May 28, 2016

Poetry and the Ouija Board

In an unusual approach to a writing prompt, starting in the late sixties and early seventies, American poet James Merrill became interested in the occult and began using a Ouija board regularly to communicate with spirits. He began to use those conversations for his poems.

For most readers, the Ouija board is a game and I’m sure Merrill wasn’t interested in the debunkers of its occult powers, but if you want some science, look into the psychophysiological explanation under ideomotor effect.  (For more on the Ouija board itself, see this related post.) 

With his partner David Jackson, Merrill spent more than 20 years transcribing supernatural communications during séances using a Ouija board. He published his first Ouija board narrative in a poem for each of the letters A through Z, calling it “The Book of Ephraim.”  It appeared in the collection Divine Comedies, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1977.

“The Book of Ephraim,” a 90-page narrative poem in that volume. It comes from those 20+ years using the Ouija board and revelations spelled out by Ephraim. That spirit was a Greek Jew once in the court of Tiberius. Merrill mixed his own personal memories with Ephraim’s messages. In Mirabell: Books of Number, a sequel to “The Book of Ephraim” he continued that path at even greater length.

Great poetry? I prefer other work by Merrill, but with a Pulitzer and with Mirabell getting the National Book Award for Poetry, don’t rely on my critical opinions.

Merrill is an interesting poet story.  He had a pretty sweet early life as the son of a founding partner of the Merrill Lynch investment firm. He had a governess that taught him French and German. They lived on a 30-acre estate in Southampton. Yes, James rejected much of that and lived a fairly simple life.

When Merrill thought he had exhausted the Ouija inspiration, the  “spirits” “ordered” (his word) him to write and publish more. That’s spooky. This led to further installments and finally a complete three-volume book titled The Changing Light at Sandover in 1982. It is a 560-page apocalyptic epic poem.

May 7, 2016

Poems of This Day for Mothers

There is a wide range of ways poets have written about mothers. collected a few examples as we approach Mother's Day.

I have posted several times poems concerning mothers.

Burt Kimmelman's poem "Taking Dinner to My Mother" served as a model for one of our writing prompts. Looking at it again now and thinking about another post I made the year my mother would be 92 feels strange to reread because my mother didn't make it to her December birthday that year.

I wrote about a Mary Oliver poem and how my mother might react to it. Burt's poem is knowingly about his mother just before she died.

But Mother's Day shouldn't be a sad day, even if your mother is gone, it is a time to think of the happier moments. Maybe read some funny poems by Hal Sirowitz from his collection Mother Said.
Or recall something as in Li-Young Lee's "I Ask My Mother to Sing" or this old poem for children by Robert Louis Stevenson.

To Any Reader

As from the house your mother sees
You playing round the garden trees,
So you may see, if you will look
Through the windows of this book,
Another child, far, far away,
And in another garden, play.
But do not think you can at all,
By knocking on the window, call
That child to hear you. He intent
Is all on his play-business bent.
He does not hear; he will not look,
Nor yet be lured out of this book.
For, long ago, the truth to say,
He has grown up and gone away,
And it is but a child of air
That lingers in the garden there.

But my favorite poem for my mom might be one by Billy Collins about a small gift we might give on this day as a child before we knew "that you can never repay your mother," I made at least one of the lanyards that Billy wrote about giving to his mom and I found it after she died in a wooden box that I had made in Cub Scouts along with some other small gifts I had given her.  I was just as sure of their value as Billy. And we were right.

May 1, 2016

Prompt: Never Born

Looking at the title of Thomas Lux's poem, "For My Sister," we might expect a poem on a fairly common subject. There are many poems addressing directly or indirectly sisters and brothers. But this poem is not typical.

Forever we've never spoken.
First, our mother died
and, soon after, our father.
He would've loved you, and I understood why
when your niece, my daughter, arrived.
You'd look like her. She is already twenty-five. 

This is a sister who was never born. The poet wonders "Were you younger than me, or older? / I always wished for younger."

With both his parents now gone, the poet wonders about what he is left with and what is lost.

I have a box of papers: a deed
for pastureland, naturalization forms,
boneyard plots, many pictures, certificates
of births and deaths—though none of,
nor for, nor of, you.

In Thomas Lux's collection, To the Left of Time  (Mariner Books) from which "For My Sister" (click link for the full poem) is taken, there are three sections. One section is semi-autobiographical poems and another is odes, and this poem seems that it might exist in both categories.

Lux is known for his satire and humor and his images both figurative and in plain language.

In this poem for a sister who never existed, he spends most of the poem talking about his mother and father and his own daughter. In some ways, it is a message that tries to update this sister on what her life would have been.

When I first read this poem, I thought of a story that my mother often told about the doctor telling her when she was first pregnant with me that she was going to have twins. There was no twin. Never was a twin, but my mother had prepared for two of us and as a child hearing this story, I sometimes wondered about that sister or brother that never appeared.

This month's prompt is to write a poem for or about a sibling who was never born.

Submission deadline: May 31, 2016