Poetry lessons learned at Esalen, Big Sur, Part 1

I just spent five days at The Life of Poetry workshop with Ellen Bass and Roxan McDonald at Esalen, in Big Sur California. The workshop structure is to hear a craft talk in the morning and then have about three hours of writing time, before we meet in the afternoons in smaller groups to share and discuss our new poems.

A gorgeous morning moon

Throughout the week I wrote four poems* in keeping with the four craft talks Ellen presented. I’ll discuss the first two craft talks today, and continue on with the other two later in the week – so as not to bore you too much.

Metaphor: Defined as similarity between things that are otherwise very different. Use of fresh vital images to jar us, to heighten the emotion and achieve intimacy. Through quality of the metaphors, the poet can grab the reader. Try to find metaphors in your junk drawer, your garage, your closet, your throw rug (look at the fibers in the rug rather than whole). Here is an example of a poem with great metaphors:

My Father’s Tie Rack

Back of the door to his dark closet,
eye height, with clever steel
pegs I could flip both ways.
A row of pendulums. Of tongues.
Words, wordless. Witnesses
waiting to be sworn. The town secret.
A silk body, a man’s plenty.
A wild ache, a knot. One painted
with gold mums, one with blood
leaves on mud. Vishnu’s skin, twenty
shades of sky. White flag iris.
Slick sheen of a greenblack snake.
Which one went with him into the hole?
Somewhere else: his belts.

Imitation: Our next craft talk was about imitation, stressing the need to read other writers to learn what they do. As Voltaire said: “originality is nothing but judicious imitation. To imitate, as Ellen says, is like having another poet holding your hand. I imitated this wonderful poem by Raymond Carver:

What I can do

Raymond Carver

All I want today is to keep an eye on these birds
outside my window. The phone is unplugged
so my loved ones can’t reach out and put the arm
on me. I’ve told them the well has run dry.
They won’t hear of it. They keep trying
to get through anyway. Just now I can’t bear to know
about the car that blew another gasket.
Or the trailer I thought I paid for long ago,
now foreclosed on. Or the son in Italy
who threatens to end his life there
unless I keep paying the bills. My mother wants
to talk to me too. Wants to remind me of how it was
back then. All the milk I drank, cradled in her arms.
That ought to be worth something now. She needs
me to pay for this new move of hers. She’d like
to loop back to Sacramento for the twentieth time.
Everybody’s luck has gone south. All I ask
is to be allowed to sit for a moment longer.
Nursing a bite the dog Keeper gave me last night.
And watching these birds. Who don’t ask for a thing
except sunny weather. In a minute
I’ll have to plug in the phone and try to separate
what’s right from wrong. Until then
a dozen tiny birds, no bigger than teacups,
perch in the branches outside the window.
Suddenly they stop singing and turn their heads.
It’s clear they’ve felt something.
they dive into flight.

*For the time being, I won’t share my new poems. I don’t want to jeopardize their getting published some day. Some publishers only look at unpublished work and consider online publishing in one’s own blog as being published. Plus my new poems are still only first drafts. There is still a lot of work to do on them.


  1. […] Poetry workshop at Esalen, in Big Sur, California, during the first week of December. Please click here to read Part […]

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