Poetry So Good It Will Make Your Head Explode

Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotype_(cropped)Do you remember Emily Dickinson’s test  of a poem?

If I read a book [and] it makes my whole body so cold no fire ever can warm me I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only way I know it.  Is there any other way?”  

If there is, I can’t think of it. Although, truth be told, it had been years since I had thought much about Emily’s test or read much poetry beyond what I shared with my daughter. Then, a little over a year ago, I answered a post on the online bulletin board of my alma mater. A fellow alum was launching a literary magazine website and seeking volunteers to help. I answered her ad, and soon, to my unending surprise, found that I was the co-poetry editor of the Lyon Review: The Literary Magazine for Alumnae and Faculty of Mount Holyoke College.  Like I said, it had been years since I’d given much thought to grown-up poetry; the attention that a poem demands seemed way beyond what I could muster as a working mom. But I decided to push beyond my workaday zone and see what happened.

Since then, Emily Dickinson’s test has come back to me many times. If I feel like the top of my head has been blown off, I know that is poetry.  And I like the feeling.

One poet whose work has left me feeling that way is Sandra Kohler.  Kohler’s poetry has been appearing in print for at least 35 years, in publications such as The New Republic, Prairie Schooner, The Gettysburg Review and The Colorado Review. A New Yorker by birth, she was graduated from Mount Holyoke in 1961 and eventually went on to Bryn Mawr College for her master’s degree (1966) and doctorate (1971). In between writing poetry and raising her son, she taught literature and writing everywhere from elementary school to college. She and her husband now share a two-family home in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston with her son, daughter-in-law, granddaughter and grandson.

Improbable Music CoverHer most recent book (her third) is titled Improbable Music, and it was published by Word Tech Communications in 2011. A previous book, The Ceremonies of Longing (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2003) won the AWP Award Series in Poetry. In 1985 and 1990, she was the recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship in Poetry awarded by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. Sandra’s poems are beautifully wrought, stark and elegant and they tell moving, sometimes painful stories about people we all might know. 

Here is one of my favorites, titled “For Bernice, Irene and Regina.” You can find more at http://thelyonreview.com (search for Sandra Kohler). Read it and see for yourself if the top of your head feels like it’s still on.        

For Bernice, Irene and Regina

For years I’ve listened to the three of you
reminisce, daughters of a mother who hung
green shades on the windows, not starched
white lace, never baked any of you a birthday
cake, let one of you (you argue about who)
go to school wearing mismatched socks. She
was the mother-in-law I loved for not caring
who had telephoned who last, for her lifelong
passion for “her flowers,” for her detachment
from her children’s lives, her distant tender
attachment to my son, her youngest grandchild.
You were the women whose womanhood
frightened me, brilliant practitioners of its arts.
Your spotless windows opened into a life I
couldn’t maintain: the curtains washed and
starched and ironed to a perfection nothing in
me could reach. I didn’t understand how you
were driven by memory: the childhood houses
of your friends, islands of order and decorum
home didn’t offer, led each of you to a vow,
the veil of a sisterhood your mother flouted
innocently; for your children, you would be
the mother your childhoods longed for.

You invented your roles from a model
of how not to play them; I had no model.
Motherless at ten, I didn’t possess the image
memory creates: my sister owned that mother,
staked an absolute claim to her, greedy as any
prospector. She owned womanhood, the art
and nature of it; I was dispossessed, twice
orphaned, once by nature and again by the art
of a sister who fashioned the past, memory,
the real, into a fabrication of her own. And
yet, like her, like you, I have created an idol,
sacred figure, each of us still in thrall to a
presence we invented, absence we mourn.

 “For Bernice, Irene and Regina” copyright © 2012 Sandra Kohler

This post originally appeared on booktrib.com.


Edamame Salami, or Eat Your Poetry; It’s Good for You

“Oh, Mom, we do enough of that in school.”

My daughter’s reaction to the news that I’d be leading a poetry jam with her Girl Scout troop was pretty much what you’d expect from a hipster 10-year-old. But our troop leader had loved the idea, so it was a done deal, school poetry lessons or not.

When the day arrived, of course we started with a snack. The troop had come straight from school on that May afternoon, and being fifth graders, they were as famished as if they’d just come from a 10-mile trek. Because poetry was the theme of the day, we’d have a “poetic” snack. First on the menu was Edamame Salami (recipe below), which I had invented for the poetry dinner chapter of my book, Friday Night Bites. The name came to me first, and then I made up the recipe to go with it: finely diced Genoa salami, crisped in the microwave, tossed with ready-to-eat edamames. For the less adventurous, there was Delish Fish: goldfish crackers dipped in melted chocolate. Both disappeared in minutes.

And then it was time for poetry. I had asked the girls to bring poems to share and had prepared a selection of my own favorites—poems I had loved as a kid, and others that I had discovered later on.

Oscar_Hammerstein_-_portraitWe began with “My Favorite Things.” We all know it as a song, but I wanted the girls to look at it sans music, both because the title fit the hodgepodge of poems I’d gathered and because, well, the thing is built like a brick wall. Oscar Hammerstein’s verses are just so well constructed. Not only is there a cunning little word picture in each line, but the rhyme scheme is deceptive in its simplicity, with a new rhyme and a refrain alternating in every other couplet. I passed out copies and pencils so the girls could analyze it for themselves, and soon they had labeled the whole thing:

mittens/kittens A

strings/things B

strudels/noodles C

wings/things B

sashes/lashes D

springs/things B

 But we weren’t done. Next, we looked for alliterations, and found one in almost every line. “Raindrops on roses,” “copper kettles,” “warm woolen,” etc. Suddenly, the verses that had seemed so familiar and so simple took on a new dimension.

For something a bit more contemporary, we looked at Adele’s “Someone Like You.” We talked about how she used the second person to give her song a sense of immediacy.

ogden nashThen came a lighter selection: “Fossils” by Ogden Nash, from the poems he wrote to accompany Saint-Saens’ “Carnival of the Animals.” It had some vocabulary to define first; 10-year-olds didn’t know that “wassail” is a kind of a drink or that “mastodontic” refers to the girth of a prehistoric mastodon. But they needed no coaching to chuckle at Nash’s mischievous punch line:

Amid the mastodontic wassail

I caught the eye of one small fossil.

“Cheer up, sad world,” he said and winked—

“It’s kind of fun to be extinct.”

 d147b662f0fc28f340d33f060a578d93Next was A. A. Milne’s wonderfully whimsical  ”Sneezles,” in which Christopher Robin has a  a case of wheezles and sneezles. It’s a wonderfully whimsical poem with a strict meter—tetrameter, to be exact. I clapped out a few lines with the girls, but they kept going until the end of the poem through lines like:


…They asked if he suffered from thirst.

                They asked if the sneezles

        Came after the wheezles

Or if the first sneezle

Came first.

         They said, “If you teazle

A sneezle

Or wheezle

A measle

May easily grow.

      But humour or pleazle

The wheezle

Or sneezle,

The measle

  Will certainly go.” …

Then came Robert Louis Stevenson, Nikki Giovanni and Shel Silverstein, the latter brought to us by several of our Scouts.

statue of liberty By then we were ready to tackle something more challenging. Our troop had visited Ellis Island together, so Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus” seemed in order. First we considered the title; we learned that the “old” Colossus was a giant statue on the waterfront of ancient Rhodes until an earthquake crumbled it to bits. We noted how Lazarus contrasted a militaristic symbol with the strong but welcoming lady of New York Harbor. Again, there was challenging vocabulary to review, but they got the gist:


Not like the brazen giants of Greek fame,

           With conquering limbs astride from land to land;

         Here at our sea-washed sunset gates shall stand

 A mighty woman with a torch whose flame,

Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name

Mother of Exiles. …

 Call me sentimental, but the last lines always get to me:

“…Give me your tired, your poor,

                  Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free

           The wretched refuse of your teeming shore

               Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

   I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 It was late in the afternoon, but I had two more poems to share. The first, one of my all time favorites, is by Emily Dickinson, and it’s as short as it is profound.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee.

One clover, and a bee.

And revery.

The revery alone will do,

If bees are few.

A tricky poem for a kid. We reviewed the hard words and then I told them how Emily Dickinson had lived at the time of the westward migration, which they had studied in fourth grade. She herself never went west and probably never saw a prairie in her life. So what was she writing about?

“Imagination,” ventured Hannah.


robert frostThere was just time for one last poem, and again I chose a grown-up one, Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken.” We defined the vocabulary words and then read: “Two roads diverged in a yellow wood/And sorry I could not travel both….”

It was May, after all, with just a few more weeks of school. I got out my soapbox. “I wanted to share this poem with you because you are all going off to middle school next year, and there might be times when you have choices to make. Somebody might offer you drugs, or there might be a bully who wants you to be a bully, too. I think this poem is about life—and about how not taking the easy road can make all the difference.” They were silent. I wondered if they were listening.

Clearly, it was time for a poetic art project. Concrete poetry—the arrangement of text in shapes that convey meaning. I handed out sheets of words that I had typed out and they got to work cutting and gluing and adding colorful flourishes with markers.

While they worked, I asked them which poems they had liked best. The answers were as different as the girls. “Sneezles,” said one. “Bed in Summer,” said another. “My Favorite Things,” said our troop leader. Around the table we went, and when it was Lauren’s turn, she said, “’The Road Not Taken,’ because it’s about making decisions that might not be popular.”

I said a silent YEE-HAAA!

On the way home, I asked my daughter what she thought about the afternoon. She replied, with all the eloquence of a kid, “It was good.”

“Ya’ know,” I said, “Some of these poems you might remember for the rest of your life. I first read some of them when I was young, and I still remember them”

“I guess so,” she replied.

That was good enough for me, because, well, I know that she will.



Edamame Salami

Makes 4 servings

2 ounces Genoa salami

8 or 9 ounces ready-to-eat edamames (thawed if frozen)

Chop the salami very finely or pulse in a mini-chopper to make small pieces. Transfer to a microwavable container and microwave on high power for 45 seconds to 1 minute, or until crispy.

Pour the edamames into a serving bowl and when the salami is cool enough to handle, pour it in and toss to mix well. Serve with plenty of napkins.

From Friday Night Bites: Kick Off the Weekend with Recipes and Crafts for the Whole Family (Running Press, 2009)



 First published on booktrib.com