Where poems come from

a highway in northern Michigan, October 2012.

I recently heard an interview on WUNC with poet Gibbons Ruark.  In it, he said that there are only two kinds of poems: love poems and elegies.

At first it struck me as accurate, but I think that I might add wonder to that list. I remember days as a kid walking around in the woods and being inspired to write by what I experienced there. The poems were mostly made of observations and questions. The back yard is a fascinating world when you know little about it – you just see the colors and want to save them.

But why a poem? I keep coming back to tension. I used to write poems more often than I do now, and for me they always arose out of something unexpected, welcome or unwelcome.  A jolt.

Last week, for the first time in a while, I felt a jolt. And I scribbled down a poem. It felt good. Like washing your face after a long day. Like hearing a song that fills an empty space inside. Like going for a run and feeling limber and free. Poems do that. Writing music does that. I imagine there are all sorts of creatives expressions that do that. For me, music and poetry run the game. Here’s what I wrote. I think I'll call it Evening Commute.

Today I want to drive home
through the forest as the sky pales
and let the asphalt guide me, winding
around the old growth woods on four wheels.
When I reach the right gate to a forest fire lane
I’ll pull over and step out
gravel crunch, gravel crunch, leaves
through an opening in the trees
I’ll walk til I find the right scene
and stop. I'll lay my work brain there
atop a pillow of moss beneath a tall spruce
to cool off, to pulse out its heat in the softer air.
Then I’ll tiptoe around the tall tree
along a shaggy deer path between bending ferns,
push back the saplings and spring briars
until I find it –
my heart in a pool of water waiting
for me to come lift it
from the clear slough and say
yes, it’s me, I am here to hold you
to pick you up and feel your cool muscle in my hands
and I am ready now
to go home.

There's a beautiful forest on Duke University's campus with a road through it - trees tall and wide enough to shade the road that weaves through it. This is the place I was thinking of. After a long day at work, I was ready to stop rushing, stop thinking and embrace the parts of life that give meaning. Like music. Like love. But it's so hard to explain a poem in sentences like this. Better to understand it from the words that tumbled out.

P.S. - I first learned of Gibbons Ruark when I lived in Paris. I found a used copy of his book Keeping Company in the English bookstore Shakespeare & Co. It was exactly what I needed there, a foreigner in a beautiful and busy place, and I read it many times. I even wrote him a letter from my little Parisian apartment, which he kindly answered


  1. Ah poetry... I've always loved reading and often wrote it when I was younger and more romantic, and then, later, cynical... I would never ever have the courage to show it to anyone, which may be better for all of us.

    I can almost hear you singing your poem- it's very nice, as is the accompanying photo

  2. Thanks, Ann. I feel like bad poetry is a rite of passage for a lot of critical-thinking young people. There's probably heaps of it lying around (or burnt up) in colorful notebooks in old desks. I think people get really self-conscious about it because it's so personal, but who knows, maybe back when it was written it meant something.

    When I was young I wrote poetry all the time - and I still write, just not as much. But I think the difference now is that I've come to terms with my poetry not having to be great or meaningful for other people. Like enjoying a mediocre song. Maybe it's simple and repetitive, but the sound just makes you feel good. I think that poetry's kind of like that for me now. But that doesn't mean I don't aspire to be better one day...


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