For George Barlow & Amy Tudor
Soul without speech,
sheer, tireless faith,
he is that-which-goes-forward,
black muzzle, black paws
scouting what’s ahead
When he says it, I laugh—spontaneously. I’m on an interview. I know I’m supposed to respond to each question with poise, to every comment with the polish of forethought. What I’ve been told: Never speak too fast or too long. When in doubt, just fold your hands and nod. Remember: Composure at any cost!
But he takes me by surprise, and the laughter spills out, seems to dribble down my chin. I can almost see it, puddle of sound on the floor.
“Sometimes you just want to tell them to put a dog in there.”
The man is George Barlow, an established poet, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, a professor at Grinnell College where they are seeking an assistant professor to teach poetry-writing and twentieth-century American literature. This panel of three has convened to see if I am worthy of such a position, if I am qualified to guide their students toward these creative and scholarly ends.
This isn’t the right job for me, says the little voice in my head. I’m not a thoroughbred. I come from large state schools, nothing posh or Ivy. I don’t have the right papers, the right pedigree. I’m just a big, multi-genre mutt, that’s me.
But I am so fond of them, all of them, and now of Professor Barlow especially. I take out my pen and sketch the words “put a dog in there” on the crisp corner of my freshly printed CV.
“We’ll be in touch,” they say, collectively rising. I slip on my laughter as I glide out the door.
CAUTION: WET FLOOR
“It was the best interview,” I tell my partner, beaming.
“Really? Do you think you’ll get a campus visit?”
“Oh, I doubt it. I wasn’t a good fit. But I wish I could be friends with them,” I sigh.
Angie arches her brows. “Say more.”
“Well, George Barlow was talking about his poetry class, and there was a moment where he seemed to forget we were having an interview at all. He was just talking to me like a fellow poet, a fellow teacher of poetry. And he said, ‘The students are so abstract in their writing, you know. They have the hardest time being specific about anything, grounding the reader in a time and place with people and objects and tastes and smells. Their poems are very earnest, but sometimes you just want to tell them to put a dog in there.’”
I start to giggle as I recite the last of his words.
“Okay, then,” she nods. “Put a dog in there.”
Now I keel over, surrender to guffaw. For some reason, the phrase strikes me funny every time.
What’s important about the dog, of course, is that it isn’t a literal dog—or at least it doesn’t have to be. It could be a cat or a cow, a grasshopper or a flamingo, though it doesn’t have to be an animal at all. What it has to be is something you can see and touch—or at least something you can imagine seeing and touching, possibly something you have seen or touched before.
I remember learning the parts of speech as a child, and for the first few years of elementary school, the noun was defined as a person, place, or thing. Nouns were entities and locations, available for our appraisal through the senses. In workbooks, I loved searching for the nouns like a talent scout: The boy goes to the park with his baseball, bat, and glove. Count them: one person, one place, three things. Nouns were solid, familiar, accessible. They made pictures in your mind, even if there were no illustrations to accompany them.
You could put a noun on a stage. The same could not be said for verbs or adjectives, which were really only there to make the nouns look good.
Casting Call: Nouns Wanted
Then, something happened. Around fourth grade, the teachers and textbooks conspired to rewrite the definition of a noun. Expand, they said, because we were ready.
I studied with great suspicion the piece of neon poster board, laminated for preservation and push-pinned to the wall: A noun is a person, place, thing, or idea.
This was an era when people said Say what? all the time. Everybody understood the indignation this phrase was meant to convey.
So the boy goes to the park with his baseball, bat, and glove, only this time he is full of ennui, or regret, or satisfaction, or jealousy. Such tagalongs—which you couldn’t see or touch, let alone hear or taste or smell—had climbed up into the noun tree. They expected to dangle there with the rest of the tangible fruit. Our teachers and textbooks expected us to reach out and pick them.
It is my first day teaching poetry in the multi-genre class at the big state university. I feel at home here, inexplicably. My faraway friends think I have a cushy job. (Maybe I do.) They say things like How does it feel, running with the big dogs now? or I bet you’re enjoying those dog-day afternoons.
I tell my students, “Sometimes it’s hard to start a poem from scratch. There’s no shame in that.” While I’m speaking, I circulate copies of a poem by Charles Wright. Some of the words have been replaced with blanks.
“When construction workers set out to build a skyscraper, they use scaffolding first. It helps them establish a good structure, a solid foundation.” I avoid the word erect at any cost, fearing laughter will dribble down their chins. “Later, they come back and take the scaffolding away.”
Some of my students smile at me; others make the must-she-speak-in-metaphors face.
“So, you all have in front of you a poem titled ‘Three Poems for the ________.’ We’re going to start with one, the first poem in the series, then build from there. You choose what the poem is for and add it to the title. Then, let that word or words guide you as you fill in the rest of the blanks.”
“That’s it?” a girl with clicky fingernails asks.
“Just one more thing: I want you to fill in every blank with a noun.”
“A noun?” She repeats the word in her generation’s version of Say what?, which sounds suspiciously like WTF?
“Bingo!” I reply. (Interjection. LOL :-))
Nouns Wanted, Dead or Alive
Three Poems for the ____________________
I have nothing to say about the ____________________
Toward the ____________,
Or why I live at the edge
Of the ___________,
a continent where ________
Counsel my ___________________________.
I have nothing to say about the _____________
Of any of that, or the vanity
I have nothing to say about the _____________________.
All year I have sung in vain,
like a ________ breaking up in the ____________________,
not hungry, not pure of heart.
All year as my _______, sweet ________,
moved from the dark to the dark.
What true advice the ________ leaves.
(Original poem by Charles Wright, with certain words deleted and replaced by blanks)
My students are nineteen and twenty years old, for the most part. They belong to that strange, interim age where they can buy cigarettes but not alcohol, vote in a national election but not set foot in a bar.
I ask for volunteers to read aloud from their scaffolded poems. A serious boy with spiky hair and small, wire-rimmed glasses lifts his tentative hand.
“Should I read the whole thing?” he asks, clearing his throat.
“Yes, please. Nouns in all the blanks, remember.”
He nods. “Three Poems for the—” Stops. Clears his throat again. Blushes. “I actually don’t have a title for it yet.”
“That’s okay,” I say. “Just read the poem.” So much of what I do is simply encouraging them to continue, to follow through to the end of something inevitably still in progress. I think of Eliot, as I often do: For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
The paper softens in his wet palms. “I have nothing to say about the resentment toward the lost love, or why I live at the edge of the heartbreak, a continent where sorrows counsel my fears. I have nothing to say about the hopefulness, or any of that, or the vanity of the daydreams. I have nothing to say about the pain. All year I have sung in vain, like a life breaking up in the agony, not hungry, not pure of heart. All year as my wishes, sweet wishes, moved from the dark to the dark. What true advice the sadness leaves.”
There is a stunned silence, and then a few of the students applaud. A boy in a baseball cap reaches over and offers a high-five. The girl with the clicky fingernails turns around and eyes the serious boy, his spiky hair and small, wire-rimmed glasses.
“That’s deep,” she says, her words slow and penetrating, two sexy bullets aimed at his chest.
Meanwhile, as the student was reading, I recorded his chosen words on the board. They form a blue column in dry-erase ink:
To be honest, these are not the kind of nouns I had hoped for. I thought there would be trees and flowers and windstorms and, yes, maybe even a dog. I had expected nouns of the person-place-or-thing variety. Such nouns were concrete; you could picture them when you closed your eyes. But these nouns—these nouns—it was my turn to clear my throat.
“I have written down all the words Thomas used to fill in the blanks of the poem,” I say. “What do these words have in common?”
“They’re nouns,” says a girl in the back of the class, her lap full of orange peels, her cheeks stuffed with slices of orange.
“True,” I reply, “but that was the assignment. Can we be a little more precise? What do you notice about these nouns—not just Becky—anyone?”
They stare at me, blinking, then glance around at each other. This is a fishing expedition. I wait for someone to tug the line.
“All right, let’s try this,” I offer at last, as the red hand of the analog clock makes another mocking rotation. “Tell me some other words you used in your blanks.” I uncap the marker. “Go ahead. Shout them out.” More glances until a quiet voice murmurs, “Reality.”
“Thank you, Lucy. Reality. What else?”
“I had ‘spirituality.’”
“It’s just a word I like,” the boy in paint-stained cargo pants replies. “It means having the semblance of truth.”
“Do you notice anything about these words now? Tell me what they have in common.” I dangle my line before them, coax with my eyes. Swish. Swish. “Anybody?”
“They’re kind of—emotional,” Jose offers, using his belt buckle to uncap a curvy, old-fashioned bottle of Coke.
“They are, aren’t they? Most of these words point toward something big—love, heartbreak, spirituality, sadness. But I can’t picture any of these words in my head, can you? If someone says love, I have my own ideas about what love is, but how do I know what that person means by love? How can I see what that person means?”
“Yeah, but—” the girl cracks her knuckles one at a time—“how do we know what anybody means by anything?” Bless her: my devil’s advocate with the spiral perm.
“Good point, Maria. It’s hard, right? And if you want to communicate what love means to you in a poem, you might need to use other words besides the word love. It’s an important word, no doubt, but it’s also abstract. An idea-noun instead of a person, place, or thing.”
“Can you be more specific?” Jose asks, downing his Coke the way Popeye downs his spinach.
Beaming, now, at him, at all of them: “That’s exactly the question I had in mind.”
Rarely do I take advantage of my “high-tech” classroom, but on days like this, I must admit the computer comes in handy.
“Jose, what are you drinking there?” He looks at me fearfully, like I might take it away—those last, delicious droplets in the statuesque bottle.
“A Coke, ma’am,” he answers. Ma’am is only a slightly less horrifying moniker than Mrs., which I insist they must never call me.
“Coke is a very specific noun, isn’t it? We can call to mind a bottle of Coke even when we aren’t looking at one, right?” They grudgingly agree.
But when YouTube appears on the projection screen, there is a visible resurrection; the slumped bodies of my students straighten in their chairs. “Now, as I recall, there’s a series of commercials for Coca-Cola sold in those vintage glass bottles.”
Before I have even finished typing, “Coca-Cola polar bear commercial 2012” materializes in the menu bar. “Let’s take a gander,” I say.
Though they are nineteen and twenty for the most part, my students lean toward the screen on their elbows, faces cradled in hands, the way children do—expectant, delighted, mesmerized by the swirl of pixels, the sweet music and flickering light. One minute and three seconds later, a gleeful polar bear takes a swig of his hard-earned Coke, and the caption, OPEN HAPPINESS, glows beside him in a cheery red font.
“The folks at Coca-Cola know they have to link their product with the concept it represents, right? If they show you this playful scene of polar bears frolicking on ice floes and scrambling to catch a bottle of Coke, and then if they show you the happiest polar bear of all drinking that Coke at the end, they’re using a lot of concrete nouns to illustrate the ultimate abstract noun: happiness. By itself, that word isn’t powerful enough. You have to find a way to evoke it.”
Some of their heads are nodding now. I silently praise the Internet gods for their assistance. Jose raises his hand: “But, Professor, how did you know I was going to bring a Coke to class today?”
I turn the projector off, the computer to standby. I smile at him. “I didn’t.”
I like to think I’ve always favored the concrete nouns: firetrucks and cherry blossoms, ballet teachers with their blue tutus, miniature schnauzers with their scruffy beards. But when I turn back to my high school diaries, stored beside my desk in a magenta Rubbermaid bin, I find they mostly comprise vague outcries and obtuse arguments. Pages and pages of thought without image. Where are the specific details? Spring sleet. Moss-covered rocks. The illustrative examples? Sister Mary Annette, in her tweed suit and orthopedic shoes, wagging a wrinkled finger.
Instead, this trail of intangibles, like a kite-tail severed from the kite. Take, for instance:
March 4, 1995
There is so much injustice in the world, and I am furious about it all. But I know I’m selfish, too, because the injustices I care most about are personal. I’m not saying I want to be popular; I don’t even know what that would look like or if it would feel good. But it would be nice at least to be wise, and maybe influential. Writing is probably the best way to get there since everyone knows it is my strongest talent, and let’s be honest, really my only talent. Who am I kidding? So for the rest of sophomore year, I am going to focus all my efforts on a new writing project: The Adolescent Dictionary of Abstract Thoughts. Then, when I publish it, other teenagers can look up the big ideas and get some insight from them. I’m going to start with injustice, but eventually I’ll have entries for all the letters.
I want to tell my students that I understand where they’re coming from, that for a while in my teenage years and young adulthood, I, too, prized the bigger, more cerebral nouns. If I wasn’t writing about injustice, say, or love, what was I doing? Calla lilies were pretty, of course, but they didn’t feel important enough to waste a poem on. I mistook the tangible for the trivial.
But I’ve learned that teaching mirrors writing in every way: why tell when you can show? So the question became, How could I show my students the profundity of that calla lily, the extraordinary significance of the trampoline or the tuba? Was it time to trot out Eliot’s “objective correlative”? Was it time to write on the board in all caps Williams’s poetic maxim, “No ideas but in things”?
Instead, I thought of George Barlow’s comment: “Put a dog in there.” In other words, stay small. Stay specific. Use the things of this world—even what seems ordinary on first glance, especially that—to tackle the harder questions.
I needed a dog poem, stat, and fortunately, I knew just where to get one.
The next time we meet, I tell my students to close their books and power down their devices. I pass around copies of a poem called “What We Love,” written by my friend, the poet Amy Tudor. We had read together several times, Amy and I, and this was her poem that limbered us—readers and listeners alike. This was her poem that let us off the leash of our knowingness and set us sniffing around the damp, green earth.
“I will read this poem aloud first, and then you can read it through again on your own, underlining all the nouns.”
They nod as one face, but the eyes of some suggest they have come to regard me as a kind of Noun Nazi. I decide I can live with that.
“I walk my old dog down past trees whose white bark
is trimmed with silver in the light rain of early Spring.
The dog’s small heart is failing and the vet’s said
he shouldn’t be out, but if we walk slowly he can go
four or five squares of sidewalk, then I let him stop and rest.
He puts his nose up into the cool air, the wind ruffling
his black and white coat and the gray on his ears,
the wind smoothing over him. When he can’t go
any further (halfway past that lovely ochre-colored house
in my neighborhood, the one that’s half-hidden by linden
and guarded by an iron gate), I carry him against my chest.
One day a black lab stood at a driveway gate
and barked at us as we passed. My old dog
looked from beneath half-lidded eyes and didn’t answer,
and finally the other dog’s owner, an older man,
came out the screen door and called the dog to come back.
The dog rose from where he sat, a hind leg dragging
and his right-front hitched as he moved toward the house.
I watched it go. The man looked at me holding
my old dog against my chest. The man smiled.
He raised a hand, half-greeting, half-regret.
I should say here that I know the rules I’m breaking.
I was told years ago that poets shouldn’t waste
their time on trivial things like dying pets.
“It’s been done, and done, and done to death,”
a friend once said. And it has, sure
as death’s been done and done and done to death.
So I’ll make a deal with you—forget
what I’ve said about my dog in my arms,
his nose in the air, the wind like hands. And forget
the man and his black lab that limped up
those brick back steps. I won’t write about any of that.
I’ll write a poem about what we love instead.
What we love is a night and a house
wreathed with linden, the dark kept outside
a circle of light over an iron gate. It’s fine
as silver paper or the wind of early Spring.
What we love is a tree that grows outside our window
as we grow inside its panes, a small good thing
we bring home—or that follows us there—one day.
Then it’s a friend that walks with us, gentle
and welcome as rain. It’s what we call to us to come
when darkness is coming, and it’s what tends us,
and what we tend. And finally it’s what we carry
close against us, feeling blessed as we hold it
and joy for what it gives and has given,
for the comfort it’s been through hard, heavy days,
forgiving every burden it’s been, grateful
for even the grief we must carry when it’s gone,
that small, warm, impossible weight.”
As soon as I finish reading, my devil’s advocate speaks. “I don’t get it. Why would anyone tell her she couldn’t write about her dog?”
“Good question. Why is writing about a dying pet risky business?”
“Because it could seem too sentimental, I guess,” Thomas says.
“Too private, maybe,” Lucy says. “Like why would anyone else want to read about your dog dying. We’ve all got problems.”
“So is that how we feel about this poem? Should the poet-speaker have kept this to herself?”
Their heads shake like trees and flowers in a windstorm.
“Okay. So you know I have to ask—if not, why not?”
I cast my fishing line far out in the water. I am ready to reel them in. But when they are silent for a long while, not sure how to say what they mean, I try this instead: “Tell me some of those nouns you marked. Go ahead. Jump right in.”
Soon, the whiteboard is speckled with words, a blue confetti of them. I have lost the will to confine these nouns to a single, tidy row; instead, they spread and smudge in all directions:
rain Spring heart vet
wind house gate
“Such ordinary words,” I observe. “They don’t seem so special on their own, do they? But notice how every time the poet wants to tackle something difficult to explain—something like love—she likens it to something we’re all familiar with.”
I ask Maria to read a few lines aloud for us, and her mouth seems surprised by how light the words feel on her tongue, how easy and natural they sound: “What we love is a night and a house wreathed with linden—what’s linden?”
“It’s a tree that has heart-shaped leaves.”
“That’s symbolic!” Michael says, peeking out from under his ball cap proudly.
Maria wets her lips and continues reading: “the dark kept outside a circle of light over an iron gate. It’s fine as silver paper or the wind of early Spring. What we love is a tree that grows outside our window as we grow inside its panes, a small good thing we bring home—or that follows us there—one day.”
“So, on the one hand, you don’t want your poem to be too sentimental. You are writing for others besides yourself, after all. But, on the other hand, the poem is going to get away from you if you don’t ground it in the things of this world, things your reader knows and will recognize. To talk about what we love, the poet needs houses and trees and windows. She needs her dog in there—her old, dying dog that she loves.”
Today Jose has a water bottle on his desk filled with a bright pink liquid. My best guess: Gatorade. “Could you put this in a poem?” I ask him, pointing toward the cinched, plastic waist, the sleek handle.
“Yeah, I guess you could,” he says, mulling it over.
“What about nail polish and orange peels and Jansport backpacks with initials sewn onto them? Could you put those in a poem?”
They start to giggle as they realize I am naming objects in the room, objects they possess, and objects in their purview. “So, from now on, I should be seeing cross necklaces with birthstones and iPhones in glitzy cases and glimpses of all the graffiti carved into these ugly, yellow desks, shouldn’t I?”
“So—you just want us to tell you about what we see?” Jose asks.
“No, that’s too easy. That’s just an index. That’s just this list on the board.”
“Then what?” the girl with the clicky fingernails prompts, her gel pen poised to get it all down, verbatim. I covet her gel pen, that inky relic of the not-too-distant past.
“I want you to show me.”
Over dinner, I ask my partner, “What’s your favorite dog poem?”
“Is this a sub-genre I didn’t know about? What’s yours?”
“There are more than I realized,” I say. “Of course, I love Amy’s ‘What We Love’ poem, and Mark Doty’s ‘Faith’ poem from Atlantis. I like when he writes, ‘We don’t have a future, / we have a dog.’ You can’t picture a future the way you can picture a dog.”
“I like cat poems,” Angie says. “I like Marge Piercy’s poems. ‘The Cat’s Song’ in particular.” We eat our green beans, grinning, thinking, Let us walk in the woods, says the cat . . . Let us rub our bodies together and talk of touch.
“You know what poem I love especially? Elizabeth Bishop’s ‘The Fish.’” Now I have to look it up so I can get every word just right: the skin like “wallpaper,” the “tiny white sea-lice,” “the pink swim-bladder/like a big peony.” Not even just like a flower—like a peony. Whatever Bishop shows me, I’ll believe.
My friends think I have a cushy job. (Maybe I do.) I’m lucky to have a job at all in this economy, let alone a job where I get to talk to students about how to fashion the world they see around them into the world of literature that others read and share.
All my books are dog-eared. I come home and kick off my shoes and say, “My dogs are really barking today,” because I like old expressions like that. Sometimes I fall asleep early on the couch, my lap full of poems on loose-leaf pages. “I’m dog-tired,” I say, following Angie up the stairs.
On many occasions, I grow sentimental myself and try to follow George Barlow’s pitch-perfect advice: Put a dog in there. But I’m still a little more Bailey than Barlow, head in the clouds, always hoping to lasso the moon. I grin like little George in Gower’s drugstore, flick the lights, and call out, to no one in particular, “Hot dog!”
* Charles Wright’s “Three Poems for the New Year” appears in his 1984 collection, The Other Side of the River; Amy Tudor’s poem, “What We Love,” is reprinted here in its entirety with the author’s permission. It also appears in full text online at http://www.stilljournal.net/amy-tudor-poetry.php.The full text for Mark Doty’s poem, “Atlantis,” is available online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/178815; the full text for Marge Piercy’s poem, “The Cat’s Song,” is available online at http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174146; the full text for Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, “The Fish,” is available online at http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/22238. All student names referenced in this essay are pseudonyms. Work-in-progress shared in this essay is composited from multiple student poems.