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 geograph.org.uk

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 www.poetryfoundation.org 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

July 8, 2016

Conversations: When Is a Poem Finished?


People often cite the poet Paul Valéry as the source of the quote " A poem is never finished; it is only abandoned."  That is actually a paraphrase of Valéry by W. H. Auden from 1965. (See W. H. Auden: Collected Poems "Author's Forewords.") What Valéry originally wrote was less of a sound bite: "A work is never completed except by some accident such as weariness, satisfaction, the need to deliver, or death: for, in relation to who or what is making it, it can only be one stage in a series of inner transformations." But many poets can identify with the sentiments in either.

When do you let go of a poem and stop revising?

An article about Marianne Moore and her continual revision compares her to any contemporary poet who uses software like Word and "tacks changes" leaving digital footprints of where the poem has traveled.

Moore doesn't seem to have ever been satisfied that her poems were completed. Her poem “Poetry,” first appeared in 1919 and was about 30. In the published 1967 version it was down to 3 lines. She also changed titles - "A Graveyard” became “A Grave,” for example.

In the Internet age, we have lots changes made to things published online - from simple typos in a poem or a Facebook post, to Wikipedia entries (always being revised). Lots of revisionist history.

Google Docs tracks each edit to the page. But if you're well known and post a Tweet, then decide to delete it after you get some bad feedback, chances are the original has been captured in a screenshot by someone for posterity.

When is a poem finished for you?  Pre-digital, when I wrote all my poetry in longhand on paper, I saved all the drafts which included revisions and proofreading changes. When I typed the poem, I considered it finished. As a hunt-and-peck typist, retyping something was an effort and I avoided it. When an electric typewriter with a correction tool appeared, and then with the first word processors, it was so much easier that I increased my revisions.

For me, most of my poems are finished when they are published. I can only think of two times when I changed a poem after it appeared in a publication. Perhaps, if I ever make it to the point where I need to put together that "Selected Poems" collection, that will change.

That article views Moore with the ways she changed her work as "more of a digital-age artist than any of her contemporaries. Her poems were as malleable as something written online."

I actually know several very well known poets who still avoid the computer, email and word processing. Two of them have "typists" who interpret their handwriting and print copies which they edit with a pencil and give back for retyping. There may be some thoughtful advantages to that process, and some of you might do the same thing even though you are your own typist.

As another of our online "Conversations," let us know in a comment here about your revision process and particularly how you know when a poem is finished. Are you easy about letting go, or do you revise until as long as you can, like Marianne Moore?

July 1, 2016

Allusions to 'The Wasteland'

As an undergrad, I was quite enamored by the poetry of T.S. Eliot. It started with Prufrock and "The Wasteland" and led me to The Four Quartets.  I was in love with all the allusions to other poems, mythology etc. It impressed me. It was a puzzle.

I'm not as enamored by poetry that is a puzzle as I used to be, but I still admire Eliot's poetry.

There continue to be allusions to Eliot in pop culture, especially in music - Genesis, Manic Street Preachers, Arcade Fire and Bob Dylan are all artists that have used Eliot's poetry in their lyrics.

Bob Dylan references "The Waste Land" with the line “in the wasteland of your mind” from “When The Night Comes Falling from the Sky” and in his “Desolation Row” he has “Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot / Fighting in the captain’s tower” - probably over the edits Pound made to the poem.

Via Open Culture, I found a clip of Dylan riffing on "The Waste Land" on his Theme Time Radio Hour show that he did about ten years ago.

After listening to that, you might to hear the real thing read by Tom himself. He's not a great reader, but he does pronounce words and break lines as he intended them to be.

When I read "The Wasteland" in college I read it with a woman classmate that I was also enamored with, and one of things we shared was poetry. She was also into astrology and she really liked this section of the poem.

Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante,
Had a bad cold, nevertheless
Is known to be the wisest woman in Europe,
With a wicked pack of cards. Here, said she,
Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!)
Here is Belladonna, the Lady of the Rocks,
The lady of situations.
Here is the man with three staves, and here the Wheel,
And here is the one-eyed merchant, and this card,
Which is blank, is something he carries on his back,
Which I am forbidden to see. I do not find
The Hanged Man. Fear death by water.
I see crowds of people, walking round in a ring.
Thank you. If you see dear Mrs. Equitone,
Tell her I bring the horoscope myself:
One must be so careful these days.