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October How Sound Works

October 6

In the olden days, most poetry rhymed, partly because poems were passed from person to person orally, and rhymes made the lines easier to remember. But that wasn't rhyme's only reason for being. Pretty much everyone, from the littlest kids listening to Green Eggs and Ham to rappers and slam poets, delight in the music language creates through rhyme, rhythm, and a host of other appeals to the ear. We love the ring and friction of words alongside each other and the rhythms of lines and sentences. Rhyme and other sound devices are silent partners, helping to make both music and meaning.

Rhyme has gotten a bad name, maybe because we poets too often reach for the expected word combinations rather than the surprising, meaning-making ones. In this week's poem, "How Poetry Comes to Me," although I hope that the letters and syllables echoing off each other help you hear the sounds and silences of the poem, there is only one exact rhyme tying the last two lines together. When you have a word like prayer, it's tempting to reach for an easy rhyme like share, care, or bear. But our minds hydroplane over that slick surface. Prayer and despair do rhyme's double work: even as their meanings pull in seemingly opposite directions, the rhyme tells us that they are closely connected, even inseparable.

"How Poetry Comes to Me"

I go to meet it
At the edge of the light.
--Gary Snyder

Poetry leads me by the handHow Poetry Comes to Me
          to where an old man sits
          clasping one by one the hands of friends
          who've come to mourn his daughter—
          the third of his children laid to rest in this church.

           He won't talk about it, they whisper, worried.

          His stricken, puzzled face,
          his big hands as warm and grained as weathered oak
          say all there is to say: No words can wake my Mary.

Poetry leads me to his garden
          where he kneels
          his crippled hip resting on an overturned bucket.

          He stakes the tomatoes
          lays the onions to dry in the late summer sun
          gathers spent vines for the compost heap
          sweet corn to feed his living children
          the old-fashioned flowers his wife loves—snapdragons, asters—
          and seeds for next year's planting.

          All we hear are crickets, the wind,
          and the sudden plop of plums too ripe to hang on the tree.

Poetry comes mute with compassion
          carrying the bodies of children.
          Knowing it can neither save nor redeem them
          still it refuses to lay them down
          or let me turn away.

Poetry comes to me like prayer—
          the last resort before despair.

          --Mara Faulkner, OSB
Credit: From Still Birth. Copyright© 2013 by Mara Faulkner. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,


Invitation for your writing:
How does poetry come to you? Free write from this poem’s first line, going wherever that line takes you. Then write a poem on that subject. See if rhymes appear, either at the end of the lines or within the lines. Ask yourself if each rhyme is fresh and if it pulls the two words together, even as they are pulling apart. Then try writing the same poem without the rhymes. Which one is truer to the experience the poem is about?

September: Earth Works

September 29

Poets, like many people, turn to the natural world to find what Wendell Berry calls "the peace of wild things," when "despair for the world grows" in us. That respite is essential, but the real work of poetry calls us to steadfast attention to the many faces of the world, natural and human, in all its vast and terrible and glorious complexity and contradictoriness. A poem that has changed my life as a poet and an inhabitant of this world is "Brief for the Defense" by Jack Gilbert. (I urge you to read this remarkable poem at

These are the lines from that poem that I don't want to forget: "If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction,/ we lessen the importance of [suffering people's] deprivation./ We must risk delight." This week's poem and the photo that accompanies it "risk delight," even in a dangerous world.

Dear heart,

There where you lie curled in a thicket of daisiesfawn
having learned the first lessons of life
after love—fear and camouflage—
come out now into the flickering light,
the pungency of clover and wild rose.
Walk lightly through tall prairie grasses,
big and little bluestem,
penstamon and yarrow.

Come out into the open field
where the yellow finch rocks
on a black-eyed susan,
in danger
but singing,

--Mara Faulkner, OSB

Invitation for your writing: Free write about three things that delight you, especially in the midst of fear, sadness, or loss. After a couple of days, read your free write, looking for a line or detail that draws and holds your attention. Begin your poem there, letting your free write and your imagination take you where the poem wants to go.

Photo courtesy of S. Tamra Thomas.

September 22

Nature embodies deep rhythms and cycles that work within us as human creatures, and that can help us see the fullness within the brevity of life. A poem can celebrate the joys and ecstasy of moments when we feel we could live forever, just as it can help us navigate the passing of time and the pangs of mortality, loss and grief.

We go westPrairie

We start at the edge of the old world,
surrounded by portraits and resemblance
and family recipes, and then the plains,
traveling light in the wagon,
friends fast made, fast lost.

We homestead by a river or pond,
and when our tether frays, when the sod houses settle
and the mounds are full, we go on to the Rockies
daunted, chill – if we get over,
it's a lonely triumph.

Some days we crack the shell and see at the center
the golden ring of pride and loss and place.
It seems we can almost grasp it and hold it high,
a far-off bell would surely declare us the winner,
but we go west.

We may see the Pacific at the end,
currents from the south and stroking dunes
and inlets with a surge of surf and strange winds –
we arrive where we will never be
and know we have indeed left home.

--Karen Lynn Erickson

Invitation for your writing: Imagine a poem titled, "We go north (or south or east)." Would that poem lead to something different, simply by changing direction? This poem is inscribed within the North American continent; think about how the geographical setting in which you live might affect the way you imagine the span of life, and play with how you might capture that in a poem.

September 15

burned stumpBecause poetry depends on sensual language, poems can be revolutionary—world changing—in their ability to help us see, hear, touch, smell, and taste the world we live in. And because the Earth and all its inhabitants are in grave danger, this alert sensing and fresh savoring seems like an essential prelude to the determination to confess the damage we're doing to our beloved home and then pool our intelligence and energy to halt and even reverse the damage.

In the fourteenth century, St. Catherine of Sienna wrote, "Cry out the truth as if you had a million voices. It is silence that kills the world." Her world was threatened by religious and civil strife; no one was worried about threats to the natural world. Now, a million voices are crying out, but we humans have a hard time hearing the voices or understanding their message. Poetry tries to give voice the mountains stripped of their trees; the rivers and oceans, choked with pollution and no longer healthy homes for fish or coral reefs. Poets try to put into words the urgent underground voice of drying aquifers and the ancient voice of glaciers, melting into the rising seas, or the whisper of the morning air, in some parts of the world already unbreathable. Poems like this one may help us hear the fading voices of the animals and plants facing extinction.


The Chain Saw Man

is the artist of our age.
He cuts down redwoods as ancient and wrinkled as the world
and rainforests whose slow breathing
fills the lungs of black bears
four thousand miles to the north.
His hungry saw eats
dream birds—scarlet, azure, emerald—
whom no one has ever seen
nor will.
Their tongues cut out they call
like dead poets
from steaming piles of sawdust.
Thirty species a day of bird and mammal,
insect and reptile, flower and herb,
gone even from the compost heap of memory.

Who will come to take their place?

Only the creations of the chain saw man.
Masked, feet braced, muscles bunched to hold
the heavy saw
he makes wooden bears
from the hearts of felled trees.
Clumsy and still, there is in them
no shadow of swift black flanks
grown furry and supple
in northern woods.

He tries to carve birds
but the trees are gone and he can't remember
their glancing flight.

To the artist's bidding only
vultures come.
Hungry for gold
they wait for the carnage of the saw to end
their song the rasp of teeth in wood.

--Mara Faulkner, OSB
Credit: From Still Birth. Copyright© 2013 by Mara Faulkner. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press,

Invitation for your writing
Let random sensual details take you where your rational mind might never think to go. Begin with the line, "In the beginning..." and write a poem that includes all of these words: railroad tracks, orphan, Harley Davidson, blues n the night, car keys, scratch, prairie sage, shriek, velvet

September 8

oak treeSeptember's theme engages the beauty, fragility, power and force of nature, and the ways the earth works with and upon our human understanding. Sometimes it takes a contemplation of the natural world to make sense of an inner reality, to accept something in us we are struggling to accept.

I am probably an oak

I want to be a maple, to spark gasps of marvel
at dazzling crimson aware of near falling
trumpeting color all the same.

But I give shade, drop acorns
for the squirrels to store in their cheeks,
their caches, their forgotten places;

I hold onto my leaves--burnished, earthy
even into the winter wind.
Or I could be sumac, flamboyant and shocking,

Electric, poisonous, dangerous
invasive and unmanageable – Carmen, Liszt
virtuoso and flagrant with many secrets.

But I am probably an oak
a rooted canopy, slowly big
my wealth useful, ordinary, my richness brown

a church choir in solid pews ready to sing each Sunday
rising and sitting and kneeling in a familiar cycle
wide arms relaxed at my sides

no triumphant hurrah at the end of the whirling dance.
I want to be loved just once with a fatal passion
to be a whip, a crack of lightning

not to stand firm, bending only in hurricane,
uprooted by tornado and nothing less
I want the fragile, breathless, beloved filigree

But I am probably an oak.

--Karen Lynn Erickson
Credit: From Dwellings. Copyright© 2013 by Karen Erickson. Used with the permission of The Permissions Company, Inc., on behalf of Finishing Line Press, [Cover image]

Invitation for your writing
Follow the model of this poem, filling in what comes to you from the works of nature: I want to be a(n)..., but I am probably a(n).... How does the mirror of nature help you see your nature?