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.