How to write a poem in four easy steps

1. First, forget that you want to write a poem. Because maybe you don’t.
But you’ve got a blank page or too-bright screen in front of you,
aching for you to put something on it.

1b. Just set down some words, gently, as if you’re placing a delicate
china cup onto its equally fragile saucer. Let them come through
your fingers, any words you like the sound of. Maybe chimney. Or plucky.
Or plucky chimney. They don’t have to logically go together. Let yourself
smile at their willingness to show up for you.

2. Add more words. Arrange them in short lines if that looks good to you,
little stairsteps marching down the page. Try not to think too hard about them,
these raindrops of syllables trickling through you, these sturdy words:
Mediterranean. Catalpa.

2b. Or maybe your lines stretch across the page like the long arm of a wave
coming in parallel to the shore. Watch it arrive, melt into foam.
Call it a prose poem, if you want.

3. You may think, This is a poem? It’s a poem if you call it a poem.
Doesn’t matter if anyone else thinks so. Or praises it in any way.
It’s your poem, dammit.

3b. Keep going till the poem wants to end. How do you know
it’s the beginning of the end? Put an ear to the words; listen closely
as if trying to determine if someone is still breathing. Listen to the words
inhaling and exhaling, living on the page, stairsteps leading to some
final thought, becoming something that didn’t exist before you started.

4. Resist the tendency to dismiss what has appeared from who knows where
with (look at that!) a bit of fairy dust sprinkled on top. Honestly, it’s magic;
no one understands how this happens. Admire what has tumbled down those
stairs and landed.

4b. There. You poemed just now. That is no small thing, my friend.
You poemed.

Photo / Jan Haag
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Singing rocks

Kai Skye /

Ah, but getting the rock to confide in you,
to divulge its stony name… there’s the trick.

It helps to hold the rock with great tenderness
and, yes, hum, softly, and listen, carefully,

ear to the pebble to detect its tiny notes. Which
it will give you, if you are patient, if you whisper

names as you sing. They might be the simplest
words but in a language only stones know. Still,

the gift of rock music is worth a bit of your heart.
(Where did you think it came from?)

Do not imagine that you know their sounds.
They promise: It will surprise you.

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Spock Was Jewish

(in honor of Live Long and Prosper Day, Leonard Nimoy’s birthday)

We think Star Trek,
but Jews know that it’s
the gesture for the Hebrew letter
Shin, the first letter of the word Shalom.

And the man who created it,
who parted the fingers of his right hand
for the rest of his life in salutation,
knew that it calls for healthy and prosperity—

live long and prosper.

People don’t realize they’re blessing
each other with this,
said the Jewish man
who gave the world Spock.

But they are. And they do.

May his memory be a blessing.

Leonard Nimoy, March 26, 1931–Feb. 27, 2015
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Birthday pie

for Laura Martin

It occurs to me that I’ve never asked—
you, the Pie Lady, about your favorite kinds,
you who bake them for holidays and
occasions, for friends—

and what flavor might I assemble for you?
A word pie of perfectly blended syllables
not unlike your concoctions on the page,
I think—

that would have to contain some funny,
long-winded titles and a zombie or two,
that would taunt some and tribute others,
but would not math—

we don’t math—

and your pie would embrace an abundance
of funny, of love, of great-hearted hugs,
of all the sugar and spice of life
that is, blessedly, thankfully,


Laura Martin reads her poetry in Davis, October 2022
(Photo: Dick Schmidt)
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Gift from the cat

You think I don’t love you,
that I think of you as
just the feeder?

What about when I curl up
right between your legs at night,
locking you into warmth?

When I sniff the socks you’ve
just removed to inhale
the essence of you that walks
through the world every day?

When I leave you an offering
in sand, a bit of ephemeral art
shaped just so, which I know
you will scoop into a bag
and throw away?

That’s affection, my fine
feeder friend, a bit of
feline adoration sculpted
just for you.

Sculpture by Diego… maybe Poki… hard to know
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Real love

(in memory of Heide Juchnik)

That we are hardwired to love
and lose is what comes again and again—
the euphoria of spring springing
into sudden, bright leaves where
there were none days ago,
green harbingers that will age
through summer, grow brittle
by fall.

It is the way of things:

That decline into the time when
passage to the next place is possible,
mourning what was, learning
to let go.

That love emerges in the form
of unexpected beings who appear,
lend a hand, a heart, a word,
companion spirits, seen and unseen,
who arrive with armfuls of compassion,

kindness falling like soft rain
after a long dry spell, moistening
hard ground, coaxing out of hiding
green stalks topped with dancers
in fluted yellow skirts to courtesy
in the breeze.

There is no such a thing as end.

Photo / Tony Perez
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Instructions for the new season

Now you’re just teasing us with these
popcorn clouds scudding by one moment

and thick gray clodhoppers overhead
the next. You dangle spring before us

like a carrot before the horse, like
catnip treats I offer the cat before

sneaking in to pill him. He is not
pleased at my subterfuge, as we

are not with this on-again, off-again
glimpses of the abundance to come.

Or is this a challenge: to see the beauty
in the gray, in the chill, not wait to

revel in bright warmth and gumball
color popping at us? To recognize

that the season has commenced,
even if it doesn’t look like it?

Then let me walk into this day
and peer at the pewter ceiling that,

for the moment, is not shedding
moisture on us, and smile at

the altostratus clouds cloaking
the sky, obscuring the sun, which,

we remind ourselves, always shines,
even when we can’t see its luminous,

smiling face.

Photo / Jan Haag
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Tree trimming in the rain

Three young men showed up
not long after 8 a.m. ready to
carefully trim the old sycamore,
its caretaker a bit trepidatious
about what Braden, the climber,
might decide to remove.

It’s a heritage tree, the estimator
said, which means that they take
extreme care with the old girl—
no chainsawing, just long-handled
pole cutting here and there,

there and here, on a day of chilly
mizzle. Braden, the sculptor, dangling
from the rope high in the sycamore
like an orangutan hanging by a long
arm, taking his time, surveying,
removing what isn’t needed—

wielding the chisel not unlike
Michelangelo, young at his craft
but evidencing a good eye,
moving through the century-old
limbs like the pro he is, at a vantage
point I envy, one I’ll never see—

while groundsmen Austin and Max
apply chainsaw and rake to a couple
of volunteers, one of which has died,
beneath the great tree.

They are artists and barbers,
surgeons and coroners, as well as
those who tidy up after the messy
business of disposing of some who
have died, of tending the living who,
after the team’s good work, will,
the tree gods willing, continue to rise
tall and strong.

Braden trims the sycamore / Photo: Jan Haag
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High water: 31.13 feet

for Deborah Meltvedt on World Poetry Day

The river looks like a muddy lake,
milk chocolate spread from bank to bank,

the swollen American not at flood stage,
but definitely a crest that will recede

in the coming days. We walk the west
side levee now that the bulldozers and

earthmovers have moved on farther
upstream for more repair, mourning

the taking of so many trees and habitat
of river dwellers we no longer hear or see.

We understand about necessary reinforcement,
flood protection in times like these when

so much water careens down this narrow
course. But we wonder where the otters

and beavers have gone, where water fowl
have relocated. We walk close to the river’s

edge near a small copse of trees up to
their knees in the deceptively still stream.

A mallard pair swims between spindly
trunks like drunken bees weaving from flower

to flower. You’ve seen these two here before,
say that you like to think of them as a mated

pair—imagine them floating together on
hot days on this thin ribbon of river just as

they now cruise the high water. They paddle
into a sunspot, pause, look our way, then

synchronize a turn downstream, heading
someplace we cannot begin to follow.

A mallard pair swims among the trees flooded by the swollen American River, March 16, 2023. (Photos/Jan Haag)
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toward spring even as
winter still whooshes through us,
shakes us like a wet dog
pelting us with spiky drops.

the heart toward mystery,
toward the divine,
as we walk into what
we cannot see,

as we turn
rounding this sharp corner,
then that one,
the winding path unclear
but, we trust, leading
to some bright thing,

a centering where we
might find wonder,
we might hold awe
in our trembling hands.

We turn into transformation
even as we cannot see it,
a pilgrimage we make
daily, step by step,

a circuit through
the inner journeys
of our souls.

Granite Bay State Park / Jan Haag
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