November 22, 2015

"Sunday Morning" at 100

"Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” (1915) is a lofty poetic meditation—almost a philosophical discourse—rooted in a few basic questions: what happens to us when we die? Can we believe seriously in an afterlife? If we can’t, what comfort can we take in the only life we get? As World War I intensified and Stevens neared middle age, he broached these subjects with quiet urgency in a poem as beautiful as it is difficult. 
Although “Sunday Morning” is considered Stevens’s breakthrough poem, it wasn’t published until he was 36. It debuted in Poetry magazine during a year that brought several other Modernist milestones, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Marianne Moore’s first professionally published poems, and a major Imagist anthology coedited by the poets Richard Aldington and H.D. Compared with these experiments by younger writers—and with many of the poems later collected in Stevens’s first book,  Harmonium (1923)—“Sunday Morning” innovates in a mellower and statelier mode. "
read the full article

read "Sunday Morning" 

The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens

November 15, 2015

Poetry Shops

It may not be happening in your hometown, but poetry stores are appearing in some U.S. cities that have active literary communities.

In Boulder, Cambridge, Milwaukee and Seattle these stores are considered "niche retail." While brick and mortar bookstores have been hit hard by online sellers like Amazon, these shops supply a definite niche in poetry.

An article in The New Yorker describes what it calls The Curious Persistence of Poetry Shops, they say that "The countercultural appeal of poetry, like that of art, makes it a relatively easy sell to a population willing to shop for things that they don’t necessarily need but might covet as a form of self-expression. That niche is centuries old, and enduring."

One shop featured is Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop which is New York's only all poetry bookstore. The shop describes itself as "a bookstore that sells poetry books and chapbooks; A space that celebrates art, creativity, performance, and the handmade, and a partner to many small presses local to Brooklyn, around the country, and worldwide.

Are there any poetry shops in your town?

November 1, 2015

Prompt: The Ode and the Body

For National Poetry Month last year, poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors participated in Poet-to-Poet, a multimedia educational project. Through videos, they invited young people in grades three to twelve to write poems in response to those shared by the poets.  Here is one of those poems.

"My Skeleton" by Jane Hirshfield

After reading the poem, Jane talks in the video about the poem and tells us it is an ode. “Ode” is from the Greek aeidein, meaning to sing or chant. It is an old form of lyric poetry which would have originally been accompanied by music and dance.

The Romantic poets used it as a way to formally address an event, a person, or a thing not present.
There are three typical types of odes: the Pindaric, Horatian, and Irregular. You can check into the more formal aspects of each, but we're being more general in our approach this month.

William Wordsworth's poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood” is an example of an English language Pindaric ode.

The Horatian ode (named for the Roman poet Horace) is more contemplative, less formal, less ceremonious, and less theatrical. Look at the Allen Tate poem “Ode to the Confederate Dead.
The Irregular ode is just that. “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats was actually written based on his experiments with the sonnet.

Others: Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind," Robert Creeley’s “America," Bernadette Mayer’s “Ode on Periods," and Robert Lowell’s “Quaker Graveyard in Nantucket.”

For this month, we ask you to write an ode that focuses on the body. Jane Hirshfield's poem opens with her direct address to the skeleton.

My skeleton,
you who once ached
with your own growing larger
She follows chronologically, following the skeleton as it ages.
each year
imperceptibly smaller,
absorbed by your own
Generally, the aging of the body is not a kind thing.
Angular wristbone's arthritis,
cracked harp of ribcage
And finally, she concludes with this beautiful image of its life work.
You who held me all my life
inside your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.
Our November prompt is an ode about a part of the body.  I suppose the skeleton is a part of the body, although it is made up of many smaller parts. That is true of the ear, the hand and the brain, so you might want to choose a specific part. You might choose the nose, a breast, the mouth, lips, tongue or a thumb. So many options. You don't need to get down to an anatomical level (although that might be interesting) and you could easily be like those Romantic poets in your approach.

One ode I heard read aloud by the poet several times is "Homage to My Hips" by Lucille Clifton. It is a short poem that probably would not count as an ode by Horatio's standards, but I'm fine with it as an ode.

Homage To My Hips

these hips are big hips.
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top


September 20, 2015

Rhyming Dictionary

For some of our writing prompts, rhyme might be important. That is true of our September 2015 prompt about light verse.

There are lots of online and print rhyming dictionaries available. A while back, Janis, who runs a site with a rhyming dictionary and other creative writing tools for poets called, offered me the code for a widget to add a rhyming dictionary to my website.

I also added it to our own poet links page.

Give it a try.

Enter a word in the search box above.
Provided by Rhyme Desk

September 19, 2015

Prompt: Verse Goes Light with Garrison Keillor

Everyone seems concerned with losing weight, watching calories and avoiding heavy foods these days. It seems natural that we might want our verse a bit lighter too.

I imagine that many of you also listen or read Garrison Keillor's Writers Almanac for a poem to start the day. He has also edited several anthologies of his favorite poems, but he has also published O, What a Luxury: Verses Lyrical, Vulgar, Pathetic and Profound.

The title says it pretty succinctly. Some light verse is lyrical, some vulgar, some pathetic.

Keillor says that when he was in high school an English teacher tried to interest him in "Mr. Frost's guy who stopped in the woods to see snow fall and Mr. Eliot's guy who was not sure whether he should eat a peach" but that didn't work. It was "like serving bran flakes to someone who'd eaten buttermilk pancakes slathered with maple syrup."

Maybe you have read Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear or Ogden Nash or even W.S. Gilbert or, as Keillor has it "the great Anon." Light verse may be an acquired taste, but no one seems to consider it gourmet dining. It's more like acquiring a taste for cotton candy.

There are many notable poets in this genre and many "regular" poets who dabbled in light verse. Even serious Mr. Eliot wrote that book of cat poems that went on to be a long-running Broadway play.

Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats ("Old Possum" was Ezra Pound's nickname for him) was Tom's shot at light verse. After Eliot's death, the book was adapted as the basis of the musical Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber.

Here is one of Garrison Keillor's poems that I like in this genre:


The seventeen-year cicada crawls out of the ground
And looks around from a wall or a low-hanging limb—
He looks for her and she discovers him.
Courtship does not extend for months.
Their only job is to have sex once.
No long interlude of pleasant reminiscing about days gone by.
Just buzz and whir and thank you sir and then you die.
Cicada love does not involve poetry or song.
Was it good for you? Thanks. So long.

What is this light poetry, or light verse? I would say that it attempts to be humorous (not the same thing as "funny" as anyone who has ever read an anthology of humor). They are usually brief. They can be on a frivolous or serious subject. You'll want to feature some word play, including puns, adventurous rhyme and alliteration.

There are plenty of anthologies of light verse and the journal Light is a source of new poems. I was delighted to see that one of my online friends, Toby Speed, has the "Poem of the Week" on their site. Hers is a good, terse example of all the "rules" I listed above. Of course, poets of light verse laugh and make puns from rules.

How to Use a Lemon

Squeeze some into tea.
Frizzle off the zest.
Add it to piccata
and pith away the rest.

~ Toby Speed

This prompt is open to submissions until the deadline: October 18, 2015

August 30, 2015

Elizabeth Alexander's Memoir Connects to Readers

via NPR
You may know the acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander from her reading at President Obama's 2009 swearing-in ceremony.

Alexander, who teaches at Yale, published a new book earlier this year — but it's not poetry. The Light of the World is a memoir of the 16 years she shared with her husband Ficre, until his sudden death a few years ago.

He died of cardiac arrest while running on a treadmill at home, just before his 50th birthday, leaving behind Alexander and their two sons. Since the book came out, Alexander says, she finds herself in the role of collector; people present her with objects as a way of responding to her loss — pictures, letters, stories and more.

She tells NPR's Michele Norris that nothing had prepared her for this. "I never imagined — in fact, I was quite certain I would never write a memoir. My own sense of privacy was too powerful," she says. "When I sat down to write, I didn't sit down to write this. I simply wrote as an extension of my hand, as an extension of my body, trying to stay absolutely grounded with my hand on a table, with my feet on the ground, planted on an Earth that had so suddenly seemed unstable."

August 15, 2015

Prompt: Directions Home

Years ago, I was interested to see a feature in The Saturday Review each issue that was called "Writer's Desk." The idea was simple. It showed a writer's actual desk and explained a bit about how they worked there. I always thought that I might gain some insight into writing or writers by knowing about the how and where of their writing. It is a questionable theory, but when I visit a writer's home I am still interested in seeing their writing space.

Thinking about Charles Bukowski's battered desk looking over the Los Angeles harbor or Raymond Carver staring out his Port Angeles, Washington window across the Strait of Juan de Fuca and thinking about going fishing, did give me a bit of a sense about their writing.

So, I looked at Emily Dickinson's home and Wallace Steven's house looking for clues. I walked through Walt Whitman's home in Camden, New Jersey looking for signs of his ecstatic poems, wandering spirit and curiosity.

I was interested to see that a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera, who was recently named Poet Laureate of the United States, was used during National Poetry Month as a writing prompt about home.

Juan Felipe Herrera reads “Five Directions to My House” as part of National Poetry Month 2014.

Five Directions to My House

1. Go back to the grain yellow hills where the broken speak of elegance
2. Walk up to the canvas door, the short bed stretched against the clouds
3. Beneath the earth, an ant writes with the grace of a governor
4. Blow, blow Red Tail Hawk, your hidden sleeve—your desert secrets
5. You are there, almost, without a name, without a body, go now
6. I said five, said five like a guitar says six.

Actually, I was more interested in the responses to his poem by students. Here are two of the poems written in response to Herrea's poem.

Six Ways to the Sky by Leyla, age 9

Turn around go to the end of the long bridge
Into the wave of clouds under the colorless arch
Under the heat of the center core.
Over the peregrine falcon flying fast as the race car
Out of the endless underwater cave
Around the wheel of fortune, around, around, around the wheel.
I said six, said six like a rainbow says seven.

Five Minutes to My House by Ilyssa, age 18

the mountain cradles the rising sun as it leaves
a warm pink collection of colors in the air.
Bright, brutal sunlight turns the sky on
like an electrical switch and the sky becomes

the staccato of a wood pecker tapping on my roof
in the morning stirs me awake.

an endless stretch of rocks and dirt, harsh
to the eyes, a barren desolate land.

a dead bunny carcass lies on the newly
paved road, it ran towards the wheels of a
car. Now, it’s left behind a sore sight
for all except hungry lone scavengers.

time, time slips through the fingers like
yellow grains of sand left behind on a beach.
Even time moves slowly in this eternal home.

Your writing prompt is to write a poem that gives directions (in any format) to your house or any particular house - including the home of a poet - take a look at my earlier post about writer's homes.

Submissions to this prompt are due by September 6, 2015.

August 13, 2015

At Home With Poets and Writers

Does Robert Frost's Franconia, NH home fit his poetry?

The Saturday Review used to include a Writer's Desk page with a photo and brief piece about where a writer did their writing. Those writers included Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. That led me to explore both in person and online the homes of other writers. Perhaps, looking at a writer's writing space gives some clues to what they wrote or how they wrote. Perhaps.

Take a peek at the homes of Wallace Stevens, Emily Dickinson, Paul Dunbar and Walt Whitman.

President Abraham Lincoln had written a poem about his home, which opens with this stanza

My childhood home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There’s pleasure in it too.

and ends with this:

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.

The boathouse in Wales where Dylan Thomas spent the last 4 years of his life. did a feature on the home in poetry in which they say the home can be a "mythic, imagined place, the location of childhood memories, or the brick-and-mortar remainder of a broken relationship. It can represent the proverbial 'room of one’s own,' the simple pleasures of eating and gardening, or hold the drudgery of chores."

Stanley Kunitz said in an interview that, “There was a cloud that hung over our house in Worcester, Massachusetts and it took me almost fifty years or more before I could face it in a poem [The Portrait].”

The "cloud" was formed by the deaths of his father who publicly committed suicide weeks before Kunitz’s birth, and the death of his stepfather and both of his sisters.

W.H. Auden wrote a collection, About the House in which the home becomes an extension of the self.

I suppose I must be quite at home in the world of poetry, because I got 9 out of 10 correct on The Guardian's quiz about poets' houses.Any guesses about what writers used these homes?

I used to believe that I could be a better and more productive writer if I had an isolated cabin in the woods in order to write. I suspect many of you have fantasized about having a place in the woods, a mountaintop or island retreat where we could go and find inspiration and peace.

There is no good evidence that those places actually do inspire writers or allow them to focus, and there are plenty of writers who work in cities and at home surrounded by distractions. 

If you are interested in this topic, you might enjoy reading The Writing Life: Writers On How They Think And Work, American Writers at Home and Writers' Houses.

We know that a writer’s genius does not come from the place where they do their writing. But I think that when writers find some kind of retreat or escape their homes for a place to write, that does tell you something about them, and that space may actually be the inspiration for their writing. I like knowing about a writer’s tools. Pad and paper, or fountain pen, legal pads, an old manual typewriter or a laptop computer? I like seeing where writers work.
John Updike at his desk - from Jill Krementz's The Writer's Desk

July 18, 2015

The Letters of Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti and a 40-year Friendship

The letters of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti chart a 40-year friendship and two storied careers.

"The story now feels nearly inevitable. In 1955, Allen Ginsberg moved into an apartment in the San Francisco North Beach area, just a few blocks away from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Bookshop. Ginsberg showed the fledging publisher his work, and Ferlinghetti was intrigued. He attended an event at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, where Ginsberg recited part of “Howl” for the first time. A few days later, Ferlinghetti sent the poet a telegram: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he cabled, echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s legendary note to Walt Whitman. “When do I get the manuscript of ‘Howl’?”

So began a decades-long relationship between the two men, as writer and publisher and as friends. From 1955 until Ginsberg’s death in 1997, they exchanged letters on matters large and small, from the 1957 obscenity charges that Ferlinghetti faced as the publisher of Howl to Ginsberg’s precarious finances (“I’m broke, dumb, writeless and nowhere. Send on royalties as soon as you can,” wrote Ginsberg in 1958). They sent each other thoughtful editorial notes and breezy accounts of their far-flung travels. In the early years, letters were their principal mode of communication, and their correspondence tracks not only the arc of their storied careers but also the palpable affection and respect the two men had for each other..."

continue reading at

July 14, 2015

Prompt: Haibun Combines Prose and Haiku

This month we look at a short Japanese poetry form called the haibun.  The haibun (translated as "haikai writings" is a form that combines prose and haiku.

Matsuo "Basho" Kinsaku 
Haibun poems are used to write autobiography, diary, essay, prose poems, very short stories. It was used as a kind of travel journal when it was first used by the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. It was a form he popularized. He wrote haibun as travel accounts. The most famous are in  Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior).

Haibun continued to be written by later haikai poets such as Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki. 

Not all of Bashō's haibun are devoted to travel. They also are character sketches, landscape scenes, and occasional poems to honor a specific patron or event. His "Hut of the Phantom Dwelling" is a quite long prose essay followed by the haiku:

Among these summer trees, 
a pasania- 
something to count on 

(A pasania is a tree species of Asia, sometimes called in English a "stone oak" because of its very hard acorn-like nuts.)

Traditional haibun typically took the form of a short, precise prose description of a place, person or object, or a diary of a journey or other events in the poet's life, followed by a related haiku.

Haibun is now wriiten worldwide and the form has been adapted into different variations. The basic rules for the haibun are simple.
  1. Unlike haiku, they begin with a title. 
  2. The prose portion is terse, descriptive and written in the first person singular. 
  3. It is in the present moment. Imagine the experience is occurring now, not in the past.
  4. Although this is prose, it is poetic, understated, with all excessive words eliminated. 
  5. The accompanying haiku follows the traditional rules of that form. 
  6. The subject of the haiku does not repeat, quote or explain the prose, but reflects some aspect of the prose with a detail that is more juxtaposition - different yet somehow connected. That connection can be a surprising revelation for the reader.
    I was in a workshop this past year with the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil where we wrote haibun, Aimee has written several articles on haibun and gives a more detailed look at the rules of haibun - although she admits that she is "not one to stay close and straight to any particular poetry 'rules' (the haibun form especially and brightly lends itself to experimentation if one desires)."

    She told us that although Bashō coined the word haibun for the form as it is today, it already existed in Japan without that name as a kind of preface to poems and as mini-lyric essays. He wrote a guideline for the form and Aimee points out that he was quite concerned with aware (pronounced ah-WAR-ay), a term for the spirit of haiku or the "quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy."

    In "Don’t Bring Me to the Fireworks, The Fox-Wife Asks," by Jeannine Hall Gailey, we have a modern day haibun. I discovered Gailey's poetry in an article Nezhukumatathil wrote which includes another one of her fox-wife poems.
    Don’t Bring Me to the Fireworks, The Fox-Wife Asks

    They hurt my ears, make me run in circles. Under their chemical light you might see my non-human face, the tail I hide beneath skirts. In the city, under mercury vapor, you never see me clearly. I prefer the woods, the quiet howl of mosquitoes, of cicadas. Build me a hut of mud where we never see the stars, too bright. Bring me fans painted with cranes and peonies, poetry folded into birds. Don’t leave me in the crowd, my nose assaulted by too many scents. Let us stay far from others tonight, my love. Our celebrations will be fur and paw, hand to chest. Let the fireworks with their dizzy ghost spiders whine in the distance, keep me here, bring me silk kimonos the color of bark and dirt to nest in.

    Keep the copper smoke
    and saltpeter, the dim trails
    of chrysanthemums in the sky.

    That poem is from Gailey's collection, She Returns to the Floating World, which explores motifs in Japanese folk tales:, persona poems spoken by characters from animé and manga, mythology, and fairy tales. The story of the kitsune, or fox-woman, is one that occurs throughout the book.

    This month's prompt is a haibun following the simplified and traditional six rules stated above.

    The submission deadline is the night of the New Moon, August14, 2015.

    Further Reading On Haibun