Love Series: “The Shirt”

When was the last time you appreciated the physical appeal of your significant other? It is one thing to appreciate someone’s beauty or sexiness when they are dressed and intending to impress; it is another thing to see them in those moments when they are in jeans and a t-shirt or sweatpants, meandering around the house. 

It’s the little things that create the big feelings.

It’s amazing that the smallest thing can turn into something wonderful and consequential when it is connected to someone you love or admire. This poem, “The Shirt,” by Jane Kenyon looks at a little thing like a shirt, and she sees life and poetry in that shirt because it is connected to the man she loves. She sees the shirt in the way that only Jane Kenyon can.

She was a fantastic poet who could see the poetry in a pot of buttered grits. Through her poetry, she reminds us that so much about loving is about seeing, sensing, and experiencing. Note the details she adds about the shirt, but also note the details that she leaves out.  

I have taught this poem a few times, and it is a great poem to use to teach poetry writing; it uses very few words to create a powerful impact and impression; also, there is something of the poet in there that remains, her sense of humor, sexiness, and love. The man wearing the shirt, most likely her husband Donald Hall, who is a respected poet in his own right, has her complete attention, in the only way that a lover can.

The Shirt
This shirt touches his neck
and smooths over his back.
It slides down his sides.
It even goes down below his belt—
down into his pants.
Lucky shirt.

Jane Kenyon, OtherWise. Graywolf press, 1996, p.41


The Love Series: “We Real Cool”

When you think about poems that talk about love, I am sure this Gwendolyn Brooks poem is not the one that comes to mind. It is more rhythmic, jazz-inspired, and atmospheric. It does not make you think about intimate love; it makes you think of hanging with your very best friends being cool. That is precisely why I think it is a love poem.

I am especially interested in the subject ‘We’ in this poem. The ‘We’ provides the atmosphere, the rhythm, the pacing of the experience. 

I like this unifying idea of an ‘us.’ What is it about ‘us’ being together that makes it cool? Are we cool all on our own? Does getting together make a particular rhythm and establish a certain atmosphere that is cool?

The thing about love is that it involves two selves who become a ‘We.’ Most importantly, ‘We’ does not only mean our sexual selves. Sisters, brothers, friends, parents, family, and so on can compose a ‘We.’ Anyone you see as a part of your unit, someone that composes you and your experience in this world, is the ‘We’ that is cool.

I think it is a love poem about finding that unit, a group of people whom you can freely experience life with. 

Here is the poem:

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin grin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

Gwendolyn Brooks. Blacks. Third World Chicago Press, Chicago, ILL. 1987. pp. 331
Books, Writing

What is Your Theme for 2019?

I have a theme for the year, something that I will work on as the year progresses. I decided on “love” as a theme. This may seem hokey, but I spend a lot of time alone and largely invisible to most people; however, I think about relations and relationships quite a bit, including the relationship that I have with myself.

So, my exploration of love means finding ways to love life and work even when I feel completely over it all. Finding ways to love people is, of course, at the top of the list, but also finding a way to love change, uncertainty, and weakness.

I have decided to do this by increasing my reading, or rather, changing what I read on a regular basis. As an English professor who primarily works in Cultural Studies and Critical Theory, most of my reading is historical, philosophical, and theoretical in nature. I rarely have time for fiction. Yet, I have a bookcase full of fiction books, so I have decided to give them my full attention.

Fiction can teach us a lot about love. Of course, experience is the best teacher, but I am more interested in how we conceive of love. How do we understand it, talk about it, or think about it?

And from love, especially self-love, what makes a relationship? From there, what makes a community, a region, a society, and so on. Books can be very instructive here.

My first book of choice: Thomas Moore’s Utopia. I have not finished it yet, but so far I can say that the man was a master of the dependent clause. His sentences are long, really long. However, the book is really short, about 80 or so pages. I will do a write up on it later.

Another thing I would like to do, specifically with this blog, is include poetry. Since my theme is love, I thought it would be fun to go on a love journey through poetry. I will post daily poems that make me think of love or demonstrate love in some way.

If you have any recommendations, send them my way!



What Makes A Line Memorable?

In keeping with my melancholy theme from my previous post, I want to consider how a simple arrangement of words can lift us up. Words have power, and that power is always magnified by the power of a competent wordsmith.

So, if we find ourselves in the doldrums, we may find comfort in knowing that we can rise. This is what Maya Angelou did; despite all the odds stacked against her, “still,” she said, “I rise.”

Think about the power behind that one line, “still I rise.” We don’t just feel it; we hear it in her deep, rooted voice: “Still I Rise.” It stirs something deep inside us, perhaps a little hope or, at the very least, faith that our descent will stop. When we are scraping the bottom of the barrel, and we keep taking hit after hit, Angelou wants us to say it slowly: Still-We-Rise.

The power of that one line is so rooted that it is soul-shakingly necessary to have in our vocabulary, in our lists of aphorisms we tell ourselves to get through hard times. The line is so powerful that it overwhelms the rest of the poem, but Angelou’s poem deserves to be read in its entirety.

Most people know the first stanza of the poem:

You may write me down in history,
With your bitter, and twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt,
But still, like dust, I’ll rise.

This poem was written in 1978, and it makes sense to think of this poem as an answer to the persecution that made the Civil Rights Movements and the Feminist Movements necessary. Angelou was active in both movements, and she understood more work needed to be done.

Eight years before the poem’s release, Gil-Scott Heron said “the revolution will not be televised” and four years after the poem’s publication, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five introduced their own brand of poetry into the world saying, “It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under.”

In all cases, the issues or concerns that we need to rise above are external; they are outside forces working on us. There is, however, another way to consider this stanza.

How about using this stanza as a way to refute the inner monologue we have going that says we are worthless, failures, or losers. Good writing is malleable to experience. Sometimes all we need to rise above our own mental limitations and lamentations is a good word. Further, further, further still, what happens to us externally always affects us internally.

Angelou’s next two stanza’s address this:

Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
‘Cause I walk like I’ve got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.

Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I’ll Rise.

Place-hood is as ubiquitous as self-hood. I recently wrote a piece about the detention of refugees in camps along the Texas border. In that article, I called attention to a 1975 Arizona Supreme Court ruling that said,

While detention and investigation based on ethnic background alone would be arbitrary and capricious and therefore impermissible, the fact that a person is obviously out of place in a particular neighborhood is one of several factors that may be considered by an officer and the court in determining whether an investigation and detention is reasonable and therefore lawful.

“Obviously out of place…”

The bigger picture here is that we are always thinking about place-hood. That boy over there needs to know his place. That girl is speaking out of turn. Those people don’t belong in this neighborhood. It’s encoded in our legal and political dealings with each other, so of course, it trickles down into how we interact with each other socially.

We believe that someone does not have the right to hold their head up and square their shoulders. That woman over there, with her overweight body and short, uncombed hair, does not have the right to feel sassy or sexy. That rich boy does not have the right to listen to songs about the hood, and that hood-boy does not have the right to sit at the rich boy’s table.

Everyone is always telling us to know our place. Angelou says here, we don’t have to because as sure as the tides ebb and flow, we will rise.

But Angelou does not stop there. She goes on to ask questions of her persecutor:

Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries.

If we are continuing with the inner monologue theme I introduced earlier, consider this as well as the question of place-hood as a dialogue with yourself. How do you want to be? How do you want to be seen? Where do you want to be? Where do you want to be seen?

Make no mistake, some people want to see others as miserable as they are. Some people are in so much pain that they want to share it with everyone in the only way they know how: to stomp out another person’s happiness.

The perversity of watching someone fail and fall can animate others. Social media is full of this. Someone takes a picture of another at their lowest point and posts it online to get a few laughs. Unfortunately, broken people have become entertainment for some.

Perhaps it is because people are so entertained by the trials of others that they need to see them broken. It is the story of Job replayed and repackaged for a different era. As those hard times pile up, people gather around to question the faith, the strength, and the struggle of trying to hold on. “Give up and turn it all loose,” they say. But just like Job said, “though they slay me, yet will I trust,” Angelou says here,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I rise.

This is the rope, extended to anyone willing to grab hold, that can pull us out of the melancholy muck. What makes this poem work is that it is movable; that is, the poem has rhythm enough that you feel as if you are in the process of rising as you read each line.

The heart grows weary with living sometimes. A misstep here or there can have far-reaching consequences, but sometimes those missteps can lead to greater things.

Angelou’s poem makes us feel like we are walking down a crowded street growing taller, braver, and stronger with each step. This is the power of a wordsmith who was excellent at her craft.

So the knowledge we can take away from this, then, is that no matter the battle or what direction it is coming from, we need to continue to rise. The call to action embedded in the line is what makes it memorable.


To get the rest of Angelou’s poem, go to Poetry