More end-of-year best book lists are being announced. There are the known and "official" best of lists, like the National Book Awards and there are plenty of lesser known ones.
Still time to grab an end-of-year poetry gift for a friend or for yourself.
The GoodReads website has its list of readers' choice book awards, including 20 books of poetry. There are a few titles or poets that I know, but the majority are ones I don't know. There is Felicity by Mary Oliver, but also the winning title, The Dogs I Have Kissed, by Trista Mateer who is "Known for her eponymous blog and her confessional style of writing, this is Trista Mateer's second collection of poetry."
Assuming that the list is simply based on votes by readers of the site, you can either see it as a real list of books readers enjoyed or a chance for lesser-known poets to have their friends vote them up. I'd like to believe it is the former, a kind of crowdsourced what-I-read-and-liked list. Either way, it brought to my attention some books I would not have seen otherwise.
I occasionally look at Amazon's list of best-selling poetry books because it does mean something to know what people are buying. That list always has titles that seem like they were purchased by students for a class (lots of anthologies) and also a bunch of current titles. I'm not a big buyer of anthologies, but I can see someone buying 100 Best-Loved Poems in the way that I once bought the Miles Davis "Greatest Hits" album (knowing he never had any "hits") in the hope of getting the best in one place.
James Wright and Robert Bly began a friendship through letters. Eventually, Wright would visit Bly's farm in western Minnesota and fall in love with it. “I think your farm is the first such place I have ever really liked — it is beautifully mysterious and very much its own secret place.”
He began taking the train out there every Friday after classes, and staying for the weekend, sleeping in an old converted chicken coop, which was heated by an oil stove.
On Saturday mornings, he would come into the farmhouse for breakfast, go back out, and return at lunch with a poem. He said of the Blys: “They loved me and they saved my life. I don’t mean the life of my poetry, either.”
One day Bly and Wright were driving home from another friend’s farm when they passed two horses in a pasture. They stopped and got out to see the horses, and in the car Wright began writing a poem in a spiral notebook. That became one of his most beloved poems, “A Blessing.”
by James Wright
Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more,
They begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
I read an article about how the Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust works with a poet who is appearing at Cúirt International Festival of Literature to select poetry suitable for display in waiting areas of their hospitals. These "Poems for Patience" is a collection that hopefully will give people pause for reflection and space for hope in both those joyful celebratory moments as well as the all too often times of pain or worry. This year the poems were selected and introduced by Naomi Shihab Nye.
On Poetry Day (7 May) a Menu of Poems called ‘Flow’ was distributed throughout Irish hospital wards, waiting rooms and other healthcare settings for patients, visitors and staff to enjoy. You can see the menu at www.poetryireland.ie
This got me thinking about serving poetry as food. Poetry as something you take in on a daily basis and that sustains you. Some of it good and solid and healthy, and sometimes some that is light and sweet, or heavy and probably not the best thing to have at that time.
There are a good number of poems about food, but that is not what we are dealing with in this prompt. There are also some well known poems about eating poetry.
One that is often anthologized and used in schools is "How To Eat a Poem" by Eve Merriam.
Don't be polite.
Pick it up with your fingers and lick the juice that
may run down your chin.
It is ready and ripe now, whenever you are.
You do not need a knife or fork or spoon
or plate or napkin or tablecloth.
For there is no core
to throw away.
Also well known is "Eating Poetry" by Mark Strand, which appeared on this year's National Poetry Month poster and begins:
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry...
But what I am more interested in for this month's prompt is what Galway Kinnell does in his poem "Blackberry Eating."
Maybe the Galway Hospital triggered the Kinnell connection, but in his poem we have him first being quite literal in his eating -
I love to go out in late September
among the fat, overripe, icy, black blackberries
to eat blackberries for breakfast,
the stalks very prickly, a penalty
they earn for knowing the black art
- and then something else happens. The blackberries, with their "black art" become words, if not poems.
and as I stand among them
lifting the stalks to my mouth, the ripest berries
fall almost unbidden to my tongue,
as words sometimes do, certain peculiar words
like strengths or squinched,
many-lettered, one-syllabled lumps,
which I squeeze, squinch open, and splurge well
in the silent, startled, icy, black language
of blackberry-eating in late September.
The prompt this month is poetry as food - poems that explore how we consume poetry, what it gives us, and may or may not contain references to actual foods.
With holidays and such at year's end, I'm sure you will have more than enough foods prompting you.
The submission deadline for this prompt is January 10, 2016.
As the year ends, many list are published of "the best" books in all categories. Though no list is definitive or fits all tastes, one list to look at for good titles published during the year is the National Book Awards.
"Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” (1915) is a lofty poetic meditation—almost a philosophical discourse—rooted in a few basic questions: what happens to us when we die? Can we believe seriously in an afterlife? If we can’t, what comfort can we take in the only life we get? As World War I intensified and Stevens neared middle age, he broached these subjects with quiet urgency in a poem as beautiful as it is difficult.
Although “Sunday Morning” is considered Stevens’s breakthrough poem, it wasn’t published until he was 36. It debuted in Poetry magazine during a year that brought several other Modernist milestones, including T.S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” Marianne Moore’s first professionally published poems, and a major Imagist anthology coedited by the poets Richard Aldington and H.D. Compared with these experiments by younger writers—and with many of the poems later collected in Stevens’s first book, Harmonium (1923)—“Sunday Morning” innovates in a mellower and statelier mode. "
It may not be happening in your hometown, but poetry stores are appearing in some U.S. cities that have active literary communities.
In Boulder, Cambridge, Milwaukee and Seattle these stores are considered "niche retail." While brick and mortar bookstores have been hit hard by online sellers like Amazon, these shops supply a definite niche in poetry.
An article in The New Yorker describes what it calls The Curious Persistence of Poetry Shops, they say that "The countercultural appeal of poetry, like that of art, makes it a
relatively easy sell to a population willing to shop for things that
they don’t necessarily need but might covet as a form of
self-expression. That niche is centuries old, and enduring."
One shop featured is Berl’s Brooklyn Poetry Shop which is New York's only all poetry bookstore. The shop describes itself as "a bookstore that sells poetry books and chapbooks; A space that celebrates art, creativity, performance, and the handmade, and a partner to many small presses local to Brooklyn, around the country, and worldwide.
For National Poetry Month last year, poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors participated in Poet-to-Poet, a multimedia educational project. Through videos, they invited young people in grades three to twelve to write poems in response to those shared by the poets. Here is one of those poems.
After reading the poem, Jane talks in the video about the poem and tells us it is an ode. “Ode” is from the Greek aeidein, meaning to sing or chant. It is an old form of lyric poetry which would have originally been accompanied by music and dance.
The Romantic poets used it as a way to formally address an event, a person, or a thing not present.
There are three typical types of odes: the Pindaric, Horatian, and Irregular. You can check into the more formal aspects of each, but we're being more general in our approach this month.
For this month, we ask you to write an ode that focuses on the body. Jane Hirshfield's poem opens with her direct address to the skeleton.
you who once ached
with your own growing larger
She follows chronologically, following the skeleton as it ages.
absorbed by your own
Generally, the aging of the body is not a kind thing.
Angular wristbone's arthritis,
cracked harp of ribcage
And finally, she concludes with this beautiful image of its life work.
You who held me all my life
inside your hands
as a new mother holds
her own unblanketed child,
not thinking at all.
Our November prompt is an ode about a part of the body. I suppose the skeleton is a part of the body, although it is made up of many smaller parts. That is true of the ear, the hand and the brain, so you might want to choose a specific part. You might choose the nose, a breast, the mouth, lips, tongue or a thumb. So many options. You don't need to get down to an anatomical level (although that might be interesting) and you could easily be like those Romantic poets in your approach.
One ode I heard read aloud by the poet several times is "Homage to My Hips" by Lucille Clifton. It is a short poem that probably would not count as an ode by Horatio's standards, but I'm fine with it as an ode.
these hips are big hips.
they need space to
move around in.
they don't fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don't like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top
There are lots of online and print rhyming dictionaries available. A while back, Janis, who runs a site with a rhyming dictionary and other creative writing tools for poets called rhymedesk.com, offered me the code for a widget to add a rhyming dictionary to my website.
The title says it pretty succinctly. Some light verse is lyrical, some vulgar, some pathetic.
Keillor says that when he was in high school an English teacher tried to interest him in "Mr. Frost's guy who stopped in the woods to see snow fall and Mr. Eliot's guy who was not sure whether he should eat a peach" but that didn't work. It was "like serving bran flakes to someone who'd eaten buttermilk pancakes slathered with maple syrup."
Maybe you have read Lewis Carroll, Edward Lear or Ogden Nash or even W.S. Gilbert or, as Keillor has it "the great Anon." Light verse may be an acquired taste, but no one seems to consider it gourmet dining. It's more like acquiring a taste for cotton candy.
There are many notable poets in this genre and many "regular" poets who dabbled in light verse. Even serious Mr. Eliot wrote that book of cat poems that went on to be a long-running Broadway play.
Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats ("Old Possum" was Ezra Pound's nickname for him) was Tom's shot at light verse. After Eliot's death, the book was adapted as the basis of the musical Cats by Andrew Lloyd Webber.
Here is one of Garrison Keillor's poems that I like in this genre:
Cicadas The seventeen-year cicada crawls out of the ground And looks around from a wall or a low-hanging limb— He looks for her and she discovers him. Courtship does not extend for months. Their only job is to have sex once. No long interlude of pleasant reminiscing about days gone by. Just buzz and whir and thank you sir and then you die. Cicada love does not involve poetry or song. Was it good for you? Thanks. So long.
What is this light poetry, or light verse? I would say that it attempts to be humorous (not the same thing as "funny" as anyone who has ever read an anthology of humor). They are usually brief. They can be on a frivolous or serious subject. You'll want to feature some word play, including puns, adventurous rhyme and alliteration.
There are plenty of anthologies of light verse and the journal Lightis a source of new poems. I was delighted to see that one of my online friends, Toby Speed, has the "Poem of the Week" on their site. Hers is a good, terse example of all the "rules" I listed above. Of course, poets of light verse laugh and make puns from rules.
How to Use a Lemon
Squeeze some into tea.
Frizzle off the zest.
Add it to piccata
and pith away the rest.
~ Toby Speed
This prompt is open to submissions until the deadline: October 18, 2015
You may know the acclaimed poet Elizabeth Alexander from her reading at President Obama's 2009 swearing-in ceremony.
Alexander, who teaches at Yale, published a new book earlier this year — but it's not poetry. The Light of the World is a memoir of the 16 years she shared with her husband Ficre, until his sudden death a few years ago.
He died of cardiac arrest while running on a treadmill at home, just before his 50th birthday, leaving behind Alexander and their two sons. Since the book came out, Alexander says, she finds herself in the role of collector; people present her with objects as a way of responding to her loss — pictures, letters, stories and more.
She tells NPR's Michele Norris that nothing had prepared her for this. "I never imagined — in fact, I was quite certain I would never write a memoir. My own sense of privacy was too powerful," she says. "When I sat down to write, I didn't sit down to write this. I simply wrote as an extension of my hand, as an extension of my body, trying to stay absolutely grounded with my hand on a table, with my feet on the ground, planted on an Earth that had so suddenly seemed unstable."
Years ago, I was interested to see a feature in The Saturday Review each issue that was called "Writer's Desk." The idea was simple. It showed a writer's actual desk and explained a bit about how they worked there. I always thought that I might gain some insight into writing or writers by knowing about the how and where of their writing. It is a questionable theory, but when I visit a writer's home I am still interested in seeing their writing space.
I was interested to see that a poem by Juan Felipe Herrera, who was recently named Poet Laureate of the United States, was used during National Poetry Month as a writing prompt about home.
Juan Felipe Herrera reads “Five Directions to My House” as part of National Poetry Month 2014.
Five Directions to My House 1. Go back to the grain yellow hills where the broken speak of elegance 2. Walk up to the canvas door, the short bed stretched against the clouds 3. Beneath the earth, an ant writes with the grace of a governor 4. Blow, blow Red Tail Hawk, your hidden sleeve—your desert secrets 5. You are there, almost, without a name, without a body, go now 6. I said five, said five like a guitar says six.
Turn around go to the end of the long bridge
Into the wave of clouds under the colorless arch
Under the heat of the center core.
Over the peregrine falcon flying fast as the race car
Out of the endless underwater cave
Around the wheel of fortune, around, around, around the wheel.
I said six, said six like a rainbow says seven.
Does Robert Frost's Franconia, NH home fit his poetry?
The Saturday Review used to include a Writer's Desk page with a photo and brief piece about where a writer did their writing. Those writers included Charles Bukowski and Raymond Carver. That led me to explore both in person and online the homes of other writers. Perhaps, looking at a writer's writing space gives some clues to what they wrote or how they wrote. Perhaps.
I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I’m living in the tombs.
The boathouse in Wales where Dylan Thomas spent the last 4 years of his life.
Poets.org did a feature on the home in poetry in which they say the home can be a "mythic, imagined place, the location of childhood memories, or the brick-and-mortar remainder of a broken relationship. It can represent the proverbial 'room of one’s own,' the simple pleasures of eating and gardening, or hold the drudgery of chores."
Stanley Kunitz said in an interview that, “There was a cloud that hung over our house in Worcester, Massachusetts and it took me almost fifty years or more before I could face it in a poem [The Portrait].”
The "cloud" was formed by the deaths of his father who publicly committed suicide weeks before Kunitz’s birth, and the death of his stepfather and both of his sisters.
W.H. Auden wrote a collection, About the House in which the home becomes an extension of the self.
I used to believe that I could be a better and more productive writer if I had an isolated cabin in the woods in order to write. I suspect many of you have fantasized about having a place in the woods, a mountaintop or island retreat where we could go and find inspiration and peace.
We know that a writer’s genius does not come from the place where they do their writing. But I think that when writers find some kind of retreat or escape their homes for a place to write, that does tell you something about them, and that space may actually be the inspiration for their writing. I like knowing about a writer’s tools. Pad and paper, or fountain pen, legal pads, an old manual typewriter or a laptop computer? I like seeing where writers work.
The letters of Allen Ginsberg and Lawrence Ferlinghetti chart a 40-year friendship and two storied careers.
"The story now feels nearly inevitable. In 1955, Allen Ginsberg moved into an apartment in the San Francisco North Beach area, just a few blocks away from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Pocket Bookshop. Ginsberg showed the fledging publisher his work, and Ferlinghetti was intrigued. He attended an event at the Six Gallery on October 7, 1955, where Ginsberg recited part of “Howl” for the first time. A few days later, Ferlinghetti sent the poet a telegram: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career,” he cabled, echoing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s legendary note to Walt Whitman. “When do I get the manuscript of ‘Howl’?”
So began a decades-long relationship between the two men, as writer and publisher and as friends. From 1955 until Ginsberg’s death in 1997, they exchanged letters on matters large and small, from the 1957 obscenity charges that Ferlinghetti faced as the publisher of Howl to Ginsberg’s precarious finances (“I’m broke, dumb, writeless and nowhere. Send on royalties as soon as you can,” wrote Ginsberg in 1958). They sent each other thoughtful editorial notes and breezy accounts of their far-flung travels. In the early years, letters were their principal mode of communication, and their correspondence tracks not only the arc of their storied careers but also the palpable affection and respect the two men had for each other..."
This month we look at a short Japanese poetry form called the haibun. The haibun (translated as "haikai writings" is a form that combines prose and haiku.
Haibun poems are used to write autobiographies, diaries, essays, prose poems, and very short stories. It was used as a kind of travel journal when it was first used by the 17th-century Japanese poet Matsuo Bashō. It was a form he popularized. He wrote haibun as travel accounts. The most famous are in Oku no Hosomichi (Narrow Road to the Interior).
Haibun continued to be written by later haikai poets such as Yosa Buson, Kobayashi Issa and Masaoka Shiki.
Not all of Bashō's haibun are devoted to travel. They also are character sketches, landscape scenes, and occasional poems to honor a specific patron or event. His "Hut of the Phantom Dwelling" is a quite long prose essay followed by the haiku:
Among these summer trees, a pasania- something to count on
(A pasania is a tree species of Asia, sometimes called in English a "stone oak" because of its very hard acorn-like nuts.)
Traditional haibun typically took the form of a short, precise prose description of a place, person or object, or a diary of a journey or other events in the poet's life, followed by a related haiku.
Haibun is now written worldwide and the form has been adapted into different variations. The basic rules for the haibun are simple.
Unlike haiku, they begin with a title.
The prose portion is terse, descriptive, and written in the first person singular.
It is in the present moment. Imagine the experience is occurring now, not in the past.
Although this is prose, it is poetic, and understated, with all excessive words eliminated.
The accompanying haiku follows the traditional rules of that form.
The subject of the haiku does not repeat, quote or explain the prose, but reflects some aspect of the prose with a detail that is more juxtaposition - different yet somehow connected. That connection can be a surprising revelation for the reader.
She told us that although Bashō coined the word haibun for the form as it is used today, it already existed in Japan without that name as a kind of preface to poems and as mini-lyric essays. He wrote a guideline for the form and Aimee points out that he was quite concerned with aware (pronounced ah-WAR-ay), a term for the spirit of haiku or the "quality of certain objects to evoke longing, sadness, or immediate sympathy."
Don’t Bring Me to the Fireworks, The Fox-Wife Asks
They hurt my ears, make me run in circles. Under their chemical light you might see my non-human face, the tail I hide beneath skirts. In the city, under mercury vapor, you never see me clearly. I prefer the woods, the quiet howl of mosquitoes, of cicadas. Build me a hut of mud where we never see the stars, too bright. Bring me fans painted with cranes and peonies, poetry folded into birds. Don’t leave me in the crowd, my nose assaulted by too many scents. Let us stay far from others tonight, my love. Our celebrations will be fur and paw, hand to chest. Let the fireworks with their dizzy ghost spiders whine in the distance, keep me here, bring me silk kimonos the color of bark and dirt to nest in.
Keep the copper smoke
and saltpeter, the dim trails
of chrysanthemums in the sky.
That poem is from Gailey's collection, She Returns to the Floating World, which explores motifs in Japanese folk tales:, persona poems spoken by characters from animé and manga, mythology, and fairy tales. The story of the kitsune, or fox-woman, is one that occurs throughout the book.
This month's prompt is a haibun following the simplified and traditional six rules stated above.
The submission deadline is the night of the New Moon, August 14, 2015.
"A Tate poem often features a hapless protagonist (usually a well-meaning man) who stumbles into a set of ridiculous circumstances that nonetheless don't seem particularly ridiculous to him. The tone is airy, bemused — "Some things don't deserve to be contemplated" — hiding profundity beneath a relaxed surface. This man might meet a few townsfolk, each of whom will make some remark on the circumstance, which will get weirder with each remark, and then the poem then ends with a clever zinger. Usually, the action turns on increasing communication difficulties. Tate may be the only poet whose main subject is the benefit of misunderstanding."
His poem "Like A Scarf," opens this way:
The directions to the lunatic asylum were confusing, more likely they were the random associations and confused ramblings of a lunatic. We arrived three hours late for lunch and the lunatics were stacked up on their shelves, quite neatly, I might add, giving credit where credit is due.
This is his short poem "Goodtime Jesus":
Jesus got up one day a little later than usual. He had been dream- ing so deep there was nothing left in his head. What was it? A nightmare, dead bodies walking all around him, eyes rolled back, skin falling off. But he wasn't afraid of that. It was a beau- tiful day. How 'bout some coffee? Don't mind if I do. Take a little ride on my donkey, I love that donkey. Hell, I love everybody.
In Teicher's tribute to Tate, he wishes that "what follows for him be as odd and pleasant as the scene in his new poem, "The Afterlife," in which a dead man — a ghost — falls into the speaker's backyard."
I just float around," he said. "Well, I've never met a dead man. I'm pleased to meet you," I said. "I think you're supposed to scream or something," he said. "Oh no, I'm really pleased," I said. "It's really kind of you to drop by." "I didn't drop by. It was the wind," he said. "And then the wind stopped and I fell into the tree." "How lucky for me," I said. "You'll be going with me, of course, when I leave. You'll never be coming back," he said.