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Reply to the Question: "How can You Become a Poet?" -- Eve Merriam

(Poem #428) Reply to the Question: "How can You Become a Poet?"
 take the leaf of a tree
 trace its exact shape
 the outside edges
 and inner lines
 memorize the way it is fastened to the twig
 (and how the twig arches from the branch)
 how it springs forth in April
 how it is panoplied in July
 by late August
 crumple it in your hand
 so that you smell its end-of-summer sadness
 chew its woody stem
 listen to its autumn rattle
 watch it as it atomizes in the November air
 then in winter
 when there is no leaf left
       invent one
-- Eve Merriam
As I've remarked before, poets as a class are inordinately fond of
commenting on the nature of poetry itself, and doing it in verse. I like
this trend for several reasons - for one, I'm a big fan of self-reference in
all its myriad incarnations; for another, it bespeaks a sense of play that I
feel can only enhance a poet's work. And not least of all, because poetry
itself *is* a wonderfully poetic topic, and that some truly beautiful poems
have been written on it.

I particularly like today's poem because it sums up a number of my own
feelings about poetry (and, for that matter, about Art in general), and far
better than I could have. Merriam conjures up a beautiful evocation of the
creative process, seamlessly interspersed with a verse picture of a leaf,
and culminating in an unexpected, but oh-so-satisfyingly *right* conclusion.

The form is well-chosen too - the shortage of capitalisation, far from
obtruding itself on the reader's notice, stays in the background, lending
the poem an air of quietness, while the lack of punctuation emphasises the
smoothly evolving flow of the images. In Merriam's own words, "a good poem
contains both meaning and music", and today's certainly fits both criteria.


  Eve Merriam is a poet, playwright, director, and lecturer. Born in
  Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1916, she attended Cornell University,
  University of Pennsylvania, University of Wisconsin, Columbia University,
  and has has taught and lectured at many other institutions. Her first
  book, Family Circle (1946), was selected for the Yale Series of Younger
  Poets by Archibald MacLeish. In addition to her adult poetry, she has also
  written picture books and a number of books of poetry for children,
  including There is No Rhyme for Silver (1964), It Doesn't Always Have to
  Rhyme (1964), The Inner City Mother Goose (1969), Catch a Little Rhyme
  (1966), Finding a Poem (1970), Out Loud (1973), and Rainbow Writing
  (1976). The controversial Inner City Mother Goose, which Merriam once
  referred to as "just about the most banned book in the country," was the
  basis for a 1971 Broadway musical, Inner City, and a second musical
  production, Street Dreams (1982), which was performed in San Francisco,
  Chicago and New York City. In 1981, she was named the winner of the NCTE
  Award for Ex.

        -- [broken link]


A nice list of metapoems (from where I got today's) can be found at

We've also run several on minstrels - see, in particular, the week starting
with poem #186

- martin

49 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Heather White said...

This poem really inspires me to try to hold on to the feelings that I often lose track of in the depression of the winter freeze. Thank you.

AKAANGEL880 said...

This poem really tells me you have to really look at the poem turn it inside
out to really know the true meaning of that poem. Know every single letter
word everything about that poem.

chaz said...

Sounded like rubbing the leaf into a book at first and was kind of weird to
me at the end but not that bad

Anonymous said...

I read this in High School 25+ years ago and it stuck in my head since then. I can't believe how MUCH is implied with this poem. I finally found it on the web a few years ago and seem to find it more and more as the years go by. I should have this typed up on pretty paper and framed w/ some leaves, because that's how much I love this poem! (I am also a Nature Lover)

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