Teaching Writing

Shirley McPhillips: Why I Write


For Poet Shirley McPhillips, writing is about connecting with poems of the past and forming new relationships with readers. The Poem Central author, and member of the NWP Writers Council, shares what writing means to her. Originally published on October 13, 2015
Headshot of Shirley McPhillips

Let yourself be silently drawn by the stronger pull of what you really love. It will not lead you astray. —Rumi

I write poems because I have read poems. Still do. The voices of poets down through the ages, leaving indelible trails, demanding that we hear, think, imagine, connect.

Reading poems, some life blood is stirred. Some sensory nerve touched. Some curiosity tweaked. Some kinship sparked. Some empathy felt. An exchange takes place. An intimacy. Writer and reader meet in a wordful estuary where the salt of the poem mixes with the freshwater of reading.

I am reminded of a class of middle schoolers in New York’s Chinatown who were new to our country. Often, missing home, grieving for what they left behind, they seemed quiet and melancholy. The teacher read aloud poems she hoped would remind them of the joy and beauty to be found in ordinary things of the world. Sara Teasdale’s “Night” struck a chord.

Stars over snow,
	   And in the west a planet
	Swinging below a star—
	   Look for a lovely thing and you will find it,
	It is not far—
	   It never will be far.

Students copied this poem in their notebooks. It became a touchstone as they searched their new home and their memories for “lovely things.” Sophia found something “lovely” in the attitude and actions of her grandmother.

Lovely comes from help.
	A beggar lay down on the grass.
	My grandmother walks quickly, 
	took him to home.
	Took out food, let beggar eat.
	Took out tea, let beggar drink.
	Beggar eats like wolves and tigers.
	Gave money to beggar. Beggar thanked
	my grandmother so much!
	Stars laughing, birds singing.
	Everything is happy.
	For my grandmother takes pleasure
	in helping.

Rui took a playful run at the “Night Sky.” His fresh voice creates startling and vibrant images.

It's night again
	Silence everywhere.
	But in the sky, it is very lively.
	Moonlady reflects shining light.
	Starboys make beautiful pictures.
	Oh, no! Greedy cat eats the moon.
	Shooting stars run fast to save it.

Recognizing, attuning, responding, connecting. This is the work of poetry. This is how it shows us a way we might face life.