Poetry Challenge 8: In Winter in the Woods Alone

Here’s the original poem by Robert Frost.

Note ‘shadowy” – a break from the otherwise perfect meter. It’s not exactly a dactyl, because under the influence of the meter, we probably turn the ‘w’ into a vowel more or less and barely pronounce the ‘o.’ Still.

“In one tree’s overthrow” – It is inappropriate to read ‘tree’ as an unstressed syllable, I believe, despite the meter. And so we have a spondee here in the middle of the line.

in ONE TREE’S OV-er-THROW

What figures and glimmers tangled with this line in your imagination, when you looked out the window or took a drive? For me, all the images were strange and odorous and fantastical, and my poems turned out far less domestic and contemplative than Frost’s.

And now, the original poem by our late Poet Laureate:

In winter in the woods alone
Against the trees I go.
I mark a maple for my own
And lay the maple low.

At four o’clock I shoulder ax
And in the afterglow
I link a line of shadowy tracks
Across the tinted snow.

I see for Nature no defeat
In one tree’s overthrow
Or for myself in my retreat
For yet another blow.

The word is go; the time is now; post thy poems!

51 thoughts on “Poetry Challenge 8: In Winter in the Woods Alone

  1. In winter in the woods alone,
    In gloom, in dank, there rings a phone:
    A heavy black and clanky case;
    A rotary dial, a felted base.

    The fractured table on which it stands
    Shudders in the forest sands;
    A willow leans down, dripping sap;
    Around the handset tendrils wrap.

    The birch turns on its slim white waist;
    The maple spreads its hands in haste;
    The oak tree groans, the blue spruce sighs;
    “Hello? Hello!” the handset cries.

    The willow tree, for all we know,
    Answers arboreally, “Hello!”
    With twenty thousand withered tongues
    Rooted in pulp instead of lungs.

    But the phone grows tired of speaking to air
    “Oh why do I – “ fades the tinseled blare
    And mutters a minute, and comes to a stop
    And the phone and the willow let it drop.

    And who is there to find it odd?
    Beneath slick leaves, an abandoned god
    Sleeps with his head on an old hearth-stone
    In winter, in the woods alone.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Delightful! I’d sure like to know how to invent images and make characters out of objects. It seems like a lot more fun, and satisfying, than talking to the air–as the phone noted, and as I feel I do when trying to write a poem in which I am the main character.

      Question : in the second last stanza does “it” refer to their attempted conversation? I think it does, but on first reading I pictured the handset dropping, and that’s how it becomes “abandoned God.” On the other hand, if “it” is the conversation, how did the phone-god get under the slick leaves onto the hearth stone? (which I understand as the real-life setting: a burned down or otherwise destroyed house in the woods, and the only sign of human former habitation is the phone)

      Also, is “fades” intransitive here? (a poetic innovation) Or is it the crackle voice of the phone that is fading? – – which sounds right, but then how could a blare mutter? (Grammatically that would be the meaning.) Small point. Picky picky. But it’s such an almost perfect poem–perfectly delightful, too–that I want it to “work” without hesitation or question(s).

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      • “…a burned down or otherwise destroyed house in the woods, and the only sign of human former habitation is the phone”

        Yes, that’s exactly right.

        I agree, it’s usually more fun to write about something other than oneself.

        You accurately read the two meanings of “let it drop” – since the phone and the willow both “let it drop” they did it in two different senses, each appropriate to each.

        I can see how you would have trouble with a blare fading and muttering, but I think the fact that this is electronic sound (which can get turned down and become unintelligible, while still sounding like yelling or having a blaring quality) explains it.

        I am more concerned that you read the phone as the abandoned god. Since I used “in winter in the woods alone” for each of them, one at the beginning and one at the end, and since two things can’t both be alone in the same place at the same time, that is a problem in my presentation. I need to rethink that.

        Thanks!

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    • Well, this was really fun. 🙂 I was also thinking it would be amazing as an illustrated book for older children, or whoever! It would be great for memorizing and reciting aloud too. The zaniness is well contained by the smooth narrative voice, the confidence and regularity of the rhyme and rhythm, and the ample vocabulary.

      I had to puzzle over the god a bit. I suppose it is a deceased human, the prior owner of the home and phone?

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      • “Zaniness Well-Contained.” I think that might be the title of my published poetry volume!

        Well… I guess I was hoping that the mention of the ‘hearth’ would be a great clue. And in the usual Christian literary uses of old mythology, the gods are often seen as incarnations of whatever it is they are gods of. Does the final stanza come clear with these considerations?

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        • Mmmm. . . is the abandoned god a television? Forgive me, I feel like I’m probably being dense. This poem remains one of my favorites of yours either way. 🙂

          Also, I apologize for having neglected to respond to your question before now! Yesterday something reminded me I had left some conversational threads here hanging.

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          • Oh, I’m being mysterious. No, it’s simply meant to be an actual, literal household god. “God of the hearth,” you know? I wondered, if a household were abandoned, what would happen to the household god. Perhaps as the house decomposed and became part of the woodland, he too would sink down to a banished sleep, but his fitful dreaming might momentarily bring to life some of the old pieces of the household left lying about.

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  2. In winter in the woods alone
    far blackbirds pattern arcs of flight
    beyond these black bare branching boughs
    on pewter painted cloudskin sky.

    I wend beneath in mirrored guise,
    trailing arcs in snow, on ice,
    and note that though most color’s washed,
    here light’s a fine and even glaze
    so mild a soul could drink repose
    if the wind didn’t blow
    so cold.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This gets better on each reading, Leah. Not in the sense that I had to dredge for virtues, but that I was still making connections. I loved the way we moved carefully forward in each line, expanding the meaning gradually and carefully.

      One weird little thing: I keep reading “arcs of light” (which doesn’t work) because the ‘f’ at the beginning of ‘flight’ disappears into the ‘f’ at the end of ‘of.’ It’s also a very static phrase, where you could be conveying movement.

      “Pewter painted cloudskin sky” – unforgettable line.

      The different, mirrored “arcs” in each stanza – real aesthetic pleasure, there, the tying together of imaginative regions in the mind.

      The washed color (I used the same word!) and the “fine and even glaze” – I know exactly what you mean. Well observed, well evoked.

      I love the idea of the ending. The “turn” is also a fulfillment, the opening of the second eye. The feelings snag pleasurably on it, adjust, and look back at the whole poem differently, like someone looking back to see their tracks in the snow.

      The actual wording of the end has the problem you noted. The penultimate line struggles with its meter. I don’t have a problem with the sudden shortness of “so cold” – is what it means and all that. But the shortening of the meter in the previous line anticipates the meter change, and spoils the effect. Especially since it’s the only dactylic line in the whole poem, so it draws attention to itself, taking away attention from the last line.

      From your description of your writing process, I’m guessing you’ve already tried different combinations of words for the penultimate line, but perhaps you could re-open that?

      You might try personifying the wind in some subtle way. (That would be very Robert Frost of you.) How about the word ‘forbore’?

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      • Thanks as ever for the careful reading and thoughtful reply. You are absolutely right about arcs of flight. I don’t know how I didn’t notice it before, but that’s almost impossible to say! It’s also true that it’s a static phrase– in prior versions my blackbirds swirled or soared and even flitted, but I like “pattern” because it helps, I think, make concrete the connection– what is first patterned is then mirrored– and also because it fits with my other arty words (painted, glaze, even washed). It’s part of my speaker’s way of seeing. So I’m thinking I’ll keep it all though more movement would probably be good. I think I can fix the pronunciation difficulty with a simple change of preposition– see revision to be posted below.

        Thanks also for your help with the penultimate line. I’m realizing more that it really only works if I rely on charity from the reader to speak the poem in the way I hope, and I think we can do better than that! I’m changing it as well. I had tried writing it several different ways before, but the problem was that every thing I tried to use to lengthen the line seemed sort of complaining, like my speaker was merely griping about the weather, lol. But thinking of personifying the wind (or air in this case) helped with that.

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  3. First stanza ‘s a knockout! A new way of seeing. Second stanza a close second: the arcs, the washed colors, the “fine and even glaze” – – yes indeed! Recommend a comma after “mild” and am still thinking about the tone change in the last two lines. I enjoyed reading this,Leah. Did it take long? Many drafts? (feels like it; careful work here). Or did it pour our once you got to “black bare branching boughs”? Another question: did it come from memory, a recent experience, or pure imagination. I’m asking because I’m having trouble with this challenge. Each time I try a second and third line I want to throw the whole thing away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Albert! It was a pleasure to write. It took me about six hours, which is about what I tend to average for our challenges– I do about two or three hours in a block over the weekend if I can manage it, until I have something of a first draft, and then refine and rewrite at odd moments during the week. I actually hadn’t realized these were “due” today; I thought we had until Saturday, but I had coincidentally finished it this morning.

      I think it went through about ten or twelve drafts, which sounds like a lot (I guess?) but most of my drafts are more outpourings of ideas and images and likely words that I just shape and reshape and rearrange until a form starts to emerge and things begin to cohere. Then once I have a sense of what “it” (the poem) is, I work on refining it into being itself. I guess my approach to composition is very like Alana’s approach to literary critique in general.

      What started this particular poem off was writing out the first line we were given and then jotting down words and images that came to me in association with it– I think I began with “blackbirds”, “boughs”, “black”, the idea of light as an even glaze and a handful of other things which were subsequently cut.

      I will have to ponder that comma after mild. Regarding the change of tone in the last couple lines, I’m a little uncertain about it myself. The last line is, I guess obviously, supposed to be a bit abrupt, but my hope for the second to last line is that it be read somewhat slowly, lingeringly, with a touch of melancholy, “da-da-DUM da-da-DUM”, and that even though it is shorter than the other lines it would sound with a kind of length. My worry is that although it can, I think, be read this way there may not be enough of, hmm, a rhythmic precedent in the poem to naturally dictate that this be so; it might simply be read as conversational and clipped, which would feel out of place and be unfortunate.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’d like to withdraw the comma comment. It’s not even a grammar issue. I thought a comma there could function as a kind of musical notation, a guide when reading, to indicate a slight slight pause. But now I can see that it might cause other problems. “Don’t mess with a winning game plan” was drilled into me early on. I have ignored or forgotten too many of those lessons.

        I do think that part of the pleasure in reading your poem is following the intricate grammatical structures that both hide and reveal that lovely, surprising imagery. Thanks for explaining the composition process. I admire that approach. I am too undisciplined.for it even though I know that it’s a pretty sure path to success.

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        • Ah, but I think I know what you were picking up on about the comma. I think the desirability of a slight pause there might not be obvious until a second reading, but like you said, since grammar doesn’t really call for the comma it might cause other problems.

          I enjoyed talking about the process. Thanks for the engaging questions! How does composition work for you?

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          • Intuitive, emotiion-driven, fast magic writing (not really, but let’s pretend) ; starts from an experience usually, unless from something else–as below, when I finally saw that first challenge line differently and could connect it to a memory I had forgotten. I’m not putting it out as a poem, yet, but it’s like many of the poems that I have liked in the past which I can read quickly and a get an experience from.

            LOST TOGETHER

            It’s winter. In the woods, alone,
            I wait for light. The darkness waits.
            Trees stand, still,
            Listening. We are ears together
            Listening in the night. We hold hands,
            The trees and I and the dark,
            The way things and man and
            emptiness can when we are lost
            Together counting on fire
            From the east
            To warm and inspire.

            Liked by 1 person

            • If it’s not a poem, it’s the most poetic prose I’ve read in a while. 🙂

              Your version of the first line sets the tone of quiet tension that works itself out until the end. The short sentences continue that effect. Every word walks the line between concrete and universal, putting us in touch with the mystery of being.

              If I could only tell you how my spirits rose and affections surged at the antepenultimate and penultimate lines. I don’t think you need the last line at all. I wanted to be left floating.

              Liked by 1 person

            • It was fascinating to hear more about how you write! I think that must be part of why your poems characteristically have such freshness and flow to them, of which this is a good example! I read it over several times with enjoyment, both with the last line and with it omitted, and I believe I concur with Alana about it feeling freer without– and no meaning is lost that way since it’s there, implied, in the east. . .

              Lovely work. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  4. Revision

    “Blackbirds”

    In winter in the woods alone
    far blackbirds pattern arcs in flight
    beyond these black bare branching boughs
    on pewter painted cloudskin sky.

    I wend beneath in mirrored guise,
    trailing arcs in snow, on ice,
    and note that though most color’s washed,
    here light’s a fine and even glaze
    so mild a soul could drink repose
    if the air made cease it’s wind to blow
    so cold

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  5. Revision 2

    “Blackbirds”

    In winter in the woods alone
    far blackbirds pattern arcs in flight
    beyond these black bare branching boughs
    on pewter painted cloudskin sky.

    I wend beneath in mirrored guise,
    trailing arcs in snow, on ice,
    and note that though most color’s washed,
    here light’s a fine and even glaze
    so mild a soul could drink repose
    if air made cease it’s wind to blow
    so cold.

    Like

      • In spite of Alana’s excellent analysis, I find myself going back to the first version (except for “of flight” – – much smoother now). My reaction has to do with the fact that now the meter works too well. So I pictured separating the final two lines (first version) from the big stanzas, creating a closing couplet whose metrical and tone change might not bother any more. In fact, now it feels appropriate: the two faster moving feet and the conversational tone, followed by the jarring but honest two-word expression, frame the formal painting above, and for me (“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself”) * emphasize its qualities by contrast, almost as if there were two persons in the poem, the second listening and briefly commenting on the first’s experience. But these are just thoughts I’m passing on, not recommendations.

        *I love this line from Whitman–probably the only one that stayed with me from school.

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        • One thing I keep thinking about is that the more we get to know any given work that we are critiquing, the harder it is to gauge the reaction of a first-time reader. It’s true that you could get used to an irregularity and learn to like it, but that risks limiting the full appreciation of the poem to a set of readers “in the know.” If we are writing poetry for each other, fine, but if we are trying to practice a public art then I think that the initial difficulties we had when we were first-time readers have to be kept in view.

          Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, well done. I re-read it with pleasure not decreasing. The second line flows now, that’s good.

      I wasn’t sure I liked ‘made cease’ – it’s an unusual construction – but I’m liking it better after several readings.

      Still, what do you think of “would cease” – it has attitude and alliteration, lol?

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    • P.S. I like the metrical fix. The last line really does its thing now.

      Also, in the penultimate line, ‘it’s’ should be ‘its’. (Possessive, not contraction of ‘it is.’)

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  6. Alana, I very much enjoyed reading about your early adventures with stories and poems. I especially liked the account of your mother buying those books. What a family to grow up in! Your grandmother encouraging you to read C.S. Lewis, your father’s being inspired by Tolkein, your schooling happening in a safe, relaxed environment which allowed you to read read read.

    Myself, I didn’t have the courage to try speech competition, but like your experience, “The Hound of Heaven” was the first poem that caught my attention as a young person, and “Lepanto” the second. I don’t remember any others. The priests tried to get us interested in “The Donkey,” but we boys would have none of it. Maybe “Enoch Arden” registered (that name made me want to find out about him) And of course “The Raven.” I didn’t even remember how I responded to Chesterton’s long poem until you talked about it. But Francis Thompson, he was a wonder to me—the idea of God pursuing him like a hunting animal, and him running away “down the nights and down the days/…down the arches of the years /…down the labyrinthine ways” of his mind – that really got to me. Here I was, a good Catholic boy, freshman in a Jesuit high school, thinking about someone running AWAY from God. I was so surprised, but also curious, that I kept reading that poem on my own even after we had finished with it in class. It wasn’t until my early 20’s, depressed, a college dropout in a way that is a bit different from usual but just as devastating to a sense of worth, that I understood about the “labyrinthine” paths of the mind. But early on I loved the drama of the poem, and the complex pictures, and the sounds.

    What’s more surprising is that I keep coming back to the poem “down the arches” of my own years. Just the other day I took a look at it, remembering how it felt to think that God would pursue someone who not only was apathetic but had walked away (disillusioned, or, better, under the illusion that failures in the church and its representatives subtracted something significant from God’s presence in the world). And worse still, even now—as I try to recover a sense of the sacred in a church setting—I find myself wanting to run away and find meaning somewhere more profound, more real, more up-to-date. Crazy, right? . When I am standing with the others in the dark church, with candles, incense, hymns, icons as indicators, everything is peaceful, beautiful, right. But later, I wonder if I’ll ever return. It turns out that I do, and maybe that has something to do with what Thompson was describing in his poem. All I know is, that single piece of writing has stayed with me since I was 14, and God has been staying after me. Presumptuous to think, I know. .

    The other big influence was Gerard Manley Hopkins, and I could write you a lot of personal stories, my stories, about him. But that’s not relevant here. What is curious to me, however, is that you were so influenced by sermons. I was too, strongly, but in a negative way. During retreats, the Jesuit priest would paint vivid word pictures of the crucifixion, then tell us about purgatory and hell in some detail. I managed to withstand the effects of such imagery, but barely. I submerged them. When I got to college and read Jonathan Edwards’ now infamous (my take) sermon, the feelings of fear and revulsion came back. Later on, much later, I found that James Joyce described quite accurately in “A Portrait of the Artist…” my own high school retreat experience.

    So there you have it, two persons of different generations, different backgrounds, different schooling, different almost everything—two persons who were touched by one poem at an important time. Interesting. More than. I know you preferred “The Snowflake” and still have a special love for Chesterton, but it made me feel less remote from the modern world to hear that Thompson’s long poem was one of the first you liked too.

    Although I never read fairy tales as a child, never had them read to me, I was delighted to know what they meant to you. I hadn’t occurred to me that something could be both logical and paradoxical. The Jesuits trained us in logic, but paradox to them was just another form of logic. Everything was logical in that world. Aristotle and Thomas Aquinas were our guides. Paradox was a way of explaining faith, not an insight into human experience. I don’t mean to put down my teachers and friends; I was one of them. But by the age of 30, when my little family and I went to live in Greece for three years (Fulbright exchange), I had just begun to recognize mystery and to experience wonder. I was ready for something “green, Other, old-young.” I found it over there, in the light and in the eternal art. Strange turn of events: man goes abroad to teach, but becomes the one taught. Not exactly a fairy tale, but it seemed a bit otherworldly at the time.

    But even more important for me was what you said about Tolkien, “It’s about longing. That vision of glory, still. The images you can’t get enough of. They are not of appetite. They enlarge, painfully almost, your capacity for longing – for eros, I guess – and then give you a vision of something that could satisfy that longing, and then enlarge your capacity to receive it again.” I loved reading that. It’s what I think all poetry should do.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for opening those parts of your experience up to me, Albert. It is indeed a wonder that we have unsuspectingly been sharing this seminal literary experience all this time!

      Hm, do you like William Morris’ ‘Haystack in the Floods’? It’s another I read over and over in my late teens.

      Yes, my family was special in many ways. I think my parents overextended themselves trying to do things differently, to follow a vision. There was stress involved in that, and really damaging things resulted from the stress and the uncertainty. I guess the 80’s were kind of a time for religious weirdness. But at the same time, their efforts weren’t fruitless either. If the “space” in which I had my schooling wasn’t safe from certain dangers, at least it was safe from the sorts of dangers that kill love of art and literature, and that’s so rare now. I’m failing at that, with my own children. Electronics invade; I don’t know how to take up arms against them because I feel that I would have to become as extreme as my parents were and that’s not the sort of thing that perpetuates itself intergenerationally. It’s the kind of thing that begins a pendulum-swing. Leah will probably know what I mean.

      Sermons: Oh yes, I know what you mean about the sermons that, as literature, would fall squarely into the “Horror” genre: obscene stuff, really, going under the name of piety. Our pastors couldn’t get away with doing that too often – they had to live with the people. However, they would call in evangelists for week-long meetings. Usually this would happen semi-annually. And it was the job of the evangelists to get all fire and brimstone. Such sermons, the related scriptures, the resulting beliefs and fears – all this made up my deepest and most desperate religious struggle. I’ve had many moments of transitory atheism, believe me.

      I know why Edwards’ infamous sermon is infamous. However, he preached it when he was young, and while he never actually recanted what he said there, he did learn many lessons about fake piety in the revival that followed, and in its excesses. It is those later writings I loved – the writings where the scientist in him (he was a naturalist who wrote a famous paper on spiders) came out in theological and philosophical enquiries. I probably would find him somewhat limiting now, as he was a follower and admirer of John Locke philosophically speaking, and imported some of that psychological reductionism into into his assessments of human nature under the influence of religious affections. However, he also had some really original insights and made some very fine judgments. I keep waiting for the day when someone who isn’t looking to bolster their Calvinist beliefs, but instead is just honestly inquiring into issues of will and freedom, latches on to his amazing thesis in “The Freedom of the Will.” It would help a lot in the questions of Heaven and Hell and salvation.

      Church – well, it’s a conundrum. Like all human institutions, it seems to be made for the generality of men rather than the exceptional. Most people love the Social Club aspect – I hate it. Most people are too impatient to have any religious life located within their intellect. I absolutely require it. Most people need to express their religion practically – in baking bread, and cleaning floors and the comfortable weekly round. I experience repetition as a special sort of persecution the universe is waging against me, and whenever I try to do anything practical, I become the herald and bringer of Disaster. For most people, human nature itself, and their near-unmovability in their habits, provides balance against the temptation of religious extremism that would result if they took the preachers too seriously. I have little such protection. At the same time, I have always experienced religious longing – the desire for the divine – and for me this is the center of the religious life, what keeps me going. Yet you cannot talk about this sort of thing with anyone at church, if you want to escape platitudes and glazed eyes – or worse, averted eyes and flags going up behind people’s facial expressions.

      I feel sure that a divine life flows through the Church. I feel sure the generality of men will be saved by their participation, such as it is, in Church as they experience it. And yet I can hardly stand to attend.

      For 30-some odd years I was faithful to church attendance. I flung myself into the breach over and over again. All sorts of trauma and exhaustion built up. Becoming Orthodox kept me going for a while. There are streams here that you don’t find elsewhere. But the trauma is still there, and Orthodox people feed it, too. And now I barely attend anymore. That’s the simple truth of it. I feel Orthodox, I think Orthodox, I love the worship space and the tradition and the literature of Orthodox Christianity. I love the Christ of Orthodox Christianity. And every few months I attend Liturgy in a little chapel, where people like me gether quietly to worship with silent and musical ardor, and don’t bother one another too much. I’m sort of a recluse, you see. I hardly ever leave my house.

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  7. Dear My Dear,

    I’M REMEMBERING HOW

    In winter in the woods alone
    We used to walk for hours
    Without concern for briars
    Poison ivy, ticks, or telephone

    Interruptions. There were no towers
    Then to broadcast distant voices
    Or sort out driving choices.
    We warmed to silence, or showers

    Of snowy words, soft and blowing
    From overheated hearts.
    Or, if thoughts in fits and starts
    Came trudging to our lips, showing

    Our youthful minds, easily distracted
    By what we saw in nature
    or how we viewed each other–
    Outside, alone, we were plain attracted,

    With or without talking ,didn’t matter.
    (There we could read the signs)
    Were we Valentines
    Or friends? Tonight the first. Later, latter..

    Liked by 1 person

    • Forced ending.. I’ll come back later.. But for now, I’ll change the poem’s “later” to “always the.” That should do it. I’m printing it as a card to be served with coffee tomorrow.

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  8. Revision #___??

    A CARD FOR TODAY
    02/14/16

    In winter in the woods we’d walk alone
    among the hills for hours
    Without concern for briars
    Poison ivy, ticks, or those telephone

    Interruptions. There were no towers
    Then to broadcast distant voices
    Or sort out dinner choices.
    We warmed to silence, or to showers

    Of snowy words, soft but blowing
    strong from overheated hearts.
    Yet if thoughts in fits and starts
    Came trudging to our lips, showing

    Youthful minds easily distracted
    By what we saw in nature
    or how each viewed the other–
    Still, out there, we simply were attracted,

    and as we walked the hills grew flatter,
    the winter brighter (signs!)
    Were we friends, or Valentines?
    Yes. Both. And today let’s be the latter.

    Liked by 1 person

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