November 28, 2008

The Paradox of Poetry Prompts

“The ordinary man believes he is free when he is permitted to act arbitrarily, but in this very arbitrariness lies the fact that he is unfree.” - Hegel

Hegel called it "negative infinity.” The distance between those who recoil from choice and those who have no choice at all is not very great.

I wasn't remembering Hegel last month. And I wasn't remembering a book by Barry Schwartz, a social scientist at Swarthmore, called The Paradox of Choice. Schwartz says “unlimited choice” can “produce genuine suffering.”

So what did I do? I offered a lot of prompt choices for November poems via another site that was offering a prompt a day for 30 days. That should give readers 30 times the options of previous months when there was one measly prompt you had to address.

Do you think my inbox was flooded with submissions? Nope. Two submissions so far (plus 11 poems that don't address ANY prompt except the one they heard in their head).

Are you out there poets? Overcome by choices or overcome by the financial crisis, or overwhelmed by the Obama victory or overstuffed by Thanksgiving?

There are just a few days remaining for our November prompt: choose any one of the prompts that Robert Brewer has posted this month. When you submit your poem to Ports Online, be sure to include in the email an indication of what the prompt was that you used.

November 25, 2008

More Poets Wish List

When a non-poet friend asked what she should buy a poet friend as a holiday gift, I was initially stumped. Just buy them something they like - What's the difference if the person is a poet? But she wanted to buy something "poetic."

So, I crowdsourced it and posted a list as this blog's current poll. It's my own Top 10, but... What would make your wish list?

The bolded items below are the current top 5, but we need votes - otherwise, you may get a tie, wallet or a nutcracker this season! Hey, I'll take a writing getaway - but I don't think Amazon stocks those - try this link for some getaways
  1. poetry books (of poems, about poetry, about writing or poets)
  2. poetry read on audio
  3. blank books for writing
  4. music that is inspirational
  5. gourmet food (yes, that can be inspirational!)
  6. coffee / tea
  7. wine or other beverages
  8. a writing getaway (pricey but very cool)
  9. a Kindle book reader
  10. writing tools (pens, notebooks, magnetic poetry..)

November 18, 2008

Poetry and the Presidency

I read a post on the Library of Congress blog that in 1982, when Barack Obama was a 19-year-old student at Occidental College, he had 2 poems published in the spring issue of the school's literary magazine of the time.

Here's one of those poems:


Under water grottos, caverns
Filled with apes
That eat figs.
Stepping on the figs
That the apes
Eat, they crunch.
The apes howl, bare
Their fangs, dance,
Tumble in the
Rushing water,
Musty, wet pelts
Glistening in the blue.

Obama is taking on a job that is incomprehensibly difficult to most of us. I'm delighted that he even wrote poetry as a student, and I hope that it may still have a place in his life as reader and writer. But I'm surprised by the "analysis" that these two poems have been given in the press and online lately. (I know some of you are saying that I'm naive for even being surprised.)

The second poem, "Pop," is reported to be about his maternal grandfather, Stanley Dunham.


Sitting in his seat, a seat broad and broken
In, sprinkled with ashes,
Pop switches channels, takes another
Shot of Seagrams, neat, and asks
What to do with me, a green young man
Who fails to consider the
Flim and flam of the world, since
Things have been easy for me;
I stare hard at his face, a stare
That deflects off his brow;
I’m sure he’s unaware of his
Dark, watery eyes, that
Glance in different directions,
And his slow, unwelcome twitches,
Fail to pass.
I listen, nod,
Listen, open, till I cling to his pale,
Beige T-shirt, yelling,
Yelling in his ears, that hang
With heavy lobes, but he’s still telling
His joke, so I ask why
He’s so unhappy, to which he replies...
But I don’t care anymore, cause
He took too damn long, and from
Under my seat, I pull out the
Mirror I’ve been saving; I’m laughing,
Laughing loud, the blood rushing from his face
To mine, as he grows small,
A spot in my brain, something
That may be squeezed out, like a
Watermelon seed between
Two fingers.
Pop takes another shot, neat,
Points out the same amber
Stain on his shorts that I’ve got on mine, and
Makes me smell his smell, coming
From me; he switches channels, recites an old poem
He wrote before his mother died,
Stands, shouts, and asks
For a hug, as I shink, my
Arms barely reaching around
His thick, oily neck, and his broad back; ‘cause
I see my face, framed within
Pop’s black-framed glasses
And know he’s laughing too.

Someone asked Harold Bloom at Yale University to review it and he said it was “not bad—a good enough folk poem with some pathos and humor and affection... It is not wholly unlike Langston Hughes, who tended to imitate Carl Sandburg" and further says it is much superior to the poetry of former President Jimmy Carter whom Bloom calls "literally the worst poet in the United States."

I never knew critics were so interested (or tough!) on poetry in college literary magazines.

I picked up a book of Jimmy Carter's poetry in the library a few years ago, and I recall liking a few poems about fishing that were there. Great poetry? No. The worst poetry? Definitely not.

Presidents taking their chances on writing poetry is not without precedent.

How about this acrostic poem by George Washington?

From your bright sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays, you have, more transparent than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day,
None can you equal in your bright array;
Constant in your calm and unspotted Mind;
Equal to all, but will to none Prove kind,
So knowing, seldom one so Young, you'l Find
Ah! woe's me that I should Love and conceal,
Long have I wish'd, but never dare reveal,
Even though severely Loves Pains I feel;
Xerxes that great, was't free from Cupids Dart,
And all the greatest Heroes, felt the smart.

John Tyler wrote several poems that have survived. One was written when his three-month old daughter Anne died in July 1825. Here are the opening stanzas to that elegy:

Oh child of my love, thou wert born for a day;
And like morning's vision have vanished away
Thine eye scarce had ope'd on the world's beaming light
Ere 'twas sealed up in death and enveloped in night.

Oh child of my love as a beautiful flower;
Thy blossom expanded a short fleeting hour.
The winter of death hath blighted thy bloom
And thou lyest alone in the cold dread tomb. . . . [4]

And we also have the precedent for the inclusion of poetry at Presidential inaugurals. Robert Frost recited "The Gift Outright" (PBS transcript) at John F. Kennedy's 1961 inaugural. (Frost actually that poem from memory because he was unable to read the text of "Dedication" (PBS transcript) which he had written for the occasion. (video of Frost reading "The Gift Outright" at Kennedy's inauguration)

Maya Angelou read "On the Pulse of Morning" at Bill Clinton's 1993 inaugural. (video of the reading) James Dickey read ''The Strength of Fields'' at Jimmy Carter's 1977 inaugural gala at the Kennedy Center.

Are any of you with me on thinking that having a President that reads, writes or at least has written and read poetry at some point is a GOOD thing?

November 17, 2008

Dodge Poetry Festival on YouTube

The Dodge Poetry Festival’s YouTube channel is available online at YouTube.

The first offerings are readings from the 2006 Dodge Poetry Festival – including Billy Collins, Linda Gregg, Ekiwah Adler Belendez, Jorie Graham, Mark Doty, Lucille Clifton, Ko Un, Linda Hogan, Toi Derricotte, Tony Hoagland and Taha Muhammad Ali – can now be seen on YouTube.

Dodge Foundation Poetry Festivals, some of which have been featured on PBS. Over the years a remarkable group of poets from around the world has read to enthusiastic audiences and discussed a broad range of topics related to poetry.

Beginning in 1986 multi-day Dodge Poetry Festivals have been held every other year, usually in the highlands of New Jersey, and they have always attracted a diverse audience of poetry lovers. Recent Festivals have drawn audiences numbering between fifteen and twenty thousand people.

Here's Mark Doty reading "House of Beauty" which is set at a fire in Jersey City, New Jersey - but, of course, being a poem by Mark Doty, it's about so much more.

November 5, 2008

The 30-Day Chapbook Diet

"Never a day without a line."

This month's writing prompt is borrowed. I read Diane's post on Blogalicious about Robert Lee Brewer's Poetic Asides blog hosting a prompt-a-day (PAD) for November as a way to build a chapbook.

"I'm thinking it might be a neat idea to try writing a poem a day in November with the view of trying to have the makings of a chapbook heading into December. I'll provide a prompt-a-day to try and help get the poetic juices flowing each day, but you can decide to follow or ignore the prompt as you see fit. After all, our main goal would be to have 30ish poems at the end of the month that you can then try turning into a chapbook submission."

He's not giving model poems as we do on Poets Online, but it seems that he will post his own attempts at the prompts at times.

The poem-a-day idea isn't new. William Stafford generally awakened and would write before dawn, and often wrote a poem every day. On the last day of his life, he wrote “Are You Mr. William Stafford?” It must have worked - he more than 60 books during his lifetime.

I also think of David Lehman's collection, The Daily Mirror. Like Stafford, Emily Dickinson, and Frank O'Hara, he began writing a poem a day. It started in 1996 and he continued for the next two years. He selected the best of these "daily poems" and compressed two years into one.

For our November prompt, choose any one of the prompts that Brewer offers this month. When you submit your poem to Ports Online, be sure to include in the email an indication of what the prompt was that you used.

Robert Brewer also throws out this teaser:

At the end of the month, I may be asking you to collect your poems together from this challenge and send me your chapbooks so that I can try to pick a Best Chapbook Award. If I do this, the winner probably won't be announced until Groundhog Day. But I'll give more information on this idea as the month unfolds.