soap.
  6. Chops its stuff into separate iambs.  End-stops each line, then begins the next with “a heave.”
  7. Defines one sense in terms of another.


NPM Curated Poem 9: Dorianne Laux’s “Balance”

I’ve loved this poem since someone, I think it was Steve Orlen, told me I should read Dorianne Laux’s What We Carry (BOA, 1994).  He was right, and this is one of my favorite poems in the book (from


By Dorianne Laux

I’m remembering again, the day
we stood on the porch and you smoked
while the old man told you
about his basement full of wine,
his bad heart and the doctor’s warning,
how he held the dusty bottle out to you,
glad, he said, to give it away
to someone who appreciated
its value and spirit, the years
it took to settle into its richness
and worth. I’m watching again,
each cell alive, as you reach
for the wine, your forearm exposed
below the rolled sleeve, the fine hairs
that sweep along the muscle, glowing,
lifting a little in the afternoon breeze.
I’m memorizing the shape of the moment:
your hand and the small bones
lengthening beneath the skin
as it tightens in the gripping,
in the receiving of the gift, the exact
texture and color of your skin,
and the old man’s face, reduced
to its essence. That,
and the brief second
when both of you had a hand on the bottle—
the thing not yet given,
not yet taken, but held
between you, stoppered, full.
And my body is flooded again
with an elemental joy,
holding onto it against another day
in the unknowable future when I’m given
terrible news, some dark burden
I’ll be forced to carry. I know
this is useless, and can’t possibly work,
but I’m saving that moment, for balance.

I love the pacing of this poem, those dependent clauses one after the other, but most of all I love the turn–“holding onto it against another day / in the uknowable future when I’m given / terrible news.”  I love that idea, that a perfect memory might, even if it’s “useless,” be kept in the hope of providing a kind of mental and emotional “balance.”  Just lovely.
YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Isolate one perfect moment in your memory.  Tell the story of that moment, exploded into a longer narrative, rich with description.  Take as long as you possibly can to describe the scene in all its glorious detail.  Then, go somewhere else–what worries or negativities might be associated with, or brought up by, this one wonderful moment?

NPM Curated Poem 6: Barbara Hamby’s “Ode on Dictionaries”

A vastly underrated poet, in my mind, Barbara Hamby has been writing and publishing linguistically and intellectually dexterous poetry since her 1995 debut, Delirium.  That book won the Vassar Miller prize, and the Kate Tufts Discovery Award, and the Norma Farber First Book Award, and yes, I’m still telling you she’s underrated.  To me, that’s how good she is, and that’s how influential she’s been on my work–she’s one of my idols.  Here’s a poem that showcases her thinking and her voice (I once again took the text from


Ode on Dictionaries

By Barbara Hamby

A-bomb is how it begins with a big bang on page
        one, a calculator of sorts whose centrifuge
begets bedouin, bamboozle, breakdance, and berserk,
        one of my mother’s favorite words, hard knock
clerk of clichés that she is, at the moment going ape
        the current rave in the fundamentalist landscape
disguised as her brain, a rococo lexicon
        of Deuteronomy, Job, gossip, spritz, and neocon
ephemera all wrapped up in a pop burrito
        of movie star shenanigans, like a stray Cheeto
found in your pocket the day after you finish the bag,
        tastier than any oyster and champagne fueled fugue
gastronomique you have been pursuing in France
        for the past four months. This 82-year-old’s rants
have taken their place with the dictionary I bought
        in the fourth grade, with so many gorgeous words I thought
I’d never plumb its depths. Right the first time, little girl,
        yet here I am still at it, trolling for pearls,
Japanese words vying with Bantu in a goulash
        I eat daily, sometimes gagging, sometimes with relish,
kleptomaniac in the candy store of language,
        slipping words in my pockets like a non-smudge
lipstick that smears with the first kiss. I’m the demented
        lady with sixteen cats. Sure, the house stinks, but those damned
mice have skedaddled, though I kind of miss them, their cute
        little faces, the whiskers, those adorable gray suits.
No, all beasts are welcome in my menagerie, ark
        of inconsolable barks and meows, sharp-toothed shark,
OED of the deep ocean, sweet compendium
        of candy bars—Butterfingers, Mounds, and M&Ms—
packed next to the tripe and gizzards, trim and tackle
        of butchers and bakers, the painter’s brush and spackle,
quarks and black holes of physicists’ theory. I’m building
        my own book as a mason makes a wall or a gelding
runs round the track—brick by brick, step by step, word by word,
        jonquil by gerrymander, syllabub by greensward,
swordplay by snapdragon, a never-ending parade
       with clowns and funambulists in my own mouth, homemade
treasure chest of tongue and teeth, the brain’s roustabout, rough
        unfurler of tents and trapezes, off-the-cuff
unruly troublemaker in the high church museum
        of the world. O mouth—boondoggle, auditorium,
viper, gulag, gumbo pot on a steamy August
        afternoon—what have you not given me? How I must
wear on you, my Samuel Johnson in a frock coat,
        lexicographer of silly thoughts, billy goat,
X-rated pornographic smut factory, scarfer
        of snacks, prissy smirker, late-night barfly,
you are the megaphone by which I bewitch the world
        or don’t as the case may be. O chittering squirrel,
ziplock sandwich bag, sound off, shut up, gather your words
        into bouquets, folios, flocks of black and flaming birds.


I first encountered this poem in Hamby’s great selected poems, On the Street of Divine Love (Pittsburgh, 2014), though it’s in her earlier All-Night Lingo Tango (2009), which I hadn’t gotten around to reading (I’m blaming grad school, my second round).  Hamby uses two established poetic forms here, the ode and the abecedarian.  An ode is “a formal address to an event, a person, or a thing not present,” to quote the Academy of American Poets website, and it’s often associated with praise of that event, person, or thing.  An abecedarian is a poem whose parts (lines or stanzas) are in alphabetical order.  In this case, it’s a clever choice, because that’s how the dictionary is ordered, too, and the beginning of this poem explicitly calls up the beginning of the dictionary.  I’m also in love with phrases like “rococo lexicon,” which both explains the diversity of her mother’s vocabulary and continues the great prosody here with the consonance of the repeated “co” sound.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write an abecedarian.  Start your first line with A, the next with b, and so on.  I take Hamby’s lines to be so long that they spilled over to the next one, but these could also be separate lines, every other line indented, so that just the left-justified lines are in alphabetical order.  This poem isn’t Hamby’s first experiment in the abecedarian form, either; if you enjoy this poem and exercise, check out her 1999 book The Alphabet of Desire.

NPM Curated Poem 5: Gary Dop’s “Father, Child, Water”

My husband complains sometimes that I don’t read enough male poets.  I figure, everyone else is reading them, so why do they need me?  But I have been trying to diversify my reading list recently, and a good poet who just happens to be male is Gary Dop, so today’s poem is his “Father, Child, Water,” the title poem from his 2015 collection from Red Hen.  I got this poem from

Father, Child, Water

By Gary Dop

I lift your body to the boat
before you drown or choke or slip too far
beneath.  I didn’t think—just jumped, just did
what I did like the physics
that flung you in.  My hands clutch under
year-old arms, between your life
jacket and your bobbing frame, pushing you,
like a fountain cherub, up and out.
I’m fooled by the warmth pulsing from
the gash on my thigh, sliced wide and clean
by an errant screw on the stern.
No pain.  My legs kick out blood below.
My arms strain
against our deaths to hold you up
as I lift you, crying, reaching, to the boat.


I enjoy that this poem begins in media res, as any good epic would, and I love the prosodic elements throughout.  What I mean by “prosody” is how the language sounds when you hear it read aloud, whether actually out loud or in the voice you hear in your head when you read it to yourself.  It’s the artful use of sound and rhythm in the lines.

Here, I’m particularly drawn to the alliteration that begins in the first couplet–“body,” “boat,” “before”–and continues throughout, even when the alliterated consonants start participating in consonant blends (“physics” // “flung,” “screw…stern”), so that the familiar consonant sounds are somehow both repeated (we still hear that “f”), but also changed (it’s “fl,” not “f,” now).  It’s a great figure for what happens as a parent–your child is both like you, and not like you, simultaneously.


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a poem that tells a story and uses alliteration.  Don’t use too much!  It’s easy to go overboard (I didn’t originally intend that to be a pun, but whatever).

NPM Curated Poem 4: Natalie Diaz’s “My Brother at 3am”

Today’s poem is a pantoum by Natalie Diaz, who was once a professional basketball player in Europe and a successful NCAA basketball player in her college days.  She’s a great poet, obviously, too.

A pantoum is a Malayan form that’s been brought into French and English—you’ll see the form emerge as you read the poem, which I got from


My Brother at 3 A.M.

By Natalie Diaz

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the steps

when Mom unlocked and opened the front door.

        O God, he said. O God.

                He wants to kill me, Mom.


When Mom unlocked and opened the front door

at 3 a.m., she was in her nightgown, Dad was asleep.

        He wants to kill me, he told her,

                looking over his shoulder.


3 a.m. and in her nightgown, Dad asleep,

What’s going on? she asked. Who wants to kill you?

        He looked over his shoulder.

                The devil does. Look at him, over there.


She asked, What are you on? Who wants to kill you?

The sky wasn’t black or blue but the green of a dying night.

        The devil, look at him, over there.

                He pointed to the corner house.


The sky wasn’t black or blue but the dying green of night.

Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

        My brother pointed to the corner house.

                His lips flickered with sores.


Stars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives.

O God, I can see the tail, he said. O God, look.

        Mom winced at the sores on his lips.

                It’s sticking out from behind the house.


O God, see the tail, he said. Look at the goddamned tail.

He sat cross-legged, weeping on the front steps.

        Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother.

                O God, O God, she said.


I love the personification in “[s]tars had closed their eyes or sheathed their knives,” which lends them a danger that underscores what her brother has been going through in the middle of the night as he battles his addiction and the attendant hallucinations.  I also love the apposition in “Mom finally saw it, a hellish vision, my brother,” meaning that she both sees the brother for what he really is—that is, recognizes his addiction and its severity—and also as the “hellish vision” himself.  I also love that the brother’s “O God” becomes the mother’s “O God,” a movement made possible by the pantoum form.  It’s a great way to create content using form.

This poem is from Diaz’s great debut collection, When My Brother Was an Aztec (Copper Canyon, 2012), a favorite of my students for many good reasons (humor, “accessibility,” relatability, lyricism–I could go on).

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a pantoum.  You can find the instructions here.  Take the second and fourth lines of your first stanza, and make them the first and third lines of the second stanza.  Then, take the second and fourth lines of that stanza, and make them the first and third lines of the third stanza, and so on.  The repetitions should allow for variation of meaning as they appear in new contexts, as Diaz’s “O God” shifts from the brother’s to the mother’s mouth in the moment of the mother’s recognition of the brother’s situation.

NPM Curated Poem 3: “ANWR,” by Sherwin Bitsui

When people ask me which contemporary poets I’m most excited about, my first answer is usually Sherwin Bitsui, a Diné poet from Arizona.  His images are surreal and lyrical, which I usually respond to in poetry (see my post on Carrie Bennett), and today’s poem gives the lie to the argument that political poetry and lyrical poetry are mutually exclusive (poem from


By Sherwin Bitsui


When we are out of gas,

a headache haloes the roof,

darkening the skin of everyone who has a full tank.


I was told that the nectar of shoelaces,

if squeezed hard enough,

turns to water and trickles from the caribou’s snout.


A glacier nibbled from its center

spiders a story of the Southern Cross,

twin brothers

dancing in the back room lit with cigarettes

break through the drum’s soft skin—

There bone faces atlas

            a grieving century.



Here, I respond to “spider” and “atlas” being used as verbs—the glacier, “nibbled” so it might look diffuse as a spider’s legs, tells “a story,” and on “the drum’s soft skin,” “bone faces” provide a map to “a grieving century,” which I take to mean the century of unprecedented industrial growth that asked for the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) to be drilled for oil—the twentieth (this poem was published in Bitsui’s book Shapeshift, which appeared in 2003).


YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  Write a political poem, but, in the tradition of Bitsui’s “ANWR,” don’t tell your audience what to think about the issue—don’t write your politics in a didactic way.  Instead, approach the political subject from a lyrical place—the kind of place that would provide what I take to be a mocking image for recycling, the “nectar of shoelaces” that “turns to water and trickles from the caribou’s snout.”  And you could do a lot worse than buying Bitsui’s other collection, too—Flood Song (Copper Canyon Press, 2009).


NPM Curated Poem 2: “One Art” by Elizabeth Bishop

If you’re a poet, or a close friend of mine, or a student or former student, you’re probably unimpressed by my inclusion of the quintessential “poet’s poet” and Duffey personal icon Elizabeth Bishop.  But her poem “One Art” is really, truly, one of the best poems ever written in the English language.  Here’s the text, which I took from

One Art

Elizabeth Bishop, 19111979

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant 
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied.  It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

I love the way the severity of the losses increases as the poem goes on, and, of course, that wonderful interjection, “Write it!”  The poet could be forcing herself to admit that the loss does indeed “look like…disaster,” but also continues the denial, forces herself to WRITE the denial, that it is “like disaster,” not actually a disaster.  The repetition of “like” mimics the speaker’s thought process in that she might have forgotten her construction after the interjection to herself, but it also reemphasizes the importance of denying that it’s a disaster by asserting it’s only LIKE one, and to be LIKE LIKE one is even one more step removed.  The loss of the “you,” however, inches closer to disaster with every beat.

YOUR ASSIGNMENT:  This poem is a villanelle, a poetic form derived from Italian and Spanish Renaissance dance-songs and fixed as we know it in the nineteenth century (  A villanelle consists of five tercets (three-line stanzas) and a quatrain (a four-line stanza) in which the first and third lines alternate as the last line of each tercet until they finally appear as the final two lines of the poem.  The middle lines of the tercets must rhyme with each other and with the second line of the quatrain, and first lines of the tercets and quatrain must rhyme with the repeated lines.  Clearer directions can be found at

Write a villanelle!  Good luck.  I’ve never done it.  We’ll see if I can today!