November 24, 2022

Get Started on Your Book of Days

This is a short follow-up to my previous post about day books (AKA a book of days). Are you ready to start one? You don’t need to wait for the new year. It can be your poem-a-day book, but that is pretty ambitious. Or it can be like more traditional day books, recording events of the day.

You could use any notebook, but I am a big fan of bound books for these kinds of projects. One that I found online is specifically a day book blank book designed with 365 pages. Actually, the one I was looking at has pages numbered 1–366. Day 366 is for leap years, like 2024. It has 370 unlined pages so you can write and sketch and paste in pictures, plus a title page and three notes pages – one at the start for your intro and two at the end to wrap things up.

You don’t need a theme or special project to start recording your thoughts, memories, changes, and progress for 365 days. It could be for you but it could be a book to leave for someone else. Record the first year of a baby’s life.

The numbered pages can be a bit of motivation for keeping at the practice, though the blank page shouldn’t be frightening. I know someone whose day book is composed of all images hand drawn and cut out of magazines, mail, or found. Another friend did a gratitude journal as her daily prompt.

Another blank day book I found online has a lock on it. That reminds me of a diary my older sister had when I was a kid. The lock might have protected it but it also made the contents all the more appealing. Day books are not diaries. More almanac than a diary or intimate journal. More log book than confessional.


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November 23, 2022

Marking the Days


A traditional or historical “book of days” (or "day book") was like an almanac. They recorded past events, including Saint Days of the church, and famous people who were born or died that day. Sometimes each day had a little essay – not unlike a blog post. But, at one time, it was also not unusual for people (more often women, from what I have read) to keep their own book of days where they recorded events and observations on the day. 

Not exactly a diary or journal. The traditional ones might tell you on November 19 Charles I of England was born in 1600, and that it is the Feast Day for St. Pontian, pope, and martyr, who died about 235. 

In Chamber’s Book of Days for this day, there’s a curious article about “Patching and Painting” a lady’s face. The beauties of the court of Louis Quinze would put gummed pieces of black taffeta on their cheeks to heighten the brilliancy of their complexions. The “fops” of Elizabethan England had long before anticipated them, by decorating their faces with black stars, crescents, and lozenges. The fashion prevailed and in 1640 it was written that “If it be a lover’s part you are to act, take a black spot or two; twill make your face more amorous, and appear more gracious in your mistress’s eyes.”

A personal day book might record a family birth or death. It might record when the roses bloomed or when Cousin Bill visited or the Full Moon or an eclipse.

This month I saw that Patti Smith has published her visual A Book of Days. It has photographs of her daily coffee, books she’s reading, gravesites of friends and the famous, and daily images accompanied by short text – “captions” but sometimes somewhat poetic. She is a poet, as well as a musician, photographer, and writer of other things.

She describes it this way:

"A Book of Days is a glimpse of how I navigate this culture in my own way. It was inspired by my Instagram but is uniquely its own. Much of it I created during the pandemic, in my room alone, projecting into the future and reflecting the past, family, and a consistent personal aesthetic. 
Entries and images are keys to unlocking one’s own thoughts. Each is surrounded with the reverberation of other possibilities. Birthdays acknowledged are prompts for others, including your own. A Paris café is all cafés, just as a gravesite may echo others mourned and remembered. Having experienced much loss, I’ve found solace in frequenting the cemeteries of people I love, and I have visited many, offering my prayers, respect, and gratitude. I am at home with history and tracing the steps of those whose work has inspired me; many entries are that of remembrance."

Smith uses the word "prompts" and that is something that I respond to as a poet. What is that thing that starts you putting down words? 

Her project came out of her use of Instagram and her acceptance of an iPhone as a camera after they stopped making film for her beloved Polaroid. She takes a photo of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s hat or her partner Fred “Sonic” Smith’s guitar. These are things from people she knew who have passed and the objects remain unused. Objects she does use, such as eyeglasses, writing implements, and manuscripts, also are featured. Like Smith, if I am in a café, I have my phone and a notebook nearby and I record the day. 

On day #338 in the year, Patti wrote “19 NOVEMBER: Bruno Schulz, the brilliant Polish writer, was shot in the street by a Gestapo officer on this date in 1942. Much of his writing, including a work called The Messiah, was tragically lost in the war. This is Jim Carroll’s heavily thumbed copy of Schulz’s masterpiece The Street of Crocodiles."

My own book of days went online in 2014. I called it Writing the Day. I wrote a short poem every day about something from that day. I had someone interested in publishing the poems as a book, and the question came up, “How important are the accompanying images?” Some of them are mine; some are open-sourced or public domain. In my podcast version of the website, the images get lost (as well as the links). How much is lost in this digital transfer?

Here is what I wrote for November 19, 2022, on Writing the Day.

Not about traditional saints and feast days,
not devotional almanac, calendar, or scrapbook clippings - 
not my journal. Not any of those
but all of those. Life logbook through time.
Capture one good line, images, in words.



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November 14, 2022

The Fall of Icarus


The first time I saw the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus I thought "Where is Icarus?" 

The painting in oil on canvas is currently displayed in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. It was long thought to be by the leading painter of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder but that is controversial and it may be a copy of his original which is lost.  

I came to the painting via W. H. Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux-Arts", named after the museum in Brussels where he saw the painting. I later found a poem of the same name by William Carlos Williams, and just recently read "Lines on Bruegel's 'Icarus'" by Michael Hamburger. They are all examples of ekphrastic poetry

Williams' poem

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling
near

the edge of the sea
concerned
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

insignificantly
off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

His poem focuses on what is so interesting about the painting's title; that Icarus is insignificant on the canvas. He also tells you where to look for Icarus. His legs are sticking out of the water below the ship near shore.

W. H. Auden’s "Musée des Beaux Arts" goes in another direction. He opens by saying, "About suffering they were never wrong / The old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position. 

Auden wrote the poem in 1938, while he was staying in Brussels with his friend Christopher Isherwood. He was probably thinking of several paintings that are in that museum. In his first stanza, he is concerned with how the Masters displayed suffering. 

The second shorter stanza uses the Icarus painting as an example of:

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; 

In this poem, the nature of suffering is that no matter how intense it is for the person undergoing it, most of the people around are ignorant or indifferent to what is happening. Accurate though that might be, it's pretty depressing.

Icarus comes to us in Greek mythology. He is the son of the master craftsman Daedalus, who created the labyrinth of Crete. Daedalus and his son are imprisoned in the labyrinth of his own creation with a dangerous minotaur. They attempt to escape using wings Daedalus had constructed from feathers and wax. 

The father warns the boy not to fly too low or too high. The sea's dampness will clog his wings and the sun's heat will melt them. But Icarus, probably thrilled with flight, ignores the warnings and does fly too close to the sun. The wax melts, the wings fall apart and he falls out of the sky and into the sea, and drowns. 

Ovid's treatment of the Icarus myth inspired many English writers (including Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, and Joyce. Other English-language poems referencing the Icarus myth are "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph" by Anne Sexton; "Icarus Again" by Alan Devenish; "Mrs. Icarus" by Carol Ann Duffy; "Failing and Flying" by Jack Gilbert; "It Should Have Been Winter" by Nancy Chen Long; "Icarus Burning" and "Icarus Redux" by Hiromi Yoshida; and "Up like Icarus" by syllabic poet Mark Antony Owen.

 It is generally seen as a cautionary lesson about "high-flying ambition," and hubris.



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November 6, 2022

Prompt: STEM

opensource.com via Flickr

I worked for a decade at a STEM university. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That doesn't immediately sound very poetic, but poets do write about all those fields at times, and there were poets at the university. 

The first "science" poem I remember reading in a school anthology is "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" by Walt Whitman which is basically an anti-science poem. 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer,
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me,
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them,
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room,
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick,
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.

We have all probably sat through some of those lectures and wanted to walk out and just look up at the sky.

There were metaphysical poets, like Donne and Marvell. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality, the first principles of being, identity and change, space and time, etc. Not physics in the scientific sense but with some science in the conceits of their philosophy.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote a "Sonnet - To Science." Jane Hirshfield went poetic about proteins.  

Sarah Howe writing about the poetry of astrophysics wrote "It’s not a new idea that poets and scientists should talk to one another. During a visit to Florence in 1638, the young John Milton sought out Galileo Galilei. By then a blind old man, Galileo was living under house arrest, confined by the Inquisition for asserting, after his celestial observations, that the Earth revolved around the sun. Years later, old and blind himself, Milton would pay homage—in his epic poem about the origins of our universe, Paradise Lost—to the great astronomer, who makes a cameo appearance with his telescope pointed at the sun’s dark spots."

Howe's poem titled "Relativity" is dedicated to Stephen Hawking and begins:

When we wake up brushed by panic in the dark
our pupils grope for the shape of things we know.

Photons loosed from slits like greyhounds at the track
reveal light’s doubleness in their cast shadows...

In "The Sciences Sing a Lullabye," Albert Goldbarth lets the sciences sing.

Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you're tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now...
Geology says: it will be all right. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean...
Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow...

All these are model poems for this month's call for submissions, but I chose Nick Flynn's "Cartoon Physics, part 1" as our example on the website in which he plays with physics the way cartoons play with physics.

...that if a man draws a door on a rock
only he can pass through it.
Anyone else who tries
will crash into the rock... 

Cartoon physics teaches us that

that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall

until he notices his mistake.

Physics seems to attract more poets and I had a physics course in college for non-majors that was nicknamed "physics for poets." We were all theoretical physicists in that lecture hall talking about time travel, quantum mechanics, parallel universes, and the physics that interests the writers of stories and makers of films of science-fiction. 

Of course, science doesn't always get it right. I wrote elsewhere about some "wrong science" which can be funny in retrospect and might even be poetic. 

Our prompt this month is science and more specifically the STEM disciplines and even more specifically we'd like to see some play in the poems.  

Submission Deadline: November 30, 2022.



Nick Flynn is an American writer, playwright, and poet. His writing is characterized by lyric, distilled moments, which blur the boundaries of various genres. Many of his books are structured using a collage technique, which creates narratives with fractured, mosaic qualities. He is the author of five poetry collections, including I Will Destroy You (Graywolf Press, 2019). Flynn was born in Scituate, Massachusetts in 1960. His debut poetry collection, Some Ether (2000), won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. He has also published several memoirs including Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. He divides his time between Texas, where he teaches at the University of Houston, and Brooklyn, New York. His website is nickflynn.org 



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