Were you once eighteen, Billy Collins?

Were you once eighteen, Billy Collins?

I’d like to think that you were once as wide-eyed and as foolish as me, that you never got your words in quite the right order, and that somedays you gave up, tired and frustrated.

I’d like to think of you leaning over a notebook, maybe in the middle of the night, holding one of those cigarettes you so often mention, smoke curling up towards the ceiling, ashes spilling onto the desk, smoldering for a few seconds before turning permanently black, white, and grey.

I’d like to think that you tapped your pen against your cheek and that you sighed dramatically like I do when the whole prospect of being a writer seems as pointless as a career in engineering.

I want you to have struggled so that I know that I’m not alone, not so very juvenile, not so very stupid for thinking that maybe I have a future in playing with words.

I want to know that with your dignified wrinkles and receding hairline came wisdom and improvement.

I want to know that when the corners of my eyes droop, when I develop those oddly named crows’ feet, that I too will the sort of person that get recognized by Congress and speaks at The Strand.

And makes eighteen-year-old girls write about how much they want to be like you.

In Which Ella Memorizes Poetry for Sport

“Pippa! Pippa! Pippa! Want to hear me recite ‘Litany’ by Billy Collins?” was the first thing I said when Pippa arrived home from boarding school for her spring break.

And because we were still in that delightful 24-hour period before we start arguing, she agreed. So I recited and she laughed in the appropriate places and my mother noted that I’ve been reciting it for anyone who is in the general vicinity for days now.

I should probably tone down my delight over having memorized another piece, but it’s one of my favorite poems, and I tend to heavily proselytize anything I develop an extreme fondness for, no matter the other person’s level of interest. (This is why at my sixteenth birthday party, I forced all of my friends to watch Miracle, a movie about the 1980s Olympic Hockey Team and paused it every few minutes to explain what was happening. Surprisingly, no one was as quite as enthusiastic about the film as I was.)

Here’s the poem:

Litany by Billy Collins

You are the bread and the knife,
The crystal goblet and the wine…
-Jacques Crickillon

You are the bread and the knife,
the crystal goblet and the wine.
You are the dew on the morning grass
and the burning wheel of the sun.
You are the white apron of the baker,
and the marsh birds suddenly in flight.

However, you are not the wind in the orchard,
the plums on the counter,
or the house of cards.
And you are certainly not the pine-scented air.
There is just no way that you are the pine-scented air.

It is possible that you are the fish under the bridge,
maybe even the pigeon on the general’s head,
but you are not even close
to being the field of cornflowers at dusk.

And a quick look in the mirror will show
that you are neither the boots in the corner
nor the boat asleep in its boathouse.

It might interest you to know,
speaking of the plentiful imagery of the world,
that I am the sound of rain on the roof.

I also happen to be the shooting star,
the evening paper blowing down an alley
and the basket of chestnuts on the kitchen table.

I am also the moon in the trees
and the blind woman’s tea cup.
But don’t worry, I’m not the bread and the knife.
You are still the bread and the knife.
You will always be the bread and the knife,
not to mention the crystal goblet and–somehow–the wine.

I love to memorize. I love the entertainment and comfort of being able to repeat things to myself when I’m bored. My repertoire of facts, geography, sections of books, monologues, and poems means that I never run out of something to do even while stuck in long lines or waiting rooms. Mentally labeling states’ capitals is a lot more fun than Women’s Health Magazine or pamphlets on diabetes.

Plus, Pippa and I often turn it into a competition. We love to recite over each other, trying to outdo the other in volume, length of the piece, and difficulty. Usually, she wins with her rendition of the first fifty lines of the Prologue of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which she does–I kid you not–in Middle English. Long Shakespeare monologues don’t quite measure up.

I only thought of this today because I was rereading The Fault in Our Stars this past weekend, and in it the main character, Hazel, recites quite a bit of poetry. Unfortunately, my collection of poems is rather small, so I decided that it needed some improving. People much prefer listening to a poem during a long car ride than listening to me try to beat my time reciting the U.S. presidents or list the state capitals in alphabetical order.

So I drew up a list, and I’m going to knock one out every day for the next few weeks. Tomorrow, I work on A Pact by Ezra Pound.

I make a pact with you, Walt Whitman—
I have detested you long enough.
I come to you as a grown child
Who has had a pig-headed father;
I am old enough now to make friends.
It was you that broke the new wood,
Now is a time for carving.
We have one sap and one root—
Let there be commerce between us.

Do you have any favorite poems? I’m always looking for new poetry to read.

As always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if, you know, you’re into that kind of thing.

Mugs Are For Hot Beverages And Glasses Are For Dweebs Who Can’t See

This is Cecelia, covering for a super sleepy Ella tonight. I was going to talk about those scary hours (minutes? seconds?) in between sleep and consciousness where you’re not sure if you’re awake or dreaming. And you just had this outlandish/terrifying/heartbreaking dream that your commonroom was a brothel or that Sylvia Plath is and has always been the Dean of Yale College and your roommate got in a fight with you over it and you’re really anxious just because you’re pretty sure what you just experienced was too absurd to be a reality but sometimes life is absurd so maybe not! Ah well. Enjoy this picture of my cat followed by a poem by Charles Bukowski.


The Aliens

you may not believe it
but there are people
who go through life with
very little
friction or
they dress well, eat
well, sleep well.
they are contented with
their family
they have moments of
but all in all
they are undisturbed
and often feel
very good.
and when they die
it is an easy
death, usually in their

In Which Ella Refrains from Griping

There are good days and there are rotten days. Today was one of the latter.

But as days go, it could have gone worse. No one died and no one was wounded. No one got cancer or was diagnosed with a terminal disease. No one got fired and no one got sick. No one even got a paper cut.

But what really made me happy today, one of the few things that did, was discovering something called Poetry 180, which is a program designed by Billy Collins for high school students to read a poem each day of the school year. Naturally, I spent about two and half hours this evening perusing the site.

I thought that I might share the first poem with you in hopes that it might also brighten your possibly rotten day.

Introduction to Poetry

by Billy Collins

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

If you click here, you can check out all of the poems. Enjoy!

And as always, you can also find me on tumblr at http://emleng93.tumblr.com/, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Sixth Grade Injustices and Poorly-Written Poetry

This afternoon, I discovered a poetry project that I had flunked from sixth grade. According to my teacher at the time, “haikus can only be about nature.” Of course, this is entirely erroneous (check out Wikipedia here), but it’s not as crazy as the time we skipped the chapter on evolution and that entire section of the curriculum because she didn’t believe in it.

And while I apparently still reserve the right to bemoan the injustice of this inaccuracy, I cannot fault her for my low score. The poems are pretty abysmal.

Soccer is very
Stifling when you are wearing
A pair of long jeans

My sisters and her friends
Thundering around upstairs
Driving me crazy

Whenever I look back on past work, even if it’s just from a year ago, I can’t help but cringe and think, I am so glad that I am not [insert age here] anymore, because man, was I stupid.

Toddlers and Poetry

I’ve discovered my new favorite thing: toddlers reciting poetry.

Litany is one of my all-time favorite poems. If Audrey gets Allen Ginsberg, then I get Billy Collins. Below is a video of him reading and explaining Litany. It’ll make you laugh.

On Audrey’s Adoration of Allen Ginsberg

Last night, after reading my post, Audrey asked me if I had read any Ginsberg.

Ginsberg? I thought, Like Ruth Bader Ginsberg? Sure, I’ve read peices of her decisions!

But I was wrong. Audrey was talking about Allen Ginsberg, the poet. He’s a little different from my favorite female Justice. The most pronounced of these differences is that Audrey’s kind of in love with him.

I’ve always really admired Audrey and the way that she allows herself to become infatuated with things. She lives life very passionately, grabbing onto ideas, music, books, periods of history, and people and immersing herself in them as she discovers all of its intricacies. She’s the sort of person to fall so deeply in love with a musical that she’ll go see it over and over and over again, until she knows every actor that has ever played the roles, when mistakes are made on stage, minute changes to the set, why each song was written, and the way that the actors will react when you try to get their autograph at the stage door. Best of all, she’ll bring you along for the ride, offering to go into the city with you at five a.m. to buy rush tickets and back again in the evening to see the show. She’ll stand outside with you, even though its nearly midnight and a school night, so that you can speak to the lead. And it’ll be so much fun that you’ll wish that you could be just like her and develop such beautiful obsessions.

I don’t know how, but Audrey’s suddenly found the Beat Generation and its literature. It’s all kinds of glorious and lovely, and she’s caught in a happy whirlwind of revelation. Last night, when the walls of anxiety were pressing in on me from all sides, she told me to look up A Supermarket in California, and oh my goodness was it beautiful. I mean, there was Walt Whitman, and food, and cataloging, and questions. I read it three times. And then over once more. Then I read King of May four times as well.

Today in second period, she generously handed over Howl. It’s wondrous and lyrical, and it makes me want to do nothing but read poetry all day long. Best of all, it has Whitman’s “Unscrew the locks from the doors! Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!” right on the title page. I’m entranced.

Once again, I’m being generously pulled along on another adventure with Audrey, and I’m so grateful.

Fling Open the Windows

Many years ago, when I was just a baby, this is what the view from our beach house looked like:

The porch has changed a lot since then. The old chairs and sofa got replaced with newer, fancy ones, white carpet was put down, all of the beach chairs and toys went into the basement, and the whole porch was insulated and re-paneled with beautiful maple. And while those changes are all very nice, I don’t totally love the Porch 2.0. You see, we had to install new windows with the double panes to keep the outside air out and the inside air in. But these windows just slide back and forth. They can’t be thrown open with gusto, and they don’t make you feel like you could fly out of the window, all the way down to the sea, and truly become part of the salty air and feather-light sand.

My favorite Psalm is Psalm 139. It reads,

“If I take the wings of the morning/and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,/Even there your hand will lead me/and your right hand hold me fast.”

So when I am at the beach, I want to become that part of the Psalm. And mostly, I do. I feel it when I stand at the top of the landing at seven o’clock in the morning after returning from a run or walk and the fog is just begining to rise. I feel it when I’ve finally worked up the courage to dive into the gentle surf. I even feel it when I’m in the kitchen, sitting on the floor with my back up against the refrigerator, drinking juice and letting the condensation from the freezer drip down onto my hair. But looking out of the porch window isn’t what it could be. You aren’t thrust into the joy and that Psalm. You’re just you on a porch, admiring a pretty picture.

It’s rather silly, feeling this way. I’m nostalgic from something that changed when I was eleven. But windows are important. They let you see what you are so nearly a part of, beckoning with promises of joy, if you would only stray a little farther, out the door and into the world.

I like windows that cry out, as Whitman does when he write this in Song of Myself:

Unscrew the locks from the doors!
Unscrew the doors themselves from their jambs!

But the new windows don’t have that passion. They slide with duty and purpose, never with jubilation. Opening them requires forethought, not reckless abandon. They don’t scream euphoria, and they never will.

I want the old windows back.

In Which Ella Reads Six Books at Once

I was cleaning my room this morning when I realized that I am in the middle of a lot of books right now. A lot of books.

No matter how much time I spend lint-rolling my bed, I never seem to be able to get rid of all of the fur. There's always at least one cat sleeping on it and shedding up a storm.

It may seem like it would be crazy and confusing to read so much at once, but it really isn’t. It’s fun! Whenever I get bored of one, I just pick up the next. Besides, certain books just suit different feelings.

Spud, a book about a South African guy at boarding school, is great for post-cry readings because it’s hilarious. Laughing while having post-sob shudders is a very funny feeling, and the best way to return from being down and out. (And yes, I do know that this book is not geared towards nearly 18-year-old girls.)

I usually read Lorrie Morre’s Self-Help when I’m supposed to be doing something else. It’s a book of short stories, so it’s perfect for crouching on the floor and feeling guilty about ignoring chores and homework. Procrastination at its finest in twenty-minutes or less.

Dog Stories is my go to book when I can’t sleep. It’s happy, light, and about dogs (Way to state the obvious, Ella.). Nothing goes wrong that can’t be fixed, and each story is less than ten pages. At the rate I’m going at, it’ll take me ages to finish, but I don’t mind. It’s like training wheels–there when I need help from falling over into nighttime paranoia.

I like to read Oil! in the afternoons, but only when it’s sunny and preferably while drinking juice. I’m no socialist, but the Sinclair’s matter-of-fact style is alluring and comfortable. It’s like reading a novel-length newspaper article, and gosh darn it do I love the newspaper.

No Plot? No Problem! is about to become my Bible. I’ve read it through twice, and with Senior Option only three-weeks away, I’m sure to reread again. 50,000 words in 30 days seems doable enough, but I’m still moving forward with trepidation. If it’s anything like Chris Baty says, it’ll probably turn turn out to be one of those things that makes me enormously happy while immensely stressing me out. If I can just learn to put doubt and self-criticism on the back burner for a month, I should be okay. Besides, if I can write here and do three pages of creative writing a week, I can totally do 1,666.67 words a day.

Salt is one of those books that I purchase and say that I’m going to read, but never do. It hangs out on my bedside table, staring at me and saying, You just purchased me to look impressive, didn’t you? I’m way beyond your level of comprehension. You’re not good enough for history books like me! I’m pretty good at laughing back and reminding it of the 1,000 plus page book I read on Kennedy’s assassination and why conspiracy theories are the stupidest thing ever. I swear, one of these days, I’m going to get beyond the first three pages. It’s just not going to be tonight, or tomorrow, and probably not next week, either.

Of course, I’m not counting my forays into poetry. Those extra snippets out of my Victorian Poetry book for class totally don’t count. Neither does reading Emily Dickinson’s poems online. They’re just too impulsive and sneaky to be added to the record.

And while I very much want to crack open Azar Nafisi’s memoir, Things I’ve Been Silent About, I can’t. I really, really, really can’t. Because, you know, seven would just be pushing it.

On Sonnets and Hard Work

Last night, I had to write a sonnet. A sonnet, I thought, A sonnet won’t be hard at all. And at the time, it made a lot of sense. After all, I’ve written poetry before. I even won a contest for it in sixth grade. I write. I write A LOT. And writing isn’t exactly a challenge for me. This sonnet should take an hour tops.

So I curled up on my bed with my computer and started going through my mental catalogue of things that I had experienced that day. Writing about falling asleep in the shower was out. Not interesting. So was writing about the way I carefully observe my classmates and teachers. Too creepy. But writing about Eureka moments seemed like a great idea.

Everything was going swimmingly as I typed the first few words. I got up to feel some paper to determine exactly how I should describe it, and sat back down. I wrote about the way paper feels against your hand as you scribble on the page, capturing the way that it sticks to your palm and how your pencil can sometimes catch against a fiber. I had two lines. Then, I tried saying them out loud with em-pha-sis on every other syll-a-ble to see if it was in iambic pentameter. It wasn’t. I didn’t have ten syllables either.

I ran my hand violently through my hair and tried again and again and again. The process continued to repeat itself. Taking a few deep breaths, I pulled up some old poems that I wrote. Surely, I could just transform one of them.

A Childhood Summer

Summer meant golden sunshine and damp air

Running barefoot through lawns

As grass whipped in between our toes,

Parades of noises and color-

Flags, horns, and harmonicas

Up and down the street,

Cloud spotting,

Colorful orbs of water in balloons

Lobbed at each other,

Flips on the trampoline-

Front ones, somersaults, and back ones, too,

Hiding behind trashcans in

The first purple whispers of darkness

Playing flashlight tag-

But most of all it meant freedom.


Remember the summers of old?

The tall glasses of lemonade

With water beads pouring down the sides?

Or maybe the summer dresses with the skirts

That spun out around us as we whirled

Around and around the backyard

‘til we collided or just toppled over from dizziness?

What about the corndogs that we ate at picnics:

How they stained our fingers and face shiny with grease?

What about the way we laughed,

Long before you had to restrain yours to a girly giggle?

Maybe the time we sprayed Mrs. Hirsh

With our neon plastic water soakers

And she screamed shrilly at us as we jumped her fence and ran?

Do you remember what it was like to be a child?

You didn’t have to care about how you looked or what you ate.

We were golden with innocence then.

And even if I couldn’t adapt them, summer was a great topic. Good things always happen to me during the summer. I could write about the beach or Puerto Rico or the time I ate the most delicious pizza in a strip mall in the middle of West Virginia.

It did not go well. By this point, I was done. Really, really, really done with the whole shebang. I started to cry and do my normal rolling about on the bed, but I was not going down without a fight. I have never let creative writing kick my butt before, and I wasn’t planning on starting then. Gritting my teeth and wiping my face on my sleeve, I sat up. And my mother helpfully suggested that I write about how much I hate sonnets. So I did and got a little further.

Sonnets Suck

Five iambs per line we are told to write,

But under ten syllables you should stay

You must avoid the topics banal and trite

Or the teacher’s eye will turn away

Avoid the red pen for its marks your grade does fear

But it wasn’t working, and my thoughts started racing. And once again, I began to cry. Like if-I-keep-sobbing-this-hard-I-am-going-to-throw-up crying. I cried over how I couldn’t write this sonnet no matter how hard I tried and how I was an awful writer who would never make anything of herself. I cried over how jealous I was of my friends. Jealous of the way that they are living the life that I have always wanted to live. The life that I imagined having and have been working towards since I was in sixth grade. And I cried over the way that I can feel the medication messing with my brain. The way that I can feel the chemicals and hormones markedly shift with every medication change. The way that I sleep through first and second period everyday no matter how hard I try to stay alert. The way that my eyelids only open halfway and keep drooping even if I sit upright in a chair.

My mother brought me ravioli, but the tears didn’t stop. Each sob made my whole body convulse, and I kept gagging. She came in again and yelled because she was so worried. I continued to bawl. As I went to click on my internet browser to look up some example sonnets, my finger slipped and opened up iChat instead. Normally, when I do this I just instantly quit the program, but Audrey was on. And her screen-name on my buddy list was a Godsend. I’ll just talk to her and everything will be alright, I thought. “Hi,” I typed as I sucked in big breaths, holding it for three before exhaling. Instantly, she responded. Thirty minutes later, the blubbering had stopped, and there was only the occasional tear. Talking to her helped so much.

Slowly, painstakingly, I wrote my poem. I muttered the iambs to myself and used my fingers to count out the syllables. I must have looked like a first grader anxiously trying to do math. And after every line I paused to talk to Audrey. And by midnight I was done.

Afternoon Fog

A Pearl gray adorns my window, dampening the day.

B Clear whispers of sunlight soon shall slip past

A So heavy thoughts of death won’t weigh.

B Silvery images of joy contrast

C The leaden darkness of our woe.

D A bird sings tunes of frivolity

C Quick! the tabby cat turns to his foe.

D His view is low in quality,

E But together we peer out wistfully

F And pray the charcoal haze will lift.

E He keeps his haunches raised, tail flicking eagerly,

F Paws tucked under, eyes looking for a shift

G Here she is! Her virgin rays do slice the morn.

G And from our dreary doldrums we are reborn.

It isn’t very good, and the lines have anywhere from seven to thirteen syllables, but it’s all mine. I wrote a sonnet despite the emotions, and you can’t take that away from me.

I’ve always believed that if you work hard enough, you’ll get what you want. Two years of babysitting bought me a whole new wardrobe in France. Hours of studying bought me perfect grades in school. And yesterday, it bought me a sonnet.

(P.S. Today in class, my AP English teacher said that I had some of the best descriptive language.)