Poets Online Archive
Good Advice Gone Bad
November 2006

This month we used as our model poem, "You Should Avoid Doctors" by Diane Lockward and our writing prompt suggestions come directly from Diane.

"Take a piece of good advice and write a poem in which you argue for its opposite. As in my poem--we're told to go for the yearly physical, to stay in touch with the doctor, but the poem argues just the opposite--stay away from the doctor!  There seems to be a bit of a tradition in poetry for this approach - Donne's "Valediction Forbidding Mourning" or Dylan Thomas' "Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night".

As a writing strategy I find it liberating and exciting to be on the opposite side of the fence. I call it playing Opposite George--after a Seinfeld episode in which George announced that henceforth he'd be doing everything opposite; he'd be " Opposite George". Of course, my beginning point is not of the size that Donne or Thomas used, but I like taking something seemingly insignificant and escalating it.

You might choose something like: chew with your mouth closed, don't make waves, play by the rules (you'll come up with better than these, I'm sure).  Bonus challenge: Use a body part in the poem."

I first met Diane when she was teaching high school English.  She still works as a poet-in-the-schools for both the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. She also conducts writing workshops for young and old poets, inexperienced and experienced poets, and for teachers on how to teach poetry. Her work has recently appeared in The Seattle Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Poet Lore, and Prairie Schooner, as well as in the anthologies Poetry Daily: 366 Poems from the World's Most Popular Poetry Websiteand Garrison Keillor's Good Poems for Hard Times.

Diane Lockward is the author of Eve's Red Dress and What Feeds Us (Wind Publications, 2003, 2006). Diane has also been a featured poet at a number of festivals, such as the Warren County Poetry Festival, the Inkberry Festival, the Long Branch Poetry Festival, the Walt Whitman Poetry Festival, and the 2006 Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival. She was a featured poet at the 2005 Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching and a workshop presenter at the New Jersey State Council of Teachers of English Conference in both 2003 and 2006.    Diane's site is at www.dianelockward.com.

More about this prompt and previous ones, as well as your comments and things ars poetica at the Poets Online Blog.


“If a line sounds like it would fit in a country and western song,
take it out of your poem.”   - advice from a well-known poet

I was the heartland and you were a train
that somehow moved from coast to coast
without ever once passing through me.
I never cried, though the jukebox said I should.
Beer and whiskey? You bet,
but enough was enough,
though even my old dog mourns
the sound of one less set of boot heels.
Sometimes now we howl together,
two-part harmony instead of three.
Old Blue likes prison songs.
I sing about working my hands to the bone.
On Sundays, we try Gospel,
but I’m too old, rugged and cross to keep up that charade.
Outside there’s still a pickup with your name on it.
I sit in it, eyes red in the mirror,
knuckles white on the wheel, Old Blue in the back.
When I see those chrome beauties on the mudflaps,
I think of you, the way you used to shine,
the way you made the rain wish it could be you.
The dog. The truck. The rain.
I know you won’t be coming back,
except when I sing the way I always sing
in this circle you left broken by and by.

R.G. Evans


Who’s to say a child doesn’t thrive on neglect?
We ran all day in the familiar wilderness that surrounded our town
That lightly held our town like an indifferent mother
The outback, the semi-desert
We ran, my brothers and I with our motley dare-deviled friends
With tiger snakes, spiders, and blue tongued bungarras
Tipping at our backs,
They seemed to us
So innocuous that we barely retreated

Now jumping the abandoned shafts
That angled hopefully into promised seams of gold
Daring death, mysterious death
The pungent cattle carcass
Bloated kangaroo, dried up crow
The tiny hundred-year-old graves
Cradling babies buried by their mothers
Poetic epitaphs on yellowed stones
Stories of longing for the afterlife
In the local cemetery

Dirty, thin, underfed and under-watered
Our feet tough and bare, always running,
Mum and dad sheltering in the cool
Of the public bar and ladies lounge
Drinking beer with all the other mums and dads
Their dreary waves of laughter drifting on distant air
Duty done with the single instruction
Be home by tea-time

By the time it gets dark
There’s a tin of spaghetti in the cupboard
And no drinking water at all since three weeks ago
No clean water since the boys put frogs in the water tank
With some rocks, dirt and weed for a cozy habitat
Another good day’s play achieved
We reluctantly return for food and rest
Thank God for absent neighbours
With their oversized water tank, oversized generosity
And their oversized claw-footed bath.

Iris Lavell


Thank you, Suffering,
for the bent ache of the spine
in the thirteenth hour of an 18-hour shift,
for the raw cold of abandonment
on a Saturday night while the hot breath
of my cheating lover steams the mirror
of a cross-town bar. And thank you
for enormous silverfish streaked
against the wall, their darting
specters in the corner of every nightmare,
for even the death of my father,
the strange stillness after every machine
was turned off, what was left of my family
crumpled on the linoleum of the ICU.
I mean it. Thank you,
because my bones grow heavier
and harder to move, and the only thing
that keeps me from sinking
into a calcified TV death of my own
is rage,
the bloody fist that threatens
to punch through my chest.
If one day I rise
on a golden cloud of helium
driving a white chariot
into a fine job and a clean home,
a good man at my side,
if ever I hold new quivering life
swaddled in my arms
instead of this concrete block of sorrow,
you alone will be responsible,
you gladiator whose rough hands
push me from behind.

Alissa Pecora


It is impolite to look
Directly into people’s eyes.
Also to look unabashedly
At what is going on
All around you.
Don’t stare.
So impolite.
Behave like a well brought up girl.

And I lowered my eyes and did
Not see the truths
That stared me in the face.
I closed my eyes to the
Fact that my sister climbed
the stairs to face
a hell only she knew.

The devil danced on the terrace
Flesh on flesh
And we prayed below
With eyes closed
To the god of good upbringing.

I refused to acknowledge
the presence
Of fragments flying in the air
of broken childhoods.
They did not hit me
for I chose not to feel them.

Years later,
I cannot explain the
Bleeding wounds
I lay bare for the world to see
Asking them to be impolite
Imploring them to stare
Eyes open wide.

Abha Iyengar


After a family visit in Florida,
One is like an AK rifle,
Ready to fire without thinking.

Someone always has read
When it comes to issues of health
The columnist in the Times
Jane Brody, of sensible care for self.
With secure advise about what is best.

Two sets of parents
Are ready to ambush you
With snipping shots,
“We only want the best for you,”
While one mother perpetually corrects,
“Walk straighter, eat less,
Not too much salt on the food,”

For relief from that stress
I went to a Hudson River town
Where the dressing room in the Y
Made me think of a depression’s hobo freight
With the smell of stale soaked socks

The steam room was bigger than a telephone booth
But not too much;
I sat on a hot wooden bench
When in walks a tall man,
Only a hundred pounds over his weight.

For two or three minutes he stood tall
Getting use to the steam and warmth.
Then he started to try to touch his toes
Even though a sign said, 'no gymnastics.
Or exercising here.'
On the cedar wood wall
There was a printed sheet,
'People who have heart disease
Or high blood pressure
Should exercise caution when inside.'

Now the big man, bends, slowly, over.

It was my option what to say
About the sign or to interrupt his toe touching
But thinking of where I'd been recently
Advise was a coconut frond waving
Back and forth waiting for a storm.

I left hurriedly
And hummed the Beatles, Let it Be.”
And looked towards the Palisades
And saw today's black clouds
And said, "tomorrow, let it be".

Edward N. Halperin


I heard my mother say
Ask not, want not
but I also heard her advise
ask and ye shall receive.
It depended on what I wanted
and when I wanted it.
Ask not, want not and I was out
of the house and into the backyard.

Coming up behind Dad
working on the car,
he'd give me If it ain't broken, don't fix it.
which made perfect sense to me, but
the car was never broken
and he was always fixing.
Nose to the grindstone,
shoulder to the wheel,
they put all their eggs
in one basket
only to find it
taken from them.

Charles Michaels


Burn your bridges!
Pour gasoline on the supports
and across the planks,
touch the flame and let it flare.
Use the flame as your compass
and head due Future,
the Past to your back.
Soon the heat will leave
your back and the smoke
will wash with the rain
from your eyes, your lungs,
the clothes you wear.
Leave all of them behind you,
standing at the edge of the water,
bleary-eyed and unbelieving
that you did this, that you
are over the horizon.
They'll stand there, kicking
at the embers on their bank,
trying to convince themselves
that you'll be back.
No one ever returns.

Ken Ronkowitz