Weighty Topics


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I’m trying to lose some weight. Do you know of a poem that can help me?
— Candice P., Newport, Rhode Island

A poem to help in the short term, by Jim Harrison and Ted Kooser:

“Sometimes my big front teeth bite
my lower lip and my food gets all bloody…”

Maybe that will gross you out and you won’t be able to eat for a while. Write it down and put it in your pocket, and if you ever have the urge to overeat, read it.

A poem to help in the long-term, by Robert Phillips:

Instrument of Choice

She was a girl
no one ever chose
for teams or clubs,
dances or dates,

so she chose the instrument
no one else wanted:
the tuba. Big as herself,
heavy as her heart,

its golden tubes
and coils encircled her
like a lover’s embrace.
Its body pressed on hers.

Into its mouthpiece she blew
life, its deep-throated
oompahs, oompahs sounding,
almost, like mating cries.

Keep your eyes on the prize, Candice P.!  But remember that society mistakenly equates “thinner” with “better” — “bigger” is better, isn’t that the truth? Remember that the body is a temple, but it’s the weight of the heart that matters!  I’ll let you figure out. Good luck!

My apartment had a fire, and only a small part of my apartment was damaged, but that small part was my office, meaning that my computer is ruined, my books are destroyed, and my poems only fueled the fire that destroyed my precious things. I have insurance, so I guess I can replace my computer and my books, but how do I get back the poems (on my hard drive or on hard copy in my files) that I lost? Thanks.
— Liz B., Cambridge, Massachusetts

That’s the most terrible thing I’ve ever heard!  If I were in your position, I don’t know if I’d like or believe what I’m about to say next, so why don’t you wait a few weeks before you read this:

Liz B., try to remember that nothing is really “lost” (I know, easy for me to say, right?). All the poems you wrote served to develop your skill, to bolster and train the voice that is now more than ever before ready to write poems. The old poems that you remember will be rewritten. Parts from the poems that you’ve forgotten will make their way into new and better poems. Isn’t it kind of liberating that all your poems burned? Now you have a clean slate. You won’t be emotionally attached to your bad poems, working countless hours to improve them — you’ll give your bad poems over to the fire and its metaphorical applications. You’ll remember what poems are worth saving, maybe not right now, but in time, and you have a biographical detail that will make your poems appealing to potential publishers: You can say that these poems “survived the fire.” Your post-fire poems will be so good that you’ll remember to save them on a zip drive that you always keep in your pocket; you’ll save a copy in multiple locations on the web; you’ll keep hard copies at work.

But despite my existential need to make some sort of sense out of your loss, I’m truly sorry for it. You know what Yeats says, don’t you? “If suffering brings wisdom, I would wish to be less wise.”

I retired recently and after I finish playing racquetball at the gym, I just don’t have enough to do in the day. I don’t write poems or read them, so what else should I do with my time?
— Oscar, San Antonio, Texas

Charitable organizations are always looking for help, so I would give a call to the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity, or another local charity in your area and see what you can do to help out. You could even do something more extreme and volunteer overseas with Doctors Without Borders, Heifer International, or the Peace Corps, if you’re so inclined.

If volunteer work isn’t your thing, you could start a creative project that still exercises your vocational skills and fulfills you — and I don’t mean writing a poetry manuscript. A good friend of mine was a school principal, and after he retired he bought a cheap lot of land in Arizona and built a house out of straw bales that he designed himself. So if you know, for example, computer science, build a computer out of spare parts and raw materials. If you were a tax adjuster, create a user-friendly manual to teach someone to learn your trade. If you know woodworking (or even if you don’t — your local community center probably offers classes), make toys for the little ones in your life.

Embrace this time, Paul F., even if it’s spent in boredom. It’s a sacred kind of boredom, boredom that you’ve earned, that you’ve traded hours of your youth for. Watch old movies and drink hot cocoa with cinnamon sprinkles on the top. And I know you can’t teach an old Oscar new tricks, but try to read a poem, even if it’s only one:

from “One Hour to Madness and Joy,” by Walt Whitman

[…] O something unprov’d! something in a trance!
O madness amorous! O trembling!
O to escape utterly from others’ anchors and holds!
To drive free! to love free! to dash reckless and dangerous!
To court destruction with taunts – with invitations!
To ascend – to leap to the heavens of the love indicated to me!
To rise thither with my inebriate Soul!
To be lost, if it must be so!
To feed the remainder of life with one hour of fullness and freedom!
With one brief hour of madness and joy.

My dad says that anything you read on the Internet is crap. I found this article on the Internet, so are you crap? Should I listen to anything you say?
— Seth Jr., Whitefish, Montana

I’m sorry, young Seth, but your dad is wrong. He’s just resistant to change. Don’t listen to what he says, and for that matter, don’t listen to what I say. Just use your best judgment (by that, of course, I mean that you should listen to everything I say).• 20 January 2009