Monday, April 24, 2006

Potts Cliff Notes

Cliff’s Notes for Lost River Mountain

By Charles Potts


Charles Potts used these phrases in his lecture. “No person steps into the same river twice.” And “No person ever used the same word with the same connotation twice”. If you were to read Charles Potts’ books you would feel the same way. There is an underlying yet sometimes-blatant theme or motif of Idaho, and less obvious ones of his childhood and family. These things remain constant, yet the poems are never the same. Potts used the mountain that he grew up next to, Lost River Mountain, as the title of the book and as the subject in a few poems, yet they are so different. That mountain has so many different connotations according to Potts, that you could never even read the same poem and have it mean the same thing to you every time.

Potts uses some language tricks in his otherwise stripped-down poems. He uses alliteration a lot of times to make you feel like you can hear or see the object that he is talking about. For example: Bubbly bottom of Sapphire Spring, or Fearless Ferris, Ferris Frank, velveteen basalt. All of these things help to create a picture in the mind that is clearly visible. He also uses words that you would not normally connect with an object or place. For example: “Zigguratting the dammed, and Idaho is an intransigent verb, Idahoing”. These make his poems challenging and very interesting to read. They add a kind of icing onto the cake of what is Charles’s poetry. It is good without them, yet even better with these wonderful words added in.

Charles Potts has said this of his writing, “I write the poems that I need to read, they are somewhat entertaining, but they are not really written for entertainment.” He is writing what he needs to hear and for a lot of us it is what we need to hear also. Finally, and in closing he says this, “If you are fit for nothing, be a poet.” He started writing because of a strong combination of arrogance and humility. These qualities of his are shown strongly throughout both books.


From the beginning all the way through the end of Lost River Mountain, Charles Potts has motifs that convey his main theme. A motif is a something that repeats throughout the book. The main motif is places in Idaho (including the state as a whole), with other less obvious ones such as his family and times when he was young.

No poem describes what it means to be from Idaho better than "To Idaho," on page 21. It reads "No one would have ever been Idahoing If they could have thought of anything better to do." That really sums Idaho up, kind of boring, but with a lifelong effect that only comes from growing up in a small city or state can have. But he uses particular places and images within Idaho a lot to convey Idaho’s affects. For example, "The Way Up to Invisible Mountain" talks about the mountain he grew up by. He then ties the mountain into his life now, and how metaphorically the invisible mountain is how life can be looked at. It seems that he is saying some things in life take some looking and investigating before you see what is really there and how big it is. Through poems like these, Potts shows what Idaho has done for him, and what effects its memories still have.

When Potts’ memories fail, he imagines the making of the physical landscape of Idaho, millions of years ago. He likes to compare it to his on experiences and the human experience itself to strip away the importance we attach to it. In "Born in Idaho Falls," he wrote,

The people problem,
As the Lost River Mountains would never stoop to put it
When they raise and lower one another as they do
Every 10,000 years or so,
Is very small indeed.

As suggested by the last lines, he does not only imagine the making of the physical landscape in the best in his poetry, but he also imagines the changes that will happen in the future. Thus, another recurring theme of his is the end of civilization.

His family is also a motif that he uses. He talks of his parents often and of his feelings about his time with them before their deaths. In "My Mothers Depression," he says "How is your mother/ Since you kissed the classics goodbye/ Ever going to stop crying?" And then in "Mom and Dad," he writes about how the differences between his mother and fathers personality shaped him by saying "I am the predictable result of/ The underlying structure of my life." He must have been close to his parents, and it seems that their ways, ideals, and hardships are still affecting him to this day, possibly more so after their deaths.

He also uses his childhood quite often. But this motif is slightly hidden because it gets tied in with the larger motifs about places in Idaho and his family. In "The Kissing Tone," he shows how his childhood time affected him by saying "Learning who to trust/ And what not to/ Take for granted." This and other poems, such as "Bareback in the Gravel Pits" and "Back to Idaho" show these effects really well.

And when he is bored with his experiences of his immediate family and childhood, he talks about the family he as discovered through genealogy, or family history. There are several of these poems near the end of the book. He finds his well-documented family history fascinating as it connects him to a broader human history. For instance, in "The Gray Line Tour," he says, "My foremothers, less rude and less detailed,/ Are likewise carried forward/ With the inner glow of love they inspire/ Each ensuing breath."


In this particular book, Potts’ focuses on Idaho and how it has affected him. He speaks of his home state, where he grew up, and where he loves. Every poem in the book is about Idaho, which is what I believe was the aim of the book. The poems showed all different ways one can be affected by the place they are from, though some were more subtle than others. And the ways that Idaho has affected him can be augmented into our lives; they seem to be universal lessons or bits of helpful information. It definitely seems though that his big idea was to take lots of different memories, situations, and places of Idaho and show how they as individual instances had their different lasting affects upon him.

Study Questions for Lost River Mountain

1 Charles Potts grew up in Idaho, but didn’t start writing about it until the 1990’s, despite being encouraged to write about it at Berkeley. Why do you think he waited so long? How do his Idaho poems reflect his experiences in other parts of the world?

2 In "Hide," how does the poem reflect two different meanings of the title?

3 Charles Potts’ interests in pre-history and geology show up in a lot of his poems like "Back to Idaho." How does he combine pre-history of Idaho, with his own history in Idaho? What effect does he create comparing the vast spans of geologic change, with his relatively short stay in Idaho?

4 In the Lecture, Potts said there is no way back to nature, but he certainly tries to get close. Throughout Lost River Mountain, how does Potts try re-connect with nature?

5 How does the poem "I Raced the Rain Over Doublespring Pass," suggest the same apocalyptic themes in a poem like, "A Walk at the End of the World," without being so explicit. Which do you think is more effective?

6 Potts said, "If you can find poetry in poetry you’re lucky." Can you find poetry within Potts’ poetry? Why is it so difficult?

7 In "Blue Jays in My Rearview Mirror," Potts gives the two plant parasites a personified trait of kissing. Why does he use this metaphor? Why does he connect it with the title?

8 In "50 Years Ago Today President Truman Dropped In," what is funny about the last stanza?

9 Potts paraphrased Spangler in the Lecture and said, "Nobody ever used the same word with exactly the same connotations twice." Can you find examples of Potts using words with very novel connotations?

10 How does Potts use an event like farm auctions in "The Auction Block," to express his anger against economic injustice? Does he avoid sounding like a cable news political pundit in this and other poems? If yes, How?

11 Potts admitted in the lecture that Groucho Marx influenced him just as much as Shakespeare and Dostoevsky. Do you see comical Marxist influences in any of the poems?

12 In "The Gray Line Tour" and others Potts uses genealogy in his poems. As he explores him, what do you think interests him about it? Do these poems reveal more about Charles Potts than those he writes about his own experiences?

13 In "Mom and Dad" what does Potts seem to think about individuality and character? In other poems, what kind of things are we products of?

14 How is "Raspberry Redux" an appropriate ending for Lost River Mountain? Does the tone of the poem fit the overall tone of the book, or does it create a new one?


Charles Potts, famous poet of books such as Lost River Mountain, The Portable Charles Potts, and Kiot was born in Idaho Falls, Idaho. Potts began publishing his poetry in 1963, and has continued through the present. Potts graduated from the college of Arts and Sciences at Idaho State University in 1965, where he later was given the Distinguished Professional Achievement Award in 1994. He is well known as being the driving force of the Temple Bookstore in Walla Walla, Washingtion, where has lived since 1978.

Potts is the founder of Litmus Incorporation located in Seattle and Berkeley. He also founded Tsunami Incorporation, which published many Northwest poets. Potts is also the president and founder of Palaise Management Incorporated. Potts is a retired real estate broker. He has traveled all over the world, and spent some time in Japan, studying the language and culture. He devotes most of his time now to writing and spends a lot of time at The Temple Bookstore.

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