Poets Online Archive

Lessons Learned
December 2012

Another year ends. What have we learned?

This is a time of year when we see many reviews of the year's events, movies, books etc. But you don't see many reviews of what we have learned. I suppose that is a topic for personal contemplation rather than public expression. Still, with the proliferation of blogs and status updates via social media, many of us seem to be continuously reviewing on our lives. Some denigrate this as "navel gazing"but when it is done well, it is much more than that.

In the two poems by Gary Snyder we use as models this month, he looks at lessons learned.

His poem "Hay for the Horses" is one I have loved for many years. It is the poem of a younger person who is learning from the life of someone else. The lesson learned from the hay truck driver is that we often end up in a life that we swore we would not end up in. Does that mean the life is bad? Not necessarily, but a caution nevertheless to a younger person at how easily we can fall comfortably into a life that we never intended.

In "What Have I Learned," it is the voice of a older person looking at the lessons of their own life. Here, the lessons are small and the speaker is almost dismissive.

What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

That "but" is a kind of apology for what was learned. And yet, we know the speaker cherishes not only the lessons but the opportunity to pass them on. (In the poem, to Snyder's own son, Gen.)

And a second use of that "but" turns this around:
but when you get it right,
you pass it on.

Our prompt for this month is a poem about a lesson (or lessons) learned, either from someone else or on your own - but a lesson that was passed on to another.

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


Of course I imagined the worst
as I followed my dog through midnight
parts of a town I'd never seen by day,
looking for two small boys. Missing
all that Wednesday from school. Dim
streetlights, rows of dark shops and sheds.
Blackberry tangles at edge of a creek.

My dog lifted her nose, led me
to an old reefer in a vacant lot. How
could the boys be there? My dog
insisted. I pushed the stiff door open
into deeper dark. A cat leaped and hissed.
By flashlight beam, just piles of junk.
My dog had found a cat in a reefer.

We went on searching. When did it
hit me? Search dogs don't alert on cats.
Back to the reefer. My dog whined -
pleaded with me just short of English.
I opened the door, stepped deeper
inside. My light showed a heap of filthy
cast-off canvas covers; on top,

the cat - large tabby in hiss-arch, ears
flat back. And from an edge of canvas,
a tiny hand. Deep inside the heap,
two small boys fast asleep, hiding.
Two young truants from school
taught me, you can hide under a cat,
but the dog will find you.

Taylor Graham


Think of the first time
you lay naked with a man,
how his softness and hardness
touched and wetted you.
Longing for abandonment,
glad of your own urgency,
think of how you wriggled
in his arms, how he crushed
you, how you opened to him.

Was it after many compliments,
many pub-crawls, many long-tongued
kisses in a shop doorway, a knee
pressing your thigh, a cold hand
moving from your back to your breast,
days and weeks of accelerating necking,
the planning of a time and place, a party,
the room with the coats, a bed underneath,
the cider drunk, the light off, the clothes off ?

Bet it took ages to get to the friendship,
beyond the heat to the warmth, to the place
where fears, unlovely habits, hopes are
strewn around like discarded clothes.
Not minding wash-dyed pants,
a second best bra,
a lack of ambition,
the loss of mystique.
The possibility of being unguarded together
encouraging adventure, a long look at genitals,
a fart-fest with one exhibitor,

because as well as the shrinkage of fantasy,
beyond the everyday, there were moments
of reality, rich and resonant, tolling the tone
of a good friendship - eruptions of passion,
orgies of talk, miles of walking, hours of eating
- finally, permission to be alone in a couple,
the blessing of self, mutually conferred -
back to back we love each other more fully
than was promised at our first fusing.

Vivien Jones


the old man,
          with empty

offers milk and oranges
           to the children of his

          they turn him to

as they lay him gently
          in the wreckage of
          his life.

and with eyes now opened,
          he passes on
          the gift,

no longer hidden
          behind the veil
          of age.

Maddison Ross Maddison


From the canyon floor
I pull myself up
muscles versus gravity
foothold to foothold

where is the top?
the cliff overhangs
I see nothing but sky
what can I do
but trust the rope?

John Grannis


Lightning never strikes twice, as the old saying goes
And yet it did, – twice, over decades of time it came crashing, sizzling over seasons and distance,
electrifying the very air around us with its brilliant rattle and hum
Making everything richer, deeper, brighter, stronger, like a white-hot cattle-prod to the senses,
and with its arrival, bringing such buoyant joy…such lightness of being,
that it made the intervening struggles all seem worthwhile, even welcomed as a contrast;
But the lesson that awaited us lay in seeing the dual nature of lightning as illuminator and destructor
And so it struck, flashed, and ignited a flame that melted our hearts …then burned and destroyed
everything it touched, and was...gone, winked out, in the pre-dawn hours of a Sunday morning….taking all the light with it as it died.

Phoebe Ward


For years, I fumbled feebly with my foibles
Insecurity, the greatest of these
Its affect would birth the effect of lost opportunities
Weak associations, my reward, and broken kinship bonds
All a part of unfolding instability
A path sure to expose my inevitable vulnerability
A meal, a morsel, a wee crumb to the wolf
Despondent and forlorn and jadedly
I, at last, opened my minds eyes and accepted I was the result of me
I bid farewell, you oppressive insecurity…

Tomas Lynch


On Tuesday we might
dissect a squid.
A squid is an invertebrate.
It's squishy and has
an outer protective shell
called an exoskeleton.
It has a mantle and a jet
It's a mollusk.
Mollusk is a phylum.
There are lots of species
in a phylum
but there are only 8 phyla
in the whole thing,
and California has the most
popular people
because they're worth
55 electoral votes,
and to be the president
you have to be born
in America,
and you have to go
to an electoral college,
and you have to have
a spine.

Paul Hostovsky


The days grow shorter and the nights
grow colder. Dewdrops form
on my front porch screen,

trickle down like rain,
cry the tears that I would not.

At sixty,
I ask myself these questions:

Is it too late to start over?
Have I run out of time?
Did I wait too long?

For months I pondered these questions,
and the answer is, no.

No. I didn't wait too long,
and I haven't run out of time.
It's never too late to start over.

Time ripens and lessons are learned.
I waited for the right time to say good bye

to turn towards the sun and step into the future.

Bobbie Townsend


Tell me a story
He petitions
And make it long this time
You are the best story-teller in the world
Except for my Nanna in Canada
You are the best story-teller in the whole of Australia

He is hardly awake
But he needs to hear
The intricacies of an elephant learning
Why stars come and go
And why they exist at all

His brother likes
A different story
Made from music
He leaves the room laughing and dancing
High up on his toes

I drive home late
Guided by the stars, staring
Past the giant spider on my windscreen
Unable to pull over
Or persuade it into sleep

I turn the music on
So it can feel vibrations through its legs

Iris Lavell

“If it can be, it is.”

Iambic pentameter doesn’t have to be so hard,
a lesson I learned at 16 years old
and once more at 18 - “If it can be, it is.”
My teacher knew what she was talking about,
the teacher who let me know that

writing is more than art –
that poetry, the words I write –
have worth.

That speaking in front of others
doesn’t have to be something that scares me, makes me shake –
that speaking can be something I enjoy.

That writing doesn’t have to be a pipe dream for me.
It can be something I chase, I follow,
something I run after until I taste it,
sharp and sweet on my tongue,
a dream I’ve got clutched in my fist,
a prize, a lesson I can share with the world –

“If it can be, it is.”

Michelle Lesniak


Perhaps an older man would not have been so affected,
Which is probably why there are laws against it.

A teacher, older than his mother, seduced him,
Initiating him into the mysteries of sex

While he was so innocent, he thought only of his own pleasure,
And not her needs, her scars, both inside and out,

As she instructed him in the high costs of desire,
By guiding his finger tips along her stretch marks,

And then having him trace
The lines where the heart surgeon had worked his hands;

And then the seams where the cancer doctor’s instruments
Had dislodged the tumor,

Whispering that until they were reconstructed,
How she liked to have her nipples bit.

Perhaps older men accept the damage life leaves behind,
But he was still so young he almost cried when she was sentenced.

Still, every time he lies with a younger woman,
While she thinks it’s cute that he’s criss-crossing her heart

In a sign that she will love him forever,
He is only tracing the scars she will someday wear.

Ron Yazinski


There was a rabbit
Loose in the grove.
She taught me how to enter
The silence of its fear
So it would know
My innocence.

There was an old clock
Whose tic and toc
Was heard by those
Who could only imagine me.
She taught me how to travel
Through the sound
Into their hearts.

In spring her orchard was full
Of birds and butterflies.
She pressed her warm fingers
Over my eyes and said:
See from where
All pretty things come.

Her old Siamese
Loved his pie-pan milk
Steaming on the back porch.
One winter he was gone.
I remembered how still he sat
With folded paws
And cloud-blue eyes.

Looking into heaven
He finally found his way,
She whispered,
Close your eyes
And see him.

I see them.

Russ Allison Loar

Contrary to a popular saying,
You really can go home.
Just don’t have expectations of seeing the place from the same understanding
as when you left.
You’ll find many of the same houses, buildings and monuments
and you’ll probably even see some of the same people:
those folks that are permanent fixtures in the community
or those that have made their mark
in the outside world and decided to ‘come back home’ to settle down.
You’ll probably even see those that have one foot in and one foot out –              
you know the ones,
they live there but have lofty goals to get out of town for further adventures –
or so they say.
At some point, you’ll find yourself
or you’ll grow into yourself
or maybe - just maybe -  you’ll accept yourself as you are.
Some of those in your hometown will be stuck
in their own private hell
and look the same as when you knew them
when you both wore smaller clothing.

Some are still bullies.
Some still feel entitled and privileged.
Some are still farmers and the salt of the earth.
Some are still victims of their own misfortune.
Some have transformed themselves into writers, teachers, politicians
and fighters of human rights.

Yes, you can go home
but be prepared to see a different side of it.
With the passage of time comes  experience and perspective,
understanding and perception
and a sense of acceptance:
Acceptance of others,
the past,
the inevitable impending future
and, most importantly, acceptance of yourself.

Kristie Stilley