Writing Poetry Is Hard (Luci Shaw told me so)

One of my goals for my 28th year was to begin a correspondence with Luci Shaw regarding poetry. She complied in looking over my poetry and I eventually received great and constructively critical feedback. I have a lot to learn about writing poetry. Often I hear people assume it is an easy task to write minimally, whimsically, obscurely and voila, poetry. Nay I say, nay. For example:

my hollow muscular



wrecklessly over,

the threads undone

the threads resewn

around my dizzy head,

keeping my mouth, my eyes, my ears

from anything

But deceit and hate

Yes, that took 3 minutes, approximately. Easy. This is not superb writing, however it does not take much to generate some emotion quickly, furthering the belief that writing good poetry is easy. I might call that sentimentality, which we should not vie for in our small, short lives. We can proliferate like bunnies with our writing or long-suffer for a few. Mary Oliver comments on this in her Poetry Handbook,

And, never before have there been so many opportunities to be a poet publicly and quickly, thus achieving the easier goals. Magazines are everywhere, and there are literally hundreds of poetry workshops. There is, as never before, company for those who like to talk about and write poems.

None of this is bad. But very little of it can do more than start you on your way to the real, unimaginably difficult goal of writing memorably. That work is done slowly and in solitude, and it is as improbable as carrying water in a sieve.

Thanks Mary, yesterday I carried a gallon of water in a sieve and it was fairly easy. I just had to employ an odd version of centripetal force.

I do appreciate her emphasis on how long and lonely and alone it takes for us to write well and memorably. Oliver offers a sense of solidarity for the immeasurably difficult path in becoming a good poet. She also writes,

I cherish two sentences and keep them close to my desk. The first is by Flaubert. I came upon it among van Gogh’s letters. It says, simply, “Talent is long patience, and originality an effort of will and of intense observation.”….what a hopeful statement! For who needs to be shy of any of these? No one!

…the second statement comes from Emerson’s journals…it reads: The poem is a confession of faith.

Which is to say, the poem is not an exercise. It is not “wordplay.” Whatever skill or beauty it has, it contains something beyond language devices, and has a purpose other than itself…Poetry is a life-cherishing force. And it requires a vision–a faith, to use an old-fashioned term. Yes, indeed. For poems are not words, after all, but fires for the cold, ropes let down to the lost, something as necessary as bread in the pockets of the hungry. Yes, indeed.

Yes, indeed. Fires, ropes, and bread for the cold, lost, and hungry.

I have been told by Luci Shaw and Jennifer Maier that poetry gains power through an economy in which imitating other good poets is worth doing even if it feels like a sin. Which it does. Poetry also gains power through an economy in which concise and careful words are selected, mulled over, and brought to life either in new form or original form.

Mary Oliver once said it would be better to read good poets than to attend a workshop. But workshops sound so much more fun and require so much more of me than I think or expect I can do on my own.

Here is one of my favorite poems by Jennifer Maier. She read this aloud about 4 years ago at SPU and I about sank into the ground.

Eve’s Menstruation

It started four weeks after the Edict:
A gripping in her belly like the cinching
of rushes; then a churning weight, as on the third day
when they ate stone from hunger, and later,
when they shared the first green fruits of exile.

And when the blood came, dark
Like damp earth, then bright as the juice
of pomegranates, it came to her alone, the mark
and injury of separation, and she thought,
How can Death be far behind?

She had seen death, and blood, when starved
Past reason on the fourteenth day, they snared
The leopard who’d bathed with them in the lagoons
of Eden and marveled when remembering
brought water to their eyes.

The blood returns with each ripe moon,
five times now. They no longer stroke the animals
as they die, asking forgiveness. Each day
she sets out early with her basket; each day
he returns late with his bow, the sun red, sinking
like a wounded deer; the moon rising,
Sharp as bone.

Did your belly tighten? I hope all bellies tighten when reading this. They ought to. Good poetry seems to cause the body to respond and react and remember.

Here is a poem Luci gave kind words to, sharing her appreciation of my parallelism. Appreciation of my parallelism. Ok, as much as my grandiose mind desired for her to rant and rave about ALL of my poems with a consequent phone call inviting me to her wooded homestead in Bellingham, this is will have to do, for now.


What would you say, if


Pulled the curtains,

the heavy, dense drapery,

Back from its restful spot

What would you say, if


Also had a sarcophagus behind

Awaiting the chisel, to emerge

The skeletons of Deny

What would you say, if


Then took you into a damp, theatrical play

Where I act out my every lie,

My every defense before Scrutiny’s beam

What would you say, if


Crawled about salivating, swatting at,

Anything that threatens my existence

Anything that comes remotely near, near, near

What would you say, if


Used my tears to alleviate my responsibility

Employed raging envy to wound you and me

Invited God to bury my every fiber from ever being seen

What would you say, if


Claimed fitfulness until you changed

Tied you to the tree

Until you confessed your unmentionables to me, only me

What would you do, if


Sat before you  with the dog inside

Growling, moaning, howling

In heat for what I lust and murder over

and over

What would you do, if


Am this and that and these and those

Would you hide, must you hide

Will you leave in my creaturely interpretation

Of how I’ve known life,

Yet gnawing at something more

What would you say, if


But must we hide?

But must we hide as we grind and hew and stitch together our creations? There can be much shame in being a creator because it reveals the finite, the lowly, the ignorance of our work yet how else will we learn and grow and play? I must say ‘arriving’ sounds just as good as a workshop, although what so many of the diligent and dedicated have reported is that creating memorable and excellent work is deeply and inextricably begotten by the painstaking process and possessing a richly felt presence.

Don’t hide. I won’t either.



Filed under poetry, Uncategorized

2 responses to “Writing Poetry Is Hard (Luci Shaw told me so)

  1. Kate

    I so enjoy reading your entries. I check every day. 🙂

  2. Kate, you are very kind. thanks for being apart/supportive of this blog endeavor.

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