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: https://www.poets.org/national-poetry-month/dear-poet-letters-2016

June 13, 2016

Lin-Manuel Miranda's Sonnet at the Tony Awards

Photo: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

When Lin-Manuel Miranda accepted his award for best score for Hamilton at the Tony Awards last night, the audience might have expected hip hop, rap or freestyling. But he chose a sonnet as his acceptance speech form.

The sonnet not only acknowledges the show and his wife, Vanessa, but also references the tragic shooting massacre in the early morning hours of the day in Orlando, Florida.

My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers, remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.

June 5, 2016

Prompt: Fairy Tales

Illustration by Yuko Shimizu from The Wild Swan
Fairy tales are a type of short story that typically features fantasy characters (dwarves, elves, fairies, giants, gnomes, goblins, mermaids, trolls, witches) and usually some magic or enchantments. They differ from other folk narratives such as legends which generally involve some belief in at least some truth to the tale.

We usually think of fairy tales as children's literature, but authors have also written modern and more adult fairy tales.

Like many of us, author Michael Cunningham read fairy tales as a child, but he continued to wonder about what happened after the tales ended. In his collection of stories, The Wild Swan, he answers that question for a number of fairy tales. Cunningham is best known for his novels The Hours and The Snow Queen (which was inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen story).

He gives us a a modern day lazy boy named Jack who lives in his mother's basement rather than get a job. One day he trades a cow for some magic beans. His poor widowed mother is stuck with this kid who is "not a kid who can be trusted to remember to take his mother to her chemo appointment, or to close the windows when it rains." But her opinion of him changes when he climbs the beanstalk and comes back with bags of gold. Mom invests in stocks and real estate. They build a mansion for themselves. He climbs the beanstalk again, More gold and they are able to buy everything they ever wanted. But Jack goes back again for even more gold even though "there's nothing left for him and his mother to buy."

In "Kissing the Toad" by Galway Kinnell, he takes that idea that appears in several fairy tales.

Somewhere this dusk
a girl puckers her mouth
and considers kissing the toad a boy has plucked
from the cornfield and hands
her with both hands;
rough and lichenous but for the immense ivory belly,
like those old entrepreneurs
sprawling on Mediterranean beaches,
with popped eyes,
it watches the girl who might kiss it,
pisses, quakes, tries
to make its smile wider:
to love on, oh yes, to love on.

We also use the term "fairy tale" to describe something unusually, perhaps unrealistically, optimistic, as in "fairy tale ending" or a "fairy tale romance." Of course, not all fairy tales end happily, and some are quite grim (or Grimm).

In her book, Transformations, Anne Sexton has a number of poem-stories in her retelling of seventeen Grimms fairy tales, including "Snow White," "Rumpelstiltskin," "The Frog Prince," "Red Riding Hood" and "Rapunzel". She takes the original story and gives it a modern turn that goes much further than the modern Disney version of the character, as this opening to the poem shows:

A woman
who loves a woman
is forever young.
The mentor
and the student
feed off each other.
Many a girl
had an old aunt
who locked her in the study
to keep the boys away.
They would play rummy
or lie on the couch
and touch and touch.
Old breast against young breast…
Let your dress fall down your shoulder...

For this month's prompt, you may choose from several fairy tale possibilities:
- Continue a classic tale, or following Cunningham and Sexton, rewrite a classic for our times.
- Choose a part of the plot or an element from a tale, as Kinnell did or as in A.E. Stallings "Fairy-tale Logic."

I found in my local library a copy of  Disenchantments which anthologizes a good number of modern day fairy tale poems.

Submission Deadline: July 3, 2016

Sleeping Beauty

May 28, 2016

Poetry and the Ouija Board

In an unusual approach to a writing prompt, starting in the late sixties and early seventies, American poet James Merrill became interested in the occult and began using a Ouija board regularly to communicate with spirits. He began to use those conversations for his poems.

For most readers, the Ouija board is a game and I’m sure Merrill wasn’t interested in the debunkers of its occult powers, but if you want some science, look into the psychophysiological explanation under ideomotor effect.  (For more on the Ouija board itself, see this related post.) 

With his partner David Jackson, Merrill spent more than 20 years transcribing supernatural communications during séances using a Ouija board. He published his first Ouija board narrative in a poem for each of the letters A through Z, calling it “The Book of Ephraim.”  It appeared in the collection Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1977.

“The Book of Ephraim,” a 90-page narrative poem in that volume. It comes from those 20+ years using the Ouija board and revelations spelled out by Ephraim. That spirit was a Greek Jew once in the court of Tiberius. Merrill mixed his own personal memories with Ephraim’s messages. In Mirabell: Books of Number, a sequel to “The Book of Ephraim” he continued that path at even greater length.

Great poetry? I prefer other work by Merrill, but with a Pulitzer and with Mirabell getting the National Book Award for Poetry, don’t rely on my critical opinions.

Merrill is an interesting poet story.  He had a pretty sweet early life as the son of a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. He had a governess that taught him French and German. They lived on a 30-acre estate in Southampton. Yes, James rejected much of that and lived a fairly simple life.

When Merrill thought he had exhausted the Ouija inspiration, the  “spirits” “ordered” (his word) him to write and publish more. That’s spooky. This led to further installments and finally a complete three-volume book titled The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. It is a 560-page apocalyptic epic poem.

May 22, 2016

Conversations: Tell all the truth but tell it slant

I heard Garrison Keillor read "Tell all the truth but tell it slant" by Emily Dickinson today on his Writers Almanac program. I have heard it or read it many times, but I realized that I'm still not really sure I understand it completely.

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —

Maybe that's the thing about good poems - that as much as you like hearing them and get some meaning from them, they offer you the chance to revisit them and get eve more from them.

Poets Online has been a website asking you to write towards a prompt since 1998. I enjoy receiving and reading poems submitted and occasionally I develop an email connection with a poet. I know a few poets who have written on the site in the real life of offline and just a few times someone has approached me at a reading to introduce them self as one of the poets published on the site. But that is the rare exception.

In 2005, I started this blog and added Poets Online to Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest - not so much as promotion, but so that readers could connect with me. It happens sometimes, not often.

I'm offering this poem as the first "Conversations" post here. I'm hoping that you will comment on what you get from Emily's poem and that we might all start a conversation about a poem, poet or topic.

I hope you will join the conversation.

May 7, 2016

Poems of This Day for Mothers

There is a wide range of ways poets have written about mothers. Poets.org collected a few examples as we approach Mother's Day.

I have posted several times poems concerning mothers.

Burt Kimmelman's poem "Taking Dinner to My Mother" served as a model for one of our writing prompts. Looking at it again now and thinking about another post I made the year my mother would be 92 feels strange to reread because my mother didn't make it to her December birthday that year.

I wrote about a Mary Oliver poem and how my mother might react to it. Burt's poem is knowingly about his mother just before she died.

But Mother's Day shouldn't be a sad day, even if your mother is gone, it is a time to think of the happier moments. Maybe read some funny poems by Hal Sirowitz from his collection Mother Said.
Or recall something as in Li-Young Lee's "I Ask My Mother to Sing" or this old poem for children by Robert Louis Stevenson.

To Any Reader

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

But my favorite poem for my mom might be one by Billy Collins about a small gift we might give on this day as a child before we knew "that you can never repay your mother," I made at least one of the lanyards that Billy wrote about giving to his mom and I found it after she died in a wooden box that I had made in Cub Scouts along with some other small gifts I had given her.  I was just as sure of their value as Billy. And we were right.

May 1, 2016

Prompt: Never Born

Looking at the title of Thomas Lux's poem, "For My Sister," we might expect a poem on a fairly common subject. There are many poems addressing directly or indirectly sisters and brothers. But this poem is not typical.

Forever we've never spoken.
First, our mother died
and, soon after, our father.
He would've loved you, and I understood why
when your niece, my daughter, arrived.
You'd look like her. She is already twenty-five. 

This is a sister who was never born. The poet wonders "Were you younger than me, or older? / I always wished for younger."

With both his parents now gone, the poet wonders about what he is left with and what is lost.

I have a box of papers: a deed
for pastureland, naturalization forms,
boneyard plots, many pictures, certificates
of births and deaths—though none of,
nor for, nor of, you.

In Thomas Lux's collection, To the Left of Time  (Mariner Books) from which "For My Sister" (click link for the full poem) is taken, there are three sections. One section is semi-autobiographical poems and another is odes, and this poem seems that it might exist in both categories.

Lux is known for his satire and humor and his images both figurative and in plain language.

In this poem for a sister who never existed, he spends most of the poem talking about his mother and father and his own daughter. In some ways, it is a message that tries to update this sister on what her life would have been.

When I first read this poem, I thought of a story that my mother often told about the doctor telling her when she was first pregnant with me that she was going to have twins. There was no twin. Never was a twin, but my mother had prepared for two of us and as a child hearing this story, I sometimes wondered about that sister or brother that never appeared.

This month's prompt is to write a poem for or about a sibling who was never born.

Submission deadline: May 31, 2016

April 25, 2016

A Contest and Some Inspiration

Narrative magazine's Eighth Annual Poetry Contest opens May 18, and to get you in the mood, every day leading up to the contest they are featuring a superlative poem, by a master or an emerging writer. Here are 30 poems to inspire you.

And here's a look at last year's winners.

April 18, 2016

Keep a Poem in Your Pocket This Week

This Thursday (April 21) is Poem in Your Pocket Day as part of National Poetry Month,sponsored by the Academy of American Poets and supported by the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and ReadWriteThink.org.

The basic idea is simple - carry a favorite poem in your pocket and share it with others that day.  The Academy offers a printable list of suggestions and some poems for the day at poets.org

Here are a few other ideas.
  • Post pocket-sized verses in public places. Use the aptly named poem, “Keep a Pocket in Your Poem“.
  • Memorize a poem. and speaking poetry
  • Post lines from your favorite poem on your Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, or Tumblr. You might want to turn your original poetry into digital form using something like Animoto.
  • Send a poem to a friend.