I don’t know much about motorcycles, except that men seem to like them. My first year of college, I planned to be a writer. I was taking a creative writing class, and that detail about men was reason enough for me to write a motorcycle poem. In it, a man is waxing his bike, and a woman watches. I had little romantic experience at that point, but I already knew that the human need for love was going to drive me artistically. Now, I’ll get bored occasionally with the status quo—doing more of the same, in the same way. So instead of crafting here a well-behaved essay, with tight focus, I’ve mixed it up. Today’s piece winds between the search for love, the ways of teachers, and the methods and idiosyncrasies of poets. Are you scratching your head, thinking, “Those things go together?” Yes, they do—so follow along, and I’ll illustrate. I don’t know about you, but it’s reassuring to me to hear other people’s stories, to be reminded I’m not the only one walking some wobbly blacktop through life.
The photo above is from my twentieth birthday party. I’m the one in the cart, and that’s my roommate Kathy behind me. Look at our hair! It was the 70s. When I showed the snapshot to my husband, he said I look drunk. No. We had a chaperone. That’s my late Uncle Arne, just visible behind Kathy. He was a biology prof at the college. Arne and I were close—he used to call me “Pill,” as in “you’re such a . . .” The young man on the left in the picture didn’t live on campus, and I don’t remember his name.
Someone in the dorm had found—uhh, helped themselves to?—the shopping cart. It spent the rest of the semester stationed against the wall near the entrance to our floor. People from other floors used to come and borrow it. Lord knows what high jinks that shopping cart saw. One of my friends had made the newspaper hat I’m wearing.
But let’s go back a year—back to the motorcycle.
That first creative writing class altered my understanding of poetry. With the exception, maybe, of E. E. Cummings, the poems I’d read in high school had been highly formal poetry by people long dead, most of them men. It’s how textbooks were back then. Think Tennyson, Wordsworth. I was blown away to discover in that writing workshop that poetry had changed. By the twentieth century, poems didn’t have to rhyme. And forget meter! Dum de dum de dum.
By now, you know there’s a poem coming up, somewhere down the page. Maybe you don’t know much about poems? Don’t worry—I’ll talk you through.
I was also blown away by my first writing teacher. His name is J.D. Whitney, and he’s still writing. You can still find his books. Here’s a link. J.D. invited us to call him by his first name, and that was a first for me—a teacher I wasn’t related to, treating me like an equal. Here’s where I confess that J.D. rode a Harley to campus. Might that have had something to do with that motorcycle showing up in a poem I wrote while in his class?
If you think about your teachers, you can likely track pivotal moments—things they said or did in the classroom that changed you. One of the first poems I submitted to J.D.’s workshop was this one that’s now upon us. I was a late bloomer. I had recently experienced my first kiss—shared, on a weekend trip home, with a guy I’d long had a crush on. The poem grew out of that life-changing moment:
“Good night,” he said,
“Good night,” she
out of any
moving cars,” he
down to her heart.
Did my first-kiss partner actually say that? I think he did, but after almost fifty years, I can’t swear to it. He was an experienced kisser—but dating is way more than physical attraction. Trying to decide if you’re compatible with the person next to you is awkward. Poetry doesn’t stick to the facts—just to truth. The truth of this poem is that I was smiling clear down to my heart when I got home that night. I didn’t even wash my face before I got into bed, lest it wash away the magic.
More enamored than ever, I went back to school and wrote the poem, then handed it in for workshop. Around that time, I had a one-on-one conference with J.D., at which he held up “The Proclamation” and said something like, “I’m interested in how you structured this poem. Did you have a particular reason for it?”
I stared at him. I stared at the poem. I said,“Uhh” (that part I’m sure of), and then followed with some version of, “No, I just liked how it looked.”
Back to the typewriter. My motorcycle-riding professor had just invited me to think about structure. A poem is more than strings of words—it’s words organized for effect. I started to think about the poems by contemporary poets that J.D. had been sharing with the class. I started to look closely at J.D.’s poems. I always record the date when I finish a poem, so I know I wrote this next poem while in J.D.’s class. I’m not certain that I had the nerve to hand it in—I mean, J.D. rode that Harley—but I hope I did. Here’s the motorcycle poem:
On Shining a Motorcycle
This poem and the first one are both small poems. But there’s a big difference in the motorcycle poem—and I’m not just talking about how sweet and naïve the first poem is. If you look at J.D.’s work, you’ll see his influence on the second poem. One learns by emulating what one admires—whom one admires.
The lines in the motorcycle poem are tighter—I made them short and confined to deliver a little “punch.” Some of the lines are offset, to give the poem audible “edge.” Long white spaces like that invite a delay in saying or hearing those lines. Despite my sexual innocence, there was one thing I’d already figured out. The complicated dance that intimate partners engage in—an extension of the search for love—is eons-old and rife with conflict.
To explore that, in ‘On Shining a Motorcycle” I got rid of punctuation except for the emphatic period at the end. The exchange between the pair is clipped and fast and has a quiet tension. The motorcycle is the woman’s rival. She and the man play a sort of game, and in this instance, the “she” in the situation wins. Nature is on her side.
Yes, it’s still cute, maybe two steps past naïve.
I’ll note that I have a special kind of poem I call my “bratty poems.” I take aim in them at someone or something. “On Shining a Motorcycle” was the first. On the surface it seems to let men know that I wanted a lover but didn’t need one. Ironically, I was really talking to myself. No use losing yourself to love.
* * *
Before we go on, I have to confess to being a poetry groupie. Long before I entered a graduate writing program, I went to poetry readings and took college level writing classes everywhere I lived. In the early eighties I was living in Salt Lake City. I was married by then (not to that early crush), and I was putting my husband through graduate school and arranging my schedule so I could take writing classes. I’d already earned a B.A. but needed to be in a classroom. The poems I was writing continued to be small. I wrote about my childhood, about love in its first intensity. My poems were built around cows, barns, hayfields, and young lovers. Don’t misunderstand. I love those early poems—but they weren’t ambitious.
A new poet came to town, the late Mark Strand. I promptly enrolled in his workshop. What I didn’t know was that our styles were leagues apart. Mark Strand’s poems throw off the chains of reality. He spent the whole semester trying to convince my classmates and me to stop being so tied to how things are. He told us to stay up all night before we wrote, to do something, anything, to disrupt our logic centers. I cried a lot of tears that semester, fortunately not while in class. My literary aspirations had been shaken.
Then, one night toward the end of the semester, I had a dream. It made no sense at all—it stepped spectacularly away from reality. I wrote the dream’s disjointed images down as a poem and, when it was my turn to share, I read it to the workshop. Here’s what I read:
When your spouse
backs the car down a rock pile
and the rear wheels fall off,
one after the other,
before the T-shaped pin that holds
the axle in place snaps,
close the bathroom window before you leave,
and kill all the moths on the walls.
They are after the skirt
that your friend wears in Milwaukee,
and they flutter gray wings.
There’s some kind of marital conflict going on there, no?
When I had finished reading, Strand sat back in his chair, lifted his hands, and applauded. I can still see his hands clapping . . . slowly, deliberately. There was no crying when I got home that night. Damn teachers! Every time you turn around, they’re changing your life. I am so grateful for Mark Strand. From that poem on, I was no longer earth-bound, reality-bound. As for the craft of the poem, you’ll notice I used both short and longer lines, breaking them to create both visual and auditory music. I was developing my own style.
Losing my resistance to stepping outside of reality transformed me, and all my future work. The shift shows dramatically in one of my plays, where a serpent-inhabited storm threatens the scene, and a grandmother is suspected of being a shaman. The abandonment of apparent reality is also evident in my novel, with its mysterious pelican that flies overhead, a winged emissary from God.
After Salt Lake, my husband and I moved to Boston for his postdoctoral fellowship, and I kept on going to readings and taking workshops. I got a job working on the support staff at Harvard, and I was able to enroll in a poetry writing class taught by the late Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.
Getting into that class thrilled me. I was older, a non-traditional student, and I was able to get to know Seamus in a way that traditional students couldn’t. I eventually came to count him as a friend. But like Mark Strand, when I appeared at his workshop, he had an uphill battle with me artistically.
Perhaps because he was European, with centuries of great literature behind him, informing his art, he spent a lot of time introducing us to poets of the past and teaching us to write in traditional poetic forms like sonnets and sestinas. I’d come into his workshop certain that poetry should be free verse. Poets had long ago abandoned rhyme and meter and traditional forms. I had no serious interest in moving my own work backwards.
But I’m a good student—and Seamus kept making assignments.
He shared with us a poem titled “Ask Me No More,” by the 16th century English poet Thomas Carew. Every stanza of the poem begins with the words “Ask me no more.” A stanza is the equivalent of a paragraph. Seamus instructed us to write a poem of our own, using the same number of stanzas as the Carew poem, with the same pattern of rhymes and also starting each stanza with the words “ask me no more.”
I’m a good student, but I couldn’t do it. I could do the stanzas. I could use the rhyme scheme. But I couldn’t use that archaic phrasing.
So I changed it. I changed it to “don’t ask me,” and then I wrote the poem entirely in my head, lying in the bathtub one night. I still remember the low light in the room, how warm the water was, how quiet the house. I was there alone—my husband’s work kept him away until well into the evening. The poem seemed to flow fully formed from my lips, as if I’d been writing it a long time, somewhere along the back roads of my mind. It’s not hard to remember a poem that rhymes. The repetition of sounds gives your brain extra power to record the lines as you go. There’s little wonder that ancient people used poetry to record great happenings and tell important stories.
The poem I wrote, titled “Roadkill,” has roots in my life, but the happenings in it are made up. The truth of the poem is how weary, heartsick, and confused I was. My husband and I were living through the last hopeless months of our marriage. When I took copies of the poem to workshop, passed them around, and then read it aloud, Seamus stared at the paper for a few moments. Then he looked up at me over his half-moon glasses and said, “Well, Donna, it’s not quite the assignment now, is it? But it certainly liberated something strange.”
Yes, it had—here it is:
Don’t ask me the color of the car,
or the name of the bar
it was leaving. The driver’s face
seemed somehow out of place,
so don’t ask me if his eyes were green
or brown. It didn’t matter then,
and doesn’t now: his lids shut down
like Sunday in some Mormon town.
Don’t ask me if I heard my mother
cry out in her sleep, or if my father
sought the window, dawn
unfolding promises across his lawn.
Don’t ask me if the shimmer in my head
surprised me, when the fine sled
that was my bones upended.
These are things that can’t be mended.
Don’t ask me if I thought to run,
or if I tried—or, rather, stunned
and tired of moving, simply stood
doelike in the headlights, in the woods.
Have you noticed? Reading the drafts as I wrote this piece, I suddenly saw that all the poems I’ve shared here involve vehicles. They’re all about men, and they all involve vehicles. I’ll let you ponder that on your own.
My first husband loved “Roadkill.” We didn’t hide what we were feeling during that last year—we mutually grieved the waning of our relationship. The reference to a Mormon town is an echo of the many skiing and snowshoe outings we had taken in Utah, away from the city and into the mountains around small ranch towns that were basically a diner, and maybe a gas station. We loved those little towns.
Less than a year after I wrote “Roadkill,” our marriage was over, and I left Boston for graduate school. It was a sad ending to my youthful search for love. Eventually, “Roadkill” was published in Hawai’i Review. Bless Seamus—he had converted me. While I still write mostly in free verse, I like to play with formal elements like rhyme, and I will even write the occasional sonnet or sestina.
If you’ve made it this far in the essay, you’re a rare soul. Thank you. Writing is strange work—sometimes, entire days are spent at the desk, moving words around, trying on and abandoning ideas. It’s exhilarating, but it is solitary. Add the complication of the genre you’re working in being poetry—which few appreciate—and you’re pretty much writing for yourself. No wonder poets tend to flock together at readings and conferences. Some even marry other poets. It helps, you know, in the search for love, to wake up every morning to someone who understands you.
My husband Bruce and I are a two-poet family. We’ve been making our way together for more than thirty years. Have I ever seen him shining a motorcycle? No, but he’s a fiend for waxing the car. Bruce and I have a little dog. Whenever we lift her up onto the bed, she walks around sniffing the edges. That’s a good metaphor for a poet—someone who constantly explores the edges.
Poetry isn’t poetry because it makes lofty statements about important subjects. It’s the amplification of the simple and the mundane. The most mundane things and events have power. They have meaning. If you think about it, the motorcycle in my poem is not just a motorcycle—it’s vigor, danger, and even possible extinction for the man who so lovingly polishes it. The stakes in the poem are high, just as the stakes in life are high.
To fortify yourself for the challenges you’ll meet, walking your own wobbly blacktop, you should be reading poetry. I’ll warn you, though. Like a good teacher, poetry will change you—and it will be in ways you don’t expect.