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This Was Once

July 2009

In Jane Hirshfield's poem, "This Was Once A Love Poem," (from Given Sugar, Given Salt ) most readers will naturally begin to substitute a person (probably "she" or "I") in place of the "poem" within the poem.

When I went looking for this poem online, I was surprised when I found it at the Academy of American Poets website as part of a group titled "Poems for Breakups and Divorce." I had read the poem as one about someone changing more than one about a breakup. So, I reread the poem through that filter. I'm still not convinced that the poem really belongs in that group.

Then, I began to think about whether or not the poem itself might actually have been a love poem in an earlier draft, but had somehow changed along with the person.

The second half of the poem certainly addresses aging. Once with "no fold of skin softened" under the chin and no "pad of yellow fat," it now accepts the changes. The voice accepts the change; the poem accepts no longer being a love poem.

Our prompt steals directly from Hirshfield's title and opening line. Write a poem that uses as its title or first line a variation on "This was once a love poem."

You can maintain the idea of the changed poem ("This was once a sonnet to my wife...") or insert the person ("I/she/he was once a..."). It's about change and the recognition of what once was, and what now is. It could be a poem for the "Breakups and Divorce" grouping, but perhaps the subject really is the way a poem or thing has changed.

There's more about this prompt and poetry on the Poets Online blog.


Once this was our home.
In this photograph, a secret
about a secret.
The more it tells you,
the less you know.

A teacher told me
to write about something I know,
but I write about things
I want to discover.
So I have been writing all summer
about that house, about you
and me, and contemplating catastrophe.
I am trying to follow the string through the labyrinth,
disbound not unbound,
but jealousy drove me forward
like a propeller under the surface,
blood and tears in the wake.
It is an elegy for the living.
It is the rough draft of my eulogy.
Here is my story for the giving.
Here is my confession for God's sake.

Charles Michaels


This was once a poem
to a boy I loved.

I remember the lulling quality of his
words as I drifted into the next stanza.

Orchards of wild flowers
bloomed in the beds of each line,

but what I really wanted
was to plant a tulip
in the center of his chest
as a symbol that my love was true.

I remember the fear he dug into
my thoughts and my secret need
to fill the holes with fresh earth.

I remember how he cut the stems
of all my memories until I had
nothing left to grow.

I remember both of us
expecting the whole mess
of lines to make sense

when we both knew
there would never be enough
sunlight to bring the wilted to life.

And what I remember most
was the feel of cracked dirt under
my feet as I ran from the emptiness

that the first line told me
the last would end in.

Krista Smith


This was once a love song
But I had to drop the melody
(Which was fine with it, since it knows I
could never write one anyway.
At least not a good one.
And it would have only liked a good melody, thank you very much.)

I kept hoping to capture the idea as he did
so long ago,
The minstral called me “Laura” and spoke of
“Life so simple,” which (of course)
It turned out not to be.

He thought things would be different, I’m sure.
And I’m sure I promised as much
with my eyes
and my smile
and my whispered dreams...
back before I became the one
“to have and to hold”
even when you are sick to death of it
and don’t want to
but do.

It is content not to be a love song, because
no one writes love songs about pasta
or ear aches
or vomit
or stretch marks.

There isn’t much crooning about tire swings
and loose teeth
and fingerpaint
and lullabies.

Love songs whisper promises they never keep,
never making it to the finish line.
They end before they really begin,
like Easter eggs still in the carton
or chocolate pie that is an empty shell.

It knows it, and so it
Thanks God to no longer be
the attempted love song.

It would be much happier as a soundtrack,
going lovely here
and frightening there
and loud
and soft
and gentle
and grand

But since it knows I cannot write this, either
It will just hold my hand
through the agony
and the laughter
and the tears.

And smile at him
with gratitude
for constancy.

Laurie Sitterding


This was once me, a newborn, a pink pile of life, unfolding,
pale red lines and thin blue ones under my skin,
like a road map, that one day might help to lead me home.
I am still searching for the highway that might take me here.
I think for some reason I will know it when it happens.
I will drop to my bony, dirt marked knees and taste the soil
that helps to hold the irises upright,
I will raise my face and you will see pale tears running down to fill the hole
that I have made to find the bulb that has created such beauty.
I will touch the petals to my lips and kiss them as they fall away.
Later, you will try and take my hand, my heart, and I will have to
look the other way,
out, towards a horizon full of mirages.

Patty Joslyn


This started out years ago as a love poem,
my single pair of footprints in desert
sand, till you appeared with sun
behind your head, your footprints
interweaving mine. You pointed
at the ground so it bloomed
with monkey-flower, indian paintbrush,
filaree. I was the smallest flower
in your hand. Now your hand is veined
with years and nurturing.
Mine has held too much, but still loves
to run its fingers over sand and petals,
make shadow-birds in silhouette.
We’ve both fledged swallows
from our hands. To that same dry place,
not yet lost to city, I’ve come
without you, to let the poem tell me
what it loves.

Taylor Graham


Does once mean, once as in once upon a time
Which is forever, repeating and repeating
Or is once an occasion or occasionally
The one night stands,
A surprise that it happened once.

We spent a lot of time together
You with me, more than once my asking you
To you remember once the plot;
It is more than he and her and them
It is more than notes, pretty notes
More than you being Victorian and saying
I look at the ceiling, laundry white or paper,
With a occasional scribbling line
Of musing about skin or eyes or lips.

Can you once describe the way I am
Like the way of getting to my home
After a party or a roll in the hay.
Or once on the way, what were the necessary turns
Or only a blur of leaves
Never more than black in the moon light.

Wasn't there a musical, once upon a mattress,
even the color or a bed of flowers.

once, an intrinsically sad word
Is a rich sepia photo of desert ruins
As a sonnet read in high school.
After once, an author finds chores to do
While a comedian from radio days,
Knows that shouting out,
Cucomonga only once
Does not produce enough laughter
As once is not enough,
And Cucomonga

One is not only once
On the last stop of your life,
Away from the smokey fires
At rapid dismal nursing home
But there are onces
As there are dunces
That smile a happy face
And say once had such grace.

Edward Halperin


Once a battered girl,
beaten with beatitudes and a belt,
trodden like thyme between hard rocks.

Once a bludgeoned wife,
threatened with words and weapons,
branded like chattel upon bruised flanks.

Once a bashful student,
filled with humility and hope,
infused like vodka over fleshy fruits.

Education, errors, and experience;
trials, time, and finally trust.

Then a blossoming woman,
sweetened with kisses and caresses,
softened like chocolate in hot hands.

Now a burgeoning surgeon,
endowed with power and pride,
hardened like steel in fiery forges.

And no longer victim: now cherished lover,
empathic caregiver and truth-speaker.

Joan Huffman