Meditating briefly on Ted Kooser's poem "Wood Chips" from Rattle #65, Fall 2019

Photo by Carlos "Grury" Santos on Unsplash
I was browsing the internet, cruising for new poetry as I often do, and I stumbled upon Ted Kooser's poem "Wood Chips" in Rattle Magazine's recent postings. I had read the poem in the journal months ago, but either I wasn't in the proper environment or mindset, but it didn't stick out to me the way it did this time. So I read it a third time and decided to post a few notes about why I liked it. Memory is a pet theme of mine and perhaps it's because I've been working on organizing my first collection that I've again been thinking about the slippery substances that are memories. So unpredictable and dreamlike. Never the exact same twice.

Ted Kooser is a poet from Iowa born in 1939 that celebrates daily life in a straight forward yet elegant way that serves to elevate the simple tasks and events to signify larger abstractions and concepts. The biography of him I link there at the wonderful Poetry Foundation reminds us of the wonderfully apt description "quotidian" which is a fancy sounding word for a common occurrence. The importance of the everyday. He has twice served as the U.S. Poet Laureate, has won a Pushcart Prize, a Stanley Kunitz Prize and won the Pulitzer Prize for his collection Delights and Shadows which I highly recommend. There are a number of used copies on Amazon for under $2—no excuses!

Go read the poem "Wood Chips" by Ted Kooser on Rattle's website.
Good, right?
Maybe read it once more. It's short, only takes literally a minute. I just timed it at a normal pace at 50 seconds. Go read it once more. Listen to the sounds of the words. Listen to the repetition and how the words are sometimes slightly different when repeated.

Let us begin:
The poem is, as most of Kooser's poems, straightforward in what it's saying and the short narrative it presents: The poet found wood chips and briefly remembers when he cut the trees and bushes to make those chips 30 years prior—he then ruminates on that act of witnessing things both as they were in the memory and as they currently are. It's not a groundbreaking sentiment, but the way in which Kooser illustrates it certainly bears further investigation. I especially like the way he repeats and twists phrases to signify both the past and the present using (I believe) anadiplosis, a little bit of antimetabole. If the rhetorical terms don't mean much to you, don't worry baby birds, I'll feed you. 

Lines 3 & 4 in the poem look something like this:
...because they were there, by then, / after thirty years there
The use of "there" in two subtly different ways within such close proximity is the first little hat tip that the poet's voice is being a little cheeky. A clever little devil is writing this poem. The first instance of 'there' is casual. The poet had just chanced upon them because they, you know, were just there. But, the poet then focuses on that one particular 'there' where those particular wood chips were, and tells us that not only are the chips, like, 'over there' but they are specifically in this place in the poet's yard, in this one specific 'there' on this earth which  over time has been grown over by grass and rose bush, and they had been in that specific place, that 'there' for thirty years.
Then in Line 11 there's another repetition with:
and were driftwood gray, gray driftwood,
The first instance "driftwood gray" is referencing a specific shade of gray associated with the color of water-weathered wood, even if there isn't a universally decided upon shade, it's something like this color. The second instance of "gray driftwood" pulls back from the specific color to the more generic "gray" in a manner opposite of that first "there" I mentioned. 

Photo by Peter Mason on Unsplash
These sort of technical moves are also partially offset with the approach to the conversational, or casual register, when the poet addresses the reader in Line 6 with "you know" and accepts the unsaid acknowledgement from the reader that they understand that image, continuing on with "Those" being "like that". The two rhetorical moves serve as transitional points to the poem, almost like gates between different sections of a yard. 

Let's look at what actually happens in the poem:
The poem opens up with the instance of the poet kicking up wood chips. We get the rhetoric move with 'there' and then we're given a visual parallel ripe with possible metaphor. Do I think the poet had a specific metaphor intended for the bark and twigs leaving intricate patterns in the reeds? I do not, though it could be something specific. I don't think that is important to the poem, but I love the ambiguity of the image. It does very functionally serve to illustrate the sort of driftwood gray color that the moisture/weathering would assumedly create. Where driftwood washed up on a beach might be thought of as a more bleached, blanched white color instead of grey, this dank, kind of muddy or dirty image serves effectively to keep the wood suitably grey in the reader's eye.  Then the driftwood gray transitions from the image of the flooded pond back to the wood chips, but in the past—when the chips were created. And we get that superstar of 'sparking a memory': scent. The "fragrance of slices of peach, or of rose petals" are shuffled together (petals and slices a similar shape, even) and breathe a little fresh 'air' into the poem, if you will. A little energy in that vibrant memory despite the lack of many details. We get just enough. Then the poet wraps it all together by indicating that this sort of remembrance, these quick trips down memory lane have become a frequent occurrence, bringing in that specter of mortality that is kind of ever-present in any discussion or meditation on time. But it also has a sort of hopeful vitality. Those memories of roses and peach wood chips are reflected in the poet (you might see it as an exaggeration of skin tone's change from a youthful roseate to a more pallid one).

If you were to look at the structure, the free verse poem is in tercets and the basic movements would be:

1) Poet kicks up wood chips scene

transition) "There", but also this particular THERE
2) Flooded pond scene
transition) Driftwood Gray
3) Poet recognizes they have been reminiscing often

It's not a complicated poem, but the details that the poet chooses to use are what make this poem so remarkable. It's not trying to be a treatise defining the limitations of memory or anything highfalutin. It weaves narrative with wordplay, uses some lyric and rhetoric tricks to present a tightly crafted poem that both makes us think about the process of aging/reminiscing etc, and gives us lovely images to think about: the bark and twigs making intricate sketches in the reeds as if you were looking down on the world from a hot air balloon or drone or omniscience, the scent of fresh cut and fragrant peach tree combined with rose petals also diced and made an aerosol of memory-sparking aroma, even the weathered wood chip, the elderly poet's hands—and the youthful poet's hands alike.

A word on the poem's music:
Photo by Dolo Iglesias on Unsplash
Even though the poem doesn't rhyme or have dense assonance or any conspicuous music, there are a few places where the poem really sings. I particularly like the /o/ sounds in lines 3-6 with "grown over / by those grasses you find among roses. /You know. My other favorite moment was the repetition of /b/ sounds with "bed / of bark" enjambed at Line 8 to 9, and the /s/ sounds in Lines 13 and 14 with "fragrance / of slices of peach, or of rose petals" Slices is such a great, musical word, it's one to keep in mind when you're thinking of esses.

Also, a gentle reminder about Rattle:
They are a 501(c)3 public charity organization (so donate!) which produces a poetry only print magazine (with a massive 10,000 circulation) and a large website with a strong online presence. They do not charge for submissions aside from their huge $10k single poem prize contest which is still only $15 to enter in the summer. They pay their writers and are just a great, great organization for poets. Anyone who can subscribe, or make a tax-deductible donation to Rattle is highly encouraged to. If you're not in a financial position to do that, but know other who are, maybe put in a good word for Rattle. You never know, and with charities, every little bit helps. Regular readers of this blog may remember links to either Poet's Respond, their weekly feature for poems responding to breaking news from that week which is unique and awesome—providing a platform for timely poetic responses where normally poetry doesn't have the opportunity for immediacy that it once had (looong ago). Also they do a monthly Ekphrastic challenge, an have periodic calls for themes, currently they have "Postcard poems" due January 15, and "Service Workers" due April 15.

Possible writing exercises inspired by this piece:

  1. Begin your piece with the phrase "You know when high water recedes..."
  2. Write a prose vignette in which you are the poet doing the trimming of the peach branches in the yard. There has recently been a heavy rain storm (which flooded the pond out back) and you're 'chipping' the fallen limbs thinking about all the things/chores/payments/familial duties etc you have to do, but also smelling things, experiencing the sensory details of the moment.
  3. Write a piece which ends with the line "I remember them fresh from the chipper."
  4. Write a piece in which the narrator has lived in the same place for 30+ years and they stumble on something that makes them reminisce about when they first bought/made that thing. Couch this in a larger narrative (ie, have your narrator be in the process of doing something else when they discover the object and reminisce).
  5. Do an erasure poem of all the highlightable text from the page on Rattle's website. If you're not on a device that you can easily get that, use this google doc.
  6. Write a piece which includes these 5 words from the poem "Wood Chips": Pond, Driftwood, Slices, Fragrance, Grasses
  7.  Write your own piece called "Wood Chips" which is as absolutely different as you can think of. Maybe the wood chips are used for fuel to cross the Atlantic in a steamboat, maybe they're relics of our time in the far future that archaeologists are discovering, maybe wood chips are a metaphor for paper in a novel to which you the narrator escape their harsh reality. Get creative and go as far away from this pleasant ruminative experience as you can.