Message in a Bottle
National Poetry Month Special: If I Can Haiku So Can You

In 1971, director and screenwriter Robert Altman released McCabe & Mrs. Miller, something of an anti-western set in the the Pacific Northwest. It’s a film full of sublime moments—in fact, you could say the whole movie is one long sublime moment—but for me, the most memorable scene is one featuring Warren Beatty in the title role of John McCabe, a gambler and would-be businessman who’s bent on improving the mining hamlet of Presbyterian Church and his bankroll in the bargain. He’s a bit of a confidence man with a puffed-up reputation and a personal style that’s polished only in comparison to the crudeness around him, and he’s in love with Julie Christie’s Mrs. Miller, a woman of true sophistication who he’s hired to run the town’s main business, a brothel. He’s just smart enough to sense that she’s far more on the ball than he is, and he’s frustrated about the inequalities in their relationship. In a mumbling soliloquy, he says:

I keep trying to tell you in a lot of different ways. If just one time you could be sweet without no money around.

I think I could…

Well, I’ll tell you something. I got poetry in me.

I do. I got poetry in me.

I ain’t going to put it down on paper. I ain’t no educated man. I got sense enough not to try it.

Which is a good summation of my feelings about poetry. I’m a fluent reader who’s generally confident to take on whatever book’s in front of me, but poetry often gives me the impression of being better than I am and unafraid to let me know it. Still captivating, though, like vintage Julie Christie.

It’s not the complexity that throws me, for the most part. The poetry with the strongest appeal for me early on was the knotty kind that requires unpicking before it reveals itself. I was one of those undergrads who thought it was fun to batter my head against John Donne and play spot-the-allusion with T.S. Eliot. It’s the more direct stuff that trips me up. I’m a fast reader, so without twists and turns or obvious obstacles, I slide across the words so quickly that I fall down at the end. I’ve had to train myself to go slow and pay attention even when a poem seems innocuous—there’s black ice on those famous roads that diverge into the woods.

Writing prose is another good way to teach myself to focus on every word that passes. At least, I hope it is. I don’t know if I’m quite ready to start juggling trochees and iambs or worrying about enjambment. That said, I have dallied briefly with Calliope, the muse of poetry. Some time ago, an online literary magazine was conducting a book giveaway in celebration of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s 96th birthday. This remarkable figure accomplished too much in his long life to recap here, but he’s most noted for his travel writing, particularly two works that were first published in the 1970s and ’80s, A Time of Gifts and Between the Woods and the Water. These recount a journey he took on foot as a teenager between the world wars, starting from the English Channel and reaching what’s now known as Istanbul. The second book takes us with him only as far as the Romanian border, but he was working away on a third and final volume until his death last year. Paddy, as his friends called him, was of a generation and a social class that was imbued with poetry at school, and to pass the time during his lonely peregrinations, he’d recite Keats, Tennyson, and the like. In that spirit, the magazine asked for haiku submissions in his honor.

For a free book, I was willing to step outside my comfort zone. Characteristically, I couldn’t stop once I got going and sent in a trilogy:

Pages fall like leaves
Ninety-six years or more. They
Will outlive us all.

Type faster, Sir Pat.
I must find out if you reached

Even seventeen
Syllables are hard to write. 
Those travel books? Whew.

It’s also characteristic that I couldn’t keep an entirely straight face about the whole thing, but the judges didn’t mind, and I triumphed over the competition. I am therefore a certified prize-winning poet. Now, my memory is hazy, and I’m not entirely certain whether the contest was decided qualitatively or via random draw, but that’s neither here nor there. The point is I got poetry in me, I do. If I can haiku, so can you. 


Don’t forget that in celebration of National Poetry Month, we’re running a poetry contest open to all ages. The contest ends April 30th, so enter soon.

I Was a Magnetic Poet

I memorized my first poem when I was ten and obsessed with horses. The poem was called The Untamed Spirit by an unknown author and appeared on my horse calendar. Here it is, directly from my memory:

His stance is proud, his heart is pure, his loyalty unbound
And when he runs, his hoof beats echo thunder’s noble sound.
His swiftness challenges the wind, in untamed majesty.
His spirit ever riderless. His soul forever free.

Much as I loved that poem, I forgot about poetry as a teenager, mostly. Here and there, I’d see a poem I’d like hung on a wall or in a greeting card, enjoy it, and move on. I didn’t think about reading poetry. I just liked the idea of poetry. It had an aura of romance. So I imagined myself a poetry fan, although the truth was I didn’t even know who Sylvia Plath was until I was in my twenties.

The turning point was a gift, and I don’t even remember who gave it to me. A box of magnetic poetry took up residence on the fridge of my first apartment. Suddenly evenings dissolved into a meditation in the kitchen, staring at the refrigerator and looking for the right phrase to follow “Whispering summer sky, you move me.”

All of a sudden I was thinking about poetry every time I scrounged for a snack. My friends would come over and do magnetic poetry with me. It became an obsession. If you want to get someone (a teenager, perhaps?) interested in poetry, trust me, this is the way.

The Norton Anthology of PoetrySoon after, I walked into a college lecture hall for a class titled Poetry and Poetics. The instructor was the renowned Irish poet Eavan Boland, author of ten volumes of poetry and a beloved professor. She guided us through the most magnificent poems in The Norton Anthology of Poetry in one short semester. We read everything from Gertrude Stein's Stanzas in Meditation, to T.S. Eliot's The Wasteland, to Adrienne Rich's Diving into the Wreck, to Sylvia Plath’s Daddy. There was Emily Dickinson, William Wordsworth, and John Donne. And then there was me, scribbling endless notes in the margin and focusing all my mental energy on figuring out the meaning of each brief and powerful line. I had never thought so hard about such few words.

Reading poetry is not like reading a good novel or a piece of narrative nonfiction. It makes you do the work, the complete opposite experience of having a writer lay everything out for you just like a good waiter at a restaurant. If you want to fully appreciate a poem, you’ll have to catch the fish, skin it, cook and season it, serve the meal, prepare the salad and dessert, and do the dishes. The moral, of course, is that often times the more work you put into something the more you enjoy it in the end.

To finish this ramble, I’ll keep my magnetic poetry masterpieces to myself, and instead offer you one of my favorite poems that seems relevant this time of year:

The Trees by Philip Larkin

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too.
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.

Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.

Happy National Poetry Month!


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