December 28, 2020

Walking in Soseki's Snow Valley

Snow Valley

Each drifting snowflake
             falls nowhere
                          but here and now

Under the settling flowers of ice
             the water is flowing
                          bright and clear

The cold stream
             splashes out
                          the Buddha’s words
             the stone tortoise
                          from its sleep

These poems in Narrative magazine are excerpted from Sun at Midnight: Poems and Letters (Copper Canyon Press), the first translation into English of the work of Muso Soseki.

Soseki was a thirteenth-century Zen roshi and founder of the rock garden. The poems are excellent reading for other poets, gardeners, and students of Zen.  

Musō Soseki (1275–1351), born ten years after Dante, became the most famous Zen monk of his time. He advised and taught several emperors, as well as more than thirteen thousand students. 

All on my own I’m happy
            in the unmapped landscape
                        inside the bottle
my only friend
            is this
                        wisteria cane

Last night
            we stayed up talking
                        so late
that I’m afraid
            I was overheard
                        by the empty sky

In his old age, Musō withdrew from court to devote himself to Buddha and to cultivate the Zen gardens for which he is remembered. At his death, he left behind an enormous body of poetry and prose. In honor of his profound influence on Japanese culture, he was renamed Musō Kokushi, “national Zen teacher,” by Emperor Go-Daigo.

Toki-no-Ge (Satori Poem)

Year after year
I dug in the earth
looking for the blue of heaven
only to feel
the pile of dirt
choking me
until once in the dead of night
I tripped on a broken brick
and kicked it into the air
and saw that without a thought
I had smashed the bones
of the empty sky

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December 25, 2020

Christmas Poems

Image by Willgard Krause from Pixabay

If you haven't completely overdosed on Chritsmas by now, here are some poems of the season and day from The Poetry Foundation.
They range from "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" by Henry Livingston

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

to the anonymous "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

The first day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

and into Yeats' "The Magi"
Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

and a whole group of contemporary takes on the season, such as Mary Jo Salter's "Advent."

...on her Advent calendar.   
She takes it from the mantel   
and coaxes one fingertip

under the perforation,   
as if her future hinges
on not tearing off the flap...

And when the day and season is over, we have "December 26" by Kenn Nesbitt who provides his "list / of everything / that Santa Claus / forgot to bring." 

And Jane Kenyon's "Taking Down the Tree" reminds me of my own family's tradition of doing that on Twelfth Night.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it's darkness
we're having, let it be extravagant.

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December 16, 2020

This is how it has been, and this is how it is

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Mary Oliver had a daily writing ritual of carrying a notebook with her as she walked through the forest. She wrote along the way. I think she needed nature and movement to find the words.

In an interview, she said "I don’t like buildings. The only record I broke in school was truancy. I went to the woods a lot with books. Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as they came to me and then worked them into poems later.”

I imagine that one of those poems is "The Pond." I particularly like the conclusion:

This is how it has been, and this is how it is:
All my life I have been able to feel happiness,
except whatever was not happiness,
which I also remember.
Each of us wears a shadow.
But just now it is summer again
and I am watching the lilies bow to each other,
then slide on the wind and the tug of desire,
close, close to one another,
Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home.
And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.


In the title of her collection, Why I Wake Early, you learn of another of her daily habits. Those early morning walks and encounters with poems on crickets, toads, trout lilies, black snakes, goldenrod, bears, and deer inspired poems and in greeting the morning, she found happiness. 

Her first collection, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963, and she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984 for the collection American Primitive

What connects all the poems is nature: hummingbirds, waterfalls, owls, trees, the ocean, snakes, wild geese, storms, sand crabs and changing seasons. Of course, from those specifics, the poems expand to larger themes like love, loss, joy, wonder, and gratitude.


A good starting place to read Mary Oliver is Devotions, the book in which she collected the poems she felt gave the best overview of her writing.

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December 11, 2020

The Snow That Never Drifts

The winter solstice is near but cold weather and snow have already fallen in many places, including on the holly outside my window.

This is a poem that seems to be about snow by Emily Dickinson.

The Snow that never drifts —
The transient, fragrant snow
That comes a single time a Year
Is softly driving now —

So thorough in the Tree
At night beneath the star
That it was February’s Foot
Experience would swear —

Like Winter as a Face
We stern and former knew
Repaired of all but Loneliness
By Nature’s Alibi —

Were every storm so spice
The Value could not be —
We buy with contrast — Pang is good
As near as memory —

When I was presented with this poem in a college class, it was given as an example of the puzzling nature of many of Emily's poems. The professor asked us: What kind of snow never drifts? Is snow ever fragrant? Is this poem really about snow?

My first answer would be that she was thinking of a "snowfall" of white petals from a tree in spring. It's a common image in haiku.

But what about her reference to February and winter? (And "February's Foot," I thought - what's that all about?) Does she really mean this snow is only figurative?

Maybe a tree bloomed in February (In Amherst, Massachusetts? Hmmm...) but got hit with a winter blast and lost all its blossoms. If every storm was as "spice" (scented), "the Value could not be" - What could it not be?

"We buy with contrast — Pang is good / As near as memory —"  Do we 

Oh, Emily. If only we could chat over some cake and tea. We have so many questions.

What is your interpretation of this poem?
Post a comment answer below.

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December 10, 2020

Thanking Margaret Maher on Emily Dickinson's Birthday

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog!

Taking a few minutes to remember Emily Dickinson, born on this day in 1830 and Margaret Maher.

Emily wrote nearly 2,000 poems, but she only published about 10 of these in her lifetime.

The family's maid, Margaret Maher, was the only person who knew about the full output of her writing. While Emily was in the kitchen with Margaret, baking loaves of bread and cakes, she sometimes scribbled poems on wrappers and the backs of shopping lists. Maher was literate and she even dabbled in poetry herself now and then and the wrote some poems back and forth to each other. Some scholars believe that Maher’s Irish syntax made it into some of Dickinson’s work. 

Dickinson trusted Maher with her poems and stored them in the trunk that Maher had brought over from Ireland. Dickinson left strict instructions for Maher to burn her poems after she died, but when the time came, Margaret, thankfully, couldn’t bring herself to do it.

She brought the poems to Lavinia, Emily’s sister and though Lavinia had already burned most of her sister’s letters, she agreed with Maher that the poems should be published.

Maher also supplied the only daguerreotype that we have of Emily Dickinson. The family didn’t like the picture, but Maher kept it and gave it to the publisher to include with the first edition of Dickinson’s poems.

Thanks to Margaret for allowing the world to share those poems.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

You can read some of those poems at


December 6, 2020

Prompt: Thanks

Image via Pixabay

It's the end of a terrible year. In America, we celebrated Thanksgiving last month, though celebrating was very different than in past years. Many families could not get together due to pandemic restrictions and fear of hurting those they love. Still, I felt like people were still looking for things to give thanks for despite all the bad news in 2020.
Our model poem this month is "Thanks" by W.S. Merwin from his collection Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).

A reading of Merwin's poem. Part of a longer series of readings.

I can identify with many things in the poem in the context of 2020 though it was written years ago. Of course, that is what is true about all great literature - that it continues to be relevant long after it is written.

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you

That makes me think not only of Thanksgiving dinner but of the several meteor showers that appear in the final months of the year.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

Hospitals and funerals (though very different when they do occur)  and the news is full every night about the number of cases of COVID19 and the number of deaths globally.

over telephones we are saying thank you

Over phones is very likely how you have stayed in touch and talked with friends and loved ones.

And we may be frustrated with
the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

There is a kind of optimism in the idea that

we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

William Stanley Merwin was born in New York City on September 30, 1927. Over the course of his long career, Merwin published over twenty books of poetry and almost as many books of translation. Merwin served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress and as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2010 to 2011. He died on March 15, 2019.

Some might call this a praise poem which is one of tribute, of gratitude, of honoring something or someone. I think it is different than that, but you can read some praise poems online and decide for yourself.

It is interesting that in Merwin's list of things to be thankful for are probably some things for which you would not be thankful. Perhaps, his final lines -  “we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is” explain their inclusion.

An additional poem to consider is one by Joy Harjo that was included on a list of "Thanksgiving poems for kids." I'm not sure how old a "kid" would need to be to understand that poem, but I like the image of the kitchen table which is both a real kitchen table and the table of the world. 

I also like how the rather pessimistic title - "Perhaps the World Ends Here" - leads rights into its opposite - "The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live" so that when we arrive again at that title line it continues with "while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite." 

For this year-ending prompt that concludes a very difficult 2020, we ask you to consider thanks in all forms. From a list of many things to be thankful for, to a dismissive, sarcastic thanks, there are many things on that table of thanks - some we love, some we cannot love.

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: December 31, 2020      We wish you a healthy new year!

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