Pat Howard — How to Write a Poem


How to Write a Poem

To write a poem, slough off television, radios, cell phones, excessive media and movies, recorded music – anything that demands your attention without giving you any quid pro quo. Turn yourself from an antenna into a tuning fork, quivering with the life that envelopes this planet.

May be hard. Anything that gives you an impression of a life other than what surrounds you, is a drug. People do not acknowledge this and turn from reality to more obvious hallucinations, never finding life, the source of poetry.

I heard this lesson and heeded it.

If you are addicted to televisions, radio, recorded music, you face a struggle but can rescue yourself.

Prof. Robert Howard of the University of San Francisco tells me, holding up the fingers of one hand, “I have not wasted that many hours in front of a television,” It takes me a few years to take him as a model; now it has been decades since I was a sofa spud.

Let’s say you’re working on withdrawal. You have increasing free time. Spend some reading. There are oceans of world literature – you visit all or become an expert in just one.

I recommend you read poetry that has endured – written before 1950 when the Age of Disapproval, a tide of anti-poetry set in.

Start with the Norton Anthology, it gives you selections of poets from the Old English (Beowulf) through the Americans (T.S. Eliot).  Read prose, too. Much of it may be classified as: Poetry – the ideal combination of sound and sense.

The novels of Honoré de Balzac are poetry because they sound wonderful as well as making sense.

Follow this regime and you will notice bird song outside your windows – the poetry of nature is never dead.  When the bird’s song puts you into a brief ecstasy, know that you – shrived of the media – are ready to write a poem.

A lady friend comes and says, “There’s a new restaurant opening in North Beach. It is called The Stinking Rose and everything they serve, from soup to ice cream will have garlic in it. People are already making reservations. The owners want somebody to write them a poem. The last of the Beat poets, – he has one tooth left in his head – is not coming up with anything.”

A few days later, you’re vacuuming, working on your car, or grooming your horse, free of recorded music – any constructive physical activity can trigger interesting writing. Keep a pen and notebook or an electronic secretary in your pocket.

You feel an ecstasy of inspiration, drop the vacuum cleaner, grab your pen, and write;

Garlic, I love you,

You’re everything I need,

I bow low down before you,

Beloved stinking weed.


Should anyone try to steal you,

My heart would fill with greed,

I’d find the bloody thief,

And really make him bleed.


Garlic I need you,

My fingers seek your touch,

You’re everything I’ve dreamed of,

Garlic you’re too much.

Hurry a copy of that off to your friend and soon you see it, framed, on the wall of The Stinking Rose as crowds line up outside on the sidewalk to get a table.

The owners invite you and your friend in for dinner on the house.

Keep a collection of your poems. Send them off to magazines – get paid for them – in time you’ll have enough for a book.

Let’s bring poetry back.

The pen is more powerful than the bomb.


Patrick Howard and his wife, Nephtha, live happily on the Eastern Shore of Lake Merritt. They are buying a house in Oakland. His work appears in the Galway Review, History Magazine and the Naval League’s Submarine Journal, among others.

Sarah Bigham — Where the #&@* is Bigham?


Where the #&@* is Bigham?

            While I am not what anyone who has ever seen me attempt to fish or camp would call an “outdoorswoman,” I adore gardening. Every year I can feel myself becoming more stressed after the first frost that ends my gardening season, and I wait anxiously for the crocus bulbs to pop up each spring when I can again return to my planting patches. Each spring, my wife and I spend hours purchasing vegetable seedlings, flowers for my growing collection of window boxes and ceramic planters, and at least six varieties of basil. We each take a break from our professorial duties and grading to spend some time reveling in the yard when the ground has finally thawed.

            Despite my love of gardening, I am somewhat of a liability out there. Several years ago I developed a nasty infection from dropping a pair of pruning shears into the top of my foot after ill-advisedly hacking at an unwanted vine while barefoot. Body movement is an area that I have never, ever excelled in. My wife describes it as an inability to know where my physical parts are at any given time, as I live almost entirely in my head and thoughts. I desperately looked for ways to avoid gym class in junior high and high school, terrified of volleyball after being smacked unconscious, co-ed flag football after having the breath knocked out of me by a player on the actual team, and gymnastics which I dealt with by continuously rotating to the back of the line so that I would never have to leap onto or over the vault. (Far preferable was to spend time looking as if attempting to sit on the balance beam.) I am hopelessly uncoordinated. I fall down stairs and trip up them as well, I knock into things when walking, and never seem to connect with the ball when playing any kind of sport (not that I ever seek out these sorts of activities).

            As bad as I am with moving my body in a coordinated way, I am even worse with knowing where my body actually is. Years ago year, my wife gave me a GPS for Christmas and it was probably the best gift I have ever received. She purchased the device for me in hopes of averting future directional disasters — and the ensuing hysterical phone calls — when I attempt to find off-campus meetings and conferences. (For several nail-biting years, I had to attend monthly meetings with state colleagues in a planned community with a distinct lack of wayfinding tools and strong zoning that precludes attention-getting signage.)

            However, the person who could best confirm that I hopeless when it comes to navigation is a particular sergeant from the United States Army who attempted, using an impressive range of tactics from intimidation to outright begging, to teach me how to use a compass.

As an undergraduate, I needed to take a physical education class and wound up in orienteering. It sounded interesting, I reasoned, and possibly fun, with a chance to explore the areas on and beyond the campus, until I realized it was populated almost entirely with ROTC cadets who knew land navigation techniques, slept outside without tents (on purpose), and happily ate MREs, the pre-packaged, field rations provided to soldiers. In hindsight, there were many other PE options that would have been much better choices for me, like badminton, or the stress management and bowling classes I eventually completed to finish my PE credit requirements.

            In orienteering, I would learn to use a compass to navigate over terrain and find various control points before heading for the finish area. Granted, the initial exercises involved topography no more complicated than the college quad, but I was incredibly intimidated by the ROTC members who showed up to class in fatigues and serious boots. I had not even thought to bring water with me while some of them had applied camouflage grease paint to their faces and strapped multiple canteens to their chests, along with binoculars and sunglasses.

I can still hear the sergeant shouting at me. (To his credit, he had just become an ROTC instructor after serving as a drill sergeant for basic training.) The semester began with profanity, and a lot of it. Apparently this is motivational for military-types. I, however, was a different story. The yelling either led to tears or complete confusion on my part.  As for the sergeant, I look back and think how much I must have frustrated him with my complete lack of basic navigational sense, my unpreparedness, my constant questions, and my general sense of hilarity when it came to seeing his stout neck turn purple as he yelled. For weeks, he would blare directions, filled with military jargon, while I just stood there waiting for him to finish. I was unable to process anything delivered at that decibel so I just stared at him until he was quiet. He soon learned that calm patience was his best bet for dealing with me, and spent extra time helping me learn how to shoot azimuths before the sun set and it was time to “hit the mess.”

I thought I was finally making some progress as the orienteering exercises took us into wooded areas surrounding the campus. At first, I was flummoxed by the relative darkness of the woods and how distance looked so different without bright sunlight illuminating my surroundings. Then, I managed to both lose the Army-issued compass and acquire poison ivy after sliding down a steep hillside when startled by what I thought was a potentially rabid raccoon. (Thank god my roommate was a bad-ass ROTC cadet whose training team recovered the compass from the woods before I had to compensate the federal government for it. She, unlike me, always had a plan and knew where she was as well as where she wanted to be. She is now a colonel and a doctor at Walter Reed, who outruns service members half her age and can navigate her way out of any situation, compass or not. I am in awe of her.)

As we got to know one another, the sergeant’s cursing turned to sighing and he transitioned to supportive mode in his attempt to teach me how to find my way. His volume reduction led to increased verbalization on my part, and in retrospect, I can only imagine how much he was annoyed with my constant chatter as I learned to estimate distance in paces and write with grease pencils on the specially coated maps we used during each class. I thought he might even be starting to not hate me, despite my incessant talking and general orienteering ineptitude. Then we had a mid-semester exercise that involved the solitary work of being dropped off in some nearby woods and making our way out to a rendezvous point. I was the last one to struggle out of the woods, at the first hints of coming dusk, just as I heard him screaming, Where the #&@* is Bigham?, and from the look on the sergeant’s face, I could not tell which one of us was more relieved. On the ride home I endured what I hope was good-natured kidding about how the ROTC students were assembling a search party to deploy if I had not arrived when I did.

I shocked everyone — including myself — when I was able to successfully complete the final series of exercises in the woods without being last, and pass that class. This earned me a genuine smile, and a high-five (which, in typical fashion, I bungled) from the beleaguered sergeant.

Now that I am a teacher of community college students, many of whom are anxious and have many questions when starting the semester, I often think of the college instructors I had, and the lessons that prepared me for my career. Blessings to that sergeant who taught me orienteering, one in a series of teachers who showed me their own kind of mercy when I proved to be an exasperating student.


Sarah Bigham is a previous Bold + Italic contributor who teaches, writes, and paints in the US where she lives with her kind chemist wife, three independent cats, an unwieldy herb garden, several chronic pain conditions, and near-constant outrage at the general state of the world tempered with love for those doing their best to make a difference. A Pushcart and Best of the Net nominee, Sarah’s poetry, fiction, and nonfiction have appeared in a variety of great places for readers, writers, and listeners. Find her here!

  • Featured image, by Amar Saeed.