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Poetry Classroom: Directions


Poetry Compass by Walt Stoneburner

Welcome to this month’s poetry classroom, with poet Daniel Bowman, author of A Plum Tree in Leatherstocking Country. We invite you to respond to the poems we’ll share here—their forms, images, sounds, meanings, surprises—ask questions of Dan and each other, and write your own poems along the way.


Head right through the toothed wheel,
through going home,
through can’t go home again,

out toward the scarred fir
and the leaning poplar.
At the bridge you’ll hear
your uncle laugh as he deflects
an onslaught of marshmallows.

The only way from there
is directly into the creek.
Then go up the hill
and trace the crow-black
abandoned strip mall parking lot’s
Pollack-stripes of tar
into the humid expanse
until nothing has a name.

It may seem like you’re going
in a circle.
That’s perfectly natural;
you’re almost there.
Just bang a hard left
through your father’s Jersey City
and turn wide
around your mother’s ear,
through the cigarettes and pigeons.

At this point,
you’ll be under the compass.
Which is not being lost
and also is not somewhere but not nowhere.

Photo by Walt Stoneburner, Creative Commons, via Flickr. Poem by Daniel Bowman.


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Your Comments

6 Comments so far

  1. L. L. Barkat says:

    i like a surreal poem now and then. What do you think makes a good one, Dan?

    especially liked the last bit…

    “also is not somewhere but not nowhere”

  2. Dan says:

    Well, for this poem I was playing around with the idea that in our age, information (“directions”) is everywhere and instantly available on nearly any topic. Yet, as Job 28:12 ask, “But where can wisdom be found?”

    We get all the info about how to do things well, how to thrive, how to ensure human flourishing in our lives and communities, yet we often feel as lost and troubled as if we had nothing to go by, no directions at all.

    So the directions in the poem are surreal non-directions, meaningless in the sense that they will help you achieve a specific goal or destination, but meaningful insofar as they allude to home, family, journey, and identity.

    I think the surreal can work when it serves a purpose and is anchored in the universal– in this case, the archetypal experience of feeling lost, disoriented, or alien to your world and even to yourself.

    • L. L. Barkat says:

      so the surreal deals in the subterranean, perhaps? And maybe that’s why we follow along with it, though on the surface it seems disoriented. We sense the depths. We’re drawn.

      • L. L. Barkat says:

        Just remembering that one of our themes last Fall was Surrealism. This was a favorite poem of mine that came along for the occasion:

        And it is subterranean. Ha. Literally and figuratively (“I Dreamt that You Were Eating Dirt” ;-) )

        • Dan says:

          LOVE that! It reminds me that for poets, the surreal is another avenue that can help us twist language into new and fresh phrases, lines, and even entire idioms. Our work won’t get stale when we take risks like that, at least occasionally.

          Also, it occurs to me that the surreal can help us get out of the voice we normally adopt, to establish a new tone that challenges the assumption that the speaker of the poem is always simply the poet, or some version of him or her (as is so often the case in today’s poetry). Jack Leax did this in his book TABLOID NEWS (WordFarm, 2005). He had established his voice with plainspoken nature poems, but then came to a point in his career where he felt he was just repeating himself. He didn’t, as he put it, know how to “break that contract” with readers who came to his work with certain long-established expectations.

          So he went way out into left field and did a book of poems based on supermarket tabloid headlines. The material is absurdist and often surreal. And the project allowed him to reinvent himself, energizing him for future writing.

  3. Dan says:

    I can’t resist sharing a poem by one of my all-time favorite (and very underrated) poets, a Japanese dream-scape/surrealist poet named Nobuko Kimura.


    I woke from a nap and yawned
    and the yawn ended up being reflected in a rainbow
    and because the rainbow, exactly as it was, arched over the village beyond, too,
    in the village beyond that’s unknown to me
    everyone knows about my yawn, I’m told.
    They compare my swollen eyelids and unkempt hair to funny things
    and there’s even a folkloric legend about me, I’m told.
    Nonetheless no one in the village believes
    that I truly exist, I’m told.

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