September 15, 2017

The Poetry of Death

Donald Hall and Jane Kenyon

When death, as public as a President or as private as a lover, overwhelms us, it speaks itself in elegy’s necropoetics.

I recently read Donald Hall's article in The New Yorker, "The Poetry of Death." It sounds like a real downer, but I recommend that you give it a read.

Many readers of this blog probably know that Donald Hall was married to Jane Kenyon and that they shared a life of poetry.

Jane Kenyon and I almost avoided marriage because her widowhood would have been so long, between us was there such a radical difference in age. And yet today it is twenty-two years since she died, of leukemia, at forty-seven—and I approach ninety...

I heard the two of them talk about their shared life in poetry in a session at a Dodge Poetry Festival a few decades ago. That was before Jane was diagnosed with leukemia.

We inhabited not the natural world but the landscape of leukemia. I read a draft of “Without” to Jane. From her bed, Jane said, “You’ve got it, you’ve got it!” A year later, I put the poem into the past tense, and eventually it became the title of my book of Jane’s death.
But poets know that death plays a big role if poetry. It is aprt of poetry history and all poets eventually deal with the topic in their poems.

Poetry begins with elegy, in extremity, as Gilgamesh laments the death of his companion Enkidu, watching worms crawl out of Enkidu’s neck. Homer sings of heroes as they die in battle, and Priam weeps to see the body of his son Hector dragged around the walls of Troy. Virgil follows Aeneas from the graveyard of Troy to the founding of Rome, Dido’s pyre flaming on the way. In the fifteenth century, poetry emigrated from Chaucer’s England north to the Scots, where William Dunbar wrote his elegy for the makers—in Greek, a poet is a “maker”—and grieved over twenty-five dead and dying Scots poets.


September 10, 2017

Prompt: Running

We all run.

Babies can't wait to stand and walk because they really want to run. That is running for the joy of running, but people run for other reasons and in other ways. We run toward things and people. Sometimes we run away.

A Baby Running Barefoot by D. H. Lawrence

When the bare feet of the baby beat across the grass
The little white feet nod like white flowers in the wind,
They poise and run like ripples lapping across the water;
And the sight of their white play among the grass
Is like a little robin’s song, winsome,
Or as two white butterflies settle in the cup of one flower
For a moment, then away with a flutter of wings.

I long for the baby to wander hither to me
Like a wind-shadow wandering over the water,
So that she can stand on my knee
With her little bare feet in my hands,
Cool like syringa buds,
Firm and silken like pink young peony flowers.

We think of D.H. Lawrence as a novelist but his first-published works were poems and he continued to write poems throughout his life. This innocent poem is not what we typically associate with Lawrence's writing but it captures the youth joy of running.

Not all running is done by humans.  Edward Baugh's poem "Running River Water" is an example of that use, though in his poem there is a "deep river woman."

As our model poem for this month's writing prompt on the Poets Online website, we are using
Afaa Michael Weaver's poem "Losing the 440-Yard Dash." In that poem, the runner wants the joy of that child. He wants to fly, not as a child but as a man - no, as a warrior.

I wanted more than being human, a warrior
of field and track would be bursting out now
ripping open my chest with masculinity 
to make Jesse Owens proud or jealous,
or inspired or something other than me
the pulling-up caboose slower than mud

Running holds the possibilities of joy and fear. For your poem, someone might be running toward or away, or for some other goal. Or it may not be a person that is doing the running at all.

Deadline for submissions to this prompt is Wednesday, October 4, 2017.

September 4, 2017

Teaching Poetry

The most recent episode of the Poetry Off the Shelf podcast was a back-to-school episode. The title is what caught my attention: "Teaching Poetry in Times Like These."

Do we change what we teach because of the times we teach in? The podcast doesn't mention President Trump but it surely is alluding to the current administration as part of the turmoil of the times.

Of course, poems change - or our feelings and interpretations change - depending on the time when we read them.

I won't be in a classroom teaching this fall, but I don't know if I would be selecting reading selections based on the politics and news of the day.

What I would heartily agree with that the teacher interviewed in the program says is that teachers need to give their students choice and a voice.

The classroom is where poetry connects with young people and also where they can disconnect from poetry.

Listen to the podcast (14 minutes) online at

August 25, 2017



As a student, you tend to read poetry in anthologies, and certain poems are often anthologized and so become "the canon" that is taught.  I had to buy the Norton Anthology of Poetry in a college class along with many other undergraduates.

I saw an article on the Most Anthologized Poems of the Last 25 Years. It has the usual suspects on the list. If you look at the top dozen -
  1. William Carlos Williams, “The Red Wheelbarrow”
  2. T. S. Eliot, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
  3. T. S. Eliot, “The Waste Land”
  4. Robert Frost, “Birches”
  5. Robert Lowell, “For the Union Dead”
  6. Robert Lowell, “Skunk Hour”
  7. Ezra Pound, “The River-Merchant’s Wife : a Letter”
  8. W. H. Auden, “Musee des Beaux Arts”
  9. Elizabeth Bishop, “One Art”
  10. Gwendolyn Brooks, “We Real Cool”
  11. Emily Dickinson, “Because I could not stop for Death –”
  12. Robert Frost, “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”
- you'll see poems you read in a classroom, but what you don't see are many contemporary poets and poems. That is partially about publishing, copyright and paying for the reprint rights. Older poems are cheaper or perhaps even free. You will always find public domain poems and classics included in anthologies.

Not that I wouldn't suggest reading all of the top 25 poems. And poetry anthologies are a good way to discover poets that you can then read in their own collections. 

Was there a poet you discovered by reading their work in an anthology?  Add your anthology comments below.

August 14, 2017

Emily Dickinson on Gilligan's Island

In reading a post online about some Emily Dickinson trivial curiosities and the one that struck me again (because I heard Billy Collins talk about it years ago in a workshop) was her connection to the castaways on Gilligan's Island.

If you want to sing most of her poems (and I could imagine myself doing this with students), use the theme to TV's 1960s "classic" Gilligan's Island.

Give it a try and sing this first stanza of "Because I Could Not Stop For Death."   (If somehow the melody of "The Ballad Of Gilligan's Isle" is not burned into your neurons deeper than any poem, give a listen below)

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

And the why of this working is that Emily usually used the "common meter" in her poems. The TV theme also uses it, and it is used in lots of nursery rhymes and Protestant hymns. It's four beats followed by three beats.

Wikipedia tells us that common meter (or metre or common measure) is a poetic meter consisting of four lines which alternate between iambic tetrameter (four metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) and iambic trimeter (three metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).

It has historically been used for ballads such as "Tam Lin", and hymns such as "Amazing Grace" and the Christmas carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem". The upshot of this commonality is that lyrics of one song can be sung to the tune of another. This ca make for some great singalongs around the campfire. For example, "Advance Australia Fair", the national anthem of Australia, can be sung to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." "Amazing Grace" can be done to the tune of "Material Girl".

But I am quite happy to just imagine Emily on the beach with Ginger and Maryann, swinging in their hammocks, drinking from a coconut and singing her poems to the delight and total misunderstanding of all those around her.

If it is raining on your summer day, trying singing Emily's "Summer Shower" poem.

A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away.