How I Discovered Poetry: Ellen Bass

How I Discovered Poetry ~ Ellen Bass

I think poetry itself is what lured me to fall in love with it. I didn’t come from a literary family, though my mother occasionally read a poem aloud, careful to read it well, as she was careful in all things, wrapping a sandwich in waxed paper or counting out change for a customer. She took a certain pride in knowing that you didn’t stop at the end of a line, but followed the thought through until a natural place to pause.

We didn’t have many books in our house until my brother, who is eight years older, went to college. On weekends, I’d cut myself a thick slab of salami, take a couple slices of American cheese, a knob of rye bread and a glass of milk and settle myself in the leather recliner in his empty room and read books from his shelves.

My first typewriter was a hand-me-down from my brother. I wish I still had it–a clunky black metal Remington with round silver-rimmed keys on which I taught myself to type using a fingering chart my brother made for me. Recently I was cleaning out my garage and came across a box of old papers, including some note cards on which I’d typed out poems and quotations fifty years ago:

The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ,
Moves on: nor all your Piety nor Wit
Shall lure it back to Cancel half a line,
Nor all your Tears wash out a Word of it.

Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

I added the accent marks in pencil and some of the letters are darker than others. The punctuation keys I must have hit especially hard because they have indented the cards with their force. I can’t help but wonder what this passage meant to me then, having had no experiences so painful that I would have wanted to erase them. Maybe I was preparing myself for the future. These lines certainly describe my struggles now–there’s so much I wish I could go back and do differently. Or maybe it was something beyond the content, the way poetry speaks to us about the human condition, whether we have had similar experiences ourselves or not. All I know for sure is that I had a hunger for this kind of meaningful communication–and I still do.


The laptop is finally fixed, and I hope it will remain operational. Life has been a bitch since it hasn’t been easy to use the internet or access documents. As long as the laptop cooperates I will be able to restart the Sunday Eye Candy series.

Limp Wrist #2 will go live toward the end of September. The second issue will feature an interview with the divine Denise Duhamel and work by Kurt Brown, Nick Carbo, Ellen Bass, Karen Chase, Khadijah Queen, and more. I’m excited about the second issue, and the third issue, which will go live Jan 09, is starting to take a nice shape.

The only stable part of my life life right now seems to be work and writing two to four poems a week. I meet with a fellow every couple of weeks; we chit-chat then move into critiquing work. Yesterday, we met and did our thing. She was able to help me put some “finishing” touches on three poems.

Well, off to do some reorganization as my new filing cabinet is calling my name.

"Why Do I Write" ~ Ellen Bass

WHY DO I WRITE ~ Ellen Bass

I write to make the unbearable bearable. Poetry is the way I pray, the way, as the Buddhists advise, I “lean into” my experience. When I am confronted with terrible events, poetry gives me a way to handle them—literally, to touch them, to feel them with my hands. And to hold them as part of the human experience. Writing doesn’t change how I feel, it doesn’t heal me. But it gives me a way to live inside the pain. Elie Wiesel, writing about the Holocaust, said, “You can hold yourself back from the suffering world: this is something you are free to do…, but perhaps precisely this holding back is the only suffering you might be able to avoid.”

I think this is true of our more personal grief as well. When I try to avoid my sorrow, when I feel affronted by the pain of my life, the impact of my grief seems to increase. Paradoxically, the only relief at all for me is to surrender to the fact of my grief, to accept my burden and try to carry it as gracefully as I can. Writing is one way—one of the most important ways—I do this.

And I write to sink more deeply into the joy. Happiness, it would seem, should be an easier emotion to experience—and obviously in many ways it is. But there are a million opportunities for pleasure and gratefulness that I miss—we all do–every day. Poetry allows me to pay attention—which is its own pure form of prayer. It allows me to praise the ordinary and extraordinary moments of this one short life.