“Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?”
– Mary Oliver
The oft-quoted Mary Oliver poem, “Summer Day” is usually reduced to the last two lines and seen as a call to action. What interests me is that the rest of the poem doesn’t say “you” at all – it’s about the speaker, “I”, and then at the very end switches to the reader. It turns the meditation on us, and asks us to choose, because life is short.
Sometimes poems reach out and grab you by the throat. They shake you awake; they run a soft hand over the goosebumps you are wearing. They, speak to you — yes, you — I’m talkin’ ta YOU.
But do the writers of these poems know us? Could they even imagine us? What if we didn’t exist at the time of their writing? What if we are very small and they are very big and important?
I find that poems come more easily when I address them to someone. Recently, I’ve written to a future son, the graduating seniors I teach, a long-distance friend of mine who could be more than a friend, another future child but not necessarily a son, and a mystery, beloved “you.” All of these poems have a special flavor based on their object, a certain language of feeling. At least they do to me. I wonder: will readers still relate to them if the “you” is too specific?
And why am I so drawn to this way in the first place? It probably would not be possible to write these poems with these specific colors without the element of “you,” but I’m not sure why.
Sometimes poetry can be a way of saying what we cannot say to someone. Because he would hurt us, because she wouldn’t listen, because they are not born yet. Or it can be a way of imagining conversations that are foreign to us, scary, uncertain, exciting.
If you’ve never written a poem to someone before, I recommend trying it. Here are some ways to start:
1) Write an Ode
The day we write odes in my high school poetry class is a fun one — we read dreamy Harlem Renaissance odes like “To a Dark Girl” by Gwendolyn Bennett or strident ones like Countee Cullen’s “Atlantic City Waiter.” Then the kids and I have to write our own odes. We get to choose any object – a person, thing or idea, and write a poem praising it or describing it. I wrote to a dear teacher friend of mine, describing her crinkled curls and her too-loud laugh, which I love. My students chose a wide variety of beloved “you”s: her mom, her boyfriend’s red sweatshirt that she always steals, the 4×4 at Wendy’s late at night, his dog Blitz, and “an Ode-a to Yoda.”
When you write your ode, think about starting each line with “you” or “your”; this jump starts your ability to describe the person as you extol their virtues.
2) Write a message in a bottle
This exercise yielded some interesting results when we tried it in class. Many students wrote as if they were stranded on an island and just wanted someone to know – not even to be rescued but to be remembered. And some, oddly, wrote to a person stranded on an island. “If you are lost, don’t panic! Just send a message back in this bottle, and someone might find it and send help.” I loved this hopeful vision.
I decided to go more abstract, writing to an unknown and far away “you” about whom something could still be known. So I will end this post with the poem I wrote that day, which is a tribute and a love song to the graduating seniors of my school.
A Message in a Bottle
Oh greetings to you in your wide world
on your coastline laced with brambles
and sage grouse and sandbrush.
What does your wide world look like today?
Are the skies lined with orange and sea salt?
Are the hands you carry still free?
What will you give yourself to sail,
what craft will embark today with you at the helm?
In every possible light you are fated
to venture so far you follow the stars.
In every decade you’ll sink in the sea
so far down the coral is sun.
But what does your wide world tell you today?
Does it whisper or shout or sing?
How will you answer
as you look at the waves?
Speak welcome — then throw the bottle back.