Thursday, April 11, 2013

Poetry A-Z: P is for Penitent

I had a long list of P-inspired words but kept coming back to this one, largely because I kept thinking of Sean Connery in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade uttering (while shot!) "Only the penitent man shall pass." (He did say it earlier in the movie, but this is scene that sticks in my head. It's a great example for vocabulary learning for all you visual learners!

PENITENT - feeling or showing sorrow and regret for having done wrong

Let's start with the poem that the books today build from.

This Is Just To Say
by William Carlos Williams

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

Poem ©William Carlos Williams. All rights reserved.

There are some who call this "the dreaded plum poem." I happen to like "This is Just to Say". Was the speaker truly remorseful? It's hard to say. Would I have forgiven the writer? Eventually, but I would have been really aggravated to find and read that note. I can just imagine it scribbled on a Post-It note stuck to the refrigerator. (See, visual imagery!) 

After sharing this poem there's no way you could skip a reading of Joyce Sidman's incredible book THIS IS JUST TO SAY: POEMS OF APOLOGY AND FORGIVENESS. This book is a direct result of Sidman's work as a writer-in-residence at schools, where she uses the poem as a model. The book is written in the voices of school children and is organized in this fashion.
  • Table of Contents
  • Introduction written by Anthony K., a "student" in Mrs. Merz's class
  • This Is Just to Say, by William Carlos Williams
  • Part 1: Apologies
  • Part 2: Responses
There is a wealth of material here, with seventeen apology and seventeen response poems. Here's a poem that reminded me a lot of my childhood relationship with my older sister (though I never stabbed her with a pencil!).

The Black Spot
(written by Alyssa for her sister Carrie)

That black spot on your palm.
It never goes away. 
So long ago
I can hardly remember,
I stabbed you with a pencil.
Part of the lead, there,
still inside you.
And inside me, too,
something small and black.
Hidden away.
I don't know what to call it,
the nugget of darkness,
that made me stab you.
It never goes away.

Both marks, still there.
Small black

Roses Are Red
(written by Carrie in response to Alyssa)

Roses are red,
violets are blue.
I’m still really
pissed off at you.

Poems ©Joyce Sidman. All rights reserved.

The topics and emotions related in these poems are those that any child today might deal with. There are apologies for making fun of the dress a teacher is wearing, breaking a mother's precious glass deer,   not winning a spelling bee, hitting a friend too hard with a dodge ball, and more. Some of the poems revela the writer to be truly remorseful, while others are only slightly apologetic. 

To learn more you should check out the particularly useful reader's guide at Sidman's web site. You may also want to take a moment to watch and listen to her read from the book.

Forgive me.
This next book
is anything 
but penitent.

Since it borrows
Williams' form,
I had to include it.

Please read on
and chastise me

FORGIVE ME, I MEANT TO DO IT: FALSE APOLOGY POEMS, written by Gail Carson Levine and illustrated by Matthew Cordell, is a collection of poems connected with nursery rhyme or fairy tale themes and characters that borrow Williams' form but include apologies that are conditional or utterly insincere. Some of these poems are dark, but they're all entertaining and some are downright funny. Here's one of my favorites.

This Is Just to Say

I have shortened
my nose
with your saw

telling lies
is so much fun

Forgive me
I don't care
about becoming 
a real boy


Poem ©Gail Carson Levine. All rights reserved.

You can download an excerpt from the Harper Collins site. Better yet, head over to Matthew Cordell's blog for a view of the art and some of the poems.

That's it for P. See you tomorrow with some O inspired poetry ponderings.


  1. I absolutely love That Dreaded Plum Poem, so I don't understand what the issue is with it - I think I love penitent poems most of all. There's so much emotion after an incident, whether it is bound in a well-meaning "mea culpa," or frosty, "so there!"

    Roses are red... ☺☺☺

  2. I have that book! This is Just to Say. I LOVE it!!! Thanks for sharing all your thoughts and the poems today. Very enlightening.