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A Blog by Poet Elizabeth Oxley

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  • Elizabeth Oxley

How Did We Get Here?: Day 7 - Marin Poetry Center Online Covid Confinement Poetry Retreat

Updated: Jun 21, 2020

June 21, 2020


Happy Father's Day to those of you celebrating, and welcome to our final day of hanging out together. I've loved talking about poetry this week. Thank you also to Marin Poetry Center and the other retreat hosts.

Like me, perhaps you still find the global situation baffling. Within four short months, the radius of our daily activities has diminished. Many homes and neighborhoods still rest in relative silence. Days no longer escalate into familiar patterns.

We understand, logically, how we got here. It's the degree and pace of change that's difficult to comprehend. We talk with friends and family about origins, about the time before.

Recently, I've been thinking about origins as they pertain to language. How did we come to use certain words and phrases in everyday conversation? We don't pause very often to think about this, and I understand why. When something grows familiar, we stop being curious about it.

Sometimes, though, I wonder: Do we know what we're saying?

I have a friend who has a medical condition called pudendal neuralgia. It's a pain condition sourced in the pelvis. Pudendal refers to pudendum. According to Merriam-Webster, pudendum means this: the external genital organs of a human being and especially of a woman—usually used in plural. That's fine. Read farther down, and you'll find this: New Latin, singular of Latin pudenda, from neuter plural of pudendus, gerundive of pudēre, to be ashamed.

To be ashamed. Every time this woman speaks the name of her condition, she's speaking words that historically link her female identity to a sense of shame.

Recently, I was in a business relationship with a man who loved using animal analogies. "I don't have a dog in this fight," he'd say about any decision in which he didn't have a preference about the outcome. It always bothered me. Why, I wondered, are we still speaking dogs into fights?

I'm not saying my friend shouldn't speak the name of her medical condition. I also know mentioning a dog fight isn't the same as organizing one. But I strongly believe that our choice of everyday words helps normalize or disrupt cultural patterns. Understanding how we arrived at our lexicon can help bring healing or revolution. Or a healing revolution.

Why does this matter to poetry? Understanding word origins gives us greater shades of meaning with which to play in our writing. There's a tremendous amount of poetic content to mine in the history of words. More importantly, poets are sensitives, able to see and record the invisible. They—we, you—are critical to our evolution as a global, compassionate community. To the best of our ability, we need to stay awake to our words.

I know I'm preaching to the choir. (If you're curious about the origins of that particular statement, click here.) But the world is going through major changes. Let's change consciously, and take our poetry and words with us.

I appreciate you spending time with me this week. Feel free to say hello via the contact form located at the bottom of my main site page. Thanks also to Marin Poetry Center.

Be good, poets.


I love poet Wislawa Szymborska's take on the poetic journey. Check out her poem below.

by Wislawa Szymborska

Some people— that means not everyone. Not even most of them, only a few. Not counting school, where you have to, and poets themselves, you might end up with something like two per thousand.

Like— but then, you can like chicken noodle soup, or compliments, or the color blue, your old scarf, your own way, petting the dog.

Poetry— but what is poetry anyway? More than one rickety answer has tumbled since that question first was raised. But I just keep on not knowing, and I cling to that like a redemptive handrail.

—Translated by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh


Many common sayings we use have fascinating histories. Click here to explore a few, then return to this writing prompt.

  1. Choose one of the sayings from the article you've just read.

  2. Write a poem that conveys the saying's history.

  3. Alternatively, think about how the saying applies to your life right now (e.g., you've turned a blind eye to the laundry, or you recently read your spouse or child the riot act). Write a poem about it. You might opt to use the saying in the body of the poem or somewhere in the poem's title.


Borderlands: Texas Poetry Review is an Austin-based literary review that publishes poetry, visual art, reviews, and essays. Click here for submission guidelines. This review seeks outwardly-directed poetry that exhibits social, political, geographical, historical or spiritual awareness. (More of that, please.)


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