Ordinary Genius: Why the Chicken Crossed the Road

By this time, I’m ready to ask the chicken question.

I’ve been scratching around for an angle, and even as I type this, I don’t have one. But Kim Addonizio tells me I don’t have to know where I’m going when I start writing, and even goes so far as to say it might be best not to. If that’s true, then I could walk her way and ask the age-old question to see if it gets me all the way across the boulevard.

(Addonizio got a poem out of it when she tried.)

So what do you think? Why did the chicken cross the road?

It’s a question I refuse to answer, frankly. There are as many punchlines to the chicken joke as there are eggs in one basket, and no matter which I choose, the joke tellers in my family will hatch another. Some things, I figure, are better left unsaid and unknown.

In Ordinary Genius, Addonizio tells us that poems are often not about what the poet knows, but what he doesn’t, and that the poem itself “can open a field of inquiry.”

If you know too much when you start out, your poem may fail because there is nothing to discover.  You’ve closed all the doors, in advance, for yourself and your reader.”

I wonder about that fine line between knowing enough and knowing too much. My chicken coop has only one door, and it seems I closed it so far in advance I don’t know how to get back out today. This week’s Ordinary Genius reading has an exercise in which the reader is to describe an object in detail. That much I know.

What I don’t know, because I can’t relocate the exercise no matter how many times I reread the chapters, is why I was to describe the object and what I was to do after describing it. (Why not try a different exercise from the chapters, you ask? One whose instructions I could locate, perhaps? Because the section seeking to discern the motivation of road-crossing chickens was juxtaposed against a backdrop of sex and standing naked in front of a three-way mirror, and I simply was not in the mood.)

If it’s not chickens, it’s feathers, you know.

Despite the not-knowing, I did write a detailed description of the object that was most present at the time of the reading: my clothes dryer. (Watch now, how I make the smooth segue from chickens to laundry.) By unlikely coincidence, my dryer shrieks just like a chicken which, for reasons of mass transit, did not quite make it across the road.

With said description in hand, I pulled out a poem I recently wrote about the screaming dryer (and nothing to do with poultry) and reworked it to fit the exercise, real or imagined. This, naturally, raises questions about chickens and eggs, and which may have come first. But that’s neither chickens nor feathers.


It’s the background sound, track that plays
all day between blue jeans and boxer shorts.
Drop another load of whites, move the darks
and it starts, grinding metal on metal deep
in the machine, out of sight, over and over.
It turns with the drum, changing tune,
sometimes soft or adding a rest,
but always, always repeating, piercing,
until you don’t hear the noise
and at the same time hear nothing but.

Sounds like a bearing’s going bad,
the serviceman says, but he’s just here
to empty loose coins from the washer pump,
indifferent to the scraping, shrieking
no one can really stand
and no one really minds.

Yes, he could fix it, he supposed,
but may as well bear with
until it gives way.

Won’t ruin anything, after all, he said,
that’s not already broken. I’ll bet
you hardly notice anymore.

I sit on a hard chair at my kitchen table,
stare across dullness, a scuffed floor
to the laundry and count
how many days we might wear
the same socks and t-shirts.

That’s when I know–
some day, the dryer is going
to have to break.

Addonizio was right. I could start writing without knowing where I was going. I could even start writing with the chicken question. And before long I’d have something. She didn’t, however, say what it was that I would have.

Why did the chicken cross the road? I suspect it had something to do with a laundromat.


We’re reading  Ordinary Genius together. How did you do this week? Was there an exercise you particularly liked? One you really hated? Would you share your poem in the comment box with us? Even if you’re not reading along, perhaps you’d like to add your own poem answering the question, Why did the chicken cross the road?

If you post at your own blog, please include the link in the comments as well as we can share with you.

And to help you plan for the coming weeks:

September 26: Part I: Entering Poetry (through Chapter 4)
October 3: Part I: Entering Poetry (Chapters 5-10)
October 10: Part II: Inner and Outer Worlds
October 17: Part III: The Poem’s Progress
October 23: Part IV: Toward Mastery

Photo by Toby M, Creative Commons license via Flickr. Post by LW Lindquist


Buy a year of Every Day Poems, just $5.99— Read a poem a day, become a better writer. In October we’re exploring the theme Wine and Beer.

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  1. L. L. Barkat says

    Omg, Lyla, I am laughing and laughing. This is hysterical. Only you could get a chicken into a dryer.

    Wait, is that what’s screeching in there? :)

    • says

      On my honor. The chickens that lived in my front yard not long ago did not find their way into my dryer. They went to the farm.

      The cat, on the other hand, often liked to get into the dryer.

      But the shrieking comes from neither. She went to a … different farm.

  2. Sheila Dailie says

    Like most poetry, Lyla, this Ode to a Grinding Dryer can be so much more. The lines
    ” no one can really stand
    and no one really minds.”

    allude to several things in my world right now. Just the other day as I was strolling around the outer edges of our acreage, I made a mental note to on occasion “Pay attention to my living space.” As I thought it, I was thinking “Notice when the walls get dingy and need painting”. However, as I just wrote it, observation of the inner life also needs periodic examination.

    So I guess my comment proves your point….writing sometimes takes us where we didn’t know we needed to go!

    Oh, and have I told you that I enjoy your sense of humor?

  3. says

    Why did the chicken cross the road?
    She didn’t want to hang out on the line.

    You see, a chicken and laundry do go together. The feathers, though, are tough to collar.

    Oh, the load you bear in the interest of poetry!

    I love your post, Lyla, especially the part about not being in the mood. And Glynn’s comment made me laugh all over again. Who has a 3-way mirror at home?

    • says

      Geez, Maureen. Your segue from chickens to laundry was way smoother than mine. Three times smoother. 😉

      Who has a 3-way, and who stands gazing in it long enough to pull the detail the poet did in her piece?

      • says

        I don’t have any idea where that came from. I’m usually the worst when it comes to joke-making, especially about chickens. Add a load of laundry and I’m done for.

        Your poem is a delight; the little wordplay in the first line, the very good line breaks, and more. Love reading it again, and laughing.

  4. Donna says

    I am laughing my head off at ALL of this! I’ll be back later to contribute more than howling but I just had to thank you all for being so much fun! Lyla… I loved the smooth segue from chickens to laundry and I laughed out loud as you pointed that out!

  5. says

    Good lord, I love you, Lyla! Chickens/baskets/coops/feathers/shrieking/eggs/hatching – it’s all there, somewhere. I’m going to have to dig into this book again. I started it before Laity and haven’t been back. Overwhelmed by the sheer number of exercises – and now reading yours and Glynn’s? Thinking she is some kinda crazy. Which means I might really like it. Sigh.

    • says

      See, Diana, this is why I am at Tweetspeak. No one else would know quite where to put me. 😉

      Yes, you should dig in it again. Yes, you might really like it. Don’t worry about the number of exercises. You don’t have to do them all. Shouldn’t do them all. (Some of them, if you do them, like the one Glynn and Maureen mention, maybe don’t tell us. 😉 )

      I don’t do a fraction of them. I pick and choose, and then, when I’m done, I don’t even know what I did. How hard can that be?

  6. Paul Willingham says

    As the reviewer has already pointed out, there are many reasons why the chicken crossed the road. I subscribe to the theory that the chicken had self image issues and so crossed the road to prove that he wasn’t chicken. Not unlike Don Knotts in “The Ghost and Mr. Chicken”.

    I was on the scene this past weekend
    and can testify without fear of
    contradiction, I heard with technology
    aided ears the banshee cry of the GE
    or maybe Maytag as it lost its bearings

    Slowly grinding, grating, building,
    little heaps of alloy dust, a sound
    akin to a rogue smoke alarm, already
    a common sound in this home
    or a cat with its tail caught under the rocking chair


  7. says

    Phew. I’m back. Between spontaneous computer freezes, blanked out screens, and spontaneous updates (complete with restart right in the middle of my no-where-near-the-last sentence) I decided that what was happening was one of two things: either I was meant to just toss it all and come back tomorrow, OR I was meant to dig in, not take no-computer-aggravation for an answer, and write dang piece about the cowboy boot on my dust covered mantle. I chose the latter (reminding myself that life has more choices than not) and so here it is… the cowboy boot: http://thebrightersideblog.blogspot.com/2012/10/the-cowboy-boot.html

    • says

      True enough, Megan. It wouldn’t take much at all. And I’m sure there are coins in the dryer, too.

      The other night, just past the din, we said out loud that maybe it’s time to call the serviceman back in. :)


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