Poetry as “The Message in the Bottle”

Edward Hirsch referenced poetry as “a message in a bottle” to be found and opened at some future date by an anonymous reader.

When I paint a piece or write a poem, what or who do I have in mind?  What am I tuned into?  It varies.  Sometimes, as with this painting of the polar bear, I followed an intuitive flow that started with marks on a canvas. From these marks, three disco dancers emerged and quickly shape-shifted into three polar bears at the North Pole; then to a single polar bear with the Aurora Borealis as a backdrop.  Finally there was this solitary polar bear in a meadow.  The journey of this piece wasn’t decided by me ahead of time; what it wanted to become was disclosed as I stayed with the process.

What is the message of this painting?polar2

One cold and snowy winter’s night, I felt that existential loneliness.  I looked at my polar bear painting on the wall & I wondered what it felt like to wander, a solitude, across the melting ice floes of the North Pole.  What would it feel like to have your habitat disappearing beneath your feet?  What would it be like to be made for this icy world and to witness your world dissolving?  As the ice floes are melting, does this then predicate that the polar bear becomes extinct or does he metamorphose in some way to accommodate this once familiar, now changing world?

And so I wrote this sonnet to the polar bear, for myself in my loneliness and for the unknown finder of the message in the bottle.

© by Christine O’Brien

It’s cold and I’m alone again at night.
The stars so far away, no comfort there.
Is the polar bear aware of its plight?
Ice floes are melting, does anyone care?

Across the tundra the northern lights dance:
radiant colors blast the starry sky.
If we change our ways, would he have a chance?
“Global warming; couldn’t be helped,” we sigh.

We’re safe in our cozy habitats, home.
The borders of our lives within these walls.
The far arctic circle, his place to roam
outside of our range, his frozen cry falls.

What’s it to us, a whole species demise?
Could it have gone better if we’d been wise?

For Your Contemplation:
I’ve talked about following your passion when writing poetry, prose or creating art. Sometimes, a fleeting feeling seems to govern your life. How do you respond to this? When feeling lonely or sad or some other uncomfortable feeling, I desire to be done with it as soon as possible.  I don’t want to dwell there.  Yet, I’ve learned to allow it the time it takes.  The truth is that we all feel lonely, sad or in grief at times.  To allow it is the courageous response…to create from it is to engage the common human thread of loneliness that each one of us experiences.  Your deep transitory feelings can be expressed through poetry, prose, painting & other creative venues.  You cannot decide who is going to pick up your bottled message on some lonely beach.  You can only hope that when they do, they find what is inside personally useful, portent, potent and perhaps powerful enough to induce change for the good of all.

Autumn Harvest

appleCycles and seasons come and go.  We are deeply connected to nature’s rhythms whether or not we give them conscious attention.  No matter where you live or what your age, you have an experience of Autumn.  In the northern hemisphere, we have entered the Autumn of the year while the southern hemisphere is in the flush of Spring.  As writers, we are aware of the metaphorical aspect of any season.

For yourself, consider what the harvest time means to you personally.  Living in the mountains, I’ve come to know the harvest intimately.  The land I live on has old fruit trees.  The first trees to fruit in early summer are the cherry trees.  These are followed by the pear trees.  Finally, in September and October, the apple trees are ready to be gleaned. If the apple crop is hefty, you will find me in the yard picking apples or in the kitchen processing them.  Frequently, there is an abundance of fruit to be shared with friends.

I often hear this comment from young and old alike, “How fast time is going!” Has it always been this way?


Thomas Cleary translated a book of verses written by Wen-siang, a lone refugee, Buddhist poet, pacifist and feminist who lived in the 13th century during the time of the Genghis Khan Mongol raids.  The book is titled Sleepless Nights…Verses for the Wakeful.  I’ve excerpted the following poem:

My Sixtieth Year
by Wen-Siang (translated by Thomas Cleary)

Already sixty,
so much I’ve been through.
Wealth and rank
are like floating clouds;
changing and disappearing,
unworthy of regard.

My body’s like a pine

on a winter ridge,
standing alone
through the cold.

My mind is like the water

in an ancient well,
thoroughly unruffled
all the way to the depths.

My path
is the ancient way,
especially hard
in the present day.
Not easily discerned
are right and wrong;
I sigh and sigh,
sigh and sigh.

Wen Siang uses simile in the first three verses (the bolded lines) to illustrate his state of being in his sixtieth year; it seems that he is taking stock.  In the fourth verse, he makes the direct comparison (metaphor) in the line “My path is the ancient way.” I invite you to use Wen-siang’s poem as a copycat poem.  That is borrow the form and supply your own content.  You can begin your poem with your current age.  For each verse, alternate the leading lines…”My body’s like…My mind is like…and My path is…”


Whatever the season, whichever hemisphere, savor your time on planet earth.

Personally, I Ponder Personification

I mean, does a tree really desire to have human qualities attributed to it?  Then, does a tree even have desire?  Can’t a tree stand alone, sovereign, without humans endowing it with our virtues, vices, qualities or behaviors?

Maybe not!  Maybe writers and poets use personification as a means to comprehend what is termed “other”.  By comparing something to ourselves, perhaps we think we have an understanding of what it is or isn’t.

According to poet and writer, Mary Oliver, “Personification is the term used when one gives a physical characteristic or innate quality of animation to something that is inanimate…”  She gives an example from poet, James Wright–

“I bowed my head, and heard the sea far off
Washing its hands.”

A second definition for personification is from poet and writer, Frances Mayes:  “An emotion or something inhuman, such as a mountain or love or a tree, is given human qualities.”

A few more examples:

  • from Stephen Spender, “…whispers of wind in the listening sky…”
  • from William Sharp, “…the sleeping sea…” OR “…And in the soft ear of Spring, light voices sing.”
  • from creative soul and nature sprite, Opal Whiteley, “I danced on a log…as the wind does play the harps in the forest.”

WRITING PROMPT:  Choose something in nature with which you feel a connection.  Animate it with human qualities. Use poetry or prose, whatever makes you feel more at ease.  Does this type of comparison come easy to you?

cropped-castlelake11.jpg(photo of Castle Lake by Christine O’Brien)

“The sky smiled at its reflection in the lake.”

Poetry Animated

Billy Collins is another amazing poet of our times. If you haven’t read his poetry or heard him reading his own poems, then allow yourself this amazing experience.


For some, poetry has received a “bad rap”. I admit to having had childhood experiences of reading a poem and really “not getting it” and generally, not seeing the relevance of poetry to my life. Earlier, I posted a blog on blending my poetry with paint in a mixed media piece. Discovering this poem by Billy Collins, Forgetfulness, put to animation, exhibits another possible way to make poetry both accessible and relevant for audiences today. This poem was animated by Julian Grey of Head Gear Animation.

Creativity in presenting your poetry can go in many directions.  Are you open to exploring them?

Creative Prompt:  Have you considered how you might insinuate poetry into your daily experience?  Have you wondered how you can revive an appreciation for poetry in others? What is the value of poetry to you as a writer and reader of poetry? Does poetry presently weave its way into the ebb and flow of your life?
Take time to watch some YouTube videos of Billy Collins reciting his poetry. Afterwards, consider any new ideas that might be brewing inside of you around making your own poetry and writing both accessible to others and relevant to our times.

Poetry + Paint + Collage

Have you ever considered creating a mixed media piece with art and poetry or words?  A local art exhibition was my incentive to give this a try.  I have wanted to integrate poetry with images for some time. I wasn’t sure how I would accomplish this. The poem is called My Mother’s Hands–stemming from a visit to my parents in a care home during their last years.  At the time, I remember thinking that it was such a personal poem, revealing more than I wanted to share with the community that would attend the art exhibit. I got the idea to write the poem on the canvas and then let words and phrases peek through, not the entire poem.  I had some of my mom’s old costume jewelry.  Somehow, I wanted to integrate a few pieces.

I laid down a background by dripping some inks on the canvas. Once the acrylic ink was dry,  I wrote the poem on the canvas with black India Ink.  I gessoed and painted over parts of it in a very random way.  I traced my own hand and placed two pieces of my mother’s costume jewelry on the fingers.  I added my mother’s photo at age 17.  I collaged a few more pieces of paper, dripped more ink, traced out the flowers.  None of this was planned.  It unfolded organically.


Creative Prompt:
Do you have a poem or some other writing that you’d like to incorporate with collage and/or painting? Do you have a bit of memorabilia that you’d like to include in your art-making?  Are there colors that you are drawn to?  Is there something that you deeply want to express that includes words and then goes beyond words?

If this process interests you, purchase a few bottles of FW Daler-Rowney Acrylic Inks (choose warm or cool colors so you don’t create muddy colors on your substrate) and have a spray bottle filled with water handy.  Watch a few youtube videos on ways to use these inks.  Play with the inks on a 12″x12″ canvas.  Drip one or two drops (a little goes a long way), spray them.  Watch the ink disburse.  Lift and tilt the canvas slightly creating drips if you desire. Once the ink is dry, write your poem or prose using India Ink or some other permanent black ink–you don’t want water soluble. When dry, partially gesso over some of the written words, add bits of collage or memorabilia. Add acrylic paint if you feel called to.  I used Posca Fine Line Markers to add elements of design as a finishing touch. Have that sense of experimenting, following your whims…perfection is put outside the door.  Let this exploration be for your eyes only.


Writing as Revelation

Writing has and continues to reveal myself to me.  As I write, I continually rediscover who I am.  Someone who is not constant. Someone who undergoes continuous transformation. Someone who can broaden her perspective. Forever becoming.

How many times in my life have I tried to pin myself down to a certain characteristic, belief or desire? How many times did I find that this is impossible?  As I’m faced with each new circumstance, I discover more of both myself and larger life.

With writing, I invoke the never-ending journey of self-revelation coupled with personal evolution in a world that is always in flux.

The writing I do reveals what I value.  It engages my sense of humor.  It discloses where I feel afraid to probe.  And, when I share my writing, I can only wonder what it awakens in someone else.  Here’s the thing, we make our writing public, release it to society, and others make of it what they do; and take from it what they do.

Doctor Seuss himself was a revelatory writer. I’m guessing that he had to dig deep to write effectively, and in rhyme with wisdom and humor. His messages are for anyone, regardless of age:

The more I write on a certain topic, the more that is revealed to me.  Then, the more I have to “reveal” to others.  dreamcatcher

© by Christine O’Brien

Lace and ribbons
decorate the frock.
“Forget your dreams.
Get back to the kitchen
and bake me a pie!”
Banish your fantasy of
happy couples and
floral bouquet apologies.

Re-enter the Goddess–
no partial woman is she!
So, you are somebody
after all.
Tell us what you know.
Emergence is what you requested–
sit down and let’s talk over tea.

A wedge of lemon?  Honey?
Ah, the bitter with the sweet.
This you must experience
for yourself.

Lace and ribbons,
wedding day vows–
disguise your sovereign destiny.

(This mixed media dream catcher was inspired by artist, Tracy Verdugo, in her Paint Mojo E-Course.)

For your writing journal:  Consider what your own writing has revealed to you about yourself.  Does it show your values, your process, your personal evolutionary path?  How is it connected to the whole of life? What do you think?

What mountain is waiting for you today?  


Using a Prop to Facilitate Your Writing Process

This exercise requires a “prop”.  I chose my favorite morning coffee cup as my prop or physical writing prompt.  Note:  All of this script is directly from my writing journal without editing. These are very rough first drafts and that is the intention–to show you how to be with a prop as a way to experience your writing process.

~~Choose your prop and describe it in detail. Be specific.  Allow stray connotations to drift in as you return to describing your prop.
The clay coffee cup, ceramic.  A blue glaze over original clay, which intentionally seeps through the glaze.  Red earth clay.  Blue-glazed cup with red clay trim and red clay bottom.  Shaped like a plump face–narrower at the top and full-cheeked.  A question-mark shaped handle, large enough to comfortably fit two, even three fingers.  Wide enough at the mouth to sip without hitting my nose bridge.  A single band design marching around the cup, 3/4 of an inch below the rim.  Like rick-rack or zig-zags, up and down, up and down and all around until it catches up with itself. Etched blue revealing red earth clay creates this design.  My hands hold the “cheeks” and feel caressed by the warmth from the tea.  The tea bag bobbing like a survivor. Earthy fragrance of yerba mate promising savor.

~~This description takes me to another level of writing:
(The marking of this new day/tea’s greeting.  The cup returns to bed with me.  I get up in stages.)
“Honey, it’s time to get up.”
“Yes, Mom,” a curl, a stretch, a turn over to tug covers overhead.
Tea’s greeting–a simmering kettle; hot water centering, bobbing tea bag offering; sun salutation.  Tea bag marinates as I wait patiently for the proper saturation level and then, sip.  I let the bag soak beyond what’s proper!  I write, read, sip.  An invisible mother pulls at the covers of my consciousness; the day’s task and obligations lined up like a list. Once the list has snagged me, I’m at its mercy.  I delay the rising as long as possible. Savor the moment, the tea, the words I put on paper, the words that others have put to page. The reassuring cup promises to follow me throughout the day.  It has other offerings to encourage me along. Midmorning delights, afternoon comforts and evening respites–in beverage form.  I return to it again and again like a child checking in with her reassuring mother–that everything is going to be alright.

~~This process culminated in a poem:cup1
Ode to a Cup
©by Christine O’Brien

Who molded you?
woke from musty sleep
having dreamt your shape
and took to the potter’s wheel

Who molded you?
brought you forth
from dream seed
and fertilized you

carried you in the womb
of consciousness
and gave you form

Who was
the willing bearer
who knew how
to alter clay

Who molded you?
breathed life’s breath
and with daring hands
gave you presence

saw your promise
what you could hold
and deliver at once

Who molded you
so I might
reap your fullness
in a single sip

crafted you
offered you
who is this God?

Where did I go through this process–from a prop to where?  For me, finally, this poem became a metaphor for my own human evolution. Who is molding me, my life?

Do this four-part exercise when you have some time to devote (concluding with your own reflections about where you went through this process) .  Your creative process is your own and can look totally different from mine.  Trust where you are lead. Process writing requires presence and the opportunity to go deeper with a single object (or subject).  You need to allow yourself plenty of uninterrupted time to “go there”.  It is best to do this in one sitting to get the most out of the experience.

Give yourself a few hours with this writing process on a lazy Sunday afternoon.


Poetry–Purveyor of Universal Themes–is it?

Initially, I wrote poetry for myself.  It was often cathartic.  Ultimately, I believe, poetry is meant to be for a larger audience.  Poetry is intimate and reflects an individual’s perceptions, experiences and feelings. However, inherent within poetry is that oft-stated truth that “the personal is political.” Poetry marks the human journey. While it relates the poet’s personal journey, poetry often reflects the climate sustained by a larger cultural belief or practice.

As a woman writing about not feeling safe, for example…I look across the landscapes of time and place on the planet and I witness how women have not felt safe for generations over many different cultures.  (I mean within their very homes and communities.) As a poet, I capture my unique experience of feeling unsafe and like a hall of mirrors, the image is reflected ad infinitum.

Therefore, poetry joins us to one another.  The poet is, in this way, a herald of the times.


Writing Prompt:
In your journal, write your own reflections on how the personal is political for you.  In what way is your poetry (or writing or art) a herald of the times?  Does your writing, in some way, reflect a larger, universal theme?  Do you believe that your poetry or writing is “meant to be for a larger audience?”

Poetry à la carte

Another Day on the Farm
© by Christine O’Brien

The pot bellied pig, Sonia,
nudged the chickens
and the dominant one-eyed rooster, Sam,
When the sheep figured out
it was mealtime
they meandered over
from the pasture
to partake.
Dixie the cow
replaced Mabel
(who has severe mastitis)
as the new milking cow.
And the female Ostrich, Huey,
ate comfrey from my brother’s hand.
In thanks, she did a circular
mating dance.
I joined her
as the sun dipped
behind the hills.

My brother froze
not knowing
how to respond
to two crazed females.



Here’s the thing about poetry.  It says what wants to be said succinctly (not always, as there are certainly prose poems, ballads, elegies and other lengthy forms).  However, the above poem is brief while painting a picture of a moment in time.  There are the specifics, like naming the animals, and the detail about Mabel who has mastitis, and the action piece of Huey, the female Ostrich, dancing her mating dance.  And all of this takes place on a farm against the backdrop of hills and a setting sun.  In these brief 24-lines, feelings have been captured as well–my brother’s discomfort, my own dance of freedom.

Look for a stand-out “moment” today.  Lift this moment from your day. Document it with specifics–names, places, times, something spoken, climate, whatever you notice.  Then wax poetic…that is, write your poem of the moment.
Put your poem aside for a day or two.  Review it. What crafting tool can you apply to make it more precise?


On Reading a Poem

Edward Hirsch is one of my favorite author/poets writing about poetry.  His book, How To Read A Poem, is a poetic bible to me.

When I first began to recite my poetry in front of an audience, I hadn’t read Hirsch’s book.  It took every ounce of courage for me to stand in front of a group of strangers and become vulnerable.  My knees wobbled, my voice shook, my heart pounded.  Yet, I knew that it was time to step up and go public with my writing.

Does it ever get easier?  Although I’ve given writing workshops and stood before an audience on numerous occasions, I experience anticipatory anxiety–that pre-presentation self-doubt. By this point, I have become very familiar with my material whether I’m preparing to facilitate a writing workshop or read a few poems at the local art gallery. I have recorded, rehearsed and partially memorized what I plan to read. Typically, this anxiety evaporates as I read and connect with my audience.

Once, as I was practicing for a performance with a group of three other poets, a fellow poet stood in the back of the room.  As I recited the first few lines, he stopped me saying “I’m not getting this, Christine.”  I’d begin again and he stopped me again, at least three more times!  The poem I was reading, Woman By The Sea is a powerful poem about a woman and safety.  When he stopped me the fourth time, suddenly, I felt my whole being descend into my belly, a growing warmth there, and I recited the poem from this deeply grounded powerful place.  Afterwards, he said “I get it.”  And I could see how his criticism helped me to come from my place of certainty.  This was my experience. It was real. I chose to share it with others.

Edward Hirsch says, and I love this quote, “When I recite a poem I reinhabit it.  I bring the words off the page into my own mouth, my own body…I let its heartbeat pulse through me as embodied experience.”

This quote has helped me to be fully present with a poem when reciting. Sometimes, while reciting, I have a tendency to rush through the poem on a single breath.  “Don’t forget to breathe,” is another good reminder when reading before an audience.  I really do want to be heard and understood.  I am, after all, sharing something that is intimately important to me.  I really do want the audience to “get it”.

In this youtube below, Edward Hirsch reminds me that the reader of my poem is a necessary component and in that sense, though I’ve said that writing is a solo task, a poem is like an outstretched hand desiring to make a connection.

Woman by the Sea
© by Christine O’Brien

Rising with the sun
she walks along the cliffs by the sea

Iceplant, Scotch Broom, Sweet Alyssum
shimmering puddles of color

A wind-warped tree
points an unwary stranger over the edge

Her pup is her only companion
He frolics ahead
turning back to get a nod

The ocean pumps
a strong heartbeat
smothering all other sounds

She runs, screams, whoops, beats her chest
Her pup looks back
with a puzzled tilt of his black and white head

She laughs and chases him
The black hawk overhead
calls and glides with her

She is letting her hair grow long
just so the ocean wind can whip it across her face
into her mouth
so she can sputter
and spit it out

She hikes to the place were
she dares hike no further
unless she were a rock climber

She daydreams of ripping off her clothes
running down to the beach far below
into the icy water

Sometimes she sees herself
wearing a sheer Indian gauze dress
walking by the water’s edge
a silhouette against the setting sun

That morning
when she gets home
her husband tells her
he read an article

Just last week
this woman
was raped
up where
likes to hike

That afternoon
he comes home
with a pocket-size mace sprayer
for her to carry
She puts it in her sock drawer
afraid it will attract trouble

She still walks her path by the sea
looking furtively over her shoulder
keeping her dog and spirit
reined in

She doesn’t whoop
fearing it might
attract someone dangerous

No more daydreams
A woman
by the sea
is vulnerable

Today’s Prompt:

  • Please reread my poem (above) slowly. Any poem deserves at least two readings.
  • Record yourself reciting something.  Your own or a favorite poem.  Or, a piece of prose that you’ve written.  Listen to the recording.  Have you “inhabited” what you are reading? Are you fully present with the words on the page?  Have you taken them into your body?  Is there someone who can be an audience for you as you recite?  Do you dare?  Do dare.