March 30, 2016

Simply Emily

Emily's poems look so simple, but are often so hard to understand  It is so interesting that the relative simplicity of her verse forms actually make it more difficult to pull meaning from our reading of her.

Emily Dickinson's poems often have images and metaphors taken from all around her, especially from nature, but they are just as often psychological landscapes.

Did she want to challenge her readers? Of course, the first published book of her poetry appeared in 1890, four years after her death. I wrote earlier this month about Sylvia Plath's collection, Ariel. I don't think there are many critics connecting Emily to Sylvia, but I see one connection. As with Plath's book, Emily's small poetry collection was also heavily edited by men. They were very selective and removed her unique syntax, spelling, and punctuation.

It took much longer for Emily's true verse to appear than it did for Plath's intended book. The complete, restored edition of Emily's poetry did not appear until 1998 - more than 100 years after the original publication.

I was never fond of allegory, but Em enjoyed using it. Was she writing for me? Was she writing for any of us? I think she was. As often as I hear poets say that they write "for themselves,"  they all are happy to have their poems published. 

What is the writing lesson of Emily's poems?  perhaps, it is similar to this passage from Mr. Whitman.
“The secret of it all, is to write in the gush, the throb, the flood, of the moment – to put things down without deliberation – without worrying about their style – without waiting for a fit time or place. I always worked that way. I took the first scrap of paper, the first doorstep, the first desk, and wrote – wrote, wrote…By writing at the instant the very heartbeat of life is caught.”  Walt Whitman

I wonder if Em's odd use of dashes instead of periods, commas, and the other typical punctuation. marks.  She also liked to capitalize words - not just words at the beginning of a line.  Why? Not totally clear. .

I have read that the use of dashes and of capital letters to emphasize and personify common nouns was something she may have found in the grammar text (Wells' Grammar of the English Language) that she used at Mount Holyoke Female Seminary.

I like those dashes. Fast and simple punctuation. Reminds me of the dashes you find in haiku. A  nice clear indicator to the reader to break, and sometimes a nice bridge to a new idea.

As a young reader, I imagined prim and proper Miss Dickinson as a good, religious girl. I discovered later she had a a lot of skepticism about traditional religion. She would fit nicely into that growing number of  Americans who say they are not "religious" but are "spiritual. She said that "Some keep the Sabbath going to Church" but she was quite content Sundays at home in her garden where "the sermon is never long.”

At Mount Holyoke, they organized students into three categories: "established Christians,” those who “expressed hope,” and those who were “without hope.” Guess which group Emily was in?  I bet she got picked last for softball too.

But, she had her books: Longfellow, Thoreau, Hawthorne, Emerson, George Eliot, and the Brownings.

She loved the Brontës. She wrote “All overgrown by cunning moss" for the death of Charlotte Brontë, 

All overgrown by cunning moss,
All interspersed with weed,
The little cage of “Currer Bell”
In quiet “Haworth” laid.

This Bird – observing others
When frosts too sharp became
Retire to other latitudes –
Quietly did the same –

But differed in returning –
Since Yorkshire hills are green –
Yet not in all the nests I meet –
Can Nightingale be seen –

Emily requested that a poem by that other Emily -  Brontë  - be read at her own funeral. I hope the family granted her wish. I hope it wasn't "Remembrance."  Maybe it was "Ah! Why, Because the Dazzling Sun."
Ah! why, because the dazzling sun
Restored my earth to joy
Have you departed, every one,
And left a desert sky?

March 27, 2016

Bill Murray: Poetry Editor

Bill Murray supports New York's Poets House and has been known to hang around with Billy Collins and others and read or post poems. In celebration of National Poetry Month, Oprah Magazine asked him if he would be interested in picking some poems for the magazine to print and to comment on them. He was and he did.

Galway Kinnell, Lucille Clifton, Thomas Lux and Naomi Shihab Nye are among the poets that Murray chose to include in the issue.

Some of his comments:

On Kinnell's "Oatmeal," about the poet sharing a meal with the late John Keats: "Alas, Kinnell, too, is now available for breakfast." (Kinnell passed away in 2014.)

Lux's odd romantic ode "I Love You Sweatheart" starts out:
A man risked his life to write the words.
A man hung upside down (an idiot friend
holding his legs?) with spray paint
to write the words on a girder fifty feet above
a highway.
The poem got this note: "This poem vibrates the insides of my ribs, where the meat is most tender."

Nye's poem "Famous" says:
I want to be famous in the way
a pulley is famous
or a buttonhole, not because it did
anything spectacular
but because it never forgot
what it could do.
Murray comments on it: "It's not the dream of being big. It's the dream of being real. That's what stands out to me."

March 25, 2016

National Poetry Month 20th Anniversary

April is National Poetry Month. Since 1996, we have a put more emphasis on things poetic for that month and it has become the largest literary celebration in the world. This year is the 20th anniversary celebration of poets and poetry.

I have been getting a copy of the official National Poetry Month poster and collecting them since the beginning. For 2016, artist Debbie Millman created one which features lines of poetry by some of our greatest poets. 

The Academy of American Poets distributes over 120,000 posters to classrooms, libraries, and bookstores throughout the United States and you can get one for free, while supplies last.

March 18, 2016

Plath's 'Ariel' at 50

Podkowiński-Szał uniesień-MNK.jpg

Ecstasy (1894), a painting by Władysław Podkowiński, depicting a ride similar to that described in "Ariel", Public Domain

Listening to a recent program from the Poetry Off the Shelf podcast, I am reminded that Ariel, Sylvia Plath's posthumous collection, is 50 years old.

Ariel was the second book of Sylvia Plath's poetry to be published, and was originally published in 1965, two years after her death by suicide.

Plath is credited with being a pioneer of the 20th-century style of writing called confessional poetry. Her poem "Daddy" is one of the best-known examples of this genre.

The poems in the 1965 edition of Ariel are filled with frightening psychic landscapes, and were very different from her first collection, Colossus.

In 1963, Plath's semi-autobiographic novel The Bell Jar was published under the pseudonym "Victoria Lucas" (and reissued in 1966 under her own name).

In the collection's title poem, a woman is riding her horse in the country at dawn. I recall reading the poem in a college class and the professor telling us that there were three Ariels to consider.

One was Sylvia Plath's own horse, which she loved to ride. Second, was that androgynous sprite from Shakespeare's The Tempest which I had read that same semester and quite loved. The third allusion, if she intended it, was to Jerusalem, which was also called Ariel in the Old Testament.

I don't know that I have even now completely understood her poetic "Ariel."

In the 1965 edition of Ariel, her husband, the poet Ted Hughes, had changed Plath's chosen selection and arrangement by dropping twelve poems and adding twelve others.

He also asked the poet Robert Lowell to write an introduction because Plath cited Lowell's book Life Studies as having had a profound influence over the poetry she was writing at the time.

Another influence was Anne Sexton who was similarly exploring some of the same dark and personal subjects that Plath was using in Ariel.

In 2004 a new edition of Ariel was published which for the first time restored the selection and arrangement of the poems as Plath had left them.

This edition has a foreword by her daughter Frieda Hughes.

Sample several of the poems:
Fever 103°
Morning Song

More about Sylvia Plath.

March 12, 2016

That Train in the Distance Carried Harry Potter

While searching online for some images of trains to use for this month's prompt, I came across a video of the Jacobite steam train.  It seemed familiar, though I have never been to Scotland where it runs.

The Jacobite is a steam locomotive-hauled tourist train service that operates over part of the West Highland Railway Line in Scotland. It has been operating under various names and with different operators every summer since 1984. It has played an important role in sustaining a scenic route.

The Jacobite runs a distance of 41 miles between Fort William and Mallaig.

The route is also the same shown in the Harry Potter films.

The company running the Jacobite service provided Warner Brothers with the train used as the Hogwarts Express in all of the movies and allowed them use of the Jacobite's route for filming.

Photo: Scottish Tourist Board

March 9, 2016

Prompt: The Sound Of

I listen every day to the few minutes of podcasted radio from Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac,  which features a poem and several literary calendar items.  He has featured four poems by Faith Shearin already this year. I enjoyed them and it set me off to buy two of her books. (An excellent byproduct of his podcast.)

I can see why he likes her poems. They "accessible and meaningful, without gimmick and possessing a music and imagination."  All necessary qualities for a poem that you will hear read aloud (although you can read the poem more closely online too).

The poem I'm using as our March prompt is one he read last year. “The Sound of a Train” is from Faith Shearin's collection, Telling the Bees (Stephen F. Austin State University Press, 2015).

Even now, I hear one and I long to leave
without a suitcase or a plan; I want to step
onto the platform and reach for
the porter’s hand and buy a ticket
to some other life; I want to sit
in the big seats and watch fields
turn into rivers or cities. I want to eat
cake on the dining car’s
unsteady tablecloths, to sleep
while whole seasons
slip by. I want to be a passenger
again: a person who hears the name
of a place and stands up, a person
who steps into the steam of arrival.

As soon as I heard her poem, I thought of Paul Simon's song, "Train In The Distance." (I included a YouTube of the song and lyrics below.)  The poem and song have different stories, but both of them spring from that distant train sound that seems to conjure up certain feelings for people. I'm not sure that I can pin the feeling down to one word. Is it longing?

Everybody loves the sound of a train in the distance
Everybody thinks its true

What is the point of this story?
What information pertains?
The thought that life could be better
Is woven indelibly into our hearts and our brains
Like a train in the distance
There is a form known as "sound poetry" which bridges literary and musical composition and is usually intended more for performance than the page. That is not what this month's prompt involves. And , although using sound devices isn't forbidden here, those resources used by poets to convey and reinforce meaning  through the use of sound, is also not this month's prompt.

Though you may want to use assonance, consonance, dissonance or even cacophany in your poem, the prompt is quite simply to write a poem about the sound of something or someone. What is a sound that immediately evokes some feeling or memory in you? Is it a natural sound, like that of a barred owl hooting "Who cooks for you?"  Is it the sound of waves as you fall asleep near the ocean?  Is the sound of children at play or of your mother's voice?

Submission Deadline: April 2, 2016