April 12, 2021

National Poetry Month 2021

The Academy of American Poets celebrates the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month.

Each April, the Academy offers activities, initiatives, and resources so that anyone can join in National Poetry Month online and at home:

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April 6, 2021

Prompt: Metonymy and Synecdoche

Image by M. Maggs

This month we are looking at two famous poets and two similar and often confused literary terms.

Carl Sandburg was born in 1878 and died in 1967. He was a very American poet, biographer, journalist, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime, Sandburg was widely regarded as a major figure in contemporary literature, especially for his poetry, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920). He enjoyed broad appeal as a poet in his day, perhaps because his plain language and the breadth of his experiences connected him with so many strands of American life.

I was introduced to Sandburg in school with some of his most anthologized poems, including "Fog" which we use as a model for this prompt.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri and was a contemporary of Sandburg, though they are not very similar (and I suspect they were not friends). He moved to England and became a British subject in 1927. He wrote widely from The Waste Land and Four Quartets to Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (which was the basis of the Broadway show Cats) as well as prose, and works of drama. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. T.S. Eliot died in 1965.

I first encountered Eliot in college. As much as I had liked Sandburg's simple poems, I fell under the spell of Eliot and the idea that poetry should be complex and not easily understood on that first reading. My college copy of Four Quartets is full of margin notes about things I had to research to understand.

My taste in poetry and my own poetry today is probably closer to Sandburg than Eliot. It might seem that pairing them is unlikely but this month we are doing that by figurative language and one image.

Figurative language is essential in poetry. Ezra Pound said that his fear with modern poetry that it was becoming "prose with line breaks." He was not a fan of narrative poetry that could be read like prose with complete sentences and little or no figurative language.

Metonymy is often confused with synecdoche. These literary devices are similar but can be differentiated. 

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to signify the whole. To ask for someone’s “hand” in marriage of course means to ask the whole person. "Boots on the ground" signifies soldiers. When they ask at checkout "Paper or plastic?" they mean the type of bag made from that material. The "stars and stripes" signifies the entire U.S. flag. "Suits" can mean people in business. "All hands on deck, I see a sails" uses two synecdoches.

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word is used to replace another to which it is closely linked, but, unlike synecdoche, it is not a part of the word or idea it represents.

Shakespeare writes “lend me your ears,” and "ears” are not meants as a synecdoche for people but as a substitute for “attention.” “O, for a draught of vintage!” write Keats’s in “Ode to Nightingale,” with “vintage” standing in for “wine.”  A very metonymy-heavy sentence is "The press got wind that the feds were investigating management in Hollywood.

In our two model poems - Sandburg's short poem "Fog" and an excerpt (stanza 3) from Eliot's long poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" - the poets use metonymy and also use the same image of a personified (or cat-ified) fog.

For our April prompt, we ask you to write a poem based on a central image that uses metonymy. If you wrote a poem about "cradle to grave" you would have a double metonymy. If you decide the central image needs to be a synecdoche - perhaps about your "lead foot" - that's also fine.

You might even want to consider building upon these poets' use of fog since it can also mean, figuratively, unable to think clearly as in "she was foggy with sleep" or indistinctly expressed, as in "Exactly what Eliot meant is still foggy."


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March 21, 2021

Spring and All

Spring slipped into place yesterday morning. Did you feel it? Perhaps not, since there is a good chance that where you are now doesn't look or feel like spring. In my neighborhood, it still looks like winter but for a few buds on trees or shoots poking out of the muddy ground. Of course, you might be south of me and it looks like summer, or far north where winter still reigns. Still, the universe tells us that in the Northern Hemisphere will begin on March 20 and ends on June 20 and by that last day of spring, it will probably look and feel like summer here. 

In William Carlos Williams' poem, "Spring and All," the opening is rather ominous. 

By the road to the contagious hospital
under the surge of the blue
mottled clouds driven from the
northeast—a cold wind.

Williams wrote the poem not long after T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land," was published. Eliot's poem also opens with a not-so-favorable view of early spring.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Eliot goes on to use an image of winter that is not typical: 

Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

When we brought my first son home from the hospital, it was the first day of spring and the daffodils, crocuses, and wood hyacinths were covered with snow.  Spring is a fickled season.

In literature and mythology, spring usually concerns themes of rebirth and renewal with symbols from the season. Spring also refers to love, hope, youth and growth. The seasonal symbolism for this period may also allude to religious celebrations such as Passover or Easter.

The Vernal Equinox: "vernal" translates to “new” or “fresh” and equinox comes from the Latin aequus (equal) and nox (night). The time of daylight between sunrise and sunset has been growing slightly longer each day since the Winter Solstice in December. Of course, we messed with the celestial plan last weekend with Daylight Saving Time.

I still try to mark the vernal equinox as it has been seen for centuries as a turning point. It is not the only turning point, but daylight does defeat darkness, and that is a reason to celebrate.

Soon, I hope the only things like snowfall here will the storm of blossoms from cherry and other spring-blooming trees.

A version of this post first appeared at Weekends in Paradelle.  

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March 12, 2021

Blake's Unanswered Questions

art print of Blake's The Number of The Beast is 666

Last month, while thinking about a new prompt, I considered using "The Tyger" as a model poem. It might be the most famous poem written by William Blake, though "The Lamb" and "Jerusalem" are also contenders. The opening line, "Tyger Tyger, burning bright" is among the most famous opening lines in English poetry.

It turns out that I have already used "The Tyger" as a prompt about questions since the poem is a series of questions, as is "The Lamb."

Little Lamb who made thee?
Dost thou know who made thee?

The poem appeared in Blake’s 1794 volume Songs of Experience, which complemented his earlier collection, Songs of Innocence. I was taught that the poem was a kind of answer to the earlier "The Lamb." 

"The Tyger" is a series of questions as the speaker wonders about a creator who would make something so fearsome. The tiger is "burning bright" and its creator is a kind of blacksmith.

In the fifth stanza, Blake brings in the "stars" which I have always associated with both astrology and destiny.

Blake seems to ask why this all-loving God made such a fearsome animal? "Did he who made the Lamb make thee?"

"The Tyger" is in Blake’s Songs of Experience, and is seen as a complement to the earlier Songs of Innocence with its innocent "The Lamb." Was Blake reconsidering the innocence of the world?

Scan of a plate printed by William Blake from Songs of Experience (1794)
British Museum, Public Domain via Wikimedia


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March 4, 2021

Prompt: Toys

Dolls by ErikaWittlieb

I have a new granddaughter and so I now have an excuse to play again with toys. It would be the rare adult who doesn't have at least a few strong emotional attachments to some childhood toys. Although I am a collector of things, I have very few toys from my childhood. There were some that survived to be toys for my two sons - such as my Matchbox cars - but the toys I have the fondest memories of have vanished - a stuffed lamb and dog, my "medical bag" for playing doctor (often on that lamb and dog).

Having your own children or grandchildren is a wonderful excuse to shop in toy stores, buy toys (perhaps ones you want more than the child) and play again.

My favorite toy poem is "Kinky" the title poem from Denise Duhamel's collection Kinky (Orchises Press, 1997). I thought of her poem recently after reading that Mister Potatohead is no longer a "mister." Now he can be Mr., Mrs., Ms. or whatever combination you want. Of course, it's not like kids haven't already playing gender games with this and other toys.

 In Duhamel's poem, Barbie and Ken dolls are brought to life and: 
...decide to exchange heads.
Barbie squeezes the small opening under her chin 
over Ken's bulging neck socket. 

It's not something I didn't see my older sister do with her dolls. It even shows up in the Toy Story film series both as villains who make hybrid dolls and as those hybrids come to life. Duhamel's dolls don't go in the direction of evil but rather to the kinky side.

The two dolls chase each other around the orange Country Camper 
unsure what they'll do when they're within touching distance. 
Ken wants to feel Barbie's toes between his lips, 
take off one of her legs and force his whole arm inside her.

You don't have to tell us (maybe tell your therapist) about any strange fetishes you may have acted out with your dolls or action figures, but this Barbie and Ken (who Duhamel reminds us have "only the vaguest suggestion of genitals") finally get to act out some of their repressed feelings.

Soon Barbie was begging Ken 
to try on her spandex miniskirt. She showed him how 
to pivot as though he was on a runway. Ken begged 
to tie Barbie onto his yellow surfboard and spin her 
on the kitchen table until she grew dizzy. Anything,
anything, they both said to the other's requests,
their mirrored desires bubbling from the most unlikely places.

But our writing prompt this month is not necessarily dolls or anything kinky but rather simply TOYS. What are your memories of them? What is your current connection to them? How did they fuel your young and now adult imagination?

Submission Deadline: March 31, 2021.  Please read our submission guidelines.

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February 23, 2021

Edwin Arlington Robinson

Edwin Arlington Robinson was born in Head Tide, Maine in 1869. I first encountered his writing when my high school English teacher showed us his poem "Richard Cory" knowing that we were going to say "That's a song by Simon and Garfunkel." 

"Richard Cory" is a song written by Paul Simon in early 1965, and recorded by Simon and Garfunkel for their second studio album, Sounds of Silence, which probably everyone in my class in 1968 owned or had at least heard. It was much earlier a poem by Robinson. 

Our teacher asked us if we thought that Paul Simon had plagiarized the lyrics. (Plagiarism was a topic of discussion in that class recently.) We didn't think so and neither did our teacher who thought the use of the poem was "transformative" and so safe. 

We listened to the song and looked at the poem. Most of the class liked Simon's version better, but I remember thinking that he really owed it all to Robinson. 

I went to the library and borrowed a book of his poetry. (samples here) I remember liking "Miniver Cheevy" and "Mr. Flood's Party" because they were clear stories about people.

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

Robinson lived in poverty and was an alcoholic until President Theodore Roosevelt read his book Children of the Night (1897). Roosevelt liked the poetry enough that he wrote a review of the book and found Robinson a job at the New York Customs Office, which saved Robinson’s life. It was a place where Herman Melville had also worked for a time. The job Robinson was given was a kind of grant as it was designed to give him as little work as possible so he could write. He received a stipend of $2,000 per year. 

Here are Paul Simon's lyrics:

They say that Richard Cory owns one half of this whole town
With political connections to spread his wealth around
Born into society, a banker's only child
He had everything a man could want, power, grace and style
But I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory

The papers print his pictures almost everywhere he goes
Richard Cory at the opera, Richard Cory at a show
And the rumor of his parties and the orgies on his yacht
Oh, he surely must be happy with everything he's got
But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory

He freely gave to charity, he had the common touch
And they were grateful for his patronage and they thanked him very much
So my mind was filled with wonder when the evening headlines read
"Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head"
But I, I work in his factory
And I curse the life I'm living
And I curse my poverty
And I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be
Oh, I wish that I could be Richard Cory

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February 19, 2021

Amanda Gorman: A Young Poet Inspires

The popular media keeps reporting that "poetry is having a moment." That's odd to hear if you have been a fan of poetry or a poet yourself.  But now with a year of the COVID-19 pandemic and a crazy U.S. election year, protests about racial issues, it seems that more people are reading and writing poetry as a response.

210120-D-WD757-2466 (50861321057)

Amanda Gorman, the youngest inaugural poet in U.S. history, also gave poetry media attention and offered inspiration to new young people who had not written or read poetry before. Then, she appeared at the Super Bowl - an unusual place for a poetry reading, and an audience not known for attending poetry readings. 

Her inaugural poem, titled "The Hill We Climb," received a lot of praise. Her sudden rise to fame has also had its critics who point to her enormous presales for three upcoming books and her getting a modeling contract with IMG as not what we expect poets to do. There is also lots of marketing around Amanda.

It reminds me of when Billy Collins became a best-selling poet which is not usually the case for poetry books and poets. But Collins became our Poet Laureate and continues to be very popular and much more respected. We seem to want our poets to be humble, be teachers, and stay somewhat poor.

Amanda Gorman is not new to poetry. She was writing as a child and was named the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles in 2014. She published her first poetry collection, The One for Whom Food Is Not Enough, in 2015. While studying sociology at Harvard University, she was named the first National Youth Poet Laureate in the United States.

Her chance to read at the inauguration came late. Dr. Jill Biden watched a reading Gorman gave at the Library of Congress just a few days before the event and asked if Gorman might read something for the inauguration. Amanda got the details on a Zoom call flew to Washington, D.C.



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