How I Found Small Joys in My Life as a Poem Elf
Maggie Lane on Sly Gifts and Hidden Beauties
Mark Strand was my first. It was ten years ago on a cold but sunny March morning that I stood in the parking lot of my gynecologist’s office, waiting for a minivan to pull away and a pregnant women to enter the building. The coast clear, I taped “The Coming of Light” to a yellow post. Sunlight warmed the paper as if the words in Strand’s poem were coming to life—
Even this late it happens:
the coming of love, the coming of light.
I took a picture, hopped in the car and sped off, my heart racing. Taping a luminous little poem to a parking lot post hardly rose to the level of guerrilla art, but still, it felt subversive. A voice in my head said, This is not what a grown woman should be doing. Another voice said, Fuck off!
I couldn’t stop laughing. I pictured some other woman on the downside of her reproductive life, a woman who had also sat amongst the ripened young in the gynecologist’s office, who would emerge from all that fecundity to find the poem. She would laugh too. She would read the last two lines and think, This could be me—
Even this late the bones of the body shine
and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.
Three hundred poems later, I am still leaving poems for others to find: in grocery stores, post offices, libraries, fields, woods, cemeteries (especially cemeteries), hiking trails, beaches, drugstores, bars, restaurants, cities I visit. The sense of danger has subsided, but the thrill of working in secret is not gone.
I post the pictures on my blog, Poem Elf. Each post features a picture of the poem in its new environment, a brief discussion, and a biography of the poet. My credentials for the work are lousy: I’m not a poet, I’m not a scholar of poetry, and—I’ll say it only because it is a fun thing to say—I am not an elf.
Certain childhood stories stay with us because they bewilder and enchant in equal measure. “The Elves and the Shoemaker” is such a one for me. A re-cap: One night, two elves fashion an exquisite pair of shoes from a poor shoemaker’s very last piece of leather. They work in secret by candlelight. They are also completely naked. In the morning the shoemaker is overjoyed to see the finished shoes, which sell for more than asking price. Each subsequent night the elves make another pair of shoes, and soon the shoemaker is a wealthy man. At Christmastime the shoemaker and his wife stay up to discover who is making the shoes (worth noting that their curiosity begins only after business is booming) and decide to return the favor with their own surprise, two sets of tiny clothes. The next night the elves find the clothes, and after dancing for joy, are never seen again.
It’s a strange story, an amoral one couched in pious language. From the shoemaker’s point of view it’s a capitalist wet dream—free labor, upward mobility. From the elves’, well, it makes no sense. What’s the logical or moral reason to make shoes in secret? If the elves were only interested in saving the shoemaker from the poorhouse, they would have stopped once he was rich. If they were working to earn clothes, they would have let themselves be known. And even though there’s a suggestion that they were motivated by goodness (the shoemaker being so poor, humble and godly), I never bought it, even as a little girl. These elves were not angels, at least not in the illustrations I grew up with. They were feral little beings, naked with hair like flames. Their eyes had a knowing, unwholesome look. They worked quickly, they danced wildly, they dashed out the door like lizards.
What the story comes down to, for me, a lover of all things elfish, is this: freedom, subversion, art. The elves work on their own terms, beholden to nobody. They make beautiful things in secret. And they enjoy the hell out of it.
Ted Kooser describes a fantasy reader in “Selecting a Reader” (which I left in the poetry section of a small bookstore in 2011). A beautiful, wet-haired woman in a dirty raincoat walks into a bookstore, and after leafing through a book of Kooser’s poems, decides not to buy it, but to spend her hard-earned money on dry-cleaning the raincoat. There’s a joke here—being picky about who reads his poems when (supposedly) so few people read poetry at all is an elbow-to-the-ribs of the old aphorism that beggars can’t be choosers—but there’s also aspiration. Kooser wants a wider audience. In a 2007 Kenyon Review interview, Kooser said of his former days as an insurance underwriter, “I worked every day with people who didn’t read poetry, who hadn’t read it since they were in high school, and I wanted to write for them.”
I have a similar fantasy. Someone, a beaten-down parent or maybe a finance type allergic to non-literal communication, stumbles upon a poem I’ve left, say, as they grab frozen macaroni and cheese at the grocery store (Allen Ginsberg’s “C’mon Pigs of Western Civilization” in 2011) or walk past a giveaway futon on a city block (Jane Hirshfield’s “Respite” in 2019) or wait for their kid at the orthodontist (Wallace Stevens’ “The Gray Room” in 2012). Why is this here? they wonder. They read the poem. They recognize some part of their life experience or imagine someone else’s. They peel off the tape and stick the poem in their wallet, and from time to time, they read it, as one would a holy card, eventually committing a few lines to memory.
Like a lovestruck lad daily checking missed connection ads, I live in perpetual hope of hearing back from these imagined poem-finders (the back of each poem stamped in green ink with the website to encourage contact), but alas, only the wind and the janitors know where the poems end up. I have watched, in real time, people read the Scotch-taped, twig-anchored, tucked-in poems. This involves me hiding behind a bush, watching from the car, lingering at the end of a store aisle—a voyeuristic pleasure as tense as spying on a shy child at recess—I hope they like her! I hope they invite him over!
More often my understanding of readers’ tastes comes from search terms, clicks, referrers and the occasional comment. For all the lazy students searching for an analysis of Siegfried Sassoon’s “Everyone Sang” or Lucille Clifton’s “In Praise of Menstruation,” and for all the misdirected parents sent to my site to find (shudder) an Elf on the Shelf poem, hundreds more seek out poems for weddings, funerals, new homes, Valentine’s Day, children leaving for college, Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, lost love.
My ten years of blogging is but a blip in the history of people looking for poems to mark occasions, but my metrics are heartening. If thousands of people all over the world visit my little website (only 3,200 followers) every month, imagine how many millions seek poetry elsewhere. Poetry is alive and well, thank you very much. It doesn’t need saving, but lots of people do.
Selecting poems is less sentimental than selecting imaginary readers. My guiding principle is that non-academic readers are more likely to read a poem if it’s short and easily comprehended (although not understood—understanding can take years). I seek out “accessible” poetry and only rarely challenge myself and my readers with long or difficult texts.
But short and accessible don’t equal shallow. If anything, those qualities allow readers to hold on to poems even more firmly, like fist-sized roots on the side of a cliff, solid places to anchor, rest and launch the self. The three most viewed poems on my site bear this out. All are short (12, 17 and 22 lines, respectively) and employ simple diction and uncomplicated syntax. But they dig deeply in land of human complications. Different as each poem is from the other, they all speak to a fundamental human longing to be seen and understood. (Note: because the search terms for these poems don’t include “analysis” or “summary,” I assume they aren’t being read for assignments, but for weightier, more personal reasons.)
Seamus Heaney’s “Mother of the Groom” taped to a plant in a ladies room of a hotel in Milwaukee is far and away the most visited post on my site. I wish the picture, an early one in my Poem Elf career, wasn’t grainy and blurry, but the fact that it is grainy and blurry and still so popular, showing up sometimes on Pinterest boards, tells me this tiny jewel of a poem touches people deeply.
Kaitlin Haught’s “God Says Yes to Me” is not one of my favorites, but readers come back to it again and again. I left the poem on a dormitory wall of a boarding school one Mother’s Day in hopes some homesick student might find comfort in it. Over the years it’s garnered over 600 views (again, just on my little site), which points to either a shared shame issue or the desire for a feminine deity—
Sweetcakes God said
who knows where she picked that up
what I’m telling you is
Yes Yes Yes
Meanwhile, Marie Ponsot’s “On Women” reads like a biography of my soul, and I suspect many other women feel the same. I taped it to a row of shopping carts outside a suburban Trader Joe’s and imagined an overburdened, exhausted mother pushing her cart up and down the aisles shadowed by the first few lines of Ponsot’s poem—
What women wander?
Not many. All. A few.
Most would, now & then,
& no wonder.
Some, and I’m one,
Wander sitting still.
I used to send blog links to the poets I wrote about, and once in a while I’d get a response. Naomi Shihab Nye wrote back with the warmth you’d expect, especially kind after I misspelled her name; Billy Collins sent a friendly postcard suggesting he was more Alain Delon than Shirley Temple (a comparison I offered only as a huge fan of Shirley Temple and in regards to his popularity); Dara Weir shed light on confusion I had over “Invisible in the Torn Out Interiors”; Lawrence Raab, with good grace and no ill feeling, corrected my complete misreading of “Marriage.” Most poets never responded (regrettably, Yusef Komunyakaa, after I left “Ode to the Maggot” on a dead deer at the side of a road).
But then one day I got a response from a poet that ended my outreach. This poet skipped over the usual I love that you do this and went right to Why are you doing this? Her tone wasn’t rude but neither was it friendly. Why are you doing this? The question stung. I felt shame. I felt silly. Was I just a poseur? Poem Elf looked, suddenly, sickeningly, like a pointless hobby, like collecting celebrity autographs or reading fan magazines.
I wrote back a badly worded answer about building an audience for poetry blah blah blah. She didn’t reply. The longer I waited to hear back, the more embarrassed I felt. It slowly dawned on me that she thought my postings appropriated her work and my commentary compromised her poem. She had a point. There’s a piggyback element to this ten-year project. Perhaps my reaching out to poets expecting them to thank me for hitching a ride came off as thirsty. So I stopped writing to poets, even as I continued to post their poems.
The question didn’t go away though. Why are you doing this? Wasn’t I too old for pranks? Wasn’t I embarrassing myself, creeping around grocery stores and libraries and public parks to tape poems? Wasn’t I unqualified to examine works by the greats, wasn’t I wasting my time writing for such a marginal readership with no expectation of income?
Yes. Yes, yes, and yes.
Like any good story, “The Elves and the Shoemaker” leaves room for readers to imagine the unwritten scenes. Here’s one: in the morning, having finished their work, the elves hide in a doorway to watch the shoemaker and his wife discover the shoes they made in secret. They’re so excited they can’t stop laughing and pinch each other’s pointy ears to stop, because if they are seen the fun is over, they’d have to move on. Here’s another: the shoemaker stands at the shop window waiting for passersby to notice the new shoes he’s set out. His wife steps in to clean the dusty window. She re-arranges the shoes on an old stand so that the perfection of the buckles captures the morning light. Then the couple spies a man walking toward the shop. They squeeze hands. They know he will stop. They know he will gasp when he sees the beautiful shoes. They know he will buy them. The sale was a done deal the second the elves put the last stitch in the leather. All they had to do was set the shoes in the shop window and watch as the secret work played out in the light of day.