The F Words: A Writing Coach

As a professional writer, I’m usually sure when my finished work is ready to be published. Of course, as a professional writer I hope that editors will make changes that clarify and enhance the work I gave them. Almost always, they do.

But I also know that, sometimes, what I’ve written needs help before I can submit it — there’s something that I just can’t see, or that I’m doing wrong. I can sense this. But I don’t know what that something is. When this is the case, I ask for help from my writing group and, sometimes, from a writing coach. That writing coach is Esther Hershenhorn, who knows children’s literature inside and out. She is perceptive, analytical, and incredibly helpful.

Over the last twenty years, I have hired Esther as a writing coach on one or two occasions, and have also taken classes that she teaches. In early 2018, after I finished the fourth draft of The F Words, I felt that, before I went about marketing the book, I wanted an expert opinion on it. My writing group had helped me through the first three drafts: I wanted new eyes to look at the fourth draft. And so I consulted Esther.

After Esther read the manuscript, she and I had a long, fulfilling meeting, both of us with a copy of the manuscript and our computers. We busily looked up various things online as Esther suggested them; we discussed The F Words and how to market it; we talked about the voice, the plot, the audience. You name it, we discussed and analyzed it.

Esther thought that the fourth draft was almost there. What it needed, she felt, was the weaving in of important points throughout the story — so that a reader wouldn’t feel a story thread had been dropped. I could have kicked myself when Esther said this, because I weave baskets, and so I certainly should have known that one must never drop a weaver: if one does, failing to go under or over the correct number of stakes, one has to unweave all the way to the mistake, correct it, and start weaving again.

Luckily, correcting dropped threads in fiction does not require unweaving. All it requires is finding the spots where things are missing and then inserting the missing thread.

The best way to determine where something is missing is to “color” one’s manuscript. I’ve discussed this before (see Color-Coding Your Manuscript). Normally, I think, the writer herself would decide which threads she should search for, but in this case Esther stepped in as an outsider (one who had not seen the story before, in any of its stages) and listed for me the six threads she thought I had to keep track of, so that the story was as tight and compelling as could be. For this I was extremely grateful and, actually, eager to hear which threads she thought needed to be tightened in the story.

Her first thread I could have guessed: Cole’s relationship with his father. This is an extremely important part of the story. I was pretty sure I hadn’t dropped this thread anywhere. (The color chart would prove that I did loose it in a couple of places.) I colored the  Dad thread purple. 

So that you can better understand what I’m saying, I’ve made a reproduction of the headers of my color chart, so that you can see the six categories. Also for your information, the “page sets” on the left-hand side indicate consecutive groups of 3-4 pages. Because the manuscript was 330 pages long, I didn’t want to deal with a color chart of one page at a time — way too huge and possibly overwhelming. So I compressed my manuscript into tiny type and looked at it in “page sets.”

Esther’s second thread was Cole’s cross-country running. Being a runner is an important part of who Cole is, and it’s also part of the plot. As soon as Esther named this category, I knew that I would find gaps in the manuscript. And I did. I colored the cross-country thread brown.

I knew that one of Esther’s six threads would be Poems or Poetry, because Cole is required to write two poems a week. This was the third thread she mentioned. I colored it green.

As Esther and I were talking and I was listing the threads she wanted me to weave in more tightly, I found myself wondering what there could be after the first three: Dad, Cross-country, Poetry. Esther’s fourth thread surprised me: Thinking about F Words. Not writing the poems, but the mental activity that takes place before Cole decides on an f word. This involves his observing, thinking, analyzing, reading a dictionary definition (not always), and sometimes looking up a word’s origin. I colored the “Thinking about F Words” threads blue.

I doubt I would have come up with this on my own. In fact, I’m certain I would not have done so. That’s because Cole’s thinking about which words to write about seemed so natural and effortless to me — such a no-brainer — that I didn’t realize that all the observing, analyzing, and thinking about f words ran parallel to Cole’s observing, experiencing, analyzing, and thinking about society. His growing skills at thinking are not confined to words — they spill over into life.

Esther’s fifth suggested thread was about alternative social systems, which is what the students in The F Words think about and talk about. I titled this thread “Socialism” because Cole’s parents are socialists and socialism is one of the alternative social systems the students want to talk about in class and out of class. I colored that thread red.

And the final thread, as you can see on the closeup, is Chicago. The setting. Esther felt, and rightly so, that I didn’t have quite enough “Chicago” references in the book. I colored that thread pink.

After I decided my colors and then went through the entire 330-page manuscript six times (one for each color), and created the chart you see to the right, I taped together the pages, hung the chart on my bookcase, and, every day before I began writing Draft #5, consulted the chart.

Wherever there were long white gaps, I had to weave the missing thread back into the story.  Occasionally this involved adding a whole new paragraph, but usually it was a sentence or two, often in dialogue form. And sometimes it was merely a phrase or a word — little “connections” throughout the manuscript that helped make it a much stronger story. With no loose threads!

After I finished this draft, Draft #5, I began to market it, confident that I had a strong story that was well-written. In April of 2020, City of Light Publishing offered me a contract. And very, very soon — September 1, 2021 — the novel will be published.

I don’t often consult a writing coach, but I had a feeling that I needed Esther to help my manuscript take a qualitative leap forward. I am so glad I asked for her help, and so glad she responded.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

 

The F Words: Poetry and the Middle

In my previous blog I mentioned that in writing The F Words based on the advice in Write Your Novel from the Middle, by James Scott Bell, I reaped not only the benefit of writing a book more easily and more quickly, but also the benefit of improving one of my thematic elements precisely because I was writing the novel toward its middle.

That thematic element was Cole’s writing of poetry. Specifically, only poetry about words that began with the letter f. As I mentioned in a previous blog, The F Words: Poetry, I felt good about the two poems Cole wrote in Chapter 1. They reflected Cole’s experience and his deepest concerns.

And so, off to a good start, both Cole and I were quite happy to have him continue writing such poems. Whenever he was struck by an f word (and he was struck by a lot of them) he decided whether or not to write a poem about it.

He wrote one about his best friend, Felipe. And about the Ferris Wheel he and his parents used to ride when he was younger. He wrote about force. Then he learned a new word and wrote about a fusillade. And so forth.

As I approached the middle of the book in my writing, something began to nag at me, and that was that Cole’s poems all had a recipient: Mr. Nachman, his English teacher, who had made the writing of them a condition of his not telling the principal that Cole had spray-painted the high school wall. Having had wonderful English teachers in high school and college, having been an English teacher myself, I realized that Mr. Nachman was not a passive recipient of these poems. He assigned them for a reason, and he would comment on them for a reason.

As soon as that realization hit me, I understood that Mr. Nachman would help Cole understand more about language and structure. And thought and action. I also understood that what Mr. Nachman has to offer Cole should logically follow Cole’s midpoint self-assessment. So, a couple of chapters after Cole’s midpoint decision, Mr. Nachman talks to him about trying some poetic forms (which include syllable-count poetry). He explains to Cole that writing poems that fit a certain form challenges poets in a way that free verse doesn’t. What Cole has been writing up to this point are free verse poems.

Mr. Nachman gives Cole the URLs to a couple of web sites which explain poetic form. At home Cole visits these sites and dismisses many of the forms as waaaaaay too difficult. But the syllable-count cinquain appeals to him. Curious about what form will do to a poem, he rewrites one of his free verse poems, “Force,” as a cinquain. Thus the poem “Force” appears twice in the book. Cole’s gut feeling is that the more “disciplined” form poem is more more interesting. In fact, he likes the way the form poem explodes with power.

Force

Force us
into corners
where we can barely breathe,
force us back so far we explode
on you.

For the remainder of the book Cole writes both free verse poems and form poems. His last poem is a strong form poem . . . indicating both that Cole understands the need for people to fight back against oppression, and that he has internalized that the methods of fighting back must be shaped and organized.

Would these scenes and this theme (through poetry) have occurred to me if I had been writing the novel from beginning to end without thinking about what happens in the middle? The answer is, I don’t know. I like to think that they would have, but I can’t say that for certain. What I do know is that they happened because I was thinking specifically about what should happen in the middle of the novel. That was when I realized that something should happen not only to Cole, but to the poetry he writes. In so many different ways, I am so glad I took the time to read and think about Write Your Novel from the Middle.

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

The F Words: Poetry

If you’ve been reading my blogs on how I wrote The F Words, you might remember that I set out to write a YA novel about student rights, immigrant rights, and political protest. Never did it cross my mind that I would also be writing a novel about poetry. Or writing poems themselves.

But somehow, that happened. It happened in the first few pages, with the inciting incident: Cole’s English teacher, Mr. Nachman, catches him tagging the high school wall with the f word and makes him atone for it by: (1) cleaning up the graffiti, and (2) writing two poems a week for the entire school year, each about a word that begins with the letter f.

Honestly, I don’t remember how I came up with this atonement. It just seemed right, something that an English teacher such as Mr. Nachman (who has a sense of irony) would require for a student’s emotional and intellectual growth. The words came out of Mr. Nachman’s mouth . . . and suddenly both Cole and I were stuck with writing two f-word poems a week

Well, just as I went full-speed-ahead with the inciting incident, I decided to do the same with the poetry. The inciting incident occurred on a Thursday night and, as Mr. Nachman reminded Cole, the next day was Friday. Two poems were due.

So Cole goes home and pulls out a dictionary, turns to the f words, and his eye alights on the word far. He opens his tablet and writes:

Far

is not here
it is there
far is the opposite
of near

It’s hard for me to remember exactly what I was thinking as I was writing about Cole writing the poem. I was definitely into the mind of a 15-year-old working -class high school boy. He would want to do as little work as possible on this extra assignment. So: short word, short poem. Short work. Cole’s feeling pretty confident.

He scans the list of words after far and considers writing a poem about fart, but decides Nachman might not accept it. Then his eyes light on fartlek, a training technique for runners. Cole is a cross-country runner: he knows fartlek.

Cole gives the poem a title and starts copying the dictionary definition, breaking up the lines so that what he’s writing looks like a poem. He gets this far:

Fartlek

from fart, Swedish for speed
and lek,
Old Norse for play, play speed,
a training
technique for runners, 
alternating intense 
time 
with less intense 
time, 
all in one continuous workout. 

Cole wants to consider the poem done. But he realizes that Mr. Nachman will realize that he (Cole) merely copied a dictionary definition. And he was given instructions to not do that. So Cole adds another stanza, entirely his own, and the poem ends up like this:

Fartlek

from fart, Swedish for speed
and lek,
Old Norse for play, play speed,
a training
technique for runners, 
alternating intense 
time 
with less intense 
time, 
all in one continuous workout. 

But whoever called it play speed
never
had to 
do it.

For a moment Cole is deeply bothered by the words intense time in the poem, so much so that he thinks of not turning the poem in. But that would mean writing a third poem, which he doesn’t want to do. So he prints out the two poems, puts them aside for the next day, and goes to sleep.

What was evident to me as I was writing this first chapter was all the anger and fear Cole feels because his father is doing time in Cook County Jail. The “Far” poem is a sign of how much he misses his father, who is no longer near. The “Fartlek” poem reflects a large part of Cole’s life and interest: his cross-country running. But the stanza he adds to the poem reflects his understanding that training is not easy. In fact, it’s very difficult, and doing it requires commitment. 

I felt good when Cole wrote these two poems in the first chapter. I felt that what was on his mind was coming out in poetry. I felt that he was well on the way toward self-reflection and change. All a result of the inciting incident. 

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The F Words is available for Pre-Order wherever books are sold: from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; and from Amazon. To get updates and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.

Robert Frost

The photo above is of my copy of The Complete Poems of Robert Frost, which was given to me as a birthday present in December 1963. I thumb through the volume on occasion, looking for particular poems, or just looking for something that triggers my memory or attracts me in some way. I have always found the poetry of Robert Frost appealing.

Robert Frost was born in 1874, married in 1895, and attended Harvard for two years (1897-99). He worked as a farmer for nine years, and during that time he must have awakened even earlier than most farmers, because he wrote poetry each morning. Farming didn’t work out economically for Frost . . .   possibly because he was so much more interested in poetry. Giving up on agriculture, he became a teacher. In 1912 he and his family moved to England. It was in England that he published his first book of poetry, A Boy’s Will (1913) at the age of 39. “Reluctance” is my favorite poem from that collection. 

Reluctance

Out through the fields and the woods
And over the walls I have wended;
I have climbed the hills of view
And looked at the world, and descended;
I have come by the highway home,
And lo, it is ended.

The leaves are all dead on the ground,
Save those that the oak is keeping
To ravel them one by one
And let them go scraping and creeping
Out over the crusted snow
When others are sleeping.

And the dead leaves lie huddled and still,
No longer blown hither and thither;
The last lone aster is gone;
The flowers of the witch hazel wither;
The heart is still aching to seek,
But the feet question ‘Whither?’

Ah, when to the heart of man
Was it ever less than a treason
To go with the drift of things,
To yield with a grace to reason,
And bow and accept the end
Of a love or a season?

Frost was a master of the iamb: a two-syllable metric foot consisting of an unstressed sound followed by a stressed one. Examples: Exist, Because, Diverge. He wrote poems in iambic dimeter, as in “Dust of Snow.” In iambic trimeter, as in “Nothing Gold Can Stay.” In iambic tetrameter, as in “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening.” And in iambic pentameter, as in “Acquainted with the Night.”  I suspect that Frost could have mastered any line length in iambs.

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

In 1914 Frost’s second collection of poetry was published, North of Boston. This short collection begins with “Mending Wall.” I swear that every single time I drive by a stone wall on a country road, I think of “Mending Wall.”

Frost and his family returned to the United States in 1915. He bought a farm in Franconia, New Hampshire, continued to write poetry, and began teaching English at Amherst College. The Franconia house is today a museum and writer’s retreat site called The Frost Place.

Unlike many of his contemporaries (Amy Lowell, T.S. Eliot, Carl Sandburg, and others), Robert Frost didn’t experiment with poetic form. He didn’t, for example, write free verse. Because of this, and because of his rural-based subject matter, some literary critics ignored Frost or considered him an “old-fashioned” poet. But of the poets who were awarded the Pulitzer Prize more than once, Frost leads all others: he won four, compared to the next-closest (also traditional), Edwin Arlington Robinson, who won three.

If you aren’t familiar with the poetry of Robert Frost, I suggest you read a few of his poems, including the ones I’ve mentioned. Perhaps they’ll lead you to two roads diverging in a yellow wood . . . and you’ll take the one that makes all the difference.

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Barbara Gregorich’s poetry (none of it in iambic pentameter) has been published in several places, including Barnwood, Blue Collar Review, Inkwell, and Prairie Journal, and is available in Crossing the Skyway.

Keeping Cool in Outdoor Kitchens

Every summer my aunt, who lived on a farm, cooked in the outdoor kitchen rather than in the indoor kitchen. The more generic name for such a kitchen is a “summer kitchen,” but my aunt always called it the outdoor kitchen. The farmhouse, built around 1850, wasn’t air conditioned, and on a very hot day cooking in the kitchen was not only intolerable, it also made the rest of the house even hotter.

The old-fashioned farmhouse outdoor kitchen was not like today’s outdoor kitchens, which are literally outdoors, on a patio or other open area around the house. The farmhouse summer kitchen was usually a one-room roofed and enclosed structure (containing a kitchen and nothing else). You had to go outdoors to enter it. That is, you had to walk out of the main house to get to the other little house that was the outdoor kitchen — which is probably why my aunt called it an outdoor kitchen. 

Luckily the people who built the original farmhouse on my aunt and uncle’s farm also built an outdoor kitchen very nearby. This kitchen consisted of a stone floor, stone walls, and wide eaves that kept out the sun. I don’t remember what the roof was made of, but I do remember that the outdoor kitchen always felt cool. Even on a hot day.

I wrote this poem in memory of that kitchen.

A summer [outdoor] kitchen

Outdoor Kitchens

Before the cool hum of air conditioners
Before the glut of quarter-acre plots
When blazing days heightened kitchen heat
When everyone craved a cooling rainstorm
Women found relief in outdoor kitchens

When sizzling bacon and crackling cornbread
Roasting chicken and baking biscuits
Boiling potatoes, wilting greens, and steaming corn
Would have produced indoor saunas
Women cooked in outdoor kitchens

Thick stone walls defied noonday heat
Wide eaves foiled each invading ray
Stone floors remained divinely cool
Air breezed through uncramped space
Distress simmered down in outdoor kitchens

Though abandoned they have not disappeared
Like faithful friends who will not leave
Many linger close to the main house
Look for one when you pass a farm
Symbol of different ways, the outdoor kitchen

After the techno-hum of a long hot day
After a multitude of hydra-headed tasks
When pressures magnify indoor heat
When everyone hungers for relief
Consider the solace of the outdoor kitchen

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Barbara Gregorich’s poems are available in Crossing the Skyway: Poems.          

Two-Way Street

I wrote this poem many years ago, way before I became a Roadie (see The Endless Highway: My Life as a Roadie). It seems, though, that being a Roadie may have been my destiny.

Two-Way Street


People in my early life mistook me for a messenger,
a carrier, courier, bearer, delivery person.
Cousins saddled me with items for Grandma,
who ladened me with numerous inessentials
to transport elsewhere down the road.

Sisyphus with a twist: no rock, no hill, 
just package after endless package. 
They had cars, they had trucks:
why was I their Mercury?

Moving away, I inserted several states 
between me and them. In my new, 
improved state people do not consider me
a runner. If a package is important,
they know all about United Parcel. 

Today I realize the roads travel 
in two directions, 
askers bound  to house and yard, 
while I — I know streets,
shortcuts, 
destination, 
determination:  
I deliver.

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Crossing the Skyway is Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poems. She hopes to put “Two-Way Street” into a second collection.

Poetry for Children

All studies in early childhood development have shown that both rhythm and rhyme play a huge role in helping children acquire early literacy skills. Parents and grandparents used to recite poems and songs to infants and toddlers, but now this happens less and less. Literacy experts have found that way too many 4- and 5-year-olds have never heard a single nursery rhyme in their young lives. This is sad. Hearing poetry helps children develop an ear for rhyme and rhythm, as well as for understanding more complex reading-and-thinking skills such as word usage and meaning, foreshadowing, and cause and effect.

The verses we know as Old Mother Goose’s Rhymes were compiled during the 17th century. My mother bought me a Mother Goose book and read to me from it until I was able to read on my own. Some of the rhymes I remember are: Little Bo-Peep; Little Boy Blue; Robin Redbreast; Going to St. Ives; To Market; Wee Willie Winkie; Simple Simon; Three Blind Mice; Miss Muffet; Humpty Dumpty; Jack Sprat; and of course Jack and Jill. I also remember my grade school teachers reading these poems to us.

Poetry for children was very popular during the Victorian era. One of the collections of poetry my mother gave me contained many poems by Victorian poets such as Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear. But it also contained poems (or parts of poems) meant for adults. I remember this one from Tennyson.

The Eagle

He clasps the crag with crooked hands; 
Close to the sun in lonely lands, 
Ring’d with the azure world, he stands. 

The wrinkled sea beneath him crawls; 
He watches from his mountain walls, 
And like a thunderbolt he falls. 

—Alfred Tennnyson

I used to recite this poem and pantomime the last line over and over. 

Although I loved the language and imagery of “The Eagle,” and somehow sensed that this was very good writing, I was also much enamored of humor when I was in grade school. In particular, I was drawn to the dark h humor of the Little Willie poems. Example:

Into the family drinking well
Willie pushed his sister Nell.
She’s there yet, because it kilt her —
Now we have to buy a filter.

My favorite Little Willie poem, which I still know by heart, is this one:

Willie saw some dynamite,
Couldn’t understand it quite.
Curiosity seldom pays:
It rained Willie seven days.

Today many wonderful books of poetry for children are published in picture book format each year. Most of these books are themed. And there are so many wonderful poets writing for children that it would be impossible to list them all. So I will mention only three of my favorites, Kristine O’Connell George being one of them. I love all her books, but am especially fond of the Little Dog poems.

Children also love the clever rhymes and observations of Jack Prelutsky’s poems. And, of course, those of Shel Silverstein, whose book of humorous poems for children (ages 6-8), Where the Sidewalk Ends, is now in its 36th year of publication. The book is a perennial Best Seller on Amazon and is often the year’s best-selling book of humorous poetry for children — indicating that when they’re young, children enjoy the rhymes, rhythms, and irreverence of poetry.

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Barbara Gregorich’s poetry for children has been published in Cricket and other children’s magazines.

Royal Blood

I often hear people use the expression “royal blood,” as in “she has royal blood in her veins.” They say this in all seriousness — as if there is such a thing as royal blood,  identifiable under the microscope. I’d like to think they use this expression unthinkingly, but I suspect otherwise. 

Here’s a poem I wrote during an irate moment when I read in a serious book on genealogy that somebody had “royal blood.”

Royal Blood

Royal blood
my ass.

Myth — poison
strewn about
by the ruling class,
like grain
to chickens.

Though science yields
no proof, brain-weakened
peeps believe
in blue blood,
deemed superior
to the red
that flows
without recompense
to keep the blue
enthroned.

Arise!
Fly this coop
of lies!

Royal blood?
Show some
common
sense.

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Crossing the Skyway is Barbara Gregorich’s first collection of poems. Some day she will publish a second collection.

He Traded Rose Gacioch

Rose Gacioch’s parents emigrated from Poland to the United States in the early 1900s. A member of the immigrant working class, Rose Gacioch did not speak perfect English. This is what happened to her as a result.

He Traded Rose Gacioch

He traded Rose Gacioch,
he did, the President
of the South Bend Blue Sox,
after just one season.

He traded Rose Gacioch,
he did, even though the Manager
and the Board of Directors
ordered him to trade anyone
but Rose Gacioch.

He traded Rose Gacioch,
he did, because although she had
great speed, could field, throw, hit,
and hit for power, he thought
she didn’t speak English good.

His eyes weren’t on the game,
they weren’t; they weren’t on Rose’s
baseball skills. His eyes were on modes
of dress, on extending a pinkie finger
while drinking tea, and on speaking English good.

And so he did, he traded Rose Gacioch
to the Rockford Peaches, where she slammed
triples, set the record for outfield assists, and,
when she grew older and slower,
pitched a 20-wins season.

He traded Rose Gacioch, he did,
because he didn’t count performance,
only appearance, and when you encounter
his likes in your workplace, remember
that Rose Gacioch’s bat, Rose Gacioch’s arm,
Rose Gacioch’s feet, and Rose Gacioch’s head,
they spoke. They spoke good.


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Other poems by Barbara Gregorich appear in Crossing the Skyway.

Emily Dickinson

The very first Emily Dickinson poem I encountered was in a book of poetry for children. My mother gave it to me when I was in second or third grade. In among poems by Lewis Carroll and Edward Lear, there was this one:

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you — Nobody — Too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise — you know!

How dreary — to be — Somebody!
How public — like a Frog —
To tell one’s name — the livelong June —
To an admiring Bog!

Several years later, probably while in junior-high, I encountered Dickinson’s “A bird came down the walk” poem. Here is its first stanza:

A Bird came down the Walk —
He did not know I saw —
He bit an angleworm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

In both the “nobody” poem and the bird one, Dickinson shows a quirky sense of humor. Her observations are so astute that her poems are like visual memories. We might not remember the exact wording of a line, but we remember the visual image.

As I mentioned above, when I first read Dickinson’s poems I was seven or eight years old. My memory of the words on the page is that the lines of the poem did not contain excessive dashes. It’s possible that children’s book editors removed the dashes — which just about everybody agrees are excessive. And certainly the short lines look better without the dashes, which seem to interrupt the flow of a poem. Critics argue that Dickinson used the dash to emphasize certain words or thoughts; to indicate uncertainty; to indicate a shift in thought; to connect and separate at the same time; to be informal.

For ease of reading, I prefer the poems without all the dashed dashes! Although . . . when I see one of her poems and it contains no dashes at all, I think something is wrong.

Just as the “a bird came down the walk” poem shows Dickinson’s sense of fun, the well-known “A narrow Fellow in the Grass” poem shows she can make us shudder at the feeling of a snake unexpectedly gliding by our feet.

In my late teens and early twenties I began to encounter people of all types, I was struck by how unanchored some of them seemed. It appeared to me that they hopped from one idea to another to another to another, all without examining how or why or what the differences were. And then one day, while reading The Collected Poems of Emily Dickinson (I was taking a class in Dickinson) I ran across this four-line poem:

I bet with every Wind that blew
Till Nature in chagrin
Employed a Fact to visit me
And scuttle my Balloon —

For years I had that poem hanging on my office wall.

A large percentage of the words Dickinson wrote with are one- or two-syllable words of Anglo-Saxon origin. They are, therefore, words very familiar to us, and their brevity and familiarity help give them power.

But Dickinson had a very large vocabulary that naturally included words of Greek and Latin origin. When she used such words in a poem, juxtaposing them against the Anglo-Saxon words, the Greek or Latinate words seemed more powerful. As an example, consider one of her most highly regarded poems, “Because I could not stop for Death.” The words in the first two lines are short Anglo-Saxon words. The fourth line ends with the word “Immortality,” which came into English from Latin. The contrast between the Anglo Saxon words and the Latinate ones helps the reader feel stronger emotions and, at the same time, think about concepts and beliefs.

Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman were the two most important poets of 19th century USA. Whitman was published and self-published in his lifetime: Dickinson had only ten of her poems published. The two are very far apart in style and subject matter, but both have influenced generations of poets. Whitmanesque lines and themes can be seen in the poetry of Allen Ginsberg, particularly in “Howl.” Dickinson has influenced poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and Susan Howe. And I can’t help but think that her short-lines influence is visible in the “skinny” poems of our era.

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None of the birds in Barbara Gregorich’s poems bite angleworms in half. See Crossing the Skyway: Poems.