…in which I discuss my poem “Yard Sale” from The Cardinal Turns the Corner.
…in which I discuss my poem “Yard Sale” from The Cardinal Turns the Corner.
Here is my discussion of “School Poems” from The Cardinal Turns the Corner.
The air in study hall was thick with the smoke of pencils,
Scribbling to find fire on the page, ten teenagers
Looking for love in the smile their words might make.
Over in the library, some have rolled their sleeves,
Bent over a row of screens,
Their hurried breaths gyrating the pinwheels of their poems
As their fingertips clicked like cleats on the pavement of their laptops,
Letters dripping on documents,
A thousand rain drops on an old tin roof.
I walked past the boy on the steps with a halo of reverb
Plugged in from ear to ear, connected to a phone synced to his heart,
Drumming his palms against his knees like his life
Had been lived only for this moment, the wild abandon
Of one who’d learned to walk the plank
As the pirates of passion loomed behind him with their thick beards
And blades sharpened
As if to say, “Rock this one out or you’ll sleep in the ocean.”
The girl in the courtyard crooked one leg behind the other,
Curling her fingers around her phone in the cold
Like she knew the next message he sent would make her warm.
So she bubbled her poetry in blue, mailed it on the airwaves, and waited for his ellipses,
Three dots in Morse before three words she longed to read.
Down the hall, the kindergarteners knelt outside their classroom,
Upturning waxy bags of crayon and a dozen safety scissors,
Peeling the ghosts of Elmer’s glue from their palms
As they told their parents they loved them
With a red construction heart and a firm crease in the center,
A greater declaration of devotion than any sonnet could ever sing.
So I kept walking briskly in the air of this century
Where people still write poetry, breaking pieces of their body
Like bread for summer swans
And pressing them deep into a dozen syllables,
The friction of pounding feet and chattering teeth
As they toss their own words into the rushing waters of time.
This week’s Poem Audio features two poems on childhood: “Little Icarus” and a new poem “Braces”. The full text for each poem can be found below the audio player. Enjoy!
Little Icarus stood by the wood chips.
He was twelve when both his wings broke, tangled up,
Trying to tear through the fabric of his polo,
Caught beneath the floorboards of his shoulder blades
As his cheeks flushed with shame.
He wore a slipshod buzz cut and chubby jowls that
Framed his braces and the crooked grin they fenced in,
Standing alone as yesterday’s rain lay simmering on the blacktop.
A blur of children sprinted past him, laughing,
And he buried his dry tongue beneath the dirt in his throat,
The stiffness of death in the mouth of a boy
Who never knew what to say.
Not a word about the jungles he’d seen in gym,
The knotted rope of humiliation and the sting of the lash
As the rich kid rat-tailed his back in the locker room
And all the cool boys snickered behind their elbows,
The cute girls giggling later over sandwiches.
But don’t you fear, little man,
For I have brought an army of book nerds,
Dreamers and choir singers,
Carrying their lisps and scars in rucksacks,
Glasses, buck teeth, and southern accents,
The boys who cry at movies and the girls who still have nightmares,
Walking our bikes over to invite you to our treehouse
Where white-out is outlawed
And your freckles are the confetti of God
Like He cut up the birthday cake of the sun just for you.
And together there, we’ll patch your feathers
And tell a couple of stories
Before we lean our heads back against the beams of our home,
Look up at the stars through the crack in our creaky roof,
And slowly drift to sleep.
I am thirteen years old,
And I hate the small bike chain glued to my teeth
That keeps me from the perfect kiss
I have planned for six months.
My smile is magnetic, tangled in wire,
My hello smothered in sparks,
My words, nicked and flickering in my mouth,
Fly in a hundred pinprick flashes, embers rising
From the fire in my chest.
Perhaps I can fence my garbled mouth
With the fan of my hand, breathe to you
In smoke signals, or tell you how I feel
Through the notes we write, unhindered
By chain-link and spotted iron.
Or maybe you will read my mind,
Your eyes pressed close against the glass
Of the space between us, peering beyond
My mouthful of radio, torn antenna,
But though I have worn this metal for many months,
Turning over the flavor of tin in my tongue
Behind the hard-wired cable in my mouth,
I was thirteen years old when you let me lean close
And close my eyes –
The first time I have ever been shocked.
I can only do so many things
Before my lungs give out.
So I’ll go for a walk to figure it all out
As best I can.
Although I do know how to look at flowers and the yellow silk of their petals,
The streetlamps, the pair of initials settled in the cement,
I could always learn to see them better.
My elementary school teachers taught me to type,
But sometimes I still make mistakes.
I have spelled my last name Hugg ten too many times,
Though I have yet to give ten too many hugs to anybody.
So today, I’m going to go outside and hug somebody.
Although I am thirty years old, I still find myself
Dancing like a scarecrow on a yellow road
When no one’s looking, and, every now and then,
When everyone is.
My arms are filled with atoms,
Peering around like periscopes as I write,
Seeking out some land where I can stand
And call out to the clouds of my brain for the next
I can spin a pen around the ball bearings of my fingertips –
It’s learning to use it that is agonizing.
I can picture your hands, your face,
As you read this,
For you, too, can only do so many things.
And as I wonder where you are from and what has brought us together in this moment,
I try to discover what is stopping us.
For though we can only do so many things,
There are so many things that only we can do.
So unravel the things you can do. Unfold them and rub them against
The edges of the table to iron out their creases,
Read the crisp handwriting of the notes that have been written
To you. Take notes on your forearms to remind yourself
Of that tree you climbed when you were young.
Perch yourself on the curb of a storefront and eat your lunch with both hands
Like a toddler waiting for his birthday to come.
Let the static shock of a plastic slide send you straight back to your childhood.
Buy a candy bar on the impulse shelves of the checkout counter
And eat the entire thing on the way home.
And I’ll set up the chess board for another round
Against my father, the man who taught me everything I needed to know
So this evening, when the night sky swims into view,
Before I sleep like a puddle of rain,
I will know I have done all that I can do
And so have you
And maybe we’ll meet for ice cream before our lungs give out.
The following is one of the pieces from my upcoming collection of poetry, The Cardinal Turns the Corner, titled “Passion.” Hope you enjoy it! I can’t wait to share this new book with you. For more information on the book release, read here.
I wrote this poem across the length of California,
Scrawling these ink strokes through the vineyards and the shoreline,
Even on the edges of the “H” in Hollywood.
I waltzed through the City of Angels
Tuned to an imaginary score,
Pulling up pieces of the highway and blowing them in the air.
Then I hopped on the eastbound train in an old and rusted boxcar,
Writing another line on the face of wooden crates,
Even on the metal sheets stacked against the corner.
The next night I high-fived the vampires in Denver
And dashed off another verse on a creaky traffic light
As I swung from its taut cable, my shoelaces
Reaching toward the windows of the passing cabs below.
In Dallas they saw me dance on all the tablecloths,
Kicking over glasses, scribbling on the centerpieces.
I wandered round in Nashville,
Dizzied by the neon lights,
And etched a lovely metaphor on the back of a guitar,
One where I compared love to a waning moon.
Then the wind ran wild beneath my arms in Atlanta,
The universe of skyscrapers, planets of burning light,
Offices and windows humming with breath
And watching close as I straddled the top of a limousine,
Pockets inside out, my words on every exit
Down the infinite interstate.
Well, I should tell you,
I wrote this poem all the way to your house
Where I finally lay down in the middle of the road,
Anchored the tip of my pen to your cold street,
And waited for the world to turn,
Drawing a new equator.
One for each of us.
As I write this,
I’m still breathing hard from a night of fitful sleeping,
My V-neck shirt clinging like dew to my warm chest
While the ceiling fan does its best to gin up
A gentle wind.
It’s, let’s see,
I’ll need my glasses for a bit,
2:38 in the morning,
And I’m jotting down my thoughts at the bedside table
Like the doctor said.
Oh, and my feelings,
I’m also recording my feelings.
The poetry’s been difficult these days.
It doesn’t flow like it once did.
The Nile’s all dried up, you’d ask,
Or turned to blood in plague? And I’d chuckle.
I tried some in the first stanza with the sweat simile,
But I think I yawned in the middle of it.
I remember you used to love a haiku I once wrote
About the cold side of the pillow
(Sort of on the fly, just to see you smile really).
Only now do I see why you liked it so,
As I cycle and recycle this old feather bag
To find that cool shadowy feeling in which to lay
My weary head.
It’s only when I glance over at yours in its pristine condition,
And I notice no sagging indention in the center,
That I remember your pillow is always cool now,
So, I’ll just lay my glasses back down on the nightstand,
At 2:52 in the morning,
And I’ll climb once more into my tempest of dreams
Where you and I are together again,
And somewhat wispy in our world of memory,
Before my body shakes awake
At 3:41 AM,
And I lean for my pencil
From my sloppy and disheveled side of the bed.
The following is an article I wrote on creativity in writing and Christian education originally published on Landmark Christian School’s blog.
In Ephesians 5:1, Paul instructs his fellow believers to “be imitators of God as dearly loved children.” Therefore, as followers of Christ and His Word, our first duty in following this command must be to determine, “Well, what is God like?” In opening the Bible, then, to discover the character of God through His revelation in Scripture, we should note the first description we stumble upon: “In the beginning, God created…”
The human capacity for creativity, wonder, and imagination is not only a gift from God to bring Him glory through wholehearted expression and majestic praise but also a mandate; just as the Creator was creative in the design of all things, so must His creation be creative as a way of magnifying Christ through imitating God. When God fashioned Adam from little turrets of dirt and the swirling breath of life, He was not merely stirring human history into existence; He was training us in the way we should perpetuate human history. God, the Grand Storyteller, taught His characters how to tell stories. God revealed the essence of His divinity by sparking divinity in our first family and threading that divinity through thousands of years of plot. When we thus breathe life into the skin of our own protagonists and bid them walk among us in our fictions, when we strain courageously to perfect our poetic effort, when we sing glorious harmonies of praise in reverberating cathedrals, we come as close to the wild invention of God as our finitude allows. We press toward godliness. We imitate God.
This truth is compounded as Paul exhorts us in another letter that “we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works” (Eph. 2:10). It is notable that the Greek word rendered as “workmanship” here in Ephesians is poiema, from which we can clearly see our English word poem. So, we are, quite truly, the poetry of God, created in the loving care of a master wordsmith. We are a robust, abundant, vibrant kaleidoscope of God’s artistic pleasure, penned with brilliant passion, and when He “saw all that He had made, [He declared] it was very good” (Gen. 1:31, emphasis added).
So, since the poetry and creativity of God is rich and imaginative, we must see that the education of our next generation is not simply a means of hardwiring them for social contribution but a full-throated movement to awaken their wonder, to intensify their desire for truth, goodness, and beauty and, from that desire, to pursue creatively the worship of a glorious God. We must train our students to express themselves well, to write with passion and authority, but, more importantly, we must teach them to approach their individual calling, whatever it may be, with godly creativity – that, whatever they do, they do it with all their heart unto the Lord (Col. 3:23). We cannot be in the business of piling young people onto the conveyer belt to college, cookie-cutting them into monochrome caricatures of human beings. They are the living, breathing poetry of God, descendants of the very dust and bone of Eden, with voices and diverse passions. By teaching them to think creatively not only in a Creative Writing elective but also in math, science, physical fitness, history, and athletics, we are raising them to imitate God in all His multifaceted character.
As educators, we recognize not every student is called to a writing career. However, the world needs businessmen and bakers, mechanics and managers, and my prayer is that we provide it with Christian graduates that, like Daniel, rise to the top of their field for the excellent spirit within them. But the world certainly cannot bear the weight of any more graduates who shuffle through life bored and half-asleep. As Douglas Wilson once quipped, we cannot live in a world where “the bland lead the bland.” Creative thinking and creative writing are essential tools not only to our scholarship but to our souls. Creativity is the signature of God on the well-rounded human being, fully equipped to navigate a broken and creaking world with the fire of a full imagination.
May we all learn to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8). May we raise (and be) a generation that sees the glory of God in all things, that creatively expresses His praise in every word with plenty of color and sonorous splendor. May we truly absorb the words of John Piper:
“[W]hen a person speaks or writes or sings or paints about breathtaking truth in a boring way, it is probably a sin. The supremacy of God in the life of the mind is not honored when God and his amazing world are observed truly, analyzed duly, and communicated boringly. Imagination is the key to killing boredom. We must imagine ways to say truth for what it really is. And it is not boring. God’s world – all of it – rings with wonders. The imagination calls up new words, new images, new analogies, new metaphors, new illustrations, new connections to say old, glorious truth. Imagination is the faculty of the mind that God has given us to make the communication of his beauty beautiful.”
As I am working to lift Eden.Babel onto its feet, one of my primary concerns and interests is in the field of wordsmithing. Excellent craftsmanship is a noble goal, no matter what the smithy of your particular ilk is filled with; the mason may use bricks, the painter his brushes, the musician his notes. The writer uses words. Since the usage of words is a staple of most people’s daily living, the writer has a peculiarly interesting challenge before him. Not everyone uses paint or notes or bricks in the course of their 24 hours, but we almost all use words. Some may wish others used fewer, but that’s another post. Writers are tasked to take a seemingly mundane feature of our existence (words and their arrangement) and spin them in such a way that they can knock a hearer off his or her feet. As Mary, Queen of Scots once said of John Knox, “I fear his tongue and pen more than the armies of England.”
As I have immersed myself over the years in the world of literature, poetry, and many other forms of the written word as well as committed myself to the weaving of my own words, I have decided to consider five of the most influential writers in my own life. This list, as with most lists of its kind, is written in the current moment, meaning I am quite available to be moved and impacted by other writers than these five in the future just as I certainly have been in the past. Also, this list does not factor in God and His Word, the most influential book ever written. As a Christian, I heartily affirm the influence of the Word of God to be a given.
5. C.S. Lewis
This choice really stems from how much of Lewis I have read over the past ten or so years. As a child, I was raised on the Narnia stories and have just recently started to go back through them. I was likewise raised on the BBC films of the Narnia books (you know, the Lucy with her wonderful teeth, the giant beavers, the animatronic Aslan. Classics…). As I moved into college, I began to wade through more of Lewis’ work, including The Great Divorce, Till We Have Faces, The Screwtape Letters, and others. During a bleaker period, I picked up A Grief Observed, which was very helpful. Finally, while studying literature in grad school, I took a course on Lewis and Tolkien in London. There, I dove headlong into his space trilogy, The Four Loves, The Weight of Glory, and a great deal of his biography. Since then, I’ve read Surprised by Joy, a number of his poems, and continue to read him more and more. His commitment to both logic and fancy is contagious, and I look to him for an abundance of insight and imagination.
Recommended reading: Out of the Silent Planet, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, The Screwtape Letters, “The Future of Forestry”, “Meditation in a Toolshed”
4. Billy Collins
In compiling this list, I made an effort to select writers that represent different genres and approaches. With this in mind, Collins is certainly my poetic choice. He served as poet laureate for the U.S. in the early 2000s, and I even had the privilege of meeting him at a poetry reading in Nashville. Collins’ poetry is known for its accessibility, humor, and seeming simplicity. For this, he may certainly be termed a poet of the people. Yet, his writing is elusive, deep, biting, startling, and some of the most moving verse I’ve encountered. Collins has the unique ability to take a simple reality (weighing a dog, weaving a lanyard at camp, studying geography) and transform it into a transcendent experience as he observes the fullness of feeling, sensitivity, and power that can exist in any given human moment. He treats love, loss, friendship, fear, and longing as though they are old pals, conversing freely with them over coffee at midnight. He laughs through awkwardness and shudders at morning light. He can turn any event on its head at the start of a single stanza and leave you breathless upon completing it. I cannot speak highly enough of his work, and I have thoroughly enjoyed making my way through his collections.
Recommended reading: “The Lanyard”, “Weighing the Dog”, “Introduction to Poetry”, “Plight of the Troubadour”
3. Ben Gibbard
Though he is primarily regarded as a musician, Gibbard’s lyric writing ranks right up there with the best of them. He is the frontman for the indie rock band Death Cab for Cutie and has become a respected voice for poetic melancholy in our generation. I caught on to Ben Gibbard’s beautiful writing when I was first introduced to DCFC’s album Transatlanticism by my little brother, Chris. I remember being immediately struck by the quality of their music and Gibbard’s soaring melodies, so I decided to go through the whole album several times over on my own. What I discovered as I walked alongside his verses and choruses, acutely attuned to the narratives he was singing, was simply breathtaking. I was speechless. Gibbard could weave a lyrical phrase unlike anyone I had ever heard, and what had ignited a glimmering flame of attraction and sympathy for him in Transatlanticism was fueled to a wildfire in Plans, their 2005 album. By this time, I had begun playing music myself with a friend of mine and had become interested in lyric writing as a form of expression not dissimilar from poetry. As I delved further into writing music and writing lyrics, Gibbard always served as the standard, the pitch in which all of my own writing was set. To this day, I look to Ben Gibbard’s poetic sensibility, astounding mastery of metaphorical language, and sobering emotional melancholy for a bracing dose of creative power to shock me back into my own love and passion for writing.
Recommended reading/listening: “What Sarah Said”, “Brothers on a Hotel Bed”, “Little Wanderer”, “Transatlanticism”, “We Looked Like Giants”, “Title and Registration”, “Summer Skin”, “No Room in Frame”
2. F. Scott Fitzgerald
If you are reading this and you are a former/current student of mine, you saw this coming; I tend to reference Fitzgerald all the time in class. Simply put, there will never be another F. Scott Fitzgerald. I dedicated my master’s thesis to the life and work of this marvelous author, so I am quite biased. I do believe, however, that his prophetic understanding of American narcissism, the nature of sin, the transience of happiness, and the ache of unrequited love have cemented him in literary history as a true icon of the highest caliber. He was painfully romantic, given over at once to both the beauty and the hopelessness of his dreams. He desired a greatness that would always be two steps ahead of him, doubting his ability to reach it yet straining forward all his life. He was exuberantly happy and painfully miserable. He rose meteorically and fell disastrously. He fought with God and embraced God. He could dash off a crowd-pleaser in a matter of hours (often hungover) and labor meticulously over a failing novel for years. And his writing is simply magnificent. Every page of his work is filled with both diamonds and dust, champagne and charlatans. He wrote like Mozart, lyrically effusing phrases and sentences that seemed like they had been written ages ago as he simply pulled them out of the air and blotted them on paper. He wrote like most men breathe, pouring forth what was already in there, effortlessly. Much of my love for the imaginative wonder and hope in life is credited to his work. I will read him until I can no longer read.
Recommended reading: The Great Gatsby, This Side of Paradise, “‘The Sensible Thing'”, “Thank You for the Light”, “The Cut-Glass Bowl”, “The Jelly-Bean”
1. Doug Wilson
Doug Wilson is a theologian, pastor, and highly prolific writer with dozens of books to his name. If there is any writer who has helped shape my thinking, provoke my curiosity, satisfy my imaginative scope, push my pursuit of excellence, hone my understanding of joy, and confirm my desire for the full, abundant, passionate life in Christ, Doug Wilson is that writer. His work ranges greatly, covering such topics as culture, theology, rhetoric, argument, marriage, childrearing, father hunger, eschatology, apologetics, creative writing, Beowulf, wisdom, the Middle Ages, hearty laughter, Calvinism, gratitude, poetry, robust singing, and much more. His writing has led me deeper into the conviction that God is God and God is good. I am so deeply indebted to his writing and his teachings on the Christian life that to remove his influence from my life would be to remove a great deal of who I have become in my faith in Jesus. While the content of his work is overwhelmingly edifying and helpful, his style is simply inimitable. He wields the English language like a battle axe, sharp at the edge and effective in every blow. He is clever, witty, incisive, kind, colorful, lyrical, and quotable. He is memorable, humorous, startling, paradoxical, and charming. He is jolly and forthright. He is happy and rigid. In a word, he is full. My admiration and respect for Wilson’s writing cannot be expressed enough, and I could speak at greater and greater lengths in praise of his command over the written word.
Recommended reading: Heaven Misplaced, Angels in the Architecture, Rules for Reformers, Joy at the End of the Tether, Wordsmithy, God Is