Tuesday, April 9, 2019

30 Great Poems for April, Day 9: “Instructions” by Tria Wood

Read “Instructions” on Rattle’s Poets Respond here.

When this poem by Tria Wood was published online in June 2014—the first poem on Rattle’s brand-new Poets Respond page—it caused a sensation. People were sharing it all over social media, and for a couple of months it seemed like you couldn’t go anywhere and not bump into this poem. Honestly, I read a bit of it and turned away; it was too long, too listy, too meticulous, and a rebellious part of me didn’t want to be reading what the Joneses were reading. I also had a strong aversion to “poems of witness,” thanks to an awful class I once took on the subject; it seemed to be all about people picking scabs and appropriating the pain of other cultures to make strident, awkward, almost unreadable poems.

I think it was about a year later, after the hoopla died down, that I finally read this poem all the way through. And whoa—at the end, it really went in a direction I wasn’t expecting, and I realized that that was what made it so great. This poem benefits from being long and somewhat repetitive; it lures you into a pattern of expectations, and then—not unlike an attacker striking out of nowhere—it turns on you and really shows its fangs, which is the brutality not of actions, but of words. Then I had to go back and read it all through again to fully absorb that this poem is about the instructions women receive not just about their safety, but about their value, or lack of it, as human beings.

I feel this poem in my bones; I’ve been given these messages all my life, as most women have, which is why this poem went viral in the first place. I’m so glad I went back to this poem to take another look; it has haunted me ever since. I think of it whenever I’m walking in the dark, even when the darkness is only a roomful of people with drinks in their hands.

Tria Wood’s website is here.

[All through April, I’m featuring a favorite poem every day, along with a link where you can read it. Some are classics, some are newer, but each one is the kind of poem that I read, love, and immediately want to tell all my friends about. What better to time to share them than National Poetry Month?]


  1. Thank you so much for these posting. Viral or not, I had never seen this one. And sometimes a comment of yours leads me to another poem, like Ann Sexton's The Truth the Dead Know, and reminds me to look again. And I like your comments as much as your choices . . . .

  2. Thanks so much for reading these, Kaki! I also found myself reminded of other poems and interesting in other books because of reading and thinking about these poems this month.