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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