I’ve recently returned from a trip to Florida. Flying, especially these days, is always an interesting experience.


In the airplane, I don’t even know
I’ve been looking at the ocean
for a long time. A setting sun makes it
yellow, though my eyes register pink,
tricked by a careless reality,
and when I don’t think of anything,
I finally see yellow between bands of blue.
I notice the lack of buildings,
mountains, rivers, the missing lines
of roads and my brain trips:
water, an expanse, then an edge
where the land curls its toes up tight.
Below me, a cotton ball puff of a cloud
floats by, alone, tethered I suppose,
to one soul whose day is still
under water. I don’t know anything,
am no longer capable of learning,
and I look at my daughter next to me,
the doctor-to-be, and wonder
how she rose from a yellow ocean,
how she crystallized from a solitary cloud.


As described above, I was caught off guard while on a recent airplane trip when I realized that what I was looking at was ocean, and that the ocean was not blue or green or pink due to the sunset, but yellow. Since when is the ocean yellow? I didn’t care about what it meant that the ocean was yellow, but was interested in the trick my mind had played on me, in the way that when I took a moment to think – or not think – about what I was seeing, I saw something else entirely.

It, once again, reminded me of my friend Nancy’s bumper sticker that reads, “Don’t believe everything you think.” In trying to find the source of that quote (which I never did), I came across another quote that seems fitting to include here, this one by author Anais Nin, “We don’t see things as they are, we see things as we are.”

What does this have to do with the little poem above? Description, description, description.

Of course I saw a pink sunset – that is the expected thing to see, what paintings and photographs show, what television commercials for tropical destinations depict, what I, as a recipient and acceptor of the status quo, see. But description in a poem needs to go beyond normal expectations. In the book, The Art of Description, World into Word by Mark Doty, he states, “All accounts, it seems, are partial; thus all perception might be said to be tentative, an opportunity for interpretation, a guessing game.” (5). So why not a yellow sunset, a tethered cloud, a crystallization into human form?

Why, indeed. Why describe anything? Why do poets and other writers have this insatiable urge to describe the world around them and share it? Doty explains it this way: “The need to translate experience into something resembling adequate language is the writers blessing or the writer’s disease, depending on your point of view. That’s why Whitman isn’t sure if what sings to him is a demon or a bird. If it is indeed a symptom of a problem of life not having been really lived until it is narrated, at least that’s a condition that winds up giving real gifts to others. The pleasure of recognizing a described thing is no small thing.” (10-11).  Description is not about what we see, but about the experience of seeing, how we feel when we see, what we learn when we see. (You may substitute “hear,” “taste,” “touch,” or “smell” for the word “see” in the sentences above).

Okay. If we must go on with it then, what is the best way to go about it? There are a few accepted means that most agree upon that make for effective description. For starters, we need to unfold the scene, piece-by-piece, bit-by-bit, making sure that certain details come before others (such as establishing the narrator in the poem above as being in an airplane) in order to have a scene make sense. The syntax of the sentence – how words and phrases are ordered – reconstructs the image in a particular order. The order of the words will either clarify or confuse.

Another important component of effective description is the use of figurative language. We are always told to use the five senses in describing things, and it is for this reason that figurative language is an important tool when getting the scene from your head into another’s. Figurative language such as metaphor, simile, personification, and hyperbole connect our senses to an image in a new way. When we use our bodies – our five senses – as reference points, we better understand. The land curling “its toes up tight” will evoke a particular image in one’s head. I connect it with cold water or being cold under the blankets, but what I intend to evoke with that image is only half of it. The reader brings his or her own experiences and may interpret it differently. The use of the “cotton ball puff of a cloud” shows the size, shape, color, and even texture of that little cloud floating below the airplane. It is perhaps too much of a cliché to use in my poem, but still it conveys many things in few words. In discussing figurative language, Mark Doty mentions, “Far from being just ways to make meaning seem more attractive, figurative speech itself means, and means intensely. It’s one of the poet’s primary tools for conveying the texture of experience, and for inquiring into experience in search of meaning.” (76). I’m not sure if the two metaphors, that of the curled toes and that of the cotton ball, work so well together in their proximity of one to another in the above poem; the combination of the two is a point for further discussion elsewhere. Both both metaphors do, however, convey something more than the physical image. There are additional associations that come along with the use of figurative language and that is what we must consider when reading and writing.

The second half of The Art of Description is comprised of “Description’s Alphabet.” Doty goes through the alphabet to discuss different points of description, and while all of his points are enlightening, I want to highlight just two of them here. Doty’s J word for description is Juxtaposition. Using words or abstract concepts in original ways can be done through the pairing of things not usually paired, placing things next to each other that are not usually found there. This can have an effect of surprise or cause a shift in perception, but taken too far, it can convey absurdity. Doty uses excellent examples of juxtaposition to illustrate his point. I want to use a poem by Taha Muhammad Ali from his book, So What. I’ve recently finished the book and was blown away by his poems. In one of my favorites, “Twigs,” the last stanza reads:

After we die,
and the weary heart
has lowered its final eyelid
on all that we’ve done,
and on all that we’ve longed for,
on all that we’ve dreamt of,
all we’ve desired
or felt,
hate will be
the first thing
to putrefy
within us.

Ali juxtaposes an abstract concept, hate, within a very physical description. In doing so, hate becomes visceral, something we can see, feel, touch, taste, smell, and the use of the verb “putrefy,” which has such a negative connotation becomes a wonderful thing, for it is hate that is putrefying in us. Alas, how unfortunate that it takes death for hate to dissolve within us! In this juxtaposition of the abstract and the concrete, “the yoking of disparate elements makes more than a vivid account of perception.” (Doty, p. 93).

While “Description’s Alphabet” is worth reading in its entirety, I’ll mention just one more key to description here: Verbs. That verb “putrefy” in the excerpt above is a good example of how effectively descriptive a verb can be. Doty’s example of the strength of verbs in description is from Jay Hopler’s “Green Squall” in which he writes:
The rain tins its romantic in the water pots.
Creating a verb out of the noun “tin,” brings sound and texture to the scene in an unexpected way. It is original and so effective.

Now, time to revise some description in “Flying.”

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):

List of quotes where I found the Anais Nin quote above as well as this quote by her that I like: “Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage.” (Keep scrolling down the page through all the ads to see them all).

Why we see color

Here are a couple of photos totally unrelated to my post but from my trip to Florida, just for the fun of it.

Sunset from Clearwater Beach – not the yellow ocean as seen from the plane

Stumpy, a sea turtle rescued by the Clearwater Marine Aquarium



My Mother Told Me

I have written many poems about my father. For several reasons that I won’t get into now, that is easier for me to do than to write poems about my mother. Oh, the Power of the Mother! I include three short poems below as glimpses into my mother, or perhaps they could be considered more as false starts in writing about her.

My Mother Told Me
when she was young, wild
roses grew in Iowa ditches
that tornadoes jump, the same
ditches where at age 12,
in blue jeans and sweat,
I hid in four-foot grass,
accompanied by bugs
in iridescent cloaks, where dust-
clouds settled after cars passed,
and where I could smell
the ocean in an endless sky.

All My Mother’s Babies
had eyes that shone black,
specks of light flickering
from under black tufts of fluff,
so she couldn’t help but stare
when my baby was born
with eyes green like the sea,
and a halo of fuzzy peach.

My Mother Sees Things
that aren’t there. This has always been.
She saw things long before her mother
returned from the grave after forty years
to join her for dinner. My mother knows
a woman is pregnant before the woman
herself knows. She calls the exact minute
I walk in the door from a 3,000-mile trip.
It is the difficulty in seeing what is in front
of her that has always perplexed me.

This winter, I have been going through the open Yale lectures by Langdon Hammer on Modern Poetry on you-tube. It’s a bit slow going but a good way to pass the time while I hand card my sheep’s wool on a cold winter night.

The last lecture I listened to was on the Imagist movement in the first two decades of the 20th century, which was the beginning of “Modern Poetry” and when poets such as, Robert Frost, Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, T.S. Eliot, William Carlos Williams, Langston Hughes and Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) were beginning to publish. Their poems moved away from the use of rhetoric and the subjects found in poetry pre-1900, and moved towards the goal of distilling the poem down to its essence, moved towards a radical compression, and moved towards conversion from the prosaic to the essential.

It was in this context that Ezra Pound wrote one of the most famous short poems in American poetry:

In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

My poems above are not image-poems as this one of Pound’s, but they are rooted in image, surely thanks to Pound and his contemporaries. What does image do for a writer and reader? Pound explained that the literary image is not “a memory of a prior reality, a reflection, but is rather something more like a new experience itself – not an imitation of a thing, but itself a kind of thing.” This experience (creating an image on paper) is in and of itself an event. The decisions made for the representation – Pound would say presentation – of the image create a different experience than the original experience. I cannot be in the past, recreate the past, or even convey the past. I can only convey these images that in this time, place, and context create and convey new meaning.

In an image, multiple elements occur simultaneously, giving an “instantaneity” or the suddenness of a multi-faceted experience.  This is what painting, photography, sculpture and other visual art do for us. Again, Pound: “An image is that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time.” The reader adds additional components to an image’s “complex” by bringing his or her own experiences to it.

“In a Station of the Metro” started out as a 30-line poem. By “cutting through rhetorical ornament” Pound was able to get to a sort of truth – but a truth that is somewhat ambiguous for the reader. Due to its extreme compression, there must be implications involved. What is implied from the images of faces in a crowd juxtaposed to petals on a wet black bough? What is implied by ditches full of thorny roses? (This was of course, pre-pesticide use, the pesticides obliterating them. And I took out the phrase “I was safe” that I had included with the description of sitting in the ditch. Too explanatory). What is implied by eyes green like the sea? What is implied by a mother returning from the grave to join you for dinner?

To unfold an image, diction and syntax must be carefully, carefully chosen so that the image presents the “complex instantaneously.” It is the presentation that “gives that sense of sudden liberation; that sense of freedom from time limits and space limits; that sense of sudden growth, which we experience in the presence of the greatest works of art.” (Pound, “A Few Don’ts by an Imagist,” Poetry 1913).

It’s absurd to think of my little poems as great works of art, and I don’t. They are simply personal explorations. And yet, they could be paths leading somewhere new.  A series of images, direct and efficient, may be the best avenue for understanding my mother, for understanding myself.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
On “In a Station of the Metro” by Mark Doty – an essay
Hilda Doolittle – H.D.
Wild Roses – state flower of Iowa
Dominant and Recessive Genes
Clairvoyance Tests – According to one of these, I’m in the normal sense range – see what you are.


Curtis Calling

On January 13, a former student of mine passed. He was 23. I hope he is in a better place. He deserves to be.

Curtis Calling

My phone rang in the woods
yesterday. I didn’t have to answer;
I knew it was Curtis calling

to let me know he’d been around
the world. He’d met a friend
in Listoghil, created art in Gwion Gwion,

hauled water at Dholavira, and dined
with Neferhetepes (could even say
her name). In Casma he’d communed

before planting millet in Henan, and wound up
fishing at Indian Knoll. He’d seen it all.
Then he said, “Look here,” and showed

me the wrinkled hemlock bark, the dark
short needles next to my nose, and waved
a patch of beech leaves still intact

on a smooth gray branch. He pointed
high above my head: black trunks carved
out holes in a sky of fathomless blue.

He told me he was taking off, nothing remaining
in this world to see, had heard a galaxy a few doors
down had real wonders our human bodies

could not build, behold, believe.

No element today. Appreciate the here and now.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Gwion Gwion
Indian Knoll

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