Monday, October 10, 2016

The Basket Poem

Not long ago I wrote a blog where I talked about Walt Whitman’s celebrated poem, “I Hear America Singing.” In discussing this poem, I realized that it’s actually part of a category of poems that I would call “basket poems.”

In a basket poem, a writer comes up with a container that many different events or things can be gathered in. For example, in Whitman’s poem, he collects incidents where he hears or imagines Americans singing while they work. In the first line, Whitman describes the basket that he’s going to use to assemble all these images:

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear

Then he proceeds to put one incident after another into his basket:

Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the      steamboat deck…

All in all, Whitman describes eleven different types of workers, each with a different task, each with a different song.

I can imagine Whitman getting the idea for this poem by hearing two or three of these singers during a stroll around his neighborhood in Brooklyn. He then either stayed attentive to others who sing while they work, or invented or remembered the rest. Whitman’s basket for this poem is: American worker singing. The poem becomes an assortment of these different carolers, each one representing the dignity and joy of honest, democratic labor. It’s a sort of innocent socialist realism, before there was actually such a thing as socialist realism. Maybe we could call it “socialist lyricism.”

Interestingly, the poem does not arbitrarily list these workers and their songs. It begins with the heavier sorts of labor: mechanic, carpenter, mason, boatman. It then becomes somewhat more domestic and rural, and the time of day changes to a later hour, the end of the workday:

The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown…

Then the singer/workers become distinctively female:

The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing…

Finally Whitman ends the poem not with daytime labor but with the fun and leisure of the nighttime after work is done:

Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.

Whitman’s poem is an excellent template for a basket poem:

1) Choose a category of images, incidents, objects, or phrases.
2) Collect a satisfyingly diverse assortment of like objects or phrases in your basket.
3) Sort the objects in the basket so they form a sort of order.
4) Begin and/or end with an object or phrase or image that doesn’t quite match the others, that provides some closure, some break in the list.

You might ask, “What’s the difference between a basket poem and a list poem?” Well, a list poem could also be a basket poem. But a basket poem doesn’t have to be a list. I wouldn’t exactly call “I Hear America Singing” a list, though it has list-like qualities. In fact, a basket poem doesn’t have to be a list at all.

I’m thinking about Mary Ruefle’s poem, “Merengue.” After the first three introductory lines, the whole poem is a series of questions. 

Mary Ruefle
You could hardly call this poem a list. But I would call it a basket poem, since Mary Ruefle collected questions that interested her, put them in her poetic basket, and formed a poem out of them. Here is the middle section of the poem:

Did you learn how to cut a pineapple,
open a coconut?
Did you carry a body once it had died?
For how long and how far?
Did you do the merengue?
Did you wave at the train?
Did you finish the puzzle, or save it for morning?

All these experiences seem like possibilities for fairly simple activities that we could know in a lifetime. The poem’s implicit question is, to my mind, “Have you lived life to its fullest, or have you failed to experience many wonderful things?” What’s lovely about the poem is that this most important question is left unasked. Was it Alice Notley who said, “What you want to say in a poem is what you should leave out”? “Merengue” is a fine example of that.

Like Whitman, Mary Ruefle begins and ends her poems with lines that don’t fit in the same category as her basket, which is questions about simple actions. She starts and ends the poem with declarations, allowing for both an introduction to her list at the beginning, and closure at the end. She also prepares us for the ending by tackling bigger issues in the last two questions:

Have you been born?
What book will you be reading when you die?

Although the last question might seem somewhat random, it does continue the subject of life and death that the previous, ambiguous question broaches.


Basket poems can take a surprisingly long to time write. It may happen that the category you choose to put into your basket is a fairly obscure one. The more esoteric the basket, the longer it will probably take to fill. Remember to sort the objects—they can’t all be equal or have the same resonance, or you will have nothing more than a shopping list. Once you have collected all your objects or phrases in the basket, you might also have to add or subtract in order to form the pattern that the objects seem to want to be part of.

Other recent posts about writing topics:
 

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