December 21, 2019

Moving with the Earth Into Winter with a Few Poems

frost flowers on my car window

A Winter Solstice actually occurs twice a year, once in December in the Northern Hemisphere (also called December solstice and Midwinter) and once in June in the Southern Hemisphere (also called June solstice). In the Northern Hemisphere, it is usually December 21 or 22 and in the Southern Hemisphere, it's usually June 20 or 21.

In 2010, the solstice and Full Moon coincided and in 2009 I wrote a post about another coincidence of a Full Moon on December 31 to end the year that was also the second full moon of the month, and so was considered a "Blue Moon.”

Solstices have long been celebrated and written about. It is the shortest day of the year and the longest night, and it marks the astronomical first day of winter.

solstice sunrise at Stonehenge

Solstices are one of the oldest known holidays in human history. Anthropologists believe that solstice celebrations go back at least 30,000 years.

You probably know that many of the most ancient stone structures made by human beings were designed to pinpoint the precise date of the solstice. The most famous example is the stone circles of Stonehenge which were placed to receive the first rays of the midwinter sun.

We often see winter - in everyday life and in poetry - as a depressing time of year. Death symbolism abounds. At least in northern climes, you tend to be confined indoors. Outside looks bare and dead. But solstice celebrations focus more on hope with the reversal of shortening days. It is more seen as a time to celebrate the rebirth of the year.

The word solstice derives from Latin sol (sun) and sistere (to stand still) since to the ancients the sun did seem to stand still now. In Greek mythology, the gods and goddesses had their meetings on the winter and summer solstices.

In many cultural histories, this is the time when virgin mothers give birth to sacred sons: Rhiannon to Pryderi, Isis to Horus, Demeter to Persephone and Mary to Jesus.

You can take a scientific look at the solstice. We know that as the Earth travels around the Sun in its orbit, the north-south position of the Sun changes over the course of the year. That is because of the changing orientation of the Earth's tilted rotation axes with respect to the Sun.  When we arrive at the points of maximum tilt (marked at the equator), we get the summer and winter solstice.

Two poems I found in my Full Moon and solstice search became models for a past writing prompt that uses the solstice (and perhaps the Full Moon) without falling into the cliches of winter and moon symbolism.

The first is "December Moon" from May Sarton's collection Coming into Eighty.

The second model is Mary Oliver's poem "Herons in Winter in the Frozen Marsh" (from Owls and Other Fantasies: Poems and Essays)

William Carlos Williams' "Approach of Winter" says:

The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together,
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine,—
like no leaf that ever was—
edge the bare garden.

Some people are sad or suffer from SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) in winter, so as an antidote have your own solstice celebrations and try to focus on the hope of this day starting the reversal of shortening days. It is as a time to celebrate the rebirth of the year.

How about this stanza from "Toward the Winter Solstice" by Timothy Steele.

Some wonder if the star of Bethlehem
Occurred when Jupiter and Saturn crossed;
It’s comforting to look up from this roof
And feel that, while all changes, nothing’s lost,
To recollect that in antiquity
The winter solstice fell in Capricorn
And that, in the Orion Nebula,
From swirling gas, new stars are being born.

Here are a few more to read that have a range of reactions to the Winter Solstice.

"Again a Solstice" by Jennifer Chang
"Fairbanks Under the Solstice" by John Haines
You can also listen to Robert Graves' "To Juan at the Winter Solstice"

Have a great solstice, winter, and new year!

December 8, 2019

Prompt: Rereading and Rewriting

In the poem "Rereading Frost" by Linda Pastan, she confronts a problem that many poets probably confront at some point. Is there anything left to write about or has everything been written?

Sometimes I think all the best poems
have been written already,
and no one has time to read them,
so why try to write more?

This is not a problem only for poets. All writers, inventors, scientists, painters, filmmakers, and other creators are faced with this problem. Is there anything new and original to create?

Of course, the answer is that there are always new things. The world changes. We change.

But the more poetry you read, the more likely you are to realize that a lot of topics have been covered already. The real problem might be that you may feel that someone else has already written a better poem than you could ever write.

Billy Collins' poem "The Trouble with Poetry" addresses this issue too.

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks.

We hope you won't close your notebook (or laptop) and sit back and stop writing. Collins didn't stop. In fact, he continues:

But mostly poetry fills me
with the urge to write poetry,
to sit in the dark and wait for a little flame
to appear at the tip of my pencil.
And along with that, the longing to steal,
to break into the poems of others

Like Pastan, we read and reread poems and poets and we are inspired to write our own. Our poem may complement the original or go against it. It might update the topic of the poem. William Shakespeare writes about love and you do a 21st-century update on his approach.

Like Collins, we might steal a bit from the other poet - a line, a title, an image, the idea for the poem itself.

In Pastan's poem, she has more of a mixed response to rereading Frost's poem.

And I decide not to stop trying,
at least not for a while, though in truth
I'd rather just sit here reading
how someone else has been acquainted
with the night already, and perfectly.

For this month's prompt, we ask you to reread and rewrite - a poem that begins in response to rereading some favorite poem. It might be one you know you can't do any better. It might be one that you can rewrite in a new way. Let the reader in on the poem or poet that inspired you.

Submission Deadline: December 31, 2019

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November 12, 2019

A Master Class

The "Master Class" is something I associated with acting, but now there are ones on many of the creative arts, especially online. In his MasterClass on "Reading and Writing Poetry," Billy Collins covers some of the basics like subject and form, rhyme and meter. But you can tell (even in this excerpt) that he's more interested in the pleasures of a well-turned poem.

Collins is one of the best-selling contemporary poets in the United States. That works for and against him with critics who sometimes see his persona and humor as almost "too accessible." I think they are wrong.

Besides being called “America’s Favorite Poet” by the Wall Street Journal, he served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and is also a former New York State Poet Laureate. He’s been honored with the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry. He’s taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and for much of his life at Lehman College, and is a distinguished professor at the City University of New York.

The MasterClass syllabus reads:
• Using humor as a serious strategy
• The fundamental elements of poetry
• Billy’s writing process
• Turning a poem
• Exploring subjects
• Rhyme and meter
• Sound pleasures
• Finding your voice
• Using form to engage readers
• The visual distinctions of poetry

There are other MasterClass offerings that might interest poets: Neil Gaiman teaches The Art of Storytelling, Margaret Atwood on Creative Writing, and even David Lynch on Creativity and Film.

Of course, these classes have a cost, but there are lots of free "classes" online too. Just staying in the Collins section of YouTube, you can hear him on the great poets.

Five of Collins' poems were the inspiration for animated films, which might seem like an odd way to look at poetry. Here he talks about the films in a TED Talk.

If you're like me, any good poetry reading is a kind of class. I always find myself inspired and making notes at readings of things that I should try to write about in my own poetry.

Here is a full reading by Billy Collins at the Strand Book Store in 2012 at the time of his collection Horoscopes for the Dead. If you have never had the chance at hearing Collins live, this is a good alternative. I think you may be inspired to write.

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November 4, 2019

Prompt: Get the News from Poems

Late in his career, William Carlos Williams wrote a long poem titled “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower.” Toward the end of the poem, he wrote: "It is difficult / to get the news from poems / yet men die miserably every day / for lack / of what is found there."

Is news what is found in poems? Or is what we get from poems not news but what we need to live?

In B.J. Ward's poem, a man decides to get his news not from the newspaper but from Shakespeare's Othello.

Daily Grind
by BJ Ward

A man awakes every morning
and instead of reading the newspaper
reads Act V of Othello.
He sips his coffee and is content
that this is the news he needs
as his wife looks on helplessly.
The first week she thought it a phase,
his reading this and glaring at her throughout,
the first month an obsession,
the first year a quirkiness in his character,
and now it’s just normal behavior,
this mood setting in over the sliced bananas,
so she tries to make herself beautiful
to appease his drastic taste.
And every morning, as he shaves
the stubble from his face, he questions everything—
his employees, his best friend’s loyalty,
the women in his wife’s canasta club,
and most especially the wife herself
as she puts on lipstick in the mirror next to him
just before he leaves. This is how he begins
each day of his life—as he tightens the tie
around his neck, he remembers the ending,
goes over it word by word in his head,
the complex drama of his every morning
always unfolded on the kitchen table,
a secret Iago come to light with every sunrise
breaking through his window, the syllables
of betrayal and suicide always echoing
as he waits for his car pool, just under his lips
even as he pecks his wife goodbye.

from Jackleg Opera: Collected Poems, 1990 to 2013 (North Atlantic Books)

In the play, Othello confronts Desdemona about committing adultery and then strangles her in their bed. But Emilia realizes what her husband Iago has done and she exposes him. He kills her. Othello now realizes, too late, that Desdemona is innocent. He stabs Iago but doesn't kill him, saying he would rather have Iago live the rest of his life in pain. Then Iago and Othello are arrested for the murders of Roderigo, Emilia, and Desdemona. Othello commits suicide.

Othello is not a comedy.

If the "daily grind" is the difficult, routine and monotonous tasks of daily work - the newspaper, coffee, breakfast, shaving, the tie - then reading Othello breaks that routine. But "the complex drama of his every morning" was always there, "always unfolded on the kitchen table." And now, "a secret Iago come to light with every sunrise."

What news did the husband find in this play-in-verse?  Is it the syllables of "betrayal and suicide always echoing" and he waits for his ride to work? Is that what is "just under his lips / even as he pecks his wife goodbye?"

This is not a comedy either.

But returning to that poem by William Carlos Williams, "Asphodel, That Greeny Flower," here the poet finds the news in the form of a love poem written to his wife. But this long love poem also has its dark moments.

My heart rouses
                        thinking to bring you news
                                                of something
that concerns you
                        and concerns many men.  Look at
                                                what passes for the new.
You will not find it there but in
                        despised poems.
                                                It is difficult
to get the news from poems
                        yet men die miserably every day
                                                for lack
of what is found there.
                        Hear me out
                                                for I too am concerned
and every man
                        who wants to die at peace in his bed

Allen Ginsberg, a great admirer of William Carlos Williams, titled one of his books Planet News. That book contains a poem about getting the news of Williams' death. The poem is called “Death News” and it is about his first reactions upon hearing of the death of his elder.

Ezra Pound said, “Poetry is news that stays news.”

So much news by poets.

This month we are writing poems about the news. It is a deceptively challenging prompt. It might mean writing about the news as it is found in poetry, or the poetry found in the news.  As Williams might have said, this is the information that doesn’t become dated or irrelevant with the passage of time.

Submission deadline: November 30, 2019


October 31, 2019

All Hallows Eve and Haunted Houses

Image by Shrikesh Kumar from Pixabay
Today is All Hallows’ Eve or as it is more commonly known, Halloween. In modern times, we have adopted a very old tradition of marking the supernatural blending of the world of the living and the world of the dead.

The origins go back to a Celtic holiday called Samhain which marked the start of winter and the end of the harvest, which included the slaughtering of animals for winter food.

The belief was that the coming darkness of winter meant that spirits of the dead could cross over to the world of the living to visit or haunt them.

In the Middle Ages, the Christian church took many pagan holidays and adopted and adapted them to their own purposes to bring pagans into the faith. The day after Halloween became known as All Saints’ or All Hallows’ Day meant to honor Christian saints and martyrs. In the church's version, the dead saints could intercede in a good way in the affairs of the living.

In those earlier days, churches held masses for the dead and put bones of the saints on display on All Saints Day, and the night before was All Hallows’ Eve (not Halloween) and people baked "soul cakes" lit bonfires and set out lanterns carved out of turnips to keep the ghosts of the dead away.

Haunted Houses
by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

All houses wherein men have lived and died
Are haunted houses. Through the open doors
The harmless phantoms on their errands glide,
With feet that make no sound upon the floors.

We meet them at the door-way, on the stair,
Along the passages they come and go,
Impalpable impressions on the air,
A sense of something moving to and fro.

There are more guests at table than the hosts
Invited; the illuminated hall
Is thronged with quiet, inoffensive ghosts,
As silent as the pictures on the wall.

The stranger at my fireside cannot see
The forms I see, nor hear the sounds I hear;
He but perceives what is; while unto me
All that has been is visible and clear.

So from the world of spirits there descends
A bridge of light, connecting it with this,
O’er whose unsteady floor, that sways and bends,
Wander our thoughts above the dark abyss.

excerpted from “Haunted Houses” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Public domain.

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October 24, 2019

Invented Forms: A Square Poem

Lewis Carroll (Charles Dodgson) in an 1856 self-portrait 

I have lived in the free verse world for most of my time writing poetry, but every once and awhile I like to work in a form. That is also true of the prompts that appear on Poets Online.

Though there are plenty of established forms to choose from, poets still like to invent and modify forms.

When I decided to do my own poem-a-day project for a year I looked at a number of short forms but ended up with my own invented form that I called the "ronka."

Paul Szlosek has a website, Paul's Poetry Playground, that features many unusual forms, established and invented, along with poetry quotes and other topics poetic.

Recently, he wrote about the "Square" poem. Paul says that, as is sometimes the case, two or more poetic forms will share the same name. That is the case with the square poem.

"One version often referred to as the ‘classic’ square poem is simply a poem in which the number of syllables per line is equal to the number of lines. In the other variation, the line length is counted not in syllables but in words (isoverbal prosody), the amount of words in each line being the same as the number of lines."

The square is sometimes attributed to Lewis Carroll of Alice in Wonderland fame.

These poems can be read the same vertically (from top to bottom) as well as the conventional way from left to right. Some are written with 6 words in 6 lines, but it can also be 4 words in 4 lines or any number.

Here is one written by Carroll:

A Square Poem

I often wondered when I cursed,
Often feared where I would be—
Wondered where she’d yield her love,
When I yield, so will she.
I would her will be pitied!
Cursed be love! She pitied me.

Here is Paul's take on the 6×6 square poem.

Past Confessions

What I did not admit then,
I do not remember that well.
Did not you once say “please
not remember”? Once you would not
admit that. Say, would you believe?
Then, well, please not believe me.

The Lewis Carroll square poem could be any length, but Paul recommends maxing out at 6×6. Starting out, you might try a 2x2 or 4x4, as he does here:

Instructions on Grieving

Don’t mourn the dead.
Mourn the love lost,
the love left unclaimed,
dead – lost, unclaimed possibilities.

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October 16, 2019

Milton's Copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio

Recently, it was discovered that a copy of Shakespeare’s First Folio, housed in the Free Library of Philadelphia, once belonged to John Milton, author of Paradise Lost.

There are other First Folios in the world but this one contains what experts now widely believe to be Milton’s notes on Shakespeare, in his own handwriting. Suddenly, we can read what one of the greatest English language poets was thinking as he engaged with Shakespeare’s plays.

The connection was made by Cambridge University’s Jason Scott-Warren who was reading an essay by Penn State’s Claire M.L. Bourne about this copy of the First Folio when the handwriting in the notes started to look familiar. They connected (via Twitter).

Reading Milton's notes and changes to the text we can ask was he editing Shakespeare to make the poetry "better" or was he fixing what he saw as inconsistencies among the different versions that were in print?

You can listen to Bourne and Scott-Warren discuss what this discovery means, how technology (including Twitter) has changed their work, and what comes next on a podcast from the Shakespeare Unlimited series from the Folger Shakespeare Library

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October 9, 2019


I saw this video, "Gladiolus," based on a poem by Christine Stewart-Nunez (from Bluewords Greening , Terrapin Books ). The film adaptation of the poem is by Terrance Stewart.

Bluewords Greening is a book about motherhood, love and family, and fear and failure based on her son and his diagnosis with a rare form of epilepsy. The “bluewords” result from his aphasia.

The video and poem also made me think about the flower itself. Gladiolus comes from Latin, the diminutive of gladius, a sword. It is in the iris family. It is sometimes called the "sword lily" but is usually called by its generic name (plural gladioli).

My mother loved flowers but would not let me plant gladioli. She said they were "funeral flowers" because they often appeared in floral arrangements there.

But poets have written about them in that and other ways.

In "Nothing Stays Put," Amy Clampitt writes of florist flowers taken from their natural setting.

...Orchids, opulence by the pailful, just slightly
fatigued by the plane trip from Hawaii, are
disposed on the sidewalks; alstroemerias, freesias
fattened a bit in translation from overseas; gladioli
likewise estranged from their piercing ancestral crimson...

In "The Onion Memory" by Craig Raine,
Those crustaceous gladioli, on the sly,
reveal the crimson flower-flesh
inside their emerald armor plate.
Things revealed as the voice of the poem slices onions while his ex-wife, now a friend, sews a dress -
This is the quiet echo--flesh--
white muscle on white muscle,
intimately folded skin,
finished with a satin rustle.

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October 2, 2019

Prompt: Seasonal Change

The autumnal equinox has passed, days are shorter, colors are vivid in nature although they are also fading and perhaps dying, or at least going into a kind of seasonal hibernation.

I saw Elizabeth Alexander's poem "Equinox" on the Academy of American Poets "Teach This Poem" project page. (read and listen to the poet read her poem)

I have written elsewhere about the signs in nature and weather lore are believed by many to signal the change of seasons and act as signs of the weather to come. The changing of the seasons has long interested poets.

In late summer and fall, worker bees work long hours collecting enough nectar to feed and maintain the colony throughout the winter. Most bees stay in the hives all winter, but new queens hibernate alone underground. The former queen, the male bees and the female worker bees fall in autumn, dying out. In her poem, Alexander writes the bees in late September and their late burst of energy.

Now is the time of year when bees are wildand eccentric. They fly fast and in crampedloop-de-loops, dive-bomb clusters of conversants

She writes that the bees are "dervishes because they are dying" but the poem moves on to how Alexander connects this sign from nature to her own world and her grandmother.

Our October prompt is to write about the changing of seasons, but you need to connect it with something outside of nature - perhaps, your life, or something in the news or from history.

Autumn is a lot more than bees. And there are four seasons (and those odd days between seasons) to choose from for your writing.

Submission Deadline: October 31, 2019

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September 30, 2019

Not Rejected, But Declined

All poets who send their work out into the publishing world know about rejection. As I sort through the September submissions to our writing prompt, I'm thinking about rejection. It's hard to get a poem rejected, but it is also difficult to reject a poem.

As I have written here before, some submissions are very easy to reject because they do not address the writing prompt. Poets Online is no different from many other journals and online journals; you need to read the submission guidelines and get a sense of what kinds of poems have been accepted.

Poets Online only accepts one poem submitted that was written to the prompt, so when I get a Word document with 10 poems (none of which address the current prompt), it's easy to move it to the rejection folder. We also sometimes get poems written to previous prompts and though we love that people use prompts in the archive, we only accept submissions to the current prompt.

We ask you to format your poem using TEXT format, rather than HTML, and put the TITLE of the poem at the top in all capital letters. All our submission guidelines are on the website.

Have you submitted poems using Submittable? Many major journals use this service and I like that I can find many of my submissions all in one place. I also like that they don't say in the status for your account that your submission was "rejected." It was "declined." I know it's the same result but it is a better word choice.

Of course, getting an ACCEPTED is an even better word choice.

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September 25, 2019

Trying To Do the Danse Russe with William Carlos Williams

Caricature of William Carlos Williams, 1920, by William Saphier

A reader sent me a poem that she thought was a nice combination response to our nude prompt and the current prompt on imagism with Pound and Williams.  It is "Danse Russe" by William Carlos Williams which I hadn't read for many years.

I thought I remembered the poem, and I thought I knew what it was all about - until I started searching for it online.

The poem is shown below but I recommend that you try this link of Williams reading the poem too.


If when my wife is sleeping
and the baby and Kathleen
are sleeping
and the sun is a flame-white disc
in silken mists
above shining trees,-
if I in my north room
dance naked, grotesquely
before my mirror
waving my shirt round my head
and singing softly to myself:
"I am lonely, lonely,
I was born to be lonely,
I am best so!"
If I admire my arms, my face,
my shoulders, flanks, buttocks
against the yellow drawn shades,-

Who shall say I am not
the happy genius of my household?

A poem about a happy genius dancing naked in front of the mirror. Right?

Well,  I found several pages ( and of the poem with reader comments and interpretations.

One says it is "one of the best confessional poems ever written: self-deprecating while grandiose -- a paradox of humility and self-aggrandizement" but another says that he never thought of it as a confessional poem.
"It never occurred to me that the man actually did this naked dance anymore than I assumed the sun was a flame-white disc in silken mists. I assumed he was a poet trying out imagery, not dancing, and that the man was the happy genius of his household because he could actually write poetry!"

A teacher's comments that she got a student interpretation that the poem is about "a mass murderer who has just killed his 'sleeping' family and now is exulting in his 'loneliness.'"

The teacher bemoans the "any interpretation is as good as any other" school of literary criticism and offers that this is possibly "promulgated by poor instruction in high school concerning poetry and the poet's intent."

As far-fetched as that interpretation sounds, commenter Tomm thinks it just might be about "a madman ("genius") who has just murdered his family? They're "asleep" as the sun burns bright? Part of the dancer's grotesquerie could very well be his bloody hands, limbs, and blood-soaked shirt. "Russe" - after all - is cognate with "red." This could have been called a "Danse Macabre."

And I just thought it was a happy, naked guy dancing in New Jersey while his wife and baby sneak a midday nap.

Go figure.

Danse Russe by William Carlos Williams from School for Advanced Studies on Vimeo.

The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 1: 1909-1939
The Collected Poems of William Carlos Williams, Vol. 2: 1939-1962

September 22, 2019

A Fall of Leaves

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruined choirs, where late the sweet birds sang…
     ~ William Shakespeare, Sonnet 73

The words "autumn" and "fall" meaning the season that begins today in the Northern Hemisphere both originated in Britain, but one is more commonly used there while the other is more common in America. By the mid-1800s, "fall" was considered to be the  American season by lexicographers.

Autumn is the older word, coming into English in the 1300s from the Latin word autumnus.

At one time there was an intermediary season preceding our autumn that was called "harvest." It seems that autumn came into usage to distinguish between the time when one harvests crops and the actual crop harvest itself.

"To Autumn" by John KeatsSeason of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the moss’d cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
And still more, later flowers for the bees,
Until they think warm days will never cease,
For summer has o’er-brimm’d their clammy cells...

Writers, especially poets, wrote about the dazzling seasonal colors of this time and the phrase "the fall of the leaves" came into more common usage. That phrase was shortened sometime in the 1600s to "fall." This coincides with English moving across the ocean with explorers and settlers to the New World. But both words must have been used in the New World as they were in Britain because "fall" for the season doesn't appear until 1755 when Samuel Johnson added it to his Dictionary of the English Language.

"The Falling of the Leaves" by W.B. Yeats  Autumn is over the long leaves that love us,
And over the mice in the barley sheaves;
Yellow the leaves of the rowan above us,
And yellow the wet wild-strawberry leaves.
The hour of the waning of love has beset us,
And weary and worn are our sad souls now;
Let us part, ere the season of passion forget us,
With a kiss and a tear on thy drooping brow.

Fall is still occasionally used in countries where British English is spoken, but more likely in phrases, like "spring and fall." American though I may be, I prefer autumn, since it is used by astronomers to mark the Autumnal Equinox.

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September 8, 2019

Prompt: Poets in Lust

Bertel Thorvaldsen's Cupid and the Graces, 1820-1823

This prompt on lust emerged from hearing a Writer's Almanac podcast on the birthday of American poet and critic Louise Bogan. I admit that I really didn't know anything about Bogan, though I realized later that I have read some of her poems. Another poet, W.H. Auden, considered her to be the best critic of poetry in America. Writers are not always fans of critics.

Some background - Bogan was born in Maine in 1897. When she moved as an adult to New York City, she was hanging out with fellow writers William Carlos Williams, Malcolm Cowley, and Edmund Wilson. Wilson suggested she start writing reviews to make money.

Her reviews were terse, astute, and sometimes humorous. She was very rough on the poets Marianne Moore and Wallace Stevens, writing that “They will never surprise anyone again…They are half-dead already.” Ouch.

She became the poetry editor of The New Yorker in 1931.

The part of her life that inspired this month's prompt comes from the very private rather than the public part of her life. For example, apparently, even her friends didn’t know she had a daughter from her first marriage.

Theodore Roethke 
Photo: Imogen Cunningham via Wikimedia
It was the brief affair that she had in her thirties with fellow poet Theodore Roethke that got my attention.

I don't think of Roethke as a "sexy" poet, but in a letter to a friend, she wrote:

“I, myself, have been made to bloom like a Persian rose-bush, by the enormous love-making of a cross between a Brandenburger and a Pomeranian, one Theodore Roethke by name. He is very, very large (6 ft. 2 and weighing 218 lbs.) and he writes very, very small lyrics…We have poured rivers of liquor down our throats, these last three days, and, in between, have indulged in such bearish and St. Bernardish antics as I have never before experienced. … I hope that one or two immortal lyrics will come out of all this tumbling about.”

After their affair ended, they remained close friends.

In "Cassandra," Bogan writes:
To me, one silly task is like another.
I bare the shambling tricks of lust and pride. 
This flesh will never give a child its mother,—
Lust is a good topic for poetry. Is there a difference between love and lust? I would say yes, but it seems that not all poets agree with me. Is lust sinful or wonderful? Again, there are two takes on that.

Look at Bertel Thorvaldsen's statue Cupid and the Graces (shown above) which shows "The Graces." In mythology, they were sisters who were the daughters of Jupiter. They were the servants of the goddess of love, Venus. That is Cupid - Venus' son - with the lyre at their feet.  But over the centuries, this trio has been associated with grace, beauty, love and both modesty and lust. Lust seems to divide people.

Lust comes in many different forms of poetry. My first poetry professor, Alicia Ostriker, has a poem "The Blessing of the Old Woman, the Tulip, and the Dog" that has this stanza:

...To be blessed
said the dark red tulip
is to knock their eyes out
with the slug of lust
implied by
your up-ended skirt...

Our September prompt is lust, in one or more of its forms. Consider all levels from intense sexual desire to a strong longing, or even the obsolete meanings of pleasure, delight, wish or craving.
Surprise us.

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August 31, 2019

Lying in a Hammock

I was visiting a friend who has a hammock in his backyard. I have never mastered lying in a hammock. I find it hard to get into, harder to get out of and uncomfortable in the time between. But I must be an exception.

Hammocks are an easygoing symbol of relaxation. Sailors slept in them so the rocking ship didn't throw them from bed but just rocked them to sleep.

What do you associate them with - leisure, escapism, luxury, nature?

I wish I could sway comfortably in one and daydream or read or write a poem. The poem that comes to mind is -

Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota  by James Wright, from Above the River: The Complete Poems and Selected Prose  
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

An article on tells us that:

Just about all of the major early European expeditions to the New World talked about the hammock. Columbus described it in his journal: “Their beds and bags for holding things were like nets of cotton.” Bartolomé de las Casas, the first real European historian to go to the Americas, went on at length about them. In his book Historia de las Indias, written between 1527 and 1559, de las Casas described beds “like cotton nets,” with elaborate, well-crafted patterns. The ends, he wrote, were made of a different, hemp-like material, to attach to walls or poles. 
The early days of the hammock are not well understood, but they certainly did come a long time ago. Woven of organic materials that eventually decompose in tropical environments—where pretty much everything decomposes eventually—hammocks were well established in the Caribbean when the first Europeans landed there. The English word “hammock” derives from the Spanish hamaca, a direct loanword from the Taíno languages of the Caribbean.

A depiction of Amerigo Vespucci landing in America and encountering an indigenous woman on a hammock.
by Jan van der Straet, ca. 1587–89. THE METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART / PUBLIC DOMAIN

This end of summer lazy day would be a good one for hammocking. But besides my fear of falling out of a hammock, I'm afraid that I view hammock time as wasted time. That's a shame. I need to work on the art of not working all the time. Labor Day, indeed...

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August 26, 2019

The Slowdown

A podcast recommendation: Listen to THE SLOWDOWN - a weekday program with Tracy K. Smith.

She opens with an essay on some way that she sees the world, inspired by a poem which she closes the program by reading. This slowing down to read a poem with some serious reflection on that poem gives me insight into the poem and into our lives and the crossovers are seamless.

Tracy K. Smith was the 22nd United States Poet Laureate from 2017 to 2019, and is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Ordinary Light and several books of poetry, including her Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Life on Mars. She is the director of the Creative Writing Program at Princeton University.

The range and variety of topics, poems and poets are vast.

"Winter Trees" by William Carlos Williams may not conjure up only trees in winter.

And "The Death of an Elephant" by Gianfranco Pagnucci does deal with a death of that noble creature but is more about how we grieve.

Episodes are available on all the standard podcast apps but if you're not an app kind of person, you can listen on the website The program is produced in partnership with the Poetry Foundation.


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August 5, 2019

Prompt: The Lives of Characters

Gregory Peck, Mary Badham, To Kill a Mockingbird (1962)
Films help us visualize fictional characters, like Atticus and Scout, in the plot's setting, but
what about beyond the time and places of the story?

After you read a good novel, do you ever wonder what happens to a character in that future beyond the plot? When I was teaching high school, I sometimes asked students to continue a novel we had read beyond the last chapter.

What happens when your favorite children’s book character grows up and moves out?  An article written for the UnReal Estate series appearing on Apartment Therapy’s website imagines what the studio apartments of characters like Ramona Quimby and Nancy Drew would look like if they designed their homes as adults. Poets & Writers magazine took inspiration from this idea and suggested the poetry prompt of envisioning a favorite book character’s home years after the events depicted in the story.

In the article, is a minimalist, not "trend-forward" but practical without having an apartment that seems outdated. They give her a classic New York City-style loft, with big windows, vaulted ceilings, exposed brick, Scandinavian-inspired furniture and her desk at center stage in her living quarters.

As a model poem, I chose "Fictional Characters" by Danusha Laméris (from The Moons of August, Autumn House Press, 2014) which goes beyond placing characters at home. Her poem begins:

Do they ever want to escape?
Climb out of the white pages
and enter our world?

Holden Caulfield slipping in the movie theater
to catch the two o'clock
Anna Karenina sitting in a diner,
reading the paper as the waitress
serves up a cheeseburger.

The poem also suggests a turn inward because "Wouldn't you, if you could? / Step out of your own story,/ to lean against a doorway / of the Five & Dime, sipping your coffee,/ your life, somewhere far behind you..."

For our August writing prompt, we also broaden the original prompt to a poem that describes a fictional character beyond the time of the story in any way - in their home, office, workplace, or doing something out in their world. It would be best if you hold to the story's timeline. So, Jay Gatsby is dead at the novel's end and not an option, and Jean Louise "Scout" Finch is 6 in 1933 and would be 60 in 1987 and 92 in you set her in 2019. Use period details, so homes and offices should include the furniture and things of that time and the poem's "plot" should reflect upon how your understanding of the character’s personality and narrative arc.

Deadline: August 31, 2019

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July 24, 2019

Using Forgetfulness in Your Writing

I read an article by Lewis Hyde excerpted from his book A Primer for Forgetting: Getting Past the Past. In the excerpt, he describes a phenomenon that I didn't think I had ever observed in myself concerning memory.

He describes a time in the 1920s when Dr. Kurt Lewin noticed that waiters were very good at remembering the particulars of a restaurant bill, but once the bill was paid they forgot the orders. He wondered if we forget a finished task more easily than an unfinished one.
His colleague, Bluma Zeigarnik, studied the premise and found that it was true. Now called the Zeigarnik effect, she concluded that “Unfinished tasks are remembered approximately twice as well as completed ones.”

Why does this happen? Zeigarnik believed that we have a need for completion, a desire for resolution, and so the memory endures. Once completed, it is more easily forgotten.

Dickens' Dream by Robert William Buss, 1875 (Public Domain via Wikemedia)
I thought about this in connection with my writing - particularly my poetry. Do I forget my poems when they are finished but remember my unfinished ones?

Hyde uses a literary anecdote example with a story that I have read before about a time when Ernest Hemingway’s wife lost a suitcase containing the only copies of many of his stories. He was unable to re-create them. He commented on this in a later story, “The Strange Country.”
"Some of the stories had been about boxing, and some about baseball and others about horse racing. They were the things I had known best and had been closest to and several were about the first war. Writing them I had felt all the emotion I had to feel about those things and I had put it all in and all the knowledge of them that I could express and I had rewritten and rewritten until it was all in them and all gone out of me. Because I had worked on newspapers since I was very young I could never remember anything once I had written it down; as each day you wiped your memory clear with writing as you might wipe a blackboard clear with a sponge or a wet rag."
Hyde also says that more modern studies of the Zeigarnik effect have not shown the effect to be conclusively true. Hyde feels the studies have been "poorly designed" and so the results have been mixed. He would like to see studies based on "memories of emotional states."

He believes that desire seeks completion. Unrequited desire is hard to forget.

My poetry, though often connected to emotions, does not seem to be the best example. I remember my finished poems much better than the unfinished ones (and there are many unfinished ones). I don't have a strong need to finish most of them. I abandon many.

I was involved in a poetry experiment in a workshop that dealt with this theory of memory. The poet leader had asked us to write a first draft on a prompt for homework. He wanted one attempt, on paper (not computer) and then stop and bring it to class the next day.

In class, he collected them immediately - and then dropped them into a garbage can. The class was shocked. He said " Now, write that poem again. Whatever you recall matters. the rest will fall away."  Some of us remembered much of the draft; some remembered almost nothing. I recalled the opening and a few phrases and the general idea I wanted to convey. I think I did remember the best of the poem. At the end of the workshop, you could take your draft from the trash. It was interesting to see what had fallen away.

I first read Lewis Hyde with his book The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property  which a friend recommended as a good book about creativity. One premise of Hyde's is that the marketplace is a terrible way to determine the worth of artists’ work. He calls the alternative economy "the gift" which allows creations and ideas to circulate freely, an idea which may make sense to you if you have ever given or received a work of art.

A Primer for Forgetting describes a version of forgetfulness through art and writing that offers forgetfulness as something that might offer a creative force.

In another book, Trickster Makes This World, Lewis Hyde looks at human imagination as it is portrayed in trickster mythology which goes back to Hermes in Greece, Krishna in India, and Coyote in North America, and then comes into the modern works of Picasso, Duchamp, Allen Ginsberg, John Cage, and Frederick Douglass.


This post first appeared on the One-Page Schoolhouse site 

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