My Wobbly Bicycle, 154

Posted by on Sep 26, 2018 | 11 comments

Three converging things:

1) the note I keep on my desk, advice from Sokuzan, my Buddhist teacher: “Don’t conclude anything.”


2) an interview with Stephen Dunn in the new issue of The Georgia Review, and


3) a note from an editor rejecting the poems I sent him, saying: “they all share a common characteristic that tips the scale toward the Return side: some bits of summation/explication that are unnecessary and/or less interesting than the images and anecdotes and implied metaphors.”


Stephen Dunn: “The poem might be smart, but who cares? It has to get away from itself.”


I’m not sure I agree with the editor about these particular poems. Nevertheless, it’s true I am an expert at logic (summation/explication). I was trained to be logical. I was rewarded for logic by the attention of my father. I was punished for the lack of it by eye-rolling distain. Maybe I’ve spent the last 30 years meditating to try to break out of that prison. The best I can say now is that I can see the prison of it. I see when the poem’s locked up. I see when my thoughts are locked up. I see when I can’t WAIT to artfully conclude the poem, to return it to its snug harbor.


No matter that I’ve taught for years that a poem should skate out into a widening sky rather than tie itself into a nice neat bow. That it should open the mind, not satisfy the mind. You can’t will this to happen.


Dunn says, “I have to discover what’s beyond what I wanted to say.”


If you’re not a writer, hang on. I am thinking beyond making poems. Remember I was going to talk about aging? Aren’t old people  supposed to have a few wise conclusions based on their long life? And politics. God knows I have conclusions, opinions.


As Sokuzan says, conclusions are like holding your hand in front of your face. You see the conclusion, not the truth. The truth (now this is me talking) is slippery. Even in science, we know how slippery the truth is. Can’t pin it down. Opinions should probably be held lightly. Logical conclusions better come with a caveat.


Dunn: “[I had] the wish to live a coherent life, one that made sense or would hold up.  I gave that up; it was impossible.”


Eavan Boland: “Poetry begins where certitude ends.”


With each surgery, Jerry and I both thought, okay, this is it. This will surely take care of the issues. Giving up on believing my own scenario has been really helpful. I do hope and expect that his pain and his mobility will improve, but this is our life, now, and who knows what the next day will be? Big sigh of relief in that, actually.


My junior high English teacher would give us extra credit for making booklets that illustrated and/or expanded on what we were studying in class. I realized very quickly that I could artfully paste some pictures, write a few captions, slap it all together, and get extra credit. Once I asked the art teacher to help me make a cover. She basically drew it for me. It was lovely, albeit not my work. Another few points of extra credit. At the time, my father made some scornful remarks about my not learning anything by this. He was right. It was a cheap cop-out and I knew it. So I bristled, of course.


I have made poems like that. I have turned a poem loose at the exact point that I knew it was pleasing and/or funny, instead of keeping on to see what chaos might lie under it.


I don’t know what can be done other than keep on keeping on, pushing the boundaries of the poem—or the essay—not giving up on it too soon. And pushing the boundaries of the mind by practicing listening well, making a deliberate intention to open rather than to close.


It is entirely likely there are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in my philosophy.










  1. I needed this wobbly wisdom today. Thanks.

    • I’m glad it seems like wisdom. Thanks, Bill.

  2. Fleda…. what a wonderful essay. Given where I am now (Puebla, Mexico) and what I am doing (an artist residency in printmaking) and the big cancer thingy, etc., I am particularly taken by your declaration at the end of the essay…to take on “the deliberate intention to open rather than to close.”. Those are powerful words. I’m reading them while listening to Dr. Ford’s amazingly present self at the Senate Hearings.
    Here in Mexico there is the constant problem of re-evaluating the goals of the Mexican Revolution and looking again and again at the national memory of colonialism and class structures in society. I’m no expert, but my sense is that this issue stands in Mexico in some parallel to the question in the US of how to remember and learn from the growth into being the United States of America, with slavery, racism and extermination of peoples in its wake. In that quagmire Walt Whitman said, “unscrew the locks from the doors, unscrew the doors themselves from the jams.”. (or something close to that (I am working without the text in hand.) At any rate, the call to be open rather than close down is something you personify… in the many experiences that could have closed you down you have found a way to open into new vistas, promises, surprises, creativity. You are my hero….. M

    • I’m so grateful for your comments, Mark. I’m always nervous when I post, not knowing if I’ve said what I meant to say, if I’ve been accurate and not gotten caught up in rhetoric. I’m so happy you’re reading.

  3. WOW. I want to go back to RWW and have you for a mentor!!! I know I’m a rationalist with a nasty sense of humor. And I want my stories to be tied in a neat bow, or give’em a laugh. Saving this page forever and going to reread it many times. You are totally right and I’m not even going to try that aging bit. Queen of Denial.

    • Thanks, Judith. This may be the way we all are as writers. It’s the pushing on that’s so difficult. And to know when it’s really us pushing on and not some idea of how we should be.

  4. To roam into a no person land receive a note claiming what you say is a common characteristic without an asterisk only an implied metaphor is hard to take always to be original is a Romantic notion pushing boundaries but what to make when boundaries push at you into the ambiguity of the who and why the bones of where when the mystery is the who of you is astonishing. Take heart!

    • Thank you, Elon.

  5. Kenneth Koch’s “Movement” comes to mind, and the small essay about it in Jane Hirshfield’s book, Ten Windows: How Great Poems Transform the World.

    “Good poems require, as we’ve seen, some reach of being; they move from what’s already known and obvious to what it not. All poets travel, then, whether in body or only in mind. Many of the world’s poets have traveled for reasons of exile… . Koch though moves through the world in the way of the lucky: to see what and who is out there, to rest himself against the new, to meet others, to find out who he himself is” (p. 211).

    • Sorry I didn’t comment on this earlier, Ruth. I’m glad you mentioned both of those people. I have used Hirshfield’s book many times. Thanks.

  6. Bravo, what necessary words…, a magnificent idea

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