May 16, 2024

How Do You Know When a Poem Is Finished?

How do you know when a poem is finished? It is the kind of question new poets ask older poets. I have heard it in my classroom.   

"How Do I Know When a Poem Is Finished?" is Naomi Shihab Nye's poem answer.  It begins:

When you quietly close
the door to a room
the room is not finished.

It is resting. Temporarily.
Glad to be without you
for a while.

I use her poem (You can hear her read the full poem in the video below.) and also tell students that Paul Valery famously said "A poem is never finished, only abandoned."

In this time of immediate gratification, young poets often feel that their poem is finished as soon as they write that final word. I find that at poetry readings by famous poets or new poets at open readings, a frightening introduction to a poem is "Here is a poem that I wrote today."

There have been poems that I have written and when I was done, it felt finished. More typically, when I come back to the poem a day or weeks later with fresh eyes, I can better tell if it is complete. I would estimate that I revise poems about 90% of the time. The first draft that is a final version is rare - but it does happen.

Reading a new poem to someone or to a group that can give you honest feedback is very useful.  Standup comics tend to try out new material in small clubs where the stakes are lower before they use them in their act. They workshop the jokes. So, perhaps that new poem written today and then read at an open might be a way to test out a poem. Though I wouldn't expect much constructive feedback from an audience, a laugh at a line you hoped was funny or at a line you didn't want to be funny would be useful. Applause is a lousy indicator as it is sometimes just a courtesy clap.

How do you know when a poem is finished? Or are your poems never finished? Post a comment!!

Naomi Shihab Nye reading "How Do I Know When a Poem Is Finished" as part of Dear Poet, the Academy of American Poets' educational project for National Poetry Month 2015. 

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May 10, 2024

This Is Your Brain On Poetry

It seems that researchers will use fMRIs (functional magnetic resonance imaging) for almost anything these days. Some of them decided to see how the human brain reacts to poetry. 

Compared to ordinary speech and prose, poetry activates specific areas of the brain that recognize its rhymes and rhythms and contemplate its imagery and the multiple meanings of words and figurative language. That fits very nicely with the poems in our May issue on multiple meanings.

Does this help us to interpret our everyday reality? It appears that it does.

You can read a bit more about this on but here are two more takeaways.

The brain's reaction to poetry indicates a deep, intuitive connection to verse, suggesting that appreciation of poetry is within our neurological structure. We are built for poetry.

Reading or listening to poetry not only stimulates emotional and aesthetic responses but also enhances cognitive functions like flexible thinking and the capacity to understand complex, multiple meanings, which can be beneficial in everyday decision-making.

Poetry is good for you. I think poets already knew this, but some scientific evidence is still nice.

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May 3, 2024

Prompt: Dramatic Monologue

Robert Browning, a prominent Victorian poet, was known for his innovative use of dramatic monologue as a poetry technique. Dramatic monologue involves a speaker addressing a silent listener or audience, revealing their thoughts, emotions, and often providing insights into their character or situation. Browning's dramatic monologues are psychological and, ironic, and explore complex human motivations and behavior. But Browning is not read much today other than some of the anthologized poems such as "My Last Duchess," and "Fra Lippo Lippi."

I remember a college class about dramatic monologues that used T.S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." It was a poem I loved and I went deep into the Eliot poems.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit...

These days I find Eliot less accessible than I prefer in poetry. For examples of the dramatic monologues, from more contemporary poets, I will point to a few poems.

In Judith Wright's "Eve To Her Daughters," she talks to her daughters about Adam's fall .Eve, talks to her daughters of her and Adam’s fall from Eden and his quest to become god-like, outlining his arrogance, but Eve stays submissive and loyal to him despite his flaws.

Eurydice, the mythological wife of Orpheus, speaks in the poem by H.D. with that name.

And Carol Ann Duffy's collection, The World’s Wife, presents stories, myths, fairy tales and characters in Western culture from the point of view of women, very often giving voice to the hitherto unsung women close to famous men. One of those poems is "Medusa."

A suspicion, a doubt, a jealousy
grew in my mind,
which turned the hairs on my head to filthy snakes
as though my thoughts
hissed and spat on my scalp.

"The Angel with the Broken Wing" by Dana Gioia is the our model this month. It is a poem that I tore out of a copy of POETRY magazine 14 years ago and came across in a file folder this month. This dramatic monologue is spoken by a wooden statue carved by a Mexican folk artist. The poem is about the statue's history and its fate as a museum piece. The poem uses irony to convey that the angel with the broken wing is not actually an angel, but a statue of an angel. There is also irony in that its wing was broken by soldiers during the Revolution who were, perhaps, sparing the rest of the angel out of fear of God. "They hit me once—almost apologetically. / For even the godless feel something in a church."

For our next issue, we are looking for dramatic monologues. Your speaker - famous, mythological or even from your life, but not "you" - addresses a silent listener or audience. In the classic sense, the poem reveals their thoughts and emotions in a psychological, often ironic, way to give the reader some insight into human motivations and behavior.

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April 24, 2024

Hermann Hesse, Poet

I wrote a piece elsewhere about Hermann Hesse, the renowned German-Swiss author and Nobel Prize laureate, and in writing it I recalled an incident from my teaching past. 

I taught Siddhartha only once and a Jewish student in my class said that the Buddhist philosophy in the novel seemed all well and good, but wasn't Hesse a Nazi? I had to admit that I didn't know much about that aspect of Hesse's life but I knew he left Germany and lived in Switzerland. But it caught me off guard and I thought I had better dig into Hesse's WWII years.

In 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler came to power, Hesse left Germany and settled in Switzerland. He chose to live in self-imposed exile rather than remain in a country governed by the Nazi regime, which he found oppressive and antithetical to his values.I don't think his personal beliefs and political stance are not easily categorized, but I did find some connections. 

Hesse was critical of the Nazi regime and its ideology, particularly its emphasis on nationalism, militarism, and authoritarianism. His writings often expressed opposition to totalitarianism and the suppression of individual freedom and creativity.

While Hesse was critical of the Nazi regime, he did not engage in overt political activism or join anti-Nazi resistance movements. Instead, he focused on his literary work, using his writing as a means of resistance and dissent against oppressive ideologies.

Hesse's books were among those banned and burned by the Nazis due to their perceived subversive or degenerate content. Despite this censorship, Hesse continued to write and publish works that promoted humanistic ideals and spiritual growth.

Throughout his writings, Hesse emphasized themes of humanism, individualism, and the search for inner truth and meaning. These values stood in contrast to the collectivist and totalitarian tendencies of Nazi ideology.

My questioning student and everyone in the class were satisfied and pleased with the additional biographical information. 

In doing my research, I discovered that Hesse also wrote poetry. I had not known that and bought a used book of his poems. At the time, the poems did not strike me as great, at least not as good as the novels. I came across that old paperback recently and reading some of the poems was what inspired to write the other piece about his poetry. 

I will crosspost some of that article here. I opened it with a quote from Hesse.

“Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed on you between sleep and labor. You will find every day that the gable of every house has its own particular look, its own special lighting. Pay it some heed…you will have for the rest of the day a remnant of satisfaction and a touch of coexistence with nature. Gradually and without effort the eye trains itself to transmit many small delights.”  – Hermann Hesse

I found that quote in an article and it struck me as a kind of found poetry.  I knew that he wrote some poetry but Hesse is best known for novels (Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Demian)  Not surprisingly, his poetry often explores themes such as self-discovery, spirituality, nature, and the human condition which are also philosophical and existential concerns found in his prose writings. His poetic style is characterized by its simplicity, introspection, and lyrical quality.

His poem “Stages” appears in his last novel The Glass Bead Game. With that novel, he won the Nobel Prize of Literature in 1946.

As every flower fades and as all youth
Departs, so life at every stage,
So every virtue, so our grasp of truth,
Blooms in its day and may not last forever.
Since life may summon us at every age
Be ready, heart, for parting, new endeavor,
Be ready bravely and without remorse
To find new light that old ties cannot give.
In all beginnings dwells a magic force
For guarding us and helping us to live.
Serenely let us move to distant places
And let no sentiments of home detain us.

The Cosmic Spirit seeks not to restrain us
But lifts us stage by stage to wider spaces.
If we accept a home of our own making,
Familiar habit makes for indolence.
We must prepare for parting and leave-taking
Or else remain the slave of permanence.
Even the hour of our death may send
Us speeding on to fresh and newer spaces,
And life may summon us to newer races.
So be it, heart: bid farewell without end.

He also wrote poems about more common themes, such as love and loss.

(Translated by James Wright)

My Pillow gazes upon me at night
Empty as a gravestone;
I never thought it would be so bitter
To be alone,
Not to lie down asleep in your hair.

I lie alone in a silent house,
The hanging lamp darkened,
And gently stretch out my hands
To gather in yours,
And softly press my warm mouth
Toward you, and kiss myself, exhausted and weak-
Then suddenly I’m awake
And all around me the cold night grows still.
The star in the window shines clearly-
Where is your blond hair,
Where your sweet mouth?

Now I drink pain in every delight
And poison in every wine;
I never knew it would be so bitter
To be alone,
Alone, without you.

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