Poems to Live By

Poems to Live By

By Robert DiYanni, New York University



Although for most of my life I did not write poetry, I began writing poems in earnest about six months into the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. I wrote a few poems inspired by and referencing the pandemic, but my initial inspiration was villanelles I had always enjoyed: Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” Theodore Roethke’s “The Waking,” and Wendy Cope’s “Ted Williams Villanelle.”

I’m not sure what prompted it, but one morning in the pre-dawn dark, lines from these poems began echoing in my head. Bishop’s “The art of losing isn’t hard to master,” Roethke’s “I learn by going where I have to go,” and Cope’s “Don’t let anybody mess with your swing.” I could not get them out of my mind until I began writing a pair of villanelles of my own inspired by these three artful examples of the form. And once I started, I had to continue writing villanelles. I found the repeating elements of the villanelle form congenial. I have written more than 80 villanelles now.

Although a few of these follow the villanelle form carefully and strictly, I take small liberties in most of them, primarily by omitting the rhyme on the second line of each of the poem’s three-line stanzas. So most of my villanelle inspired poems included in this volume are what I call “near-villanelles.”

About two dozen of these were written in response to a request by then New York University Provost, Katy Fleming, during one of the weekly zoom meetings she held for staff during the pandemic. The first one, “The Art of the Mustache,” I wrote as a substitute for wearing a funny mustache to the meeting. I have included this poem in the book’s first part rather than with the others inspired by the Provost, which are gathered in Part V: Poems for Provost Meetings.

While writing my villanelles, I occasionally needed more room than the form’s 19 lines provide. As a result, I wrote some villanelle-like poems with an extra stanza or two. Sometimes needed to write longer poems, some of which retained the villanelle’s three-line stanzas, but which went on considerably beyond the form’s five-tercets, poems that also did not end the way villanelles do—with a quatrain that brings together the first and third rhyming lines as a concluding couplet.

One thing led to another, and though I continued to add to my villanelle collection, I began writing poems in other forms, first about books and writers, sometimes imitating their styles and forms, sometimes incorporating their subjects and preoccupations. I also remembered learning, in college, about double dactyl poems, which followed a set of formal rules, beginning with the words “higgledy-piggledy,” and including a person’s name in the same double-dactyl meter: an accented syllable followed by two unstressed syllables—for example, EM i ly DICK in son. As with the villanelles I wrote, my double-dactyl poems often approximate but don’t completely adhere to the rules for this playful form.

And so, you will find in this little collection villanelles and near-villanelles, double-dactyl poems and their close approximations, along with others that don’t attempt to conspire with either of these forms. You will encounter serious poems and humorous ones, brief snapshots and longer considerations. What’s absent are familiar forms, such as the sonnet, for example, as well as the ballad and the haiku.

I have grouped the poems in part by their forms and in part by their subjects or topics. I had fun writing them, and I hope you enjoy reading them.




Part I      The Art of … Poems

Part II     Poems About Teaching and Learning

Part III    Poems About Reading and Writing

Part IV    Poems About Writers and Books

Part V     Poems for Provost Meetings

Part VI    Poems About Music and People

Part VII   Double Dactyl Poems

Part VIII  Poetry Miscellany

What Follows is a sample of poems from each of the chapters.

From Part I “The Art of” Poems

1. The Art of Learning by Going

“I learn by going where I have to go,”
writes Theodore Roethke in “The Waking.”
“The art of losing isn’t hard to master,”

avers Liz Bishop’s speaker in “One Art.”
These lessons in living we aim to master
as we try to learn where we need to go—

and whether we can measure up to
the wisdom reflected in these words.
(If, indeed, losing is an art to master.)

How can we know what we need to do,
and if we can master what needs mastering?
We learn by going where we need to go.

“Don’t let anybody mess with your swing,”
Wen Cope writes in her “Ted Williams Villanelle.”
The key to the art of hitting—from a master.

We won’t let anybody mess with our swing.
We learn by doing what we have to do.
We learn by going where we have to go—
and hope losing is an art we can master.


2. The Art of Learning by Doing

We learn by doing what we have to do.
This much we know with solid  certainty—
and hope losing is an art we can master.

We mustn’t let anybody mess with our swing,
but do our work our way—that’s the thing.
We learn by doing what we have to do.

Just make a plan and do our thing—and keep
on trying, however hard to learn
the art of losing. Become a master.

Roethke wakes us to the blessings nature brings.
Bishop grasps the losing art as master.
Cope knows we learn by doing what we do.

The trick? Know where to look, how to find
teachers and mentors skilled in the knowledge
that losing need not be a disaster.

We learn by going where we have to go,
and not let anyone mess with our swing.
We learn by doing what we have to do and
hope that losing is an art we can master.


3. Art of the Mustache

Wearing a mustache is a hard art to master.
Mustaches require time and care to cultivate.
A mustache gone to seed is a disaster.

Some grow their mustaches long and curly.
Others wear theirs short and bristly thick.
Wearing a mustache well is hard to master.

Mustachiosos touch their staches often, twirling
them round their fingers, smoothing and primping,
for a mustache gone to seed spells disaster.

Velazquez and Dali, Groucho and Charlie
Chaplain’s little tramp knew well how to wear
their facial hair. They were true masters.

Dali wore his stache with stylish swagger.
He tended it with a gardener’s delight,
for a mustache gone to seed breeds disaster.

Montaigne loved his mustache, with lingering smells
of journeys and foods and lovers remembered.
Sporting a mustache is a tough art to master.
Let a mustache go to seed? Inviting disaster.


4. The Art of Loving

The art of loving we should learn always.
Love’s old sweet song in reciprocity.
We learn by loving what real love conveys.

We learn by loving to embrace each
other’s distinctive personality.
The art of loving we must learn all ways.

How to grow through love—we’ll find a way.
By chance and luck and special gift of grace
we’ll learn the varied roles that true love plays.

We learn by going where we need to go
to find the way to love’s deep mystery—
through loving others in many ways.

Not loving is no option for those who care.
Lives bereft of love are hollow, barren, bare.
We glimpse the facets that love surveys

in those who respond to its demands.
The love we give, returns a hundredfold to us.
The art of loving we should seek always.
We learn by loving what real love conveys.


5. The Art of Hating

The art of hating is a terrible delight.
Hating stirs the passions—kerosene on a fire.
Hating turns bright day to endless night.

Those we hate, we hate for reasons dire.
Those who hate us conceal their reasons why.
The art of hating is a terrible delight.

The pleasure of hating eats into the heart.
Those we hate we cannot ignore outright.
Hating turns bright day to endless night.

Hatred destroys those who hate far more
than the loathéd object of irate rage.
The art of hating is a terrible delight.

Hatred devours those who hate, eats them alive,
begets in them unending misery.
Hatred turns bright day to endless night.

Those whom we hate we likely once have loved.
Through hate our spite augments their hold on us.
The art of hating is a terrible delight.
Hatred turns bright day to endless night.


6. The Art of Failing

The art of failing isn’t hard to master.
Just draft your project with the aim to fail.
Then fail better and fail faster. Skirt disaster.

Success is fine, but no match for failing well.
Fail better, fail faster, and be smart.
The art of failing isn’t hard to master.

So Samuel Beckett says about his art.
Perfection eludes us at every turn.
So fail better and smarter to forestall disaster.

You won’t get anything right from the start.
Don’t try. Forgive yourself; make a mess.
Avoid duress. Fail smarter to prevent disaster.

Failure, not success, is what you’re after.
That’s where the surprises lurk—the discoveries.
The art of failing isn’t hard to master.

Court failure. Don’t fear its painful pleasure.
Follow missteps—embrace them, take their measure.
The art of failing you can learn to master.
Fail better, smarter, faster. Avert disaster.


From Part II Poems About Teaching and Learning


8. The Art of Teaching

Teaching is a craft, an art, a blessed skill,
a call to the mysteries of learning.
The art of teaching takes a long time to master.

We teach in part to give, in part to learn.
In teaching others we also teach ourselves.
Teaching is a craft, an art, a blessed skill.

We teach a subject, its discipline of mind.
We practice teaching’s craft each day and learn
the art of teaching needs a lifetime to master.

Others taught us, inspired us to pursue
our passion, develop our expertise.
Teaching is a craft, an art, a blessed skill.

As novices we start, then grow into
journeying apprentices who understand
the art of teaching takes time to master.

We teach students, not subjects only; we
tailor our practice to their distinctive needs.
Teaching is a craft, an art, a blessed skill.
The art of teaching takes a lifetime to master.


9. The Art of Learning

Learning is a skill we need for living well.
The path to knowledge is steep and winding.
The art of learning is a blessed art.

Learning comes from passion, from energy
lit with fires sparked by curiosity.
Learning is a skill we need for living well.

We learn those things we want to learn.
Inspiring teachers show us how.
The art of learning is a blessed art.

Real learning lasts because it matters
to us. We become what we learn.
Learning is a skill for living well.

We fail to learn when learning does not matter.
We learn through desire deep and ardent.
The art of learning is a blessed art.

Resilience is the key, and focus, too,
a discerning eye, an inquiring mind.
Learning is a skill we need for living well.
It’s is a gift of grace, a truly blessed art.


10. Teaching is a Blessed Art

Teaching is a craft, an art, a blessed skill.
It takes time and patience and luck to master.
We need training to learn the craft of teaching well.

Our first ventures in the teaching life
are comme-ci, comme-ca, so-so at best.
Teaching is a craft, an art, a blessed skill.

We learn to teach through reflective practice.
What worked well? What might have but did not?
We practice to learn the craft of teaching well.

We work with students in class and out.
We learn from colleagues with experience.
Teaching is a craft, an art, a blessed skill.

We teach concepts, connections, relationships,
build frameworks to connect ideas clearly.
We need mentors to learn the art of teaching well.

We teach subjects we care about avidly.
We teach students in their splendid singularity.
Teaching is a craft, an art, a blessed skill.
We need love to learn the art of teaching well.


11. ABC of Learning

A little learning is a dangerous thing,
Bacon wrote in his famous Essays:
Counsels and Morals. Yet learning must

begin somewhere, however little that
learning might be. The trick is for learning
to fare farther, delve deeper. Further

learning is the goal. Otherwise, we
think we know more than we do. Therein
danger lies. Socrates knew the limits

of his knowledge. Thereby was he wise.
But how to come by the knowledge that leads
to wisdom? Where is such wise knowledge to

be found? How discoveréd? The key?
Ask questions upon questions. Keep searching
for the truth of things. Distrust easy answers.

A little learning is a dangerous thing, indeed.
Bacon had it right in the Renaissance.
Consider the wisdom of his wise words.


12. Curiosity is the Key

Curiosity is the key to learning,
its driving force, its sustaining measure.
Curiosity leads to learning pleasure.

Leonardo claimed curiosity
lay behind his many discoveries.
Curiosity was the key to his learning.

How do birds fly? How does water flow?
Whence comes the wind? How do we come to know?
Questioning was Leonardo’s métier.

We, too, can become like da Vinci,
in one respect at least. Remain curious
about all sorts of things. Keep wondering,

musing, questioning. Seek answers in nature.
Observe the natural world. There you find
wonders galore, glories unceasing. There

is where the action is. Nature makes art
for us to appreciate. Learn to look
and see, then ask how and why unceasingly.

Curiosity is the key, the force
that drives our minds to understanding—
to knowledge that can ripen into wisdom.
Curiosity leads to learning pleasure.


From Part III Poems About Reading and Writing


13. The Art of Reading

The art of reading isn’t hard to master,
some say. But I say au contraire; not so.
It is no small accomplishment to read well,

with intense absorption in the text.
It requires attention and discernment.
The art of reading takes effort to master.

It requires reading many kinds of books
some easy, some more difficult.
To read good books and read them truly well—

with skill and confidence, with ease and grace—
deepens understanding, makes one wise.
To learn the art of reading and become a master

read widely and deeply with pen in hand
to mark and respond to the texts you read.
It’s no small gain to read supremely well.

You learn a skill that brings lifelong pleasure.
Read for fun as well as learning—for delight.
The art of reading takes time to master
in pixels or in print. Go slow. Read well.


14. The Art of Writing

The art of writing is no doubt hard to master.
To write well takes time and thought and care.
Without those, much writing is a disaster.

That’s why good writing remains so rare.
Too often writing is turgid, slipshod, bland.
The art of writing is not easy to master.

Let the reader do the work, weak writers say.
So what if the writing is tough to disentangle.
So what if the writing is a disaster.

Who cares if the reader struggles through the words
to grasp the aim and essence of the thought.
The art of writing is not easy to master.

Easy writing makes for damned hard reading.
Writing well takes time and thought and care.
Quick, careless writing makes for disaster.

But well-wrought writing helps readers seize and hold
your thought. Readers then find your meaning clear.
The art of writing is hard to master.
It’s worth it, though, to avoid disaster.


15. Artful Choices

Writing is an art of making choices,
many careful choices large and small.
Writing succeeds best with artful voices.

Which word here, which there? Which phrase?
What punctuation to speed up or slow down?
Writing is an art of making choices.

How to organize? Where to paragraph?
Where to put this fact, that detail, and how?
Writing works best with authentic voices.

What point to make? What tone to take?
Where to digress, if at all, and why?
Writing is an art of making choices.

What topic to survey, what to say?
Why it’s important, why it matters and to whom?
Writing makes its mark with vibrant voices.

Concept and form, image, evidence, idea—
Good writing blends these and more with style and grace.
Writing is the art of making choices.
Write well, write strong with engaging voices.


16. Revision: A Necessary Art

The art of revising is hard to master.
Revision is crucial—the heart of the matter.
Writing, unrevised, results in disaster.

Verb tenses don’t match, wind up misaligned.
Nouns mate with pronouns in single plurality.
The art of revising is hard to master.

Paragraphs lose their centers, lack unity.
Coherence, too, is gravely traumatized.
Unrevised writing leads to such disasters.

Sentences mangled, their sense obscured,
syntactic connections lost through disregard.
The art of revising is hard to master.

Words and phrases remain rife with cliché.
Concepts persist opaque in foggy pensée.
No time to revise? Impending disaster.

Chaos reigns supreme—the center does not hold.
Writers lose readers, comprehension imperiléd.
The art of revising is surely hard to master.
Writing unrevised?—Courting disaster!


17. Blessed Revision

There is no good writing without revision,
the path to writing worth reading.
Revision is the crux of writing well.

How to revise? First through excision
to strengthen writing by concision.
There is no real writing without revision.

What to cut is the question: where to wield
the scalpel? The answers are few but clear.
Revision is the crux of writing well.

Eliminate needless prepositions;
“prepositionitis” equals wordiness.
There’s no strong writing without revision.

Reverse passive-voice constructions. They lack verve.
Convert them to active voice sentences.
Revise relentlessly, active verbs the crux

of writing well. Cut the intensifiers
“very,” “really,” “actually,” “in fact.”
Writing worth reading requires revision.
Blessed revision—the crux of writing well.


From Part IV About Writers and Books


18. After John Donne

Death, be not proud, for you may not be all
you claim to be. Who knows but we may
find that you end this life but not the next.

Death is darkness, some say, and the final
end of seeing, hearing, tasting—being.
Death, be not proud; you might not end it all.

We just don’t know. Through death the sensuous
touchstones of our lives exist no more.
You end, death, this life, though what lies beyond

who knows? Some say that heaven brims with peace
and joy and love exceeding all measure.
Death, be not proud; you, too, will die, after all.

So John Donne in one of his holy sonnets.
Be wary then, O Death, of puffed up pride,
For you may end this life, but not the next.

We need but one short sleep more, O Death, to put
you, at last, to rest. We discover then
this life is not the last. Confined to earthly
life, you are barred forever from the next.


19. After Dylan Thomas

“Do not go gentle into that good night.”
So Dylan Thomas in his great villanelle:
“Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

But why is that night considered good?
What could be good about unending darkness?
Do not go gentle into that dark night.

Unless we believe that night leads to day
and eternal light, not night. We might then not
rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Who knows whether dark death leads to bright life?
Those who doubt know no more than those who believe.
We must decide how to go into that dark night.

Or not. Death comes when least expected and
with no time for choosing. We might or might not
rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And though certain are we that death will come,
where and when and how remain obscure.
Should we go gentle into that good night?
Should we rage against the dying of the light?


20. Samuel Beckett’s Lament

“We are born astride the grave,” Beckett claims.
Each day of life brings us closer to our end.
This frightful fact we cannot countermand.

Life begets its end from our initial breath.
We know our conclusion cannot be denied.
A doleful doom to be born astride the grave.

The shape of life is not ours to regulate.
Atropos cuts the thread to fix our fate.
This frightful fact we cannot contravert.

No matter how we try to stretch our life,
We can’t escape the reaper’s awful scythe.
A grim truth from birth to bestride the grave.

Divert your mind from death’s dark demise
and place your faith in bright eternity—
Though life’s edge and end loom frightfully.

How should we live we wonder in dismay?
What should we do with our brief time this day?
We are born astride the ever waiting grave.
This frightful fact cannot be contravened.


21. The Earl of Rochester’s Lament

“All my past life is mine no more,” writes John
Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, late in life.
“Gone are the flying days” of all past years.

Where have all the dazzling flowers gone?
Where, too, have former days disappeared?
We know our past lives are ours no more.

Villon asks, “Mais où sont les neiges d’antan?”
“Where are the snows of yesteryear?”
Gone are the hours and days of years gone by.

We can’t bring them back; they cannot be retrieved.
Lost in the mists of time, they do not heed our call.
We know past years are ours no more.

What is this thing called time, we ask?
A vague abstraction we cannot comprehend.
Gone are the words and deeds of yesteryear.

Days and weeks, months and years recalled
in memory elude our grasp in reality.
All our past days are gone forevermore.
Lost without end, our past lives are no more.


22. Samuel Johnson’s Wit & Repartee

“When a man is tired of London he is tired
of life,” said Samuel Johnson, the great
embodiment of wit and repartee.

Johnson leaps to vibrant life in the pages
of Boswell’s bold biography. A man in full,
Samuel Johnson, of London untired,

reading and writing and talking his way
through demons of depression and misery.
He combatted them with wit and repartee.

Dictionary Johnson he was justly called,
lexicographer par excellence, who alone
outshone a hundred French scholars, tired

from their language labors. Thus can one English
gent surpass the whole French Academy.
No contest there in wit and repartee.

Lord Chesterfield came late to Johnson’s aid,
a faithless patron Johnson did not need.
Of labor and London life untired,
Johnson loved well the wit of repartee.


From Part V Poems for Provost Meetings


23. Homage to K.E. Fleming
(After William Blake)

Provost, Provost burning bright
In a zoomspace every night
What creative hand or eye
Can frame a challenge for all to try?

Provost people every week
At their zoomposts far and near—
What occasion dost inspire
Their eager frenzy of desire?

What will be the task unknown?
What will be the gauntlet thrown?
What the contest, what the trial
Each will enter with a smile?

Does she dream each weekly test?
Who tries hardest to be best?
Fervent strivers all, they
Yearn to reveal their mastery.

No matter the outcome high or low,
No matter the honor bestowed,
Pursuit of the challenge is the thing.
It’s the game itself that pleasure brings.

Provost, Provost burning bright
In your zoom space every night
Work to keep your team alight
With joy and hope and sweet delight.


24. A Host of Hats

What hat to wear for the weekly meeting?
Cap or beret? Bonnet or fedora?
Wearing that hat is a form of greeting.

Not just what type of hat but which of those?
Sport cap, school cap—which allegiance to show?
Which headpiece to wear for the weekly meeting?

Tall hat, short hat, fat hat, flat hat,
headwear furry or felt or made of pelt—
wearing a hat is a kind of greeting.

Hats with flaps, caps with brims big and small,
large hats, little hats—anything goes, so
which kind of hat is best for the meeting?

Trapper, ranchero, cowboy, sombrero,
beanies and bowler hats, pillbox and fez—
each conveys a singular feeling.

Wear that hat with care and some flair,
wear it with more than a dash of panache.
Wearing a hat is a clear kind of greeting,
Which type of hat is best for the meeting?


25. A Plethora of Pets

Bringing a pet to a meeting is the thing.
Real or fluffily stuffed doesn’t matter.
Pets are nothing short of amazing.

Dogs and cats appear as expected.
Birds and bunnies show up as well.
Bring a pet to a meeting? It’s a good thing.

Some animals, both real and ersatz,
snuggle up to their owners, accept a hug.
Having your pet at a meeting is just the thing.

All pets on view are cute and charming.
They offer their owners comfort and solace.
Pets real or feigned can be amazing.

Those without pets surely miss something,
though they do enjoy their colleagues’ companions.
Having pets at a meeting is a wonderful thing.

Once in a while those pets should pay a visit.
Let’s not forget them, neglect them even a bit.
Bringing a pet to a meeting is a very good thing.
What those pets add is surely amazing.


26. A Mélange of Mugs

A glass mug is best for imbibing good mead.
Which mug addresses your liquid preferences?
Which mug suits best your particular need?

Mugs used for milk are mostly for chocolate.
Ceramic works best for coffee and tea.
But glass is far better when knocking back mead.

Milk gulpers, coffee sippers, tea tasters
love their mugs in several sizes and styles.
Which mug best suits your individual need?

Beer guzzlers, wine tasters, whiskey tipplers
have ways to enjoy their favorite potion.
They drink their brews with zest and devotion.

Some gulp, some glurp, some swig, some slurp.
All cherish their mugs and what those mugs hold.
Which mug best suits your individual need?

Many are the pleasures these liquids convey—
Social and psychic, tipsy, buzz, and high.
A glass mug is best for imbibing strong mead.
Which mug best meets your personal need?


From Part VI Poems about Music and People


27. The Joy of Music

Music is a skill, a gift and blessed art.
It unites us all. Music’s spirit and heart
transcend time and space in harmony.
Music brings us solace, comfort, and joy.

Music is rhythm first, then sound.
Its insistent beat makes fingers snap,
Feet beat, smiles shine in eyes and faces.
Music is a skill, a gift, a blessed art.

Our first music is a pumping heart while
life’s rhythmic breath flows in and out.
Our speech is music, so too the way we move.
Music brings consolation and deepest joy.

Music’s beat buoys its melody:
tuneful tones echo in our ears and minds;
sweet sounds incite us to soulful song.
Music is a skillful gift, a blessed art.

Melody needs harmony for support.
Extra notes sound an accompaniment
that deepens music’s concordant pleasures.
Music brings comfort, solace, peace and joy.

We make music ourselves, alone in unison,
and we make music together with friends
and family, our joy compounded.
Music is a skill, a gift, a blessed art.

Music is motion, up and down the scale,
skipping notes, too, in flowing arpeggios.
Music transmutes our feelings, gives them form.
Music is a skill and gift and blessed art.

Music is feeling, then not sheer sound.
Music is meaning, too, sometimes profound,
Music brings solace, comfort, joy evermore.
We hear sweet music in the deep heart’s core.

Trumpets join harps, lutes and mandolins,
guitars and dulcimers, cellos and violins.
Music’s patron saint, Cecilia, plays while
angelic choirs sound a ceaseless hymn of praise.
Music is a skill and gift and wholly blessed art.
Music bring solace and peace to joyful hearts.


28. Playing Guitar

The art of the guitar is a joy evermore,
its pleasures copious beyond measure.
They echo and linger in the deep heart’s core.

The guitar as we know it came from Spain,
Nineteenth-century Madrid in the main.
The art of the guitar is a joy evermore.

Acoustic and hard body, classical and rock
music inhabit its inner domain.
Its sounds echo and linger in the deep heart’s core.

It seems easy at first to play a few chords,
but mastery is an altogether different chore.
The art of the guitar is a joy evermore.

Andres Segovia brought the guitar to the world.
His many global concerts set the standard.
His playing lingers in memory ever more.

Six strings on a fretboard stretched over a sound
box, topped with spruce, ribbed and backed with rosewood.
The beauty of the guitar is a joy evermore.
Its music resounds in the deep heart’s core.


29. Playing Mandolin

To play mandolin is a form of delight.
The instrument’s size and shape make it just right.
The mandolin’s sound is round and bright.

Mandolins come in different contours—
pear shaped, oval, flat top, and lute-bowled.
The mandolin is a gift and a sheer delight.

In the eighteenth century it first emerged
in Italy, home of its cousin, the violin.
The mandolin’s sound is round and bright.

Beethoven wrote a mandolin sonatina,
and Mozart a solo for Don Giovanni.
Their mandolin music a gift of pure delight.

Mandolins arrived in New York City
with immigrant artisans from Sicily.
Their mandolins’ sounded round and bright.

These luthiers started a mandolin craze;
it spread through the country for half a century.
The sound of the mandolin is full and bright,
The little instrument a gift, a true delight.
hope and create our world anew?


30. The Old White Male

The old white male just ain’t what he used to be.
He’s not much needed or honored anymore.
The times, they’ve been a-changing, you see.

In days gone by, he ruled his own domain.
People looked to him for aid and advice back then.
But the old white male just ain’t what he used to be.

He hasn’t lost his touch. He hasn’t gone to seed.
Many things are just no longer what they were.
The times are ever changing, you see.

There’s no chance his ilk will return to power.
His time is o’er; no more his hour.
The old white male just ain’t where he used to be.

Privileged no more, he’s marginalized—
from the center to the edges and beyond.
The times have changed irreparably.

He’s been excised, ghosted, cancelled even.
Superseded, replaced with those more au courant.
The old white male just ain’t what he used to be.
The times are much a-changing now, you see.


31. The Vladimir Putin Poem

Vladimir Putin seems to have lost his mind.
His hubris has got the best of him.
He and Xi seem quite two of a kind.

Putin’s Ukraine action was fueled by ambition.
But it has failed to come to fruition.
Vladimir Putin seems to have lost his mind.

He’s angry,, embittered, resentful
over how he’s been treated by the West.
He and Xi, it seems, are two of a kind.

He dreams of glory, of Russian days gone by,
but things for him have surely gone awry.
Vladimir Putin seems to have lost his mind.

President Xi sits and waits his turn to come.
Taiwan is next if Ukraine is annexed.
Putin and Xi are two of a kind.

Imperial ambitions, grandiose visions
of a new world order to come—
that’s what Xi and he see on the horizon.

How it all ends we yet cannot know.
The war has wreaked havoc from the get-go.
Vladimir Putin seems to have lost his mind.
He and Xi are really two of a kind.


From Part VII Double Dactyl Poems


Higgledy, piggledy,
Teresa of Ávila,
Painfully felled with the
Angel’s sharp dart.

Ecstasy toppled her.
Crumpled her, melting with
Rapture her heart.


Higgledy, piggledy,
Emily Dickinson
Artfully aiming the
Words of her poem.

Quietly, craftily
Measured them, working with
Leisure from home.


Higgledy, piggledy,
Macron, Lord President,
Negligent, fell for the
Moneyer class.

Arrogance toppled him,
Finished him. Landing him
Flat on his ass.


Higglevitch, pigglevitch,
Anna Karenina
Lustfully seeking a
Sensual male.

Nuzzling waffled her,
Ruined her, ending her
Life on the rails.


Higgledy, piggledy,
Sugar Ray Robinson
Crouching and dancing his
Way round the ring.

Connecting delighted him,
Jawdroppingly knock-
ing guys out from the
Force of his swing.


Higgledy, piggledy,
Laurence Olivier
Cleverly acted his
Parts—all his picks.

Acting excited him,
Showcasingly knighted him.
Made him a prince in the
Realm of the flicks.


Higgledy, piggledy,
Khloe Kardashian
Readily posed for the
Camera frame.

Rich men attracted her,
Rousing her passionate
Lust for high fame.


Higgledy, piggledy,
Pamela Anderson,
She of the swimsuit cut
Low on the bust.

Cameras honed in on her
Bosom creating sig-
nificant lust.


Higgledy piggledy,
William the Conqueror
Brought elegance and more
To England’s reefs.

Language of common life–
Pigs and cows re-
named pork and beef.


Higgledy piggledy,
Ivan the Terrible,
Did most horrible things
In days gone by.

Named for those horrors, Ivan
Slaughtered his enemies
With a dry eye.


Higgledy, piggledy,
Lemuel Gulliver
Found himself out of this
World, misaligned.

Jonathan wafted him
Drafted him larger, then
Smaller, in kind.



From Part VIII Miscellaneous Poems

32. Fateful Questions

To be or not to be, is that a question?
Affirm or deny, there is no refusal.
All lives are balanced on the scales of fate.

Clotho spins the thread of life, Lachesis
measures its length, Atropos cuts it.
To be or not to be—that is the question.

We think we truly choose our destiny,
but that is not the case after all.
All lives are balanced on the scales of fate.

Chance and luck happen to all, our lot
in life subject to Fortune’s turning wheel.
To be or not to be—is that the question?

Why do some live long and joyous lives
and others suffer abject misery?
All lives are balanced on the scales of fate.

Unknown the answer to our fateful question:
how happy will our life be and how long?
To be or not to be—that is the question.
All lives are balanced on the scales of fate.


33. The Biggest Bluff

What is the biggest bluff of them all?
Where does bluffing pay the big dividend?
How, where, and why to bluff for a windfall?

Poker is the game that best tests recall.
Its challenges are greatest overall.
What is the biggest bluff of them all?

It’s not just the bluff that requires mastery.
There’s the hold and the bet and the raise.
When should you bluff for that big windfall?

Know when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em,
decide when to call, when to raise the ante,
when to outbluff the bluffers each and all.

Texas Unlimited Hold ‘Em is the game
to test your moxie and your mettle—
and your bluff-skill for the big windfall.

Poker, like life, teaches hard lessons—
Players learn best from fast failures
when to use and avoid bluffing after all.

Pay attention. Watch the other players’
hands instead of their faces. Study their tics
and their bluff patterns for that windfall.

Know more than they do about how they play.
Don’t trust to blind luck in this demanding game.
Learn when you should bluff your way to the call.

Make smart decisions each step of the way.
That’s how to play well in competition
and make the biggest bluff of them all
to pave your way to a whopping windfall.


34. Memorial Day Villanelle

A day to remember, a day of recollection,
A day of remembrance and introspection.
Memorial day is a time for reflection.

We remember our soldiers of all past wars.
Those beleaguered battlers who gave their all.
It’s a day to remember them in recollection.

All those who died and those injured, wounded.
They suffered for us all, their pain chronic.
Memorial day is a time for reflection.

Wars Civil and Revolutionary,
wars in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan.
It’s a day for national recollection.

In World War One and World War Two
brave soldiers old and young fought for freedom.
Memorial day is no time for disaffection.

We remember their courage and gravity,
their valor and camaraderie.
Memorial day we remember all soldiers
In grateful reflection and recollection.


35. Labor Day Villanelle

What shall we attend to this Labor Day?
Where shall we put our work energy?
What will engage us in labor we savor?

We could opt for physical exertion—
yardwork, gardening, among other tasks.
What shall occupy us this Labor Day?

Perhaps we’ll exercise athletically—
with yoga, pushups, running in place.
What physical activity might we savor?

We could instead choose a mental workout.
Read a book, solve math problems, deliberate—
put on our thinking caps this Labor Day.

Maybe we’ll skip such work this day—
watch movies or ball games or nap the time
away—things we savor and better favor.

It’s the last day of summer vacation.
Our work begins then in whatever location.
So what shall we do on this Labor Day?
Something we favor; make it a day to savor.


36. White Fragility

White fragility is the topic du jour.
White fragility is now all the rage,
with books and articles and workshops galore.

How to own up to one’s supremacy?
How to come clean about one’s mastery?
White fragility is the topic du jour.

We comprehend the level of Black rage
when people protest on the public stage
And find books, articles, and workshops galore.

But what can whites do at such a late stage?
Confess and repent and turn the past page?
White fragility is our new topic du jour.

Experts and gurus hammer whites hard.
They blame them and shame them with disregard
in speeches and books and workshops galore.

Yet whites can firmly resist such confession,
deny their guilt, defy accusations
of those books and webcasts and workshops galore.

How long will this last, this fragility thing?
Will it endure, be more than a fashion?
White fragility is the topic du jour,
with webcasts and workshops and gurus galore.


37. The Living Past

The past isn’t even past some say.
Our lives mingle now with then in many ways.
The past lives on–an ever present day.

We can’t escape our many past mistakes.
We try to remember, instead, our better takes.
The past isn’t even past some say.

It’s another country; they do things differently
there. It’s a good place to visit—not our own past
but the past of other places with wisdom for today.

Ancient Egypt and Greece and Rome, the home
of wondrous achievements on a grand scale.
The past lives on in their legacies we say.

Going to those real places physically
Brings us great joy. Visiting them mentally
we transport them to us in the present day.

We should take the past on its own special terms,
gain insight into how past people lived and thought.
The past isn’t ever truly past. We may
allow it to live on in us in the present day.


38. Finding Truth

The truth is elusive, faceted, diffuse.
How can we find the true essence of things?
Where should we seek it? Which truth to choose?

If truth is not singular or absolute,
if its hidden face conceals and reveals,
then truth is, elusive, many-faceted, diffuse.

Whose truth matters most, and why?
Where is that truth contained? Where revealed?
Where should we seek truth? Which truths to choose?

Beauty is truth, Keats writes in his great ode.
The human heart harbors truth and hides it too.
The truth is hard to find and hold. It’s diffuse.

The tough truth of justice; the equal truth of mercy;
the woeful, awful truth of mortality.
Difficult truths to accept, though we can choose

to search for truths in science and religion,
find there facts and beliefs, knowledge and hope.
The truth is multiple, many-faceted, diffuse.
Which truths to pursue, which, finally, to choose?


39. What Are We Really? Why Are We Here?

What are we really? Why are we here?
Perennial questions without answers sure.
Our lives roll on, this earth our sphere.

The earth revolves; sun and moon shine their light.
We don’t know why they brighten day and night.
Our lives course on, this earth our sphere.

Religions provide answers for those who believe.
Doubters and deniers are simply left out.
Who are we really, and why are we here?

How do we know what’s what—and that we count?
We hope, but we don’t really know for sure.
Our lives spin on, this earth our sphere.

And so we are left bereft of certainty
about our place on earth, in life, in death.
Just who are we really? Why are we here?
Our little lives rounded by earth’s circling sphere.


40. Is There Meaning Or Are We Dreaming?

We wonder now and then about life’s meaning.
Questioning, musing, searching for answers.
Yet who knows but that we are only dreaming,

Our vast universe astonishes, amazes.
The more we discover the less we know.
We wonder here now about life’s meaning.

Interstellar space is dark, measureless.
It’s frightening for anyone lost in its depths.
What little we know may be only dreaming.

The Hubble telescope looked out there a ways,
but there’s nothing like Webb to glimpse the vast past.
We wonder more than ever about life’s meaning.

Fourteen billion years back in time we go
to the big bang—and justlikethat it begins.
Our thoughts, our fears, perhaps just dreaming.

Who can comprehend such vastness, such reach?
We remain students, waiting to have all explained
And make clear life’s ultimate meaning.
Hoping with faith we are not merely dreaming.


41. Time’s Secrets

The past, for us, we know as history,
the present our daily gift to treasure.
The future, though, remains obscure—a mystery.

And yet how well do we really know the past?
How far can we truly take its measure?
The past is gone, now—purely history.

But the present remains to us, each day alive,
Ever renewing—each day a treasure.
The future, though, awaits obscure—a mystery.

Dark and unknowing remain future days;
we have no way now to take their measure.
We know, too, less than we think of history.

Yet we look back and forward too with hope
that what we learn and foresee bring pleasure.
Back and forth we gaze to grasp the mystery.

Savants and pundits inflict their predictions
today, rarely with accurate measure.
The past for us is what we know as history,
the future only a guess—pure mystery.


42. Harlem—125th Street Station

The commuter trains come, stop, and then go.
Every half minute they arrive and pause—
In a steady stream, an unceasing flow.

Into the city to Grand Central Station
They make their way to their destination.
Those commuter trains come, pause, then go.

Passengers exit, passengers enter
The gleaming cars then snake along the tracks
In a steady stream, a ceaseless flow.

Greenwich, Stamford, New Canaan–the New Haven line.
Cortland, Scarborough, and more on the Hudson side.
The commuter trains arrive, stop, and go.

The Harlem line stations ring out loud and clear—
White Plains, Hawthorne, Chappaqua, Mount Kisco.
The trains stream steadily in an unceasing flow.

Metro North Trains head in and out, north and south
Transporting passengers to their ports of call.
These commuter trains arrive, pause, then go
In a sinuous stream, an unceasing flow.


43. Attention Villanelle

Don’t let anybody steal your attention.
It’s too valuable a commodity.
Protect yourself. Engage in prevention.

Big tech is eager to get you addicted.
Tech sites claim your time for a fearsome fee—
To control the asset of your attention.

They do it subtly with every intention
of securing your looks and likes—the key
to hold you there. Engage in prevention.

Google and Twitter and Instagram, too—
all want your eyeballs on their sites three.
Don’t let those robbers purloin your attention.

Be vigilant, avoid their click baited
hooks to seduce you by degree. Flee
their enticements. Engage in prevention.

Attention is your most valuable asset.
Don’t squander it with prodigality.
Do not let anybody steal your attention.
Protect yourself. Engage in prevention.


44. Forgetfulness

Oh, why am I in this room? What did I come for?
I know I came here for something, I do.
What can it be? I must remember or I’m done for.

I can recollect so many things of days gone by.
Birthdays and people’s peculiarities galore.
But why I’m in this room now—what I’ve come for

I have no clue. It’s ridiculous, you see, but it’s true.
I remember last year, last month, even last week.
But today, here and now? I don’t know what I’ve come for

once more. My mind is porous; things seep through
in the moment, but, sadly, too many moments
it seems. What does it mean? Maybe I’m done for?

I look for my shoes, my glasses, my phone.
They could be anywhere—one here, one there,
on my nose, in my hand. What have I come here for?

I have to accept that I’m getting good at forgetting.
I won’t let it get to me, this mental shedding.
Why have I come to this room? What am I here for?
When I leave, I’ll remember. I hope I’m not done for.


45. Humpty Trumpty

Humpty Trumpty built a big wall.
Humpty Trumpty had a great fall.
All Trump’s lackeys
And Republicans
Couldn’t put Trumpty
Together again.



Current Writing Projects

My current writing projects are linked below: (1) a book on reading literature (Improvisations); (2) two books on getting smarter (fast and across the board); (3) a pair of memoirs about my teaching life (50 years+) and my life with music (even more years!). Also included is information about my biggest work-in-progress: an encyclopedic summa pedagogica, with the current title: Provocative Pairs—Learning with the World’s Masters (152 chapters—and counting—each chapter a dozen double-spaced pages, with most chapters devoted to a pair of great masters past and present).

For each of these works in the making, I have provided a table of contents and preface. A couple of them also include a sample chapter. An additional book I have in the works is Poems to Live By, for which I’ve included about a third of what I’ve written so far—also with a brief TOC and prefatory note.

Provocative Pairs—Learning with the Masters

Volume I:
Major Influencers Past and Present

Provocative Pairs—Learning with the Masters

Volume II:
Humanities, Sciences, and More

Simply Smart One

How to Get Smarter Fast

Simply Smart Two

How to Get Smarter Across the Board

Improvisations on Reading Literature

The Teaching Life: Why Teaching Matters

Living with Music: A Glorious Journey

Poems to Live By

Robert DiYanni

Robert DiYanni

Author ⪢ | Professor ⪢ | Consultant ⪢

Robert DiYanni is a professor of humanities at New York University, having served as an  instructional consultant at the NYU Center for the Advancement of Teaching and Center for Faculty Advancement. For these centers he conducted workshops and seminars on all aspects of pedagogy, consulted with faculty about teaching concerns, visited and observed classes, and provided a wide range of pedagogical consultative services. Professor DiYanni serves on the faculties of the School of Professional Studies and the Stern School of Business at NYU. He earned his undergraduate degree in English from Rutgers University, attended a Master of Arts in Teaching program at Johns Hopkins University, and received a Ph.D. in English Language and Literature from the City University of New York Graduate Center.  

In addition to his work at NYU, Dr. DiYanni has taught at City University of New York, at Pace University, and as a Visiting Professor at Tsing Hua University in Taiwan and at Harvard University. As a high school teacher for four years and a college professor for more than four decades, Professor DiYanni has taught students from eighth grade through doctoral candidates. Most of his teaching, however, has been with college and university undergraduates. His numerous workshops, offered in more than twenty countries, have been attended by secondary school teachers and administrators, as well as by undergraduate college and university faculty and administrators.

Dr. DiYanni has written and edited numerous textbooks, among them, Literature: An Introduction; The Scribner Handbook for Writers (with Pat C. Hoy II); Arts and Culture: An Introduction to the Humanities, (with Janetta Rebold Benton), the basis for a series of lectures given at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; and Modern American Poets: Their Voices and Visions, which served as a companion text for the PBS television series Voices and Vision, which aired in the late 1980s.

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