Follow-Up To Breathing

Lost in the responsibilities of teaching middle school, starting a new business, and my new duties as PSOV President, I didn’t realize four weeks have passed since my last post. I thought it had been two. That’s what happens when you don’t “show up” every day. Another lesson learned.  But in these four weeks I’ve been thinking…

In the beginning of February, I had the opportunity to snowshoe in the Arapaho National Forest in Colorado. After a couple hours of climbing at eleven thousand feet, a shift in perceptions occurs.

Follow-Up To Breathing

Into Arapaho
I begin the ascension
on snowshoes:

James Peak
and the daily grind vie
for time. Tracks

lead under the water
pipe six feet around,

no efficiency in water
falls. Clambering
to a higher ground,

all the outside
leaches in through
porous skin:

sun, wind,
caribou scat, a bobcat’s
print, a mountain

chickadee’s flash
and dee-dee-dee
slice my thoughts.

With every step
closer to the crown,
blood pushes, pounds

to escape: my shirt
thumps, a panicked
heart shatters

this solitude,
this silence
that I sought.

My heartbeat echoes,
scatters clouds
from electric indigo.

Sweat seeps, visions
creep in then clear.
I lumber through

a tunnel of pines;
snow ghosts leap
from dancing boughs,

waft down, swirl
around my body.
Is it there? Trudging,

I appear in open
skies; pines’ shadows
blanket untouched snow.

Rainbow clouds ring
the cascading face.
A hawk scolds

in a sun of gold;
my breath:
wood smoke.


Eco-poetry is a relatively new term in literature that distinguishes itself from “nature poetry.” In eco-poetry, we take on a more sophisticated and complex view of nature, one in which we recognize that we are not above nature or separate from nature. In eco-poetry we don’t romanticize nature, but recognize that we are responsible for our role in it.  Here is a minute and 48 second introduction:

“Eco-poetry,” really, has been around as long as poetry itself. Songs, philosophizing, and story-telling – that is, relating to the world through words – are a deep part of who we are on this planet. Haven’t our interactions with the stars and oceans, blizzards and each other been recorded in poetry since we were capable of doing so?

One of the great “eco-poets” and by that I mean “poets,” is Joy Harjo. Read her book, How We Became Human. You’ll understand.

One of the shifts occurring with “eco-poetry” is the analysis of how we use language in our relationship to the natural world. Walt Whitman and and Emily Dickinson certainly wrote about their place in nature, and did so with very different methods. What impact did their styles have on their viewpoints of the world, and what impact did their viewpoints of the world have on their styles?

In the above poem, “Follow-Up To Breathing,” the short haiku-like stanzas found themselves on my page after much experimentation with the line break.  After getting down the basic descriptions of my experience in Arapahoe, I turned to the line. I tend to create lines of 6 to 10 syllables that are generally iambic. This wasn’t working so I lengthened them, almost doubling the length, making it twice as bad!

The lines were way too long and wordy for what happened up on that mountain – it wasn’t an experience that was so premeditated; it was an experience that came in spurts. As I climbed higher in elevation, little things were beginning to happen to me, and I worked at remembering the sensual experience of it, all those sights, sounds, smells, particular to those hours on that trail that day.  Short spurts of stanzas that mirrored the short spurts of sensual experiences were the natural selection for this poem.

Side note: Two of the best books regarding nature and “eco-poetry,” in my opinion, are John Elder’s Reading the Mountains of Home and Jonathan Bate’s The Song of the Earth.  It took me a few starts to get through Elder’s book; in it he analyzes Frost’s “Directive” while traveling and exploring Vermont and reflecting on the link between past and present, nature and person, poetry and place. Only after attending a lecture by Paul Muldoon on Frost’s “Directive” was I able to go back and understand Reading the Mountains of Home. I have to admit though, I need all the help I can get when I comes to the analysis of anything.  As for The Song of the Earth, it is a book that I could read many times and get something more from it each time. Full of historical, cultural, and literary connections to ecology, the environment, and nature, the book provides a detailed overview of why poetry IS the song of the earth.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
What is Eco Poetry – a blog post from The Poetry Foundation
Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry – an excellent anthology recommended by Tim Seibles
One of my go-to poems that tells me what a poem should/could be, from the above anthology: Down From the House of Magic, by Cyrus Cassells
Walt Whitman and the earth – A study of eco poetics
Conference on Ecopoetics, Berkeley – This just ended on Feb. 24, but is an annual conference held every February.
An Ecopoetry Anthology

Road Trip

A few weeks ago I took a road trip from Vermont to Colorado. It had been many years since I’d taken such a trip with long days in the car, the windows down in the summer heat, the hills fading in the background and the corn, and corn, and corn, and corn rolling by. There’s always something about passing through places that I like, catching a glimpse of something that leaves me with a warm first impression or a feeling that I’m sooo glad to be moving on.

Four legs to the trip, mostly on Interstates 80 and 90, made the 2025 miles quite bearable, pleasant even: 1. Burlington, Vermont to Cleveland; 2. Cleveland to Iowa City (to see the folks and a couple of brothers); 3. A short 4-hour evening jaunt from Iowa City to Omaha; and 4. Omaha to Boulder.  Along the way, the dashboard gauge that measures the outside temperature climbed to 105 degrees in western Nebraska, and when I told my brother back in Iowa, his reply was that his wife’s gauge had registered 113 degrees. Not hard to believe as I witnessed the dried up rivers, the brown shriveled corn, and read on stops along the way about the surface-water rationing by farmers.

On such a trip, the experience is one of a living collage with snippets of scenes, smatterings of strangers, alternating and fleeting feelings of anxiety and excitement about visiting family. All of which is perfect material for short poems such as Haiku and Senyru.

The scene, unfortunately, that began the trip was waking to the news of the shootings in Aurora, Colorado. As the next few days unfolded, there was a surreal juxtaposition of life going on in my ordinary world while the lives of the surviving victims and their families and the lives of the families of those killed – as well as the perpetrator’s life – were horribly changed forever.

Haiku and Senryu

for sale: insanity –
no morning in Aurora
news from the dark side

wearing the helmet
on the back of his Harley
life-size bobble-head

will she or won’t she
remember who I am – yes,
still a flicker from Mom

running then and now,
a puddle of sweat at my feet –
Iowa melts me.

train slows, stands on tracks
in the middle of my run –
quick! up and over!

in Iowa’s night,
turbines blink red eyes above
train-whistle lullabies

empty cattle trucks
rattle Nebraska highways
after the slaughter

Lincoln County Fair –
don’t miss Main Event: Wrestling,
Men, Women, Midgets

I meet my brother’s son:
Baby Buddha in a high chair
smiling through two teeth


Compression and Word Choice

The best explanation of haiku that I’ve come across is from Sonia Sanchez’s introduction to her book, morning haiku. In it she says, “This haiku, this tough form disguised in beauty and insight, is like the blues, for they both offer no solutions, only a pronouncement, a formal declaration – an acceptance of pain, humor, beauty and non-beauty, death and rebirth, surprise and life. Always life. Both always help us to maintain memory and dignity” (xiv).

If we look at haiku and all the “rules” that are supposed to be applied to it, there are many aspects that could be discussed here. These include, but are not limited to: kigo (season word), makura-kotoba (pillow word), joshi (the introductory word), kakekotoba (pivotal word), kireji (cutting word), mitate (metaphor), and uta-makura (place word).

But I don’t want to talk about any of that here. (If they really grab your attention, feel free to read my essay “Haiku Primer” found on my Haiga page).

What I want to talk about is compression and word choice. A poem gets to the essence through the shortest means possible, and due to the nature of the conservation of words, each word must be selected carefully. What haiku and senryu (and tanka) do, of course, is turn up the compression intensity. In my opinion, to convey a delight, a deeply painful moment, a revelation, a message, an aha-moment with so few words is the ultimate challenge.

It is comparable to that famous six word story that Hemingway supposedly wrote at the challenge of his friends: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” (Interested in the six-word story? See Links section below).

When the form is so short, each word has to be exactly right; you don’t have the rest of a poem or paragraph or novel to explain what you mean.  In order to help get this idea across to my middle-school students, I have them close their eyes and think of themselves sitting under a tree in the summer. Then I change the image to sitting under a maple tree (I’m in Vermont – maple trees are important here). Then to a maple tree in autumn. Then to hemlock (they generally know hemlocks, too). Then to a hemlock in winter. Or even better, during February break. As each scene becomes more specific and the image changes in their heads, they start to understand how important specificity is.

Specificity is important for compression, but ambiguity is often still the result (with the poet’s intent). Baron Wormser explains this further in his book, Teaching the Art of Poetry: “For their part, poets purposefully allow for ambiguity. The beauty of ambiguity for poets is that there does not have to be a choice. Different meanings can exist at the same time” (100). I love that. It means that, even if we are interpreting the same poem differently, I am right, and you are right. And if I interpret the same poem many ways, I am still right.

A case in point is Sonia Sanchez’s first haiku in the series “10 haiku (for Philadelphia Murals)” from the book mentioned above, morning haiku:
Philadelphia roots
lighting these walls
with fireflies

Given the title, I imagine a mural of roots and vines and ivy with fireflies flitting among them. But I also think of the people themselves as the roots lighting the walls with their lives, the children as bright fireflies among them. And I also think of the buildings, the row house where my brother-in-law and his family lived for so many decades in Philadelphia, and the windows lighting up the late hot summer nights, like fireflies. All these ideas and images from seven words.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc):

Drought Monitor
Haiku Society of America
It All Changed In An Instant: More Six-Word Memoirs




Welcome to my site. The title, The Quality of Light, is the first four words of Audre Lorde’s essay, “Poetry is Not a Luxury.” If you are  unfamiliar with the essay, I hope you will read it. Here is the first sentence to entice you a bit more: “The quality of light by which we scrutinize our lives has direct bearing upon the product which we live, and upon the changes which we hope to bring about through those lives.”

Although this blog is centered in poetry, I hope it appeals to many. In each posting you’ll find three things: an original poem of mine, a brief discussion of a poetic element, and links to further readings and viewings, be they poems, books, essays, events, or other.


We’re at the Nepalese Restaurant in Boulder
and this reminds my nephew’s mother of living
outside of Swayambhunath, the Monkey Temple
of Nepal. In her memory she is walking
up the hill towards her apartment where she has views
of the temple, and while she is walking up hill,
she is carrying a bag of fruit. It will be four days
before she will descend for another bag of fruit.
She is walking up the hill and a wild rhesus monkey
jumps on her, hangs on to the front of her, bares its teeth,
screams in her face for the bag of fruit.
The monkey is large, and, if on the ground
it would be as tall as her waist, maybe taller,
but now it is on her chest, its hands clasped
on her shoulders, fangs inches from her own mouth.
Still she will not give up her fruit.
It was a long walk to get it and it will be four days
before she will go to the market again. So,
she begins to twirl, her hand clutching the fruit high in the air,
and she twirls, faster and faster, and from deep inside her,
a scream is released back into the monkey’s face.
There in Nepal in the street amidst shrines
is a woman with a monkey on her front
and they are twirling and screaming,
and twirling and screaming until the monkey
heaves a great sigh, jumps down, and scampers off.
And my nephew’s mother, the woman I am just
meeting for the first time, walks up the hill.


Line Breaks
A poem’s lines are one element that makes a poem a poem. Easy enough. But when dealing with a free-verse poem, when should you split the line? Do you complete a thought, a clause, and then continue to the next line? Do you dangle the idea and use that space to the right of the line to let the reader mull over the development of the scene/idea/feeling or to recover from a shocking/funny/sad lead-in? Or do you snap back to that left hand margin quickly after only a few words, rushing your way into the reader’s body? Of course, we do all of the above and which one we choose gives the poem its style and feel, its mojo.


[Check out what Ron Padgett, Sharon Olds, and Rita Dove think of line breaks here: Breaking the Line, Breaking the Narrative…]

As any literary element, the line break doesn’t function independently. In the book, The Art of the Poetic Line, James Longenbach states “The line is no arbitrary unit, no ruler, but a dynamic force that works in conjunction with other elements of the poem: the syntax of the sentences, the rhythm of stressed and unstressed syllables, and the resonance of similar sounds” (43).  In creating our lines, we must pay attention to syntax, rhythm, syllables and sounds. By doing so, we create a beautiful symbiosis. But, if we’re not careful, a sense of haphazard randomness, of incompleteness is present. The point is to be deliberate about line breaks.

Often when I am writing short choppy things, I stumble across Whitman somewhere, perhaps a line of his printed in the paper, or I’ll come across a quote of his on a website, or I’ll be looking for another poet on my shelf and Leaves of Grass is looming over all other poets. And whenever I either deliberately or accidently read Whitman, I immediately exhale, long and slow. Those long lines don’t just remind me to slow down and be in the moment, they in fact cause me to slow down; you just can’t read Whitman’s lines quickly.
I’ve had a similar experience in trying to write “sijo,” a type of Korean poetry with longer lines than I tend to write. Here’s an example:

The spring breeze melted snow on the hills then quickly disappeared.

I wish I could borrow it briefly to blow over my hair

And melt away the aging frost forming now about my ears.

                                …U T’ak (1262-1342, author of this oldest surviving sijo)

Like most poets, I can spend hours, days, months, and years chopping up my lines and then stringing them all back together. I ask myself, “What will this sound like as a prose poem?” “What happens if I forget about compression and let the wind in and the divine out like Whitman? “What happens if I go all Robert Creeley and become as concise as possible?” Of course, radically revising lines creates new poems in and of themselves. And isn’t that the fun of it?

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc):

 “Two Monkeys by Brueghel” (poem based on Brueghel painting)
Swayambhunath (Monkey Temple)
The Poet’s Forum, October 18-20, 2012, NYC