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.

Visit our website at

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