A Poem Can’t Change the World (But It Can Try)


One of my morning podcasts that I always listen to is The Slowdown by former poet laureate Tracy K. Smith. She is so perceptive in her choice of poems — she rarely reads her own work, choosing instead to feature the work of others. This week, she has detoured from new editions of her podcast to surface older podcast pieces that grapple with race, identity and politics, and I’ve appreciated her voice in my ear as I do my walking and thinking on the world.

My regular morning poetry writing has been centered on the events unfolding in our country, too, although sometimes slant, as Emily Dickinson might say. I’d never suggest that a poem can change the world that way we hope — and certainly, not my poems — but poetry can provide another lens to better understand the self, the larger place we inhabit together, and the injustices, and the love.

I recommend The Slowdown podcast, that you allow a few open-minded minutes each morning with Tracy K. Smith, to let her insights and worries and words, and her voice, to sit with you a bit, and allow the poems she chooses to share to anchor, or maybe unsettle, your heart and mind as you start your day.

Maybe that is all we can ask of poems, anyway.

Here are my own poems from the last week:

It’s all facade
facing us —
beautiful windows
and bluster
quickly broken
by a handful
of ragged stones
and loud shouts

one lone voice
then two
seven, more
more, added,
add it again,

collective voices
as street symphony;

no voice
is the lone
voice anymore

such streets
some cracked
some beaten
this season
we stand
for reason
we march
for right
for justice
we shine
light, revealing,
an act
of believing
in something
much better
than this

sleeps not
just in the moments
we remember
but also in the moments
we choose for now
to forget

An Autumn chill
arrives on
the first of

of the beautiful
or more news
to subsume?

The world beyond,
sleeps, now
accustomed to spin,
out of tune

The danger
becomes us;
wrapped in a shell
of words we consume

Peace (rippling out),

On The First of June (a poem and a comic)

World Coming Undone

An Autumn chill
arrives on
the first of

of the beautiful
or more news
to subsume?

The world beyond,
sleeps, now
accustomed to spin,
out of tune

The danger
becomes us;
wrapped in a shell
of words we consume

Peace (upon us),

Five Poems for OpenWrite

I stumbled on the Five Day Open Write at Ethical ELA and decided to join in. For five days, I wrote a poem, using the theme or style suggested, and came back to comment on the poems of others (there were a lot of people writing poems, which was very cool to see).

And I like that it’s just five days (and then other times of the year, it’s another five days of writing invitations). I also liked the graphic (above) that gives frames for commenting.

Here are the poems I wrote:

Never accept what
they tell you
she told me
or maybe
she didn’t
tell me but only
showed me
the way forward
towards resistance,
a mother’s message
to a son still resonating
decades after
she told me
or didn’t


I wish I could turn
and wander from
these moments,
to remember forever
how it was before

with school hallways
bustling with chatty energy,
jostling bodies walking,
the slamming of the
metallic locker doors

the quiet of our writing,
mid-way musings of
pencil scratches on paper,
digging into words,
emerging towards something more

of recess, and lunchtime,
of navigating friendship,
of bus loop energy,
of greetings, farewells,
silent reading on the floor

I wish I could turn
and wander from
this moment,
a return to the before


The way we felt
still feels now later
like unbridled

from our perch
on the porch
as the pooch
zoomed by on

with nary
a screen in sight,
or phone in use,
just pure abandon
in a moment of burst:


some words can’t be found to be spoken
i know it feels this world, broken

i see this world, it merely seems broken
and a duplex like this, mere poetic token

but poems like these are not tokens
they’re like canapés or cakes, broken open

breaking open for us to dig inside, hard and oaken
like words, bound tight, but barely spoken


I remember
brushes on snare,
his foot on the pedals
of the big bass drum held
in anchor with concrete bricks –
the pounding of rhythm
through the rooms of the house

I remember
fingers on mallets,
the soft fabric covering,
the way we’d move from down low
to up high, the metallic rectangular
notes vibrating with such soft touch

I still remember
my father, the accountant,
who still plays those drums,
who still listens for the vibraphone,
who sought and found his own rhythm,
and kept on rolling it forward

Peace (and poems),

On Rhyming Images: A Poetic Inquiry

Poems flickr photo by Pascal Maramis shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

The other day, Greg and Sarah began an inquiry into the question of “how to rhyme an image” based off a tweet that Sarah posted after she watched a short presentation from Greg, and her query became the heart of the third edition of Local Glocals, an informal podcast some of us are doing around poetry of the local.

I could not participate in the live event, so I sent some audio responses to guided questions (as did Sheri, and maybe others, like Wendy and Terry, in the CLMOOC poetry community. I’m not sure who answered the call for responses). This is the basic text of my responses of thinking where image meets text and where image inspires text, and maybe vice versa on both of those ideas. (Greg is going to weave everything together into an audio show).

How do you rhyme an image?

What I like about this question is how it moves us beyond the pure visual aesthetics of photography or art. We have to see the image as a text first before we can think about what a rhyme is or what a rhyme may even be, from one picture to another. Perhaps we need to consider complementary colors, the way the color wheel tones of one image might connect to the tone of another image, and how our eyes process light off the world to make color hues our brain understands. Maybe one color tone of one image spills into the other image, and that is what we can call rhyme, the brain finding comfort in the connection. Think of interior decorating, and the way that a designer is intentionally thoughtful of what colors work, where, and what colors, don’t and why. Or maybe it’s the view perspective of the images that is the source of rhyme, or harmony — how one photographer’s viewpoint is in sync with another photographer’s viewpoint, the actual perspective of what the looker sees in the image itself. I’m also curious about the opposite of all this — how do images NOT rhyme? Is there a sudden jolt, a recognition of something off, a sense that this does not go with that, for god’s sake and why did you even try? Does the non-rhyming of an image make us, instead, look closer at the curation of the images — what underlying thinking brought these disparate things together? And is either of these two ideas — complement and dissonance of the visual — poetry?

* What are your other artistic endeavors? What connection to poetry do you see?

I play at being a songwriter, so poetry is the heart of that creative expression on many levels. One thing I find, with songwriting, is that couplets drive so much of the work because of the rhyme that goes in the flow with the music, and there are many times when a song won’t work because the couplet is either too rote, too simple, or I can’t find a rhyme at all. I do try to mess with the rules when I can — false rhymes, uneven lines, and all that. I find it both helpful and unhelpful to read a lot of rhyming poetry, though, for in songwriting, those rhymes and rhythms are apt to spill into my own writing, sometimes without me even realizing it until later. I’m fine with stealing and remixing phrases from others for songs, to twist the interesting ideas into something different, but when I catch myself with an exact phrase from some poem in my lyrics, I have to stop and shake my head, and start erasing or scratching out to start again.

* Do you, and if so how, do you use images in writing poetry?

I love using images as a source of poetry, and do it often. In years past, I spent every April with Bud Hunt’s blog, where he was posting odd images every morning to inspire poetry. I’ve gathered up a bunch of websites that generate random images from Creative Commons (thanks to folks like Alan Levine and John Johnston) for inspiring verse. Lately, I’ve been engaged with Margaret Simon and her “This Picture Needs a Poem” feature at her blog and I’m always watching Kim Douillard for her work with the lens of her camera to spark poetry in her students, and herself, and in others. The thing I find fascinating about images as inspiration for poetry is that the writer edges into the image from the side, looking for something maybe even the photographer didn’t notice. You want to pay attention to what no one else has seen – maybe it’s something inferred, like the story before the image was taken. Maybe it’s what comes next in the scene. Maybe it’s right there, in front of you, but you only see it by taking your time and being open to it. From this, poetry flows, and it’s an interesting kind of poetry, too, because a reader later may not have the visual context for full understanding of the poem, and that’s OK, too, I think. Poetry should give us pause, to wonder.

* Why did you choose the poets you are sharing?

This is strange, but I am sharing an interesting poetry bot, created by Zach Whalen, called Auto Imagist, that is designed to take the image texts from random photographs, and combine that gathered text into poems, in the style of William Carlos Williams. The results are fascinating for the stylistic approach (Williams, of course, wrote wonderful short poems where the visual cues play a key role in the reader’s ability to connect) but also for the technique that remixes the text of images into poetry. What you see in the bot-generated poems are little scenes, small glimpses of the world, little corners of dust and stories. I suspect echoes of the original photographs, as described in the image text, remain, but are obscured by the remix. I don’t know how Whalen created the bot — the raw code is at Github — and I’d be curious to learn more about the programming approach, and how the bot actually works its poetic magic, and of course, this all raises the question: can a bot be a poet if it remixes the words of humans?

Peace (from the East),

Pandemic Poem from the Classroom: Broken Pencils

Tiny pencil

I went in to my classroom yesterday, at the allotted time, and began the difficult process of packing up all of my students’ belongings into clear plastic bags. Everything from every desk. Everything from every locker. Odds and ends. The left-behind stuff of every kid, placed into a see-through bag. Stickers with student names on the outside. At some later date, their families will drive through the back lot, and these bags will be delivered to their back seat, and they will drive off.

It was very depressing work, really, almost like an invasion of their privacies — handling not just school work – graded papers and papers never handed in — but also, the odds and ends of them, the things from friends they kept close and the things they kept for reasons only they might understand. All of it, packed into a bag. It felt like a morgue, really, and I am reminded of scenes from military movies, where what material objects remain are gathered, honored, returned. The locker hallway for fifth and sixth grade were lined from one door to the other with plastic bags.

One image that stayed with me later in the day, hours after I had finished the task, was the pencils. So many pencils, of all sorts and in all conditions. Who knew they had so many pencils? I bet I packed hundreds of them, and many fell to the floor as I worked, some ripping the bag and falling out. All I could think about is, what might still get written? What did we not get written this year?

My poem this morning is all about that.

It’s the broken pencils
that give me pause,
as I label and empty
these steel desk drawers

into clear thin plastic bags
that refuse to contain you;
your belongings ripping at the
fabric of my work –

You’re spilling out:
unsharpened, snapped-tipped,
eraser-bitten, rainbow-ed
and graphite possibilities of
lines, circles, dots, smudges
stories, poems, notes, plays

These broken cardboard boxes
releasing wild Ticonderogas
to the floor, scattering and silent,
as if lions sit in wait

You are everywhere
in this classroom,
and nowhere,
all at once

Peace (packing it up but not in),

Poems of Presence (Noticing the Moments)

Separate souls
Separate souls flickr photo by $ALEH shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

I had thought I would take a break from writing poems each morning (as I had done for the past few months) but then a Twitter hashtag pulled me right back in! The #poemsofpresence folks — mostly teaching and writing, and writing/teaching, friends, but also assorted others — were writing some interesting small poems that captured a single moment in short verse, as a way to battle the anxiety of the times.

So, I have dipped in a bit, with no obligations in my mind to do anything more than what inspires me, which frees me up to write each day or not.

Walk gently
through white –
the discards
of night —
whether blossoms
or snow, or both


Nothing breaks the quiet
with the urgency of
the Pileated Woodpecker –
its hammering head on
the tree like a snare,
a syncopated jazz jam
of the wood – channeling Blakey, Krupa, Williams, Rich;
scratching the itch to find rhythm in anything


When walking
towards the full
morning moon,
lingering as it is
like the first notes
of your inner song,
it’s best to slow
the pace, to gaze
into the wonder
of the moment of
soft radiant light


Even trees
seem at rest,
our engines
sputtered to a stop,
as forest nymphs
and bored children
take over what’s
been abandoned
by the times


This strange universe
sings, a night melody
of starlight, empty
only in perception;
Instead: listen


Time forever
reminds us:
nothing lost
remains forgotten

Peace (make it present),

Poems Nearly Lost and Left Behind

Spring poetry...
Spring poetry… flickr photo by js hsu shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Note: I’ve been writing poems every day now for quite some time and am about to take a break for a bit, to recharge the writing mind. These three poems were leftovers — sitting in a place where I’d jot down poems but only sometimes used. – Kevin

Short, Attention, Span

is about all
I can take –
before I

Finding Funny

We’re having some trouble
finding the funny – these
rainy days used to be sunny
but now it’s just clouds
and trouble – the news feed
merely doubles our anxiety
so we’re sitting on the couch
with sitcoms — intentional
scripted dumb on display —
letting an earful of canned laughter
remind us to forget before
we need to remember again

And I Believe Him

He says he put his head down
only to drown out the sound
of the teacher’s voice –
the drone of talking
as the slideshow advanced —

and I believe him …

for what I can’t believe or
fathom is a teacher talking
for 60 minutes, the small screen
as podium, as if
all eyes were alert instead
of wandering

He says he put his head down,
for only a minute, to rest,
and I believe him.

Peace (in poems),

NaPoWriMo: Watching

(I am participating in National/Global Poetry Month as I continue to write small poems each morning. It’s also Poem In Your Pocket Day — so this is a small one to fit most any pocket – Kevin)

Day Thirty: Watching

the painter
the hawk
the dog

Peace (seeing it),

NaPoWriMo: One Lost Moment

(I am participating in National/Global Poetry Month as I continue to write small poems each morning. – Kevin)

Day Twenty Nine: One Lost Moment

The dog’s done it
before I can stop him
from doing what he’s doing
— knocking
last night’s dew drops
off budding flower tops,
and I mourn a bit
for the moment, lost

Peace (captured and released),

NaPoWriMo: Absurd Bird Sighting

(I am participating in National/Global Poetry Month as I continue to write small poems each morning. – Kevin)

Day Twenty Eight: Absurd Bird Sighting

didja ever stop to think,
this window, is a frame
and this view, the world?

i did, spotting the bird,
wings barely moving but flying,
beyond the pane of glass

a sudden moment, frozen in flap,
so surprised was i by the absurd,
what could i do but laugh?

Peace (in flight)