April 28, 2017

The Quiet Passion of Emily

The new film, A Quiet Passion, is a story about Emily Dickinson. I had brunch with two friends last weekend and they had seen the film. One, an English major but not particularly a poetry reader, loved the movie. The other, not a poetry reader, didn't like it at all. And that seems to be the split between critics and audiences generally.

It is difficult to portray writers writing on screen because it is a solitary and not very interesting act. You need to show a life. I have always thought that Edgar Allen's life story is more interesting than his poetry, and that tale would be more appealing to contemporary audiences than his fiction. Emily Dickinson's life, as far as most people know it, does not seem to be movie material.

If you view Emily as a reclusive spinster who sat in her sepia room and wrote poems that she would hide away, then you're correct. Not movie magic. But it seems that this film has other ideas.

A Quiet Passion opens with Emily getting booted out of Mount Holyoke College. This Christian women's university was not happy with her unorthodox religious views. Emily the rebel.

My English major friend said that Emily in the film is witty and sassy. She takes digs at suitors, family and editors. She doesn't hide in her room all day, and is someone who would be good for lunch conversation.

I doubt that many of us would want to live her Amherst home life. She did escape from midnight to 3 am (when her father "allowed" her to write) to poetry, and there she put down, if somewhat cryptically, her real thoughts that probably didn't get expressed at the family dinner table.

Emily Dickinson was born in 1830 and died in 1886. The film covers her schooling to her death. She ages in the film through multiple actresses: Emma Bell as young Emily, becomes the older Emily through Cynthia Nixon in a family portrait session. One of my brunch reviewers liked this and one though they just should have aged Bell with makeup.

I read Richard B. Sewall's bio of Emily in college and that book changed my mind about her life. It lightened those dark photos of her and blew off some of the dust that has covered Emily since her poems were published.

Have you seen the film?  Give us a review in the comments here or on our Facebook pages.

And, of course, read some of her poems. Here's a free sampler to begin at poets.org

This video was done when an exhibition at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York also took a brighter view of Emily's life.

April 21, 2017

Extending This Month of Poetry

The Dodge Poetry program has offered since 1992 a "Spring and Fountain" series for teachers in New Jersey that meet for several weeks in locations around the state. This year, they added a one-week online version (registration closes 4/21/17) that is open nationwide to teachers, administrators, counselors, librarians and staff at accredited institutions.

Although this was a part of the National Poetry Month celebration, the end of April does not mean the end of poetry.

The Dodge folks sent out a packet of poems for online participants without attribution. You don't know who wrote the poems until they send a list of attributions at the end of the program. (Sure, some people probably couldn't wait and did some online searching.) Why the anonymity? So that you read "as free of judgment and preconceived notions as possible."

Below are a dozen poems that you can try out online that were in the packets used. These are not anonymous.

Dodge suggested that you take some time to slow down and read each poem silently to yourself, then out loud once or a few times. Then, "write a note to the poet who wrote the poem or to the speaker of the poem. It could be a quick thank you note, a series of questions you would like to ask the poet, or a response to questions raised by the poem. This note is not meant to be analysis of the poem, but rather a reflection of your personal response to what you’ve read, the feelings or questions that have bubbled up from a deeper place inside you."

Maybe the exercise will prompt a poem of your own.
  1. What Kind of Times Are These
  2. The New Religion
  3. sorrow song
  4. Psalm for Kingston
  5. A Partial History of My Stupidity
  6. Attitude
  7. Zen of Tipping
  8. The New Religion
  9. The Blue Dress in Mother's Closet
  10. Part of Eve's Discussion
  11. The Universe as Primal Scream  
  12. After Making Love We Hear Footsteps

April 10, 2017

Prompt: Poetry of Witness

It has become very difficult for me to watch the news the past year - and yet I have watched more news than ever before. I suspect the same may be true for many of you.

The news creeps into my poems, though I think I have intentionally tried to keep it out. There is so much anger, deceit and ugliness in the news that I don't want it in my poems.

But poets have a tradition of being witnesses and reporters of their times.  When I came upon the poem "Let America be America Again" by Langston Hughes the title echoed at a slant to me like the Donald Trump "Make America Great Again" campaign hat-mantra.

His poem begins"
Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed--
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

In Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by poet Carolyn Forché, over 140 poets who "endured conditions of historical and social extremity during the twentieth century—through exile, state censorship, political persecution, house arrest, torture, imprisonment, military occupation, warfare, and assassination write and give poetic witness to the times in which they lived.

Against Forgetting is organized according to historical tragedy, starting with the Armenian Genocide and proceeding through the twentieth century to the pro-democratic demonstrations in China. Each section is preceded by a short statement that gives historical background for the events in order to place the poems in a proper context. Within the sections, the poets are organized chronologically according to their year of birth and editor Forché presents a brief biographical note elucidating the poet’s personal experiences with the historical situation.

A companion volume to Against Forgetting, Poetry of Witness, collects 300 poems composed while their authors awaited execution, endured imprisonment, fought on the battlefield, or labored on the brink of breakdown or death.

We all bear witness to historical events, hopefully not as extreme as those situation, and some poets choose to write about them. These anthologies argue that such poets are a perennial feature of human history.

These poems reveal the ways in which tragic events leave marks upon the imagination.

Even poems that do not explicitly take historical events as their main subject matter may contain the events beneath the surface of the language.

In “Some Days” by Philip Terman from his collection Our Portion, there is that feeling some of us might have now of not wanting to bear witness.
Some days you have to turn off the news
and listen to the bird or truck
or the neighbor screaming out her life.
You have to close all the books and open
all the windows so that whatever swirls
inside can leave and whatever flutters
against the glass can enter. Some days
you have to unplug the phone and step
out to the porch and rock all afternoon
and allow the sun to tell you what to do.
The whole day has to lie ahead of you
like railroad tracks that drift off into gravel.
Some days you have to walk down the wooden
staircase through the evening fog to the river,
where the peach roses are closing,
sit on the grassy bank and wait for the two geese.

Carolyn Forché's own prose poem, "The Colonel," is a powerful and disturbing "documentary poem" that started as a prose piece that reached her editor who felt it was a poem.   Read the poem and hear Forché introduce and read it.

This month our writing prompt is to write a poem of witness, a documentary poem based on something in the current news from anywhere in the world. What event is affecting you? How has it entered you and your life? What can you say about it that may be helpful to others today and in the future? You own situation need not be that you "endured conditions of historical and social extremity" and the event may not be one that has attracted national or worldwide attention. In fact, it may be that those events are the ones that need you as witness.

Deadline for submissions to this prompt: May 6, 2017.


April 4, 2017

Writers as Diarists and the Diamonds of the Dustheap

Do you keep a diary or journal? Many writers do.

People seem to use the terms "diary" and journal" interchangeably, but I have always thought of them as different forms. I think of a diary as something done daily and more likely to record events of the day. I myself started writing one when I was in high school and I did try to write every day for awhile. Over the years (I have 12 bound blank-book volumes) it has become more periodic - weekly or even monthly summaries of what has happened in my life and thoughts about those events.

The Brain Pickings blog posted recently about famous writers on keeping a diary and it got me thinking about this practice which I have done for almost fifty years.

Sylvia Plath started writing in a diary at age eleven. Her ten volumes were posthumously edited and published as The Unabridged Journals of Sylvia Plath and she saw her diary as a tool to “warm up” her formal writing.

“You want to write, you need to keep an honest, unpublishable journal that nobody reads, nobody but you,” Madeleine L’Engle counseled in her advice to aspiring writers.

W.H. Auden once described his journal as “a discipline for [his] laziness and lack of observation.”

Virginia Woolf says in A Writer’s Diary that the value of journaling is in granting us unfiltered access to the rough gems of our own minds, ordinarily dismissed by the self-censorship of “formal” writing. Although she thinks that "The habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and the stumbles." I appreciate that she also notes that "this diary writing does not count as writing, since I have just re-read my year’s diary and am much struck by the rapid haphazard gallop at which it swings along, sometimes indeed jerking almost intolerably over the cobbles."

I think that some writers take their diary too seriously. The want it to sound polished, as if it will be read by their biographers one day. Reading my journals from high school, I was definitely writing with the idea of a future reader - a wife, my children? I included explanations for things that I didn't need explanations of (though those may come in handy in old age!).

The journals written after I had children became much more personal. they would probably read to others as being written in a a kind of code in parts. No explanations.

Should it be written quickly and without the self-censorship of overthinking? Woolf would probably not like my slower journaling. She says that "if it were not written rather faster than the fastest type-writing, if I stopped and took thought, it would never be written at all; and the advantage of the method is that it sweeps up accidentally several stray matters which I should exclude if I hesitated, but which are the diamonds of the dustheap."

I do scribble the thoughts quickly (and my handwriting suffers). I don't revise. I never use material from my journals for poems or other more formal writing.