June 2, 2015

Prompt: His Master's Voice

We love our pets. Writers love their pets, and they often write about them. I see more and more books about dogs and cats, and that includes poetry.

I recently went to a reading with Billy Collins who has a good number of dog poems. In two of those, he  introduces us to dogs "whom have taken the command 'speak' quite literally."

One of those which has the dog contemplating his relationship to his owner, is titled "A Dog on His Master" - a title that makes me recall an old advertising slogan from the RCA Victor company used for early phonographs.


As young as I look,
I am growing older faster than he,
seven to one
is the ratio they tend to say.
Whatever the number,
I will pass him one day
and take the lead
the way I do on our walks in the woods.
And if this ever manages
to cross his mind,
it would be the sweetest
shadow I have ever cast on snow or grass.

(from Ballistics: Poems)

Beau & Arden on the UK edition of Dog Years
In Dog Years: A Memoir, poet Mark Doty decides to adopt a dog as a companion for his dying partner. Beau is a large, malnourished golden retriever in need of love. He joins Arden, their black retriever. These two companions accompany them on the sad journey and teach lessons about love and loss.

I loved Doty's poem (or is it Beau's poem?) "Golden Retrievals" the first time I heard him read it. Like many of Collins' poems it hits you as light and funny, especially in his reading of it. But, also like Collin's poems, there is something more serious going on in the poem.

The dog starts off with his joy in his dog world, rejecting the people world of:

Fetch? Balls and sticks capture my attention
seconds at a time. Catch? I don’t think so.

He is far more interested in:

Bunny, tumbling leaf, a squirrel who’s—oh
joy—actually scared. Sniff the wind, then

I’m off again: muck, pond, ditch, residue
of any thrillingly dead thing.

But his poor owner is:

Either you’re sunk in the past, half our walk,
thinking of what you never can bring back,

or else you’re off in some fog concerning
—tomorrow, is that what you call it?

The dog knows that his work here is part Zen master and part physicist trying:

to unsnare time’s warp (and woof!), retrieving,
my haze-headed friend, you.

Mark Doty's “Golden Retrievals” (from Sweet Machine: Poems) is this month's model poem for our writing prompt. And who would have guessed that Beau was a formalist, writing a kind of sonnet.

Your assignment this month is a poem that comes from the mind, heart or mouth of a pet or animal. Let your dog or cat at the keyboard or have them channel the poem to you in that sixth or seventh sense that we know they possess.

Submission deadline: June 30, 2015

I also recommend that you give a look and listen (below) to Billy Collins reading "A Dog on His Master" and one of my favorites, "The Revenant." The revenant (one who has returned, especially from the dead) dog speaking the latter poem is not in love with his master - the person who put him "to sleep" - in fact, "I never liked you - not one bit."

Garth Stein credits "The Revenant" for being the inspiration for his novel The Art of Racing in the Rain: A Novel, written in the voice of a dog.

Like Beau, Collins' former pet also loves those outdoor smells encountered on walks, "but only because it meant I was about / to smell things you had never touched."

This dog's only somewhat kind remark is to confirm something about the afterlife that the poet had hopefully assumed: "that everyone here can read and write, the dogs in poetry, the cats and the others in prose."

bow-wow, bow-wow, bow-wow

Mark Doty's website is markdoty.org   He blogs at markdoty.blogspot.com

May 31, 2015

Walt Whitman's Birthday - "I Celebrate Myself"

It's the birthday of Walt Whitman (books by this author), born in West Hills, Long Island, New York (1819). Whitman worked as a printing press typesetter, teacher, journalist, and newspaper editor. He was working as a carpenter, his father's trade, and living with his mother in Brooklyn, when he read Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay "The Poet," which claimed the new United States needed a poet to properly capture its spirit. Whitman decided he was that poet. "I was simmering, simmering, simmering," Whitman later said. "Emerson brought me to a boil."

Whitman began work on his collection Leaves of Grass, crafting an American epic that celebrated the common man. He did most of the typesetting for the book himself, and he made sure the edition was small enough to fit in a pocket, later explaining, "I am nearly always successful with the reader in the open air." He was 37 years old when he paid for the publication of 795 copies out of his own pocket.

Whitman spent the last 20 years of his life revising and expanding Leaves of Grass, issuing the eighth and final edition in 1891, saying it was "at last complete — after 33 y'rs of hackling at it, all times & moods of my life, fair weather & foul, all parts of the land, and peace and war, young and old."

Today, most scholars agree that Whitman was likely gay. When he was asked directly, toward the end of his life, Whitman declined to answer. But he did say, shortly before he died, that sex was "the thing in my work which has been most misunderstood — that has excited the roundest opposition, the sharpest venom, the unintermitted slander, of the people who regard themselves as the custodians of the morals of the world."

via http://writersalmanac.org

I celebrate myself;   
And what I assume you shall assume;   
For every atom belonging to me, as good belongs to you.   
I loafe and invite my Soul;   
I lean and loafe at my ease, observing a spear of summer grass.             5
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes—the shelves are crowded with perfumes;   
I breathe the fragrance myself, and know it and like it;   
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.   
The atmosphere is not a perfume—it has no taste of the distillation—it is odorless;   
It is for my mouth forever—I am in love with it;      10
I will go to the bank by the wood, and become undisguised and naked;   
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.

There are many editions of Whitman's poems, including the free to read online Leaves of Grass at www.bartleby.com

May 21, 2015

Emily Dickinson on Gilligan's Island

In reading a post online about some Emily Dickinson trivial curiosities and the one that struck me again (because I heard Billy Collins talk about it years ago in a workshop) was her connection to the castaways on Gilligan's Island.

If you want to sing most of her poems (and I could imagine myself doing this with students), use the theme to TV's 1960s "classic" Gilligan's Island.

Give it a try with the first stanza of "Because I Could Not Stop For Death":

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

If somehow the melody of "The Ballad Of Gilligan's Isle" is not burned into your neurons deeper than any poem, give a listen:

And the why of it working is that Emily usually used the "common meter" in her poems. The TV theme also uses it, and it is used in lots of nursery rhymes and Protestant hymns. It's four beats followed by three beats.

You could play the same game with other songs, but imagining Emily on the beach with Ginger and mar

March 31, 2015

Prompt: Epistles to the Poets

It is National Poetry Month 2015 in America. The Academy of American Poets has many special features on its website for this month. One is called "Dear Poet." It is a multimedia education project that invites young people in grades five through twelve to write letters in response to poems written and read by some of the award-winning poets who serve on their Board of Chancellors.

Poets Online asks you this month to join the students. You can read and watch a group of poets reading and discussing their poems. The students are being asked to write letters to the poets to express their thoughts, ideas, or ask any questions they may have about the poems. I wonder why they didn't ask students to write poems to the poets - which is what we we will do.

Epistles, or epistolary poems, comes from the Latin “epistula” for “letter," are poems that read as letters. As poems of direct address, they can be intimate and colloquial or formal and measured.

On our main site, the prompt includes two of the poems and poets from Dear Poets. One is Naomi Shihab Nye's "How Do I Know When A Poem Is Finished?" which itself is addressed to someone - perhaps a student who has asked the poet that question, though all poets ask that question to themselves.

The second example and video is for Edward Hirsch's poem "Cotton Candy" which looks back to the candy and a grandfather.

What would you write to Nye or Hirsch about their poems?

Our prompt is much wider. You can choose any poem on the Academy site or any poem at all. The only requirement is that you address the poet by name and that you include the title of the poem you are responding to in the poem.

Your poem might be titled "Dear Mr. Hirsch" or Dear Elizabeth" for a poem to Elizabeth Bishop, whose own epistle "Letter to N.Y." 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:

taking cabs in the middle of the night,
driving as if to save your soul
where the road goes round and round the park
and the meter glares like a moral owl
I might write to W. B. Yeats during this Easter week 2015 about his poem "Easter 1916" to let him know that this year:
I am sitting at the start of day
looking out the window
at my desk at a sky gray
above twenty-first century homes
that I have passed on my way,
like you, nodding and saying
polite meaningless words...

February 26, 2015

How Long Will You Revise a Poem?

Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979) was an extremely methodical  and downright slow writer. I was surprised to read that she only published 101 poems in her lifetime.

She worked on her poem “The Moose” on and off for more than 25 years. I have poems from 25 years ago that I still look at and revise, but I can't say that I have been "working on them" for all that time. For "The Moose," she had it tacked up on her wall so that she could rearrange the lines.

We all have our distractions. For Bishop, writing letters was one. (Perhaps today, she would be online and in email.) She once wrote 40 letters in a single day and said, “I sometimes wish that I had nothing, or little more, to do but write letters to the people who are not here.” A collection of her letters, One Art: Letters, was published in 1994.

I don't classify coming back to a poem written years ago and making changes as the same kind of revision as when I sit down every day for a week trying to get a poem to a place where I feel comfortable reading it to an audience or sending it out to the world.

I also have notebooks of typed and printed poems that feel unfinished that I rarely look at and even more rarely work on any more.

What is your revision process?

Here is the opening of "The Moose."

The Moose
For Grace Bulmer Bowers

From narrow provinces
of fish and bread and tea,
home of the long tides
where the bay leaves the sea
twice a day and takes
the herrings long rides,

where if the river
enters or retreats
in a wall of brown foam
depends on if it meets
the bay coming in,
the bay not at home;

where, silted red,
sometimes the sun sets
facing a red sea,
and others, veins the flats’
lavender, rich mud
in burning rivulets;

on red, gravelly roads,
down rows of sugar maples,
past clapboard farmhouses
and neat, clapboard churches,
bleached, ridged as clamshells,
past twin silver birches...

February 22, 2015

Best Practices for Fair Use in Poetry

A resource that might be especially useful for teachers of poetry, but also poets, critics, and publishers, is available from the Harriet Monroe Poetry Institute in collaboration with American University's Center for Social Media and its Washington College of Law. They have created the "Code of Best Practices in Fair Use for Poetry."

Devised specifically by and for the poetry community, this best practices code serves as a guide to reasonable and appropriate uses of copyrighted materials in new and old media.

"This document," says project adviser Lewis Hyde, "brings wonderful clarity to the otherwise opaque world of poetry permissions. It is a useful tool that should serve poets, critics, and publishers alike."

It is available as a free free download (pdf) from the Center for Social Media.

February 12, 2015

Prompt: Shoveling Snow with the Buddha and Billy Collins

If you are in a part of the world covered with snow, you may identify in that way with this month's model poem: "Shoveling Snow With Buddha" by Billy Collins. Our prompt for February is writing about someone who is well known but in your poem "out of place."

I like that in Collins' poem the Buddha is out of place for several reasons. First, he is doing something and we are used to seeing him seated and meditative. We also usually find him in a nice temperate setting, not in the snow. Of course, he is also out of place because he is out of time, dropped into our present from his past.

Besides the idea that he is helping shovel snow, he is also quite interested in hot chocolate and playing cards after the shoveling - two rewards for his work, not unlike a child's rewards for helping clear the snow.

He is more Buddha-like in his mindfulness of the work.

He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway

Collins is no real life Buddhist, though he is mindful, but the poem touches on several ideas in Buddhism. Like most of Collins' poems, the light, perhaps funny, surface of the poem is a way to slide into more serious points. In this poem, I am reminded about how often we forget that the journey is the destination, and how often we want to be anywhere but in the now.

This prompt asks you to place a well-known person (living or dead, real or fictional) somewhere out of place. There is the suggestion of something absurd in this, although Emily Dickinson at Starbucks is not as odd as if you made her a Victoria's Secret runway model, so the choice is yours when it comes to that aspect of the prompt.

Deadline for submissions: March 8, 2015

February 9, 2015

Love Poems for Valentine's Day

Need some poetic lines (or inspiration) for Valentine's Day?

Try some classic and contemporary love poems from Poets.org.

From "How Do I Love Thee?" by Elizabeth Barrett Browning

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace...


"How to Love" by January Gill O’Neil

After stepping into the world again,
there is that question of how to love,
how to bundle yourself against the frosted morning—
the crunch of icy grass underfoot, the scrape
of cold wipers along the windshield—
and convert time into distance...

February 1, 2015

Poets and Madness

If you were an English major, you probably read more than most people about writers who had problems with alcohol, drugs or mental illness. In college, I started to think that those were things you had to do to be a writer. You had to suffer. It was Romantic with a capital R.

I still see articles about writers with titles like “Nine Famous Authors Who Did Stints in Mental Institutions”  and  5 Writers Who Suffered from Mental Illnesses & the Impact It Had on Their Art and Great American Writers and Their Cocktails.

This is not just anecdotal. Some early research in 1987 connected creativity with mental illness when researchers noticed a higher occurrence of bipolar disorder in study participants from the Iowa Writers Workshop than in a control group.

The question that formed was "Did they get crazy by trying to be writers, or did they become writers because they were crazy?"

A later study found that those is the arts are more likely to have mental illnesses than those in non-creative professions.

Ernest Hemingway is one of my favorites and he is a classic example of this type of writer. He had it all: depression, alcoholism, narcissistic personality, bipolar disorder, psychosis and finally suicide. Before the doctors and clinics, he “self-medicated” with booze. He liked risk-taking activities. He wrote as therapy, and when he couldn’t write anymore (largely because of the alcohol), he got electroshock treatments. For someone whose life was writing, not being able to write meant he had no reason to live.

Hemingway also had it in his genes and there is some science to it. In 2009, an article published by the Association for Psychological Science showed a definitive link between creativity and the neuregulin 1 gene, a gene that is also associated with psychosis.

Hemingway said “Write drunk. Edit sober” but also claimed he didn’t drink until after his morning writing sessions.

Of course, alcohol is a depressant.

A number of recent studies have looked at the neurological similarities of mental illness and the creative mind. Bipolar disorder and schizophrenia appear to be focused within the frontal lobe of the brain and they typically manifest with rather peculiar connections that are similar to some types of connections that would be admired in poetry and other creative writing.

A 2002 study of 1,629 writers found that poets – and specifically female poets – were more likely than even non-fiction writers, playwrights and fiction writers to have some type of mental illness. This became known as “The Sylvia Plath Effect.”

Poet Sylvia Plath’s mental illness has been written about quite a bit. She wrote about it herself in her semi-autobiographical novel The Bell Jar. She was clinically depressed for much of her life. She had electroshock therapy, attempted suicide, was admitted to a mental institution for six months, got more electric and insulin shock treatments and still the depression ended her life in suicide.

In the film Annie Hall, Woody Allen’s character, Alvy,  warns Annie that Sylvia Plath was an “interesting poetess whose tragic suicide was misinterpreted as romantic by the college girl mentality.”

Is there a relationship between poetry and psychosis?

Another tragic female poet, Anne Sexton was in and out of mental institutions  for much of her life. Bipolar and suicidal. She started with poetry as therapy at the suggestion of her therapist. Her poetry is full of madness and pain and, like Plath, Sexton took her own life.

It seems like researchers have gotten caught up in those same stories that caught me in college and they are looking to connect genius and madness.

Any one of us might have been part of a study that included 294 poets (almost all “published” poets) in an anonymous online survey. These poets online scored above average on the “Unusual Experiences”, “Cognitive Disorganization” and “Impulsive Nonconformity” traits. The poets self-identified their work as “avant-garde” scored even higher on “Unusual Experiences.” 

Two of the poets reported schizophrenia, 15 reported bipolar disorder, 152 reported depression and 80 reported anxiety disorder. 

Does that sound about right for poets? Well, actually those percentages are not much higher than the general population.

Since these poets were all self-reporting, it’s possible that they had bought into the madness and writers archetype. Or did their “abnormal” psychology lead them to become writers?

December 31, 2014

Prompt: Terrance Hayes and the Golden Shovel

Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes invented a poetry form he calls the Golden Shovel. You take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire, and use each word in the line (or lines) as an end word in your poem while maintaining the order. So, if you choose a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long.

This borrowing method is not without precedent in poetry. One similar form is quite ancient: the cento, in which you make a poem entirely from other poets' lines. Another form makes a new poem by removing lines from an existing poem - that is known as an erasure.

For my own first Golden Shovel attempt, I wrote a poem for my daily writing practice last year. I chose a poem by Gary Snyder called "Changing Diapers" and used his line "you and me and Geronimo." I wrote it in the ronka form that all my daily poems for 2014 used.

Geronimo [after Gary Snyder]

After the reading, talking briefly to you
and recalling another time – when I, Steve and
you shared coffee conversation – you remembered me.
A wonderful lie. We are men, and
we jump like paratroopers and shout Geronimo.

My poem came out of a brief encounter with Snyder recently when he read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. It also recalls a longer conversation we had at another Dodge Festival more than 20 years ago.

In what I believe must be the first Golden Shovel poem, Terrance Hayes used a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. He started with Brooks' often-anthologized poem, "We Real Cool." His poem is called "The Golden Shovel.".

"The rules" for this new form are:

  • Take a line(s) from a favorite poem
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as an end word in your poem and
  • Keep the end words in the order they appeared originally. That means that you could read the stanza at the right edge like an acrostic.
  • Give credit to the original poet (it can be in the title, an epigram or within the poem) and for our prompt also include a note a reference to the poem, though it doesn't have to be part of the poem itself. It would be great if you could include a link to the original poem online so that readers could see your inspiration.
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the original poem, but it can be related.

We know how poets love to play by the rules. Mr. Hayes pushes a bit on his own rules by using more than a line and and using every word from the Brooks poem. Twice. Setting the bar high. In his collection, Lighthead, he also has a poem using Elizabeth Alexander's poem, “Ladders” (for his "Last Train to Africa") and borrows lyrics from songs by Marvin Gaye and Louis Armstrong for others.


Terrance Hayes' poem “The Golden Shovel” is from Lighthead (2010, Penguin) which won the National Book Award.

Extra Credit: Think you know why Hayes called his poem and form "The Golden Shovel?"   Tell us your answer in a comment on this post.