By Shirley McPhillips

It’s National Poetry Month! For inspiration, we have invited Shirley McPhillips, poet and NWP Writers Council member, to share some thinking about WHY poetry matters and HOW, as teachers and writers, we might jump into it. For more on writing seasonal poems, and to better understanding the central role poetry can play in our personal lives and in our classrooms, you may want to read Shirley’s book Poem Central: Word Journeys with Readers and Writers, Stenhouse Publishers, 2014. Also, her latest collection of poems called Acrylic Angel of Fate, made its debut in 2016, Finishing Line Press.


Like the wheel of the year, we are called to move forward, beyond old
limiting stories we have lived by, to create new myths closer to our heart’s desire.
—Arlene Gay Levine

Several years ago in early summer, I gave myself a retreat in an enchanted cottage in the Shawangunk Mountains in upstate New York. I needed a break. A relationship was not moving in a direction we had envisioned. A project was languishing. I wanted to get away, let myself empty out, hoping to be filled up again with courage and new beginnings of joy.

I awoke with the sun each day, had tea on the porch, greeted the deer family and hailed Hughie the woodchuck. I sketched by the Rondout Creek, wrote among the hummingbirds and read in the shadow of the owl’s nest. I hiked around the pond and wandered local farms for fresh tomatoes and corn right out of the field for supper. I walked and biked the Rail Trail along the old D & H Canal, calling out questions and makeshift answers. I stood still in rain. Evenings, I watched the sky blend from mountain blue to salmon to stars.

It was idyllic. Life affirming. But with that hole in my heart, it was hard. Stepping into the moments as they came, trying to find the possibilities around me, summer in that place reshaped my soul. And hey! I got three poems from it all. Reading and making poems, making art, saved me. I could bring the outside in, transform it, and send it back out again. I could trust anew that change was possible. In creating, I could make something of the material of my life.

I think all of us would agree that this has been a season of discontent across the land. Many of us are struggling with how to be in a world becoming less familiar. We can’t all “get away,” nor stay away, from the day to day. It’s where we live. I think of teachers who, in the face of all that tugs at them, step into the moments of the day searching with their students for ways to take pleasure in what they find there. In times such as these, it’s good to remember with poet and teacher Tony Hoagland, “In everything we have to understand, poetry can help.”

Seasonal Poems Remembered

The seasons are like bulbs, fat and full underground. In their time, they edge up and unfold with meaning. With a focus on the season, poets, conscious and careful, reach deeply into their senses. They summon the muses of emotion and memory. They gather a bounty of words and images and hone them with the specifics of the moment. Exploring seasons, we can connect with the music of all life’s processes and join in the harmony.

Harry, a stage manager, can still quote Frost’s “Dust of Snow.” It reminds him of his winter walks as a young man growing up in Minnesota. How even the slightest sound or sight or bit of energy can resound and stay. “The way a crow / Shook down on me / The dust of snow / From a hemlock tree…”

Anna Lee, a cellist, remembers, as a child, turning the pages of a book of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poems, gazing at a faded watercolor scene of the sea, yearning for summer. “When I was down beside the sea / A wooden spade they gave to me…”

A more current poem by Li-Young Lee called “Falling: The Code” reminds my friend David of his grandparents’ apple orchard on a hill in upstate New York—the “stem-snap, the plummet / through leaves, then / the final thump against the ground.” He can still smell the spicy fruit in fall and imagine the deer reaching up at dusk to pull off one or two. He can hear the pumph of apples as they hit the ground.

Fifth-grade teacher, Calley, studied and wrote Haiku and other short forms for an entire summer in preparation for working with students. She wanted her teaching to come from the inside out. She read the masters and contemporary poets. She kept a notebook, jotting observations, images, sketches and snatches of short poems. In the tradition of early Haiku poets, the words in these two final poems suggest the season:

The cat’s tail twitches
under the forsythia—
chasing sparrow dreams.Great silent shadow
sweeps over the snowy field—
wings splinter moonlight.

Poet Adrienne Rich reminds us what is true: Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire. Remember the retreat in the country I gave myself one early summer? My season of renewal? Here is one result:

Life On the Edge

The nest of my poem
is too loosely constructed

to hold much hope, all shreds
of thistledown and hay on the verge

of a ledge under the drainpipe,
sunblasted shortly after noon,

whipped by a race of rain
through scumbles of late clouds.

Day after day, a motherflurry
of wings, and the newborns, beaks
grub-woozy with expectation,

gape for a taste not altogether
alien. One bullies itself to the edge,
alive with a divine trembling.

How quickly its heart
beats in me.

—Shirley McPhillips

14 Comments
  • Jason says:

    Beautiful. Wishing courage for us all, and new beginnings.

    What a gift it is to have students think on making meaning out of the material of their lives (as you put it) by writing some short poetry, maybe from an experience or observation this spring, whether at school or at home, say from from a memory or a feeling or a sketch or something found or a photograph. Trying to sort out and put words to whatever’s beating or blooming in their minds.

    And I’m wishing them mentors like you.

    April 14, 2017 at 5:04 am
    • SHirley McPhillips says:

      Jay, you were certainly an inspiration and mentor in your classroom. I always looked forward to coming in, working with you, watching you interact with students. Thanks for your kind comment here.
      Shirl

      April 17, 2017 at 11:20 am
  • Carol Kellogg says:

    Thank you, Shirley McPhillips, for that inspiring piece. I was touched by your description of how, during a down period in your life, you still found beauty to write about. It struck me that often lovely surprises seem all the more joyful when experienced during a low period, just as the sun seems all the more radiant when it breaks through a sky filled with dark, roiling clouds. Your keen eye for observing nature combined with your skill of deftly weaving your observations into the mood of the poem make your work a joy to read and a master class in poetic composition.

    April 15, 2017 at 7:22 am
    • SHirley McPhillips says:

      Carol, thank you so much for your thoughtful words. Thoughtful in how you let what you read go deep and deeper. And thoughtful in your kindness and support.
      Shirl

      April 17, 2017 at 12:23 pm
  • Terrence Martin says:

    Shirley,
    Your blog is very moving, I think we have all had times in our lives when the need to get away from the concerns of life is essential.
    Creating poetry and most other artistic endeavors are beyond me. I have to be enchanted by others writings and efforts.
    I am still enjoying the Acrylic Angel of Fate, the poem attached to the blog is most wonderful. It reminds me of my much younger days and the fascination I had with nesting birds.

    April 15, 2017 at 2:53 pm
    • SHirley McPhillips says:

      Terrence, thank you for your kind remarks here.
      You are a “poet” if you never put words to paper. Your travels. The way you continue to appreciate the things of your life. The way you learn and push yourself to new adventures. Your flying the skies. Your ability to “connect.” Keep on.
      Shirl

      April 17, 2017 at 12:28 pm
  • Joe Bakhash says:

    Leave it to Shirley McPhillips to capture both the zest and spirit of life – it’s challenges and it’s triumphs. Thank you for sharing your wonderful work.

    April 17, 2017 at 4:15 am
    • SHirley McPhillips says:

      Joe, I appreciate so much your comments here.
      When I think of you and all the adventures you have had and continue to have in your life, “Zest” and “spirit” come to mind about you too.
      It is my pleasure to share.
      Shirl

      April 17, 2017 at 12:31 pm
  • Patrick Westcott says:

    Shirley has caught the real importance of finding art and “making art” whether in the country or the city. Poetry can help one heal a broken heart or “bring the outside in, transform it, and send it back out again.” Looking beyond oneself and finding solace in the murmur of the wind or the ringing of the rain. Lovely, lovely essay.

    April 18, 2017 at 9:21 am
  • SHirley McPhillips says:

    Patrick, I appreciate your thoughtful words. Your comment reads like a poem. It seems you too are moved by looking around, by “looking beyond.” I know your notebook is a treasure.
    Shirl

    April 18, 2017 at 10:09 am
  • Linda Van Orden says:

    To risk a cliche, Shirl has “a way with words”. Whether prose or poetry, her writing always elicits in my soul, a feeling of “Wow”. The definition of successful writing to me is the beauty of finding the word or phrase that best evokes the exact thought or feeling you are trying to express. Shirl is a master at this. Her talents are multiplied many fold by her joy in encouraging others to “keep at it”. Many of us have grown in spirit and poem wisdom and for that, many thanks.

    April 27, 2017 at 8:13 am
    • SHirley McPhillips says:

      Linda, you bring out the teacher and the learner in me. Thanks so much for your kind words. I look forward to “Shaking off the Village” with you as we all continue to grow in “spirit and poem wisdom.” Your words inspire.

      April 27, 2017 at 11:59 am
  • Sean says:

    Really beautiful, and you really stuck the landing!

    May 12, 2017 at 1:11 am
  • SHirley McPhillips says:

    Thanks for your comment, Sean.
    I appreciate your looking at craft, as is affects your reading of the poem.

    May 12, 2017 at 3:53 pm
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