December Decisions

Often when I write, I face a decision. Do I want to describe the world–the Is? Do I want to offer up advice of how to be in the world–the Ought? Or, do I want to do something else, to operate outside the is/ought logic and imagine new ways of being–the Why Not? Taking some of my favorite lines from the poems I gathered this year, I created three lists: The Is, The Ought, The Why Not. You could (and on a different day I might) argue that some of the lines belong in a different category. That’s cool; I like fluid, porous categories, not rigid and fixed ones.


  1. Body is a thing you have to carry from one day into the next. Always the same eyebrows over the same eyes in the same skin when you look in the mirror, and the same creaky knee when you get up from the floor and the same wrist under the watchband (Joyce Sutphen).
  2. Feeling the ancient prayer of my arms swinging in counterpoint to my feet. Here I am, suspended between the sidewalk and twilight (Ellen Bass).
  3. She can hear silver on the sides of fish and the loneliness of an uncoupled eel. She listens to her own sounds as well: the current of her nerves slowing, her hair lifting and floating away, the sacs in her lungs reaching greedy mouths to the sky (Elizabeth Hoover). 
  4. I like to live in the sound of water (William Stafford).
  5. I love how athletes believe in the body and know it will fail them (Alex Dimitrov).
  6. We and the trees and the way back from the fields of play lasted as long as we could. No more walks in the wood (John Hollander).
  7. I love time. I love people. I love people and my time away from them the most (Alex Dimitrov). 
  8. It’s like pure flavor, but sadder (Benjamin Garcia).
  9. Did grace, did dare, did learn the way forgiveness is the heaviest thing to bare. Did grieve. Did grief. Did check the weather (Jessica Rae Bergamino).
  10. A ghost, though invisible, still is like a place your sight can knock on, echoing (Rainier Maria Rilke);
  11. I was released from form, from the perpendiculars, straight lines, blocks, boxes, binds of thought into the hues, shadings, rises, flowing bends and blends of sight: I have reached no conclusions, have erected no boundaries, shutting out and shutting in, separating inside from outside: I have drawn no lines (A. R. Ammons).
  12. And if sun comes how shall we greet him? Shall we not dread him, shall we not fear him after so lengthy a session with shade (Gwendolyn Brooks)?
  13. The sun above you, the snow & stalled sea—a field of mirror all demanding to be the sun too, everything around you is light & it’s gorgeous & if you stay too long it will kill you (Danez Smith).


  1. I went out of the schoolhouse fast and through the gardens and to the woods, and spent all summer forgetting what I’d been taught (Mary Oliver).
  2. Retreat to a cave no one believes in. Let the day and the world pass while you sleep, and sleep upside down, ready to wake up and fall into flight (Michael T. Young). 
  3. The mode of dialogue, my friends, is first to question: then…attend (Antonio Machado). 
  4. To make a Prairie it takes a clover and one bee. One clover and a bee. And revery (Emily Dickinson).  
  5. You have to let things occupy their own space (Robert Bly). 
  6. Fix your gaze upward and give bats their due, you owe the bats your backyard serenity (Catherine Peirce). 
  7. Are you weary? Come to the window; lean, and look at this—something swift runs under the grass with a little hiss… (Mark Van Doren). 
  8. …read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life, re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book (Walt Whitman). 
  9. If what a tree or a bush does is lost on you, you are surely lost. Stand still. The forest knows where you are. You must let it find you (David Waggoner).
  10. Listen to the utter indifference of the stars (Helen Mort). 
  11. Write how all this added up to a life (Dante Di Stefano).
  12. The best way to put things in order is to make a list (Imtiaz Dharker). 
  13. May the poems be the little snail’s trail. Everywhere I go, every inch: quiet record of the foot’s silver prayer. I lived once. Thank you. I was here (Aracelis Girmay).


  1. Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous; gray light streaking each bare brand, each single twig, along one side, making another tree, of glassy veins (Elizabeth Bishop).
  2. I say, oh, I am miserable, what shall—what should I do? And the sea says in its lovely voice: Excuse me, I have work to do (Mary Oliver). 
  3. Would that we could wake up  to what we were — when we were ocean   and before that   to when sky was earth, and animal was energy, and rock was liquid and stars were space and space was not at all — nothing before we came to believe humans were so important before this awful loneliness (Marie Howe). 
  4. But is creation like the growth of a tree. No one has seen it happen, but inside the bark another circle is growing in the expanding ring. No one has heard the root go deeper in the dark, but the tree is lifted by this inward word and its plumes shine, and its leaves are glittering (May Sarton). 
  5. Fear dissolves and trust walks in (Juan Felipe Herrera). 
  6. This morning I love everyone, even Jerome, the neighbor I hate, and the sun (Ted Mathys).
  7. Trees stand, but I shall run. Beyond that slope, beyond the sun (Florida Watts Smyth). 
  8. won’t you celebrate with me what i have shaped into a kind of life (Lucille Clifton)?
  9. And then they grew so jolly I did resign the prig — and ten of my once stately toes are marshaled for a jig (Emily Dickinson)!
  10. You air that serves me with breath to speak! You rows of houses! You window-pierced facades! You roofs! You porches and entrances! You copings and iron guards! You windows whose transparent shells might expose so much! You doors and descending steps! You arches (Walt Whitman)!
  11. In the name of the Bee—And of the Butterfly—And of the Breeze—Amen (Emily Dickinson)!
  12. You want a door you can be on both sides of at once. You want to be on both sides of here and there, now and then (Maggie Smith). 
  13. All thinking is comparison. A bear is a weapon, a bear claw is a pastry. A bear trap, if you are a bear, is an inconvenience. Logic is boring because it works. Being unreasonable is exciting (Richard Siken).

These lines come from the following poems, not in order:

  • Living in the Body/Joyce Sutphen
  • Did Rise/ Jessica Rae Bergamino
  • Love/ Alex Dimitrov
  • Singularity/ Marie Howe
  • Five Flights Up/ Elizabeth Bishop
  • Just as the Calendar Began to Say Summer/ Mary Oliver
  • The Work of Happiness/ May Sarton
  • Bliss Point or What Can Best Be Achieved by Cheese/ Benjamin Garcia
  • Prompts (for High School Teachers Who Write Poetry)/ Dante Di Stefano
  • Wind/ Florida Watts Smyth
  • Social Distancing/ Juan Felipe Herrer
  • In the name of the Bee/ Emily Dickinson
  • Snow flakes/ Emily Dickinson
  • I’m Going Back to Minnesota Where Sadness Makes Sense/ Danez Smith
  • Push the button, hear the sound/ Helen Mort
  • Advice from a Bat/ Michael T. Young
  • truth/ gwendolyn brooks
  • won’t you celebrate with me/ lucille clifton
  • Time for Serenity, Anyone?/ William Stafford
  • The World Has Need of You/ Ellen Bass
  • I Go Down To The Shore/ Mary Oliver
  • Proverbs and Canticles/ Antonio Machado
  • Song of the Open Road/ Walt Whitman
  • Listening/ Elizabeth Hoover
  • This is What You Shall Do/ Walt Whitman
  • Black Cat/ Rainer Maria Rilke
  • An Old-Fashioned Song/ John Hollander
  • Corsons Inlet/ A. R. Ammons
  • What Things Want/ Robert Bly
  • Abecedarian for the Dangerous Animals/ Catherine Peirce