January 14, 2021

Attention is the beginning of devotion

Mary Oliver published many books of poetry and is best known as a poet. But included in her 25 books is also prose and one of those is Upstream. It is a collection of essays about her relationship to the natural world, and how it influences her writing and reading.
In the title essay in that book, she describes getting lost in the woods as a child. You would expect her to have been fearful, but she says she had “the sense of going toward the source.”

“One tree is like another, but not too much. One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether.” 

The essay asks all of us to teach and show children how to notice the world. She suggests that we stand them in a creek and walk upstream, notice the sticks, rocks, leaves, flowers, and insects. All of those things seem silent, but they're not. You need to listen. Attention is the beginning of devotion. 

In a 2015 interview on the radio program On Being, Oliver talked about all this and especially how walking and writing in the woods saved her life.

One of her best-known poems is "Wild Geese." I can imagine her walking in the woods and hearing, then seeing those geese above her heading somewhere unknown. Listen to Mary Oliver read "Wild Geese." 

January 6, 2021

Prompt: Translation

Image by Oli Lynch from Pixabay

As a teacher, the poet John Ashbery gave as a prompt Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo” in its original German for his non-German speaking students. He made it a translation exercise in which students sounded out the German words and wrote down English words resembling those sounds. They might have translated “sich hält und glänzt” as “sick halt and glance.” It would actually translate as "holds up and shines," but being correct in your translation was not the point. He didn't want students to focus on meaning and subject or try to crack the puzzle of the Rilke poem. The exercise was about sound and rhythm.

Their "translations" might have looked somewhat nonsensical but then they could try to find logic in this rough draft but maintain the original line breaks and stanzas.

We have selected for this prompt an unpublished poem that was written in English and used a translation app to put it into Portuguese and Latin. (see the translated poems here) They look quite different. We avoided more common Spanish, French and Italian versions in the hope that you might be less likely to know Latin or Portuguese and not be influenced by the words.

As with the Ashberry exercise, don't focus on being "correct." Don't cheat and run the poems through an app to put it into your native language! Choose one of the two translations. The goal is to focus on sound, meter and perhaps some similar cognates. The result will probably be a first draft that needs some logic applied to it. Revise but maintain the three stanzas and line breaks which will allow readers to see some of your path to the final poem.

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January 4, 2021

Some Thoughts About Submissions

A quick post while we go through the final edits on poems submitted in December which will appear on Poets Online tomorrow. 

The site has always been primarily a one-man operation, but I have always had readers who help sort through submissions - particularly when I wonder if a poem addresses the prompt.

Some of these revolving and occasional readers (all poets themselves) also help format and correct typos and obvious mistakes in the poems they think should be published. Rarely, we send a poem back to the author and ask a question or suggest a change. 

I got an email from someone who has submitted and been published on the site several times who said, "I'm trying to figure out how you order the poems on the page. Best ones at the top - or is their [sic] no real order?" Since I assemble the new issue as poems are accepted, the order is often that of acceptance with the first poems accepted at the top. I certainly don't rank them. I will separate them so that several long or short poems aren't together or split apart similar poems sometimes.

A new reader of submissions asked me, with some exasperation, "Don't these people read the actual prompt and submission guidelines?" 

I told him that he can expect to see: poems that don't address the prompt at all (not even in their email subject line) or that tangentially address it (as if they added a few words to an existing poem so that it seemed to fit) and poems not formatted in the requested single spacing (which means he has to remove all those extra returns) or that did not make the title in all caps so that it was clearly the title (and wouldn't need to be retyped) or submissions of multiple poems, or misspellings and unintentional grammar errors ("Don't they have spell and grammar checkers on their computer?")

"If I was you, I would just reject those poems outright. That's what a lot of journals do, " he replied.

I don't usually reject poems for most of those reasons - but we all do appreciate submissions that follow the guidelines.

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December 28, 2020

Walking in Soseki's Snow Valley

Snow Valley

Each drifting snowflake
             falls nowhere
                          but here and now

Under the settling flowers of ice
             the water is flowing
                          bright and clear

The cold stream
             splashes out
                          the Buddha’s words
             the stone tortoise
                          from its sleep

These poems in Narrative magazine are excerpted from Sun at Midnight: Poems and Letters (Copper Canyon Press), the first translation into English of the work of Muso Soseki.

Soseki was a thirteenth-century Zen roshi and founder of the rock garden. The poems are excellent reading for other poets, gardeners, and students of Zen.  

Musō Soseki (1275–1351), born ten years after Dante, became the most famous Zen monk of his time. He advised and taught several emperors, as well as more than thirteen thousand students. 

All on my own I’m happy
            in the unmapped landscape
                        inside the bottle
my only friend
            is this
                        wisteria cane

Last night
            we stayed up talking
                        so late
that I’m afraid
            I was overheard
                        by the empty sky

In his old age, Musō withdrew from court to devote himself to Buddha and to cultivate the Zen gardens for which he is remembered. At his death, he left behind an enormous body of poetry and prose. In honor of his profound influence on Japanese culture, he was renamed Musō Kokushi, “national Zen teacher,” by Emperor Go-Daigo.

Toki-no-Ge (Satori Poem)

Year after year
I dug in the earth
looking for the blue of heaven
only to feel
the pile of dirt
choking me
until once in the dead of night
I tripped on a broken brick
and kicked it into the air
and saw that without a thought
I had smashed the bones
of the empty sky

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December 25, 2020

Christmas Poems

Image by Willgard Krause from Pixabay

If you haven't completely overdosed on Chritsmas by now, here are some poems of the season and day from The Poetry Foundation.
They range from "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" by Henry Livingston

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

to the anonymous "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

The first day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

and into Yeats' "The Magi"
Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

and a whole group of contemporary takes on the season, such as Mary Jo Salter's "Advent."

...on her Advent calendar.   
She takes it from the mantel   
and coaxes one fingertip

under the perforation,   
as if her future hinges
on not tearing off the flap...

And when the day and season is over, we have "December 26" by Kenn Nesbitt who provides his "list / of everything / that Santa Claus / forgot to bring." 

And Jane Kenyon's "Taking Down the Tree" reminds me of my own family's tradition of doing that on Twelfth Night.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it's darkness
we're having, let it be extravagant.

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December 16, 2020

This is how it has been, and this is how it is

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Mary Oliver had a daily writing ritual of carrying a notebook with her as she walked through the forest. She wrote along the way. I think she needed nature and movement to find the words.

In an interview, she said "I don’t like buildings. The only record I broke in school was truancy. I went to the woods a lot with books. Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as they came to me and then worked them into poems later.”

I imagine that one of those poems is "The Pond." I particularly like the conclusion:

This is how it has been, and this is how it is:
All my life I have been able to feel happiness,
except whatever was not happiness,
which I also remember.
Each of us wears a shadow.
But just now it is summer again
and I am watching the lilies bow to each other,
then slide on the wind and the tug of desire,
close, close to one another,
Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home.
And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.


In the title of her collection, Why I Wake Early, you learn of another of her daily habits. Those early morning walks and encounters with poems on crickets, toads, trout lilies, black snakes, goldenrod, bears, and deer inspired poems and in greeting the morning, she found happiness. 

Her first collection, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963, and she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984 for the collection American Primitive

What connects all the poems is nature: hummingbirds, waterfalls, owls, trees, the ocean, snakes, wild geese, storms, sand crabs and changing seasons. Of course, from those specifics, the poems expand to larger themes like love, loss, joy, wonder, and gratitude.


A good starting place to read Mary Oliver is Devotions, the book in which she collected the poems she felt gave the best overview of her writing.

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December 11, 2020

The Snow That Never Drifts

The winter solstice is near but cold weather and snow have already fallen in many places, including on the holly outside my window.

This a poem that seems to be about snow by Emily Dickinson.

The Snow that never drifts —
The transient, fragrant snow
That comes a single time a Year
Is softly driving now —

So thorough in the Tree
At night beneath the star
That it was February’s Foot
Experience would swear —

Like Winter as a Face
We stern and former knew
Repaired of all but Loneliness
By Nature’s Alibi —

Were every storm so spice
The Value could not be —
We buy with contrast — Pang is good
As near as memory —

When I was presented with this poem in a college class, it was given as an example of the puzzling nature of many of Emily's poems. The professor asked us: What kind of snow never drifts? Is snow ever fragrant? Is this poem really about snow?

My first answer would be that she was thinking of a "snowfall" of white petals from a tree in spring. It's a common image in haiku.

But what about her reference to February and winter? (And "February's Foot," I thought - what's that all about?) Does she really mean this snow is only figurative?

Maybe a tree bloomed in February (In Amherst, Massachusetts? Hmmm...) but got hit with a winter blast and lost all its blossoms. If every storm was as "spice" (scented), "the Value could not be" - What could it not be?

"We buy with contrast — Pang is good / As near as memory —"  Do we 

Oh, Emily. If only we could chat over some cake and tea. We have so many questions.

What is your interpretation of this poem?
Post a comment answer below.

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