This Is Just To Say (William Carlos Williams)


This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox
and which
you were probably
for breakfast
Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold
by William Carlos Williams,”This Is Just to Say” from The Collected Poems: Volume I, 1909-1939
illustrated by Corrie Haffly


This poem is in the Norton Anthology of Poetry, the hefty tome I bought for my first year English class at university, and which still sits on my shelf. I remember first reading this poem at school, and wondering “how is this a poem? If you just wrote it in a sentence—without the short lines and stanza breaks—it would be a run-of-the-mill post-it note.”

And yet, twenty years later, I still remembered this poem (although strangely, I remembered it being about peaches, not plums), and I still think of it from time to time if I grab the last piece of fruit from the bowl and wonder if someone else had their eye on it.

But it does raise the question: what makes poetry poetry?

Idiot Psalms (Scott Cairns)

Idiot Psalms

Idiot Psalms

       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by Jew’s harp.
O God Belovéd if obliquely so, 
                     dimly apprehended in the midst 
                     of this, the fraught obscuring fog   
                     of my insufficiently capacious ken,   
                     Ostensible Lover of our kind—while 
                     apparently aloof—allow 
                     that I might glimpse once more 
                     Your shadow in the land, avail 
                     for me, a second time, the sense 
                     of dire Presence in the pulsing 
                     hollow near the heart.   
Once more, O Lord, from Your enormity incline 
                     your Face to shine upon Your servant, shy 
                     of immolation, if You will. 
       A psalm of Isaak, accompanied by baying hounds.
O Shaper of varicolored clay and cellulose, O Keeper 
                     of same, O Subtle Tweaker, Agent 
                     of energies both appalling and unobserved,   
                     do not allow Your servant’s limbs to stiffen 
                     or to ossify unduly, do not compel Your servant   
                     to go brittle, neither cramping at the heart,   
                     nor narrowing his affective sympathies 
                     neither of the flesh nor of the alleged soul. 
Keep me sufficiently limber that I might continue 
                     to enjoy my morning run among the lilies   
                     and the rowdy waterfowl, that I might 
                     delight in this and every evening’s intercourse   
                     with the woman you have set beside me. 
Make me to awaken daily with a willingness 
                     to roll out readily, accompanied 
                     by grateful smirk, a giddy joy,   
                     the idiot’s undying expectation,   
                     despite the evidence. 
       A psalm of Isaak, whispered mid the Philistines, beneath the breath.
Master both invisible and notoriously   
                     slow to act, should You incline to fix   
                     Your generous attentions for the moment 
                     to the narrow scene of this our appointed 
                     tedium, should You—once our kindly 
                     secretary has duly noted which of us 
                     is feigning presence, and which excused, which unexcused, 
                     You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions, the discussions, the several 
                     questions endlessly recast, our paper ballots. 
       Isaak’s penitential psalm, unaccompanied.
Again, and yes again, O Ceaseless Tolerator 
                     of our bleaking recurrences, O Forever Forgoing   
                     Foregone (sans conclusion), O Inexhaustible, 
                     I find my face against the floor, and yet again 
                     my plea escapes from unclean lips, and from a heart 
                     caked in and constricted by its own soiled residue. 
You are forever, and forever blessed, and I aspire 
                     one day to slip my knot and change things up, 
                     to manage at least one late season sinlessly, 
                     to bow before you yet one time without chagrin.
by Scott Cairns: Poetry (January 2009).
illustrated by Corrie Haffly


I first heard this poem spoken by Cairns himself at the Festival of Faith and Writing last year. I had never heard of Cairns, or the Idiot Psalms, and didn’t know what to expect. At first: it seemed snarky and pretentious, but then it began to hit uncomfortably close to home,

…. and I think: yes, this is no doubt how I sometimes pray, too. I start off self-important, asking for placations and blessings and if God would please just keep me comfortable. But, if I stay there long enough, at some point I become more aware of Him, aware that I’m rambling and asking for the wrong things, and in the wrong way. These lines stuck out to me in particular:

You may be entertained to hear how much we find to say 
                     about so little. Among these other mediocrities, 
                     Your mediocre servant gets a glimpse of how 
                     his slow and meager worship might appear 
                     from where You endlessly attend our dreariness. 
Holy One, forgive, forgo and, if You will, fend off   
                     from this my heart the sense that I am drowning here   
                     amid the motions.
I pray my own idiot psalms too, sometimes. And I am grateful that the Holy One who “endlessly attends our dreariness” is patient, loving, and knows we are little and young and self-absorbed, and yet he loves us still.


As The Ruin Falls (CS Lewis)

as the ruin falls

As The Ruin Falls

All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.

Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love –a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.

Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.

For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains. 

by CS Lewis
illustration by Corrie Haffly


I don’t feel competent or qualified to comment on most any of the poems I’ve shared this month, least of all one by CS Lewis.

But, these two thoughts come to mind:

  1. Like CS Lewis, God worked through the Anglican liturgy profoundly to shape my faith, and there is something for me in about starting worship in confession which focuses my attention on the magnitude of God’s grace. That Lewis starts with a recognition and confession of his own self-centeredness (and imprisonment in it) resonates deeply with me.
  2. “the pains you give me are more precious than all other gains”…. I see this poem as Lewis’ Philippians 3 proclamation: “I consider everything rubbish (crap!) compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus.” For once we start to appreciate what it means to know Him, only then can we bless him as the ruins fall.

Morning Poem (Mary Oliver)

Morning Poem

Morning Poem

Every morning
the world
is created.
Under the orange

sticks of the sun
the heaped
ashes of the night
turn into leaves again

and fasten themselves to the high branches —
and the ponds appear
like black cloth
on which are painted islands

of summer lilies.
If it is your nature
to be happy
you will swim away along the soft trails

for hours, your imagination
alighting everywhere.
And if your spirit
carries within it

the thorn
that is heavier than lead —
if it’s all you can do
to keep on trudging —

there is still
somewhere deep within you
a beast shouting that the earth
is exactly what it wanted —

each pond with its blazing lilies
is a prayer heard and answered
every morning,

whether or not
you have ever dared to be happy,
whether or not
you have ever dared to pray.

by Mary Oliver from Dream Work (1986)
illustrated by Corrie Haffly


May you have eyes to see it, and be filled with joy this morning.

Kaleidoscope (Helen Wieger)



There is this beautiful deep down
         that is real
    like the kaleidoscope

you have broken parts
          raw edges
            of stays,

Quaking, shifting, shaking
    deep down
      who are you
      this shape emerging
    yet always there

by Helen Wieger

Illustration by Corrie Haffly


Two years ago was my 20th high school reunion: an unexpected opportunity to revisit my teen-self and also reconnect with some girls I had known then. It is a rare thing to get a time-lapse glimpse of yourself and others; to note the continuity and discontinuity in us all. For of course, we are the same people we always were—I am recognizably the 16-year old Bronwyn they knew—and yet we have all changed so much.

Helen’s kaleidoscope poem captured something of this mystery for me.



Choruses from the Rock (TS Eliot)

O world of spring and autumn, birth and dying! The endless cycle of idea and action,

Endless invention, endless experiment,

Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word. All our knowledge brings us nearer to death,

But nearness to death no nearer to God.

Where is the Life we have lost in living?

Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information? The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries

Brings us farther from God and nearer to the Dust.
The lot of man is ceaseless labor,

Or ceaseless idleness, which is still harder,

Or irregular labour, which is not pleasant.

I have trodden the winepress alone, and I know That it is hard to be really useful, resigning

The things that men count for happiness, seeking The good deeds that lead to obscurity, accepting With equal face those that bring ignominy,

The applause of all or the love of none.

All men are ready to invest their money

But most expect dividends.

I say to you: Make perfect your will.

I say: take no thought of the harvest,

But only of proper sowing.

Excerpt from T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock

Illustration by Corrie Haffly

I recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s Lifesigns, in which he distinguishes between fruitfulness and productivity. Too often, he says, fear of feeling useless and homeless drive us either to sterility (it’s pointless, so why bother?) or productivity (I am a human do-ing, not a being). Instead, love should call us live fruitful lives. 

This poem, with its echoes of Ecclesiastes, speaks of this to me. For the fruitful life surely flourishes in a more rooted life. One where stillness and truth have a place, and not everything is frantic, frenetic, and furiously busy.

Caged Bird (Maya Angelou)

caged bird

Caged Bird

A free bird leaps 
on the back of the wind   
and floats downstream   
till the current ends 
and dips his wing 
in the orange sun rays 
and dares to claim the sky. 
But a bird that stalks 
down his narrow cage 
can seldom see through 
his bars of rage 
his wings are clipped and   
his feet are tied 
so he opens his throat to sing. 
The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom. 
The free bird thinks of another breeze 
and the trade winds soft through the sighing trees 
and the fat worms waiting on a dawn bright lawn 
and he names the sky his own 
But a caged bird stands on the grave of dreams   
his shadow shouts on a nightmare scream   
his wings are clipped and his feet are tied   
so he opens his throat to sing. 
The caged bird sings   
with a fearful trill   
of things unknown   
but longed for still   
and his tune is heard   
on the distant hill   
for the caged bird   
sings of freedom.
Maya Angelou, “Caged Bird” from Shaker, Why Don’t You Sing?
Illustration by Corrie Haffly


David Whyte describes poetry as ‘language against which we have no defenses.’

So much has been written on race and privilege, and so much anger and defensiveness has been lobbed in opposition, and so the power of this poem hits me afresh, and makes me wonder:

Free birds, are you listening to the singing?