“The Poetry Lesson” by Jackleen Holton

Jackleen Holton


for Steve Kowit, June 30, 1938 – April 2, 2015

Steal a line from a great poem
because the best poets don’t pay
Homage—that word like the godly He,
spelled with a capital H—they take
as if the whole world was their smorgasbord.
Yes, that’s what it felt like on that day we hiked
in the Cuyamacas, and all of nature
seemed to be slyly winking
as it sent us bluebird after bluebird, wild
turkey, deer, and that wounded lizard
we found on the path, the one you gently
moved aside with a stick as you swore
to the squeamish among us that its torn-off tail
would regenerate itself in a week. Our group
was mostly poetry students, and you, winking back,
as if you had summoned the gods, arranged
for a lesson so perfect it would be impossible not to write
a poem. So this is mine, the one I’m trying to shape
from your teachings, the day after learning you’ve gone,
your books spread out over my cluttered desk.
That’s another one of your tricks: include in your poem
a reference to the writing of it, like a camera
pulling back to reveal the soundstage, gaffers,
boom mikes and floodlights. After the hike,
a few of us drove to a small lake where your friend Jack
set up a telescope, and we waited to catch
a glimpse of the fledgling eaglet
whose parents had forged a temporary
nest in the brambles. Here’s what I remember:
my stomach rumbling as we took turns gazing
into the eyepiece. I wasn’t thinking of eaglets,
but Julian apple pie. I was going to have mine à la mode
with Dutch crumble crust. (Notice how I’ve used
assonance and consonance, the mimicking sounds
of brambles/rumbling/crumble/crust?)
But when that large nest rustled, and the fledgling
rose, its new wings flapping, and landed, briefly
on a branch, I forgot about everything
I planned to do later: have lunch
at that roadside café where we always ended up,
the lively political discussion that would ensue,
even the exquisite dessert, its perfect blending
of hot and cold. But, then just as quickly
as it had appeared, the little eagle
dropped back into its nest, out of sight.
Would this be a good place to address
the reader, to instruct?
Listen! When the beauty of a thing insists
on being seen, you must give yourself over
to it, for this is the shimmering everything: the moment
and its volumes of unwritten poems.
But here’s the part where I make my confession:
I lied. I never saw that eaglet.
The stupid guy I was dating left his backpack
at the trailhead. And I, being even stupider,
drove him back instead of letting him take my car,
going with you and Jack to see the bird.
But everything else is true: the lizard,
the café where you told us of your miraculous
sighting, the steaming apple pie. I saw you last month
at a workshop you taught. It never occurred to me,
not for a second, that it would be the last time.
You said, Here’s a trick, a really cheap trick:
End your poem with a rhyme.

from Poets Respond


Jackleen Holton: “This poem is for my first poetry teacher, Steve Kowit, who passed away on April 2nd. He was a great poet, mentor, and one of the most generous people I’ve ever met. Steve had several ‘tricks’ for writing poems, which he used in his own work, and I have tried my best to include in this tribute piece. My favorite is this: Tell at least one lie in your poem.”

Rattle Logo