September 8, 2019

Prompt: Poets in Lust

Bertel Thorvaldsen's Cupid and the Graces, 1820-1823

This prompt on lust emerged from hearing a Writer's Almanac podcast on the birthday of American poet and critic Louise Bogan. I admit that I really didn't know anything about Bogan, though I realized later that I have read some of her poems. Another poet, W.H. Auden, considered her to be the best critic of poetry in America. Writers are not always fans of critics.

Some background - Bogan was born in Maine in 1897. When she moved as an adult to New York City, she was hanging out with fellow writers William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, and Edmund Wilson. Wilson suggested she start writing reviews to make money.

Her reviews were terse, astute, and sometimes humorous. She was very rough on the poets Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, writing that “They will never surprise anyone again…They are half-dead already.” Ouch.

She became the poetry editor of The New Yorker in 1931.

The part of her life that inspired this month's prompt comes from the very private rather than the public part of her life. For example, apparently, even her friends didn’t know she had a daughter from her first marriage.

Theodore Roethke 
Photo: Imogen Cunningham via Wikimedia
It was the brief affair that she had in her thirties with fellow poet Theodore Roethke that got my attention.

I don't think of Roethke as a "sexy" poet, but in a letter to a friend, she wrote:

“I, myself, have been made to bloom like a Persian rose-bush, by the enormous love-making of a cross between a Brandenburger and a Pomeranian, one Theodore Roethke by name. He is very, very large (6 ft. 2 and weighing 218 lbs.) and he writes very, very small lyrics…We have poured rivers of liquor down our throats, these last three days, and, in between, have indulged in such bearish and St. Bernardish antics as I have never before experienced. … I hope that one or two immortal lyrics will come out of all this tumbling about.”

After their affair ended, they remained close friends.

In "Cassandra," Bogan writes:
To me, one silly task is like another.
I bare the shambling tricks of lust and pride. 
This flesh will never give a child its mother,—
Lust is a good topic for poetry. Is there a difference between love and lust? I would say yes, but it seems that not all poets agree with me. Is lust sinful or wonderful? Again, there are two takes on that.

Look at Bertel Thorvaldsen's statue Cupid and the Graces (shown above) which shows "The Graces." In mythology, they were sisters who were the daughters of Jupiter. They were the servants of the goddess of love, Venus. That is Cupid - Venus' son - with the lyre at their feet.  But over the centuries, this trio has been associated with grace, beauty, love and both modesty and lust. Lust seems to divide people.

Lust comes in many different forms of poetry. My first poetry professor, Alicia Ostriker, has a poem "The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog" that has this stanza:

...To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
implied by
your up-ended skirt...


Our September prompt is lust, in one or more of its forms. Consider all levels from intense sexual desire to a strong longing, or even the obsolete meanings of pleasure, delight, wish or craving.
Surprise us.






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August 31, 2019

Lying in a Hammock



I was visiting a friend who has a hammock in his backyard. I have never mastered lying in a hammock. I find it hard to get into, harder to get out of and uncomfortable in the time between. But I must be an exception.

Hammocks are an easygoing symbol of relaxation. Sailors slept in them so the rocking ship didn't throw them from bed but just rocked them to sleep.

What do you associate them with - leisure, escapism, luxury, nature?

I wish I could sway comfortably in one and daydream or read or write a poem. The poem that comes to mind is -

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota  by James Wright, from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose  
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

An article on atlasobscura.com tells us that:

Just about all of the major early European expeditions to the New World talked about the hammock. Columbus described it in his journal: “Their beds and bags for holding things were like nets of cotton.” Bartolomé de las Casas, the first real European historian to go to the Americas, went on at length about them. In his book Historia de las Indias, written between 1527 and 1559, de las Casas described beds “like cotton nets,” with elaborate, well-crafted patterns. The ends, he wrote, were made of a different, hemp-like material, to attach to walls or poles. 
The early days of the hammock are not well understood, but they certainly did come a long time ago. Woven of organic materials that eventually decompose in tropical environments—where pretty much everything decomposes eventually—hammocks were well established in the Caribbean when the first Europeans landed there. The English word “hammock” derives from the Spanish hamaca, a direct loanword from the Taíno languages of the Caribbean.


A depiction of Amerigo Vespucci landing in America and encountering an indigenous woman on a hammock.
by Jan van der Straet, ca. 1587–89. THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART / PUBLIC DOMAIN


This end of summer lazy day would be a good one for hammocking. But besides my fear of falling out of a hammock, I'm afraid that I view hammock time as wasted time. That's a shame. I need to work on the art of not working all the time. Labor Day, indeed...


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August 26, 2019

The Slowdown


A podcast recommendation: Listen to THE SLOWDOWN - a weekday program with Tracy K. Smith.

She opens with an essay on some way that she sees the world, inspired by a poem which she closes the program by reading. This slowing down to read a poem with some serious reflection on that poem gives me insight into the poem and into our lives and the crossovers are seamless.

Tracy K. Smith was the 22nd United States Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019, and is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Light and several books of poetry, including her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Life on Mars. She is the director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.

The range and variety of topics, poems and poets are vast.

"Winter Trees" by William Carlos Williams may not conjure up only trees in winter.

And "The Death of an Elephant" by Gianfranco Pagnucci does deal with a death of that noble creature but is more about how we grieve.

Episodes are available on all the standard podcast apps but if you're not an app kind of person, you can listen on the website slowdownshow.org The program is produced in partnership with the Poetry Foundation.

         


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August 21, 2019

At Home with Piles of Books

Hopefully, your tsundoku is not this big.
I was writing a post about Japanese loanwords for another blog that focuses on word origins, names and language oddities. A loanword (also loan word or loan-word) is a word adopted from one language (the donor language) and incorporated into another language without translation.

We have loanwords in English from many other languages and a good number from Japanese, including karaoke, karate, tsunami, typhoon, teriyaki, sake, sushi, manga, anime, tofu, emoji, origami, shiatsu, ramen, and wasabi.

The new word for me is Tsundoku which I think might apply to some poets and writers. It's one of those words that beyond a meaning implies almost a lifestyle. The word is used to mean acquiring reading materials but letting them pile up in your home without reading them or the actual "reading pile."

Readers and writers do tend to have these piles. I have one on my nightstand (mostly novels), one in the family room (many magazines) and two in my office (one with non-fiction; one with poetry books).

Most people with these piles intend to read those books. But sometimes the pile grows faster than our reading consumes.

Another Japanese loanword I recently discovered isn't meant to be used for poets or other writers, but I know a few who it describes. Otaku literally means “house" but in English and Japanese, the word is used to describe someone who spends a lot of their free time at home.

In the original Japanese usage that meant home playing video games, reading manga and watching anime. I know a few writers who I think spend too much time inside reading and writing and not enough time in nature or with people.

The word is not always considered negative. Fans of anime and manga use otaku to describe others who have similar interests.


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August 5, 2019

Prompt: The Lives of Characters

Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Films help us visualize fictional characters, like Atticus and Scout, in the plot's setting, but
what about beyond the time and places of the story?


After you read a good novel, do you ever wonder what happens to a character in that future beyond the plot? When I was teaching high school, I sometimes asked students to continue a novel we had read beyond the last chapter.

What happens when your favorite children’s book character grows up and moves out?  An article written for the UnReal Estate series appearing on Apartment Therapy’s website imagines what the studio apartments of characters like Ramona Quimby and Nancy Drew would look like if they designed their homes as adults. Poets & Writers magazine took inspiration from this idea and suggested the poetry prompt of envisioning a favorite book character’s home years after the events depicted in the story.

In the article, is a minimalist, not "trend-forward" but practical without having an apartment that seems outdated. They give her a classic New York City-style loft, with big windows, vaulted ceilings, exposed brick, Scandinavian-inspired furniture and her desk at center stage in her living quarters.

As a model poem, I chose "Fictional Characters" by Danusha Laméris (from The Moons of August, Autumn House Press, 2014) which goes beyond placing characters at home. Her poem begins:

Do they ever want to escape?
Climb out of the white pages
and enter our world?

Holden Caulfield slipping in the movie theater
to catch the two o'clock
Anna Karenina sitting in a diner,
reading the paper as the waitress
serves up a cheeseburger.

The poem also suggests a turn inward because "Wouldn't you, if you could? / Step out of your own story,/ to lean against a doorway / of the Five & Dime, sipping your coffee,/ your life, somewhere far behind you..."

For our August writing prompt, we also broaden the original prompt to a poem that describes a fictional character beyond the time of the story in any way - in their home, office, workplace, or doing something out in their world. It would be best if you hold to the story's timeline. So, Jay Gatsby is dead at the novel's end and not an option, and Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is 6 in 1933 and would be 60 in 1987 and 92 in you set her in 2019. Use period details, so homes and offices should include the furniture and things of that time and the poem's "plot" should reflect upon how your understanding of the character’s personality and narrative arc.

Deadline: August 31, 2019


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