Carting Baggage Into Poems

Let’s face it, many of us mine our lives for our poetry. It’s what we know best and it’s easy to write about, especially when we’re first starting out. The pits are familiar, the contours known to us by heart. It’s a great place to learn to play with language.

The trick is to find the universal in the personal. I’m not saying I was a fast learner. My Crap Poem file is vastly thicker than my good one, but I did get some keepers out of my early years.

Here’s one of them. Its genesis was getting to know a person who seemed lovely and then … wow. I originally named the poem after her which was a bad idea. It was also a bad idea because, as you can see from the first draft below, the original poem was too obscure.

Person’s Name Was Here

We all come with suitcases trundling
behind us, some stuffed so full, cords
hold them tight, you can see the threads
fraying, how taut they pull. Others
like scared old ladies, carry theirs around
their necks, stray feathers slipping, leaving
a path so they can retrace their steps. Or is it
that for some, their way is so impeded, they knick
every building they pass, a little chink here, a
welt there, it’s not much in the abstract, more art
than hansel and gretel, till it’s you the edge catches.

So the first thing I did was change the title. I chose one to help provide context for the poem’s meaning. And of course, I read the poem aloud, something I always do since it allows me to hear the flow of the language, or in the case above, the cumbersomeness. I questioned what was essential for my meaning in all that description, an exercise I always submit my poems to. You can see below which phrases made the cut. You can also see that I decided to rearrange the opening, starting small (purse-size issues), then moving increasingly larger.

I also changed the perspective in this last version. In the original, I’d made the claim that everyone has baggage, big baggage at that. How to win friends among your readers! It’s not even what I intended. I wanted the poem to be about those who carry serious baggage. We all know a few. We may even recognize ourselves. But it’s better for readers to do that than for me to hit them over the head.

This is where careful questioning of the role of every word in a poem helps. I also do it for sound, but I’ll look at that in a future posting.

So here’s the current final version:


Many carry theirs like scared old ladies’ purses,
tight around their necks, holding close.
Others come with suitcases trundling behind,
some barely held shut by fraying cords,
stray issues slipping out to form
a wispy path in the night, the kind
girls with hollow eyes follow. Is yours so big
your way is impeded and you can’t help
but nick every building you pass, a little chink here,
a welt there? It’s not much in the abstract, more art
than Hansel and Gretel, till it’s us your edge catches.




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