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. 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

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

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.

April 15, 2016

Self-Published Poets

Okay, every poet I know would be very happy to get poems in Poetry or The New Yorker and have their manuscript published and promoted by a major publisher. But the reality is that the vast majority of poets will not be published by any of those.

For some poets, self-publishing is the best alternative. When I was in college, publishers who focused on writers who wanted to publish their own work were known as "vanity presses." But that has changed in the more recent decades.

Actually, there have always been self-published writers. If you're considering self-publishing, maybe you should consider the club you're joining/ You may know that Walt Whitman self-published Leaves of Grass.

For many writers, self-publishing that first book is the way to get your name and work infront of readers - and publishers.

Carl Sandburg self-published poems and essays with money from his college professor and later he began selling to Poetry magazine.

Here are some others:
  • T.S. Eliot paid for the publication of his first book.
  • Oscar Wilde self-published a book of poetry in 1881.
  • British poet Alexander Pope ("The Rape of the Lock") also paid for the publication of his first book.
  • Edgar Allen Poe self-published some of his writings.
  • Another poet who paid for his first book to be published is English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley.
  • Elizabeth Barrett Browning put up the money for her first book.

I like that E. E. Cummings self-published his volume of poetry titled No Thanks.

His mother gave him the money to have it published.

On the half-title page, he listed the 13 publishers that had rejected the book.

So there!

April 5, 2016

Prompt: In your next letter,

A Lady Writing by Johannes Vermeer, 1665
The Latin “epistula,” for “letter," led to epistolary poems, which are poems that read as letters.

They can be to an internal or external audience, to a named or an unnamed recipient or to the world at large, intimate or not, to abstract concepts or real people. The epistles can use any form or free verse. It's a type of poem with much freedom.

Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y.," uses rhyming quatrains and begins:
In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

Bishop's poem came back to me when I read "In your next letter," from Cause for Concern (Able Muse Press, 2015) by Carrie Shipers when it was featured recently on The Writer's Almanac.

Shipers poem uses Bishop's opening for its title and then goes on to say:
                                             please describe
the weather in great detail. If possible,
enclose a fist of snow or mud,

everything you know about the soil,
how tomato leaves rub green against
your skin and make you itch, how slow

the corn is growing on the hill.
Thank you for the photographs
of where the chicken coop once stood,

clouds that did not become tornadoes.

This month we'll be writing epistles, which date back to verse letters of the Roman Empire, and was refined and popularized by Horace and Ovid.

You may want to use the conventions of a letter, as Langston Hughes does in his “Letter," which begins:
Dear Mama
Time I pay rent and get my food
and laundry I don’t have much left
but here is five dollars for you.

You can certainly be creative in your use or abuse of letter writing forms and conventions.

Submissions to this prompt are due: Sunday, May 1, 2016

More on Carrie Shipers at

April 1, 2016

April Is

In "The Waste Land," T.S. Eliot wrote:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
But I think you should think of April as National Humor Month as well as being National Poetry Month.

Why not save get your dull roots out of the spring pain and rain and save time by combining both of those celebrations by reading (or listening) to some humorous poetry. You might want to start with some  Billy Collins.

March 30, 2016

Simply Emily

Emily's poems look so simple, but are often so hard to understand  It is so interesting that the relative simplicity of her verse forms actually make it more difficult to pull meaning from our reading of her.

Emily Dickinson's poems often have images and metaphors taken from all around her, especially from nature, but they are just as often psychological landscapes.

Did she want to challenge her readers? Of course, the first published book of her poetry appeared in 1890, four years after her death. I wrote earlier this month about Sylvia Plath's collection, Ariel. I don't think there are many critics connecting Emily to Sylvia, but I see one connection. As with Plath's book, Emily's small poetry collection was also heavily edited by men. They were very selective and removed her unique syntax, spelling, and punctuation.

It took much longer for Emily's true verse to appear than it did for Plath's intended book. The complete, restored edition of Emily's poetry did not appear until 1998 - more than 100 years after the original publication.

I was never fond of allegory, but Em enjoyed using it. Was she writing for me? Was she writing for any of us? I think she was. As often as I hear poets say that they write "for themselves,"  they all are happy to have their poems published. 

What is the writing lesson of Emily's poems?  perhaps, it is similar to this passage from Mr. Whitman.
“The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things down without deliberation – without worrying about their style – without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote – wrote, wrote…By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.”  Walt Whitman

I wonder if Em's odd use of dashes instead of periods, commas, and the other typical punctuation. marks.  She also liked to capitalize words - not just words at the beginning of a line.  Why? Not totally clear. .

I have read that the use of dashes and of capital letters to emphasize and personify common nouns was something she may have found in the grammar text (Wells' Grammar of the English Language) that she used at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

I like those dashes. Fast and simple punctuation. Reminds me of the dashes you find in haiku. A  nice clear indicator to the reader to break, and sometimes a nice bridge to a new idea.

As a young reader, I imagined prim and proper Miss Dickinson as a good, religious girl. I discovered later she had a a lot of skepticism about traditional religion. She would fit nicely into that growing number of  Americans who say they are not "religious" but are "spiritual. She said that "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church" but she was quite content Sundays at home in her garden where "the sermon is never long.”

At Mount Holyoke, they organized students into three categories: "established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Guess which group Emily was in?  I bet she got picked last for softball too.

But, she had her books: Longfellow, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, George Eliot, and the Brownings.

She loved the Brontës. She wrote “All overgrown by cunning moss" for the death of Charlotte Brontë, 

All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of “Currer Bell”
In quiet “Haworth” laid.

This Bird – observing others
When frosts too sharp became
Retire to other latitudes –
Quietly did the same –

But differed in returning –
Since Yorkshire hills are green –
Yet not in all the nests I meet –
Can Nightingale be seen –

Emily requested that a poem by that other Emily -  Brontë  - be read at her own funeral. I hope the family granted her wish. I hope it wasn't "Remembrance."  Maybe it was "Ah! Why, Because the Dazzling Sun."
Ah! why, because the dazzling sun
Restored my earth to joy
Have you departed, every one,
And left a desert sky?

March 27, 2016

Bill Murray: Poetry Editor

Bill Murray supports New York's Poets House and has been known to hang around with Billy Collins and others and read or post poems. In celebration of National Poetry Month, Oprah Magazine asked him if he would be interested in picking some poems for the magazine to print and to comment on them. He was and he did.

Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Thomas Lux and Naomi Shihab Nye are among the poets that Murray chose to include in the issue.

Some of his comments:

On Kinnell's "Oatmeal," about the poet sharing a meal with the late John Keats: "Alas, Kinnell, too, is now available for breakfast." (Kinnell passed away in 2014.)

Lux's odd romantic ode "I Love You Sweatheart" starts out:
A man risked his life to write the words.
A man hung upside down (an idiot friend
holding his legs?) with spray paint
to write the words on a girder fifty feet above
a highway.
The poem got this note: "This poem vibrates the insides of my ribs, where the meat is most tender."

Nye's poem "Famous" says:
I want to be famous in the way
a pulley is famous
or a buttonhole, not because it did
anything spectacular
but because it never forgot
what it could do.
Murray comments on it: "It's not the dream of being big. It's the dream of being real. That's what stands out to me."