December 31, 2012

Auld Lang Syne

Warm up your vocal cords for "Auld Lang Syne."

This Scots poem was written by Robert Burns (Robert Burns' Auld lang syne and other songs) in 1788 and set to the tune of a traditional folk song. It is well known in many countries, especially in the English-speaking world. Its traditional use has become to celebrate the start of the New Year at the stroke of midnight.

The song's Scots title may be translated into English literally as "old long since", or more idiomatically, "long long ago", "days gone by" or "old times". Consequently "For auld lang syne", as it appears in the first line of the chorus, might be loosely translated as "for (the sake of) old times".

Burns’ original Scots verse

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne

For auld lang syne, my jo,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely ye’ll be your pint-stowp
and surely I’ll be mine
And we’ll tak a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

We twa hae run about the braes,
and pu’d the gowans fine ;
But we’ve wander’d mony a weary fit,
sin auld lang syne.

We twa hae paidl’d i' the burn,
frae morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us braid hae roar’d
sin auld lang syne.

And there’s a hand, my trusty fiere
and gie's a hand o’ thine
And we’ll tak a right gude-willy waught,
for auld lang syne.

and the version you'll probably be singing tonight

Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind
Should old acquaintance be forgot,
and old lang syne

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we'll take a cup of kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup
and surely I’ll buy mine
And we'll take a cup o’ kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.


We two have run about the slopes,
and picked the daisies fine ;
But we’ve wandered many a weary foot,
since auld lang syne.


We two have paddled in the stream,
from morning sun till dine ;
But seas between us broad have roared
since auld lang syne.


And there’s a hand my trusty friend
And give us a hand o’ thine
And we’ll take a right good-will draught,
for auld lang syne.


Tonight’s December thirty-first

Tonight’s December thirty-first,
Something is about to burst.
The clock is crouching, dark and small,
Like a time bomb in the hall.
Hark, it's midnight, children dear.
Duck! Here comes another year!

Ogden Nash

Frederic Ogden Nash (August 19, 1902 – May 19, 1971) was an American poet well known for his light verse. At the time of his death in 1971, the New York Times said his "droll verse with its unconventional rhymes made him the country's best-known producer of humorous poetry".[1] Ogden Nash wrote over 500 pieces of comic verse. The best of his work was published in 14 volumes between 1931 and 1972.

December 28, 2012

December, Outdoors

John Updike's poetry is often overlooked in favor of his novels and short stories. It is often noted that his fiction is "poetic" and rich in its use of language. But the poems don't get much attention.

Updike wrote some witty, light verse and liked to play with words and language in his poetry. But he also wrote a good number of solid poems.

I like this one which was posted on the site this month.

holding the dunes, originally uploaded by Ken Ronkowitz.

December, Outdoors

Clouds like fish shedding scales are stretched
thin above Salem. The calm cold sea
accepts the sun as an equal, a match:
the horizon a truce, the air all still.
Sun, but no shadows somehow, the trees
ideally deleafed, a contemplative gray
that ushers into the woods (in summer
crammed with undergrowth) sheer space.

How fortunate it is to move about
without impediment, Nature having
no case to make, no special weather to plead,
unlike some storm-obsessed old symphonist.
The day is piano; I see buds so subtle
they know, though fat, that this is no time to bloom.

by John Updike, from Endpoint and Other Poems

December 19, 2012

There Are 36,000 Students in My Poetry Class

Stadium at The University of Southern Mississippi

How would you do in a poetry class that had 36,000 students? That class size would just fill all the seats in "The Rock" stadium at Southern Miss.

In my college teaching, I have been exploring the massive open online courses (MOOCs) that have been a big part of higher education in 2012. These courses are being sponsored by some of the top universities and by new independent companies and non-profits exploring new ways to address learning.

As the name says, these courses are massive (anywhere from a few hundred learners to well over 100,000 students), open (generally free and open to anyone in the world with computer access; often age is not considered), and online (all activities are generally online and students are at a distance).

In an essay,"One Class, 36,000 Students" by Elliott Holt  on The Poetry Foundation website, she talks about her experience being in a poetry MOOC.
...through Twitter, I heard about a free, online modern American poetry class; friends raved about the professor, University of Pennsylvania’s Al Filreis, so I signed up. I wasn’t alone. By the time the class started in September, 33,000 people had joined in—from South Africa to California—including Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin. (Two months later, enrollment had reached more than 36,000.)
The Washington Post called MOOCs "elite education for the masses,” and The New York Times said 2012 was "the year of the MOOC."  With universities like Harvard, Stanford, and Princeton offering free classes, it just had to garner some attention. Coursera (a for-profit company) offered the poetry class that Elliott tried. Coursera says that they have 1.7+ million students.

Some of these courses offer "certificates of completion" but they do not count towards a degree from these schools. Of course, part of the appeal is that you can get some Ivy League education for nothing. Maybe.

I have been teaching online since 2001 in a more traditional university degree program. But Elliott had what I would consider a typical first online course experience in her first week.
My inbox began to fill with notifications from Modern Poetry, but, distracted by other writing assignments, I paid little attention. It’s easy to ignore a class when you don’t have to face the professor in person. When I finally logged in to the site, two weeks after the course began, I realized how much I’d already missed. I had flashbacks to my college days, when I was often playing catch-up in a caffeinated panic. Gnawed by stress, I was tempted to bag the whole thing. But then I clicked on the first video discussion, about Emily Dickinson’s “I dwell in Possibility.”
Time management is a major requirement in online courses - and a major downfall for many students. I will admit that in the MOOC I am currently a student in on creativity offered by Stanford, I fell victim to my own distracted life to the point where I had to change my status in the class to "auditing."

Still, I am fine with that as I was not interested in getting any type of certificate for the course. I was as interested in how the course was being taught and presented online, as I was with the course subject - and I get to see both of those things by auditing.

Most groups that offer these courses expect high dropout rates. That is also a factor of the free nature of the course - if I was paying $250, I would have taken the work more seriously.
I’m relieved to receive an email that says the course materials will be available online until next September. I’ll have a full year to catch up on the video discussions I missed and to reread the poems closely. (Confession: In the 10th week of the course, I’m still working my way through the material from the seventh week.) When I missed a class in college, there was no way to catch up on the lectures or discussion. I’m not sure MOOCs can replace traditional university education, but they can certainly complement it.
If you think that poetry is not the right subject for a MOOC, think about other poetry offerings online. Writing courses using the old correspondence model (snail mail) have been around for at least 50 years.

I remember ads with Bennett Cerf, Rod Serling and others in magazines for The Famous Writers School back in the 1960s.

And many colleges began offering courses using lectures on VHS tapes in the 1980s, moved to CDs, then DVDs and then finally online.

There are a good number of online and low-residency (requiring occasional face-to-face visits to a campus) writing programs for undergraduates and full MFA writing programs. From the people I know who teach in these programs and from students who have taken the classes, writing works better than many subjects in this format.

Although Poets Online is not a MOOC (yet!) or even an online workshop, it has some elements of those formats.

So, how would you feel in a poetry class with 36,000 students? Would reading poetry rather than writing poetry work better for you? If you have been in a MOOC, what was the experience like for you?  I welcome your comments here.
Elliott Holt    Photo: Rebecca Zeller

Elliott Holt's first novel You Are One of Them will be published in 2013 and her short fiction has appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXV  among other places. Follow her on twitter @elliottholt.

December 17, 2012

Asian American Poetry Retreat Applications Now Open

In order to help mentor the next generation of Asian American poets, Kundiman sponsors an annual Poetry Retreat in partnership with Fordham University.

During the Retreat, nationally renowned Asian American poets conduct workshops with fellows. Readings, writing circles and informal social gatherings are also scheduled.

Through this Retreat, Kundiman hopes to provide a safe and instructive environment that identifies and addresses the unique challenges faced by emerging Asian American poets. Workshops will not exceed eight students.

This 5-day Retreat takes place from Wednesday to Sunday at Fordham University, Rose Hill, New York City, June 19 - 23, 2013

Applications for the Poetry Retreat are due between December 15 - February 1, 2013

Retreat Faculty: Li-Young Lee, Srikanth Reddy, and Lee Ann Roripaugh
For more information on the Asian American Poetry Retreat, visit the Kundiman retreat page.

“I never knew Asian American poetry was so vibrant, so powerful, so incredibly and indelibly written on my soul and across this nation.”
Neil Aitken

“I discovered a supportive and dynamic community of young writers, deeply engaged with each other’s work, who are constantly giving new meaning to what it is to be an Asian American poet.”
Phayvanh Luekhamhan

"Kundiman’s support of both literature and community is part of the very spirit and vision of the organization. This can be seen very specifically in their Kavad project and the way it values the lives and experiences of older Asian Americans and understands that the stories of these individuals need to be recorded and made into literature."
David Mura

December 14, 2012

Prompt: Gary Snyder and Lessons Learned

 Men ask the way to Cold Mountain
    ... there's no through trail
    In summer, ice doesn't melt
    The rising sun blurs in swirling fog.
    How did I make it?

Another year ends. What have we learned?

This is a time of year when we see many reviews of the year's events, movies, books, etc. But you don't see many reviews of what we have learned. I suppose that is a topic for personal contemplation rather than public expression. Still, with the proliferation of blogs and status updates via social media, many of us seem to be continuously reviewing our lives. Some denigrate this as "navel-gazing" but when it is done well, it is much more than that.

In the two poems by Gary Snyder we use as models this month, he looks at lessons learned

Snyder is still associated with the Beat Generation poets. In 1955, he read with Allen Ginsberg at the famous October Sixth Gallery Reading where Ginsberg read "Howl" for the first time, and the two poets became lifelong friends. Jack Kerouac based The Dharma Bums’ Japhy Ryder character on Snyder.

Unlike the other Beat poets who were city kids, Snyder grew up in the woods of Washington and Oregon and was interested in nature, anthropology, Asian culture and was a dedicated Zen Buddhist. Lawrence Ferlinghetti called him “The Thoreau of the Beat Generation.”

When he took lessons in landscape painting as a meditative practice, he tried to translate the concept to poetry. This led to his epic myth-poem, Mountains and Rivers Without End, which he sees as a kind of literary equivalent of a Chinese or Japanese scroll painting. He worked on it over the course of 40 years.

He attended Reed college where he started reading Asian poetry. In the summers, he worked in logging camps, on trail crews, and as a fire lookout in the mountains.

His poem "Hay for the Horses" came out of those summer experiences, and it is one that I have loved for many years. It is the poem of a younger person who is learning from the life of someone else. The lesson learned from the hay truck driver is that we often end up in a life that we swore we would not end up in. Does that mean the life is bad? Not necessarily, but a caution nevertheless to a younger person at how easily we can fall comfortably into a life that we never intended. 

Hay for the Horses

He had driven half the night
From far down San Joaquin
Through Mariposa, up the
Dangerous Mountain roads,
And pulled in at eight a.m.
With his big truckload of hay
behind the barn.
With winch and ropes and hooks
We stacked the bales up clean
To splintery redwood rafters
High in the dark, flecks of alfalfa
Whirling through shingle-cracks of light,
Itch of haydust in the
sweaty shirt and shoes.
At lunchtime under Black oak
Out in the hot corral,
---The old mare nosing lunchpails,
Grasshoppers crackling in the weeds---
"I'm sixty-eight" he said,
"I first bucked hay when I was seventeen.
I thought, that day I started,
I sure would hate to do this all my life.
And dammit, that's just what
I've gone and done."

In the poem, we learn a lesson from the truck driver who after 51 years knows clearly what lesson he did not learn early enough.

But what do we do with lessons we learn, but learn too late?

Snyder spent about twelve years studying Zen Buddhism in Japan. But most of our lessons learned are not learned in formal study or in classrooms.

A later poem of his directly addresses our writing prompt for this month.

What Have I Learned

What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

The moments
between hard pleasant tasks

To sit silent, drink wine,
and think my own kind
of dry crusty thoughts.

     —the first Calochortus flowers
     and in all the land,
              it's spring.
I point them out:
the yellow petals, the golden hairs,
              to Gen.

Seeing in silence:
never the same twice,
but when you get it right,

     you pass it on.

In "What Have I Learned," it is the voice of a older person looking at the lessons of their own life. Here, the lessons are small and the speaker is almost dismissive.

What have I learned but
the proper use for several tools?

That "but" is a kind of apology for what was learned. And yet, we know the speaker cherishes not only the lessons but the opportunity to pass them on. (In the poem, to Snyder's own son, Gen.)

And the second use of that "but" turns this around:

but when you get it right,
you pass it on.

Our prompt for this month is a poem about a lesson (or lessons) learned, either from someone else or on your own - but a lesson that was passed on to another.

The deadline for submissions to this prompt is January 6. 2013.

December 10, 2012

Books For The Giving Season

NPR's Alan Cheuse's seasonal book list made from "piling up books on my reading table, books I've culled from the offerings of the past few months, which because of their essential lyric beauty and power stand as special gifts for you and yours" includes a book of poems and a book for the season by a poet.

The Hungry Ear: Poems of Food and Drink by Kevin Young

Here is gustatory poetry for all seasons, from summer berry-picking to autumn harvests, winter holiday meals to maple syrup springs; poems about breakfasts, lunches, dinners and snacks; about meat and drink, soups and salads, desserts and snacks, coffee and Coca-Cola. The joy in these poems knows no bounds. Who knew that so many wonderful poets, from Li Po to Yeats to Mary Oliver and Gerald Stern, wrote so many wonderful words about satisfying this particular appetite? The taste of milk, the taste of apples, the taste of wine, bread, cheese, the company of loved ones, the presence of friends, all here, tripping off the tongues of some of the country's, and world's, most gifted poets.

Here's the opening of one poem - Joy Harjo's "Perhaps the World Ends Here"

The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live.

The gifts of earth are brought and prepared, set on the table. So it has been since creation, and it will go on ...

At this table we sing with joy, with sorrow. We pray of suffering and remorse. We give thanks.

Perhaps the world will end at the kitchen table, while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite.


Christmas at Eagle Pond by Donald Hall (Author), Mary Azarian (Illustrator)

At the top of the stack on my book table rests a slender volume, a 70-page novella, Christmas at Eagle Pond, by former Poet Laureate Donald Hall. In this straightforward piece of narrative nostalgia, Hall conjures up a story of what it would have been like if he had visited his grandparents' New Hampshire farmhouse for Christmas in 1940. In doing so, he has made one of the most engaging Christmas narratives in a long line of these by U.S. writers, a story filled with the brisk December cold, horse-drawn carts and trains, recitations at the local meeting house, and as Hall gives us, a bountiful description of the holiday meal:

"Called to the table, we found it covered with food from end to end: chicken and stuffing, vegetables, mashed potatoes, gravy, butter, vinegar in a cruet. Uncle Luther presided at the far end of the table, Gramp sat at the near end by the plate stacked with chicken ... First thing, Luther closed his eyes and said grace, 'Dear Lord, we thank Thee.' "

December 7, 2012

Martin Espada Wins Binghamton University Poetry Book Award for THE TROUBLE BALL

I was happy to have judged this year's BINGHAMTON UNIVERSITY MILT KESSLER POETRY BOOK AWARD competition.

There are 7 Kessler Award Finalists for 2012 (in alphabetical order):

The winning selection is Martin Espada's The Trouble Ball (W.W. Norton)

In The Trouble Ball,Martin Espada once again uses his clear, powerful poems to give voice to the voiceless, to those who live outside the margins and are so often unrecognized. He cries out against injustice in all its forms in poems that move from a pilgrimage to the tomb of Frederick Douglass, to an encounter with the swimming pool at a center of torture and execution in Chile and the death of an "illegal" Mexican immigrant.

On my father's island, there were hurricanes and tuberculosis, dissidents in jail
and baseball. The loudspeakers boomed: Satchel Paige pitching for the Brujos
of Guayama. From the Negro Leagues he brought the gifts of Baltasar the King;
from a bench on the plaza he told the secrets of a thousand pitches: The Trouble Ball,
The Triple Curve, The Bat Dodger, The Midnight Creeper, The Slow Gin Fizz,
The Thoughtful Stuff. Pancho Coímbre hit rainmakers for the Leones of Ponce;
Satchel sat the outfielders in the grass to play poker, windmilled three pitches
to the plate, and Pancho spun around three times. He couldn't hit The Trouble Ball.

from "The Trouble Ball"

MARTIN ESPADA             Photo: Bryce Richter
A poet, essayist, translator, editor, and attorney, Martin Espada has dedicated much of his career to the pursuit of social justice, including fighting for Latino rights and reclaiming the historical record. Espada's critically acclaimed collections of poetry celebrate—and lament—the immigrant and working class experience. He is the author of nine collections of poetry. His collection, The Republic of Poetry, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.

December 3, 2012

Submissions Open for Little Patuxent Review’s Summer 2013 Music Issue

The Little Patuxent Review’s reading period for their Summer 2013 issue is now open and runs from December 1, 2012 to March 1, 2013.

Their theme is MUSIC in all its ageless meanings and contemporary variations through poetry, prose and the visual arts.

Music starts with sound and silence. As such, music and literature likely arose as a single entity. Even as the two drew apart, they maintained a continuum, causing Alphonse de Lamartine to state, “Music is the literature of the heart; it commences where speech ends.” And influenced one another in form and content, causing Ezra Pound to pronounce, “Poets who will not study music are defective.” Be that as it may, literary figures as disparate as William Shakespeare, T.S. Eliot and Ralph Ellison have made music an essential part of their works.

Little Patuxent Review is a community-based art and literary journal focused on writers and artists from the Mid-Atlantic region, but all excellent work originating in the United States is considered.

Full guidelines are online at They do not accept submissions sent by standard mail or email - check the guidelines page to use their electronic submission manager.

December 2, 2012

Rhyme nor Reason and The Faerie Queene

Prince Arthur and the Faerie Queen - Füssli, Johann Heinrich, 1788

I posted yesterday on another blog of mine about the origin of the phrase "rhyme or reason." I have always had a fascination for the origins of words, phrases, and the names we attach to people and things. (see Why Name It That? for more)

The poet Edmund Spenser gets credit for "rhyme or reason" and the story tells us something about the life of the poet back in Elizabethan times and his Spenserian stanza.

In 1589, Edmund Spenser was an admired poet by the rich and famous - which was the audience that mattered. His book of pastoral poems The Shepheardes Calender published in 1579 was a great success at court. But poets did not make a living selling books, but by having rich patrons. Running short on money, Spenser took on a position as a secretary to Lord Grey, the new Deputy to Ireland.

At 28-year, Edmund went to Ireland, where Grey crushed an Irish rebellion against the English, seized lands and gave Spenser about 3,000 acres, with hills, streams, and a castle to live on. Sweet deal.

Spenser worked for Grey for ten years and worked on his new epic poem.

Fellow poet and well known adventurer, Sir Walter Raleigh, lived nearby on his own 12,000-acre estate. In 1589, Raleigh visited Spenser, who showed him the first three parts of his new epic, The Faerie Queene.

It was a very ambitious writing project. In a letter written by Spenser to Raleigh in 1590, he describes the goal as an allegorical presentation of virtues through Arthurian knights in the mythical "Faerieland". This letter is often presented as a preface to the epic in most published editions. It oulines plans for 24 books: 12 based each on a different knight who exemplified one of 12 "private virtues", and a possible 12 more centered on King Arthur displaying 12 "public virtues".

Spenser never completed all the books and actually diverged from the plan in the earliest books.

Raleigh thought that Spenser should present the first book personally to Queen Elizabeth. They traveled to England together that fall, and Spenser registered the poem for publication with a dedications to "the most mightie and magnificent empress Elizabeth."

Elizabeth heard him read his poem aloud and she did love it. He was hot in the circles of society again and hoped to receive enough patronage to stay in England.

Elizabeth suggested that Spenser be paid £100 but her chief advisor, Lord Burghley, who wasn't high on poetry or Spenser, objected. The story is that Elizabeth told him to pay the poet "what is reason."

Burghley didn't pay him at all.

After a few months, Spenser sent Elizabeth this short verse:

I was promised on a time
To have a reason for my rhyme;
From that time unto this season,
I received nor rhyme nor reason.

Spenser got his payment, and we got the phrase "rhyme nor reason." Today "rhyme or reason" means "without purpose, order, or reason" as in "The statistics were so disorganized, that the conclusions were without rhyme or reason."

Copley's Red Cross Knight and Ladies
The epic was written in Spenserian stanza, which was created specifically for The Faerie Queene. In this style, there are nine iambic lines – the first eight of them five footed and the ninth a hexameter – which form interlocking quatrains and a final couplet. The rhyme pattern is ABABBCBCC.

Suggestions for its construction were taken from three Italian metres: the Ottava Rima, the Terza Rima, the Sonnet and the Ballade stanza.

This would probably not make a popular poetry writing prompt. Each book of The Faerie Queene contains a proem and twelve cantos. Each cantos has forty eight stanzas. This means that each book as a whole has over 18,000 lines. Over 2000 stanzas were written for the 1590 Faerie Queene.

The poem begins:

Lo I the man, whose Muse whilome did maske,
    As time her taught, in lowly Shepheards weeds,
    Am now enforst a far vnfitter taske,
    For trumpets sterne to chaunge mine Oaten reeds,
    And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
    Whose prayses hauing slept in silence long,
    Me, all too meane, the sacred Muse areeds
    To blazon broad emongst her learned throng:
Fierce warres and faithfull loues shall moralize my song.

There are several "modern English versions of Spenser's Middle English language (see link 5 below). One version paraphrases the opening this way:

Lo I the man, whose Muse while did mask,
As time her taught, in lowly Shepherds weeds,
Am now enforced a far less fit task,
For trumpets stern to change mine Oaten reeds,
And sing of Knights and Ladies gentle deeds;
Whose prayers having slept in silence long,
Me, all too mean, the sacred Muse agreed
To blazon broad amongst her learned throng:
Fierce wars and faithful loves shall moralize my song.

  1. Spenser, Fairie Queene (free audiobook), Librivox.
  2. The Faerie Queene (free online edition), Luminarium.
  3. Edmund Spenser: A Life
  4. Edmund Spenser: The Complete Poetical Works (for the Kindle)
  5. You can download several versions of the poem (Kindle, epub etc.) free  from


    December 1, 2012

    A Mind of Winter

    Welcome to December! Do you have a mind of winter yet?

    The Snow Man

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    by Wallace Stevens


    The Collected Poems of Wallace Stevens