August 22, 2016


A poem's title can change a lot about how a reader approaches it. I was posting on another blog about book titles and it got me thinking about titles on books and poems.

This month, our writing prompt about triggering a poem also considered the use of a title. 

Novelists have often looked to poets for inspiration. Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust comes from T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land." Haruki Murakami’s borrowed Dance Dance Dance from W.H. Auden’s “Death’s Echo.”

You might think that a writer could come up with an original title, but keep in mind that using an allusion to a poem (or other work) is more than just a literary hat tip because it can lead a reader to the source which might provide additional insight into the new work.

Madeleine L’Engle got her title A Swiftly Tilting Planet  from Conrad Aiken’s “Morning Song of Senlin” and Cormac McCarthy selected No Country for Old Men from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” E.M. Forster found A Passage to India  in Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass."  

Mr. Shakespeare provided titles for many writers from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (from Hamlet) and Joyce Carol Oates (New Heaven, New Earth) to Edith Wharton (The Glimpses of the Moon), and Isaac Asimov (The Gods Themselves) to Dorothy Parker (Not So Deep as a Well).

From this short poem by Stephen Crane, Joyce Carol Oates found her book title, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

I went through an exercise at a poetry workshop where we were given a packet of probably unfamiliar poem that had no titles or authors listed. The idea was to read and discuss the poems and then later see how the title and any knowledge of the poet's life changed our interpretations. How do you read a poem about a woman giving birth when you know it was written by a man?

I gave a reading and included a poem of mine titled "Weekend With Dad." After the reading, a woman came up to me and said she enjoyed the reading, especially that poem because "she was also a single parent."  But I'm not a single parent. And the poem isn't about being a single parent. Or is it? Rereading my poem, through the single parent filter suggested by the title, I see that it very well might be about being a single parent.

In a workshop with poet Billy Collins, he gave us some Chinese poems to read that had very long titles. In fact, several of the poems themselves were shorter than the titles. It led us to look at other poems with and without their titles and we played with giving poems new titles in an attempt to move a reader in another direction.


Collins gives Lu Yu the prize of a simple rice cake for his very long title "In a Boat on a Summer Evening I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird. It Was Very Sad and Seemed To Be Saying My Woman Is Cruel—Moved, I Wrote This Poem."

In that workshop, Billy said that he liked a poem title that invites us into the poem. As he says in his own poem: 
How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner,
cross my legs like his, and listen.

August 12, 2016

Triggering the Poem

Poet Richard Hugo believed that we’ve written every poem we ever loved. He said that he was particularly proud of having written Yeats’ poem Yeats’ “Easter, 1916.”

The Dodge Poetry Festival blog has asked several poets "What great poem are you proud of having written?" One of my first professors of poetry, Alicia Ostriker, said she was "I’m pretty proud of having written Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear. Maria Mazziotti Gillan answered, "I am proud to have written 'somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond' by E.E. Cummings. I often recite it to myself when I’m driving or walking and I find it very comforting. I think it is one of the most beautiful love poems I have ever read."

In his book of poetics, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo offers a series of essays about what triggers poems.

He argues against the often heard idea that a writer should “write what you know.” Instead, he suggests an approach to poetry based on triggering subjects and words.

In one essay, he explains triggering subjects, using the example of towns, as points of entry into the realm of the imagination.

Again, opposing the write-what-you-know, he suggests that new poets might try to own an imagined, or barely-known, town, rather than trying to convey their actual hometown. That hometown, he feels, may be one in which “the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns.” Then, the poet can focus on the play and music of the language.

At this point, the poet's private language, personal connections and certain words that have rich associations for the poet can move the poem forward.
“Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feel­ings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”
Hugo's book is not about writing prompts, but it does offer a lot of advice. Here are some examples:
  1. “Don’t write with a pen. Ink tends to give the impression the words shouldn’t be changed. 
  2. Write in a hard-covered notebook with green lined pages. Green is easy on the eyes. Blank white pages seems to challenge you to create the world before you start writing. It may be true that you, the modern poet, must make the world as you go, but why be reminded of it before you even have one word on the page?
  3. Don’t erase. Cross out rapidly and violently, never with slow consideration if you can help it.
  4. Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
  5. Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.
  6. Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: One.  
  7. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
We might choose one of Hugo's more obvious "town" poems such as "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" or "Glen Uig" as examples of his "triggering town" approach. But I chose his poem "The Church On Comiaken Hill."

As with this month's writing prompt, the title is the trigger. In this case, the trigger is a place.

In the poem, we explore the place, both by seeing what the poet saw, and what no one can see with their eyes - such as the Indians who were once there.

I did a simple search and found that real church. You don't need the history to understand the poem, but the history does help you see why it triggered the poem.

Your assignment this month is first to tell us up front in your title what it was that triggered the poem. Second, your poem needs to begin rather literally with that triggering person, place or thing, but then it needs to move beyond that to things we would not know even if we encountered that trigger. It should be two stanzas.

Of course, that second stanza is what makes it your poem. It contains what it triggered in you that might not be triggered in any other poet.

The submission deadline for this prompt is September 7, 2016.

August 3, 2016

Darwin in Verse

You know Charles Darwin as the author of On the Origin of Species, a book that launched a scientific revolution - and still causes arguments with some people for introducing evolution.

He was a writer. He labored over that book and withheld it from publication until the time when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, independently reached the same conclusions.

He also kept a diary that’s actually interesting to read.

“On the one hand he was trying to write very, very accurately,” says Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter (and Oxford poetry professor) Ruth Padel. “And on the other hand he was trying to write vividly, to convey his own enthusiasm for what he was seeing.”

She was fascinated by her ancestor’s artistic soul, more than his scientific mind and it inspired her to write a biography of Darwin entirely in verse.

How would Charles darwin have felt about the book? Darwin wrote, “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

Charles Darwin was born in 1809. He lost his mother at the age of eight and repressed all memory of her.

His five-year voyage on H.M.S. Beagle, when he was in his twenties, changed his life. When he returned home, he began publishing his findings and working privately on the groundbreaking theories about the development of animal species, including human beings., and he made a nervous proposal to his cousin Emma.

Darwin: A Life in Poems  is an interpretation of the life and work of Charles Darwin by Ruth Padel.

Charles and Emma

More than his work as a naturalist, she focuses on his marriage to Emma and their ten children.

His theories came between Charles and Emma because of the differences between her deep Christian faith and his increasing religious doubt. The death of three of their children made those differences more severe.

Although Darwin didn't really use the expression "survival of the fittest," Padel sees Darwin's views on death and extinction as nature’s way of developing new species. But, for his wife, death was a prelude to the afterlife.

July 30, 2016

Your Life Is a Poem

In the new episode of ON BEING, "Your Life Is a Poem," poet Naomi Shihab Nye talks about growing up in Ferguson, Missouri and on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Her father was a refugee Palestinian journalist, and through her poetry, she carries forward his hopeful passion, his insistence, that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity.

Your life is a poem. This is how the poet Naomi Shihab Nye sees the world, and she teaches how that way of being and writing is possible. She’s engaged the real world power of words through her upbringing between her father’s Palestinian homeland and Ferguson, Missouri. Her mother was American. Her father was a refugee journalist, and she carries forward his hopeful passion, his insistence, that language must be a way out of cycles of revenge and animosity. A poem she wrote called “Kindness,” that was written in a moment of trauma, is carried around in the pockets and memories of readers around the world.
Listen to the podcast

July 20, 2016

Rumi on death

Death is a dialogue between me and myself.
No one else is interested in the discussion

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, known more popularly simply as Rumi was a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. His poems have been widely translated into many of the world's languages and transposed into various formats. Rumi has been described as the "most popular poet" and the "best selling poet" in the United States.

I first encountered Rumi at a Dodge Poetry Festival through the translations by Coleman Barks. I was reading some poems randomly in The Essential Rumi today and noticed that I kept landing upon poems about death.

That sounds pretty depressing, but the poems are not grim. Here are two I found.

I’ve said before that every craftsman
searches for what’s not there
to practice his craft.

A builder looks for the rotten hole
where the roof caved in. A water-carrier
picks the empty pot. A carpenter
stops at the house with no door.

Workers rush toward some hint
of emptiness, which they then
start to fill. Their hope, though,
is for emptiness, so don’t think
you must avoid it. It contains
what you need!

This is how strange your fear of death
and emptiness is, and how perverse
the attachment to what you want.

No end, no end to the journey
no end, no end never.
How can the heart in love
ever stop opening.
If you love me,
you won’t just die once.
In every moment
you will die into me
to be reborn.

Into this new love, die.

Your way begins
on the other side
become the sky
take an axe to the prison wall,
walk out like someone
suddenly born into color.
Do it now!

July 12, 2016

Roads Not Taken

One poem that you can safely assume that an American student has encountered is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." It is in many anthologies used in schools and has become a phrase used by people who may not even know the source. It's so much of a classic, that it's almost a cliché.

An article by Katherine Robinson on goes into greater detail than your high school English teacher may have in discussing the poem.

Did you know that Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” as a joke for a friend? That friends was fellow poet Edward Thomas who took walks with Frost. Apparently, Thomas was quite indecisive about the path to take and sometimes expressed regrets later about the one not taken.

Frost wrote the poem in 1915 and told Thomas that after reading the poem at a college, he was surprised that the audience had been “taken pretty seriously … despite doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling. … Mea culpa.”

From the poem's opening decision about choosing a road, to the conclusion that the choice has made all the difference, there is an odd and somewhat surprising word journey.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Initially, the speaker wishes he travel both roads, but admits that the one he took looked "just as fair" as the other and people using both roads had "worn them really about the same.”  Despite the usual interpretation of the poem, it's important to note that the two roads are more similar than not - "And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."

This month's prompt is to consider roads not taken. Of course, roads come in many forms - not all looking like a road.

So, is this a classic poem that is prompting us to write about choices and decisions and regret?

Frost wrote this poem when Europe was deep into WWI and a year before America would enter the war. Frost sent the poem to his friend Edward Thomas, who, like many readers to follow, did not see it as a joke (about him) but as a serious meditation on decision-making. He may have even connected the poem with the war and America's entry into it. Shortly after receiving this poem in a letter, Thomas enlisted in the army and was killed in France two months later.

At the end of the poem, the speaker says he will "be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence."  Is that a sigh of content or regret?

The answer depends on how you view the final lines:

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Has the difference been a good one or is there the regret of the opening? The speaker really would like to have taken both roads, but knows "how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back."

And if both roads were both very similar, how much of a difference would there have been in his life if he had chosen the other?

There are certainly "roads" you did not take, but that may have been a good or bad decision. It may not have been been your choice. Or you may have make the choice casually or quite unaware that it would carry any significant consequences.

Submission Deadline: August 7, 2016

July 8, 2016

Conversations: When Is a Poem Finished?


People often cite the poet Paul Valéry as the source of the quote " A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned."  That is actually a paraphrase of Valéry by W. H. Auden from 1965. (See W. H. Auden: Collected Poems "Author's Forewords.") What Valéry originally wrote was less of a sound bite: "A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations." But many poets can identify with the sentiments in either.

When do you let go of a poem and stop revising?

An article about Marianne Moore and her continual revision compares her to any contemporary poet who uses software like Word and "tacks changes" leaving digital footprints of where the poem has traveled.

Moore doesn't seem to have ever been satisfied that her poems were completed. Her poem “Poetry,” first appeared in 1919 and was about 30. In the published 1967 version it was down to 3 lines. She also changed titles - "A Graveyard” became “A Grave,” for example.

In the Internet age, we have lots changes made to things published online - from simple typos in a poem or a Facebook post, to Wikipedia entries (always being revised). Lots of revisionist history.

Google Docs tracks each edit to the page. But if you're well known and post a Tweet, then decide to delete it after you get some bad feedback, chances are the original has been captured in a screenshot by someone for posterity.

When is a poem finished for you?  Pre-digital, when I wrote all my poetry in longhand on paper, I saved all the drafts which included revisions and proofreading changes. When I typed the poem, I considered it finished. As a hunt-and-peck typist, retyping something was an effort and I avoided it. When an electric typewriter with a correction tool appeared, and then with the first word processors, it was so much easier that I increased my revisions.

For me, most of my poems are finished when they are published. I can only think of two times when I changed a poem after it appeared in a publication. Perhaps, if I ever make it to the point where I need to put together that "Selected Poems" collection, that will change.

That article views Moore with the ways she changed her work as "more of a digital-age artist than any of her contemporaries. Her poems were as malleable as something written online."

I actually know several very well known poets who still avoid the computer, email and word processing. Two of them have "typists" who interpret their handwriting and print copies which they edit with a pencil and give back for retyping. There may be some thoughtful advantages to that process, and some of you might do the same thing even though you are your own typist.

As another of our online "Conversations," let us know in a comment here about your revision process and particularly how you know when a poem is finished. Are you easy about letting go, or do you revise until as long as you can, like Marianne Moore?

July 1, 2016

Allusions to 'The Wasteland'

As an undergrad, I was quite enamored by the poetry of T.S. Eliot. It started with Prufrock and "The Wasteland" and led me to The Four Quartets.  I was in love with all the allusions to other poems, mythology etc. It impressed me. It was a puzzle.

I'm not as enamored by poetry that is a puzzle as I used to be, but I still admire Eliot's poetry.

There continue to be allusions to Eliot in pop culture, especially in music - Genesis, Manic Street Preachers, Arcade Fire and Bob Dylan are all artists that have used Eliot's poetry in their lyrics.

Bob Dylan references "The Waste Land" with the line “in the wasteland of your mind” from “When The Night Comes Falling from the Sky” and in his “Desolation Row” he has “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower” - probably over the edits Pound made to the poem.

Via Open Culture, I found a clip of Dylan riffing on "The Waste Land" on his Theme Time Radio Hour show that he did about ten years ago.

After listening to that, you might to hear the real thing read by Tom himself. He's not a great reader, but he does pronounce words and break lines as he intended them to be.

When I read "The Wasteland" in college I read it with a woman classmate that I was also enamored with, and one of things we shared was poetry. She was also into astrology and she really liked this section of the poem.

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days. 

June 24, 2016

Hermann Hesse on Books and Reading

Books and reading don't always get a lot of respect and attention these days.

German-born Swiss writer and painter Hermann Hesse wrote an essay titled “The Magic of the Book” in 1930 that is a reminder about why we love to read books and how important that simple act can be.

The essay is in his posthumously published My Belief: Essays on Life and Art.

Among the many worlds that man did not receive as a gift from nature but created out of his own mind, the world of books is the greatest… Without the word, without the writing of books, there is no history, there is no concept of humanity. And if anyone wants to try to enclose in a small space, in a single house or a single room, the history of the human spirit and to make it his own, he can only do this in the form of a collection of books...

We need not fear a future elimination of the book. On the contrary, the more that certain needs for entertainment and education are satisfied through other inventions, the more the book will win back in dignity and authority. For even the most childish intoxication with progress will soon be forced to recognize that writing and books have a function that is eternal. It will become evident that formulation in words and the handing on of these formulations through writing are not only important aids but actually the only means by which humanity can have a history and a continuing consciousness of itself...

The great and mysterious thing about this reading experience is this: the more discriminatingly, the more sensitively, and the more associatively we learn to read, the more clearly we see every thought and every poem in its uniqueness, its individuality, in its precise limitations and see that all beauty, all charm depend on this individuality and uniqueness — at the same time we come to realize ever more clearly how all these hundred thousand voices of nations strive toward the same goals, call upon the same gods by different names, dream the same wishes, suffer the same sorrows. Out of the thousandfold fabric of countless languages and books of several thousand years, in ecstatic instants there stares at the reader a marvelously noble and transcendent chimera: the countenance of humanity, charmed into unity from a thousand contradictory features.

Hermann Hesse (1877-1962) was born in Germany and later became a citizen of Switzerland. As a Western man profoundly affected by the mysticism of Eastern thought, he wrote many novels, stories, and essays that bear a vital spiritual force that has captured the imagination and loyalty of many generations of readers. In 1946, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Glass Bead Game.

June 17, 2016

Dear Poet - 2016

Many classrooms participated in this year’s Dear Poet Project during National Poetry Month writing letters to poets. The Academy of American Poets received over 1,300 letters!

Take a look at the correspondences between students and poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors: