October 17, 2016

Billy Collins and 'The Rain in Portugal'

Billy Collins’s twelfth collection of poetry is The Rain in Portugal (Random House). It is a sign of Collins' popularity - and saleability - that his most recent books have been first released in hardcover, unlike most poets who go straight to paperback. His last three collections were New York Times best-sellers, and that is not typical for poetry.

All that is great. I love his poetry. But it also gets him a certain amount of dismissal by some. They say he is light and goes for the the laugh too often. Yes, if you hear him read there will be laughter. I'll see him this week at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. I've heard him read at many Dodge Festivals. I spent a week in workshops with him on Long Island just before he became U.S. Poet Laureate (2001—2003). There were lots of laughs. But there is always more to a Billy Collins poem than the funny line that you laugh at and remember.

Take as an example his poem “Mister Shakespeare.”  As a teacher, I like this poem, set in a classroom where the poet is teaching "Introduction to Literature." The poem recalls Collins' earlier poem, "Introduction to Poetry" - a favorite of teachers.

In that earlier poem, the teacher wants students to enjoy the poem and "to waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author’s name on the shore." Unfortunately, all the students want to do "is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. " They have been trained that way. "They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means."

Now, in the newer "Introduction to Literature," the teacher is again angry with students for their formality. Why are they thinking that they are being respectful calling the poet "Mr. Shakespeare?" It's just Shakespeare and it's just Hemingway and just Frost. They wouldn't watch the Yankees and call him "Mr. Jeter" or call the quarterback "Mr. Brady."  Why the formality with the poets?

And what about Frank Bidart? Well, when living poets are called only by their last name it sounds "so final."  And now we are at that place when the poet becomes reduced to academic "subject matter," like those poems the students wanted to beat into submission, all of this  is “enough to make us forget where poems begin.”

And where is that?

maybe in the upstairs room of an anonymous boy,
his face illuminated by lamplight.
He has penciled some lines in a notebook
and now he pauses to think up some strange and beautiful 
while the windows of his parents' house fill with falling

We come full circle. Famous poet and poem begin with anonymous poet and first poem.

Billy Collins is that famous living poet who was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But many of these poems are escapes from all those who have tried to reign in his fun along the way: 1950s America, the 16 years of “the full metal jacket of Catholic education,” even the limited exposure he had to poetry.

In "The Present," he opens with a chuckle

"Much has been said about being in the present,
it's the place to be according to the gurus"

but it's not an easy job, as any Zen practitioner knows, because the present is "always in a state of vanishing" and finding your way is tough because "no one, it seems, is able to give you directions."

In “Genuflection, he recalls that he was told of the Irish habit

of tipping the cap to the first magpie
one encounters in the course of a day
and saying to him “Good morning, sir,”

An odd tradition, "But why wouldn’t every bird merit a greeting?"

For example, that great blue heron he sees by the shore, standing as motionless "as a drawing on papyrus by a Delphic priest." For that heron, not just a good morning, "will anything serve, short of a genuflection?"

And that word recalls how

As a boy, I worked on that move,
gliding in a black cassock and white surplice
inside the boundary of the altar rail
then stopping to descend,
one knee touching the cool marble floor
palms pressed together in prayer,
right thumb crossed over left, and never the other way around.

In that week of workshop sessions with Collins (Is it okay to just use his last name?), he reminded us that since many of us had been English majors, that meant we had actually majored in death. Billy, the Catholic altar boy, had been well schooled in death early on.

In the poem "Greece," we are looking at the ruins that "were taking their time falling apart" and also seeing the very alive bathers on the beach below. But between those two, the poet writes down:

Is not poetry, a megaphone
held up to the whispering lips of death?

Death floats in and out of these poems. There is more mortality lurking in a drive through the town found in “Helium” and even in a store “Balloon Designs by Pauline” that has a good chance of outliving him - though probably not as long as those Greek ruins.

Is the poem "On Rhyme" on rhyme, or on poetry?  We all remember some poems and some rhymes that are not poems - the stitch in time that saves nine, the 30 days that have September. It sticks in the head. But Collins prefers a "Little Jack Horner sitting on a sofa / old men who are not from Nantucket." And so, rather than the rain in Spain that falls mainly on the plain, he imagines:

"... the rain in Portugal,
how it falls on the hillside vineyards, 
on the surface of the deep harbors

where fishing boats are swaying, 
and in the narrow alleys of the cities
where three boys in tee shirts 
are kicking a soccer ball in the rain,
ignoring the window-cries of their mothers."

It's a rebellion. And you didn't even know it. That's what humor can do.

October 4, 2016

Maraschino Cherries and Other Exotic Fruits

I love serendipity. I was looking at poems online looking for inspiration and came across one by Julie Kane titled "Maraschino Cherries."  I have a soft and rather sweet spot for maraschino cherries. In my childhood, they were something I loved to pilfer from our refrigerator. As an adult, I still love them in a manhattan cocktail.

Julie's poem made me think of another maraschino cherry poem that I have always liked - "Refrigerator" by Thomas Lux.

I definitely identify with Kane's
Three little girls on the morning after,
out in the kitchen poking around
for cherries soaked in whiskey like a bomb
of grown-up secrets. 
They were bolder than I was in my youth. Actually, I can't recall my parents making any cocktail with those cherries that I might have stolen with some booze.  I think my mother used the cherries only on top of ice cream sundaes.

Like Thomas Lux, my childhood refrigerator contained
not a lot,
and what there is (a boiled potato
in a bag, a chicken carcass
under foil) looking dispirited,
drained, mugged. This is not
a place to go in hope or hunger.
It was dull vault. But there was one item that stood out:
heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
shining red in their liquid, exotic,
aloof, slumming
in such company: a jar
of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
full, fiery globes, like strippers
at a church social. 
In rereading Lux's poem, I was surprised to find that he also can not recall seeing them used in a drink, or on ice cream. He doesn't even recall anyone even popping one in their mouth. They were something to be passed on like a family heirloom.
and, if I never ate one,
it was because I knew it might be missed
or because I knew it would not be replaced
and because you do not eat
that which rips your heart with joy.
Though I am very tempted to make our October writing prompt just maraschino cherries, that may be a bit limiting. So, we are expanding to any fruit in a poem that centers around one type. It might be nice if it is also sexy and exotic, or like a bomb of grown-up secrets or like strippers
at a church social.

Deadline for Submissions: November 4, 2016

September 23, 2016

Dodge Poetry Festival - the 30th Anniversary

The largest poetry event in North America comes to New Jersey’s largest city when the 30th Anniversary Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival returns to Newark from Thursday October 20th through Sunday October 23rd, 2016. For four days Newark’s vibrant downtown Arts District will be transformed into a poetry village featuring some of our most celebrated, diverse and vibrant poets and spoken word artists.

Check out the program for the list of poets appearing this year. http://www.dodgepoetry.org/at-the-festival/program/

September 9, 2016

Poetry Therapy and Healing

Each of us has a unique part to play in the healing of the world. - Marianne Williamson

Readers of this blog and poetry contributors to Poets Online don't need to be told that poetry can contribute to healing. As readers and as writers of poetry, we can all think of instances when a poem helped us or someone we know to heal.

Healing can be taken literally, as in coping with diseases both physical and mental. And healing can be seen as that process that moves us through transformation and into growth from a bad place to a better one.

In "Finding the Words to Say It: The Healing Power of Poetry", Robert Carroll writes about his use of poetry (his own and others) to facilitate healing.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, poetry sprang up everywhere. A New York Times article on October 1, 2001, documented the phenomenon: “In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way … Improvised memorials often conceived around poems sprang up all over the city, in store windows, at bus stops, in Washington Square Park, Brooklyn Heights, and elsewhere. …” 
Some catastrophes are so large, they seem to overwhelm ordinary language. Immediately after the recent tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, the Los Angeles Times reported the witnesses were literally dumbstruck. Words failed them. They had lost their voices. 
In mainstream culture, there are subjects we do not talk about. They are taboo. For example, even though each of us is going to die, we don't talk about dying. Instead, we avoid it. Even physicians are reluctant to talk with terminally ill patients about the patient's experience... 
Poetry gives us ways to talk about it. My job as a poetry therapist is to use poetry and voice to help people get access to the wisdom they already have but cannot experience because they cannot find the words in ordinary language.
I wouldn't recommend poetry as "alternative medicine" or a substitute for traditional medicine, but I would recommend it as a supplement to any treatments.

For our writing prompt this month, I am more interested in the figurative sense of healing, but there are certainly many examples of poets who have used the more literal sense of healing in their poems.

You may not be aware of "poetry therapy" which is defined by the National Association for Poetry Therapy as "the intentional use of the written and spoken word to facilitate healing, growth and transformation." Their membership includes mental health providers, medically trained physicians, nurses, educators, and artists, writers and others who use poems or the writing process as a healing practice.

I have always found that being out in nature feels like healing to me. This feeling is captured simply in "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry.  He says "When despair for the world grows in me" that he will "lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds."

What is it that we find there that feels like it can heal us? I think we envy at moments like that the wild things "who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief" and want to be in that freeing place, if only for a short time.

Our September writing prompt is simply "healing."

Submission deadline: September 30, 2016

There is a very good list of healing poems at writingandhealing.org, and the collection, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, also has good examples, and there are many articles online, such as "Poetry and Healing."

August 30, 2016

The Love and Hatred of Poetry

If you are a reader of this blog, the chances are that you are NOT a poetry hater. But I discovered a book, THE HATRED OF POETRY, by Ben Lerner that is about those who do hate it.

Lerner is not a hater. He is the author of three books of poems and two novels. But he does feel there are haters.

In a review of the book by Craig Morgan Teicher, he starts by saying:
Although Ben Lerner’s latest book is titled “The Hatred of Poetry,” I am almost certain that poetry is less hated now than it has ever been. I don't think the readers who would be drawn to this book — poetry fans with their dukes up — actually need it at all. And an actual hater of poetry wouldn't get past the first page.

Lerner's book uses Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry,” for its opening - "I, too, dislike it" but Moore continues:
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

As a poet, I meet lots of people who don't like poetry, though "hate" may be too strong verb to use. Blame school or blame poets and poems that plot not to be understood, I think poetery is more popular now than it was in the 20th century. I agree with the reviewer who says that "Poetry is read by a larger number of people than ever before, if only because it is written by more people than ever before, due in large part to the proliferation of MFA programs..."

Yes, it is an incestuous popularity. Poets love poetry. Poets buy poetry books and go to readings. Ask if you give a reading how many people in the audience are poets. A lot. And there are more readers who enjoy poems that allow them in without pain, and enjoy hearing poets read their work and talk about it.

That is always true at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival which celebrates 30 years of gathering those kinds of people this October.

Finally, back to Moore's poem, which concludes:

In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

August 22, 2016


A poem's title can change a lot about how a reader approaches it. I was posting on another blog about book titles and it got me thinking about titles on books and poems.

This month, our writing prompt about triggering a poem also considered the use of a title. 

Novelists have often looked to poets for inspiration. Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust comes from T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land." Haruki Murakami’s borrowed Dance Dance Dance from W.H. Auden’s “Death’s Echo.”

You might think that a writer could come up with an original title, but keep in mind that using an allusion to a poem (or other work) is more than just a literary hat tip because it can lead a reader to the source which might provide additional insight into the new work.

Madeleine L’Engle got her title A Swiftly Tilting Planet  from Conrad Aiken’s “Morning Song of Senlin” and Cormac McCarthy selected No Country for Old Men from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” E.M. Forster found A Passage to India  in Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass."  

Mr. Shakespeare provided titles for many writers from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (from Hamlet) and Joyce Carol Oates (New Heaven, New Earth) to Edith Wharton (The Glimpses of the Moon), and Isaac Asimov (The Gods Themselves) to Dorothy Parker (Not So Deep as a Well).

From this short poem by Stephen Crane, Joyce Carol Oates found her book title, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

I went through an exercise at a poetry workshop where we were given a packet of probably unfamiliar poem that had no titles or authors listed. The idea was to read and discuss the poems and then later see how the title and any knowledge of the poet's life changed our interpretations. How do you read a poem about a woman giving birth when you know it was written by a man?

I gave a reading and included a poem of mine titled "Weekend With Dad." After the reading, a woman came up to me and said she enjoyed the reading, especially that poem because "she was also a single parent."  But I'm not a single parent. And the poem isn't about being a single parent. Or is it? Rereading my poem, through the single parent filter suggested by the title, I see that it very well might be about being a single parent.

In a workshop with poet Billy Collins, he gave us some Chinese poems to read that had very long titles. In fact, several of the poems themselves were shorter than the titles. It led us to look at other poems with and without their titles and we played with giving poems new titles in an attempt to move a reader in another direction.


Collins gives Lu Yu the prize of a simple rice cake for his very long title "In a Boat on a Summer Evening I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird. It Was Very Sad and Seemed To Be Saying My Woman Is Cruel—Moved, I Wrote This Poem."

In that workshop, Billy said that he liked a poem title that invites us into the poem. As he says in his own poem: 
How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner,
cross my legs like his, and listen.

August 12, 2016

Triggering the Poem

Poet Richard Hugo believed that we’ve written every poem we ever loved. He said that he was particularly proud of having written Yeats’ poem Yeats’ “Easter, 1916.”

The Dodge Poetry Festival blog has asked several poets "What great poem are you proud of having written?" One of my first professors of poetry, Alicia Ostriker, said she was "I’m pretty proud of having written Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear. Maria Mazziotti Gillan answered, "I am proud to have written 'somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond' by E.E. Cummings. I often recite it to myself when I’m driving or walking and I find it very comforting. I think it is one of the most beautiful love poems I have ever read."

In his book of poetics, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo offers a series of essays about what triggers poems.

He argues against the often heard idea that a writer should “write what you know.” Instead, he suggests an approach to poetry based on triggering subjects and words.

In one essay, he explains triggering subjects, using the example of towns, as points of entry into the realm of the imagination.

Again, opposing the write-what-you-know, he suggests that new poets might try to own an imagined, or barely-known, town, rather than trying to convey their actual hometown. That hometown, he feels, may be one in which “the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns.” Then, the poet can focus on the play and music of the language.

At this point, the poet's private language, personal connections and certain words that have rich associations for the poet can move the poem forward.
“Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feel­ings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”
Hugo's book is not about writing prompts, but it does offer a lot of advice. Here are some examples:
  1. “Don’t write with a pen. Ink tends to give the impression the words shouldn’t be changed. 
  2. Write in a hard-covered notebook with green lined pages. Green is easy on the eyes. Blank white pages seems to challenge you to create the world before you start writing. It may be true that you, the modern poet, must make the world as you go, but why be reminded of it before you even have one word on the page?
  3. Don’t erase. Cross out rapidly and violently, never with slow consideration if you can help it.
  4. Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
  5. Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.
  6. Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: One.  
  7. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
We might choose one of Hugo's more obvious "town" poems such as "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" or "Glen Uig" as examples of his "triggering town" approach. But I chose his poem "The Church On Comiaken Hill."

As with this month's writing prompt, the title is the trigger. In this case, the trigger is a place.

In the poem, we explore the place, both by seeing what the poet saw, and what no one can see with their eyes - such as the Indians who were once there.

I did a simple search and found that real church. You don't need the history to understand the poem, but the history does help you see why it triggered the poem.

Your assignment this month is first to tell us up front in your title what it was that triggered the poem. Second, your poem needs to begin rather literally with that triggering person, place or thing, but then it needs to move beyond that to things we would not know even if we encountered that trigger. It should be two stanzas.

Of course, that second stanza is what makes it your poem. It contains what it triggered in you that might not be triggered in any other poet.

The submission deadline for this prompt is September 7, 2016.

August 3, 2016

Darwin in Verse

You know Charles Darwin as the author of On the Origin of Species, a book that launched a scientific revolution - and still causes arguments with some people for introducing evolution.

He was a writer. He labored over that book and withheld it from publication until the time when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, independently reached the same conclusions.

He also kept a diary that’s actually interesting to read.

“On the one hand he was trying to write very, very accurately,” says Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter (and Oxford poetry professor) Ruth Padel. “And on the other hand he was trying to write vividly, to convey his own enthusiasm for what he was seeing.”

She was fascinated by her ancestor’s artistic soul, more than his scientific mind and it inspired her to write a biography of Darwin entirely in verse.

How would Charles darwin have felt about the book? Darwin wrote, “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

Charles Darwin was born in 1809. He lost his mother at the age of eight and repressed all memory of her.

His five-year voyage on H.M.S. Beagle, when he was in his twenties, changed his life. When he returned home, he began publishing his findings and working privately on the groundbreaking theories about the development of animal species, including human beings., and he made a nervous proposal to his cousin Emma.

Darwin: A Life in Poems  is an interpretation of the life and work of Charles Darwin by Ruth Padel.

Charles and Emma

More than his work as a naturalist, she focuses on his marriage to Emma and their ten children.

His theories came between Charles and Emma because of the differences between her deep Christian faith and his increasing religious doubt. The death of three of their children made those differences more severe.

Although Darwin didn't really use the expression "survival of the fittest," Padel sees Darwin's views on death and extinction as nature’s way of developing new species. But, for his wife, death was a prelude to the afterlife.

July 30, 2016

Your Life Is a Poem

In the new episode of ON BEING, "Your Life Is a Poem," poet Naomi Shihab Nye talks about growing up in Ferguson, Missouri and on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Her father was a refugee Palestinian journalist, and through her poetry, she carries forward his hopeful passion, his insistence, that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity.

Your life is a poem. This is how the poet Naomi Shihab Nye sees the world, and she teaches how that way of being and writing is possible. She’s engaged the real world power of words through her upbringing between her father’s Palestinian homeland and Ferguson, Missouri. Her mother was American. Her father was a refugee journalist, and she carries forward his hopeful passion, his insistence, that language must be a way out of cycles of revenge and animosity. A poem she wrote called “Kindness,” that was written in a moment of trauma, is carried around in the pockets and memories of readers around the world.
Listen to the podcast

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!