Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken

I thought it might be fun to write stories about some of Ricky Riccio’s individual assignments that made their way into Unlocking the Poem—and this post will be the first of several to do just that.

One assignment that sticks out—in a distinctly positive way—consisted of a sentence Ricky gave to his students to use as the title or first line of a poem: Do not give me things unbroken. Like so many of Ricky’s assignments, this is but a brief snippet from which poems could emerge . . . and emerge they did! For weeks, students returned to workshop with additional “do not give me things unbroken” poems . . . and many of the poems were truly inspired.

We, the students, were so excited by what was happening that five of us decided to collect these poems and publish them. We put together a poetry anthology called (of course!) Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken, containing poems from 54 different authors; we dedicated the volume to Ricky and his teaching. (You’ll see this assignment as Assignment Number 417 in Unlocking the Poem, “illustrated” by several poems previously published in Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken.)

Among the poems produced in response to the assignment, we had free verse and villanelles, concrete poems, prose poems, sestinas and sijo—a vast richness of the many different poetry forms Ricky had exposed us to. (Ricky was the first to show me these forms, and I am deeply grateful; for those of you not familiar with them, you can find information about them all in Unlocking the Poem.)

In a later post, I will say something about the struggle to write in “forms,” to adhere to a structure dictated by tradition, but for now I want to point out that one of the joys of Ricky’s assignments is that they create a structure for writing. Having a predetermined structure can be intensely frustrating—it’s not always easy to find the next rhyme, to adhere to the demands of the sonnet, even to use a series of seemingly random words within the same poem—but what is so valuable about Ricky’s assignments is that they provide a focus that starts each poet’s creative juices flowing. Amazing, how each person’s poems are so different, even when they all start from the same stimulus! Amazing, too, that having a fixed starting point can make it easier to write the next poem, not harder!—after all, the poems are out there, waiting to be found.

Here is one of my own Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken poems; maybe it will give you some sense of what came from the assignment. The title comes from an ancient Greek legend, about a couple whose only wish was never to be parted:

Baucis, To Philemon

Do not give me things unbroken,

things wrapped crisply in cellophane,

smelling of newness.  I want

things that have been touched

and worn—

your old, rippled shoes,

their leather softened to

the shape of your feet,

their soles imprinted with

your steady steps.

Do not give me notebooks filled

with blank white glare—I want

warmly bent corners,

pages striped and scarred with words,

floods of them

wearing the paper to softness.

A letter you once sent me,

smudged, remnants of a tear—

I think—

I have held that aged paper to my cheek,

prizing it more than cool and empty vellum,

more than unstopping ink.

Do not give me stiffly-folded clothes—I want

your mole-soft sweater,


one elbow wearing thin,

to lean into its suppleness

as into skin—

through unbending years I dream

of my shaking


by the branching O of your arms,

arms that know me.

We have calluses,


loosely hanging skin

and every day

you are more beautiful

in my broken eyes.

Ellen Beth Siegel

First published in Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken, 2002

If you would like your own copy of Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken, please click the “Buy Now” button below.


2 Responses to “Do Not Give Me Things Unbroken”

  1. 1 Marilyn Silverman
    January 8, 2010 at 12:46 pm

    I’m thoroughly enjoying learning about poetry and how to write and appreciate it even more. This is a wonderful teaching and learning collection. As a former school district administrator, I can see kids in high school classes devouring these assignments and producing terrific creative pieces. Of course as you already know, adults are certain to benefit as well.

    Congratulations on a wonderful piece of literature that will help to develop more beautiful poetry.


  2. January 8, 2010 at 5:31 pm

    Hi Marilyn, It’s wonderful to hear from you and to hear about new uses for Unlocking the Poem–I think you are right that high school students would devour these assignments, and their teachers would also love having this kind of resource! Ellen Beth

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Buy the Book!


Praise for the Book

“Unlocking the Poem brings both the creative writing teacher and the aspiring writer a trustworthy guidebook and a generous resource. . . . authors Riccio and Siegel have put together a book that deserves a place on every poet’s shelf. Its copies will become well-worn and dog-eared from future service.”
–X. J. Kennedy

“Riccio and Siegel deserve the gratitude of poets
and writing workshop leaders everywhere for their no-holds-barred approach to stimulating the imagination and unlocking the poems in all of us.”
–Sue Ellen Thompson

“For those who can’t get to [Ottone Riccio's] workshops this remarkable teacher, together with Ellen Beth Siegel, has compiled a book of inspiring lessons to help writers on their way to good poems.”
–Diana Der-Hovanessian

December 2009


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