May 29, 2009

The Sonnets

This year is the 400th anniversary of the "publication" of "a booke called Shakespeares sonnettes." 154 sonnets and a long poem, "A Lover's Complaint" - and people are still debating about whether or not Shakespeare wrote the poems, who the poems are addressed to, and whether or not the author ever intended to make them public.

There are a number of stories and blog posts about Shakespeare's sonnets lately. It's good if it bring attention to the poems, but a lot of it is scandal and entertainment news writing.

NPR did a story "Did Shakespeare Want To Suppress His Sonnets?"

They based the piece on a new book, So Long as Men Can Breathe: The Untold Story of Shakespeare's Sonnets.

The sonnets are dedicated to a “Mr. W.H.”, a person whose identity is still not known for sure - the most popular guess is William Herbert, the Earl of Pembroke.
Herbert was a patron of Shakespeare. He was also probably bisexual. That leads some critics to think that the sonnets addressed to the “fair youth” might be Shakespeare’s expression of love for Herbert.

Of course, we are not sure if the author even wrote the dedication page. And there are also the sonnets lusting for a married woman - the dark-complexioned "dark Lady."

I wrote a post on another blog about using some video as a pre-writing activity and suggested one from UC Berkeley about Shakespeare and the Spanish Connection. That led to Hugh Richmond from Berkeley emailing me. He pointed me to other videos on their website and on Google from

I found a page there of sonnets about the sonnets which makes a good extra writing prompt if you're interested.

Here are two examples that address issues with the way we read the sonnets.

Against Mr. A. L. Rowse's Naming of the Dark Lady

My dark, false love thou boldly claim'st to know,
And would'st discover her with eager pen,
Though I, much wiser, chose no name to show,
Preferring seasoned silence even then.
But thou, untempered by discretion's grace,
In thought most rude, in action rash, unfair,
Would'st raise thy upstart will to chiefest place,
Pressing thy point when wiser would forbear.
Thus thou, aroused by passion for a name,
Hast set thy pen to willful arguments
Which gull the innocent to fix thy claim,
Unwittingly, in willful ignorance.
Yet simple truth and tale in part agree,
Proving that both our ladies false may be.

-- Patricia White

In Praise of the Literal

Above my mistress' nose, on either side,
Her eyes are firmly fixéd in her face;
Her lips, which smile when pleased or satisfied,
Beneath this self-same nose hold to their place.
This sonnet may, at this point, be attacked
For lack of simile and metaphor;
For dealing slavishly with concrete fact;
But since I'm neither bard nor troubador,
Poetic standards don't apply to me.
I won't say: "It's like that," or "It's like this."
I'll see a thing and tell you what I see,
Refusing to indulge in artifice.
So here's the truth, no versifier's lies:
My mistress' eyes are - like my mistress' eyes.

-- George Wallace

May 12, 2009

Festival of NJ Literary Journals This Weekend in Caldwell

A Celebration of New Jersey’s Literary Journals (and Some Neighbors)

This will be the sixth year of this showcase event created by poet Diane Lockward. 

Twelve journals will be displayed and available for purchase and each journal will be represented by two poets reading who have published in the journal. 

Readings will be held throughout the event and poets' books will be available for sale and signing.
  • Journals will be available along with subscription and submission information.
  • Editors will answer questions about publishing.
  • 24 poets will read throughout the afternoon.
  • Books will be available for sale and signing.
at the West Caldwell Public Library
30 Clinton Rd.
West Caldwell, NJ

1-5 PM

directions via GoogleMaps

schedule of readers

Exit 13
Tom Plante
Journal of New Jersey Poets
Sandy Zulauf
Laura Boss
The Literary Review
Minna Proctor
New York Quarterly
Raymond Hammond
Now Culture
Gene Myers and Don Zirilli
Paterson Literary Review
Maria Mazziotti Gillan
River Poets Journal
Judith Lawrence
Donna Stein
U.S. 1 Worksheets
Nancy Scott

May 6, 2009

Renée Ashley: Getting It and Not Getting It

When I read Renée Ashley's poem "A Poem About Not Quite Getting It (but not an aphasic poem in the least," I didn't get it. Right off, I didn't know what aphasia meant. I thought I did. I was thinking of dysphasia which is actually a swallowing disorder. Aphasia is a language disorder in which there is an impairment (but not the loss) of and the comprehension of speech. 

Now I get it. Maybe. Depending on the area and extent of the damage, someone suffering from aphasia may be able to speak but not write, or write but not be able to speak, or any of a wide variety of other deficiencies in language. (With one form, the person can sing but not speak!) Aphasia usually results from lesions to the left hemisphere of the brain which is also where the ability to produce and comprehend language is found for most people. Renée is on safe ground here. Aphasia has actually been connected to poetry in a number of ways. In a research study, subjects were asked to read and distinguish between poetry and written versions of aphasic speech. The study concluded that:

"Among men, there were no significant differences between ratings of poems and aphasic speech, whereas women rated poems slightly but significantly higher than aphasic transcripts. Poems and aphasic transcripts may be indistinguishable, especially for men."

If you read the list below of symptoms of aphasia with poetry in mind, they do seem connected. What poet has not suffered some of these symptoms when writing or reading poetry? 
  • inability to comprehend language
  • inability to pronounce, not due to muscle paralysis or weakness
  • inability to speak spontaneously
  • inability to form words
  • inability to name objects
  • excessive creation and use of personal neologisms
  • inability to repeat a phrase or the persistent repetition of phrases
  • paraphasia (substituting letters, syllables or words)
  • agrammatism (inability to speak in a grammatically correct fashion)
  • dysprosody (alterations in inflexion, stress, and rhythm)
  • incompleted sentences 
  • inability to read 
  • inability to write
Not all famous aphasics are writers: composer Maurice Ravel, singer Jan Berry (of Jan and Dean), cinematographer Sven Nykvist, and General Robert E. Lee are in the group.

One aphasic poet was Ralph Waldo Emerson, but the most famous poet is Baudelaire. At age 45, Charles Baudelaire (at left) suffered a left hemispheric stroke that left him with severe aphasia. I find it curious that the expletive Crénom was the only word he was able to express. 

 Poets deal pretty regularly with readers who get it, or don't get it, when it comes to their writing. And aphasia is not the only mental disease that has poetic connections. If memory is the thread that weaves together our identity, personality and relationships, then, when we start to lose our memory with age, those stitches come apart. Alzheimer's disease is generally considered to be a disease of memory. 

The question of what remains when memory unravels is a question that poets often deal with in their writing. I recently listened to a program on Speaking Of Faith about Alzheimer's that examined the disease from the point of view of those of us who do not suffer from the disease but observe or care for those who do. 

That program included poet Sean Nevin who has led writing groups with Alzheimer's patients, as well as dealing with his own grandfather's struggle with this disease. Here are two groups of poems from his collection of poetry about those experiences: "Oblivio Gate" and "Self-Portraits from the Widow House" which is a grouping of nine poems based on the backwards progression of painter William Utermohlen's self-portraits chronicling his descent into Alzheimer's., Also on NPR, was this story about poet Gary "Mex" Glazner who found that poetry can sometimes have a beneficial effect on people struggling with Alzheimer's disease.

Our writing prompt for May is to attempt a poem that deals with the problems we all have with our memories and those times when we don't get it. Interpret that as you will. Perhaps, you will also address the very real connections that mental diseases sometimes have with poetry.

Renée's latest book of poetry is Basic Heart.

Renée's novel


May 1, 2009

Duffy Is First Woman Appointed Poet Laureate of Britain

Carol Ann Duffy was named this week as poet laureate of Britain. This is the first time in the 341-year history of the post that a woman will hold the post. She is also the first Scot and the first openly gay woman to be poet laureate.

Duffy, 53, is known for writing accessible, often witty poems on a wide range of topics, many of them to do with the minutiae of everyday life.

She succeeds Andrew Motion who held the post for ten years. Duffy was considered a favorite for the post before Motion was named in 1999, but it is thought that then prime minister Tony Blair felt her sexuality made her too controversial for the royal appointment.

by Carol Ann Duffy

Not a red rose or a satin heart.

I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

More about Carol Ann Duffy

5/1/09 Four of Duffy's books are on the Amazon Poetry Bestsellers list today.