Books for Poets | Mailing List | Copyrights | About Us


Poets Online Archive


April 2022  Issue #298

When the psychiatrist gives you the word association test, what comes to mind when she says "lesson"? School is probably considered a normal answer since we get so many lessons in classrooms. There are certainly many formal lessons in life in school, but we spend more time outside of school, so the number of lessons there are certainly much greater.

I found in a search a surprising number of poems about lessons, including a "Dancing Lesson," "History Lessons," and a "Driving Lesson." 

For this month's prompt, we offer as a model "Lessons from a Mirror" by Thylias Moss (from Wannabe Hoochie Mama Gallery of Realities’ Red Dress Code: New & Selected Poems)

Snow White was nude at her wedding, she’s so white
the gown seemed to disappear when she put it on.

Put me beside her and the proximity is good
for a study of chiaroscuro, not much else...

When you look at me,
know that more than white is missing.

Moss' lesson is learned by looking at herself - perhaps literally in a mirror. Some lessons have a teacher. Some lessons are presented and learned; some lessons are presented and not learned. As someone who taught for four decades, I know the latter to be very true.

For this issue, we were looking for poems about a variety of lessons - formal, informal, in school, in life, learned and ignored.

We looked at a similar prompt in 2012 with "lessons learned."

For more on all our prompts and other things poetic, check out the Poets Online blog.


I stand in the sand
at the edge of a sea
inviting and frightening
as brand-new love.

I tiptoe in, feel the tickle
of tide on my toes,
then inch into vast cerulean.

I cannot swim,
but the waves are gentle.
Lie down, they say,
and try to breathe.

I thrash on my back,
first a little, then a lot,
determined not to be deterred
by splashes of brine
in my nose and mouth.

And little by little,
I sync with the surf,
then linger, linger,
awash in wholeness.

Susan Spaeth Cherry


I believed I could read that dog –
German Shepherd I trained to find lost people.
When I saw her head suddenly lift, a new lilt
to her stride as we trekked high desert
on wilderness patrol, I knew her posture meant
human. This wasn’t a search, just picking up
hikers’ litter. But there was no one
within miles. How could my dog give a human
alert? I doubted my dog, myself. I can't
read her, after all. She’s crittering!
as she stuck her muzzle deep into a patch
of sagebrush along the trail. To prove
my doubts, I went to check. Tucked carefully
into drab-green foliage, an olive-drab
commando sweater, still holding human scent.
I apologized to her, berated myself.
The truest partner a searcher could have:
dog “trained” to do what comes so naturally
to dog. It’s the handler who fails
the team. That dog trained me, every time.

Taylor Graham


The thud of the trailer greeting the dock
moved his bovine gaze from the window
to the floor, to his knees, to fingernails
as scuffed and chipped as his steel-toed boots.

I followed him out of the break room
where the crew begins and ends the day
where the oak tag blanks sit next to the stencil press
on a shelf above a can of ink-stained brushes.

The first container of the day
was filled with square boxes of round cheeses
from the Nordic dairy lands of his grandparents
now time-filtered myths and memories.

Onto the rollers he'd painted battleship grey
just weeks ago he placed a layer of boxes
and another atop another until he couldn't
see around or over his wall of cardboard brown.

I tried to match his metronomic arms
extending swiveling the cold cases moving
onto other rollers chocked with shims
forts of cheese on wheels.

He watched me fail, fail to align the bottom layer
so the corners didn't snag a wall
fail to rest one box edge precisely atop another
to steady their ride with concentrated weight.

He tapped his pack of Newports and pull one with his lips
reached for his lighter and sighed, silent until he inhaled
his comfort and blew it from the corner of his mouth
readying himself to mete out instruction.

Rob Friedman


I paddle out and sit
letting waves roll beneath me.
A guy drifts by me and asks
“Are you a beginner?”
He is young. Unafraid.
I say “Yes.”
He nods.
I’m lying.
I’ve been surfing for decades.

It only took one huge wave
to learn my lesson.
I’ll never be a big wave,
pro surfer. That’s fine.
It’s important to know your limits.
The one that took me down,
held me suspended in deep water,
dragged me along the bottom and
mercifully dropped me near shore.

It’s a good lesson that teaches
the first time it is presented.
Or perhaps it is a good student
that learns after one lesson.
If only it were the case with
relationships, career, family,
all the waves before and since.

Lianna Wright


No dance lessons
just Bandstand and Soul Train
following the Saturday am cartoon lineup
Those short, sweet simple hours
Gone until the following week
No voice or instrument lessons
Just a little black plastic recorder
With no name, no magic
No trip far across the sea
No knowing aunt Rhody’s reaction
to the old grey goose’s death
and its later resurrection
in the form of a French vodka
Ms. Shaw played her auto harp
and taught us songs
we didn’t fully appreciate
“Sweet Chariot”
and “Drill Ye Terrier’s Drill”
Music and history combined
No swimming lessons at the Y
None until high school
where the poor eyesight
bestowed upon me
by the great grab bag of life
saved me from a cauldron
of chlorine, steam and perspiration
that most definitely
did not smell like teen spirit
No senior trip, ring
or driving lessons
No extra for extras
When you needed
bucks for the basics
Yet, mom and dad managed
gifts, new clothes and special dinners
at holidays and birthdays
Less than some perhaps
but no doubt, more than others
Lessons you didn’t know
you were getting
when you weren’t always getting
Realizing - years later
that you’d come away
with more than many
and a lot more than most

Terri J. Guttilla


She gave me the voices of the past
but I was too concerned about my voice
being heard in the present and future.
She tried to tune our ears, sharpen our eyes
but I was listening to shapes I saw in the mirror.
She had us buy books of poetry and read
but I held them imagining my name on my own.

Today her own poems are on my desk
bound to her new past and I mourn
lost lessons, and wasted days
and someone who tried
to teach me.

Brandon Baum

(Additions to The Devil’s Dictionary)

That belief is not about what
is true, or even plausible, but
what makes you feel less alone.

That life is short, death is certain,
and that, in the long run,
everyone loses.

That most people would sell
out their loved ones for a
chance to be famous.

That friends are friends until—
until you need them, or until
they no longer need you.

That people lie all the time,
even when the truth is just
as profitable to them.

That people fall out of love
just as quickly as they fall in,
maybe even quicker.

That we have a Republic in
which money decides who wins,
and who loses.

That most people hate to read,
even those who teach writing
and literature.

That reason only convinces
people who are reasonable,
or exist in Plato’s dialogs.

That no man, and perhaps no
woman, will pass up a chance
for sex with a desirable other.

Robert Miller


There are seventeen of them
Perched on metal chairs up on the stage
Fifth grade, eighth grade, in between
One by one, the moderator calls their name
Each stands up, walks to the microphone, and waits
My grandson, Owen — number eight

The word he’s given is RECLUSE
He mouths it like a “What’s THAT?” vegetable
His Mom says he must taste
Spits out the letters, one by one
My heart stops the bell rings
My little man is ushered off the stage

He looks at me and shakes his head
“What does it mean?” he asks
“Someone like Uncle David,” I reply
“A hermit Good try Bad luck.”
He nods and reaches for his jacket
Outside — blue eyes brim with tears
“I’m sorry Papa …”

I wrap him in a hug
Tell him he’s still a champion
Like Olympians who make it to the games
But not the podium
The only kid to reach the finals
From our county

I tell him losing comes with lessons
All winners need to learn
One game lost is not a season
One word missed is not the end
Of an otherwise illustrious career
In orthography

Frank Kelly