Instead of Planting Roses

I’ve been wondering lately about the word “best.” Why is it used so often instead of, say, “valuable.” A few weeks ago in The New York Times, David Orr told us which were the ten best books of poetry published in 2018. First I wondered how Mr. Orr found time to read the thousand or so books of poetry published in 2018. Then I wondered what his definition of best was and about his criteria. Neither accompanied his article.

That’s when I started brooding … about why for so many things “best” even matters?

What’s the best restaurant in town?
What’s the best religion?
Which of your nine cats is your best cat?
Since all the snowflakes are different, which is, at least for now, the best snowflake?

Mary Oliver passed away last week. She was our poet of yes.

Was “Wild Geese” Mary Oliver’s best poem? Or was it “The Journey”? Or, or, or? If you Google her, you’ll discover a site that lists her “best” poems. Not on that list were many that nourished the souls who turned to her poems for something much more important than deciding which was her best.

This is not my best poem…

Instead of Planting Roses

He’d work the garden until dark,
now and then looking up

to see if she was looking out
the window. She’d loved roses.

After two years, he gave up.
started sleeping on the left side,

and instead of planting roses,
filled the plot with tomatoes,

beans, zucchini, and asparagus.
The next year he added eggplant

then mixed in impatiens, pansies,
obedient plant, asters, autumn joy.

He loved to be surprised by a tomato
showing up within a mass of lobelia,

to discover peas climbing a tangle
of cosmos, lilies, and cleome,

to find a squash under the geraniums.

–Jack Ridl

First published in Poetry East

Subsequently published in Practicing to Walk Like a Heron (Wayne State University Press)

The Lake Michigan Mermaid illustrated by Meridith Ridl and written by Linda Nemec Foster and Anne-Marie Oomen has been named a Michigan Notable Book for 2019!

On April 1 (perfect!) (yipes, just 2ish months away) my new book, St. Peter and the Goldfinch, will be released by Wayne State University Press. Preordering is up at that link, and Julie says stay tuned for news of a PARTY!


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Visit Reader’s World in Holland, The Bookman in Grand Haven, and The Book Nook & Java Shop in Montague to find Jack’s books in West Michigan.

Jack’s page on Amazon.

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Click here for Jack’s entire collection, In Time — poems for the current administration.

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37 thoughts on “Instead of Planting Roses

  1. Whether or not this is your best poem, it is one that touches me . Thanks for posting it. Jim.

    Ps – I will be in Holland in a few weeks – would be honored to buy you a beer or whiskey or whatever at Butch’s so we can catch up on life a bit.

    Sent from my iPhone


  2. A wonderful post, Jack. “Valuable” is an important distinction; meaningful, and contributing. But all our lives we add up points and stack and compare our ways into and out of the tyranny of sideways glances, rather than aim at something ahead worth reaching toward. And I did not say “for,” as in “to grasp.” I think we need something to move toward always; a direction to recognize from which the light comes. Sent from my iPhone


    • Wise, Beth, so very very wise.
      Let’s not have a goal to get to. Let’s keep going toward.
      A kind of “towardness.”
      So so wise.
      thank youuuuuu

  3. Thanks for the comments on “best,” Jack. This drives me nuts too. It’s right up there with headlines in second person, e.g. “What you’re getting wrong about . . . ”

    But thanks also for this poem and this series. I don’t often comment, but I always check them out, and find them a real resource in this worrisome time.

    • Man, Jeff, am I ever have your companionship in what makes me nuts!
      Never feel obligated to comment. It’s been an affirmation and a joy
      knowing I’m writing to you, not one of the “unknown friends” I
      “write to.”
      I don’t know if I’ve ever told you that your poems are among the
      ones I read to get me into “that space.”
      My deep gratitude.
      PS. Your comment about second person reminded me of a priceless Jonathan
      Winter rant about “We.” “How are WE feeling today?”

    • I accept your award and have to thank all those who drive me nuts with their “best of” notions! : )

      And am I ever made happy knowing that you love this one. Please know how much that kind of response
      supports the project!

  4. William Kittredge titled an anthology he edited with Annick Smith, The Last Best Place: A Montana Anthology. I like to imagine he did so with a twinkle in his eye, knowing the “fights” which would ensue.

    • Well, from what I can tell from many and from you, he just might be right.

      We heard him years ago at a poetry conference. He gave a hilarious and long
      talk/rant about “POETRY AMERICA”! : )

  5. It’s the season of “best of”s. Argh! Thank you for this antidote–and the wonderful poem. Both remind me of the beauty of life surrounded by what is valuable and of how newness grows out of letting go. And letting go…and letting go…going now to practice opening my hands…

  6. Thank you for brooding on best, since I have spent many hours, even days, there myself. Best can be debilitating for an artist. Back in 2002 a man announced during a showing that if all my paintings looked like “this one” I would be very successful. A double whammy. I never dared go near that subject again for another 10 years! Hahahaha!

    (So glad he rolled over to the other side! As it was meant to be)

    • The stuff we have to nod to and then go scream into the netherworld.
      I was lucky to have been influenced by those who knew value lay elsewhere.
      However, our clothespins painting is by far your best. Just sayin’

  7. Brother Jack…Gracias for the “not so best poem”…big smile and grateful heart as I read the poem with my morning coffee watching the sun wake up our funky Santa Fe neighborhood…peace ta

    • Oh that neighborhood is sooooooo lucky to have you guys there.
      And I’m so lucky to have you as my very best friend. Don’t tell.
      Peace for sure

  8. [image: Boot-sm.JPG] Jack —

    I love your not-best poem! It could be of a bookend for “A Girl’s Garden “. Today I walked by something (attached) that started a poem in my head. Let’s grab a beer soon.


    • I couldn’t open what you attached. Send it via email.
      So glad you loved that poem. I do, too. : )
      I’m so glad we met at the best place to worship.
      Beer. Soon. Yeah.

  9. Perhaps not your ‘best’ poem. Not sure why that matters…or even applies for that matter. I’ll leave that up to the author. I do not ever care to be a judge of stuff…it causes me needless anxiety of which I have enough for sure.

    I do know these words of yours, connected in a way that someone, somewhere, sometime decided that to do so would be known as poetry, gave me permission to lay down perfection. Needed that. Again. Always. Great reminder. And maybe the ‘best’ reminder I’ll get today.

    Thanks, Jack Ridl. XO


    • So good to hear that you set aside perfection. So much that nourishes us is set
      aside because of these oppressive applications of perfect, best, good, great, tops and on and on, none
      of which touch what is needed and what is valuable and what nourishes the ole soul.
      How this culture got caught up in evaluating and judging to me is insanity.
      Again, so glad you put that stifling stuff aside.

  10. oh the tyranny of best. how it gets in the way of everything. i adore you, dear Jack, and the equanimity of you, and the humility of you and the defiance of you. and this poem, well, i adore it, too, its willingness to speak of failure and then speak of it again with such great tenderness it becomes gift.

    • Oh dear. How can I respond to my “Sister’s” lovingly tender affirmation?
      I don’t know. I’m never at my best when this touched, moved, grateful.
      I’m so lucky to have you.
      What you describe is so very very you. You are defiance at its uh, at it’s most courageous.

  11. Dear Jack, thank you for your mind-opening sentences about ”best”. I think that is a problem here in Germany as well. Thank you again for mentioning Mary Oliver: I like her poems, too.
    ’Best’ wishes,

    • “Best” can become a tyranny. It has taken many a soul.
      Thank you, Bernd, for your affirming response. And though
      I am saddened that the plague of best resides also in
      Germany, I am heartened by your recognition of the
      harm it can cause.
      Again, thank you.

  12. Okay . . . I am way behind in my emails as I have been preparing life on the home front so as to be gone for ten days. Am at the airport for a 6:20 flight to catch a 5-day cruise (yes, Rubin gets just about anything he wants these days!) Anyway, I love this posting! “Best” I so dislike that word—and you nailed all the reasons why! Thank you. You brought a smile to my face! (And I do really like this poem!!) Mary


    • I’m really glad you and I dislike the damaging misuse of that word.
      Thanks for telling me.
      And here’s to a wonderful and wonderfully deserved cruise!!!!!!

  13. I remember an interview with Ed Albee where he said (paraphrasing here), “Nobody should be threatened by excellence. My God, I wish there were more excellent playwrights and poets. The world would be a better place.” We’re not in competition with anyone–you’re this beautiful voice placing us in a garden, lifting us and setting us down in your wonderful imaginative world. We all thank you, brother… Keep talking.

    • Whatever that word means. However, I think along with Linda Pastan
      that the world would be a better place if there were simply more people who hadn’t had poetry stolen from
      them by the excellence purveyors. Albee, Orr living back in Emily D’s day would have dismissed her immediately. All
      those guys do is believe what others say and then apply it to the rest of us. Jorie Graham told an audience what
      it takes to write an excellent poem (like she does!). When she finished, Linda P turned to her and said, “My god,
      Jorie, if I had had you as a teacher, I would have never again written a poem.” Bill Stafford said of critics,
      “Those are their poems.” Wow the implication of that, eh!!!!
      See you soon, and believe me when I say that you have been so important in keeping me going.

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