April 8, 2020

Prompt: Odes to Common Things


Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda decided in his late forties that he would commit himself to write an ode a week. Eventually, he produced 225 odes.

Neruda conceived his odes as an homage to common things that he encountered frequently and might have otherwise overlooked. He wrote about an artichoke, clouds, the moon and onions.

In his "Ode To The Onion," he writes of this "luminous flask" that:

...in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden...
You make us cry without hurting us...
and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

We referenced Neruda's "Ode to Broken Things" in an earlier prompt that featured Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "The God Of Broken Things." But Neruda almost exclusively chose as his topics real things. One of the broken things in that poem is a clock.

And that clock
whose sound
the voice of our lives,
the secret
thread of our weeks,
which released
one by one, so many hours
for honey and silence
for so many births and jobs,
that clock also
and its delicate blue guts
among the broken glass
its wide heart

Are Neruda's odes classic odes? A classic ode is structured in three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Greek odes were originally poetic pieces performed as a song or with musical accompaniment on aulos and the lyre.

To be a professor of poetry, I'll say that there are a number of odes forms including the Pindaric, Horatian, English and irregular - but I don't want you bogged down this month in forms that are overly restrictive. Still, many of you probably have discovered the way forms and structures can help a poem move forward.

Pindaric odes consist of three distinct stanzas (strophe, antistrophe, epode with the first two having the same meter and length, while the epode has a different meter and length) and it was very much meant to be used with music.

Horatian odes (from Horace's poetry) have rhyme and a specific stanza structure.

Irregular odes use rhyme but not a formal rhyme scheme and not the three-part form of the Pindaric ode, nor the two- or four-line stanza of the Horatian ode. It offers the most freedom. William Wordsworth and John Keats are two poets who extensively wrote irregular odes.  Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality" and Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "Ode to a Nightingale."

All of those seem very formal to us today. So, I return to Pablo Neruda and his collected All the Odes to common things, such as his "Ode to My Socks."

...They were
so handsome
for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
of that woven
of those glowing

Keats' odes to that urn or bird are also "common" objects that he saw in the course of his days. Don't make the mistake of assuming that because many contemporary odes are less classical in their form that they are less serious. Neruda's odes have been described as "the personal diary of a man in search of meaning who sings to life itself, to our connections to one another." Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" is an ode to the Platonic doctrine of "recollection" and John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" describes the timelessness of art, and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" addresses the strength of nature. 

Neruda even tells us why those socks are worth observing.

The moral
of my ode is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool
in winter. 

 Deadline: Thursday, April 30, 2020

This month we ask you to write an ode to a common thing. It may be strictly done in one of the classic forms or a variation on a form. The ode form is about celebration and reverence and, though we may not accompany ours with music, they still describe or report using celebratory language and grand metaphors.

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April 1, 2020

April Is Still National Poetry Month


National Poetry Month was launched by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996 to remind everyone - perhaps especially non-poets - that poetry matters. It has become the largest literary celebration in the world. Despite the current pandemic, April is still National Poetry Month and it might be more needed than ever. 

Though some things have been revised for 2020 - probably no actual readings or gatherings - there are more virtual readings and workshops online. The Academy of American Poets has added a new online initiative, Shelter in Poems.

Here are some resources from the official website at poets.org/national-poetry-month


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March 29, 2020

You Stay Home Too

I have been exchanging poems with friends during this "shelter at home" time. We use email not some video programs, like Zoom, because these are not workshops. We have a prompt. We write on our own. We share the poems and comment on them.

The inbox got a bit full, which was why I suggested and then posted here a prompt where anyone could post their poem response as a comment. I hope some of you will participate.

One of my poet friends sent this poem by Wendell Berry which seems appropriate for this stay home time. (Thanks, Dana!)

Stay Home

I will wait here in the fields
to see how well the rain
brings on the grass.
In the labor of the fields
longer than a man’s life
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

I will be standing in the woods
where the old trees
move only with the wind
and then with gravity.
In the stillness of the trees
I am at home. Don’t come with me.
You stay home too.

I didn't remember reading that poem earlier, but the first thought I had after reading it was the opposing view in a Robert Frost poem. In Frost's springtime poem, "The Pasture," he asks us not to stay home but to go with him.

I'm going out to clean the pasture spring;
I'll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha'n't be gone long.—You come too.

I'm going out to fetch the little calf
That's standing by the mother. It's so young,
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha'n't be gone long.—You come too.

Of course, we can go with Frost - and Berry - through their poems. That (along with email, phone calls and video chat) is a very safe way to walk with other poets.

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March 27, 2020

Mini-Prompt: Birds and Wildlife Watching

We're into the final days of our "official" March prompt at Poets Online which is about "lost and found." I saw in the past week several submissions that address the current COVID-19 pandemic. One was a lost and found poem but the others were just about the pandemic in general. I understand the need for poets to write about what's happening, even if that's not what the prompt asked them to write.

I'm writing more than usual. I'm also continuing my daily walks which are often in my local woods but sometimes just suburban sidewalks where people give each other a wide (at least 6 feet) buffer now. But people are waving, nodding and saying hello more than usual.

Today's poem on The Writer's Almanac is "Look It Over" by Wendell Berry which fits in very nicely with my own walks.

I leave behind even
my walking stick. My knife
is in my pocket, but that
I have forgot. I bring
no car, no cell phone,
no computer, no camera,
no CD player, no fax, no
TV, not even a book. I go
into the woods...

I like watching the chickadees at my feeder. They seem so hyperactive, flitting to and from the feeder while others like the little finches and bully jays hang around and keep eating. The video above finally gave me an explanation of why they feed in that manner.

Poets and Writers sent out its weekly newsletter which always contains writing prompt or poets and prose writers. Their current poetry prompt suggestion is "animal watching," particularly birds, which exist in even the most urban environments. They might be visible from your nearby window or at a bird feeder.

There's a poem by Billy Collins ("Christmas Sparrow") about a bird that gets trapped in his house that he included in a beautifully illustrated anthology of bird poems that he edited, Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds.

...Then a noise in the throat of the cat
who was hunkered on the rug
told me how the bird had gotten inside,
carried in the cold night
through the flap of a basement door...

He is able to capture the sparrow in a shirt and gently carry it outside and free it, but

...For the rest of the day,
I could feel its wild thrumming
against my palms...

If you have written your "lost and found" poem (or that prompt isn't inspiring you) and want to try the Poets and Writers prompt on animal watching, please do so - and if you'd like to share the result - please post it as a comment to this post. (*NOTE* All comments to the blog need admin approval. Don't panic and post again.)

I will keep posting occasional prompts in the upcoming month besides our official April prompt. April is National Poetry Month and though events will be few, I think we need things like poetry more than ever right now.

Be well, write, and share your words.


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March 18, 2020

Random Poetry Line Generators

In updating the main  Poets Online website, I was reminded of two pages from 1999. They were poetry random line generators that I had created and used as a prompt.

Both pages will generate a random line that can be used to start a poem or just give you an idea for a poem based on the line. You could even generate multiple lines and try putting them together as a poem.

The idea is that it will generate a line that you would not have thought of, and because there is randomness in the process, you will get some interesting combinations of words and phrases.

I like this one that came up for me today "After the rain of our imagination, young lovers sing."

The pages are still online, so give them a try if you need a jumpstart.