Teju Cole’s winter sequence

Twitter used well:

Dead horse haiku


the falling snow of
or in an endless room of

°  °

after the drought,
he joked, burial
by frozen water

°  °

the compiling snow,
the treble ping of sleet:
Moses & Aaron

°  °

the white page covers
what? to write is to distance
& too close, the lips

A sketch

Dear Theo,

. . . . Yesterday I drew some decayed oak roots, so-called bog trunks (that is, oak trees which have perhaps been buried for a century under the bog, from which new peat had been formed; when digging the peat up, these bog trunks come to light).

These roots were lying in a pool, in black mud.

Some black ones were lying in the water, in which they were reflected, some bleached ones were lying on the black earth. A little white path ran past it all, behind that more peat, pitchblack. And a stormy sky over it all. That pool in the mud with those rotten roots was completely melancholy and dramatic, just like Ruysdael, just like Jules Dupré.

This is a scratch of the peat fields.

There are very often curious contrasts of black and white here, for instance, a canal with white sandy banks, across a pitchblack plain. In the above sketch you can see it too, black figures against a white sky, and in the foreground again a variation of black and white in the sand.

Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (6 – 7 October, 1883)


black mud, black
which bleached black
white path past more
peat pitch

black sky, pool in the
mud, rotten root
just like, just like
a scratch

peat —
black white, white pitch
black sketch, black white
black white


Two Women in the Peat-Field, with a Wheelbarrow

Van Gogh’s Two Women in the Peat-Field, with a Wheelbarrow, painted after the observations referred to in van Gogh’s letter.

Another of silver

The lines are fallen vnto me in pleasant places: yea, I haue a faire heritage.

– Psalm 16:6, Geneva Bible


Teaching resumes tomorrow. I lean over the bed’s gunwales and pull bobbing pillows from the floor.

First thing I read this new year – Louisa Igoria’s new poem, “A Herald,” with this reminder:

And if you nick
the skin of the outline,
in the box of 64, there is one

stick of gold, another
of silver, their wax base soft enough
to blend like a halo around everything –

Crossing over last night’s date line, I dreamed I was flying upside down. Something winged me; I wanted to look down to see what it was. But it was best to renew my fellowship with the changeless stars.

Lorianne DiSabato’s Hoarded Ordinances passed ten years yesterday. She wrote:

In an age where it’s easy to blurt out anything to an invisible audience, I’m glad to have a decade’s worth of practice saying things chiefly for my own benefit.

And for mine.

George Szirtes concluded forty years of teaching yesterday. He was kind enough to remind me of writing instruction’s ever-fixèd mark. When he started his final paragraph with “As for the institutions,” I realized that he hadn’t been writing about school at all. Well, as for it:

The current drive towards an ever more corporate business model is the opposite of learning: it operates on the lines of the nineteenth century mill glossed by twenty-first century public relations.

That’s all it was. So, cheered by lines from three teachers, tomorrow I’ll disembark.

Photo “Details of The Spirit of Haida Gwaii by Bill Reid” by Vlad Litvinov. Used by permission.


My Dear Theo:

. . . . Let’s talk of something else – I have a model at last – a Zouave – a boy with a small face, a bull neck, and the eye of a tiger, and I began with one portrait, and began again with another; the half-length I did of him was horribly harsh, in a blue uniform, the blue of enamel saucepans, with braids of a faded reddish-orange, and two yellow stars on his breast, an ordinary blue, and very hard to do. That bronzed, feline head of his with a red cap, I placed it against a green door and the orange bricks of a wall. So it’s a savage combination of incongruous tones, not easy to manage. The study I made of it seems to me very harsh, but all the same I’d like always to be working on vulgar, even loud portraits like this. It teaches me something, and above all that is what I want of my work. The second portrait will be full length, sitting against a white wall.

Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (21 June 1888)

For Dave Bonta, on the tenth anniversary of
Via Negativa.

I began, began again
with half-length, harsh
in enamel saucepans

that bronzed feline against
the orange bricks of
a wall

so a savage nation of tones
I made. it seems
harsh, vulgar, loud —

traits like his.

teach me something
full length — sit against
a white wall


Van Gogh’s Der Zuave, the half-length referred to in van Gogh’s letter.

Don’t mow the meadow

Just now I have two new studies like this: you already have a drawing like of one of them, of a farm by the high road among cornfields.

A meadow full of very yellow buttercups, a ditch with iris plants with green leaves and purple blooms, the town in the background, a few gray willows – a strip of blue sky.

If they don’t mow the meadow I’d like to do this study again, for the subject was very beautiful, and I had some trouble finding the composition. A little town surrounded by countryside completely blooming with yellow and purple flowers; you know, it is a beautiful Japanese dream.

Vincent van Gogh to Theo van Gogh (12 May 1888)


like this:
you already have
a farm, a meadow,
very yellow.

ditch green leaves
and purple blooms,
strip blue sky.
don’t mow the meadow:

I’d like to do this again.
trouble the town,
surround countryside
with yellow:



Van Gogh’s Field with Flowers Near Arles, the result of the studies referred to in van Gogh’s letter.

True poetry of possession

I am well aware that the word “property” has been defied in our time by the corruption of the great capitalists. One would think, to hear people talk, that the Rothchilds and the Rockefellers were on the side of property. But obviously they are the enemies of property because they are enemies of their own limitations. They do not want their own land but other people’s. When they remove their neighbor’s landmark, they also remove their own. A man who loves a little triangular field ought to love it because it is triangular; anyone who destroys the shape, by giving him more land, is a thief who has stolen a triangle. A man with the true poetry of possession wishes to see the wall where his garden meets Smith’s garden, the hedge where his farm touches Brown’s. He cannot see the shape of his own land unless he sees the edges of his neighbor’s. It is the negation of property that the Duke of Sutherland should have all the farms in one estate, just as it would be the negation of marriage if he had all our wives in one harem.

 – Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith). What’s Wrong with the World. 1910. Kindle Edition. Page 48.


Defied one,
think to hear:
people talk

the side of
enemies –
their own

other. They
mark their own
who love afield

triangular. Love is
triangular – true poetry
where garden meets garden,

where his touches
cannot see the shape
of his own harem.

Inspired by Dave Bonta’s erasure project at Via Negativa.


“Pines,” a chestnut here, got a good weeviling this week. It fit a project at school. A friend was so complimentary that she set me to revising it deeply.

3PicturePines4I grew up where pines grew sure and tall. We lived under the pines. We didn’t live in the trees like the squirrels and the elves, and we didn’t live in the canopy like the birds and that tribe I knew from National Geographic. We lived under the pines, and they outnumbered us.

The trees were quieter than we, but not much quieter. They whispered a little more quietly. They bent and bowed, but not demonstrably. They lived together and we could see how they did it.

The vertical lay on the pines’ shoulders because Tidewater was flat. The only vistas were across the tidal James to a shore with pines that outnumbered the people there, too. The water reflected the pines and their people reflected us, invisible beneath our pines where we lived. We heard about each other from the same local radio and television stations.

But we had no business across the water. We heard their street names and high school football scores on the news and it meant nothing to us, ever. We shared the river, but each side had its own pines, and each tribe of pines had its own people, respectful and quieted with their eyes raised.

The pines carried the vertical handsomely. They suggested God when we were as still as they, just moving. The clouds also suggested God when we were on our backs in the grass. I remember staring at the clouds in the summer.

The pines were deep files, discreet and sound absorbing. The crevices in their bark and the long horizons around their trunks made dressing rooms for the locusts, who left their skins for us to fix onto one another’s shirts.

We used the pines other ways. We raked their needles for flowerbeds. We broke off their bark for sidewalk chalk. We threw their cones at one another. We knocked off their branches punting footballs. The pines took all of our noise and heat and memory and channeled it up, diffusing it through their needles. They also absorbed the resulting lightning strikes, channeling the sky’s heat the other way. Never a scream, never a word though entire childhoods.

Sometimes a pine would fall, and it was a to-do. The birds and the National Geographic tribe and Jack’s giant came down with it — startled, volatilized, and out of their element — too stunned to speak of higher worlds. We were shut-mouthed to see the vertical horizontal, to see a fallen angel. My father would call the tree service, and the tree service would cut off its limbs. We put the logs under tarpaulin to dry them before winter. If they were too green, they would pop a lot, burning: the vagility of heaven.

Emotional narratives

A lyric poem progresses, but how? The concept of emotional narratives has helped my students enjoy poems, recite poems, write poems, and write about poems.

Our ninth-grade curriculum reinforces the stages of narrative: exposition, initiating event, rising action, etc. My students get that. And plot progression is a nice, concrete set of stairs for students to climb to something more abstract, or at least more subtle. Lyric poems feel like they move, but the shifts often involve tone instead of time or place.

Check out “Lesson Plan: The Tone Map” starting on page 20 of this year’s Poetry Out Loud teacher’s guide. The referenced CD is free, but you don’t need it to learn the lesson yourself.

Once you get through “Jenny Kissed Me,” try your new skills on another lyric poem in which, roughly speaking, nothing happens. Maybe keep it seasonal: here’s my favorite snow poem — Kenneth Patchen’s “The Snow Is Deep on the Ground.”

High noon

If the sun reached its climax above the North Pole

And sired a second sun, then left him to be raised beneath the South Pole by old snow wolves,

Or if the Earth finally warmed up to the sun, and they contrived a moonlit tryst at Venus’s, starting with drinks

And if the Earth sailed home before sunrise so tipsy that the Tropic of Cancer pitched to the Arctic Circle,

Or if the Doomsday Clock finally reached high noon

And we partied, spiking our drinks with the last shriveling icebergs,

Would it matter?

Thinking about the current New Yorker‘s cover and this old tweet: