Poets Online Archive
  It's Not About You
August 2008

It's not uncommon for a poet to directly address someone in a poem. And readers often play the game of trying to figure out how "real - as in autobiographical - is the content of the poem. Is that really about his father? So, the wife in the poem is actually his wife?

I know teachers of poetry who deliberately remove the poet's name from a poem they hand out in order to try and shut down the baggage that comes with knowing who is the poet and attaching a life story.

On the other side of all this is that less common situation of reading a poem written by someone you know, and thinking that it is YOU that is the subject of the poem. That might be flattering - or insulting, embarrassing or give you thoughts of a lawsuit.

I was reading poems from the Poetry 180 collection - "Bike Ride with Older Boys" by Laura Kasischke and "Gee, You’re So Beautiful That It’s Starting to Rain" by Richard Brautigan - and the song, "You're So Vain" by Carly Simon came on the radio.  That serendipitous pairing of the song with its refrain "You probably think this song is about you"  crossed over into my reading.

Try as I did, I could not find a poem that exactly fit the prompt I wanted: a poem about someone that tries to convince the reader and the subject of the poem that it is NOT about them.

The two model poems are certainly about someone - Brautigan's Marcia for sure - but Kasischke's boys (I think of them as one) existed, but she didn't go on the ride with them. Still, the poem is about them - but not about them.

Can you come up with the model poem that the prompt needed?

There's always more about our prompt on the blog, and we'd love to hear your online comments about this prompt, or any of the poems and prompts found here.



One root of the silken aspen reaches across
the bank, a natural terrace. The sound

of the ground quaking forward tongues
its way through sizzling leaves, and the water

turns its truculent waves against carved boulders,
old concrete pilings, the root. Of all evil,

nature brings the deftest in months like these,
with a fall that teases and takes a hand,

leads a merry chase through brilliant motes of gold,
the eye cannot hold for long. Under the tree,

we take one long breath together and watch
the words collect in shifting swirls at our feet. Dying.

I am sure there is no other way to leave you
but with this fallen part of me. And yet

my sound is sincerely soft—like the delicate hiss
of leaf meeting lake. O so much better this way,

this separating of trunks, this grafting of heart
to a season without—You—at this end, are almost new.

Collapsed on the picnic table, my face to the sun,
I listen to the cooling heat, the whimpering wash of self

surfing through the rocks—I don’t want this sound
to be possible—everything crushed beneath me,

every gold decayed to rust. In the distance, your footfalls
echoing like the gentle clips of a doe through brush. And, then,

a hunter’s rifle splitting the violent air at the nearby range.

Jen Rouse


You found my words and thought I had written you a poem.
Typical you. And probably why I left as soon
as you fell asleep, and didn't return till noon.
This house no longer feels like home.
Never the marriage of two in one mind,
but love is not love if it does not burn
and you will soon awaken and find
that here is where I make the turn.
The afternoon streets are empty and wet.
At the curb, water moving like a stream
and you stilled in a window silhouette.
All these energies from words found.
Now, not a word, not a sound.

Pamela Milne


The chipmunk in the skimmer
has drowned at last, a little mohair
sofa with four sharp feet.

What else could it be
but you that drives me to you,
treading the air and drowning?

Everything I hold collapses, and
then rhymes.  I’m so hungry for light
I could die for it.

Mary Florio


the sparrows did not
return to roost on your
barn door today

red as red as the
wounded night
it creaks out a tune

like a dusty yellow
cat slinking back
into the shadows

i catch a glimpse of you
frosty white and frail as tinder
hear you call my name

my thoughts zero in on
silk mills and coffee houses
tiparillos in tin boxes

prolific fall evenings
old tables smelling of
lemon oil and free verse

the world pales in
your absence
silence all those bells

Marie A. Mennuto-Rovello


If I were to write this for you
I'd need lots of blood
And sweat and tears, natch
You'd be insouciant as ever--
You with your fast car and happy family
You'd have to tune in much better to hear
The poem I am not writing about you
Sounds like elk calls in November--
a cross between whalesong and women in labor
midnight wind that sounds like voices
the sound the moon makes (a thin scream) as it slivers
My skin wouldn't hold the insides in of this poem
This very keyboard would explode blue fire
And I'd laugh with the shards in my eyes.
But this is not about you, you
vicious animus, you torn asunder twin
I would never write a poem about you
You took my will to write them away
You – my filthy, murderous muse.

Patty Tomsky


I look into the mirror and see
Your almond-shaped eyes
Brown and glistening
With all the pomp of a college freshman
Who thinks he knows the world
And can control it in his newfound sense of freedom,
Away from the "sirs" to father
And compliant "yeses" to mother.
A confidence that belies insecurity.
The mirror doesn't lie;
It shows me what it sees
That I may see myself.
- As I would be.
- As a serendipitous replica.
I used to like what I saw
But you changed when you sought friends
That required payment
For friendship.
And I thought we would make a good couple
That reflection and I.
But it turns out that in the end
Mirrors can be broken.

Frances Reinus


You designed this house. See
how it reflects your loves and fears,
how the sliding doors wrap around and slip
outside at evening, onto the deck
edged with pyracantha, mahonia,
hopseed ripening their berries. You must
have loved birds, to live here.

But surely this is not your house.
Could you abide a security system with
handwritten instructions taped at all four
corners to the wall? You wouldn’t
survive under the red eye of a nesting hawk,
yet live in fear of burglars. So far
from hospital, you with a damaged heart.

We live here now, aging, bound to
the papers we signed. The former owner
never trusted doors or windows
enough to keep things out. Still,
early mornings on the deck, I almost see
your reflection among wild bird-
berries in sunstruck glass.

Taylor Graham


This poem isn't for Janis with her blonde hair.
It's not for Kathy with the easy laugh.
There's no use in Liz looking for her long legs here.
If I said something about the sweet curves in and out
of Catherine a decade ago, it would not be in this poem.
Kay's confidence in lovemaking doesn't belong here
any more than Helen's brilliant words in play and battle.
May's quick tongue teasing me in some way
could not find its way into these lines.
I hope that no one will misconstrue.
This poem is, of course, for you.

Ken Ronkowitz


Laura Kasischke (b. 1961) is an American fiction writer and poet. Her work has received the Juniper Prize, the Alice Fay di Castagnola Award from the Poetry Society of America, the Pushcart Prize, the Elmer Holmes Bobst Award for Emerging Writers, and the Beatrice Hawley Award. Her novel The Life Before Her Eyes is the basis for the film of the same name. She is a Professor of English Language and of the Residential College at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her poetry includes: Wild Brides, Housekeeping in a Dream, Fire & Flower, What It Wasn't, Dance and Disappear, Gardening in the Dark and Lilies Without  which was published in 2007.

Richard Brautiganx (1935 - 1984) published novels, stories and poetry. His first commercial success came with the publication of the novel Trout Fishing in America in 1967. Brautigan withdrew from a public life in 1972, living in Bolinas, California and rarely making appearances. In 1982, he taught at Montana State University and then went underground again. He committed suicide in 1984. His poetry collections include Rommel Drives on Deep Into Egypt, and  The Springhill Mine Disaster, and his novels include The Tokyo-Montana Express, The Abortion, Willard and his Bowling Trophies, In Watermelon Sugar and A Confederate General from Big Sur.

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