February 28, 2010

Bright Wings and Spring

Looking into a new anthology, a new anthology Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems About Birds was the inspiration for our March prompt.

Did you notice the new poll on the top right of this blog? I am asking you "What types of prompts inspire you to write?" Topics is a common one.

I used three model poems on the site this month that you should read there to make the point that poets have several takes on our avian topic. Birds appear in the anthology as admirable, terrible, like humans, unlike humans, poetic, mythical, and humorous.

I might caution you to avoid the trap that anthropomorphism offers. (That's the attribution of human characteristics to non-human creatures.) It a well-accepted art and storytelling technique. Animals, plants, and forces of nature are commonly personified in poems. It has ancient roots in most cultures, especially in fable traditions.

Personification is a common ontological metaphor that we all learned in school along with other literary terms in which a thing or abstraction is represented as a person. So, that is one approach you might take for this prompt, but when taken too far, a poem sounds more like a children's story than a poem.

And why have so many poets gone to the birds for inspiration? Song certainly has something to do with it. With poets probably first being singers, birds were natural compatriots.

When I first discovered in some classroom those poetic collective nouns, the avian ones were particularly appealing: a murder of crows, a murmuration of starlings, a parliament of fowls.

Poets.org has a feature that you should also look at called "Thirteen Ways of Looking: Poems About Birds" in honor of the poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" by Wallace Stevens.

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Was the eye of the blackbird.

I was of three minds,
Like a tree
In which there are three blackbirds.

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Ted Hughes used birds as symbols in The Hawk in the Rain and in Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow.

Crow realized there were two Gods --
One of them much bigger than the other
Loving his enemies
And having all the weapons.

Hughes does something that William Blake and others did before him - a kind of new Gospel through the Crow. The crow plays an important role as a totem bird in many Native American story traditions.

Emily Dickinson writes that "Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul" but she also sees another side in her "A Bird Came Down."
A bird came down the walk:
He did not know I saw;
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw.

Elizabeth Bishop's "Sandpiper" is a poor obsessed bird.
The world is a mist. And then the world is
minute and vast and clear. The tide
is higher or lower. He couldn't tell you which.
His beak is focused; he is preoccupied,

looking for something, something, something.
Let's hope that we see a variety of species and approaches this month as Spring returns and probably bring some birds back to your area.

The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson
The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens
The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop

February 26, 2010

Follow Poets Online on Twitter

You can follow Poets Online on Twitter - even if you don't have a Twitter account (but it is more fun if we can connect).

February 25, 2010

Poems For A Snow Day

Garden Dragon in Snow

I am home for another snow day from school. Whether you are the student or the professor, the thrill of being home from school because of snow has not waned. Unfortunately, the shoveling and the thoughts about making up the lost class time will come too - but for now, I go online and search for some snow poems to enjoy with my third cup of coffee.

The Academy of American Poets website offers plenty of searchable possibilities. There are the standards that you find in many anthologies - Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost, or The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, for example.

Here are the opening lines from a few others -

by Naomi Shihab Nye

Once with my scarf knotted over my mouth
I lumbered into a storm of snow up the long hill
and did not know where I was going except to the top of it.
In those days we went out like that.
Even children went out like that.
Someone was crying hard at home again,
raging blizzard of sobs...

read more

Snow-Bound [The sun that brief December day]
by John Greenleaf Whittier

The sun that brief December day
Rose cheerless over hills of gray,
And, darkly circled, gave at noon
A sadder light than waning moon.
Slow tracing down the thickening sky
Its mute and ominous prophecy,
A portent seeming less than threat,
It sank from sight before it set...

read more

Why is the Color of Snow?
by Brenda Shaughnessy

Let's ask a poet with no way of knowing.
Someone who can give us an answer,
another duplicity to help double the world.

What kind of poetry is all question, anyway?
Each question leads to an iceburn,
a snownova, a single bed spinning in space.

Poet, Decide! I am lonely with questions.
What is snow? What isn't?
Do you see how it is for me...

read more

The Snowfall Is So Silent
by Miguel de Unamuno   Translated by Robert Bly

The snowfall is so silent,
so slow,
bit by bit, with delicacy
it settles down on the earth
and covers over the fields.
The silent snow comes down
white and weightless;
snowfall makes no noise,
falls as forgetting falls,
flake after flake...

read more

And, looking ahead a month...

Spring Snow
by Arthur Sze

A spring snow coincides with plum blossoms.
In a month, you will forget, then remember
when nine ravens perched in the elm sway in wind.

I will remember when I brake to a stop,
and a hubcap rolls through the intersection...

read more

And if the kids are home with you...
Snow, Snow: Winter Poems for Children
Just Say No To Yellow Snow!: A Collection Of Winter Poems For Children

February 19, 2010

Found Poetry: Status Updates

One complaint you might hear from poets who dislike "found poetry" is that it's not poetry. (There's another group with the same argument for prose poems.)

Because this month's writing prompt is found poems, I have been more in tune with "finding" poems. When I saw that Facebook allowed me to grab some of the "status updates" I have posted there during 2009, I tried it.

Now, "status" (as defined in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary) is a noun coming from Latin (see state) into English circa 1630 and meaning
1. position or rank in relation to others
2. state or condition with respect to circumstances

Then what was my state or condition in 2009 according to my Facebook life?

Is there a poem in there? Maybe. I came up with this at first look.

cardinals picking dried berries.
days don't seem any longer
on this rainy day
April is not the cruelest month

It's just interesting to think about something like your online life as being recorded and then looking at it in the context of a poem. Just throwing out ideas...

February 17, 2010

Ash Wednesday

Looking at the calendar this past weekend, I realized that Ash Wednesday was this week. Though I have religious attachments to that day, the first thing I thought of was the poem by that name by T.S. Eliot.

I was a serious reader of Eliot (Is there really any other kind?) as a college student. I loved the poems and I loved the puzzle of the poems - the allusions I needed to uncover, the Greek or Latin that needed translation. It all seemed terribly intellectual to me at the time.

Eliot's "Ash Wednesday" was first published in April 1930 (though parts were published earlier in other forms).

It opens with the lines:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things

It was the first long poem he wrote after his conversion to Anglicanism, and it deals with the conflict within when someone who has lacked faith acquires it.

It is often referred to as his "conversion poem." It takes some inspiration from Dante's Purgatorio - spiritual emptiness to hope for salvation.

As serious as his poems are, this poem and some of the later ones are actually more casual, and melodic than his early work.

In the Western Christian calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent and occurs forty-six days (forty days not counting Sundays) before Easter.

It is a moveable feast, falling on a different date each year because it is dependent on the date of Easter. It can occur as early as February 4 or as late as March 10th.

Ash Wednesday gets its name from the practice of placing ashes on the foreheads of the faithful in the shape of a cross as a sign of repentance.

The ashes used are gathered after the Palm Crosses from the previous year's Palm Sunday are burned.

I was told as a child that you left the ashes there until they wore off. The priest, as I recall, would say: "Remember, that you are dust, and unto dust you shall return." In the Roman Catholic Church in which I was raised, ashes are sacramentals (not sacraments) and could be given to anyone who wished to receive them even if they didn't belong to the church.

As a child, we observed fasting, abstinence from meat, and repentance. As an Anglican, Eliot would also have observed fasting and the contemplation of one's "transgressions."

It really surprised when I was older to realize that Ash Wednesday, being the first day of Lent, comes the day after Shrove Tuesday or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) which is the last day of the Carnival season.

Eliot's riddling wordplay in the poem, such as this section in part five, made me wonder if he wasn't playing some intellectual prank on me.

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

It's still an interesting poem to read, though it does not hold the appeal it once did to me. The riddles push me away as a reader now. My notes in the margin seem so academic.

Perhaps, it was part of my religious training - masses in Latin as a child - that made me think that this ultimate knowledge was supposed to be hard to obtain, difficult to understand, a kind of puzzle.

It's what puts off many people about poetry. Why doesn't it just say what it wants me to hear?

I don't believe that poetry should be so difficult for us to understand. I believe that we have been working at it all of our lives.


My grandparents would speak Slovak
to my father, the aunts and the uncles
at our Sunday dinners in Newark
when they didn’t want us to know.
In those days, the priest spoke Latin.
The mystery of the faith.
The boys on the #42 bus spoke Spanish
and laughed, looking in my direction.
I knew a few words.
The waiter at the Chinese restaurant
translates my order into words
that I will never know.
This is the poet’s job -
and the reader’s.
We have been in training
all our lives.

Ken Ronkowitz

February 14, 2010

Valentine's Day Poems

Valentine's Day puts pressure on poets.

If you write poems, it is expected that you can and will write love poems. Poets know that's not always the case.

I went last week to a poetry and wine tasting event as a prelude to V Day. The two featured poets, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Laura Boss, read a variety of love poems. Variety because both emphasized that love poems and Valentines could be to husbands, wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, lovers, children, mothers and fathers.

I read one poem. I had selected three possibilities:  a love poem to Poetry, one about my wife (who was in the audience) and one from and to my father. I went with that last one. (see bottom of post). It's not my favorite or one of my best poems, but it's one I like and had never read to an audience. It's a bit sentimental and that's allowed on Valentine's Day.

Back in 1986, Ted Kooser (U.S. Poet Laureate 2004–2006) sent a Valentine's Day poem on a postcard to 50 women. Over the next three decades, he sent his annual poem to an increasing number of women (in 2007 there were 2,600 recipients). He collected those poems and added one dedicated to his wife. (Sending out Valentine's poems to women that are not your wife could be dangerous.)

There are some simple pen and ink drawings (by Robert Hanna) included in the collection which is simply titled Valentines. Not every poem is a "love poem" or a traditional greeting card Valentine sentiment - but poets will recognize why each could be a poem for that occasion.

This is the first of the Kooser poems.

Pocket Poem

If this comes creased and creased again and soiled
as if I’d opened it a thousand times
to see if what I’d written here was right,
it’s all because I looked too long for you
to put in your pocket. Midnight says
the little gifts of loneliness come wrapped
by nervous fingers. What I wanted this
to say was that I want to be so close
that when you find it, it is warm from me.

(from Ted Kooser's collection of poems Valentines)

Here's the poem I read that night.

Love Letters

My father hid his love letters in the ceiling.
Not a man of words,
a man who found it hard to sit
and easier to be working.
The patio built stone by stone;
a barbecue pit of bricks
salvaged from a factory razed in 1960 -
those were his stories.
And the '49 Mercury that aged as he restored it -
his first new car, four years from war, his first good job -
and a two year old daughter.
Maybe this draftsman, who planned on paper
with precision lines, measured angles,
shadings that made a two-point perspective seem real,
maybe he was trying to hold time when
in the home they bought when I was born,
he hid his love letters in the new ceiling,
and under the refinished oak floor,
inside staircase balustrades he stripped, smoothed and stained
in the roots of the peach trees
and the tomato plants,
and in pipes he replaced.
He hid them so well,
that it took me all these years
to know where to find them.

Ken Ronkowitz

Valentines by Ted Kooser
Arms: New and Selected Poems by Laura Boss
Where I Come From - by Maria Gillan
All That Lies Between Us - by Maria Gillan

February 13, 2010

Lucille Clifton Dies at 73

Lucille Clifton  1936-2010

Lucille Clifton, who achieved some of the literary world's highest honors as a major American poet, died today at Johns Hopkins University Hospital in Baltimore at age 73.
Clifton had been ill for some time with an undiagnosed infection and had undergone surgery to remove her colon yesterday. 

Clifton lived in Columbia, Md., and was the former poet laureate of the state. She was a two-time Pulitzer Prize nominee and won the National Book Award in 2001 for Blessing the Boats: New and Selected Poems 1988-2000 and in 2007, she became the first African-American woman to be awarded one of the literary world's highest honors — the Ruth Lilly Prize for lifetime achievement by the Poetry Foundation.

Lucille Clifton reads "What Haunts Him" and "Sorrows" at the 2008 Dodge Poetry Festival

February 10, 2010

Poetry for the Mind’s Joy

Detailed information on U.S. Poet Laureate Kay Ryan’s poetry project with community colleges—"Poetry for the Mind’s Joy"—can now be found on the Library of Congress website at www.loc.gov/poetry/mindsjoy.

Ryan, a longtime community college teacher of remedial English, last fall announced the "Poetry for the Mind’s Joy" project to highlight poetry being written on community-college campuses.

The poetry project’s new web page includes information on a poetry contest, which ends February 25, and information on the April 1 videoconference with Kay Ryan and selected community-college students and officials across the nation. The web page also features a video of Ryan discussing her poetry project.

The Community College Humanities Association is administering the poetry contest. Winning poems will be chosen by each community college and the winners will become eligible to be included in the anthology on the new web page. The anthology will be displayed this spring as a virtual book with digital page-turning technology.

The videoconference, which will include a discussion on how to write poetry, will be hosted by MAGPI, the Mid Atlantic Gigapop in Philadelphia for Internet 2, , in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Initiative of Internet2, . This event will be streamed live to the web, and will demonstrate the online possibilities available for educational institutions working with the Library of Congress.

The Poetry and Literature Center at the Library of Congress administers the poetry series, which began in the 1940s and is the oldest in the Washington area and among the oldest in the United States. The readings and lectures are free and have been largely supported since 1951 by a gift from the late Gertrude Clarke Whittall. The center is also the home of the Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry, a position that has existed since 1936, when the late Archer M. Huntington endowed the Chair of Poetry at the Library of Congress.

February 7, 2010

Prompt: Lost and Found

All poetry is found somewhere or in something. That's what inspiration is all about. The writing of "Found Poetry" formalizes that mostly accidental practice.

For this month, Poets Online is asking for found poems as submissions.

Not only can this technique serve as an antidote to writer's block, but it can also offer you fresh topics, language, images, and observations.

You can use newspaper articles, headlines, advertisements, junk mail, letters from others and a thousand other starting points.

In the samples I have put on the prompt on our main site (two of them are my own), the sources were a newspaper article in the cooking section and an email.

Here's a found poem that came from a magazine ad.

Depression isolates you
all alone in the world.
for no apparent reason -
trouble sleeping,
trouble feeling pleasure,
lose your appetite.
Too much to handle.
Everyday life
may drop.

That can happen.

And someone you love
is blossoming again.
(found in a magazine ad for the drug Prozac)

Here is another found poem. Reading it without knowing the source might make it work better.

Infidelity does not consist in believing,
or in disbelieving.

It consists in professing to believe
what one does not believe.

Priests and conjurors
are of the same trade,

and the most formidable weapon
against errors of every kind

is reason.

I have used that poem with students and teachers as a way to open a discussion that might deal with happiness, belief or reason. I reveal that it is a found poems and that all the words come from a piece they are going to read by Thomas Paine. It makes the point that some of his lines, especially when read in isolation and with the focus we give a line of poetry, are profound. Later, I will have them do the same kind of thing with another reading - simply pulling out selected lines and phrases that are striking (whether or not we ever create poetry from them).

The rules for this month's writing prompt?

In its purest form, a found poem uses only the words found in the source - no changing verb forms, making plurals etc. You can add or subtract capitalization and punctuation. And your most powerful tools, next to your careful selection and ordering, are line breaks and stanzas. I would also allow that adding an original title can sometimes make a huge difference in the way the poem will be read.

You must identify the original source either at the beginning or end of the poem. (Sometimes putting it at the top ruins some poetic tension.) If the source is online, you could give a link for the reader to follow.

Found poetry is a great lesson for students because it forces them to focus on how word selection, titles and layout change the meaning of the words. Context changes everything - a good lesson for writer and reader.

There's a nice "lesson plan" on the Library of Congress website for using their vast collection in the American Memory collection (such as the Life Histories collected from 1936-1940) as starting places for your found poems.

With students, I have sometimes added additional levels of complexity - like asking that they find rhymes in the original and use them, or construct a poem in a form (sonnets etc.). You might raise the bar for your own attempt in the same way.

Here's an example poem from the Library of Congress site:
Found Poetry Based on Elsie Wall
from American Life Histories, 1936-1940

Rocks in her chair between supper and dinner,
thirty-two but looks forty-five.
Never learned how to chop in the garden,
never learned right how to pay at the store.

Rocks in her chair between supper and dinner,
children in rags lined up on the porch:
all she can count, all she can figure.
How can she clothe them to send them to school?

Daughters with bright eyes of Jean Harlow,
hang Jesus and movie stars framed on the walls.
Six dollars a week for six mouths in the family:
How will they work, get out of this town?

Jim works in the cotton mill, tends crops in the garden.
Elsie can cook if there's food in the house.
Pots catch the flow from the rainy roof leaks.
Rocks on her porch in rain or in fine.

An interesting lost and found project that has resulted in a magazine, several books and a website is Found Magazine.

They collect stuff (love letters, birthday cards, kids' homework, to-do lists, ticket stubs, poetry on napkins, doodles) that they and others have found (and submit to the magazine) as a way of getting a glimpse into someone else's life.

Sometimes the things tell a story. Sometimes they suggest a story for you to tell.

You might find some objects on their site to inspire your own found poems.

Their bound collections include Found Magazine #7: Feel A ConnectionRequiem for a Paper Bag: Celebrities and Civilians Tell Stories of the Best Lost, Tossed, and Found Items from Around the World, and anthologies like Found II.

Here's an example of a lost and found item from their site.

This 45 RPM record sleeve was found inside a used copy of Bob Dylan's Greatest Hits Vol. 2 that someone bought in a used record store.

Did the writer plan to give her that record? Did he give it to her and she sold it at the used record store, not even caring to keep the note - but also not destroying it?

February 2, 2010

Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival 2010

The Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival festival will be held this year in Newark, New Jersey, beginning on Thursday evening, October 7th and ending Sunday afternoon, October 10th.

Considering that a year ago it seemed that there would be no festival, the news is encouraging to the poetry community in and beyond NJ.

Tickets will go on sale in April, National Poetry Month. Information about all aspects of the Festival will be available and continuously updated over the next several months. For continuing information, check on the festival website and follow the festival on Twitter.

The new incarnation of the festival includes a new financial model with the principal funding and artistic direction coming from the Dodge Foundation, but with other sponsors (such as the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and The City of Newark) also supporting the event.

Also, a Friends of the Festival effort has been created for individuals to donate in order to continue the Foundation's work with poets, teachers and students through the Dodge Poetry Festival. (All Friends of the Festival will be acknowledged in the Festival Program, and those who are able to donate $100 or more will receive a card entitling them to a 10% discount on Festival merchandise.)

Having attended all but one of the festivals, and having volunteered at the last five, I would love to see the Foundation make a greater effort to use the many "Dodgers" who have benefited from the poetry program as students, teachers, writers and readers and who would be willing to volunteer to help.

Robert Hass at the 2008 Festival