February 12, 2016

Valentines Not Found on Greeting Cards

An early Valentine's Day greeting (in case you need some lines for that card) via poets.org
Valentines and poets have a long history of being used as words of love to send to others.
Some classical, some modern, some love, some passion and even strong friendships.Not your greeting card Valentines.

My Heart” by Kim Addonizio
This Much and More” by Djuna Barnes
The Love-Hat Relationship” by Aaron Belz
Verge” by Mark Doty
Invitation to Love” by Paul Laurence Dunbar
The Ecstasy” by Phillip Lopate
What lips my lips have kissed, and where, and why (Sonnet XLIII)” by Edna St. Vincent Millay
How to Love” by January Gill O’Neil
Let me not to the marriage of true minds (Sonnet 116)” by William Shakespeare
poem I wrote sitting across the table from you” by Kevin Varrone
A Love Song” by William Carlos Williams

February 2, 2016

Prompt: Dark Places

The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zacharias by William Blake

The past two months, I have lost four people from my life. Two were old enough that people would say they had a good, long life. Two were old but still young enough that everyone felt their,lives had been cut short.

Friends tell me that I am never without something to say. Choose your adjective depending on how that talkative person feels in your world - chatty, loquacious, garrulous, voluble, conversational, communicative. But often when someone I know dies, words fail me, and the closer I feel to that person, the greater the failure of words to come.

As poets or readers of poetry, we often turn to other poets' words for consolation.

A few years ago, Edward Hirsch published a book of poems called Gabriel: A Poem  about his adopted son who died at age 22 in 2011.

This was his “reckless boy” who had a troubled life. Hirsch said  “There’s something really unnatural about losing a child, and there’s something unnatural about having to write an elegy for your child, but I felt that I wanted people to know what he was like.”

I bought the book two years ago and have never been able to read more than a few pages at a time. The opening lines - "The funeral director opened the coffin / And there he was alone / From the waist up” - stopped me on first reading.

The poem consists of more than 700 three-line stanzas. It has a rushing feel without punctuation of momentum sometimes out of control. That is an odd form for an elegy which I generally think of as being as slow as some heavy organ music in a cathedral.

His poem is roughly chronological and begins with the happiness of the adoption and the energy of youth.
With so much energy he was like a wound top,
He could almost fly a kite when there was no wind.
And then comes multiple diagnoses and the various/ Specialists who plagued us with help” and the ineffective drugs.
The population of his feelings
Could not be governed
By the authorities.
And finally, the looking back, the what-ifs and doubts.
Maybe we were too hard on him/ Maybe we were too soft. 
That God, which ever lives and loves,
One God, one law, one element,
And one far-off divine event,
To which the whole creation moves. 
I will not forgive you
Indifferent God
Until you give me back my son.
Hirsch's poem is too long - and probably too difficult - to use for this prompt, but we have no shortage of poems of lamentation and other topics that go into dark places to consider.

February is our coldest month in much of the Northern Hemisphere​ and no doubt the season is also driving this prompt for me.

"Darkness" by Lord Byron (George Gordon) opens with lines that have always seemed to explain that feeling of waking up in a dark place, even if the sun was shining. Whether that darkness comes from a loss or a darkness in ourselves.

I had a dream, which was not all a dream.
The bright sun was extinguish'd, and the stars
Did wander darkling in the eternal space,
Rayless, and pathless, and the icy earth
Swung blind and blackening in the moonless air;
Morn came and went—and came, and brought no day,

Byron’s poem was literally inspired in part by a “year without a summer,” 1816, that was caused by the clouds of ash from the eruption of Mount Tambora in 1815. Many people interpreted it as the end of the world. Byron took this sense of apocalypse to express a pessimism about nature.

Turning the pages in a thick anthology, I also reread TS Eliot’s "East Coker." This meditation on mortality is the third section of his Four Quartets.

In my beginning is my end. In succession
Houses rise and fall, crumble, are extended,
Are removed, destroyed, restored, or in their place
Is an open field, or a factory, or a by-pass.
Old stone to new building, old timber to new fires,
Old fires to ashes, and ashes to the earth
Which is already flesh, fur, and faeces,
Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf.
Houses live and die: there is a time for building
And a time for living and for generation
And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane
And to shake the wainscot where the field mouse trots
And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto.

The Londoners of the poem seem to live in his Waste Land, a place landscaped by war.  They are forced to enter the darkness of the unlit underground stations to escape the nightly air raids.

A more modern poem by Stanley Kunitz that I have always been affected by is "The Portrait" which begins:

My mother never forgave my father
for killing himself,
especially at such an awkward time
and in a public park,
that spring
when I was waiting to be born.

For this February prompt, we go to dark places. Those places can be real and quite  literally dark, or imagined and dark in the many figurative ways we use that word. The darkness of night, of death, depression, lamentation and loss is different and the same. We don't want to go to these dark places, but, especially as writers, we do go there. Going there might not be a choice, but sometimes we put ourselves there.

Keep a light nearby and a hand on the wall for support and walk carefully.

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: February 29, 2016

In 2014, Ron Charles interviewed Ed Hirsch for “The Life of a Poet” series and Hirsch talked about Gabriel, though he would not read from it.

January 29, 2016

Winter Words

It is fully winter in my part of the world, and we had a blizzard last weekend that is finally melting away. That makes me think of "Blizzard" by William Carlos Williams.

years of anger following
hours that float idly down —
the blizzard
drifts its weight
deeper and deeper for three days
or sixty years, eh? Then
the sun! a clutter of
yellow and blue flakes —
Hairy looking trees stand out
in long alleys
over a wild solitude.
The man turns and there —
his solitary track stretched out
upon the world.

Williams says "three days or sixty years, eh?" and I wonder about the blizzards we endure.

In his poem, "Winter Trees," there is an optimism in the trees that have prepared for the inevitable and will wait out the cold.

All the complicated details
of the attiring and
the disattiring are completed!
A liquid moon
moves gently among
the long branches.
Thus having prepared their buds
against a sure winter
the wise trees
stand sleeping in the cold.

I did some searching online to find the Williams poems and came upon a page of winter words, including some poets and poems that I have not read for many years. If you're feeling the cold, make a nice cup of something hot to drink and read a few.

"The cold earth slept below"
by Percy Bysshe Shelley

The cold earth slept below;
Above the cold sky shone;
And all around,
With a chilling sound,
From caves of ice and fields of snow
The breath of night like death did flow
Beneath the sinking moon.

The wintry hedge was black;
The green grass was not seen;
The birds did rest
On the bare thorn’s breast,
Whose roots, beside the pathway track,
Had bound their folds o’er many a crack
Which the frost had made between...

    continue reading

by Mary Oliver

In winter
    all the singing is in
         the tops of the trees
             where the wind-bird

with its white eyes
    shoves and pushes
         among the branches.
             Like any of us

he wants to go to sleep,
    but he's restless...  

continue reading

January 7, 2016

Best-Selling Poets

"Best-seller" is not a term in publishing often attached to poetry. In fact, some modern poets have been criticized for their popularity and sales. It probably is no surprise that William Shakespeare is the best-selling poet in history, but it probably is surprising to many people that he is followed on the poetry best-seller list by Lao-Tzu and Kahil Gibran. .

Khalil Gibran was born in the mountain village in Bsharri, Lebanon in 1883. His mother decided to leave her alcoholic husband and take her four children to America where they settled in Boston, where they had relatives. But his mother wanted him to learn about his Lebanese heritage, so Kahil went to a prep school and college in Beirut when he was 15.

After he returned to Boston, a man named Alfred A. Knopf was invited to a gathering at Gibran’s apartment. Knopf was just starting up a publishing company, and when he saw how fascinated people were with Gibran, he decided to offer the man a publishing contract. Kahlil Gibran’s first two books with Knopf weren’t very successful, but his third was a collection of 26 poetic essays called The Prophet (1923). It didn’t sell well at first, but gradually gained a readership, becoming especially popular in the 1960s and was eventually translated into more than 30 languages.

Lao Tzu - Project Gutenberg eText 15250.jpg
Lao Tzu

Lao Tzu (also Laozi or Lao-Tze) was a philosopher and poet of ancient China. He is known as the reputed author of the Tao Te Ching and the founder of philosophical Taoism, and as a deity in religious Taoism and traditional Chinese religions. Although he is a legendary figure, he is usually dated to around the 6th century BCE and reckoned a contemporary of Confucius.

If you understand others you are smart.
If you understand yourself you are illuminated.
If you overcome others you are powerful.
If you overcome yourself you have strength.
If you know how to be satisfied you are rich.
If you can act with vigor, you have a will.
If you don't lose your objectives you can be long-lasting.
If you die without loss, you are eternal. 

A leader is best
When people barely know he exists
Of a good leader, who talks little,
When his work is done, his aim fulfilled,
They will say, “We did this ourselves."

The The Tao Te Ching is the foundation of Taoism. Translated literally, “the Tao” is “the Way” or “the Path.” It is the way of heaven, or the path to enlightenment. However, in some contexts, it seems to describe the same thing that various texts refer to as “Source,” “intelligence,” “the spirit of God,” or “the light of Christ” that creates and sustains everything in existence.

January 1, 2016

Burning the Old Year

Burning the Old Year
by Naomi Shihab Nye

Letters swallow themselves in seconds.
Notes friends tied to the doorknob,
transparent scarlet paper,
sizzle like moth wings,
marry the air.

So much of any year is flammable...

continues at poetryfoundation.org

December 18, 2015

2015 Best of Poetry Lists

More end-of-year best book lists are being announced. There are the known and "official" best of lists, like the National Book Awards and there are plenty of lesser known ones.

Still time to grab an end-of-year poetry gift for a friend or for yourself.

The GoodReads website has its list of readers' choice book awards, including 20 books of poetry. There are a few titles or poets that I know, but the majority are ones I don't know. There is Felicity by Mary Oliver, but also the winning title, The Dogs I Have Kissed, by Trista Mateer who is "Known for her eponymous blog and her confessional style of writing, this is Trista Mateer's second collection of poetry."

Assuming that the list is simply based on votes by readers of the site, you can either see it as a real list of books readers enjoyed or a chance for lesser-known poets to have their friends vote them up. I'd like to believe it is the former, a kind of crowdsourced what-I-read-and-liked list. Either way, it brought to my attention some books I would not have seen otherwise.

Another list of 8 comes via the Flavorwire website.  

I occasionally look at Amazon's list of best-selling poetry books because it does mean something to know what people are buying. That list always has titles that seem like they were purchased by students for a class (lots of anthologies) and also a bunch of current titles. I'm not a big buyer of anthologies, but I can see someone buying 100 Best-Loved Poems in the way that I once bought the Miles Davis "Greatest Hits" album (knowing he never had any "hits") in the hope of getting the best in one place.

December 16, 2015

A Blessing

James Wright and Robert Bly began a friendship through letters. Eventually, Wright would visit Bly's farm in western Minnesota and fall in love with it. “I think your farm is the first such place I have ever really liked — it is beautifully mysterious and very much its own secret place.”

He began taking the train out there every Friday after classes, and staying for the weekend, sleeping in an old converted chicken coop, which was heated by an oil stove.

On Saturday mornings, he would come into the farmhouse for breakfast, go back out, and return at lunch with a poem. He said of the Blys: “They loved me and they saved my life. I don’t mean the life of my poetry, either.”

One day Bly and Wright were driving home from another friend’s farm when they passed two horses in a pasture. They stopped and got out to see the horses, and in the car Wright began writing a poem in a spiral notebook. That became one of his most beloved poems, “A Blessing.”

A Blessing

by James Wright

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

from Collected Poems

December 9, 2015

Prompt: Poetry as Food

I read an article about how the Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust works with a poet who is appearing at Cúirt International Festival of Literature to select poetry suitable for display in waiting areas of their hospitals. These "Poems for Patience" is a collection that hopefully will give people pause for reflection and space for hope in both those joyful celebratory moments as well as the all too often times of pain or worry. This year the poems were selected and introduced by Naomi Shihab Nye.

On Poetry Day (7 May) a Menu of Poems called ‘Flow’ was distributed throughout Irish hospital wards, waiting rooms and other healthcare settings for patients, visitors and staff to enjoy. You can see the menu at www.poetryireland.ie

This got me thinking about serving poetry as food. Poetry as something you take in on a daily basis and that sustains you. Some of it good and solid and healthy, and sometimes some that is light and sweet, or heavy and probably not the best thing to have at that time.

There are a good number of poems about food, but that is not what we are dealing with in this prompt. There are also some well known poems about eating poetry.

One that is often anthologized and used in schools is "How To Eat a Poem" by Eve Merriam.

Don't be polite.
Bite in.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
or stem
or rind
or pit
or seed
or skin
to throw away.
Also well known is "Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand, which appeared on this year's National Poetry Month poster and begins:    
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry...

But what I am more interested in for this month's prompt is what Galway Kinnell does in his poem "Blackberry Eating."

Maybe the Galway Hospital triggered the Kinnell connection, but in his poem we have him first being quite literal in his eating -
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
of blackberry-making;
- and then something else happens. The blackberries, with their "black art" become words, if not poems.

and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.
The prompt this month is poetry as food - poems that explore how we consume poetry, what it gives us, and may or may not contain references to actual foods.

With holidays and such at year's end, I'm sure you will have more than enough foods prompting you.

The submission deadline for this prompt is January 10, 2016.

November 30, 2015

National Book Awards for Poetry

As the year ends, many list are published of "the best" books in all categories. Though no list is definitive or fits all tastes, one list to look at for good titles published during the year is the National Book Awards.

Here are the 2015 poetry titles selected.


Robin Coste Lewis, Voyage of the Sable Venus: and Other Poems (Alfred A. Knopf)


Ross Gay, Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude (University of Pittsburgh Press)

Terrance Hayes, How to Be Drawn (Penguin/Penguin Random House)

Ada Limón, Bright Dead Things (Milkweed Editions)

Patrick Phillips, Elegy for a Broken Machine (Alfred A. Knopf)


Scattered at Sea by Amy Gerstler

A Stranger's Mirror by Marilyn Hacker

The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield

Heaven by Rowan Ricardo Phillips

Mistaking Each Other for Ghosts by Lawrence Raab

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