Poets Online Archive
How To
February 2008

I can divide and define the "how to" poems I've read in many ways, but for this writing prompt I want to examine a type that gives both instruction and advice.

Let's look at a non-poetic example first. I could give you a how to on grow tomatoes in your garden that might include the requirements of soil, sun and water. I could also give you advice on how to choose a type of tomato or what method I prefer for staking the plants.

Is this what Wendell Berry's poem "How To Be A Poet" is doing? He says, "Make a place to sit down./ Sit down. Be quiet," which is good practical how to, but "There are no unsacred places;/ there are only sacred places/ and desecrated places," is something else.

In a way, his poem reminds me a bit of Wallace Stevens"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Both collect a list of observations, and both look at something from different points of view.

How to be a poet is too limiting. Google that phrase and you come up with plenty of advice. You also find lots of related how to's on how to read a poem, and how to write a poem. This prompt is wider. Write a poem that instructs by explaining how to do something, and gives advice. You might still choose topics poetic (How To Write A Sonnet) or not (How To Sharpen A Knife) or at the further end of practicality (How To Separate; How To Be; How To Tell Her). Use the how to as part of your title in some way (My Mother Tells Me How To Fix My Marriage).

There's more information about this prompt and previous ones, and the opportunity to post your own comments on the Poets Online Blog.

Click here for biographical information on Wendell Berry



Remember that you are dying too -
not today, maybe, but soon. You’re not immune.
Remember that one day, death will take you
in ambush, insult you, take you down, a sudden surprise,
no matter how long or how well you’ve prepared.
Your breed’s the same as this one who is dying.
Remember that this moment may be yours too.


Don’t say much if there’s not much to say,
Or do much if there’s not much to do.
You are here to bear witness.
Keep still as best you can, for this moment
will not come again; don’t miss it.
The rattle of breathing is music that can’t be recorded.
Sit in the space between words.


Let death do its work on you.
Remember the others: mourn them.
Think of your own death,
how others will mourn you.
Let it move through you, this howl of grief.
You can hammer at God with your accusations,
demand that he make an account of himself.
But learn what anger keeps you from knowing:
The shudder of grief is an intake of breath for the soul.
Allow it.

Kathy Nelson


Not that my methods will work for you, but
I did not start by climbing mountains
or reading books, or taking lessons
or asking those who were already flying
how to do it.

I stood out on the sidewalk on a calm, clear day.
I closed my eyes and didn't open them until
I had lifted off the ground.
At first, it was just an inch or two.
I made the mistake of looking down.
Checking your progress is  not a good thing.
Lift your head, eyes to the sky and pull the rest of you along.

From up there, my focus grew and was lost.
The cars on the highways were indistinct, yet they were clearly
a river flowing and I could see each, a drop of fluid motion.
No tree but all trees. No person but all people.

I didn't want to come back,
but my paper and pen was down there
and I wanted to write this down. It might help you,
though no one prompted me with a poem
and things worked out just fine.

Liz Herite


His village is on the map.
See that crossroads – x
marks the spot. A clean white church
with bell in the steeple;
in the churchyard, his ancestors
laid down under stones.
The sun will give direction.
Don’t worry about the time of day
or season. Keep your shadow
at your back.
Drive past the flourishing fields
of his neighbors. They stayed
in the fertile lowlands,
where it was easy. Look sharp
for a low dry hill crowned
in nettles. Here’s a pasture
grazed by stones.
In the garden, two green spires
where last year nothing sprouted.
Seek out the poorest
place, and surely you’ll find
him, hoe or rake or shovel
in his hand, ready
to show you how to grow
a life.

Taylor Graham


First, find people
who understand
the incongruities of life
the pain of life
the joy of life
the songs of life
the unvarnished truth
about this life:
it ends.

Then play with them
pray with them
go around the block
a few times with them
till you understand
how much you love
this life
and community.

Donate your stuff
to someone who can use it
whatever your limited
or boundless talent,
it will be appreciated
by someone who needs
what you have.

Limit the stuff you buy,
gradually detach from
things you don't need
as you grow older.

But hold fast to
friendship and
people and those
who know how to sing along
with even the
sad music.

Margaret A. Dukes

A Rondel for What My Women’s Bible Study Group Advised Me to Do
When I Told Them About How I Wanted to Leave My Husband and
About How My Life Was Unbearable

First, pray to the old gods, and then obey.
Ephesians makes it clear.  You must submit
to every whim before he thinks of it.
We did not speak of love, or how to pray
my way into it so that each gray day
became the mirror of its counterfeit.
First, pray to the old gods, and then obey.
Ephesians makes it clear. You must submit.

Each sipped a cup of herbal tea, the clay
glazed blue and green, the bruise of fires once lit
and now forgotten.  Pay silence and remit
to Caesar what is his.  Learn how to stay.
First pray to the old gods, and then obey.

Mary Florio


Take a train.
Trains never get lost.
You can write poetry on a train.
I write at a unique speed here in a car where no cell phones are allowed
and people respect that.
The places pass by, but I can see it all, with no clouds obscuring vision,
no omniscient airline perspective on the world.
Short and direct. American cuisine. A place to sleep overnight.

I want to follow this after I walk way from my home station.
Write, alone in the presence of others, no distractions, things passing by seen clearly,
simple food, respectful space to work,
an engine driving me forward on a solid path.

I won't get lost.
My momentum will carry me towards my destination
even as I sleep.

Lianna Wright


Lean the car seat back,
enough to see the stars
through the bare branches,
through the swirling clouds.
Then put the music on real loud.
The constellations will reveal themselves. 

Sit and watch.
The constellations will reveal themselves:
the one with a her bare nipple and the other his bare genitals;
the one with an arrow through his heart and the other through his head;
the one with an old man and his twin baby;
the one with a wife digging her husband's grave. 

Sit and watch.
The constellations will reveal themselves.
The windy howl, the bell.
The winter air, the incense.
The quarter moon, the candle. 

Now, put the seat up and back straight.
Next, put the music down.
Just sit still. 

Breathe in, and out, again, and again...
Head reaching for the stars.
Sit like a mountain.
Let the lava pour out. 

Sit still and wait.
Venus is on the horizon. 

Lee A.


Use old tools - astrolabes and sextants - and
use methodologies untested.
Rely on the past.
Trust your closest friends.
Ignore the buddy system.
Leave belongings behind.
Trust strangers.
Look for familiar trees, buildings, signs.
Assume the world has not changed.
Forget the names of all the stars.
Believe in the infallibility of your memory.
Trust that he will be at your side when you awaken.
Take another path.
Leave breadcrumbs.
Look for the sun in the east or west at night.

Pamela Milne

Wendell Berry is a farmer, essayist, conservationist, novelist, teacher, and poet,

He was born in 1934 in Newcastle, Kentucky and farms the land along the Kentucky River that his family has worked for two centuries.

Wendell Berry is best known for his nature poetry, novels of the rural past, and essays about environmental responsibility. He received his B.A. and M.A. from the University of Kentucky and has taught at Stanford and NYU. He returned to the University of Kentucky from 1964 -1977 and then left to devote his time fully to writing.

He often writes about the need to live in harmony with nature or perish. A writer of great conscience, he is the author of The Unsettling of America.

In a 1999 essay, "The Failure of War," he asks:

”How many deaths of other people’s children are we willing to accept in order that we may be free, affluent and (supposedly) at peace? To that question I answer: None . . . Don’t kill any children for my benefit.”

Wendell Berry

Portrait of Wendell Berry from "Americans Who Tell the Truth" -
a collection of portraits & quotes painted by Robert Shetterly.

The quote from Berry on the portrait reads:
“The most alarming sign of the state of our society now
is that our leaders have the courage to sacrifice the lives of young people in war
but have not the courage to tell us that we must be less greedy and wasteful.”


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