Telling Time | Poem by Jo McDougall

I am very fond of poems that don’t use more words than they have to. They’re easier to carry around in your memory.

I am very fond of poems that don’t use more words than they have to. They’re easier to carry around in your memory. There are Chinese poems written 1300 years ago that have survived intact at least in part because they’re models of succinctness. Here’s a contemporary version by Jo McDougall, who lives not in China but in Kansas.

Telling Time

My son and I walk away

from his sister’s day-old grave.

Our backs to the sun,

the forward pitch of our shadows

tells us the time.

By sweetest accident

he inclines

his shadow,

touching mine.


American Life in Poetry is made possible by The Poetry Foundation (, publisher of Poetrymagazine. It is also supported by the Department of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Poem copyright ©2001 by Autumn House Press. Jo McDougall’s most recent book of poems is Satisfied with Havoc, Autumn House Poetry, 2004. Poem reprinted from The Autumn House Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry, 2nd ed., 2011, by permission of Jo McDougall and Autumn House Press. Introduction copyright © 2012 by The Poetry Foundation. The introduction’s author, Ted Kooser, served as United States Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress from 2004-2006. We do not accept unsolicited manuscripts.

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