March 31, 2009

When Technology Doesn't Rhyme

Just a note to let Poets Online (the site) users know that we are having some tech issues.

In the midst of a site makeover, we started having some server issues. (For pure poets, that's the computer in the sky that serves you those web pages you see at home.)

As of today, the site as it existed last month is still running, but we can't make any updates at the moment. Our current prompt (pantoums) is due to close on April 5. If we can't make our updates by then, we will leave that deadline open.

Stay tuned here for a status update his weekend.

March 21, 2009

Poetry Out Loud

Poetry Out Loud is a national competition of recitation and performance of poetry conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts and its partner agency, including the New Jersey State Council on the Arts.

Piscataway High School student Ijeoma Egekeze won the New Jersey Poetry Out Loud competition this past week, beating out five other students in the state finals in Trenton, NJ.

New Jersey Network has a video of the event on its website. The contestants are introduced and perform after all the introductory remarks, so start watching around the 15-minute mark.

March 20, 2009

The Rainbow at the Edge of the Shadow of the Egg

From an interview at, John Updike talks about his early ambition to be a visual artist.

"I don’t know at what age I began to look at the comic strips, the funnies so-called. I think my first coherent artistic ambition was to become a cartoonist. It was also the era in which the early Disney films were coming out—the animated shorts plus Snow White. Snow White came out, I think, in 1937, when I was five.

Anyway, all this imagery—these bouncy creatures, irrepressible little animations without any of the Depression worries that filled my household—all this seemed to offer real escape from my life into a better world.

My mother—she was another only child, raised on a farm—had artistic ambitions, literary ones. The local public schools offered art instruction in those days; there was no question of art not being one of the subjects you were taught. Depression or not, school budgets kept it in the curriculum. Not like now.

In addition to that, we happened to live across the street from the only artist in Shillington, a man called Clint Shilling; he was descended from the Shilling who created the town. At my mother’s request, Clint gave me some lessons when I was about eleven or twelve. All this was instructive.

It was instructive to try to look at something in terms of line and color. I remember one lesson—and I’ve written about this, and I don’t want to repeat what I’ve already put in print—where Clint put an egg in the sun on a piece of white paper and said to paint what I was seeing.

What he could see was a little rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg, which I couldn’t see until he pointed it out. That art lesson has stuck with me maybe more than any I’ve had since. The rainbow at the edge of the shadow of the egg. You can find it in a poem of mine called "Midpoint."

Endpoint and Other Poems by John Updike

Endpoint and Other Poems
 by John Updike

"A stunning collection of poems that John Updike wrote during the last seven years of his life and put together only weeks before he died for this, his final book.

The opening sequence, “Endpoint,” is made up of a series of connected poems written on the occasions of his recent birthdays and culminates in his confrontation with his final illness. He looks back on the boy that he was, on the family, the small town, the people, and the circumstances that fed his love of writing, and he finds endless delight and solace in “turning the oddities of life into words.”

“Other Poems” range from the fanciful (what would it be like to be a stolen Rembrandt painting? he muses) to the celebratory, capturing the flux of life. A section of sonnets follows, some inspired by travels to distant lands, others celebrating the idiosyncrasies of nature in his own backyard.

For John Updike, the writing of poetry was always a special joy, and this final collection is an eloquent and moving testament to the life of this extraordinary writer."
via Amazon

March 17, 2009

Not So Lost Generation

This video was created for the AARP U@50 video contest. The technique is borrowed from an Argentinian political ad, but I really like what is done with it here.

This runs less than 2 minutes and it's worth watching. There's a great twist to it.

It would make for one tough writing prompt to use this technique.

March 2, 2009

Linda Pastan: When will I be most myself?

This month's model poem for our prompt is Linda Pastan's "Something About the Trees." It's a pantoum and I know from doing Poets Online for ten years that form of any kind scares off poets and limits submissions. (From an editing point of view, limiting submissions has its advantages!)

There is a lot more about the pantoum form on my previous post, but we are going to suggest that your submission be a pantoum, but only require a few rules of the form. You'll see that some poems are often described as "imperfect pantoums" and I can live with that.

Pastan's poem talks about her parents and her childhood belief that her father would "always be the surgeon" and that her mother would remain "the perfect surgeon's wife." She had frozen them in time at a place where they seemed just right. She thought that "they both would live forever."

She recalls that her father told her that:
There is an age when you are most yourself.
He was just past fifty then,
Is the father recalling an earlier time? Pastan recalls them at age 30 being perfect. Would they agree with their daughter?

Because the poem is a pantoum, she needs some strong lines that will repeat and possibly carry changed meanings. Two of those are "I used to think" and "I thought they both would live forever."

Pantoums are sometimes described as musical because of the refrains. I think that they also have a circling, lullaby feel because of the interlocking lines.

I had some trouble with the line, "Was it something about the trees that make him speak?" I imagine the poem's setting as winter. The trees are bare. Her father is 50 - hardly old enough to suggest death, but perhaps old enough to be past autumn and into the early part of the winter of life. Is that why the trees made him speak?

She asks, "When will I be most myself?" and that is the line our prompt focuses on. Write a poem that addresses the age in which you, or the voice of your poem, were, or will be, most yourself. Not an easy question.

As far as the form, you certainly could try a pantoum, but otherwise follow these 3 imperfect rules:

  1. You must use quatrains (4 line stanzas)
  2. The first 4 lines must reappear in exactly the same format in some subsequent stanzas at least once more, and
  3. the poem's first line must also be its last.
If you decide to try a true pantoum, take a look at this How-To page - you might find it easier to number your lines, for example.

Our prompts almost always give a print version of the poem, but for this month I really would suggest listening to Pastan read the poem. I think the musicality is much clearer.

There are actually 3 (not 2) poems on the video clip. I recommend that you watch all three. First is the funny "Notes from the Delivery Room," followed by "A Short History of Judaic Thought in the 20th Century" and then the pantoum "Something About the Trees."

To see the poem in print, try this site.

March 1, 2009


The pantoum is a verse form which is often considered to be "musical." Other forms with refrains, like the triolet, villanelle and paradelles, use refrain and repetition in similar ways.

The pantoum originated in France, but is based on the Malayan pantun form. Pantoums became popular in Europe and moved to North America in the nineteenth and more so in the twentieth century.

In France, the tradition is often credited to the work of Ernest Fouinet, Victor Hugo and Charles Baudelaire who made the form fashionable. For more on the history and examples, check my source, The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland.

The Malay pantun uses metonymy and follows the same rhyme and line patterns as are used in the pantoum. Traditionally, in a pantun the first two lines of each quatrain present an image or an allusion, and the second two lines of each quatrain convey the theme and meaning.

Let us focus on the pantoum. Unfortunately, explaining this type of form often sounds like a riddle. That's why Billy Collins was able to parody it so easily in his invented paradelle form.

A pantoum is composed of a series of quatrains (4 line stanzas). The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next. This pattern continues and there can be any number of stanzas.

The final stanza usually offers a variation. It may contain the first and third lines of the first stanza as its second and fourth lines. Often, the final stanza's fourth line is the poem's first, and the third line of the poem may or may not appear as the second line of the final stanza.

One desired effect in the pantoum is to have the meaning of lines shift when they are repeated. The idea of words remaining the same and meaning changing is basic to poetry in general. This can be accomplished by punctuation, punning, or by placing the words in a new context.

Another way to look at "the rules"
  • Use 4-line stanzas (as many as needed - usually an odd number).
  • Line lengths can vary.
  • Pantoums say everything twice.
  • The rhyme scheme is abab in each quatrain - lines rhyme alternately.
  • The final line of the pantoum must be the same as its first line.
I'm sure some formalists would have more to say (or correct me), but that's the basics.

It is always helpful to look at examples:

  1. "Pantoum of the Great Depression" by Donald Justice
  2. “Stillbirth” by Laure-Anne Bosselaar
  3. “Baby’s Pantoum” by Anne Waldman
  4. "Parent's Pantoum" by Carolyn Kizer (includes audio)
  5. “Bareback Pantoum” by Cecilia Woloch
  6. "Harmonie du soir" by Charles Baudelaire (imperfect pantoum, in French and in English translations)
and, to emphasize that musical quality, how about "I Am Going to Like It Here" by Oscar Hammerstein - another imperfect pantoum, which is a song from the musical Flower Drum Song.