January 14, 2018

Prompt: Poems and Song Lyrics

Having gone through high school in the late 1960s, several of the younger English teachers brought popular song lyrics into our poetry lessons to entice us beyond Keats, Frost and the rest of the anthology club.

One of my teachers was a big Simon and Garfunkel fan, as was I. I still recall a lesson reading  "Richard Cory" by E.A. Robinson and then listening to their song version.  My first thought in seeing the original poem was that Simon had basically plagiarized the poem. But Mr. Reece, my teacher, talked about how Paul had changed the point of view to one of Cory's workers, and how that changed the poem for a reader.

In the following weeks, I wrote several terrible songs with my guitar based on poems that I liked. (Never ask me to sing my Frostian "Miles to Go" song.)

The other poem/song combination in that class session was Simon's "I Am a Rock" along with Donne's poem "No Man Is an Island." Here the differences were more obvious. It was more that the Donne poem, and really just one image, acted as a writing prompt for Paul Simon.

Our teachers probably hoped that beyond sparking our interest in poetry, we might make the leap to read more of Robinson or Donne beyond what was in the anthology. I did, though most of my classmates did not.

I liked Robinson's poems, many of which were like short stories.

Songs based on poems are fairly common. There are a good number of direct interpretations as when Natalie Merchant uses poems, such as Emily Dickinson's "Because I Could Not Stop for Death." 

This month we are going to try writing a poem from an existing song. But we are not looking to imitate the song or even use lines from the song. A better model, though in the reverse direction, might be Paul Simon's "I Am a Rock" which takes inspiration, but does not merely imitate John Donne's poem.


A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window
To the streets below
On a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow

I am a rock
I am an island

I’ve built walls
A fortress, steep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain

Don’t talk of love
Well, I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
And I won’t disturb the slumber
Of feelings that have died
If I never loved, I never would have cried

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me

I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

- Paul Simon


No man is an island entire of itself; every man
is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe
is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as
well as any manner of thy friends or of thine
own were; any man's death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

- John Donne

For this prompt, select any song as your inspiration. Indicate at the top or bottom of your poem what song/composer/artist you used. You might select some lines to repurpose. You might use themes from the song in your own poem. The original should serve as a contrasting view or extension to your poem, rather than being just another version of it.

Submission deadline: February 7, 2018 

December 29, 2017

Finding Poems in Prompts

Years ago, I was in a haiku workshop where the teacher gave us a find-a-word puzzle as a writing prompt and asked us to look it over and write down the first three words we saw. We were then to use each of those words in a different line of a haiku.

Many writing prompts seem "artificial." You are asked to "write about an article of clothing you once owned that you wish you still had." How odd. But in another workshop where that was a prompt, my friend, Jim, wrote a beautiful poem about his father's coat that hung on a hook by the back door for most of his childhood. And when Jim read that first version of his poem, I was prompted to write a poem about the Navy pea coat my father wore in WWII and that I wore after he died. Why did I give it away?

Below is that original find-a-word puzzle that I found in with some poetry papers during my annual end-of-year cleanout. If you need a bonus prompt to write something here at year's end, try this: Look over the puzzle below and write down the first 5 words you find and then use each as part of a line of a poem about the year that is ending.

Of course, you could also find just 3 words and write a haiku, or get into puzzling and find 14 for a sonnet or any variation.

I think the value of writing prompts is that they can push you into places you would not have otherwise gone in your writing. It seems counterintuitive that given as "assignment" you have more freedom. In the same way, forms are freeing. As a young poet, I despised formal poetry in my own writing. It seemed like I was being forced to select a word or line break etc. when I didn't want it. But my imagination was forced to not only conform to the form or prompt, but find creative ways to do it.

If you like the poem that comes from this little prompt, post it as a comment here and put the words you found and used in CAPITAL letters.

December 15, 2017

Stanley Kunitz's 'Touch Me' and Love in the Garden

Our December prompt on pilgrims and pilgrimages talked about my own short journey to the garden of Stanley Kunitz and I want to his final poem from his Collected Poems.

I was at the reading captured here on video at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival held at Waterloo Village in New Jersey. There was an electricity that ran through the audience as he read, and a standing ovation when he finished.

Touch Me” is a love poem that takes place in that garden. In his old age, as a storm approaches and he stakes his plants for protection, he ponders the seasons in a life. To his question“What makes the engine go?” he answers  “Desire, desire, desire.”

It is the last poem he published.

...The longing for the dance
stirs in the buried life.
One season only,
                        and it's done.
So let the battered old willow
thrash against the windowpanes
and the house timbers creak.
Darling, do you remember
the man you married? Touch me,
remind me who I am.

December 9, 2017

Prompt: Pilgrimages

Canterbury Pilgrims by William Blake, 1808

A pilgrim (from the Latin peregrinus) is a traveler. Literally, it is one who has come from afar and commonly it is someone who is on a journey to a holy place. Though we generally think of this as a physical journey, often on foot, to some place of special significance, it can also be other kinds of "journeys."

A pilgrimage is that journey. At one time, these were alway long trips made to some sacred place. But distances can be covered more quickly today, and the journey can be a metaphorical one and the destination can be into someone's own beliefs.

There are many places that pilgrims have made their way to for many years: the Holy Land, Lumbini, Kumbh Mela, The Temple Mount and Mecca. There are also places less well known tat individual make pilgrimages to for their own reasons: to the place where they were born or where they grew up, or where there father or mother lived, a poet's home or...

I know that people also make pilgrimages to a place but really it is to a thing - the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in D.C., a manuscript, a gravesite.

One of the best known books about a pilgrim is John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress. It is an old text (1678) and a difficult read for most modern readers.

The book is presented as a dream sequence told by an omniscient narrator. The allegory's protagonist is Christian, an everyman. His pilgrimage takes him from his hometown, the "City of Destruction" ("this world"), to the "Celestial City" ("that which is to come" - Heaven) atop Mount Zion.

To end 2017, we will write pilgrimage poems this month, and by pilgrimage we mean a journey to a special place or thing, spiritual, if not religious.

Our model poem is "Pilgrimage" by Natasha Trethewey, which is about a journey to Vicksburg, Mississippi.

Her poem incorporates the themes of time, history, and memory as are presented in the first half of her book Native Guard.

Here, the Mississippi carved
            its mud-dark path, a graveyard
for skeletons of sunken riverboats.
            Here, the river changed its course,
turning away from the city
            as one turns, forgetting, from the past—
A kind of pilgrimage that I have made over the years is to the birthplaces, homes and graves of writers. I can't quite explain what I expect to find in these places, but I really enjoy being in the actual places where writers I admire did their work.

My first pilgrimage was to the gravesite of Stephen Crane. I was born in the same city as Crane. I liked his stories and I liked his simple poems a lot when I was a very young poet. His life was short and tragic. He is buried not far from where I grew up. I went there. I made a gravestone rubbing. I took a photo of myself at his grave.

I didn't feel his presence there. No ghosts. No mystical experiences. But in some way, it did change how I thought about him and writing. I've never written a poem about that pilgrimage. I haven't determined, even after all these years, exactly what I want to say about it.

When I spent a week in a poetry workshop in Provincetown on Cape Cod, a few of us in the group wanted to make a pilgrimage to the house - really, the garden - of poet Stanley Kunitz.

We had heard about the garden. We knew it entered into some of his poems. We asked some locals who either protected his privacy, had never heard of him, or gave us rather cryptic directions. But we found it.

His home was modest. A grey shingled cottage on a small hill in the east end. The garden was terraced, built on what was originally a dune that he fertilized with compost and seaweed to have actual soil. As a gardener myself, I felt this connection to him and his poems.

We didn't see Stanley and didn't knock or intrude, but it was great to see it.

I eventually met Stanley a few times at poetry readings at the Dodge Poetry Festivals and in Paterson, New Jersey.  Later, I would find the book, The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden, and also read articles about other Kunitz pilgrims, and I would reread his poems looking for garden references.

If you decide to journey the more traditional religious path in your poem, you can look to some older poems - perhaps, George Herbert's "The Pilgrimage," or a more modern poet traveling to an ancient place, such as in "Different Ways to Pray" by Naomi Shihab Nye.  Here is an excerpt from her poem:

Some prized the pilgrimage,
wrapping themselves in new white linen
to ride buses across miles of vacant sand.
When they arrived at Mecca
they would circle the holy places,
on foot, many times,
they would bend to kiss the earth
and return, their lean faces housing mystery. 
While for certain cousins and grandmothers
the pilgrimage occurred daily,
lugging water from the spring
or balancing the baskets of grapes.
These were the ones present at births,
humming quietly to perspiring mothers.
The ones stitching intricate needlework into children’s dresses,
forgetting how easily children soil clothes.

Religious or not, journey by foot, car or in the imagination - for December, write about a pilgrimage.

Deadline for submissions: December 6, 2018


December 6, 2017

Who Reads Poetry?

Who reads poetry? Poets read poetry. Students read, not always by choice, poetry they are assigned. Who are the other readers of poetry?

Certainly, people get things from poetry that they don't get from reading novels, non-fiction and news.
“It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.”
That's what William Carlos Williams wrote in  "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower" (read an excerpt) a long love poem to his wife that he wrote late in his life.

In the collection Who Reads Poetry: 50 Views from 'Poetry' Magazine, people are asked why they read poetry. The answers are taken from the magazine's column "The View From Here.”

Musician Neko Case calls poetry “a delicate, pretty lady with a candy exoskeleton on the outside of her crepe-paper dress.”

An anthropologist, Helen Fisher, turns to poetry while researching the effects of love on the brain, “As other anthropologists have studied fossils, arrowheads, or pot shards to understand human thought, I studied poetry. . . . I wasn’t disappointed: everywhere poets have described the emotional fallout produced by the brain’s eruptions.”

Ask that question to a Google search and you will find many other people have asked and answered the question.

Dan Chelotti gives many answers, begiinning with: "Read poetry because of the times you have stopped to look at rain fall through the light of a street lamp and wished you knew the words that made it what it was. Read poetry because you are lonely and full of wild abandon. Read poetry so when you are no longer lonely and are wrapping your arms and legs around your beloved your beloved will tell you I have never known arms and legs to have such wild abandon. Read poetry so a part of you stays in what you see, so what you see stays with you..."

Matthew Zapruder covers the question in a bit broader way in his book Why Poetry which attempts to answer not only why we should read it but also why we write it.

If you're reading this blog, the chances are you are a poet and/or a reader of poetry. You're in a select group. We would love to hear your answers too.

Why do you read poetry?

Why do you write poetry?