Poetry and a Clean Surface

Wistful, melancholy, looking off into the distance. All I want, I tell my husband, is a clean surface in the middle of a clean world. I say this because while I abhor clutter, I often have much of it on the surfaces I use to write. My desk in the study, the dining room table, a wooden card table I sometimes set up just to be out in the living room. Piles of files. Mail. Envelopes. Photos. Labels. Folders. Books. Computer cords. Notebooks. The photos, especially, seem to have multiplied supernaturally. I was just looking for one or two, and now they are heaped upon the table like mounds of leaves.

I did find the one I was after. I took it while my mom and I were in Boston. We decided to visit Amherst to tour the home of Emily Dickinson (because who doesn’t like her?). We took the bus during a snowstorm, and when we got to Amherst, the town seemed hushed, like a scene on a Christmas card. Here is what the Dickinson property looked like that day.


We were part of a small group touring the Dickinson grounds and home. I could almost believe in ghosts when we saw her bedroom with her small writing table where she wrote close to a thousand poems, only found by her sister, Lavinia, after Emily’s death.DickinsonroomPhoto taken from http://www.emilydickinsonmuseum.org

Back to the clean surface. The line comes from a favorite poem by Billy Collins, included in his collection, Sailing Alone Around the Room (2001). The poem is called, “Advice to Writers”:

Even if it keeps you up all night,
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.

Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.

The more you clean, the more brilliant
your writing will be, so do not hesitate to take
to the open fields to scour the undersides
of rocks or swab in the dark forest
upper branches, nests full of eggs.

When you find your way back home
and stow the sponges and brushes under the sink,
you will behold in the light of dawn
the immaculate altar of your desk,
a clean surface in the middle of a clean world.

From a small vase, sparkling blue, lift
a yellow pencil, the sharpest of the bouquet,
and cover pages with tiny sentences
like long rows of devoted ants
that followed you in from the woods.

When I chatted with Billy Collins after his reading at Azusa Pacific University a few years back, I told him it was my favorite poem as he signed my book, and I think he understood my conflicts intuitively. My friend, Holle, another Collins fan, was with me, and here is a photo of them both.


It is National Poetry Month, the 20th anniversary celebration, started by The Academy of American Poets, and on their site you can find ways to join in. If you enjoy poetry, it might be fun to take a few moments and peruse their website, perhaps lingering over a poem or two by one of your favorite poets. I belong to the organization, and I enthusiastically support them for their efforts to permeate culture with poetry.

They suggest memorizing a poem. I must mention here our Aunt Pat, who at nearly ninety years old can recite many of the poems she memorized as a child. She recited Longfellow’s poem, “A Psalm of Life,” at the funeral of her sister (my husband’s mother) in December, as that poem was a family favorite. Their grandfather had been a “recitator” in the pubs of Ireland, an elocutionist, who read to them as they sat around the fire in the evenings, most often reading poetry, the Bible, or a Shakespeare play. Here is Aunt Pat, enjoying her vacation after reciting Robert W. Service’s poem, The Cremation of Sam McGee.


It is also the month of NaPoWriMo, in which participants write a poem a day. They were inspired by NaNoWriMo, where participants write a novel during the month of November every year. Lots of poets are contributing to NaPoWriMo, so if you are interested in reading their poems, visit the blogs of James Rovira andΒ Jennifer Barricklow. Tim (a close friend) and I celebrated early, writing a poem a day in the month of February, although I only made it to day 7, and I think he has caught up in April with an additional dozen or so poems. I have to catch up to that by tomorrow morning when we meet to do Tai Chi and review the last week’s writing, and I can only get started at about 11 pm when we get home from seeing Dana Gioia, another poet, who is speaking tonight in Pasadena. So no time now to clean the surfaces.




23 thoughts on “Poetry and a Clean Surface

  1. Carla, I can’t even tell you all the ways I love this gorgeous post. The recitation of your Aunt Pat, for one.That you’ve done these lovely poetry events: the tour of Dickinson’s home, the Billy Collins. So beautiful. I need more of this in my life.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Oh my gosh, the Collins poem is so apt. I actually DO clean my writing room (aka bedroom) before I write so I won’t be distracted and say to myself “I’ll just clean this little spot…”

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  3. I’m obsessional about my writing desk being tidy. It’s a combination of old and new — a leather-topped Victorian writing desk with a desktop PC. No pens and paper. They live on an adjacent table, as does my dictionary. If my desk isn’t tidy, I can’t work on my novels or short stories. On the other hand, my haiku and tanka poems are often composed elsewhere and scribbled on bits of paper that end up in pockets and in the kitchen cupboard!

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  4. I’m reading this post on a messy table with scattered magic markers everywhere, 5 dogs barking, and 4 nieces happily chatting a they create masterpieces on their spring break visit to my farm. It’s a surprisingly peaceful and happy time but one not suited to writing. But they do give me plenty of ideas–if only I would write them down–now where is my notebook under all this clutter?

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  5. Great poem. How cool to get to meet a favorite poet and chat with him. I don’t usually get star struck by actors but with authors I admire I tend to get a bit tongue tied. πŸ™‚

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  6. I often think of the book Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert M. Pirsig At one point in the story, he speaks of a gifted welder fixing the muffler on his bike. There is chaotic pile of tools on his work bench and he needs one specific piece. The welder pushes his hand into the middle of the heap, and almost as if divining its unseen location he finds it. Although I aspire to well developed agenda with environment, my work spaces and raw drafts, have but a modicum of organized coherence. Thank the lord for daily bread. My flour is not prepared enough to bake but a few months in advance, let alone a year. The Dickinson’s home is an insightful centerpiece to this blog. Carla, I really enjoy the quality and creativity of your work.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. I really love your blogs, Carla, and this one made me smile remembering our trip to Boston! Love your writing, and wish I were more anxious to be finishing my few manuscripts. Sigh. Love you, Mom

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