August 6, 2014

Carl Sandburg: I Wish I Never

Having read poems by Carl Sandburg in my elementary school English classes, I was not a fan. "Fog" was a cute little thing. I still recall a teacher using it to teach us personification.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

His poem "Chicago" was in at least two anthologies in school and we read that too.
It begins:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your
painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys...

Other than those painted women, it didn't interest me very much.

Then, in high school, I read "Mag" without knowing it was by Sandburg. It was bitter. It kind of shocked me. No curse words, but so cutting.


I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you to get married in the day we ran off to a minister
And told him we would love each other and take care of each other
Always and always long as the sun and the rain lasts anywhere.
Yes, I'm wishing now you lived somewhere away from here
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away dead broke.
     I wish the kids had never come
     And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
     And a grocery man calling for cash,
     Every day cash for beans and prunes.
     I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
     I wish to God the kids had never come.

It was first published in his collection Chicago Poems (1916). This volume, along with Cornhuskers (1918) and Smoke and Steel (1920), established Sandburg's reputation as a talented free verse poet, known for portraying industrial America.

I suppose the obvious prompt from the poem is about marriage. Too obvious.

What struck me about the poem initially is the negative wishing. I was more used to reading poems where the wishes were for things in the future. Good things. Better things. But Sandburg is wishing to change the past. To undo what was done.

Your task this month is to write a poem about a negative wish (or wishes) - a wish to undo, wishes that change the past. Those are the wishes that pull you right back to the present and have you thinking about the future.

Submission Deadline: August 31, 2014

July 23, 2014

Lunch Poems

Burt Kimmelman
Catherine "Cat" Doty

I attended some Lunchtime Poems in Military Park (Newark, NJ) last week sponsored by the Dodge Poetry Festival. The weekly events are a preview for some of the 70 poets who will read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in October. Last week two friends were reading, Catherine "Cat" Doty and Burt Kimmelman.

People in the park on a beautiful summer day brought their lunch or drinks and took in some poems. I saw listeners making notes. People passing would slow down, stop for a few minutes and take in a few lines or a poem or two.

For those of you not near northern New Jersey, check out what is coming October 23-26 at the Festival.

But, if a trip to NJ is just not possible, you might consider Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, a collection that is now 50 years old. They were first published in 1964 as number 19 in City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series.

In an essay by Callie Siskel, "It's Cooking,"she says:

O’Hara’s poems are often compared to Abstract Expressionist paintings, but their composition is also akin to jazz. He grew up playing music. In “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday,” the speaker says he was “miserable, a grope pizzicato,” but O’Hara himself was a classically trained pianist. He studied at the New England Conservatory and entered Harvard as a music major before switching to English. He called writing “playing the typewriter,” but such a phrase downplays the extent to which his poems feel as measured as music. The syncopation that permeates Lunch Poems occurs when the time he marks at a regular rate is juxtaposed with the erratic cadences of his voice.

The collection's title refers to O’Hara’s habit of writing in Times Square during his lunch hour, and probably suggests that a reader could take the pocket-sized volume along and read it during his own lunch hour. They are often about museums, movies, and people and places of 1960s New York.

Lunch Poems includes some of the verses that made him cultishly popular - "The Day Lady Died,"  "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]”(which we used for our gossip writing prompt) and "Ave Maria,"which begins this way:

get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                                                              but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images 
and when you grow old as grow old you must
                                                                  they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
                                                           they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing hookey

they may even be grateful to you
                                                  for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
                                            and didn’t upset the peaceful home

July 18, 2014

Writing the Days, One Ronka at a Time

I wrote a guest post for Adele Kenny's poetry blog, The Music In It, about my daily writing practice this year and the ronka poems I have been writing and posting online.

It is a good exercise to get "meta" about your writing once in awhile and think about what you write and why. Treat yourself as an assignment from that poetry class and look at the themes that run through your poems, the language etc. (I didn't realize how many birds were flying into my daily poems.)

Here is what I wrote for Adele.

This year I wanted to take on a daily writing practice with my poetry.  It's not an original New Year's resolution. William Stafford is the poet who inspired me the most. he wrote every day of his life from 1950 to 1993. Not everything he wrote was a poem. His 20,000 pages of daily writings include early morning meditations, poems, dream records, aphorisms, and other “visits to the unconscious.”

I do write every day, but not always poetry, so the resolution was to do a daily poem. Stafford did go through a period when that was also his goal. When he was asked how he was able to produce a poem every morning, he replied, “I lower my standards.” I like that answer, but, while the phrase has a negative connotation, Stafford meant that he allowed himself some bad poems knowing that with daily writing there will be eventually be some good work.

I wanted to impose some form on myself each day and I thought using a short form might make the project more likely to succeed. I love haiku, tanka and other short forms, but I ended up creating my own form for this project.
Finding a photo of her

from that summer when we were fifteen
that hot day behind the beach house
her bare shoulders, back, arms and legs -
when I suddenly realized she’s a woman
and it startled me.  It startled me.

I call my form the ronka – obviously a somewhat egotistical play on the tanka form.

The term waka originally encompassed a number of differing forms including the tanka (“short poem”) and chōka (“long poem”), sedōka (“memorized poem”?) and katauta (“poem fragment”). Of those, only the tanka has really survived.

If you look at those forms, you notice that the numbers 5 and 7 are the heart of all of them.  The katauta is  5-7-7  and the chōka counts out  at 5-7-5-7-5-7…5-7-7 and the sedōka at 5-7-7-5-7-7 is composed of two sets of 5-7-7.

The tanka form consists of five units (often treated as separate lines when romanized or translated) usually with the following pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. Even in that short form, the tanka has two parts. The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (“upper phrase”) and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (“lower phrase”).

For my invented form, a ronka contains 5 lines, each having 7 words without concern for syllables. Westerners consider haiku to be 5, 7, and 5 lines counted by syallables, but, since Chinese and Japanese have no syllables, that has always been a Western convention.
Letters Loved

Old letters from lovers, not love letters,
but timelines of relationships like plot diagrams -
conflicts, turning points, resolutions, conclusions, mostly tragedies.
Why do I save them? No sequels.
Dangerous tinder to have around. Best burned.
As with traditional tanka, I decided to have no rhyme. (Even accidental rhymes were considered faults in a tanka.). I also decided to use the haiku principle of show rather than tell. For example, to indicate spring by mentioning cherry blossoms rather than stating the season. I started the year trying not to include myself or people as frequently as we do in Western poetry, those have crept into the poems.

I have even added a few footnotes and links to poems.
Fathers and Sons

Sons grow up and leave their fathers
to become fathers and perhaps have sons.
Child is the father of the man,
said another poet, his heart leaping up.
Five days of rain, then, a rainbow.
We are just past mid-year and I have maintained by daily poem practice without great difficulty. I post them online at Writing the Day and each observation of the day is categorized as being from the outside world or inside the world of dwellings or the mind.

I write at all times of the day, but most poems seem to come at the end of the day. (I also set a daily 10 pm reminder on my phone about posting a poem.)

A non-poet might think that writing 35 words a day is not much of a challenge, but poets will understand that I frequently don't write much faster than a word-per-minute. I also post an image (my own or borrowed) with each poem.

Some poems are ars poetica or poems about poetry or writing.

Firefly Revision

Basho considered a Kikaku haiku as cruel:
A red firefly / tear off its wings -
a pepper.  A pepper / give it wings –
a red firefly
, was Basho’s simple change.
Revision as a Buddhist act of kindness.


No, writing poetry is more like carving
wood and taking away, finding the heart
hidden inside, paring, using point and blade.
The danger comes from the dull knife.
The soft inside will be thrown away.

Some are observations on a particular day, such as this one from the Friday the 13th in June:

A thirteenth day that is a Friday.
A Full Moon to complete a triad
of  strange correlation without any real causation.
We look carefully for signs and connections -
find clockwork regularity; serendipity in the moments.

The blog I post to has a "tag cloud" feature and I tag each ronka with a few keywords that describe the poem. It is interesting to me to see what words occur most frequently: birds, time, the Moon and tea have all been things that I seem to return to this year.

Titles have become another way of adding a line to the poem, though I still limit myself to seven words there too.


I’m Not An Actor in Hollywood But

I want a body and stunt double.
I want better lighting. No high definition.
More scenes and lines, 20 against 20,
gross points on profits, hand and footprints,
a star on the Walk of Fame.

There are lots of books and websites to find poetic inspiration through writing prompts. I have been doing a monthly one at Poets Online since 1998.  Adele has provided almost 200 well-defined prompts here already. My fellow New Jersey poets, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Diane Lockward have excellent craft books with prompts - Writing Poetry To Save Your Life and The Crafty Poet, respectively. William Stafford and Stephen Dunning's Getting the Knack is a book I bought when I started teaching and I still dip into for inspiration.

Daily practices have a long history as paths of transformation spiritually, physically and for learning a craft. Perhaps, meditation and prayer will be your spiritual practice. Perhaps, yoga, tai chi or running is your physical practice. You might even combine them - kinhin is walking meditation. Consider a daily writing practice, whether it be poetry, a field guide from nature, a garden journal, one page of that long-intended novel. Disciplines of the mind are a good way to a healthy brain!

book infoAdele is a poet and offers regular writing prompts online that are very well explained and illustrated. She is a fine poet herself - check out her collection What Matters - and she has written many books on a variety of topics.

A former professor of creative writing in the College of New Rochelle's Graduate School, Adele Kenny is founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series (NJ), which is where I first met her. She is one of those many people across the country whose local efforts keep poetry alive. The readings have featured New Jersey poets and nationally-known poets, including Mark Doty, Jim Haba, Stephen Dunn, BJ Ward, Renee Ashley, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Laura Boss, Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Diane Lockward, Alicia Ostriker and Patricia Smith.

Adele is also the poetry editor of Tiferet Journal. She has read in the US, England, Ireland, and France, and has been a featured reader at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.

July 6, 2014

Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?

If you are a poet and publish or give readings, you may have been asked questions about your poems. Readers and listeners often wonder how real or autobiographical the details in your poems might be.

Some readers expect that the first car you owned in that poem must, in fact, be the actual first car you owned. That Francine who was your first kiss - Was she really your first kiss?

How honest do you need to be in your poems? How autobiographical are your poems and how much poetic license do you allow yourself? Is there a line of fiction that poems shouldn't cross?

For this month's prompt, we consider the questions readers ask (or might ask) about your poems.

There are two poems by Aimee Nezhukumatathil that serve this prompt. First is her poem, "Are All the Break-Ups in Your Poems Real?" I like the way she answers that question in several ways and I think for many poets the answer does depend on the poem and situation.

The second poem is "Dear Amy Nehzooukammyatootill" in which Aimee gives us a found poem, composed entirely of e-mails from various high school students. (As the title implies, Aimee's last name is a tough one for most readers.) The students have asked questions and made observations about the poet and her poems. The poet responds - but only through her selection, arrangement and repetition of the found comments.

What are readers asking you about your poems, and what are you answering?

Submission deadline: July 31, 2014

Aimee's website is at 

June 24, 2014

Poems: Charles Wright

Now that Charles Wright is the 20th United States Poet Laureate, many people unaware of his poetry will finally read some of his poems.

The Poetry Foundation offers a selection of Wright’s poems:
A Short History of the Shadow
Black Zodiac
Clear Night
Lives of the Saints
Miles Davis and Elizabeth Bishop Fake the Break
Northhanger Ridge
The Appalachian Book of the Dead

You can read 50 of Wright’s poems that appeared in Poetry or listen to him read and discuss his poetry in some 1992 recordings.

June 19, 2014

A Poet's Glossary

Looking through A Poet's Glossary, by poet Edward Hirsch, certainly offers many possibilities for writing prompts.

Hirsch has put together a very international collection of terms from A (as in abededarian) to Z (zeugma).

You might try writing a Bedouin women’s ghinnawa (highly stylized verses) or a style of gentle banter that originated as a sung verbal duel in the West Indies called picong.

There are also the more familiar terms that we were introduced to in school.

The book has been called a followup to Edward Hirsch’s best-selling book How to Read a Poem: And Fall in Love with Poetry from 1999 which contained a useful but limited  glossary.

For example, Hirsch defines "couplet" as two successive lines of poetry, usually rhymed (aa), which has been an elemental stanzaic unit—a couple, a pairing—as long as there has been written rhyming poetry in English. 

We call a couplet closed when the sense and syntax come to a conclusion or strong pause at the end of the second line, thus giving a feeling of self-containment and enclosure, as in the first lines of “To His Coy Mistress”:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.

We call a couplet open when the sense carries forward past the second line into the next line or lines, as in the beginning of Keats’s Endymion (1818):

A thing of beauty is a joy for ever:
Its loveliness increases; it will never
Pass into nothingness, but still will keep
A bower quiet for us, and a sleep

     Full of sweet dreams . . .

Ben Jonson told William Drummond that he deemed couplets “the brav­est Sort of Verses, especially when they are broken.” All two-line stanzas in English carry the vestigial memory of closed or open couplets.
In an interview, Hirsch explained his intent for the glossary:

I see this as a book for the initiated as well as for the uninitiated reader. People who don’t know much about poetry can find what they need to know about certain basics, like the nature of the line or the stanza, or the characteristics of a form, like the ghazal or the sestina. But there are also a lot of things in this book that even widely read readers of poetry may not know much about because they are outside our tradition. So, for example, you might not know to look up a form of African praise poem called the oríkì. If you care to think about praise poetry—what it is, how it functions—then the oríkì has a lot to tell you. To help the reader along different pathways, I’ve added “See also” at the bottom of every entry.

Curious about the abecedarian and zeugma?

June 15, 2014

Charles Wright To Be New Poet Laureate

The Library of Congress will announce this week that the next poet laureate will be Charles Wright.

He is the author of nearly two dozen collections of verse and known for blending modernism and the landscape of the American South.

At 78, Wright is retired from teaching at the University of Virginia. He has won the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, the Bollingen Prize and the Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize.

After Reading Tu Fu, I Go Outside to the Dwarf Orchard

East of me, west of me, full summer.
How deeper than elsewhere the dusk is in your own yard.
Birds fly back and forth across the lawn
looking for home
As night drifts up like a little boat.

Day after day, I become of less use to myself.
Like this mockingbird,
I flit from one thing to the next.
What do I have to look forward to at fifty-four?
Tomorrow is dark.
Day-after-tomorrow is darker still.

The sky dogs are whimpering.
Fireflies are dragging the hush of evening
up from the damp grass.
Into the world's tumult, into the chaos of every day,
Go quietly, quietly.

Wright's latest collection of poems is Caribou (2014)

Read more about the new Poet Laureate -

June 8, 2014

Prompt: All About June

What does the month of June suggest to you? Summer? Weddings?

In Richard Wilbur's poem, "June Light," the month is present in someone "with clear location" and "the just soft stare of uncontested summer."

The Latin name for June is Junius. Ovid offered multiple etymologies for the month's name: from the Roman goddess Juno, the goddess of marriage and the wife of the supreme deity Jupiter; the second is that the name comes from the Latin word iuniores, meaning "younger ones", as opposed to maiores ("elders") for which the preceding month May (Maius) may be named. Though we might associate JUne with weddings, in ancient Rome, the period from mid-May through mid-June was considered a bad time to marry. Ovid says that he consulted the Flaminica Dialis, the high priestess of Jupiter, about setting a date for his daughter's wedding, and was advised to wait till after June 15. Then again, Plutarch said that the entire month of June was more favorable for weddings than May.

I like the Icelandic folk story that says that if you bathe naked in the morning dew on the morning of June 24, you are supposed to keep aging at bay for a longer period.

If you believe in the power of the heavenly bodies, the start of June finds the sun rising in the constellation of Taurus, and at the end of the month it rises in the constellation of Gemini.

Does the month mean to you, as in this month's full moon, strawberries and roses?

This month we ask you to consider June as the theme for your poem. Perhaps, you can teach us something new about the month.

Submission deadline: June 30, 2014

April 26, 2014

Prompt: The Erotics of Gossip

Gossip is that casual conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true. The etymology of the word is from Old English godsibb, from god and sibb, the term for the godparents of one's child who were generally very close friends. And plenty of gossip comes from "friends."

Nowadays, the media is full of gossip with entire companies like TMZ and Eonline built on talking about the lives of celebritiesNewspapers were the earliest mass media for gossip and famous for their juicy headlines.

But gossip still comes over the backyard fence or is whispered in a classroom and high school hallway or in the workplace.

I was reading about George Green's book of poems, Lord Byron's Foot. Green is a professor at Lehman College (where Billy Collins spent many years teaching) and that is his first poetry collection.

The title is a bit of gossip itself coming from the fact that Byron had a deformed foot that caused him a lot of grief and was one of those celebrity secrets that probably generated plenty of gossip at social events.  The book is, to quote Byron, “a little quietly facetious upon every thing” written in blank verse.

The subject matter is not George Green but the world of celebrity that also interested poet Frank O’Hara. The people of art, movies, big cities like New York, celebrity and the ephemeral.

Green adds some formality to the poems, but the topics are loose and dishy.

Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]
by Frank O'Hara

Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up

Green works some of the same gossip beat.
Marilyn killed herself because she thought
that middle age began at thirty-five.
In Liz’s case it did, but she kept going,
though Dick went down in flames (Exorcist II).

In a critical study of O’Hara, Hazel Smith says that gossip in poetry is “straddling the realm of the intimate … encourag[ing] voyeurism” and involving the reader in an “erotics of gossip.”

The article points to the tradition of “community portrait” poems and sequences by Thomas Hardy (Wessex Poems), Edgar Lee Masters (Spoon River Anthology), Edwin Arlington Robinson (various volumes), and Gwendolyn Brooks (A Street in Bronzeville, The Bean Eaters) and going back to party gossiper, Chaucer.

Your assignment this month is to do some poetic gossiping. It can be celebrity-style or the more everyday. You might want to start by looking at some of those gossipy sites mentioned at the top of this post for a headline starter.

Please feel free to dish!

Submission Deadline: May 25, 2014

April 19, 2014

Getting the Daily News from Poems

It is difficult
to get the news from poems
yet men die miserably every day
for lack
of what is found there.

   —  William Carlos Williams

I am still writing my poem a day for 2014, and some people have taken on a poem a day for National Poetry Month. But if you don't feel you can write every day, you can certainly read a poem a day. And reading poetry is an important part of becoming a poet too.

Some people use the daily poem at The Writers Almanac or at Poetry Daily.

The Academy of American Poets is another source. They have a new design for their Poem-a-Day and they will now be syndicating Poem-a-Day. This means that the new, previously unpublished poems we are publishing during the week will be available to editors at a wide range of newspapers, news websites, and magazines.

Get out the news in poems!

You might also want to celebrate the month with a donation to Poem-A-Day or help support Poetry Daily or support the Writers Almanac.