July 8, 2017

Prompt: Seasons and Days

Before you read the rest of this post, listen to Robert Hayden read his poem "Those Winter Sundays."

Looking back on the poem on the page, "Those Winter Sundays" is a kind of sonnet of a Sunday morning ritual of making a fire to warm the house. It has been done so many times that the son probably never thought about it then. He is not alone in his inattention or in being with his father, but "no one ever thanked him."

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him. 

As the haiku poets know so well, the names of the seasons suggest many different things. Winter has been used symbolically to represent death, old age, hardship and endings. But writers have also used it in opposite ways - the pure, white snow s a blanket, a time of rest before renewal. 

Hayden's winter is hard. His father works hard all week, but still has to get up early to warm the house before he wakes his son. It's a kind gesture, but the house also contains chronic angers that the warming fire can't dispel.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house, 

The days of the week have also taken on characteristics. Some are cliches by now - the drudgery of back to school and work Monday mornings, the freedom of Friday evenings, or the rest of a Saturday. To some a Sunday morning might suggest church, and to someone else it is a big breakfast or brunch. We made Wednesday into a Hump Day, a mid-week peak that we needed to get over.

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Those last two lines are my favorites. They are an unrhymed couplet to close the sonnet. They are the clincher, the lesson learned only years later.

This is a poem that is often anthologized and frequently taught. There is a guide to the poem online if you want a short lesson.

In these lazy days of summer, our July prompt is very simple. Begin with a title that must contain minimally a season and a day of the week.  Your title might be as plain as "Spring Saturday" or as detailed as "Waking at 3 a.m. on the Last Sunday of Summer."  Where your poem goes from there is yet to be known.

Submission Deadline: August 6, 2017

June 26, 2017

The Young People’s Poet Laureate

Margarita Engle is the national Young People’s Poet Laureate, and the first Latino to receive that honor. She is the Cuban-American author of many verse novels, including The Surrender Tree, a Newbery Honor winner, and The Lightning Dreamer, a PEN USA Award winner.

Margarita Engle was born in Pasadena, California, to a Cuban mother and an American father. She earned a BS from California State Polytechnic University and an MS from Iowa State University, and she studied for her doctoral degree in biology at the University of California, Riverside.

The Poetry Foundation announced in May of this year that Engle has been named the Young People’s Poet Laureate. Awarded every two years, the $25,000 laureate title is given to a living writer in recognition of a career devoted to writing exceptional poetry for young readers. The laureate advises the Poetry Foundation on matters relating to young people’s literature and may engage in a variety of projects to help instill a lifelong love of poetry among the nation’s developing readers. This laureateship aims to promote poetry to children and their families, teachers, and librarians over the course of its two-year tenure.

Official website margaritaengle.com

June 17, 2017

Listening to the New U.S. Poet Laureate: Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith has been named the next poet laureate of the United States and will begin her role this fall, succeeding Juan Felipe Herrera.

Smith is a professor at Princeton University, where she directs the creative writing program.

She has written three poetry collections, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars , The Body’s Question and Duende, all from Graywolf Press. She has also written a memoir, Ordinary Light  (Knopf, 2015).

“As someone who has been sustained by poems and poets, I understand the powerful and necessary role poetry can play in sustaining a rich inner life and fostering a mindful, empathic and resourceful culture,” said Smith in the announcement from the Library of Congress. “I am eager to share the good news of poetry with readers and future-readers across this marvelously diverse country.”

Tracy K. Smith reads her poem "Wade in the Water," which will be published in a book of poetry in 2018.

Tracy K. Smith was twenty-two when her mother died in 1994. In The Body’s Question, her first book of poetry, she writes about that loss.

In the memoir, Ordinary Light, she also considers the loss of her mother and of her father, who died in 2008. That was also the year her daughter, Naomi, was born.

Life on Mars  in some ways is an elegy for her father who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope program.

... sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959...

Smith reads “Digging” by Seamus Heaney, the poem she feels “invited her to start writing poetry,” and from “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” a poem she wrote about her father.

...Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding...
(excerpts from "My God, It's Full of Stars")

Tracy graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a BA in English and American Literature and Afro-American Studies. She earned an MFA from Columbia University.

She taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Princeton University in 2005.

Tracy K. Smith discusses her interest in science-fiction and the research for her book, Life on Mars

Smith lives in Princeton with her husband, Raphael Allison, and their three children. Her twin sons, Atticus and Sterling, were born in 2013.

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize
New York Times Notable Book of 2011
New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
New Yorker, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

June 10, 2017

Prompt: A Song for the Body

I recently read Marilyn Hacker’s clever poem “Canzone.”  I didn't know much about that form other than it being a kind of song. Her poem is a song to a part of the body - the tongue.

The tongue is certainly an organ with many uses, and to a poet certainly one of interest since it form our words. She writes that it is “sinewy and singular, the tongue / accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ / can.”

If you read "Canzone" online on our main site or in her Selected Poems 1965-1990, you can see how she examines the multi-uses of the tongue and also how she plays with the words (particularly "organ") as can be seen in this illustrative excerpt from the poem.

...we give
the private contemplations of each organ
to the others, and to others, organ-

ize sensations into thought. Sentient organ-
isms, we symbolize feeling, give
the spectrum (that’s a symbol) each sense organ
perceives, by analogy, to others. Disorgan-
ization of the senses is an acquired taste
we all acquire: as speaking beasts, it’s organ-
ic to our discourse. The first organ
of acknowledged communion is the tongue
(tripartite diplomat, which after tongu-
ing a less voluble expressive organ
to wordless efflorescences of pleasure
offers up words to reaffirm the pleasure.)

​​Marilyn Hacker likes forms. Another interesting poem of hers is the “Villanelle For D.G.B." The poem we are looking at this month for a prompt is labeled a canzone. In ​Edward Hirsch's useful reference The Essential Poet's Glossary (which is the shorter and more focused version of his big encyclopedic A Poet's Glossary ), he notes that this form gets its name from the Italian word for "song."  This lyric poem originates in medieval Italy and France with troubadours and wandering musicians. ​Petrarch established this form of lyric love poem with stanzas of five or six lines, ending with an envoi, and Dante Alighieri was an admirer of the canzone.

Dante created his own version which Hirsch calls "maddeningly difficult... using the same five end-words in each of the five 12-line stanzas, intricately varying the pattern.”​

I don't like to use forms as prompts that are so difficult that they stop poets from attempting to write. Since Hacker, Dante and others have taken liberties with the canzone, we will too. Certainly, you can try to adhere to the form if you like the challenge of a form.

The canzone generally has 5 to 7 stanzas probably meant to be set to music. A end rhyme scheme, as one would suspect of a song, is usually followed.

Your canzone can be as short as two stanzas, because it must conclude with an envoi. The envoi (or envoy) is a short stanza at the end of a poem used either to address an imagined or actual person or to comment on the preceding body of the poem. In general, envois have fewer lines than the main stanzas of the poem

True canzones (and many songs) have a strict number of syllables. For our purposes, you should keep the length of lines equal, even if not strict about syllables. Swinburne worked with the canzone meter in “Hendecasyllabics

In the month of the long decline of roses
I, beholding the summer dead before me,
Set my face to the sea and journeyed silent...

For our June prompt, write a song/canzone to a part of the body

Deadline for submissions is July 2, 2017

For more on the canzone form:
Daryl Hines - “Canzone”
John Hollander​ - “About the Canzone"