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Poetry and pain

Writing a poem is like taking out a pair of pliers, choosing a tooth, and yanking it right out my jaw. It’s a process wherein low-level pain builds into smarts I can’t ignore anymore. I don’t want to do it. I resist the impulse. I dawdle and hesitate. Then, all of the sudden, I sit down and start penning the scaffolding on which I construct a poem.

It’s February 8. Since December 28, I’ve written 82 poems on subjects as diverse as snow storms, summer heat, trout, and the flu—whatever comes to mind after I put myself into the position to write. I don’t know where they are going to come from, but that isn’t my business. My job is to sit to the computer and let the fingers loose. Sometimes they just flow, one after the other. In some instances, I’m moved to sit down to poet and nothing comes. I have to force it.

My uncle, Bill Bauer, an accomplished poet, maintains the poems float all around us all the time. All we have to do is reach up and pluck them from the ether. I agree, as just about any moment of emotion, image, or event is ripe material for a poem. I sit down and the thoughts take over. They roam, searching the corners of the room, the niches of memory and imagination. Then, the thinking gets caught on a hook. Once snatched from wandering, the particular thought turns lyrical. Hopefully, what emerges from the other end of the process is worth pursuing.

I’m motivated to bring a new perspective to an ordinary thing in a poem. Most of my poems concern small things, little bits and pieces of life that, when not noticed, blend into the background. If I can make pieces of my setting topographical, that is, make what was flat and common uncommon and tangible. If I can cast something you’ve seen a thousand times in a new light, bring it to your attention, then I’ve done my work.

Of course, these 82 new poems are just sketches right now. The real work of making a rough idea a poem comes later. I will rewrite these pieces a hundred times each before I can call them completed. Some of what I’ve written lately will be stinkers, assigned to the dustbin and forgotten until much later, when perhaps, my skill and ability or my perspective has changed. What may be trash now may just turn out to be a gem at some time in the future. There are poems in my new book, When the Titans Sleep and Other Dreams, that are some 10 or 15 years old. They are thoughts that needed more baking before I could serve them at the poetic table.

Out of 82 poems, I would say half are worth extra time and energy. The rest seemed like good ideas at the time, and that’s just what they are and nothing more. In the last few days, I’ve begun going back through what I’ve written to see what’s there, because I forget. What I find surprises me. Many times, I sit back and look at a piece and think, “Wow! Did I do that?” I set to work making sure I put the punctuation right. I trim and revise. And then, I revise some more.

I spend a good deal of time on what’s called the poetic line. This means to me that each line must have a reason to exist. It must also express a stand-alone idea. It must make sense. It’s a really rare poem of mine that has just one or two words in a line. If it does, they must be powerful words. They must evoke an image or feeling. If a line doesn’t do work, I either get rid of it or make it carry water for the cause.

Another aspect of the poem I have to pay close attention to is flow and cadence. A reader must be able to read a poem seamlessly. If a clunky word is in there, I change or eliminate it. Stilted images, contrived feelings, odd ideas that throw the reader off have to go. I meant well when I wrote them, but when the poem took off, they ceased to fit.

As an example of this, The River King, a poetrysheet based in Illinois and edited by Wayne Lantner, published my first poem. It was short, as many of my poems are. Lantner sent my poem back to me and said he’d publish it if I took out two lines. I was astounded. Those two lines were the seed out of which the poem grew. Of course, I deleted the lines and the poem became clear. It was a much better poem and worthy of publication. I was quite proud when I received my copy of The River King. My poem, whose name and content escapes me now, stood next to a poem by the venerable John Knoepfle, a poet of long experience and notoriety. It was one of the greatest moments of my life.

This brings me to the fact that a poem, handled well, will grow legs, mature, and take off on its own. I have to be in service of the poem. It has no duty to me. It must live its own life and establish its own home. If I’m lucky, it will raise a family.

So, for now, I’m happy to be writing poems again after years of not paying attention to the impulse. I eschewed writing poetry for a long time. The process is painful. It’s hard to get into the position and mindset to write. It hurts to look inside.

I can also see how my voice has changed over the years, as I go through spurts of poetry. My poems from 15 or 20 years ago were mostly short, nature and built-environment images for the most part. My poems from seven or eight years ago were longer, also focused on nature, but they included profiles of people and places. My poems today are even longer and include more complicated thoughts about nature, human striving, illuminated moments.

In all cases, I hope these new poems are worthy of publication. Some will be. Others will not. That’s just the way it goes. But the process involves no less pain, hard labor, and heavy lifting. It takes a little humility and chutzpah, an odd mix. But in the end, the payoff is so great.

Here are a couple of new poems. I hope you like them. If not, you are always welcome to contribute comments or criticism in the space below or send me an E-mail at or call me at 816-896-4746 anytime.

“Flight School”

The radio announcer said the fugitive

could not fly a plane.

But he was talented at just about everything

he put his hand to and worked wonders

with gardens, cars, woodcraft.

He made a levitating chocolate mousse.


He faltered at finance,

and trying to keep his house after the divorce,

he stuck up a convenience store

with his hand in a jacket pocket.


Chasing him across the state line,

the cops lost him in the woods east of town.

Three-day manhunt. The clerk at a private airstrip

called 911 on a stranger lurking around the planes.


Behind the stick of a Cessna, he saw the blue and reds.

He knew it was over before he started the engine.

and laid on the tarmac before the cops arrived.

He was never armed.


Within six months, he was tried and sentenced

five years in the penitentiary at Leavenworth,

a dreary place tucked in a bison pasture and wooded hills.

Buried now, he dreams of nasturtiums,

high-performance carburetors, a glider for the porch

should he ever get another after losing the first.


He concentrates and smells coconut chicken.

His future is set. When he gets out and lands a job,

he’s going to flight school.


“Inmate Trout”

Sometimes, the old couple comes to me late at night

when I am not sleeping well, and I dream

I deliver that package to their son.

I swim past wires and bars, walls and guards

on rays of light flowing from his cell window,

I see him open the box while he sits on his bunk

staring into forty years-to-life.


He pulls one of the carton flaps back,

and the ice-blue sky over the North Platte streams

from the folds of tissue paper and fills his cell.

The river itself flows through the holes in the Swiss cheese,

spills over riffles of crackers and falls of salami.

He peers into the pool behind the mustard jar

and finds his parents with their arms open to him.

And there are trout. Lots of trout.



The polar vortex has broken and delivered us

air so frigid, it sticks in your nose and bites cheeks.

Winters of my youth were also so cold—

three weeks in December, three weeks in January.

We’ve not had winter like that in a long time.


The last real season we had here was eight years ago.

I’d just returned from Berlin visiting a friend

who was dead though we didn’t know it then.

I had a feeling he was approaching the end,

I was ending an era and looked forward to darkness.

It snowed just after I arrived home and night

seemed endless, melt coming with spring.


I nearly hung myself, the lengthening of the day

and the imminent death of a soul mate

mulching mood, brain, and thought.

The call of a child saved me from the noose

I fashioned in the basement, thinking of how

I might swing without the boy being the first to find me.

Rope in hand, what seemed reasoned and rational

revealed itself to be the action of a madman.


Locked in an institution, I came to grips

with what it means to die, to cease, to become

other forms of life, other forms of spirit.

Loosed again, I felt like a prisoner just freed

from bars and cells and concrete.

Winter long forgotten, spring brought new life.

Lilacs bloomed and apples blossomed.

I could not help my friend, could not stop the cancers

spreading through his brain, his life draining away.

My life redeemed, I could help the boy.

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