July 20, 2016

Rumi on death

Death is a dialogue between me and myself.
No one else is interested in the discussion

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, known more popularly simply as Rumi was a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. His poems have been widely translated into many of the world's languages and transposed into various formats. Rumi has been described as the "most popular poet" and the "best selling poet" in the United States.

I first encountered Rumi at a Dodge Poetry Festival through the translations by Coleman Barks. I was reading some poems randomly in The Essential Rumi today and noticed that I kept landing upon poems about death.

That sounds pretty depressing, but the poems are not grim. Here are two I found.

I’ve said before that every craftsman
searches for what’s not there
to practice his craft.

A builder looks for the rotten hole
where the roof caved in. A water-carrier
picks the empty pot. A carpenter
stops at the house with no door.

Workers rush toward some hint
of emptiness, which they then
start to fill. Their hope, though,
is for emptiness, so don’t think
you must avoid it. It contains
what you need!

This is how strange your fear of death
and emptiness is, and how perverse
the attachment to what you want.

No end, no end to the journey
no end, no end never.
How can the heart in love
ever stop opening.
If you love me,
you won’t just die once.
In every moment
you will die into me
to be reborn.

Into this new love, die.

Your way begins
on the other side
become the sky
take an axe to the prison wall,
walk out like someone
suddenly born into color.
Do it now!

July 12, 2016

Prompt: Roads Not Taken

One poem that you can safely assume that an American student has encountered is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." It is in many anthologies used in schools and has become a phrase used by people who may not even know the source. It's so much of a classic, that it's almost a cliché.

An article by Katherine Robinson on www.poetryfoundation.org goes into greater detail than your high school English teacher may have in discussing the poem.

Did you know that Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” as a joke for a friend? That friends was fellow poet Edward Thomas who took walks with Frost. Apparently, Thomas was quite indecisive about the path to take and sometimes expressed regrets later about the one not taken.

Frost wrote the poem in 1915 and told Thomas that after reading the poem at a college, he was surprised that the audience had been “taken pretty seriously … despite doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling. … Mea culpa.”

From the poem's opening decision about choosing a road, to the conclusion that the choice has made all the difference, there is an odd and somewhat surprising word journey.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Initially, the speaker wishes he travel both roads, but admits that the one he took looked "just as fair" as the other and people using both roads had "worn them really about the same.”  Despite the usual interpretation of the poem, it's important to note that the two roads are more similar than not - "And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."

This month's prompt is to consider roads not taken. Of course, roads come in many forms - not all looking like a road.

So, is this a classic poem that is prompting us to write about choices and decisions and regret?

Frost wrote this poem when Europe was deep into WWI and a year before America would enter the war. Frost sent the poem to his friend Edward Thomas, who, like many readers to follow, did not see it as a joke (about him) but as a serious meditation on decision-making. He may have even connected the poem with the war and America's entry into it. Shortly after receiving this poem in a letter, Thomas enlisted in the army and was killed in France two months later.

At the end of the poem, the speaker says he will "be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence."  Is that a sigh of content or regret?

The answer depends on how you view the final lines:

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Has the difference been a good one or is there the regret of the opening? The speaker really would like to have taken both roads, but knows "how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back."

And if both roads were both very similar, how much of a difference would there have been in his life if he had chosen the other?

There are certainly "roads" you did not take, but that may have been a good or bad decision. It may not have been been your choice. Or you may have make the choice casually or quite unaware that it would carry any significant consequences.

Submission Deadline: August 7, 2016

July 8, 2016

Conversations: When Is a Poem Finished?


People often cite the poet Paul Valéry as the source of the quote " A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned."  That is actually a paraphrase of Valéry by W. H. Auden from 1965. (See W. H. Auden: Collected Poems "Author's Forewords.") What Valéry originally wrote was less of a sound bite: "A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations." But many poets can identify with the sentiments in either.

When do you let go of a poem and stop revising?

An article about Marianne Moore and her continual revision compares her to any contemporary poet who uses software like Word and "tacks changes" leaving digital footprints of where the poem has traveled.

Moore doesn't seem to have ever been satisfied that her poems were completed. Her poem “Poetry,” first appeared in 1919 and was about 30. In the published 1967 version it was down to 3 lines. She also changed titles - "A Graveyard” became “A Grave,” for example.

In the Internet age, we have lots changes made to things published online - from simple typos in a poem or a Facebook post, to Wikipedia entries (always being revised). Lots of revisionist history.

Google Docs tracks each edit to the page. But if you're well known and post a Tweet, then decide to delete it after you get some bad feedback, chances are the original has been captured in a screenshot by someone for posterity.

When is a poem finished for you?  Pre-digital, when I wrote all my poetry in longhand on paper, I saved all the drafts which included revisions and proofreading changes. When I typed the poem, I considered it finished. As a hunt-and-peck typist, retyping something was an effort and I avoided it. When an electric typewriter with a correction tool appeared, and then with the first word processors, it was so much easier that I increased my revisions.

For me, most of my poems are finished when they are published. I can only think of two times when I changed a poem after it appeared in a publication. Perhaps, if I ever make it to the point where I need to put together that "Selected Poems" collection, that will change.

That article views Moore with the ways she changed her work as "more of a digital-age artist than any of her contemporaries. Her poems were as malleable as something written online."

I actually know several very well known poets who still avoid the computer, email and word processing. Two of them have "typists" who interpret their handwriting and print copies which they edit with a pencil and give back for retyping. There may be some thoughtful advantages to that process, and some of you might do the same thing even though you are your own typist.

As another of our online "Conversations," let us know in a comment here about your revision process and particularly how you know when a poem is finished. Are you easy about letting go, or do you revise until as long as you can, like Marianne Moore?

July 1, 2016

Allusions to 'The Wasteland'

As an undergrad, I was quite enamored by the poetry of T.S. Eliot. It started with Prufrock and "The Wasteland" and led me to The Four Quartets.  I was in love with all the allusions to other poems, mythology etc. It impressed me. It was a puzzle.

I'm not as enamored by poetry that is a puzzle as I used to be, but I still admire Eliot's poetry.

There continue to be allusions to Eliot in pop culture, especially in music - Genesis, Manic Street Preachers, Arcade Fire and Bob Dylan are all artists that have used Eliot's poetry in their lyrics.

Bob Dylan references "The Waste Land" with the line “in the wasteland of your mind” from “When The Night Comes Falling from the Sky” and in his “Desolation Row” he has “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower” - probably over the edits Pound made to the poem.

Via Open Culture, I found a clip of Dylan riffing on "The Waste Land" on his Theme Time Radio Hour show that he did about ten years ago.

After listening to that, you might to hear the real thing read by Tom himself. He's not a great reader, but he does pronounce words and break lines as he intended them to be.

When I read "The Wasteland" in college I read it with a woman classmate that I was also enamored with, and one of things we shared was poetry. She was also into astrology and she really liked this section of the poem.

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days. 

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.