May 21, 2015

Emily Dickinson on Gilligan's Island

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 31, 2015

Prompt: Epistles to the Poets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Your poem might be titled "Dear Mr. Hirsch" or Dear Elizabeth" for a poem to Elizabeth Bishop, whose own epistle "Letter to N.Y." begins:
In your next letter I wish you’d say
where you are going and what you are doing;
how are the plays, and after the plays
what other pleasures you’re pursuing:

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

February 26, 2015

How Long Will You Revise a Poem?

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

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

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

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

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

What is your revision process?

Here is the opening of "The Moose."

The Moose
For Grace Bulmer Bowers

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

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

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

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

February 22, 2015

Best Practices for Fair Use in Poetry

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

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

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

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

February 12, 2015

Prompt: Shoveling Snow with the Buddha and Billy Collins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Deadline for submissions: March 8, 2015

February 9, 2015

Love Poems for Valentine's Day

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

Try some classic and contemporary love poems from

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

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


"How to Love" by January Gill O’Neil

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

February 1, 2015

Poets and Madness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Of course, alcohol is a depressant.

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

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

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

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

Is there a relationship between poetry and psychosis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

December 31, 2014

Prompt: Terrance Hayes and the Golden Shovel

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

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

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

Geronimo [after Gary Snyder]

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

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

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

"The rules" for this new form are:

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

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


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

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

November 23, 2014

The Poetry of Michelangelo

The Statue of David, completed by Michelangelo in 1504,
is one of the most renowned works of the Renaissance.

In writing a post about Michelangelo and his paintings for the Sistine Chapel for another blog, I came across a part of his life I had never known.Almost everyone knows his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and we know some of his sculpture, such as the David and Pietà.  I don't think many people know about his poetry.

I think that my first real encounter with the life of Michelangelo was watching the film The Agony and the Ecstasy back in the mid-1960s. (I didn't read the best-selling biographical novel by Irving Stone that it was based on.)  I was impressed by the story of those four years he spent completing the paintings that decorate the ceiling of the chapel.

I wrote a poem on my daily poem site this past week and realized later that I had used the same title and a very similar experience for an earlier poem this year. Later, I discovered an even earlier version of the idea in a notebook from 6 years ago. My aging memory and its lapses made me read more about the later years of Michelangelo's life and it was news to me that he turned to writing poetry.
His sexuality is somewhat in question but it is clearly a part of his poetry. He wrote over three hundred sonnets and madrigals.

The longest sequence were written to Tommaso dei Cavalieri. He met Tommasso when he was 57 and Tommasso was 23 years old. The Tommasso poems are the first large sequence of poems in any modern tongue addressed by one man to another. It's a bit surprising to me to realize that Shakespeare's sonnets to the "fair youth" were written only 50 years after Michelangelo's sonnets.

This led me to find a copy of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo at the library.

In a poem to Cavalieri, he writes:
Nay, things that suffer death, quench not the fire
Of deathless spirits; nor eternity
Serves sordid Time, that withers all things rare.
And Cavalieri replied in a letter: "I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you, never have I wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours."

The young nobleman was exceptionally handsome, and his appearance seems to have fit the artist's notions of ideal masculine beauty.  Michelangelo described him as "light of our century, paragon of all the world."

They remained lifelong friends, and Cavalieri was present at the artist's death. Scholars still dispute whether this was a homosexual or paternal relationship.
My lover stole my heart, just over there
– so gently! – and stole much more, my life as well.
And there, all promise, first his fine eyes fell
on me, and there his turnabout meant no.
He manacled me there; there let me go;
There I bemoaned my luck; with anguished eye
watched, from this very rock, his last goodbye
as he took myself from me, bound who knows where.

His homoerotic poetry was something that later generations were uncomfortable with and it never really came into popular books and films about his life. Michelangelo's grandnephew, Michelangelo the Younger, published the poems in 1623 with the gender of pronouns changed to be feminine. The gender was restored to male in John Addington Symonds' translation into English in 1893. in 1547.

    Why should I seek to ease intense desire
    With still more tears and windy words of grief?
    If only chains and bands can make me blest,
    No marvel if alone and naked I go
    An armed Cavaliere's captive and slave confessed.

"Cavaliere" or "cavalry man" is also a play on Cavalieri.

Michelangelo, Self-Portrait

Michelangelo never married and it is unclear whether he had any longterm physical relationship with anyone.  He did have a great love for the poet and noble widow Vittoria Colonna, whom he met in Rome in 1536 or 1538. She was in her late forties and he was in her early 60s at the time.

Colonna's poetry and her zealous religious beliefs greatly influenced Michelangelo and led to his devout interest in Church reform. Although Colonna was apparently physically unattractive, she was the subject of many of Michelangelo's love poems, and she appears to have been the only woman with whom the reclusive artist ever had a serious relationship. They wrote sonnets for each other and their friendship remained important to Michelangelo until her death. When Colonna died suddenly in 1547 at the age of fifty-seven, Michelangelo was heartbroken, and her death ended the period of his greatest love poetry.


Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
Of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.

Following a brief illness, Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564—just weeks before his 89th birthday—at his home in Rome. A nephew bore his body back to Florence, where he was revered by the public as the "father and master of all the arts," and was laid to rest at the Basilica di Santa Croce—his chosen place of burial.

November 19, 2014

On Writing and On Being A Poet

"To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard." - David McCullough

"Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards."- Henry Miller on writing.

"It will come if it is there, and if you will let it come.” - Gertrude Stein

"If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told. It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination."  -  Gabriel García Márquez

"Ars Poetica" is Archibald MacLeish's 1926 poem that references Horace's treatise by that name (translated as "Art of Poetry"), which was written in the first century A.D. Horace's intent was to write a how-to on writing poetry. MacLeish's poem begins:

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.