American Life in Poetry: December Notes

U.S. Poet Laureate Ted Kooser is writing a series of columns that highlights poetry and its importance in everyday life. From time to time we’ll share the reprinted columns here, and provide you a chance to add your comments. This simple piece by Nancy McCleery seemed like a nice offering to leave as I begin my own holiday vacation. Feel free to share your December notes here as well as your thoughts on this selection.)

American Life in Poetry: Column 039


Many of us keep journals, but while doing so few of us pay much attention to selecting the most precise words, to determining their most effective order, to working with effective pauses and breath-like pacing, to presenting an engaging impression of a single, unique day. This poem by Nebraskan Nancy McCleery is a good example of one poet’s carefully recorded observations.

December Notes

The backyard is one white sheet
Where we read in the bird tracks

The songs we hear. Delicate
Sparrow, heavier cardinal,

Filigree threads of chickadee.
And wing patterns where one flew

Low, then up and away, gone
To the woods but calling out

Clearly its bright epigrams.
More snow promised for tonight.

The postal van is stalled
In the road again, the mail

Will be late and any good news
Will reach us by hand.

Reprinted from “Girl Talk,” The Backwaters Press, 2002, by permission of the author. Copyright (c) 1994 by Nancy McCleery. This weekly column is supported by The Poetry Foundation, The Library of Congress, and the Department of English at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln. This column does not accept unsolicited poetry.

3 Responses

  1. some fundamental questions .
    some fundamental questions . . .

    I enjoyed this poem. The word choice, the imagery, the “bird language” — all very good stuff. However, I feel that some aesthetic value may be wasted on me. Why seven syllables per line? Why are the lines grouped in pairs? I know these are some pretty basic questions but I am quite new to poetry. Finally, how would December Notes be read aloud? Pauses for every line? Or is this type of poem read like normal sentences in paragraph form (pauses for commas and periods)?

    Thanks in advance to whoever fields this.

  2. Hi Severian — interesting
    Hi Severian — interesting questions, but unless Ted Kooser makes a surprise appearance I don’t know if there’s anybody else who could provide any answer other than a guess.

    I can at least respond to how it would be read — I do not think you would read it like prose, but rather I think you would want to stretch and extend each syllable as long as it felt right to you do to do so. I’m sure each person’s reading would be different, but in most cases I think a poem like this could be successfully read for a certain musical effect. Try it and see what you come up with.

  3. I’m far from being a poetry
    I’m far from being a poetry expert, but for some reason I feel like sharing some ideas on the subject.

    I think our minds look for structure. Of course, there is no “right” or “wrong” way to structure a poem. I think of it like this: A girl decides to make a leather belt for her boyfriend. She wants the belt to be decorated with jewels. She happens to have a dozen rubies, seven emeralds and four diamonds. So she mounts two diamonds on either side of the belt buckle one over top of the other (:). Then two emeralds on each side, one over the other, and next two rubies on each side the same way. So the belt looks like this

    ::: [- ]:::

    That’s the buckle in the middle. Why two of each? She just thought it looked balanced that way. She only had four diamonds so she decided to use four of everything. She also could have achieved balance by using two diamonds, four emeralds, and eight rubies. But I wouldn’t expect her to stick two diamonds and a ruby on one side of the buckle with six emeralds on the other side. Unless she was trying to convey some god-awful fractured concept. I read once that spiders make grossly unbalanced webs when given small doses of LSD, so you never know.

    Another thing about poetry I’ve found is that, once I set a structure for myself, as in a certain number of lines or syllables, it helps me say something more succinctly than if I just spilled my words all over the page. I’m not saying either way is necessarily better, but I find that when I am forced to say something within a limiting structure, I either do it badly or I do it really well. When I do it really well, it gives me a good feeling so it’s a reward in itself to myself, and maybe that feeling will be conveyed to others when they read my poem!

    As for forms like haiku or sonnets, and the variations people have made up for haiku and sonnets, I like to think of those different forms like Jimmy Page riffs. You know Jimmy Page, from Led Zeppelin; he would come up with some new, off-the-wall riff, that almost didn’t seem like it would fit in a song. But by playing that riff over, 4 times or 8 times, then going to a chorus or bridge, then repeating the riff again, suddenly it became a song structure. So instead of the predictable structure of Louie, Louie and Wild Thing, Zeppelin gave us those off-kilter riffs from The Ocean and Dancing Days.

    The thing is, it’s all mutable and open-ended.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

What We're Up To ...

Litkicks will turn 30 years old in the summer of 2024! We can’t believe it ourselves. We don’t run as many blog posts about books and writers as we used to, but founder Marc Eliot Stein aka Levi Asher is busy running two podcasts. Please check out our latest work!