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Thursday, March 21, 2019  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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American Life in Poetry: ‘Housewife as Poet’ by Sally Van Doren

By Ted Kooser U.S. poet laureate, 2004-06

Until about 100 years ago, the worth of a poem was measured by how noble and elevated was its subject and its manner of delivery, but with the appearance of modernism all hell broke loose and suddenly there were all sorts of subjects one had license to write about. Here’s an example of a fine contemporary poem with a richly detailed subject that no doubt wouldn’t have seen the light of day in the 1880s or ’90s. It’s by Sally Van Doren, who lives in New York, from her 2017 book from Louisiana State University Press, titled “Promise.”

Housewife as Poet

I have scrawled audible lifelines along the edges

of the lint trap, dropping the ball of towel fuzz

in the blue bin lined with a thirteen-gallon bag.

My sons’ wardrobes lounge on their bedroom floors,

then sidle down to the basement, where I look

forward to the warmth of their waistbands

when I pluck them from the dryer.

Sometimes I wonder why my husband

worries about debt and I wish he wouldn’t.

Sometimes I wonder how high the alfalfa

will grow. Sometimes I wonder if the dog

will throw up in the night. Like my mother,

I’m learning not to tamper with anger.

It appears as reliably as the washing machine

thumps and threatens to lurch across the floor

away from the electrical outlet. Nothing’s worth

getting worked up about, except for death.

And when I think of the people I have lost,

I wish them back into their button-down shirts,

their raspberry tights.

Poem copyright 2017 by Sally Van Doren, from “Promise,” (Louisiana State University Press, 2017), and reprinted by permission of the author and publisher. American Life in Poetry is supported by the Poetry Foundation and the English department at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. We do not accept unsolicited submissions.

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