January 31, 2013

Why Write?

I wrote on another site about the idea of devoting 20% of your time to something outside your regular "work." It's a philosophy followed at Google and other companies. It could be a workplace habit, but it could also be something to follow in your non-working life.

My 20% seems to be writing, whether that is poetry, journaling, research, or essays online and in print. If I devoted a fifth of my free time to one writing task - like a poetry manuscript - I might be a more successful writer. But, like most of my distracted life, I split that percentage into writing different things in different places.

There are five blogs that I write on regularly, including this one, and three others that I contribute posts to occasionally. I don't get paid to do that writing. But I wouldn't say that I do it for "fun" either.  Plus, I do the regular Poets Online website which archives all of the prompts and poems that have been submitted since 1998. It's hard to explain to most people (especially to my wife) exactly why I do it.

I was reading another blogger, Maria Popova who writes the creative and inspiring Brainpickings blog. She has a "writing tip jar" on her site which says that "Brain Pickings remains ad-free and takes 450+ hours a month to curate and edit, between the site, the email newsletter, and Twitter. If you find any joy and value in it, please consider becoming a Member and supporting with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of coffee and a fancy dinner."

That is like the public television and radio model. You listen, so you should pay something. Luckily, enough do pay, but the paying listeners are a small percentage of the listeners.

money bag

Most bloggers don't have a pay model or a contributor model using PayPal or some other subscription. Some blogs have ads. I do that. Amazon ads are one of the most popular vendors. I will put those links here for the books I am discussing. But from all five of my blogs, I am surprised when in a three-month quarter they generate enough sales to have Amazon make a minimal payment to me of $10. So, I'm not getting rich by writing online.

I had always hoped that the ads would cover the cost of some domain names and hosting that I pay every year. You pay to own a domain name like poetsonline.org. Some sites, like this one on Blogger, are hosted for free. Others require a yearly fee.

There are people who blog and make a living at it. There are people who are poets and make a living at it. But not many. Every poet I know does something besides writing and publishing poetry to earn a living. Teaching is the most common job, whether it is in a school or in workshops.

So, why do we write our blogs and poems? I haven't come up with a definitive answer, but I have some ideas for myself.

I do hope it gets my name out there as a writer and that it leads to further opportunities and maybe some income. So, it is advertising for myself.

I like telling people things that I think will be helpful. I have been a teacher since 1975. It paid the bills, but teachers know that part of the reward is knowing that you are doing something good for your students and, in some small way, for the world.

I also like the occasional connections that come from writing online. That means anything from the person who "favorites" a post, makes a positive comment, emails a note, and links to your writing. I have even had a few people find me online and ask me to do a workshop or give a presentation at a conference.

But all that perhaps isn't enough to "justify" the time spent doing this.

What are the other things that keep us doing that 20% that we don't get paid to do? Whether it is poetry or volunteer work, why do you do it?  Comment?

January 30, 2013

Robert Frost: Darkness or Light?

From The New Yorker blog:
Photograph: Library of Congress.
“It’s hard to imagine the author of “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”—the watcher of trees and grass, of frozen lakes and forested darkness—pinning up political posters in a crowded San Francisco bar. But, while the personality that comes through in Frost’s poems was a genuine one, it was also edited...
Yesterday was the fiftieth anniversary of Robert Frost’s death.

Joshua Rothman looks at the poet’s two sides: http://nyr.kr/VSHmr5

January 28, 2013

Poetry By Heart

United Kingdom's Department for Education is funding a nationwide poetry-reciting contest that asks kids to spend some time lingering over a poem. Long enough to learn it by heart.

The program is called "Poetry By Heart" and it is similar to the American "Poetry Out Loud" program.

At a county level, students memorize two poems from a list of 130and recite the poems by heart in a series of competitions. Their website has a nice selection of poems that are well known and not so well known - especially for American audiences.

The interview I heard said that the intent was to learn them "by heart, not by rote." They define that as meaning "that if you learn by heart it means you take the poem right into yourself, it becomes part of you. And it remains with you, probably for the rest of your life."

A difficult distinction to impress upon a young person. But hurrah for the trying.

Interview: Jean Sprackland, "Poetry By Heart" Contest via NPR

January 24, 2013

January 22, 2013

Newly Discovered Sandburg Poem Has Topical Relevance

A previously unknown poem by Carl Sandburg has been by a volunteer working at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. The typewritten poem is titled "A Revolver."

Its discovery comes at a time when guns and violence are very much in the news in America following the Newtown school shootings and new legislation proposed by the Obama administration.

A Revolver

Here is a revolver.
It has an amazing language all its own.
It delivers unmistakable ultimatums.
It is the last word.
A simple, little human forefinger can tell a terrible story with it.
Hunger, fear, revenge, robbery hide behind it.
It is the claw of the jungle made quick and powerful.
It is the club of the savage turned to magnificent precision.
It is more rapid than any judge or court of law.
It is less subtle and treacherous than any one lawyer or ten.
When it has spoken, the case can not be appealed to the supreme court, nor any mandamus nor any injunction nor any stay of execution in and interfere with the original purpose.
And nothing in human philosophy persists more strangely than the old belief that God is always on the side of those who have the most revolvers.

Many of Sandburg's undocumented poems and drafts are in the University library collection and were donated about a year ago by Sandburg's wife and daughter.

Carl Sandburg, who died in 1967, was a Illinois native. He received Pulitzer Prizes for poetry in 1919 and 1951. He received another Pulitzer in 1940 for his biography of Abraham Lincoln, a historic figure that he admired very much.

A University of Illinois English professor emeritus, George Hendrick, who has edited collections of Sandburg's poems, said the poem appears to be from the writer's later work. He speculated that the poem might be related to Lincoln's assassination.

January 21, 2013

"One Today" Inaugural Poem by Richard Blanco

Poet Richard Blanco reads a poem for President Obama's second inauguration. Blanco is the first Hispanic and openly gay man to read the inaugural poem.

One Today

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper -- bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives -- to teach geometry, or ring up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind -- our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across cafe tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me -- in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always -- home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country -- all of us --
facing the stars
hope -- a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it -- together.

by Richard Blanco

The text of the poem was provided by the Presidential Inaugural Committee.

January 19, 2013

Poe, That Raven and His Virginia

Edgar Allan Poe was born on this day in 1809.

Even non-readers know Poe, if only for his odd life story or because they had to read something like his poem “The Raven” in school.

In that poem, a young man mourns the death of his lover, Lenore. He is visited by a raven on a December night that speaks to him and leads him into madness.

In his real life, Poe was writing the poem while his own young wife, Virginia, was slowly dying of tuberculosis. She died in 1847 at age 24.

Like many aspects of Poe's career, his life events overpowered many of his literary achievements. Edgar married Virginia, his first cousin, when he was 27 and Virginia was 13, though her age was listed on the marriage certificate as 21.

“The Raven” appeared in journals throughout the country and it was such a rousing success that Wiley and Putnam published two of Poe’s books that year: a collection of prose called Tales and also The Raven and Other Poems (1845). It was his first book of poetry in 14 years.

His first published poems were an anonymous collection, Tamerlane and Other Poems, in 1827 which was credited only to “a Bostonian”.

Poe was one of the earliest American practitioners of the short story and is considered the inventor of the detective fiction genre. He is further credited with contributing to the emerging genre of science fiction.

Following the example of Dickens and other Europeans, he was the first well-known American writer to try to earn a living through writing alone. He was only mildly successful in that pursuit and he had a financially difficult life and career.

Virginia's handwritten Valentine poem to her husband. She was not a writer and this was a romantic gesture written during her illness when the couple lived in a small cottage in Fordham (Bronx), New York. The cottage is still standing today.

Text of the acrostic Valentine poem by Virginia dated February 14, 1846.
Ever with thee I wish to roam —
Dearest my life is thine.
Give me a cottage for my home
And a rich old cypress vine,
Removed from the world with its sin and care
And the tattling of many tongues.
Love alone shall guide us when we are there —
Love shall heal my weakened lungs;
And Oh, the tranquil hours we'll spend,
Never wishing that others may see!
Perfect ease we'll enjoy, without thinking to lend
Ourselves to the world and its glee —
Ever peaceful and blissful we'll be.

January 18, 2013

Poems Out Loud

I enjoy hearing poems read aloud, but not everyone can get to readings in their area, especially ones by well-known poets. And, of course, we only have authors recorded reading their poetry going back about 100 years.

Although the site launched in April 2009, I only recently discovered Poems Out Loud.  It features recorded readings by well-known and award-winning poets, columns and general poetry news.

The name of the site was inspired by the anthology edited by Robert Pinsky called Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud and the site is sponsored by that book's publisher, W. W. Norton & Company

Portrait of a Woman by Bartolomeo Veneto,
traditionally assumed to be Lucrezia Borgia.
It seems that the site stopped adding new content back in 2011, but in the archive and on others like are plenty of opportunities to discover poets and poems.

Recently, someone asked a question on Facebook about the poet Walter Savage Landor. I confess that I had never heard of him.

A quick search turned up lots of links, including one to his poem "On Lucretia Borgia's Hair" read by Robert Pinsky on the Poems Out Loud site.

I have heard of Lucretia (AKA Lucrezia) Borgia and the 2011 TV series, The Borgias, brought that family back into discussions.

The family came to epitomize Machiavellian politics and sexual corruption in the time of the Renaissance Papacy. Lucrezia is seen as a femme fatale in many artworks, novels, and films.

So, I clicked over to the poem.

I like the short text attached to the audio:

"The story is that the poet Leigh Hunt showed Landor a long, blonde strand of hair—said to be stolen from an Italian museum by Byron—of the glamorous, powerful, nefarious Lucretia Borgia. (It is tempting to think that the Italians who ran the museum were accustomed to English gentlemen stealing the purported hair several times a month, and that the museum replaced it each time from an ample supply.)

Landor, a great master of the epigram form, composed many dazzling poems of as few as two lines. In this one, the reach of the grammer across the rhyme-word “august” is expressive, a kind of flourish or fanfare preparing the way for the curt “Now thou’rt dust.” Different published versions have the final word as “unfold” and “enfold”—an interesting small ambiguity in itself, the hair as keeping the history it represents either unfolded to us, or enfolded away from us."

The poem is only four lines, and honestly, not one I would probably read if I stumbled upon it, brief as it is. But hearing it read, it worked for me.

Borgia, thou once wert almost too august
And high for adoration; now thou’rt dust.
All that remains of thee these plaits unfold,
Calm hair, meandering with pellucid gold.

Such is the power of poetry read aloud.

For more poetry read aloud, check out these sites:

January 14, 2013

Prompt: Five

I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold
by Charles Demuth, 1928.
Image: metmuseum.org
Although I am going to write first here about five-line stanza forms, this prompt is really about the number five.

The cinquain (AKA quintain or quintet and pronounced sing-keyn) is both a poem or a stanza form that is composed of five lines. Cinq is French for five and examples of cinquain poems are found in many European languages, but the origin of the form is in medieval French poetry.

This form can be very formal or more loosely followed, and there are several variations that have developed over the centuries.

In very formal English poetry, cinquains follow a rhyme scheme of ababb, abaab or abccb.

Going back to the 16th and 17th century poets, such as Sir Philip Sidney, George Herbert, Edmund Waller, and John Donne, you find this form used.  Here is the first stanza of  "The World" by George Herbert:
Love built a stately house, where Fortune came,
And spinning fancies, she was heard to say
That her fine cobwebs did support the frame,
Whereas they were supported by the same;
But Wisdom quickly swept them all away.

An American example is "To Helen" by Edgar Allen Poe, whose first stanza is:
Helen, thy beauty is to me
Like those Nicean barks of yore,
That gently, o'er a perfumed sea,
The weary, way-worn wanderer bore
To his own native shore.

The Sicilian quintain rhyme scheme is used in "Home is so Sad” by Philip Larkin:
Home is so sad. It stays as it was left,
Shaped to the comfort of the last to go
As if to win them back. Instead, bereft
Of anyone to please, it withers so,
Having no heart to put aside the theft

When Poets Online looked at cinquains earlier, we used as our model Adelaide Crapsey. She was an early twentieth-century poet who used a cinquain form of 22 syllables distributed among the five lines in a 2, 4, 6, 8, and 2 pattern.

She was influenced by the Japanese tanka, another five-line form that we have tried on Poets Online. Her poems also focused on imagery and the natural world.

Adelaide Crapsey's poetry was published after her death in 1915 as Verseand the completed portion of her work on prosody is in (the very dry volume) A Study in English Metrics. What her form does that the Japanese form consciously avoids doing is to include the very Western closing, climax or message.

Here are two of her poems

I know
Not these my hands
And yet I think there was
A woman like me once had hands
Like these.

Seen on a Night in November

How frail
Above the bulk
Of crashing water hangs,
Autumnal, evanescent, wan,
The moon.

Not all of her poetry was in the cinquain form. Take a look at her "To The Dead in the Graveyard Underneath My Window", a poem written as her death from tuberculosis approached, and one she said was “Written in a Moment of Exasperation.”

Five, the number, appears in many forms. It is the third prime number. A Fermat prime. 5 sided polygons are pentagons. Pentagrams are 5-sided stars with many symbolic meanings. I like that it is the fifth Fibonacci number.

And five has many symbolic meanings in cultures from the Greeks through the Maya, Celtic and others, and allusions in the Bible and literature.

A quick search online turns up many poems using five, such as "To a Farmer Who Hung Five Hawks on His Barbed Wire" by David Wagoner, "It Was Going on Five in the Morning" by André Breton and "Five Easy Prayers for Pagans" by Philip Appleman.

Our new prompt has two parts (I guess it should have had 5 parts.) and an additional option.

1. Write a poem that uses some aspect of five as an element of its content and meaning.
2.  Use 5-line stanza(s). You can write a short single cinquain or you can write multiple stanzas (5X5?).
* Optional Challenge: Use one of the formal cinquain/quintain/quintet rhyme schemes as illustrated above by Crapsey and Larkin.

I chose as a model poem on the website this month a poem that uses the quintain and is well known to poetry fans: “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost. I could not find a poem that uses the five-line form and also has a theme of five. I'm sure one exists. If you find it, post a comment here.

Frost ends his poem with:
I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I
—I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

January 11, 2013

Richard Blanco Will Be Inaugural Poet

Patricia Smith, Maria Gillan and Richard Blanco at a reading December 2012
at The Poetry Center at PCCC in Paterson, NJ
Richard Blanco has been chosen by President Obama to be the inaugural poet on January 21st.

"It is an honor to have Richard Blanco in our second inauguration," Obama said in a statement. "His contributions to the fields of poetry and art have paved the way for future generations of writers. Richard's work is well-suited for an opening that will celebrate the strength and diversity of our great country."

Blanco will be the first Latino, first gay man, and youngest person to serve in this role.

In an interview with NPR, Blanco, who now lives in Maine said "Even though it's been a few weeks since I found out, just thinking about my parents and my grandparents and all the struggles they've been through, and how, you know, here I am, first-generation Cuban-American, and this great honor that has just come to me, and just feeling that sense of just incredible gratitude and love,."

Born on February 15, 1968 in Madrid, Spain, Richard Blanco grew up in Miami, where he received a Bachelor of Science in Civil Engineering. After receiving an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Florida International University, he embraced poetry. He has described himself as being "made in Cuba, assembled in Spain, and imported to the United States."

His books include City Of a Hundred Fires, Looking for The Gulf Motel and Directions to the Beach of the Dead.  His website is http://www.richard-blanco.com