September 23, 2023

Oppenheimer, John Donne and the Bhagavad Gita

July 16, 1945, Trinity, the first nuclear weapons test.

The film Oppenheimer was a big hit this summer and if you saw the film and especially if you read the book it is based on, American Prometheus, you know that there are some literary references. Two that influenced him were the poetry of John Donne and the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita.

Both were important to him during the Manhattan Project and at the Trinity test. In 1962, Manhattan Project leader Gen. Leslie Groves wrote to Oppenheimer to ask about the origins of the name Trinity. Oppenheimer said, “Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love.” 

Oppenheimer quoted the sonnet “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness” which is about a man unafraid to die because he believed in resurrection.

Oppenheimer continued, “That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God.’ Beyond this, I have no clues whatever.”

That second poem,“Batter My Heart,” expresses the paradox that by being chained to God, the narrator can be set free.

Oppenheimer wanted to read the Bhagavad-Gita in the original Sanskrit, the primary sacred language of Hinduism. Before Los Alamos, when he was a professor at Berkeley, he audited Sanskrit classes with Arthur W. Ryder, who had published an English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita.

The "Bhagavad-Gita" expresses a life structured by action. One should detach from desired outcomes and work. Preparing for Trinity, Oppenheimer’s thoughts were on the success of the test and the impact of the bomb on his life and the world. 

As you see in the film, at the Trinity detonation, Oppenheimer was said to have  recalled the line from the book, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” 

However, some critics have said that the quote has been widely misinterpreted. Oppenheimer is not Krishna/Vishnu, not the terrible god, not the ‘destroyer of worlds’ — he is Arjuna, the human prince who didn’t really want to kill his brothers, his fellow people but he has been enjoined to battle by something bigger than himself.

Historian James A. Hijiya wrote that Oppenheimer believed, “It was the duty of the scientists to build the bomb, but it was the duty of the statesman to decide whether or how to use it.”

Before the Trinity test, Oppenheimer sipped coffee, rolled smokes, and read French poet Charles Baudelaire. T.S. Eliot was another poet Oppenheimer admired. He met Eliot when he invited him as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Eliot wrote, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”

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September 13, 2023

Prompt: Broken Off

This month's model poem is the shortest we have ever used as a writing prompt example for our submissions. Not even 17 syllables, it is shorter than a haiku.

Two Linen Handkerchiefs
How can you have been dead twelve years
and these still
   by Jane Hirshfield

The poem asks the reader to complete the thought, as poems often do. No ellipsis, no dash, just broken off.

It was in listening to a short interview with the poet, that I discovered this poem and her explanation of how it came to be.

"The poem is broken off in exactly the way a life is broken off, in exactly the way grief breaks off, takes us beyond any possible capacity for words to speak. And yet it also, short as it is, holds all of our bewilderment in the face of death. How is it that these inanimate handkerchiefs — which did belong to my father and are still in a drawer of mine, and which I did accidentally come across — how can they still be so pristinely ironed and clean and existent when the person who chose them and used them and wore them is gone? ... Some poems have a way of, sometimes quite literally, looking out a window. They change their focus of direction, they change their attention. And by doing that, by glancing for a moment at something else, the field of the poem becomes larger."

Jane Hirshfield is a poet I have used multiple times for prompts and she is a poet I have heard read in person multiple times. She seems to be a very gentle and compassionate soul, and that is often clear in her poetry. She is an ordained lay practitioner of Zen. ("I'm [also] a Universal Life minister, but that was just so I could marry some friends," she says, laughing.)

I think compassion, in a way, is one of the most important things poems do for me, and I trust do for other people. They allow us to feel how shared our fates are. If a person reads this poem when they're inside their own most immediate loss, they immediately — I hope — feel themselves accompanied. Someone else has been here. Someone else has felt what I felt. And, you know, we know this in our minds, but that's very different from being accompanied by the words of a poem, which are not ideas but are experiences."

I don't know if all that can be contained in her two-line poem. And we don't expect you to submit poems that are only two lines. 

Our call for submissions for the October issue is for poems about things "broken off." Your poem might be about a relationship broken off. Maybe your poem will literally break off at some appropriate point, as Jane's poem does. Maybe it is about an actual object that has a part broken off, or more figuratively, a person with something broken off. What do those two words mean to you?

Submission Deadline: September 30, 2023

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August 21, 2023

A Poetry Prompt from Kurt Vonnegut

The doodle that Vonnegut sometimes used as a signature,
as with the letter below. His actual signature is that mess that
is the ear and hair on the doodle.

In this reply to a high school class, Kurt Vonnegut gives a poetry prompt that you might want to try. It's not one that would work well for Poets Online, but it makes a good point about the rewards of writing poetry.

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.

Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!
Kurt Vonnegut


August 2, 2023

Prompt: Conversation

Whenever our call for submissions involves formal poetry, submissions decrease. I understand that. Forms - villanelles, sonnets, sestinas et al - can be difficult. They can also remind some poets of the kind of poetry that was pushed upon them in their early schooling and might have turned them off from reading and writing poetry. But there are other forms for poems that are far less "formal."

I was reading “Walking Home” from Magdalene by Marie Howe and it struck me that the poem is a conversation. It lacks the punctuation of dialogue but maintains the form.

This is the kind of poem that will sometimes make a reader ask "How is this a poem and not just a chunk of prose lacking punctuation?"   A fair question.

I suspect that this conversation happened to Marie Howe and her daughter. Is it an exact transcription, a paraphrase or is it a poet's version of a conversation recalled. I think it is the latter. The opening "Everything dies" is a good poem opening but the poet doesn't recall how that came up as the topic of conversation. Was it something they saw on their walk?

The tone of the poem seems light, with laughter and joking, but the topic is one of the classic big and serious themes - death. If you're a reader of Howe's poems, you know that life and death are very much a part of her themes.

This month's call for submissions is simply a poem that is a conversation. How you format the dialogue, how much narration and commentary is contained and the topic or theme is up to you.

Though it is difficult to draw a clear line between this kind of prose and poetry, there are clearly poetic elements that can be employed that separate what you write from a prose passage.


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