December 28, 2016

A Poet Named Paterson from Paterson

Jim Jarmusch’s new film is Paterson. which opened this week in the U.S. but received good reviews last May at the Cannes film festival.

Director Jarmusch came to New York in the 1970s and wanted to be a poet. He was diverted by music and filmmaking, but poetry has not left him. In his film Only Lovers Left Alive, one character is Christopher Marlowe, and in Dead Man one is William Blake.
"Well, when I became a teenager I started reading French symbolist poets — translated, of course. And I discovered Baudelaire — and, consequently, Rimbaud — and I started looking at American poets; Walt Whitman first. And then, when I escaped Akron, Ohio, where I was born, and eventually ended up in New York. I got to study in the New York school of poets and I got to study with Kenneth Koch, a great poet of the New York school and David Shapiro. Ron Padgett, who wrote the poems for our film and David Shapiro, who was my teacher, they both edited a book called the Anthology of New York Poets in 1970. I didn’t discover it until the mid-1970s, but it was kind of a bible for me. "

But in his newest film, we follow a guy called Paterson was born and still lives in Paterson, New Jersey. He drives the #23 bus which has his name on its side.

Among other things, Paterson, New Jersey is a poetry city. This "Silk City" was known for that elegant fabric during the latter half of the 19th century. It was and still is an immigrant city. It has a large Hispanic population and many immigrants from the Arab and Muslim world. (It has the second-largest Muslim population in the United States.)

The Great Falls
You may know that the Lou Costello half of the comedy team Abbott and Costello grew up there. You may know the Great Falls of the Passaic River, now a National Park.

Paterson is also the subject of William Carlos Williams' epic poem Paterson. The city shows up in the poetry of another native son, Allen Ginsberg.

In Allen's friend's novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac's protagonist Sal Paradise lives with his aunt in Paterson. (Kerouac's own hometown was another mill town with a waterfall, Lowell, Massachusetts. New Jersey's Junot Diaz uses Paterson. It is the setting of John Updike's novels In the Beauty of the Lilies and is renamed "New Prospect" in his novel The Terrorist.

I worked at Passaic County Community College in Paterson for five years and for me the city is a poetry place. Besides Williams and Ginsberg, it breathes poetry today through the work of poet Maria Mazziotti Gillan on the page and in everyday life.

Maria sings of her hometown in all of her twenty-one books of poetry. She also helps make Paterson  the beating heart of poetry for the state as the Founder and Executive Director of the nationally known Poetry Center at Passaic County Community College. She is the editor of the Paterson Literary Review which comes from the Center and sponsors the Allen Ginsberg Poetry Prizes.

Ginsberg, Gillan and Williams

The Paterson in the new film, played by Adam Driver, seems to take William Carlos Williams' poem and its aesthetic of finding beauty in the everyday to heart. He awakens and talks to his wife Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), drives his NJ Transit bus, walks his dog and writes his poems. The work of contemporary poet Ron Padgett inspires and is the prose poetry of the character Paterson.

LOVE POEM by Ron Padgett

We have plenty of matches in our house. We keep them on hand always. Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip, though we used to prefer Diamond brand. That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches. They are excellently packaged, sturdy little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels with words lettered in the shape of a megaphone, as if to say even louder to the world, ''Here is the most beautiful match in the world, its one and a half inch soft pine stem capped by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious and stubbornly ready to burst into flame, lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love, for the first time, and it was never really the same after that. All this will we give you.'' That is what you gave me, I become the cigarette and you the match, or I the match and you the cigarette, blazing with kisses that smoulder toward heaven.

This poetry finds meaning and beauty from simplicity and routine. The film too is described as  subdued and undramatic. It may be an antidote to the superhero, violent, explosions of most films today. It may be just too simple and quiet for today's audience.

As we follow Paterson for a week, small changes in that routine seem large. Paterson's wife is also an artist but her creativity has no pattern. One day she is learning to play an instrument, or redecorating the house, designing clothing, or baking cupcakes. She builds. He strips things down to essentials.

Paterson seems quiet and gentle, but this veteran in one scene disarms an armed man. In a quiet world, small sounds seems louder.

Even in the film's trailer and clips, I see Paterson's old warehouses and factories that I know pretty well. This was a birthplace city of American industry set in a place chosen by founding father Alexander Hamilton to harness the power of the Great Falls. We see unpublished but prolific poet Paterson at the Falls too, as Ginsberg, Williams, Gillan and many other poets have done.

He is not much of a talker, but he is a listener, and that is important work for a poet.

December 22, 2016

A Poetic Fruit Bowl

I didn't realize until I was making some recent changes to the Poets Online archive of writing prompts and poems that we have gone to the fruit bowl three times since 1998. In those 18 years, we have posted over 200 prompts and and almost 2000 poems.

I try not to repeat prompts, but fruit has appeared in three prompts. So, if you're in the mood for some writing that came from fruit or in the mood to bite into some fruitful poems, try these:

December 16, 2016

Bob Dylan, Shakespeare, Literature and the Nobel Prize

Bob Dylan and Allen Ginsberg - Photo by Elsa Dorfman

Bob Dylan didn't attend the ceremony to pick up his Nobel Prize for Literature. He sent Patti Smith who sang his song "‘A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall." 

And he sent an acceptance letter. If it doesn't bother you that he compares himself to William Shakespeare, then you might like his response. Lots of people were excited by him winning the award, but others were disappointed. Is he a poet or singer? Are they poems or songs?

Here's an excerpt of his explanation.

I was out on the road when I received this surprising news, and it took me more than a few minutes to properly process it. I began to think about William Shakespeare, the great literary figure. I would reckon he thought of himself as a dramatist. The thought that he was writing literature couldn't have entered his head. His words were written for the stage. Meant to be spoken not read. When he was writing Hamlet, I'm sure he was thinking about a lot of different things: "Who're the right actors for these roles?" "How should this be staged?" "Do I really want to set this in Denmark?" His creative vision and ambitions were no doubt at the forefront of his mind, but there were also more mundane matters to consider and deal with. "Is the financing in place?" "Are there enough good seats for my patrons?" "Where am I going to get a human skull?" I would bet that the farthest thing from Shakespeare's mind was the question "Is this literature?" 
...But, like Shakespeare, I too am often occupied with the pursuit of my creative endeavors and dealing with all aspects of life's mundane matters. "Who are the best musicians for these songs?" "Am I recording in the right studio?" "Is this song in the right key?" Some things never change, even in 400 years. 
Not once have I ever had the time to ask myself, "Are my songs literature?" 
So, I do thank the Swedish Academy, both for taking the time to consider that very question, and, ultimately, for providing such a wonderful answer.

Read the entire speech at

December 6, 2016

Prompt: Broken Things

"Action Man" by Jeremy Richardson via Flickr

Things break. Usually, we try to fix them, or find someone else who can fix them for us.

Today, we often hear that things are more disposable. "Planned obsolescence" is a phrase that goes back to the 1930s. It describes a policy of producing consumer goods that rapidly become obsolete and so require replacing. This is achieved by frequent changes in design, termination of the supply of spare parts, and the use of non-durable materials.

In the more than 70 years since the concept was introduced, that idea has moved from automobiles, television sets, phones and other hard goods to much softer ones. People discuss how things like relationships and marriage have become disposable.

In Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "The God Of Broken Things," he tells us of a very human "god" who can fix just about anything you bring into his junk shop.

He's in a lopsided heaven at Maggie's
Junk Shop. Objects of wood, iron, ivory,
Of veneer, lead, stone, glass, flimsy
Cardboard, of tin, brass, bronze . . .

He could go on forever fixing
Cracks, fissures, dents, fractures,
Rasping & gluing together what is
Unheard-of with what can never be

All of these very real things that range from "Objets d'art to "bric-a-brac" can be mended in some way. The poet says that they are "Broken or hurt beneath the architecture / Of planned obsolescence."

In Komunyakaa's collection Talking Dirty to the Gods, he gives us 132 poems of 16 lines (four quatrains) with most of the lines being of four stresses. Like sonnets, there is a formalism to the poems and they include many allusions to mythology and religion. Besides “The God of Broken Things,” there is a “The God of Variables” and “The Goddess of Quotas.”

Some poets find beauty in broken things.  In her poem "Broken Things,"  Sara Teasdale writes:
    Broken things are loveliest,
            Broken clouds when dusk is red,
    Broken waves where a rainbow rides,
            Broken words left half unsaid.

    Broken things, broken things—
            How quietly they comfort me,
    Riven cliffs, where I can watch
            The broken beauty of the sea.  

In Alice Walker's poem "I Will Keep Broken Things," she wants to save everything, broken or not.

But in his "Ode To Broken Things," Pablo Neruda suggests letting all the broken things go.
Let's put all our treasures together
-- the clocks, plates, cups cracked by the cold --
into a sack and carry them
to the sea
and let our possessions sink
into one alarming breaker
that sounds like a river.
May whatever breaks
be reconstructed by the sea
with the long labor of its tides.
So many useless things
which nobody broke
but which got broken anyway

None of these poets talk about broken hearts, broken relationships, broken homes, broken promises or broken lives, but we know that many things break and are much harder to repair than all those objects.

This month,we are writing poems about broken things and about our attempts to repair them. From Neruda, we will use his poem as as a thematic model, and from Yusef Komunyakaa we will borrow a short, controlled form for our poems: 16 lines in four quatrains. You may also want to meter the stresses, words or syllables to maintain line lengths - in his poem he uses mostly four stresses per line.

Submission Deadline: January 2, 2017

November 23, 2016

Post-Election Poetry

In a piece at Wired, Lexi Pandell considers the role poetry plays in processing traumatic situations and how events in 2016 have given poetry renewed interest. And one of those events is the the recent Presidential election.

She writes:
In the 48 hours following the election, also saw its biggest surge of shares in four years. Over a two-day span, the site typically sees 80-100 people tweeting links to its poems, and about 70-100 retweeting those links. On November 8 and 9, though more than 550 people tweeted out poems with 720 people retweeting those links. 
The top poems on the site since then have been Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise,” a declaration of selfhood about blacks rising against white oppression (read more than 50,000 times); Langston Hughes’s poem on the American dream, “Let America Be America Again” (35,000 times); and W.H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939” about the beginning of WWII (close to 25,000 times).

November 18, 2016

Ginsberg's First Howl

Allen Ginsberg read his poem "Howl" at the Six Gallery in San Francisco back in 1955. The night was advertised as "Six Poets at Six Gallery” and featured Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder, and Philip Whalen.

Ginsberg was poet number five. He went on about 11 p.m. He was 29 years old. The most surprising thing though is that he had never participated in a poetry reading before.

Kenneth Rexroth organized the reading as a promotion for the new gallery. Ginsberg met Gary Snyder and the others. Ginsberg introduced a pre-On-The-Road Jack Kerouac to the group.

Allen started pretty quietly. But he started rolling with the poem. It is said that he took a deep breath before each of the long lines - then said each line in one breath.

Kerouac chanted "Go, go, go" in rhythm while Ginsberg read. The audience loved it and joined in.

One audience member was poet and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. He sent Ginsberg a telegram the next day borrowing Ralph Waldo Emerson’s words to Walt Whitman: “I greet you at the beginning of a great career” and added “When do I get the manuscript?”

The group gathered there that night became the core of the group of writers known as the Beats.

Howl and Other Poems was published by City Lights Books in the fall of 1956. It was subsequently seized by U.S. Customs and the San Francisco police and was the subject of a long court trial at which a series of poets and professors persuaded the court that the book was not obscene.

Plague at the location of Six Gallery, 3119 Fillmore, San Francisco

November 9, 2016


When the U.N. General Assembly listens to a speaker, how much is lost in the translations?
"As you know, translation is really a problem-solving task. Every once in a while you see the original and something comes into your head that is also a formal solution to the problem of getting it into lively English, and you feel like you've written a poem. But that's pretty rare. I wouldn't exactly say it's more like doing crossword puzzles than it is like writing poetry, but it's a mix of the two. "                    

- Robert Hass, "Interview: A Common Language"

Ask Google Translate to do its work on "poets online" and you will get in Italian "poeti in linea" and in French "poètes en ligne" and though I can't read Japanese, I'm sure that  詩人オンライン is also a "poet on a line" of some type. Something is certainly "lost in translation."

Translation is difficult. Edward Hirsch says that "Strictly speaking, total translation is impossible, since languages differ and each language carries its own complex of linguistic resources, historical and social values. This is especially true in poetry, the maximal of language."

The translation of poetry needs something more than simply translating words and getting the same general meaning. In defining "translation" for his Poets Glossary, Edward Hirsch notes:
That’s why its untranslatability has been one of the defining features of poetry. Samuel Taylor Coleridge coined the word untranslatableness. Robert Frost famously said, “Poetry is what gets lost in translation.” An Italian pun captures the idea: traduttore/traditore, translator/traitor.
You can find advice about translating poetry, but I am interested here more in using poetry to talk about translation.

We sometimes say, "Let me translate that for you" meaning that we will rephrase something complex into a more understandable form.  We use the expression "in simple English"  in this way.

Richard Blanco's poem"Translation for Mamá" begins:

What I’ve written for you, I have always written
in English, my language of silent vowel endings
never translated into your language of silent h’s.
               Lo que he escrito para ti, siempre lo he escrito
               en inglés, en mi lengua llena de vocales mudas
               nunca traducidas a tu idioma de haches mudas
He writes his poems and also translates it into his mother's Spanish.

But "How do I say it?” is what Joy Harjo is really concerned with in her poem “Deer Dancer..”  Though she can be referring to the language of her own Mvskoke/Creek Nation, she is also talking about the inadequacies of all languages. 

How do I say it?  In this language there are no words for how the real world
collapses.  I could say it in my own and the sacred mounds would come into
focus, but I couldn’t take it in this dingy envelope.  So I look at the stars in
this strange city, frozen to the back of the sky, the only promises that ever
make sense.
Harjo is trying to tell a story about an incident in a bar, but language can't quite convey all that happened there that night.

Nearly everyone had left that bar in the middle of winter except the
hardcore.  It was the coldest night of the year, every place shut down, but
not us.  Of course we noticed when she came in.  We were Indian ruins.  She
was the end of beauty.  No one knew her, the stranger whose tribe we
recognized, her family related to deer, if that’s who she was, a people
accustomed to hearing songs in pine trees, and making them hearts.

The word "translation" derives from the Latin translatio, which in turn comes from trans- and fero, meaning “to carry across” or “to bring across.” It usually mean the transfer of meaning from one language to another, but it also is what we do in interpreting the world around us every day.
One of my poems is about this everyday translating we do - from other languages, in interpreting the world and certainly in writing and reading poetry.


My grandparents would speak Slovak
with my father, the aunts and the uncles
at the Sunday dinners at their home in Newark
when they didn’t want us to know.
In those days, the priests spoke Latin.
That was the mystery of the faith.
The boys on the #42 bus spoke Spanish
as I rode to my afterschool job
and when they laughed, looking in my direction.
Too fast for my B+  Spanish III  understanding
but enough that it hurt.
The waiter at the Chinese restaurant
changes my order into words
that I want to understand,
but will  never know.
This is the poet’s job,
and the job of the reader too.
We have been in training
all our lives.

- Kenneth Ronkowitz

Our writing prompt for November is a poem about translation in any of those three ways: from other languages, in interpreting the world, or in writing and reading poetry.

November 4, 2016

Translation and Robert Fitzgerald

Ulysses and the Sirens by John William Waterhouse (1891)

“I think that one poet is lending himself to the other poet, that the obligation is to the other poet, and that one is taking on for the time being the spirit and impulse and intent of the other poet, and so the wish is to make all that clear in one’s own language rather than express oneself, so to speak.” - Robert Fitzgerald

Robert Fitzgerald is best known for his English translations of Homer’s The Odyssey (1961) and The Iliad  which are pretty much the standard works used in schools.

I recently read about when he was a student at Harvard University. He read T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land" and said that it changed his life. He began to write poetry. He got published in Poetry magazine.

While still a student, he got to met Eliot while in London and gave him one of his poems. Eliot studied the poem for several minutes and then looked up and said, “Is this the best you can do?” I can imagine such a remark having a devastating effect on a young writer.

He graduated in 1933 and worked as a reporter, but kept writing poetry. He published Poems (1935) and A Wreath for the Sea (1943).

He served in the Navy during World War II, including time in Guam and Pearl Harbor. He had with him the works of Virgil and a Latin dictionary and, though he had no training in translation, he would translate Virgil a line at a time into a notebook.

Fitzgerald teaching at Harvard
After the war, married and with a family, he began teaching, first at at Sarah Lawrence College and later at the University of Notre Dame, the University of Washington, Mount Holyoke College, Princeton University and Harvard. He also served as poetry editor of the New Republic.

He went back to his wartime translations and convinced an editor to advance him money for five years to translate Homer’s The Odyssey. With that and a Guggenheim award, he took his family to live in Italy for a time.

He was very much a formalist in his poetry, something certainly influenced by the classics. His own influence on his students helped drive the New Formalism of the late 20th century in American poetry. That approach promoted a return to metrical and rhymed verse.

His verse translations of Homer’s The Iliad (1974) and The Odyssey (1961) and Virgil’s The Aeneid (1983), as well as other classics and his own poetry brought him many honors.

From 1984 to 1985, he was the consultant in poetry to the Library of Congress (the position now known as Poet Laureate).

October 17, 2016

Billy Collins and 'The Rain in Portugal'

Billy Collins’s twelfth collection of poetry is The Rain in Portugal (Random House). It is a sign of Collins' popularity - and saleability - that his most recent books have been first released in hardcover, unlike most poets who go straight to paperback. His last three collections were New York Times best-sellers, and that is not typical for poetry.

All that is great. I love his poetry. But it also gets him a certain amount of dismissal by some. They say he is light and goes for the the laugh too often. Yes, if you hear him read there will be laughter. I'll see him this week at the Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey. I've heard him read at many Dodge Festivals. I spent a week in workshops with him on Long Island just before he became U.S. Poet Laureate (2001—2003). There were lots of laughs. But there is always more to a Billy Collins poem than the funny line that you laugh at and remember.

Take as an example his poem “Mister Shakespeare.”  As a teacher, I like this poem, set in a classroom where the poet is teaching "Introduction to Literature." The poem recalls Collins' earlier poem, "Introduction to Poetry" - a favorite of teachers.

In that earlier poem, the teacher wants students to enjoy the poem and "to waterski / across the surface of a poem / waving at the author’s name on the shore." Unfortunately, all the students want to do "is tie the poem to a chair with rope / and torture a confession out of it. " They have been trained that way. "They begin beating it with a hose / to find out what it really means."

Now, in the newer "Introduction to Literature," the teacher is again angry with students for their formality. Why are they thinking that they are being respectful calling the poet "Mr. Shakespeare?" It's just Shakespeare and it's just Hemingway and just Frost. They wouldn't watch the Yankees and call him "Mr. Jeter" or call the quarterback "Mr. Brady."  Why the formality with the poets?

And what about Frank Bidart? Well, when living poets are called only by their last name it sounds "so final."  And now we are at that place when the poet becomes reduced to academic "subject matter," like those poems the students wanted to beat into submission, all of this  is “enough to make us forget where poems begin.”

And where is that?

maybe in the upstairs room of an anonymous boy,
his face illuminated by lamplight.
He has penciled some lines in a notebook
and now he pauses to think up some strange and beautiful 
while the windows of his parents' house fill with falling

We come full circle. Famous poet and poem begin with anonymous poet and first poem.

Billy Collins is that famous living poet who was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Letters. But many of these poems are escapes from all those who have tried to reign in his fun along the way: 1950s America, the 16 years of “the full metal jacket of Catholic education,” even the limited exposure he had to poetry.

In "The Present," he opens with a chuckle

"Much has been said about being in the present,
it's the place to be according to the gurus"

but it's not an easy job, as any Zen practitioner knows, because the present is "always in a state of vanishing" and finding your way is tough because "no one, it seems, is able to give you directions."

In “Genuflection, he recalls that he was told of the Irish habit

of tipping the cap to the first magpie
one encounters in the course of a day
and saying to him “Good morning, sir,”

An odd tradition, "But why wouldn’t every bird merit a greeting?"

For example, that great blue heron he sees by the shore, standing as motionless "as a drawing on papyrus by a Delphic priest." For that heron, not just a good morning, "will anything serve, short of a genuflection?"

And that word recalls how

As a boy, I worked on that move,
gliding in a black cassock and white surplice
inside the boundary of the altar rail
then stopping to descend,
one knee touching the cool marble floor
palms pressed together in prayer,
right thumb crossed over left, and never the other way around.

In that week of workshop sessions with Collins (Is it okay to just use his last name?), he reminded us that since many of us had been English majors, that meant we had actually majored in death. Billy, the Catholic altar boy, had been well schooled in death early on.

In the poem "Greece," we are looking at the ruins that "were taking their time falling apart" and also seeing the very alive bathers on the beach below. But between those two, the poet writes down:

Is not poetry, a megaphone
held up to the whispering lips of death?

Death floats in and out of these poems. There is more mortality lurking in a drive through the town found in “Helium” and even in a store “Balloon Designs by Pauline” that has a good chance of outliving him - though probably not as long as those Greek ruins.

Is the poem "On Rhyme" on rhyme, or on poetry?  We all remember some poems and some rhymes that are not poems - the stitch in time that saves nine, the 30 days that have September. It sticks in the head. But Collins prefers a "Little Jack Horner sitting on a sofa / old men who are not from Nantucket." And so, rather than the rain in Spain that falls mainly on the plain, he imagines:

"... the rain in Portugal,
how it falls on the hillside vineyards, 
on the surface of the deep harbors

where fishing boats are swaying, 
and in the narrow alleys of the cities
where three boys in tee shirts 
are kicking a soccer ball in the rain,
ignoring the window-cries of their mothers."

It's a rebellion. And you didn't even know it. That's what humor can do.

October 4, 2016

Prompt: Maraschino Cherries and Other Exotic Fruits

I love serendipity. I was looking at poems online looking for inspiration and came across one by Julie Kane titled "Maraschino Cherries."  I have a soft and rather sweet spot for maraschino cherries. In my childhood, they were something I loved to pilfer from our refrigerator. As an adult, I still love them in a Manhattan cocktail.

Julie's poem made me think of another maraschino cherry poem that I have always liked - "Refrigerator" by Thomas Lux.

I definitely identify with Kane's
Three little girls on the morning after,
out in the kitchen poking around
for cherries soaked in whiskey like a bomb
of grown-up secrets. 
They were bolder than I was in my youth. Actually, I can't recall my parents making any cocktail with those cherries that I might have stolen with some booze.  I think my mother used the cherries only on top of ice cream sundaes.

Like Thomas Lux, my childhood refrigerator contained
not a lot,
and what there is (a boiled potato
in a bag, a chicken carcass
under foil) looking dispirited,
drained, mugged. This is not
a place to go in hope or hunger.
It was a dull vault. But there was one item that stood out:
heart red, sexual red, wet neon red,
shining red in their liquid, exotic,
aloof, slumming
in such company: a jar
of maraschino cherries. Three-quarters
full, fiery globes, like strippers
at a church social. 
In rereading Lux's poem, I was surprised to find that he also can not recall seeing them used in a drink, or on ice cream. He doesn't even recall anyone even popping one in their mouth. They were something to be passed on like a family heirloom.
and, if I never ate one,
it was because I knew it might be missed
or because I knew it would not be replaced
and because you do not eat
that which rips your heart with joy.
Though I am very tempted to make our October writing prompt just maraschino cherries, that may be a bit limiting. So, we are expanding to any fruit in a poem that centers around one type. It might be nice if it is also sexy and exotic, or like a bomb of grown-up secrets or like strippers
at a church social.

Deadline for Submissions: November 4, 2016

September 23, 2016

Dodge Poetry Festival - the 30th Anniversary

The largest poetry event in North America comes to New Jersey’s largest city when the 30th Anniversary Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival returns to Newark from Thursday October 20th through Sunday October 23rd, 2016. For four days Newark’s vibrant downtown Arts District will be transformed into a poetry village featuring some of our most celebrated, diverse and vibrant poets and spoken word artists.

Check out the program for the list of poets appearing this year.

September 9, 2016

Poetry Therapy and Healing

Each of us has a unique part to play in the healing of the world. - Marianne Williamson

Readers of this blog and poetry contributors to Poets Online don't need to be told that poetry can contribute to healing. As readers and as writers of poetry, we can all think of instances when a poem helped us or someone we know to heal.

Healing can be taken literally, as in coping with diseases both physical and mental. And healing can be seen as that process that moves us through transformation and into growth from a bad place to a better one.

In "Finding the Words to Say It: The Healing Power of Poetry", Robert Carroll writes about his use of poetry (his own and others) to facilitate healing.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks on September 11, 2001, poetry sprang up everywhere. A New York Times article on October 1, 2001, documented the phenomenon: “In the weeks since the terrorist attacks, people have been consoling themselves—and one another—with poetry in an almost unprecedented way … Improvised memorials often conceived around poems sprang up all over the city, in store windows, at bus stops, in Washington Square Park, Brooklyn Heights, and elsewhere. …” 
Some catastrophes are so large, they seem to overwhelm ordinary language. Immediately after the recent tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, the Los Angeles Times reported the witnesses were literally dumbstruck. Words failed them. They had lost their voices. 
In mainstream culture, there are subjects we do not talk about. They are taboo. For example, even though each of us is going to die, we don't talk about dying. Instead, we avoid it. Even physicians are reluctant to talk with terminally ill patients about the patient's experience... 
Poetry gives us ways to talk about it. My job as a poetry therapist is to use poetry and voice to help people get access to the wisdom they already have but cannot experience because they cannot find the words in ordinary language.
I wouldn't recommend poetry as "alternative medicine" or a substitute for traditional medicine, but I would recommend it as a supplement to any treatments.

For our writing prompt this month, I am more interested in the figurative sense of healing, but there are certainly many examples of poets who have used the more literal sense of healing in their poems.

You may not be aware of "poetry therapy" which is defined by the National Association for Poetry Therapy as "the intentional use of the written and spoken word to facilitate healing, growth and transformation." Their membership includes mental health providers, medically trained physicians, nurses, educators, and artists, writers and others who use poems or the writing process as a healing practice.

I have always found that being out in nature feels like healing to me. This feeling is captured simply in "The Peace of Wild Things" by Wendell Berry.  He says "When despair for the world grows in me" that he will "lie down where the wood drake / rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds."

What is it that we find there that feels like it can heal us? I think we envy at moments like that the wild things "who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief" and want to be in that freeing place, if only for a short time.

Our September writing prompt is simply "healing."

Submission deadline: September 30, 2016

There is a very good list of healing poems at, and the collection, The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing, also has good examples, and there are many articles online, such as "Poetry and Healing."

August 30, 2016

The Love and Hatred of Poetry

If you are a reader of this blog, the chances are that you are NOT a poetry hater. But I discovered a book, THE HATRED OF POETRY, by Ben Lerner that is about those who do hate it.

Lerner is not a hater. He is the author of three books of poems and two novels. But he does feel there are haters.

In a review of the book by Craig Morgan Teicher, he starts by saying:
Although Ben Lerner’s latest book is titled “The Hatred of Poetry,” I am almost certain that poetry is less hated now than it has ever been. I don't think the readers who would be drawn to this book — poetry fans with their dukes up — actually need it at all. And an actual hater of poetry wouldn't get past the first page.

Lerner's book uses Marianne Moore’s poem “Poetry,” for its opening - "I, too, dislike it" but Moore continues:
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.

As a poet, I meet lots of people who don't like poetry, though "hate" may be too strong verb to use. Blame school or blame poets and poems that plot not to be understood, I think poetery is more popular now than it was in the 20th century. I agree with the reviewer who says that "Poetry is read by a larger number of people than ever before, if only because it is written by more people than ever before, due in large part to the proliferation of MFA programs..."

Yes, it is an incestuous popularity. Poets love poetry. Poets buy poetry books and go to readings. Ask if you give a reading how many people in the audience are poets. A lot. And there are more readers who enjoy poems that allow them in without pain, and enjoy hearing poets read their work and talk about it.

That is always true at the Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival which celebrates 30 years of gathering those kinds of people this October.

Finally, back to Moore's poem, which concludes:

In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

August 22, 2016


A poem's title can change a lot about how a reader approaches it. I was posting on another blog about book titles and it got me thinking about titles on books and poems.

This month, our writing prompt about triggering a poem also considered the use of a title. 

Novelists have often looked to poets for inspiration. Evelyn Waugh’s novel A Handful of Dust comes from T.S. Eliot’s "The Waste Land." Haruki Murakami’s borrowed Dance Dance Dance from W.H. Auden’s “Death’s Echo.”

You might think that a writer could come up with an original title, but keep in mind that using an allusion to a poem (or other work) is more than just a literary hat tip because it can lead a reader to the source which might provide additional insight into the new work.

Madeleine L’Engle got her title A Swiftly Tilting Planet  from Conrad Aiken’s “Morning Song of Senlin” and Cormac McCarthy selected No Country for Old Men from Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium.” E.M. Forster found A Passage to India  in Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass."  

Mr. Shakespeare provided titles for many writers from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (from Hamlet) and Joyce Carol Oates (New Heaven, New Earth) to Edith Wharton (The Glimpses of the Moon), and Isaac Asimov (The Gods Themselves) to Dorothy Parker (Not So Deep as a Well).

From this short poem by Stephen Crane, Joyce Carol Oates found her book title, Because It Is Bitter, and Because It Is My Heart.

In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;

“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

I went through an exercise at a poetry workshop where we were given a packet of probably unfamiliar poem that had no titles or authors listed. The idea was to read and discuss the poems and then later see how the title and any knowledge of the poet's life changed our interpretations. How do you read a poem about a woman giving birth when you know it was written by a man?

I gave a reading and included a poem of mine titled "Weekend With Dad." After the reading, a woman came up to me and said she enjoyed the reading, especially that poem because "she was also a single parent."  But I'm not a single parent. And the poem isn't about being a single parent. Or is it? Rereading my poem, through the single parent filter suggested by the title, I see that it very well might be about being a single parent.

In a workshop with poet Billy Collins, he gave us some Chinese poems to read that had very long titles. In fact, several of the poems themselves were shorter than the titles. It led us to look at other poems with and without their titles and we played with giving poems new titles in an attempt to move a reader in another direction.


Collins gives Lu Yu the prize of a simple rice cake for his very long title "In a Boat on a Summer Evening I Heard the Cry of a Waterbird. It Was Very Sad and Seemed To Be Saying My Woman Is Cruel—Moved, I Wrote This Poem."

In that workshop, Billy said that he liked a poem title that invites us into the poem. As he says in his own poem: 
How easy he has made it for me to enter here,
to sit down in a corner,
cross my legs like his, and listen.

August 12, 2016

Triggering the Poem

Poet Richard Hugo believed that we’ve written every poem we ever loved. He said that he was particularly proud of having written Yeats’ poem Yeats’ “Easter, 1916.”

The Dodge Poetry Festival blog has asked several poets "What great poem are you proud of having written?" One of my first professors of poetry, Alicia Ostriker, said she was "I’m pretty proud of having written Antony and Cleopatra and King Lear. Maria Mazziotti Gillan answered, "I am proud to have written 'somewhere i have never travelled, gladly beyond' by E.E. Cummings. I often recite it to myself when I’m driving or walking and I find it very comforting. I think it is one of the most beautiful love poems I have ever read."

In his book of poetics, The Triggering Town: Lectures and Essays on Poetry and Writing, Richard Hugo offers a series of essays about what triggers poems.

He argues against the often heard idea that a writer should “write what you know.” Instead, he suggests an approach to poetry based on triggering subjects and words.

In one essay, he explains triggering subjects, using the example of towns, as points of entry into the realm of the imagination.

Again, opposing the write-what-you-know, he suggests that new poets might try to own an imagined, or barely-known, town, rather than trying to convey their actual hometown. That hometown, he feels, may be one in which “the imagination cannot free itself to seek the unknowns.” Then, the poet can focus on the play and music of the language.

At this point, the poet's private language, personal connections and certain words that have rich associations for the poet can move the poem forward.
“Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feel­ings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life. The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”
Hugo's book is not about writing prompts, but it does offer a lot of advice. Here are some examples:
  1. “Don’t write with a pen. Ink tends to give the impression the words shouldn’t be changed. 
  2. Write in a hard-covered notebook with green lined pages. Green is easy on the eyes. Blank white pages seems to challenge you to create the world before you start writing. It may be true that you, the modern poet, must make the world as you go, but why be reminded of it before you even have one word on the page?
  3. Don’t erase. Cross out rapidly and violently, never with slow consideration if you can help it.
  4. Read your poem aloud many times. If you don’t enjoy it every time, something may be wrong.
  5. Never write a poem about anything that ought to have a poem written about it.
  6. Maximum sentence length: seventeen words. Minimum: One.  
  7. Start, as some smarty once said, in the middle of things.
We might choose one of Hugo's more obvious "town" poems such as "Degrees of Gray in Philipsburg" or "Glen Uig" as examples of his "triggering town" approach. But I chose his poem "The Church On Comiaken Hill."

As with this month's writing prompt, the title is the trigger. In this case, the trigger is a place.

In the poem, we explore the place, both by seeing what the poet saw, and what no one can see with their eyes - such as the Indians who were once there.

I did a simple search and found that real church. You don't need the history to understand the poem, but the history does help you see why it triggered the poem.

Your assignment this month is first to tell us up front in your title what it was that triggered the poem. Second, your poem needs to begin rather literally with that triggering person, place or thing, but then it needs to move beyond that to things we would not know even if we encountered that trigger. It should be two stanzas.

Of course, that second stanza is what makes it your poem. It contains what it triggered in you that might not be triggered in any other poet.

The submission deadline for this prompt is September 7, 2016.

August 3, 2016

Darwin in Verse

You know Charles Darwin as the author of On the Origin of Species, a book that launched a scientific revolution - and still causes arguments with some people for introducing evolution.

He was a writer. He labored over that book and withheld it from publication until the time when another naturalist, Alfred Russel Wallace, independently reached the same conclusions.

He also kept a diary that’s actually interesting to read.

“On the one hand he was trying to write very, very accurately,” says Darwin’s great-great-granddaughter (and Oxford poetry professor) Ruth Padel. “And on the other hand he was trying to write vividly, to convey his own enthusiasm for what he was seeing.”

She was fascinated by her ancestor’s artistic soul, more than his scientific mind and it inspired her to write a biography of Darwin entirely in verse.

How would Charles darwin have felt about the book? Darwin wrote, “If I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.”

Charles Darwin was born in 1809. He lost his mother at the age of eight and repressed all memory of her.

His five-year voyage on H.M.S. Beagle, when he was in his twenties, changed his life. When he returned home, he began publishing his findings and working privately on the groundbreaking theories about the development of animal species, including human beings., and he made a nervous proposal to his cousin Emma.

Darwin: A Life in Poems  is an interpretation of the life and work of Charles Darwin by Ruth Padel.

Charles and Emma

More than his work as a naturalist, she focuses on his marriage to Emma and their ten children.

His theories came between Charles and Emma because of the differences between her deep Christian faith and his increasing religious doubt. The death of three of their children made those differences more severe.

Although Darwin didn't really use the expression "survival of the fittest," Padel sees Darwin's views on death and extinction as nature’s way of developing new species. But, for his wife, death was a prelude to the afterlife.

July 30, 2016

Your Life Is a Poem

In the new episode of ON BEING, "Your Life Is a Poem," poet Naomi Shihab Nye talks about growing up in Ferguson, Missouri and on the road between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Her father was a refugee Palestinian journalist, and through her poetry, she carries forward his hopeful passion, his insistence, that language must be a way out of cycles of animosity.

Your life is a poem. This is how the poet Naomi Shihab Nye sees the world, and she teaches how that way of being and writing is possible. She’s engaged the real world power of words through her upbringing between her father’s Palestinian homeland and Ferguson, Missouri. Her mother was American. Her father was a refugee journalist, and she carries forward his hopeful passion, his insistence, that language must be a way out of cycles of revenge and animosity. A poem she wrote called “Kindness,” that was written in a moment of trauma, is carried around in the pockets and memories of readers around the world.
Listen to the podcast

July 20, 2016

Rumi on death

Death is a dialogue between me and myself.
No one else is interested in the discussion

Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, known more popularly simply as Rumi was a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, Islamic scholar, theologian, and Sufi mystic. His poems have been widely translated into many of the world's languages and transposed into various formats. Rumi has been described as the "most popular poet" and the "best selling poet" in the United States.

I first encountered Rumi at a Dodge Poetry Festival through the translations by Coleman Barks. I was reading some poems randomly in The Essential Rumi today and noticed that I kept landing upon poems about death.

That sounds pretty depressing, but the poems are not grim. Here are two I found.

I’ve said before that every craftsman
searches for what’s not there
to practice his craft.

A builder looks for the rotten hole
where the roof caved in. A water-carrier
picks the empty pot. A carpenter
stops at the house with no door.

Workers rush toward some hint
of emptiness, which they then
start to fill. Their hope, though,
is for emptiness, so don’t think
you must avoid it. It contains
what you need!

This is how strange your fear of death
and emptiness is, and how perverse
the attachment to what you want.

No end, no end to the journey
no end, no end never.
How can the heart in love
ever stop opening.
If you love me,
you won’t just die once.
In every moment
you will die into me
to be reborn.

Into this new love, die.

Your way begins
on the other side
become the sky
take an axe to the prison wall,
walk out like someone
suddenly born into color.
Do it now!

July 12, 2016

Prompt: Roads Not Taken

Two Roads - CC via

One poem that you can safely assume that an American student has encountered is Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken." It is in many anthologies used in schools and has become a phrase used by people who may not even know the source. It's so much of a classic, that it's almost a cliché.

An article by Katherine Robinson on goes into greater detail than your high school English teacher may have in discussing the poem.

Did you know that Robert Frost wrote “The Road Not Taken” as a joke for a friend? That friends was fellow poet Edward Thomas who took walks with Frost. Apparently, Thomas was quite indecisive about the path to take and sometimes expressed regrets later about the one not taken.

Frost wrote the poem in 1915 and told Thomas that after reading the poem at a college, he was surprised that the audience had been “taken pretty seriously … despite doing my best to make it obvious by my manner that I was fooling. … Mea culpa.”

From the poem's opening decision about choosing a road, to the conclusion that the choice has made all the difference, there is an odd and somewhat surprising word journey.

The Road Not Taken

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

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.

Initially, the speaker wishes he travel both roads, but admits that the one he took looked "just as fair" as the other and people using both roads had "worn them really about the same.”  Despite the usual interpretation of the poem, it's important to note that the two roads are more similar than not - "And both that morning equally lay / In leaves no step had trodden black."

This month's prompt is to consider roads not taken. Of course, roads come in many forms - not all looking like a road.

So, is this a classic poem that is prompting us to write about choices and decisions and regret?

Frost wrote this poem when Europe was deep into WWI and a year before America would enter the war. Frost sent the poem to his friend Edward Thomas, who, like many readers to follow, did not see it as a joke (about him) but as a serious meditation on decision-making. He may have even connected the poem with the war and America's entry into it. Shortly after receiving this poem in a letter, Thomas enlisted in the army and was killed in France two months later.

At the end of the poem, the speaker says he will "be telling this with a sigh / Somewhere ages and ages hence."  Is that a sigh of content or regret?

The answer depends on how you view the final lines:

I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

Has the difference been a good one or is there the regret of the opening? The speaker really would like to have taken both roads, but knows "how way leads on to way, I doubted if I should ever come back."

And if both roads were both very similar, how much of a difference would there have been in his life if he had chosen the other?

There are certainly "roads" you did not take, but that may have been a good or bad decision. It may not have been been your choice. Or you may have make the choice casually or quite unaware that it would carry any significant consequences.

Submission Deadline: August 7, 2016