December 31, 2014

Prompt: Terrance Hayes and the Golden Shovel

Terrance Hayes
Terrance Hayes invented a poetry form he calls the Golden Shovel. You take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire, and use each word in the line (or lines) as an end word in your poem while maintaining the order. So, if you choose a line with six words, your poem would be six lines long.

This borrowing method is not without precedent in poetry. One similar form is quite ancient: the cento, in which you make a poem entirely from other poets' lines. Another form makes a new poem by removing lines from an existing poem - that is known as an erasure.

For my own first Golden Shovel attempt, I wrote a poem for my daily writing practice last year. I chose a poem by Gary Snyder called "Changing Diapers" and used his line "you and me and Geronimo." I wrote it in the ronka form that all my daily poems for 2014 used.

Geronimo [after Gary Snyder]

After the reading, talking briefly to you
and recalling another time – when I, Steve and
you shared coffee conversation – you remembered me.
A wonderful lie. We are men, and
we jump like paratroopers and shout Geronimo.

My poem came out of a brief encounter with Snyder recently when he read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. It also recalls a longer conversation we had at another Dodge Festival more than 20 years ago.

In what I believe must be the first Golden Shovel poem, Terrance Hayes used a Gwendolyn Brooks poem. He started with Brooks' often-anthologized poem, "We Real Cool." His poem is called "The Golden Shovel.".

"The rules" for this new form are:

  • Take a line(s) from a favorite poem
  • Use each word in the line (or lines) as an end word in your poem and
  • Keep the end words in the order they appeared originally. That means that you could read the stanza at the right edge like an acrostic.
  • Give credit to the original poet (it can be in the title, an epigram or within the poem) and for our prompt also include a note a reference to the poem, though it doesn't have to be part of the poem itself. It would be great if you could include a link to the original poem online so that readers could see your inspiration.
  • The new poem does not have to be about the same subject as the original poem, but it can be related.

We know how poets love to play by the rules. Mr. Hayes pushes a bit on his own rules by using more than a line and and using every word from the Brooks poem. Twice. Setting the bar high. In his collection, Lighthead, he also has a poem using Elizabeth Alexander's poem, “Ladders” (for his "Last Train to Africa") and borrows lyrics from songs by Marvin Gaye and Louis Armstrong for others.


Terrance Hayes' poem “The Golden Shovel” is from Lighthead (2010, Penguin) which won the National Book Award.

Extra Credit: Think you know why Hayes called his poem and form "The Golden Shovel?"   Tell us your answer in a comment on this post.

November 23, 2014

The Poetry of Michelangelo

The Statue of David, completed by Michelangelo in 1504,
is one of the most renowned works of the Renaissance.

In writing a post about Michelangelo and his paintings for the Sistine Chapel for another blog, I came across a part of his life I had never known.Almost everyone knows his paintings on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and we know some of his sculpture, such as the David and Pietà.  I don't think many people know about his poetry.

I think that my first real encounter with the life of Michelangelo was watching the film The Agony and the Ecstasy back in the mid-1960s. (I didn't read the best-selling biographical novel by Irving Stone that it was based on.)  I was impressed by the story of those four years he spent completing the paintings that decorate the ceiling of the chapel.

I wrote a poem on my daily poem site this past week and realized later that I had used the same title and a very similar experience for an earlier poem this year. Later, I discovered an even earlier version of the idea in a notebook from 6 years ago. My aging memory and its lapses made me read more about the later years of Michelangelo's life and it was news to me that he turned to writing poetry.
His sexuality is somewhat in question but it is clearly a part of his poetry. He wrote over three hundred sonnets and madrigals.

The longest sequence were written to Tommaso dei Cavalieri. He met Tommasso when he was 57 and Tommasso was 23 years old. The Tommasso poems are the first large sequence of poems in any modern tongue addressed by one man to another. It's a bit surprising to me to realize that Shakespeare's sonnets to the "fair youth" were written only 50 years after Michelangelo's sonnets.

This led me to find a copy of The Complete Poems of Michelangelo at the library.

In a poem to Cavalieri, he writes:
Nay, things that suffer death, quench not the fire
Of deathless spirits; nor eternity
Serves sordid Time, that withers all things rare.
And Cavalieri replied in a letter: "I swear to return your love. Never have I loved a man more than I love you, never have I wished for a friendship more than I wish for yours."

The young nobleman was exceptionally handsome, and his appearance seems to have fit the artist's notions of ideal masculine beauty.  Michelangelo described him as "light of our century, paragon of all the world."

They remained lifelong friends, and Cavalieri was present at the artist's death. Scholars still dispute whether this was a homosexual or paternal relationship.
My lover stole my heart, just over there
– so gently! – and stole much more, my life as well.
And there, all promise, first his fine eyes fell
on me, and there his turnabout meant no.
He manacled me there; there let me go;
There I bemoaned my luck; with anguished eye
watched, from this very rock, his last goodbye
as he took myself from me, bound who knows where.

His homoerotic poetry was something that later generations were uncomfortable with and it never really came into popular books and films about his life. Michelangelo's grandnephew, Michelangelo the Younger, published the poems in 1623 with the gender of pronouns changed to be feminine. The gender was restored to male in John Addington Symonds' translation into English in 1893. in 1547.

    Why should I seek to ease intense desire
    With still more tears and windy words of grief?
    If only chains and bands can make me blest,
    No marvel if alone and naked I go
    An armed Cavaliere's captive and slave confessed.

"Cavaliere" or "cavalry man" is also a play on Cavalieri.

Michelangelo, Self-Portrait

Michelangelo never married and it is unclear whether he had any longterm physical relationship with anyone.  He did have a great love for the poet and noble widow Vittoria Colonna, whom he met in Rome in 1536 or 1538. She was in her late forties and he was in her early 60s at the time.

Colonna's poetry and her zealous religious beliefs greatly influenced Michelangelo and led to his devout interest in Church reform. Although Colonna was apparently physically unattractive, she was the subject of many of Michelangelo's love poems, and she appears to have been the only woman with whom the reclusive artist ever had a serious relationship. They wrote sonnets for each other and their friendship remained important to Michelangelo until her death. When Colonna died suddenly in 1547 at the age of fifty-seven, Michelangelo was heartbroken, and her death ended the period of his greatest love poetry.


Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Like a frail bark reached that wide port where all
Are bidden, ere the final reckoning fall
Of good and evil for eternity.
Now know I well how that fond phantasy
Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall
Of earthly art, is vain; how criminal
Is that which all men seek unwillingly.
Those amorous thoughts which were so lightly dressed,
What are they when the double death is nigh?
The one I know for sure, the other dread.
Painting nor sculpture now can lull to rest
My soul that turns to His great love on high,
Whose arms to clasp us on the cross were spread.

Following a brief illness, Michelangelo died on February 18, 1564—just weeks before his 89th birthday—at his home in Rome. A nephew bore his body back to Florence, where he was revered by the public as the "father and master of all the arts," and was laid to rest at the Basilica di Santa Croce—his chosen place of burial.

November 19, 2014

On Writing and On Being A Poet

"To write well is to think clearly. That's why it's so hard." - David McCullough

"Write first and always. Painting, music, friends, cinema, all these come afterwards."- Henry Miller on writing.

"It will come if it is there, and if you will let it come.” - Gertrude Stein

"If I had to give a young writer some advice I would say to write about something that has happened to him; it’s always easy to tell whether a writer is writing about something that has happened to him or something he has read or been told. It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination."  -  Gabriel García Márquez

"Ars Poetica" is Archibald MacLeish's 1926 poem that references Horace's treatise by that name (translated as "Art of Poetry"), which was written in the first century A.D. Horace's intent was to write a how-to on writing poetry. MacLeish's poem begins:

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.

November 12, 2014

Taylor Swift Or T. S. Eliot?

Let us go then, you and I / knew you were trouble when you walked in.

A friend sent me a link to one of those online quizzes. "It's about poetry," she said, "I figured you'd like it."

It is called "Who Said It: Taylor Swift Or T. S. Eliot?"

Yes, it gives you a line and you have to identify the author - T.S. or the other T.S.

Pretty easy, right?   I mean T.S. Eliot is a really famous and serious dead male poet. And Taylor Swift is a really famous living female singer/songwriter. (She does have an an author page on Amazon too. In fact, she has things in almost every department. She is an industry. No sign of any T.S. Eliot pens or t-shirts.)

You'd be surprised how tricky the quiz can be.

The first three lines in the quiz are:

"I am glad you have a cat."

"Hold tight, hold tight."

"You are the music, while the music lasts."

We know Eliot had his cat poems.  The second line could be anyone.  The third... is that music word in there to make us think of Taylor?

Do you dare to try?

Go to

November 1, 2014

Prompt: Totally like whatever, you know?

I like this typographic video that I discovered on Taylor Mali's website that visualizes a reading of one of his poems.

Taylor Mali's poem, "Totally like whatever, you know?," from What Learning Leaves is funny and it's true and it works.

The poem begins:

In case you hadn’t noticed,
it has somehow become uncool
to sound like you know what you’re talking about?
Or believe strongly in what you’re saying?
Invisible question marks and parenthetical (you know?)’s
have been attaching themselves to the ends of our sentences?
Even when those sentences aren’t, like, questions? You know?

It's about language. It is a poem about slang. It's about lazy language.

For this month's prompt, select a word or phrase that would be considered slang as your title and starting place. Your poem can be about the slang itself, but it could be about language or go off some other direction.

Need some inspiration? Try the

Submission deadline: November 30, 2014

September 30, 2014

Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway

22nd Annual Winter Poetry & Prose Getaway
Supportive. Energizing. Inspiring.
January 16-19, 2015
Atlantic City, NJ area
16 challenging and supportive writing workshops
Special Guests: Stephen Dunn and Kim Addonizio

Advance your craft and energize your writing at the 22nd Annual Winter Getaway. Enjoy challenging and supportive workshops, insightful feedback and an encouraging community. Choose from fiction, nonfiction, memoir, screenwriting and poetry. Early registration discounts and scholarships available.

Learn more:

September 22, 2014

Celebrating Autumn with Keats

A few days before the autumnal equinox 195 years ago, 24-year-old poet named John Keats wrote "To Autumn."

You can find this ode in many anthologies and even if you have little interest in poetry, you may recognize a line that was dropped into your memory in a classroom.

Keats wasn't having a great poetic year. In November, he would tell his brother in a letter, "Nothing could have in all its circumstances fallen out worse for me than the last year has done, or could be more damping to my poetical talent." But he wrote in another letter about this ode: "Somehow a stubble plain looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm — this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it."

Ironically, Keats scholars have since decided that 1819 was his best year as a poet because he wrote almost all his great poems that year. The poems included a group of odes - "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode to a Grecian Urn," "Ode to Psyche" and "To Autumn" was the last of them.

Poets often see autumn as a good symbol of aging. A preparation for winter. Young Mr. Keats took another view of the season, but he would die from tuberculosis in less than two years after writing the poem. He was 25.

To Autumn

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reap’d furrow sound asleep,
Drowsed with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
Steady thy laden head across a brook;
Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
Thou watchest the last oozings, hours by hours.

Where are the songs of Spring? Ay, where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,--
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
Among the river sallows, borne aloft
Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
The redbreast whistles from a garden-croft,
And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

September 19, 2014

I Sext the Body Electric

Did you catch a poem published last year in The Awl by Patricia Lockwood titled “Rape Joke" which went viral?

Facebook and Twitter shares made Lockwood Internet-famous. She is not a poet laureate. She is not a professor (never finished college) and lives far from the hip places for poets in Lawrence, Kansas.

Her latest book of poems, Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals, has a number of "sexts" which are her short poems that are erotic and simultaneously ridiculous. Lockwood got attention for her tweets that were inspired by the Anthony Weiner scandal, which imagines surreal sex acts.

Here are two examples:

Sext: I am a water glass at the Inquisition. You are a dry pope mouth. You pucker; I wet you

Sext: I am a living male turtleneck. You are an art teacher in winter. You put your whole head through me

"Rape Joke” changed things. People have said it is funny, harrowing, important and not worth considering. That kind of response gets my attention.

Lockwood is not an unknown. Her last collection, Balloon Pop Outlaw Black, made the New Yorker’s Best Books list for 2012.

Looking through the new collection you can find poems about sexed-up forest creatures that never appear in Disney films, the Loch Ness Monster, and Whitman and Dickinson appearing as ghosts. The poems swerve between hilarious and creepy, profane and profound.

Patricia Lockwood via Twitter
In a radio interview on Studio 260, she said “My baseline voice as a poet tends to be very serious, very grave. But in my life, I tend to be a funny person. It was a challenge that I set myself to try to integrate those two voices.”

Twitter posts ("tweets") are limited to 140 characters. Not a lot of space to compose.

Then again, Ezra Pound's famous little poem, "In a Station of the Metro," fits nicely, title and all with characters to spare.
The apparition of these faces in the crowd;  
Petals on a wet, black bough.

One hundred and forty characters (including spaces and punctuation) makes for a long line of poetry.
The previous sentence is only 100 characters.

Robert Frost would have gone over by only 3 characters if he had tweeted:
Whose woods these are I think I know. His house is in the village though; He will not see me stopping here to watch his woods fill up with snow

In this shortened month, our new prompt asks you for poems composed of tweets. By this, we mean "stanzas" of 140 characters that can stand alone. You can thematically thread together as many as you wish though, so your poem can be as short as 140 characters and as long as 140 X ?  Line lengths are your choice, but stanza length is 140 characters. (If you use Twitter, you might want to compose there as it counts your characters automatically.)

To make things more interesting for readers, we are asking you to make the topic of your poem sex. Of course, that means that the serious and the not-so-serious side of the topic is fair game.

Submissions due October 4, 2015

September 3, 2014

Did I Miss Anything?

For the past few years, I have used Tom Wayman's poem “Did I Miss Anything?” with students as part of my start to a new semester. It doesn't matter what grade level you teach, the question from the student who missed your class - "Did I miss anything?" -is a painful one. It is not the same as asking "What did I miss?"  It suggests that there is a good possibility that you missed nothing at all.

Tom's poem offers 6 responses.

Did I Miss Anything?

Nothing. When we realized you weren’t here
we sat with our hands folded on our desks
in silence, for the full two hours

Everything. I gave an exam worth
40 per­cent of the grade for this term
and assigned some reading due today
on which I’m about to hand out a quiz
worth 50 percent

Nothing. None of the content of this course
has value or meaning
Take as many days off as you like:
any activities we undertake as a class
I assure you will not matter either to you or me
and are without purpose

Everything. A few minutes after we began last time
a shaft of light suddenly descended and an angel
or other heavenly being appeared
and revealed to us what each woman or man must do
to attain divine wisdom in this life and
the hereafter
This is the last time the class will meet
before we disperse to bring the good news to all people
on earth.

Nothing. When you are not present
how could something significant occur?

Everything. Contained in this classroom
is a microcosm of human experience
assembled for you to query and examine and ponder
This is not the only place such an opportunity has been

but it was one place

And you weren’t here

The poem is from his Did I Miss Anything?: Selected Poems 1973-1993 (1993, Harbour Publishing)

The poem is also part of Billy Collins' Poetry 180 project with the Library of Congress. A 180-degree turn implies a turning back—in this case, to poetry. For many American teachers, 180 also suggests the 180 day school year and the poem Collins selected for the site and two anthologies are excellent poems to use in the classroom.


August 30, 2014

Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water

I was reading a a biography of John Keats and looking at some of his letters this past month and learned of a summer hike that Keats made. 

In the summer of 1818,  Keats went on a six-week walking tour through northern England, Scotland, and Ireland. Keats and his friend Charles Brown set off in June and walked 600 miles before sailing back to London.
Keats was not an outdoorsman and had spent most of his life in London never having been out of southern England. He was 22 and had never seen a mountain.
They set off with very little in their knapsack – shirt, stockings, nightcap, towels, a brush and comb, snuff, and one book: a translation of Dante.
They started from Lancaster and headed for the Lake District. Keats’ brother George and his wife Georgina accompanied them as far as Lancaster and then continued to Liverpool, there to emigrate to America.
This was not a poetry tour but John and Charles stopped at William Wordsworth’s home. Wordsworth was not at  home.
Keats did not write his first poem until age 18. He was encouraged by a literary circle of friends in London, though he worked at a hospital to make his living. Keats’ first book, Poems, appeared in 1817 and after that, he devoted himself entirely to poetry.
Keats wrote that as the walk continued he found himself more moved by the people they met than by the landscape. He thought much of the mountains and moors seemed bleak.
He recorded that on June 29, they set off at 4 a.m. up the mountain Skiddaw. It offered a  to the Irish Sea and Scotland.
In the town of Ireby, that watched a performance of traditional dancing and Keats wrote: “I never felt so near the glory of patriotism, the glory of making, by any means, a country happier. This is what I like better than scenery.”
Keats was not pleased with the food on the trip either. In a letter, he writes: “We dined yesterday on dirty bacon dirtier eggs and dirtiest Potatoes with a slice of Salmon.” In Scotland, they seem to have survived on oatcakes and whiskey. He hated the oatcakes but enjoyed the whiskey.
Another poetry stop was to Alloway, the birthplace of the Robert Burns in Scotland. He was happier with this area. He said that the River Doon was “the sweetest river I ever saw” and he enjoyed a large pinch of snuff while standing on the Brig o’ Doon, a bridge Burns wrote about in his poems.
Keats and Brown continued through Scotland and made a short trip into Northern Ireland averaging 10-20 miles a day. By August 2, they had made it to the top of Ben Nevis, the tallest peak in the British Isles.
Keats’s health had actually not been very good before the trip, but developed a bad cold at this point and was advised by a doctor to quit the walking tour. He headed back to London, but Brown continued and walked another 1,200 miles.
1818 was not a good year for John and his family. He had financial difficulties. His brother Tom was battling tuberculosis. George and his wife made a poor investment in America and was left penniless in Kentucky.
The one happy thing in his life was his fiancée, Fanny Brawne.
1819 was a very productive year. By September, he had written a book’s worth of poems including “Ode on a Grecian Urn,” “Ode to a Nightingale,” “Hyperion,” “The Eve of St. Agnes,” “To Autumn,” and “La Belle Dame Sans Merci.”
John Keats Tombstone in Rome 01.jpg
“John Keats Tombstone in Rome” by Piero Montesacro – Wikimedia Commons
John developed tuberculosis (for which there would be no cure until the next century),  possibly from caring for his brother. Early in 1820, the disease worsened and he was advised to move to a warmer climate.
In September 1820, Keats left for Rome knowing he would probably never see Brawne again. After leaving he felt unable to write to her or read her letters.
Keats wrote his last letter to his walking partner Charles Brown on November 30, 1820: “Tis the most difficult thing in the world to me to write a letter. My stomach continues so bad, that I feel it worse on opening any book – yet I am much better than I was in Quarantine. Then I am afraid to encounter the proing and conning of any thing interesting to me in England. I have an habitual feeling of my real life having past, and that I am leading a posthumous existence”.
He died in Rome on February 23, 1821 and is buried there. He was only 25 years old.
He wanted a tombstone without name or date, only the words, “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” Charles Brown and another friend had the stone place but added a lyre with broken strings and this epitaph which lies some blame on critics who were harsh with Keats’ poetry.
“This Grave / contains all that was Mortal / of a / Young English Poet / Who / on his Death Bed, in the Bitterness of his Heart / at the Malicious Power of his Enemies / Desired / these Words to be / engraven on his Tomb Stone: / Here lies One / Whose Name was writ in Water. 24 February 1821″

August 6, 2014

Carl Sandburg: I Wish I Never

Having read poems by Carl Sandburg in my elementary school English classes, I was not a fan. "Fog" was a cute little thing. I still recall a teacher using it to teach us personification.

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

His poem "Chicago" was in at least two anthologies in school and we read that too.
It begins:

Hog Butcher for the World,
Tool maker, Stacker of Wheat,
Player with Railroads and the Nation’s Freight Handler;
Stormy, husky, brawling,
City of the Big Shoulders:
They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I have seen your
painted women under the gas lamps luring the farm boys...

Other than those painted women, it didn't interest me very much.

Then, in high school, I read "Mag" without knowing it was by Sandburg. It was bitter. It kind of shocked me. No curse words, but so cutting.


I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
I wish you never quit your job and came along with me.
I wish we never bought a license and a white dress
For you to get married in the day we ran off to a minister
And told him we would love each other and take care of each other
Always and always long as the sun and the rain lasts anywhere.
Yes, I'm wishing now you lived somewhere away from here
And I was a bum on the bumpers a thousand miles away dead broke.
     I wish the kids had never come
     And rent and coal and clothes to pay for
     And a grocery man calling for cash,
     Every day cash for beans and prunes.
     I wish to God I never saw you, Mag.
     I wish to God the kids had never come.

It was first published in his collection Chicago Poems (1916). This volume, along with Cornhuskers (1918) and Smoke and Steel (1920), established Sandburg's reputation as a talented free verse poet, known for portraying industrial America.

I suppose the obvious prompt from the poem is about marriage. Too obvious.

What struck me about the poem initially is the negative wishing. I was more used to reading poems where the wishes were for things in the future. Good things. Better things. But Sandburg is wishing to change the past. To undo what was done.

Your task this month is to write a poem about a negative wish (or wishes) - a wish to undo, wishes that change the past. Those are the wishes that pull you right back to the present and have you thinking about the future.

Submission Deadline: August 31, 2014

July 23, 2014

Lunch Poems

Burt Kimmelman
Catherine "Cat" Doty

I attended some Lunchtime Poems in Military Park (Newark, NJ) last week sponsored by the Dodge Poetry Festival. The weekly events are a preview for some of the 70 poets who will read at the Dodge Poetry Festival in October. Last week two friends were reading, Catherine "Cat" Doty and Burt Kimmelman.

People in the park on a beautiful summer day brought their lunch or drinks and took in some poems. I saw listeners making notes. People passing would slow down, stop for a few minutes and take in a few lines or a poem or two.

For those of you not near northern New Jersey, check out what is coming October 23-26 at the Festival.

But, if a trip to NJ is just not possible, you might consider Frank O’Hara’s Lunch Poems, a collection that is now 50 years old. They were first published in 1964 as number 19 in City Lights’ Pocket Poets Series.

In an essay by Callie Siskel, "It's Cooking,"she says:

O’Hara’s poems are often compared to Abstract Expressionist paintings, but their composition is also akin to jazz. He grew up playing music. In “On Rachmaninoff’s Birthday,” the speaker says he was “miserable, a grope pizzicato,” but O’Hara himself was a classically trained pianist. He studied at the New England Conservatory and entered Harvard as a music major before switching to English. He called writing “playing the typewriter,” but such a phrase downplays the extent to which his poems feel as measured as music. The syncopation that permeates Lunch Poems occurs when the time he marks at a regular rate is juxtaposed with the erratic cadences of his voice.

The collection's title refers to O’Hara’s habit of writing in Times Square during his lunch hour, and probably suggests that a reader could take the pocket-sized volume along and read it during his own lunch hour. They are often about museums, movies, and people and places of 1960s New York.

Lunch Poems includes some of the verses that made him cultishly popular - "The Day Lady Died,"  "Poem [Lana Turner has collapsed!]”(which we used for our gossip writing prompt) and "Ave Maria,"which begins this way:

get them out of the house so they won’t know what you’re up to
it’s true that fresh air is good for the body
                                                              but what about the soul
that grows in darkness, embossed by silvery images 
and when you grow old as grow old you must
                                                                  they won’t hate you
they won’t criticize you they won’t know
                                                           they’ll be in some glamorous country
they first saw on a Saturday afternoon or playing hookey

they may even be grateful to you
                                                  for their first sexual experience
which only cost you a quarter
                                            and didn’t upset the peaceful home

July 18, 2014

Writing the Days, One Ronka at a Time

I wrote a guest post for Adele Kenny's poetry blog, The Music In It, about my daily writing practice this year and the ronka poems I have been writing and posting online.

It is a good exercise to get "meta" about your writing once in awhile and think about what you write and why. Treat yourself as an assignment from that poetry class and look at the themes that run through your poems, the language etc. (I didn't realize how many birds were flying into my daily poems.)

Here is what I wrote for Adele.

This year I wanted to take on a daily writing practice with my poetry.  It's not an original New Year's resolution. William Stafford is the poet who inspired me the most. he wrote every day of his life from 1950 to 1993. Not everything he wrote was a poem. His 20,000 pages of daily writings include early morning meditations, poems, dream records, aphorisms, and other “visits to the unconscious.”

I do write every day, but not always poetry, so the resolution was to do a daily poem. Stafford did go through a period when that was also his goal. When he was asked how he was able to produce a poem every morning, he replied, “I lower my standards.” I like that answer, but, while the phrase has a negative connotation, Stafford meant that he allowed himself some bad poems knowing that with daily writing there will be eventually be some good work.

I wanted to impose some form on myself each day and I thought using a short form might make the project more likely to succeed. I love haiku, tanka and other short forms, but I ended up creating my own form for this project.
Finding a photo of her

from that summer when we were fifteen
that hot day behind the beach house
her bare shoulders, back, arms and legs -
when I suddenly realized she’s a woman
and it startled me.  It startled me.

I call my form the ronka – obviously a somewhat egotistical play on the tanka form.

The term waka originally encompassed a number of differing forms including the tanka (“short poem”) and chōka (“long poem”), sedōka (“memorized poem”?) and katauta (“poem fragment”). Of those, only the tanka has really survived.

If you look at those forms, you notice that the numbers 5 and 7 are the heart of all of them.  The katauta is  5-7-7  and the chōka counts out  at 5-7-5-7-5-7…5-7-7 and the sedōka at 5-7-7-5-7-7 is composed of two sets of 5-7-7.

The tanka form consists of five units (often treated as separate lines when romanized or translated) usually with the following pattern of 5-7-5-7-7. Even in that short form, the tanka has two parts. The 5-7-5 is called the kami-no-ku (“upper phrase”) and the 7-7 is called the shimo-no-ku (“lower phrase”).

For my invented form, a ronka contains 5 lines, each having 7 words without concern for syllables. Westerners consider haiku to be 5, 7, and 5 lines counted by syallables, but, since Chinese and Japanese have no syllables, that has always been a Western convention.
Letters Loved

Old letters from lovers, not love letters,
but timelines of relationships like plot diagrams -
conflicts, turning points, resolutions, conclusions, mostly tragedies.
Why do I save them? No sequels.
Dangerous tinder to have around. Best burned.
As with traditional tanka, I decided to have no rhyme. (Even accidental rhymes were considered faults in a tanka.). I also decided to use the haiku principle of show rather than tell. For example, to indicate spring by mentioning cherry blossoms rather than stating the season. I started the year trying not to include myself or people as frequently as we do in Western poetry, those have crept into the poems.

I have even added a few footnotes and links to poems.
Fathers and Sons

Sons grow up and leave their fathers
to become fathers and perhaps have sons.
Child is the father of the man,
said another poet, his heart leaping up.
Five days of rain, then, a rainbow.
We are just past mid-year and I have maintained by daily poem practice without great difficulty. I post them online at Writing the Day and each observation of the day is categorized as being from the outside world or inside the world of dwellings or the mind.

I write at all times of the day, but most poems seem to come at the end of the day. (I also set a daily 10 pm reminder on my phone about posting a poem.)

A non-poet might think that writing 35 words a day is not much of a challenge, but poets will understand that I frequently don't write much faster than a word-per-minute. I also post an image (my own or borrowed) with each poem.

Some poems are ars poetica or poems about poetry or writing.

Firefly Revision

Basho considered a Kikaku haiku as cruel:
A red firefly / tear off its wings -
a pepper.  A pepper / give it wings –
a red firefly
, was Basho’s simple change.
Revision as a Buddhist act of kindness.


No, writing poetry is more like carving
wood and taking away, finding the heart
hidden inside, paring, using point and blade.
The danger comes from the dull knife.
The soft inside will be thrown away.

Some are observations on a particular day, such as this one from the Friday the 13th in June:

A thirteenth day that is a Friday.
A Full Moon to complete a triad
of  strange correlation without any real causation.
We look carefully for signs and connections -
find clockwork regularity; serendipity in the moments.

The blog I post to has a "tag cloud" feature and I tag each ronka with a few keywords that describe the poem. It is interesting to me to see what words occur most frequently: birds, time, the Moon and tea have all been things that I seem to return to this year.

Titles have become another way of adding a line to the poem, though I still limit myself to seven words there too.


I’m Not An Actor in Hollywood But

I want a body and stunt double.
I want better lighting. No high definition.
More scenes and lines, 20 against 20,
gross points on profits, hand and footprints,
a star on the Walk of Fame.

There are lots of books and websites to find poetic inspiration through writing prompts. I have been doing a monthly one at Poets Online since 1998.  Adele has provided almost 200 well-defined prompts here already. My fellow New Jersey poets, Maria Mazziotti Gillan and Diane Lockward have excellent craft books with prompts - Writing Poetry To Save Your Life and The Crafty Poet, respectively. William Stafford and Stephen Dunning's Getting the Knack is a book I bought when I started teaching and I still dip into for inspiration.

Daily practices have a long history as paths of transformation spiritually, physically and for learning a craft. Perhaps, meditation and prayer will be your spiritual practice. Perhaps, yoga, tai chi or running is your physical practice. You might even combine them - kinhin is walking meditation. Consider a daily writing practice, whether it be poetry, a field guide from nature, a garden journal, one page of that long-intended novel. Disciplines of the mind are a good way to a healthy brain!

book infoAdele is a poet and offers regular writing prompts online that are very well explained and illustrated. She is a fine poet herself - check out her collection What Matters - and she has written many books on a variety of topics.

A former professor of creative writing in the College of New Rochelle's Graduate School, Adele Kenny is founding director of the Carriage House Poetry Series (NJ), which is where I first met her. She is one of those many people across the country whose local efforts keep poetry alive. The readings have featured New Jersey poets and nationally-known poets, including Mark Doty, Jim Haba, Stephen Dunn, BJ Ward, Renee Ashley, Maria Mazziotti Gillan, Laura Boss, Marie-Elizabeth Mali, Diane Lockward, Alicia Ostriker and Patricia Smith.

Adele is also the poetry editor of Tiferet Journal. She has read in the US, England, Ireland, and France, and has been a featured reader at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival.