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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