February 21, 2017

Poet Laureates and Presidents

The Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress, as they’re formally known, is appointed by the Librarian of Congress for a one year term, serving from October to May, though it is  fairly common to renew a Poet Laureate’s term for an additional year.

While the Poet Laureate’s primary duty is to write poetry that reflects the pulse of the nation, poets are also tasked with carrying on the legacy of former Poet Laureate Allen Tate by recruiting poets and authors to contribute to the Library of Congress’ Archive of Recorded Poetry and Literature. Since the archive’s inception in 1943, over 2,000 writers have contributed audio recordings of their work.

Who might serve in the post under President Trump?
US Poet Laureates and the Presidents They Served Under
US Poet Laureates and the Presidents They Served Under, by My Poetic Side

February 14, 2017

Inauguration Poems: A Democratic Tradition

Robert Frost at the inauguration of JFK in 1961

Summoning artists to participate
In the august occasions of the state
Seems something artists ought to celebrate.
  - from "Dedication" by Robert Frost

Donald Trump's inauguration did not feature a poet and a poem for the occasion. Does a poem on that historic day - or the absence of a poem - have any larger significance?

Former Poet Laureate of the United States Rita Dove said, "When you hear a poem, you both feel it enter you, but you also have to rise to meet it. That pulls the citizen in you out, into the air. That's why I think it's important and meaningful to have a poem read at a swearing-in of a president."

Occasional poetry has a much longer tradition than our country. Rita Dove was asked to read her poem, "Lady Freedom Among Us," at the bicentennial of the laying of the cornerstone of the Capitol in 1993.

Maya Angelou read "On the Pulse of Morning" and Miller Williams read "Of Hope and History" for Clinton's ceremonies.

I recall being excited that Robert Frost would read at John F. Kennedy's inauguration. He wrote a poem for the day titled "Dedication" (later retitled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration") but had trouble reading the sheet in the bright sunlight and so recited from memory his older, shorter poem, "The Gift Outright."

In 2009, Elizabeth Alexander read "Praise Song for the Morning," composed for the occasion of Barack Obama's first inauguration. Richard Blanco read "One Today" when Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term.

It is so odd that only these three Democratic presidents have had a poet at their ceremony. That really doesn't make sense to me. There are certainly many Republicans who read and write poetry. It is a tradition that should not be followed by only one party.

The Gift Outright
Poem recited at John F. Kennedy's Inauguration
by Robert Frost

The land was ours before we were the land’s
She was our land more than a hundred years
Before we were her people. She was ours
In Massachusetts, in Virginia,
But we were England’s, still colonials,
Possessing what we still were unpossessed by,
Possessed by what we now no more possessed.
Something we were withholding made us weak
Until we found out that it was ourselves
We were withholding from our land of living,
And forthwith found salvation in surrender.
Such as we were we gave ourselves outright
(The deed of gift was many deeds of war)
To the land vaguely realizing westward,
But still unstoried, artless, unenhanced,
Such as she was, such as she will become.

February 2, 2017

Prompt: Music and Memory

I was recently reading Oliver Sacks' book on music and memory, Musicophilia. A neurologist writing about music might seem like a way to ruin how music can move us emotionally. But, like all of Sacks' books that I have read, it illuminates the topic in new ways.

He is most interested in how memory and music mix. How does music, perhaps more than other things, bring back memories, sometime very old ones, associated with that music? There may not even be any obvious connection between the music and the memory. Music can lift us out of depression, and drag us further into it. The memories may be sad; the music may be sad or not.

Sacks tells us that music occupies more areas of our brain than language does. That gets my attention as a writer. We are a musical species.

Oliver Sacks was called by The New York Times "the poet laureate of medicine." He died in 2015 but leaves us with many wonderful books. He might still be best known for Awakenings, about people who suffered Parkinson's-like paralysis for decades after being stricken with sleeping sickness, That book was made into a wonderful film starring Robert Deniro and Robin Williams, which brought Sacks wider attention.

Musicophilia looks at some “musical misalignments,” such as children who are musical from birth, a man who suddenly finds musical ability after being hit by lightning, those with “amusia,” to whom music only sounds like noise, a man who has a memory that spans only seven seconds for everything but music and people whose memories have been rearranged by Alzheimer's Disease.

Oliver Sacks talks about Alzheimer's Disease and the power of music.

There is no shortage of poems about music, but that is not this month's writing prompt. This month, we are focusing on music that triggers memories.

Take a look at a few music poems, like "Music at My Mother's Funeral" by Faith Shearin, and you can see poetry about music that doesn't quite cross into memory.

In one of Percy Bysshe Shelley's short poems, he touches on this prompt.

Music, when soft voices die,
Vibrates in the memory—
Odours, when sweet violets sicken,
Live within the sense they quicken.

In Karl Shapiro's poem "The Piano Tuner's Wife" , my attention went to the closing stanza:

And in conclusion,
When there is no more audible dissent,
He plays his comprehensive keyboard song,
The loud proud paradigm,
The one work of art without content.

What is "the one work of art without content," that Shapiro is talking about? Is it the music - or the poem? Are we tuning our poems in the way of the piano tuner?

A simple model poem of music and memory is section 1 of Lucille Clifton's 7-part poem "far memory" which she titles "convent."

my knees recall the pockets
worn into the stone floor,
my hands, tracing against the wall
their original name, remember
the cold brush of brick, and the smell
of the brick powdery and wet
and the light finding its way in
through the high bars.
and also the sisters singing
at matins, their sweet music
the voice of the universe at peace
and the candles their light the light
at the beginning of creation
and the wonderful simplicity of prayer
smooth along the wooden beads
and certainly attended.

In this poem, I make a connection to "matins" which is a service of morning prayer in various churches, but is also the morning song of birds.

For this prompt, you hear something in the music. The music recalls a memory. Maybe you're playing the instrument, or singing, or listening to others sing or play, live or on a recording. Maybe the music is another kind - ocean waves or sounds from nature that play on the ear like music. Perhaps, you hear something that you never heard before; something no one has heard before.


Oliver Sacks official site: oliversacks.com