How to Apologize by Ellen Bass | Summary and Analysis

Analysis of How to Apologize by Ellen Bass

Ellen Bass’ delightful poem How to Apologize is written as a self-help guide to people who are struggling with seeking forgiveness from others. Healing, according importance to self and inculcating sensitivity towards environmental concerns are some of the important themes around which the poem revolves. The poem was originally published in The New Yorker on March 15th 2021.

Ellen Bass is a poet and a teacher who grew up in New Jersey. She graduated from Boston University with a master’s degree in creative writing, where she studied under Anne Sexton. A Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, Ellen Bass was selected to receive a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship for 2021. Her books include Indigo, which was awarded a New York Times Notable Book, as well as Like a Beggar, The Human Line, and Mules of Love. Ellen started poetry workshops in the jails of Salinas Valley State Prison and Santa Cruz. She and her wife live in Santa Cruz, California. Bass has a straightforward and confrontational style of writing poetry. She has :

 “I work to speak in a voice that is meaningful communication. Poetry is the most intimate of all writing. I want to speak from me to myself and then from me to you.” 


Summary of “How to Apologize”

How to Apologize | Lines 1-5

Cook a large fish—choose one with many bones, a skeleton

you will need skill to expose, maybe the flying

silver carp that’s invaded the Great Lakes, tumbling

the others into oblivion. If you don’t live

near a lake, you’ll have to travel.

The poem begins with a suggestion to its reader. The poetess is suggesting cooking a large fish with many bones. She recommends using “the flying silver crap that’s invaded the Great Lakes”. In the 1970s, silver carp were imported to North America to regulate algal growth in aquaculture and municipal wastewater treatment facilities, but they escaped containment shortly after arrival, and are now regarded a highly invasive species. If you live far from a lake, you may have to travel.

How to Apologize | Lines 6-11

Walking is best and shows you mean it,

but you could take a train and let yourself

be soothed by the rocking

on the rails. It’s permitted

to receive solace for whatever you did

or didn’t do, pitiful, beautiful


Bass suggests to her readers to take a walk since it shows that your efforts mean something. Else you could also take a train. “It’s permitted to receive solace”, In these lines, Bass introduces the central idea of the poem, which is the process of healing. Human beings often make mistakes and the author is suggesting that their worth is much more what they “did or didn’t do, pitiful, beautiful, human”.

How to Apologize | Lines 12-16

When my mother was in the hospital,

my daughter and I had to clear out the home

she wouldn’t return to. Then she recovered

and asked, incredulous,

How could you have thrown out all my shoes?


She then goes on to narrate the story of the time when her mother fell ill and she along with her daughter cleaned her room thinking that “she wouldn’t return”. But, she recovered from her ailment and returned to her home only to find that her daughter and granddaughter have thrown out all of her shoes.

How to Apologize | Lines 17-23

So you’ll need a boat. You could rent or buy,

but, for the sake of repairing the world,

build your own. Thin strips

of Western red cedar are perfect,

but don’t cut a tree. There’ll be

a demolished barn or downed trunk

if you venture further.

She then returns her original subject and tells the reader that they’ll need a boat to catch a fish. The boat could be rented or bought but she suggests the reader build a boat “for the sake of repairing the world”. She advises using Western red `cedar; a North American natural evergreen coniferous tree. This insinuates a restoration of the harmony between human beings and the environment as well. She doesn’t want you to cut a tree for wood. She instead suggests using wood from a “demolished barn” or a “drowned trunk”.

How to Apologize | Lines 24-30

And someone will have a mill.

And someone will loan you tools.

The perfume of sawdust and the curls

that fall from your plane

will sweeten the hours. Each night

we dream thirty-six billion dreams. In one night

we could dream back everything lost.

She tells her readers to borrow things from other people. Someone may have a mill, tools can be borrowed from someone else. She asks to take help from other people suggesting building a community. The hard work done to build the boat will be valuable since it shows the efforts made by people as a token of love for those around them. This hard work and the beautiful natural environment will make the hours worthwhile. She points to the multiple dreams that we dream of. Human beings still have the option of dreaming about things they have lost.

How to Apologize | Lines 31-38

So grill the pale flesh.

Unharness yourself from your weary stories.

Then carry the oily, succulent fish to the one you hurt.

There is much to fear as a creature

caught in time, but this

is safe. You need no defense. This

is just another way to know

you are alive.


“So grill the pale fish”. Just as cooking converts raw material into something edible, in the very same manner, human beings need to process their grief and try to make amends with people they hurt. The act of giving the “succulent fish to the one you hurt” becomes a way in which one person is trying to help out the other to accept their mistake and forgive them.

Human beings, the poetess believes, are creatures who are stuck in time and do not need to defend their wrongdoings. Since it is ingrained in human nature to make mistakes, accepting your mistakes and helping others heal from the hurt it may have caused could be “just another way to know you are alive”.

Analysis of How to Apologize

The poem is a beautiful literary piece and Bass has used two very prominent concerns of the society in which we live today. It can be placed in accordance with the growing environmental concern which is an important issue of the twenty-first century. Healing and giving importance to self is also something that human beings are learning today. There is a growing understanding of self-care and it is not treated as a selfish act. In order to survive in this fast pacing world, it is rather very important to take care of oneself as well as those around us.

Bass’ poem appears as a self-help guide to people who are struggling with seeking forgiveness from others. The most likely reason for this is that Bass is most known for her self-help books for childhood sexual abuse survivors, the most well-known of which is The Courage to Heal (1988). Bass also wrote Free Your Mind: The Book for Gay, Lesbian, and Bisexual Youth (1996), a book intended to help gay, lesbian, and bisexual youth deal with difficulties of sexual identity. While “How to Apologize” has a different theme than most of Bass’s earlier works, it nonetheless deals with unpleasant issues such as environmental degradation and hurt, rather than child abuse.

Throughout the poem, Bass guides her readers and tells them what steps are necessary and what can be avoided. She has weaved community issues into personal ones and attempts to guide the readers to come out of them. The images of cooking and building a new boat insinuate the building of something new, something which is going to bridge the existing gap and would mark the beginning of a new phase. This new phase would be out of the mutual concern and love and would heal personal as well as environmental degradation.


Title of the poem – The title of the poem advocates that the poem is about how someone could apologize for the mistakes they may have committed.

How to Apologize | Themes

Forgiveness – Human beings are susceptible to the folly which in turn often complicates circumstances, leaving the people involved hurt. The poem suggests healing from thesemisunderstandings and attempting to make amends in our relationships.

Environmental Preservation – The poem not only suggests making amends with fellow human beings but also with nature. With innumerable human activities, nature has suffered much harm. The poem suggests that in order to completely heal human beings will have to help restore the natural environment as well. Natural degradation will result in the degradation of society as well. Bass’ poem expresses her dissatisfaction with modern human actions, notably environmental degradation. Her poem cautions her readers to take action against these concerns.

Self-care – The theme of forgiveness is extended to the person who has committed the mistake as well. The poetess suggests that even people who may have committed a mistake need to heal. Guilt haunts human beings. As much as it is important to ask forgiveness from the ones we may have hurt, it is equally important to forgive ourselves.


How to Apologize | Literary Devices 

Imagery – In a literary work, imagery is visual symbolism or figurative language that generates a mental image or other types of sense sensations.

“Cook a large fish – choose one with many bones” (line 1)


“If you don’t live near a lake, you’ll have to travel.” (line 5)


“The perfume of sawdust and the curls

that fall from your plane

will sweeten the hours.”


Alliteration – The word ‘alliteration’ is derived from the Latin littera, meaning ‘letter’. Alliteration is the repetition initial consonant sounds in the stressed syllables of successive or nearly successive words.

“There is much to fear as a creature caught in time,”


Symbolism – A symbol is anything that alludes to something else, usually something abstract like an idea or a belief. An object, a person, a scenario, or an action that has a literal meaning in a story but indicates or reflects other meanings is referred to as a literary symbol.

“Walking is best and shows you mean it”

“build your own”


“Then carry the oily, succulent fish to the one you hurt.”







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One Comment

  1. I am using this poem in a discussion group. It won’t be about literary analysis, but about values and human failings. Nevertheless, this analysis is helpful in taking a fresh look as aspects of the poem I might miss.

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