Pinned Against Time – The Show-and-Tell Poetry of Ellen Bass

American poet, Ellen Bass (1947 - )

Ellen Bass (1947 – )

If You Knew

What if you knew you’d be the last
to touch someone?
If you were taking tickets, for example,
at the theatre, tearing them
giving back the ragged stubs,
you might take care to touch that palm
or press your fingertips
into the life line’s crease. 

When a man pulls his wheeled suitcase
too slowly through the airport, when
the car in front of me doesn’t signal,
when the clerk at the pharmacy
won’t say thank you, I don’t remember
they’re going to die.

A friend told me she’d been with her aunt.
They’d just had lunch and the waiter,
a young gay man with plum black eyes,
joked as he served the coffee, kissed
her aunt’s powdered cheek when they left.
Then they walked half a block and her aunt
dropped dead on the sidewalk.

How close does the dragon’s spume
have to come? How wide does the crack
in heaven have to split?
What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

Ellen Bass (1947 – ) from The Human Line, Copper Canyon Press, 2006

As 2013 draws to a close I thought I should fess up to a guilty pleasure! I am drawn to accessible poems that don’t just show but also tell! This flies in the face of the proscription that haunts classrooms wherever the craft of poetry is taught: Show don’t tell! Ah, but there’s the rub for me! I find nothing quite as juicy as a good “tell” now and again! But I can’t help feeling guilty about this. As if I am too “lowbrow” somehow to qualify as a “with it” poet! I feel as if I hang out among poetry’s lower classes! Bravo!

So here it is: there are some narrative poems full of “telling” or rhetoric, full of a poet speaking his or her mind, that work for me. However, often these types of poems can seem too simple or plodding; they rarely leave the page, bogged down by a preachy plain-speaking tone. They lack the mystery and ambiguity that some critics say are essential in a “good” or memorable poem.

But the best of these plain-speaking poems stay with me; leave me disoriented and haunted. That is how I feel after reading the poem by Ellen Bass that introduces this blog post. This poem was my first introduction to Bass, who has has become well known through her two poetry collections ( a third will be released early next year) but also through her non-fiction  including The Courage To Heal – A Guide for Women Survivors of Sexual Abuse.

A few weeks ago Rattle, the American poetry journal published an interview with her. Click here for a link to the interview. Take a look!

The challenge for me has been to figure how a great “tell” poem avoids being listless lineated prose! And how to defend this kind of exemplary poem against critics who demean them as flat and uninteresting.

Other favorite poets of mine who can write this way are Stanley Kunitz (Layers), Mary Oliver (Wild Geese, The Journey) Naomi Shihab Nye (Kindness, The Art of Disappearing) and William Stafford ( You Reading This, Be Ready).

Sometime ago I came across scathing criticism of Summer Day – the iconic poem by Mary Oliver. The critic said it was worth one reading only, if that! Yet I have recited this poem out at a hundred times in poetry workshops and it not only captivates my listeners but remains charged for me every time I recite it. The same holds true for Bass’s poem.

My ruminations on this topic have led me to look at Bass’s poem more closely. There are few verbal or metaphoric pyrotechnics, especially in the first three stanzas. The lines are easily accessible and understood. The syntax is straight forward, almost flat when recited, again, especially if the first three stanzas.. It’s fair to ask – is this lineated prose? My answer is no.

There’s much that saves the first three stanzas for me : especially the interrogative structure that facilitates an indirect “telling” through the multiple questions or askings! Nice touch.

The first question is especially attention grabbing – What if you knew you’d be the last to touch someone? But how she follows the question by giving a concrete image of a ticket taker at a theatre adds particular punch: if you were taking tickets, for example. Following that by writing: you might take care to touch that palm…, is especially effective. Instead of a direct telling – you, the reader, listen up: treat everyone as if they were about to die – Bass disguises it, says it by implication.

The syntactical inversion in stanza two also helps: the triple repetition of “when…”, which she follows with: I don’t remember they’re going to die. Again the imperative is implied, not stated. This is how, without the mysterious elixir of metaphor, Bass manages to pull me in each time I read the poem.

What also maintains the tension and momentum for me is the direct narrative of the aunt’s shocking and unexpected death in stanza three. It ties back to the question at the poem’s beginning. And I assume this incident is what triggered the poem; made the narrator wonder about her own moments when she has treated someone like an object, not like someone about to die!

In spite of the craft manifested in the first three stanzas I am not sure that on its own it’s enough. It carries me but I need more. What cinches the poem for me and enables me to really go on a ride with it, a ride that compels me again and again, is the structure and metaphoric brawn of the last stanza. It takes the poem right off the page for me.

Again instead of a direct “telling”, Bass disguises her message, the poem’s meaning, in the metaphors and powerfully drives the poem to its conclusion through repetition and the repeated questions: How close does the dragon’s spume/ have to come. How wide does the crack/ in heaven have to split?

The final question, the third in the last stanza, makes this poem rise to a new height off the page each time I read it:

What would people look like
if we could see them as they are,
soaked in honey, stung and swollen,
reckless, pinned against time?

In simple terms Bass’s poem tells the reader: we are all going to die, so pay attention and act accordingly! But it’s not what she is “telling” but the way she tells it that makes this poem so compelling for me; that makes it such a success.

If a measure of a poem’s success is how it changes a reader then this poem has achieved that measure for me! It’s made me aspire to be kinder and more gentle with others. I still don’t achieve this all the time that’s for sure! But when I remember to breathe after someone almost drives me off the road or budges in front of me in a line I hear Bass’s lines and I remember that not just others, but that I am also: soaked in honey, stung and swollen,/ reckless, pinned against time.



  1. Liz
    Posted December 27, 2013 at 8:06 pm | Permalink

    If this is a poem of the “lower class” then sign me up!
    Thanks as always for your insights and observations. I always learn so much from these posts.
    This particularly poignant this evening; a call from a friend to say her daughter lost a friend and his brother last night in a freak snow mobile accident. Two brothers, sudden and tragic, one hopes someone pressed their palms, touched them with fingertips, kissed them as they went out into the cold night.

  2. Richard
    Posted January 4, 2014 at 7:05 pm | Permalink

    Liz – as always thanks for your thoughtful readings of my blog – and this one in particular for the reasons you know only too well. Love, R

  3. Heidi Garnett
    Posted December 28, 2013 at 12:10 am | Permalink

    Bass asks the big questions and this is what poetry should be doing, but you’re right, Richard, the last stanza elevates the poem to another level.

  4. Richard
    Posted December 28, 2013 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Dear Heidi! What a life-giving way to stay in touch! Bass does ask the big questions. And she is not afraid of big topics like science, either. Like Dorianne Laux, her mentor, she is skilled at being able to close focus on the particular and then pull back with some scientific insight that enlarges the poem. All best, R

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