“Writing Like a Poet”

“For the poet is a light and winged and holy thing, and there is no invention in him until he has been inspired and is out of his senses, and reason is no longer in him.” Plato, Ion.

Why do poetry teachers find it necessary to scare the hell out of any one attempting the art? Discussions about consciousness, vibrancy, and environmental concerns are profound and complex, however, they have no place in the writing of poetry. Writing poetry is a challenge in itself and becomes more of a challenge when bombarded with rules, regulations, and other “workshop-ish” guidelines. Poetry teachers, the whole bunch, must remember that poetry is the most democratic of art forms. Poetry is for the people, by the people, of the people.

Walt Whitman, a tongue of flame in the fire of American poetry, acknowledges the point repeatedly in Leaves of Grass. In “I Hear America Singing,” Whitman recognizes that in the ever-changing American society, poetry is found in every “song” sung by every American: “Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else.” Our everyday activities contribute to the ever-revising, universal poem. And all we need to add to the expanding poem is a thought, a pencil, and a single sheet of paper.

For the past thirty years I’ve worked with diverse groups of writers that range from wards at Sylmar juvenile hall, to privileged prep-school teens, to underprivileged NYC youths, to poets in Columbia University’s MFA program. From my experience, these writers all have one major quest—get “it” off their chest. The use of abstract phrases and concepts by poetry teachers are interesting to ponder, but fail at compelling a poet to write. Teachers of poetry must focus on reasonable applications and practical tips, without which all successful poets would be unsuccessful.

I often hear poetry teachers take a stab at offering a practical tip by suggesting that poets document their journey through life. “It’s what the people want,” they say. The exercise of documenting is worthwhile, but the real proof is if the poet is moved by the poem. The poet should not be interested in the reader’s reaction at all. Archibald MacLeish in “Ars Poetica” states, “A poems should not mean/But be.” Ultimately, poetry is the act of diving headlong into the past, present and future, sometimes all at the same time, in an attempt to please the poet.

A poet has one task—write. That’s it: sit, stand, bow, or kneel. But whatever position you end up in, write about your own experiences. Declare your satisfaction or dissatisfaction with a howl, hoot, cry, or just giggle your words onto paper. As poets, we know that poems are a challenge to write, what with the rules and regulations. We know that our chances of making a living off our writings are slim to none. So, all we can do is heed T.S. Eliot’s wisdom, “No honest poet can ever feel quite sure of the permanent value of what he has written: he may have wasted his time and messed up his life for nothing.”

So, write something you like.

* published in The Santa Barbara Independent, December 1, 2005


I Saw The Future Today


We’re all going to be okay. The student in the picture made it possible. Not in a hopey changey kind of way, but stone cold real.

Here’s the issue: At a high school in South Africa, African woman are told their hair is untidy. It’s clear to me now that “WTF” was coined many years ago just for this very story.

And when the school officials at Pretoria Girls High required female students to braid their hair, a beautiful thing happened. They didn’t braid their hair, and instead showed us what unity looks like.



Trying to unify a group of people isn’t easy. As a faculty union senator at a community college, I led a campaign to organize 300 adjunct instructors. Only 135 joined. But at Pretoria Girls High, the entire campus of teenagers joined in.

Our future leaders know that when one stands, many follow.