Prompt #38 : Trees & Apologies

My last prompt was August 3. Today is August 19. I’ve been struggling this summer with an old friend, the demon depression, and just not feeling like writing (or doing much of anything). When you’re feeling low, getting out of bed is often the only goal in a day (fortunately, I’m not doing that poorly this time) and for me there have been days when just getting to work is an achievement. So be it.

Additionally, with all the news in the world being so difficult these days, I know many sensitive people, many of them poets (like any other kind of artist) who’ve been feeling the pain a little more in the heart than at other, less news-anguish-y times. I’ll be posting (to my other blog A Twirly Life) a collection of links I’ve appreciated in the past month, in case you’re interested in how some other people are weathering.

This poetry prompt is about trees! Today, my commute coincided with The Writer’s Almanac and the poem was “The Country of Trees” by Mary Oliver. Unfortunately, the text of the poem is not available, probably because her book Blue Horses is not even published yet!  But it was such a beautiful poem, and it contains a section in which she’s talking about the trees and listing the things into which they have been made: houses, fences, bridges. I thought, “Ah ha! That’s a great idea for a poem prompt” — write about all the things that might have started out life as a tree. What do trees mean to you? Just look around you — on my desk right now I can see a pencil, a book, the desk itself, the poster on my wall, the photo of a tree in a wooden frame. Then there are the wooden soles of my shoes and the wooden buttons on my jacket. I am surrounded by the spirit of trees.

Because I will not leave you without a poem to read, I offer you a couple of other poems about trees, one “rather slight” and one serious.


“Trees” by Joyce Kilmer is perhaps the most famous tree poem ever. The opening couplet, “I think that I shall never see / A poem as lovely as a tree,” has been much lampooned, but it’s actually a great poem. Read all about it here. There’s even a very cute picture of Mr. Kilmer as a college kid — did anyone else always assume Joyce was a woman? Bad on me!

“Tree” by Jane Hirshfield is one of the poems I have closest to my heart. You can read it here, and hear her reading it too. I love the small details, the sounds (oh! the branch tips brushing!) and the questions it poses so gently: who will last, what is important to you, what are you going to choose? This poem has special meaning for those of us in California. Cupertino has many redwood trees, and they’re not getting any smaller!

It is foolish
to let a young redwood   
grow next to a house.
Even in this   
one lifetime,
you will have to choose.
That great calm being,
this clutter of soup pots and books—
Already the first branch-tips brush at the window.   
Softly, calmly, immensity taps at your life.
(The photo at the top of the post is from a great site that describes all the places in the SF Bay Area where you can hike and seek old-growth redwood trees.)

Dog Park Rules

To honor the opening of Cupertino’s Mary Avenue Dog Park, I’ve written a little villanelle. They’ve posted the poem at their website, but I offer it here, too. I read this on Tuesday at my April Fool’s Day reading, and it seemed to appeal to the people there. I hope dogs like it too.

Especially for my dog-loving friends, Michelle, Cristina, and Alice.

Dog Park Rules (A Villanelle)

Watch out for balls and feel the winter sun.
Remember who you came with, when you came.
Run and run and don’t forget to run.

The most important rule is to have fun.
Smell all the smells, then smell them all again.
Watch out for balls and feel the spring-time sun.

Spin your body, spin and when you’ve spun
yourself into a puddle, change the game.
Run and run and don’t forget to run.

Sniff the spots that human noses shun.
Pee and pee and all good places claim.
Watch out for balls and feel the autumn sun.

Stay with that stick until the chewing’s done.
Leap and wiggle your small body like a flame.
Run and run and don’t forget to run.

And now the Dog Park rules are almost done,
and you will learn them as you learned your name.
Watch out for balls and feel the summer sun.
Run and run and don’t forget to run.

For more dog poems, check out Mary Oliver and Billy Collins, fans of dogs and fine poets.

Those of you interested in more information about villanelles, check this out and this.

Prompt #23 Green Birds

Happy (not Saturday) Monday! and Happy St. Patrick’s Day (if you’re Irish or otherwise celebrate the day) and Happy Green Birds of California Day (if you’re a slightly crazed poet…)!

I missed my chance to post my prompt on Saturday, and yesterday I spent the day outdoors in the sunshine and prepping for today’s poetry teaching start at a local elementary school. Now, three cups of tea later, I’m finally recovered enough think of a prompt and write a poem to go with it. Fortunately for me, one of my favorite blogs, Audublog, affiliated with Audubon California, has provided me with this fabulous post about green birds of California to get me (and all of us) started.

Let’s think of a poem today as something you can write that surprises you. Something you write in your own unique voice, without cliches. If you think of a green bird, you might visualize a bird you’re familiar with: a Mallard duck, an Anna’s hummingbird. And you could write a perfectly good poem about one of those. But what about the Violet-green swallow? Or the even less likely Ruby-crowned kinglet? Who names a green bird “ruby-crowned”?? I think my favorite green bird from this post is the Hutton’s vireo. I wonder who Hutton was? And why he named this sweet little fellow with the multicolored striped wings after himself?


The tradition of writing poetry about birds is very Romantic (and yes, I mean that with a capital “R”). Here are a couple obvious choices:

One of my favorite bird poets writing today is Mary Oliver, who has written scads of  poems about egrets, owls, hummers.

Another favorite poet, Brenda Hillman, also writes about birds — they pop up in her strange and prickly poetry where least expected.

I couldn’t find any poems about the Hutton’s vireo, but I did find a great website that helps the birder differentiate one from a ruby-crowned kinglet — filled with great descriptions of their wings, head shape, and their songs. How is this for a delightful description of sounds that can’t be written down?

Voice is a much better character and is diagnostic once learned. The oft-heard, soft rattle of the kinglet is a dominant sound in wintering mixed flocks; it has been described as a scolding “je-dit, je-dit,” or “chiditdit” or a machine-gun “ah-a-a-a-a-a-a,” but it is not the least bit whinny. The vireo gives a typical vireo scold, a whinny descending “whee-we-we-we,” a nasal descending “cheee,” or may sing its two-part monotonous upslurred “zuwee” or “chew-wheet” song on warm days at any time of year (sometimes a downslurred “zeeoo…zeeoo….zeeoo.” In coastal California, serious singing by the vireo often begins in February when there are still a lot of kinglet around.

Your challenge for this week is to write a poem about a green bird. Investigate the Audublog, or look out your window and see what’s in your garden. Take a walk to a local pond and check out the ducks. Listen to the birds. Write down what they sound like. And then imagine that you can understand their songs — that would make a poem worthy of spring.