Poem-A-Day: Elizabeth Sewell

I’ve always been struck by the fact that the name we use for someone who suffers mightily, unjustly, and beyond all sense or reason is the same name for the work we do in order to earn payment that we might gainfully live.

I teach, and sometimes — like around this time of year — the beckoning breath of a break — in this case, summer — magnifies the stress of the workload I and most of my colleagues are laboring under. I’m lucky in that my administrators understand that “every ask is still an ask,” but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still a basketful of asks awaiting each of us — teachers, students, and administrators alike — around every turn. The weight of it is like stones piling on my chest, and like old Giles Corey, I keep coming back.

Case in point: here is my current grading stack.

This giant mug holds 20 ounces of tea and is nearly the size of my face. You know, for reference.


And here is an ekphrastic poem by Elizabeth Sewell. Note the rhyme scheme and rhythm, how they mimic orderliness, how they taunt. You know, like the act of grading papers.

Persist, my friends, persist.



Poem-A-Day: Lucille Clifton

It’s common for people to assume all poetry is autobiographical. It’s not.

Yes, some of it is, of course. And sometimes poetry feels autobiographical and even begins with a nugget of memoir but then evolves into something else.

I wish more people understood this, but then I also wish more people understood and/or appreciated and/or even read poetry. (That’s perhaps a discussion for another day.)

One form of poem which I really enjoy, in part because it specifically breaks up the autobiography stereotype, is the dramatic monologue, in which the poet is writing specifically as someone else. The speaker in this first-person poem can be real or made up, but it is decidedly not the poet.

One of my favorite examples of this form is Lucille Clifton’s “Moses.” Note the succinctness of the poem, how it economizes a familiar narrative with visceral imagery. Note how it uses unconventional choices regarding its capital letters and punctuation to create tone and rhythm and voice. Note the final, gorgeous, implied rhyme of the last few syllables to give the reader insight into just what motivates the speaker, Moses.




i walk on bones
snakes twisting
in my hand
locusts breaking my mouth
an old man
leaving slavery.
home is burning in me
like a bush
God got his eye on.