December 10, 2016

Thanking Margaret Maher on Emily's Birthday

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog – 
To tell one’s name – the livelong June – 
To an admiring Bog!

Taking a few minutes to remember Emily Dickinson, born on this day in 1830 and Margaret Maher.

Emily wrote nearly 2,000 poems, but she only published about 10 of these in her lifetime.

Her maid, Margaret Maher, was the only person who knew about the full output of her writing. Emily would spend hours in the kitchen with Margaret, baking breads and cakes, and scribbling poems on chocolate wrappers and the backs of shopping lists. Maher was literate and she even dabbled in poetry herself now and then; the two women wrote poems back and forth to each other. Some scholars believe that Maher’s Irish syntax made it into some of Dickinson’s work. In any case, Dickinson trusted Maher with her poems — literally. She stored them in the trunk that Maher had brought over from Ireland.

Dickinson left strict instructions for Maher to burn her poems after she died, but when the time came, Margaret, thankfully, couldn’t bring herself to do it.

She brought the poems to Lavinia, Emily’s sister. Lavinia had already burned most of her sister’s letters, but she agreed with Maher that the poems should be published.

Maher also supplied the only daguerreotype that we have of Emily Dickinson.

The family didn’t like the picture, but Maher kept it, and gave it to the publisher to include with the first edition of Dickinson’s poems.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

 You can read some of those poems at


December 6, 2016

Broken Things

"Action Man" by Jeremy Richardson via Flickr

Things break. Usually, we try to fix them, or find someone else who can fix them for us.

Today, we often hear that things are more disposable. "Planned obsolescence" is a phrase that goes back to the 1930s. It describes a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing. This is achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of non-durable materials.

In the more than 70 years since the concept was introduced, that idea has moved from automobiles, television sets, phones and other hard goods to much softer ones. People discuss how things like relationships and marriage have become disposable.

In Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "The God Of Broken Things," he tells us of a very human "god" who can fix just about anything you bring into his junk shop.

He's in a lopsided heaven at Maggie's
Junk Shop. Objects of wood, iron, ivory,
Of veneer, lead, stone, glass, flimsy
Cardboard, of tin, brass, bronze . . .

He could go on forever fixing
Cracks, fissures, dents, fractures,
Rasping & gluing together what is
Unheard-of with what can never be

All of these very real things that range from "Objets d'art to "bric-a-brac" can be mended in some way. The poet says that they are "Broken or hurt beneath the architecture / Of planned obsolescence."

In Komunyakaa's collection Talking Dirty to the Gods, he gives us 132 poems of 16 lines (four quatrains) with most of the lines being of four stresses. Like sonnets, there is a formalism to the poems and they include many allusions to mythology and religion. Besides “The God of Broken Things,” there is a “The God of Variables” and “The Goddess of Quotas.”

Some poets find beauty in broken things.  In her poem "Broken Things,"  Sara Teasdale writes:
    Broken things are loveliest,
            Broken clouds when dusk is red,
    Broken waves where a rainbow rides,
            Broken words left half unsaid.

    Broken things, broken things—
            How quietly they comfort me,
    Riven cliffs, where I can watch
            The broken beauty of the sea.  

In Alice Walker's poem "I Will Keep Broken Things," she wants to save everything, broken or not.

But in his "Ode To Broken Things," Pablo Neruda suggests letting all the broken things go.
Let's put all our treasures together
-- the clocks, plates, cups cracked by the cold --
into a sack and carry them
to the sea
and let our possessions sink
into one alarming breaker
that sounds like a river.
May whatever breaks
be reconstructed by the sea
with the long labor of its tides.
So many useless things
which nobody broke
but which got broken anyway

None of these poets talk about broken hearts, broken relationships, broken homes, broken promises or broken lives, but we know that many things break and are much harder to repair than all those objects.

This month,we are writing poems about broken things and about our attempts to repair them. From Neruda, we will use his poem as as a thematic model, and from Yusef Komunyakaa we will borrow a short, controlled form for our poems: 16 lines in four quatrains. You may also want to meter the stresses, words or syllables to maintain line lengths - in his poem he uses mostly four stresses per line.

Submission Deadline: January 2, 2017

November 23, 2016

Post-Election Poetry

In a piece at Wired, Lexi Pandell considers the role poetry plays in processing traumatic situations and how events in 2016 have given poetry renewed interest. And one of those events is the the recent Presidential election.

She writes:
In the 48 hours following the election, also saw its biggest surge of shares in four years. Over a two-day span, the site typically sees 80-100 people tweeting links to its poems, and about 70-100 retweeting those links. On November 8 and 9, though more than 550 people tweeted out poems with 720 people retweeting those links. 
The top poems on the site since then have been Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” a declaration of selfhood about blacks rising against white oppression (read more than 50,000 times); Langston Hughes’s poem on the American dream, “Let America Be America Again” (35,000 times); and W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” about the beginning of WWII (close to 25,000 times).

November 18, 2016

Ginsberg's First Howl

Allen Ginsberg read his poem "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco back in 1955. The night was advertised as "Six Poets at Six Gallery” and featured Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen.

Ginsberg was poet number five. He went on about 11 p.m. He was 29 years old. The most surprising thing though is that he had never participated in a poetry reading before.

Kenneth Rexroth organized the reading as a promotion for the new gallery. Ginsberg met Gary Snyder and the others. Ginsberg introduced a pre-On-The-Road Jack Kerouac to the group.

Allen started pretty quietly. But he started rolling with the poem. It is said that he took a deep breath before each of the long lines - then said each line in one breath.

Kerouac chanted "Go, go, go" in rhythm while Ginsberg read. The audience loved it and joined in.

One audience member was poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He sent Ginsberg a telegram the next day borrowing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to Walt Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” and added “When do I get the manuscript?”

The group gathered there that night became the core of the group of writers known as the Beats.

Howl and Other Poems was published by City Lights Books in the fall of 1956. It was subsequently seized by U.S. Customs and the San Francisco police and was the subject of a long court trial at which a series of poets and professors persuaded the court that the book was not obscene.

Plague at the location of Six Gallery, 3119 Fillmore, San Francisco