friday poem — Ed Ochester

One of the luckiest times of my life was the two years I spent in the Bennington Writing Seminars. It’s been over a year since I finished, and I’m still learning the ways in which it was more than just an MFA. It was an initiation into the writing and reading life that was rooted in devotion, community, and joy (also neurosis and dancing).

I will never forget the workshops of my first residency at Bennington. They were led by Ed Ochester and Amy Gerstler — two poets I consider poetry gods. Walking in and finding a seat at the long seminar table, I was keenly aware of how much I had to learn and how much I wanted my poems to be better than they were. I was achingly nervous. And then Ed started the first workshop by reading from Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, followed by a poem by James Wright. And he choked up as he read, saying something like, “This is why we do this.” It made me feel that we were all in this together — that writing poems was, first and foremost, about loving poems we’d read, and trying to honor those poets who had changed our lives. I could do that. And, it reminded me that I was allowed to have my heart in my writing.


Ed reading at Hemingway’s this week to a packed crowd

That’s what Ed’s poetry teaches and encourages me to do. To write in real, embodied voices, to “like complexity / not confusion.” To work toward beauty and heart. This heart often comes out in his poems in hilarity, or irony, or the perfect, resonant dialogue and detail (for instance, the haiku “Karaoke Night at the Serbian Club, South Side, Pittsburgh”). If you haven’t read Sugar Run Road, Ed’s newest book, or his many other books, you should. Here are two of my favorite poems from the book.


I too dislike it
the mystified truisms
the dusty puzzle-prunes
the theatrical exaggerations:
“the brutal crescendo of woodworms”—

yet I think of O’Hara’s delight
in the endless pleasures
of quotidian life and Duhamel
throwing a dozen balls in the air
and juggling them all
Frank said only a few poems
are as good as the movies
but that was a long time ago
before a lot of bad movies
before background music before
there was almost no silence and
“the private life” is an insult to others.

Poetry is the most private art:
Li-Young remembering his father
combing his mother’s hair,
Stern and Gilbert with their mouths open
walking down a street in Paris, Judith
writing the mysteries of Level Green
and her father’s radioactive chambers.
Catullus registering his private ecstasies
and fears while the machine of the state
ground on. Kinnell saying “go so deep
into yourself you speak for everyone.”

For Britt

Dec. 16, Beethoven’s birthday

Beethoven is such a great composer but
his personality is questionable which
shows once again that one is
what one does — music, poems, or even
money have claims but also such
unremarked acts as feeding sparrows
in winter which God doesn’t do too well—
though we’re told He notes the fall
of every one—so that as I park the car
your sparrows in the snow-covered forsythia
greet the weak sun with a matrix of cheeping,
dozens of them, not from gratitude but
perhaps from overflowing joy

Sugar Run Road, Autumn House Press, 2015