Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poem

For Ann Miller


This morning was hot and humid.  Although it was grey, it felt as if I could have been in the tropics.  But by lunchtime, it was 53 degrees in Houston.  Cold.  How can we account for the plummets in our lives, the weather that we weather?  Who can explain how winter comes?  Well, scientists.

And poets.


Last week, some of my students wrote about some poems.  They could look at the poems–you don’t have to memorize.  Some of them wrote about all poems.  Some of them guessed.  One of the themes that kept coming up in the essays was:  this is a really great poem. That is not necessarily wrong.  It is just not the whole story. Sometimes there is a story, like Dido and Aeneas and how their love is a train wreck even before trains.  Sometimes there is no story.  Sometimes you are just in a station of the metro.

But at least you are in Paris.


Maybe you can look at the title:  “The Beautiful Changes” is a good one.  But then you have Emily Dickinson–who never had titles for poems, although sometimes she had titles for herself, like “Queen.”  She didn’t need titles, yet people give them to her anyway. What should the title be for a poem that states,” I like a look of Agony/ Because I know it’s true”?

Don’t say “Agony.”  I am begging. Continue reading

“The Birthday Present”; Or, Sylvia Plath at 81

For Linda Wagner-Martin

A version of this essay appears in the 11 February 2015 edition of the Gray Matters section of The Houston Chronicle.  Today Sylvia Plath took her own life in 1963.  Here is the link:

Sylvia, you were so young.


If you had lived, you might have been on a television show, with Oprah fawning all over you, cooing about your brilliant career.  You might have been a spokesperson for so many things:  surviving infidelity, channeling betrayal into art, smiling while winning awards for spinning out words.  You would have known something about multitasking. You could have helped others live Their Best Life Now, or something close to it.  You might have been an endowed chair at a university and taught whenever you felt like it.  You might have said things like “I have never felt more alive” and had a line or two about knives and lying to prove your point.

You could have written poems about your tragedies, and how they leave one reeling, but then there is a center, and it holds, and then it is flying, not reeling.  Similar, but new.  I know you loved Yeats.

Today, Lady Lazarus, you are going viral, again, pictures of you, poems, references to The Bell Jar.  You are a chameleon: pretty, happy, morbid, overwhelmed, on the verge of tears, triumphant.  Everything but old.  You sure could go for the jugular, even when everyone was saying “don’t.” Continue reading