December 28, 2020

Walking in Soseki's Snow Valley

Snow Valley

Each drifting snowflake
             falls nowhere
                          but here and now

Under the settling flowers of ice
             the water is flowing
                          bright and clear

The cold stream
             splashes out
                          the Buddha’s words
             the stone tortoise
                          from its sleep

These poems in Narrative magazine are excerpted from Sun at Midnight: Poems and Letters (Copper Canyon Press), the first translation into English of the work of Muso Soseki.

Soseki was a thirteenth-century Zen roshi and founder of the rock garden. The poems are excellent reading for other poets, gardeners, and students of Zen.  

Musō Soseki (1275–1351), born ten years after Dante, became the most famous Zen monk of his time. He advised and taught several emperors, as well as more than thirteen thousand students. 

All on my own I’m happy
            in the unmapped landscape
                        inside the bottle
my only friend
            is this
                        wisteria cane

Last night
            we stayed up talking
                        so late
that I’m afraid
            I was overheard
                        by the empty sky

In his old age, Musō withdrew from court to devote himself to Buddha and to cultivate the Zen gardens for which he is remembered. At his death, he left behind an enormous body of poetry and prose. In honor of his profound influence on Japanese culture, he was renamed Musō Kokushi, “national Zen teacher,” by Emperor Go-Daigo.

Toki-no-Ge (Satori Poem)

Year after year
I dug in the earth
looking for the blue of heaven
only to feel
the pile of dirt
choking me
until once in the dead of night
I tripped on a broken brick
and kicked it into the air
and saw that without a thought
I had smashed the bones
of the empty sky

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December 25, 2020

Christmas Poems

Image by Willgard Krause from Pixabay

If you haven't completely overdosed on Chritsmas by now, here are some poems of the season and day from The Poetry Foundation.
They range from "Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" by Henry Livingston

’Twas the night before Christmas, when all thro’ the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse;

to the anonymous "The Twelve Days of Christmas"

The first day of Christmas,
My true love sent to me
A partridge in a pear tree.

and into Yeats' "The Magi"
Now as at all times I can see in the mind's eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depths of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary's turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

and a whole group of contemporary takes on the season, such as Mary Jo Salter's "Advent."

...on her Advent calendar.   
She takes it from the mantel   
and coaxes one fingertip

under the perforation,   
as if her future hinges
on not tearing off the flap...

And when the day and season is over, we have "December 26" by Kenn Nesbitt who provides his "list / of everything / that Santa Claus / forgot to bring." 

And Jane Kenyon's "Taking Down the Tree" reminds me of my own family's tradition of doing that on Twelfth Night.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it's darkness
we're having, let it be extravagant.

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December 16, 2020

This is how it has been, and this is how it is

Image by Couleur from Pixabay

Mary Oliver had a daily writing ritual of carrying a notebook with her as she walked through the forest. She wrote along the way. I think she needed nature and movement to find the words.

In an interview, she said "I don’t like buildings. The only record I broke in school was truancy. I went to the woods a lot with books. Whitman in the knapsack. But I also liked motion. So I just began with these little notebooks and scribbled things as they came to me and then worked them into poems later.”

I imagine that one of those poems is "The Pond." I particularly like the conclusion:

This is how it has been, and this is how it is:
All my life I have been able to feel happiness,
except whatever was not happiness,
which I also remember.
Each of us wears a shadow.
But just now it is summer again
and I am watching the lilies bow to each other,
then slide on the wind and the tug of desire,
close, close to one another,
Soon now, I’ll turn and start for home.
And who knows, maybe I’ll be singing.


In the title of her collection, Why I Wake Early, you learn of another of her daily habits. Those early morning walks and encounters with poems on crickets, toads, trout lilies, black snakes, goldenrod, bears, and deer inspired poems and in greeting the morning, she found happiness. 

Her first collection, No Voyage and Other Poems, was published in 1963, and she won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1984 for the collection American Primitive

What connects all the poems is nature: hummingbirds, waterfalls, owls, trees, the ocean, snakes, wild geese, storms, sand crabs and changing seasons. Of course, from those specifics, the poems expand to larger themes like love, loss, joy, wonder, and gratitude.


A good starting place to read Mary Oliver is Devotions, the book in which she collected the poems she felt gave the best overview of her writing.

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December 11, 2020

The Snow That Never Drifts

The winter solstice is near but cold weather and snow have already fallen in many places, including on the holly outside my window.

This is a poem that seems to be about snow by Emily Dickinson.

The Snow that never drifts —
The transient, fragrant snow
That comes a single time a Year
Is softly driving now —

So thorough in the Tree
At night beneath the star
That it was February’s Foot
Experience would swear —

Like Winter as a Face
We stern and former knew
Repaired of all but Loneliness
By Nature’s Alibi —

Were every storm so spice
The Value could not be —
We buy with contrast — Pang is good
As near as memory —

When I was presented with this poem in a college class, it was given as an example of the puzzling nature of many of Emily's poems. The professor asked us: What kind of snow never drifts? Is snow ever fragrant? Is this poem really about snow?

My first answer would be that she was thinking of a "snowfall" of white petals from a tree in spring. It's a common image in haiku.

But what about her reference to February and winter? (And "February's Foot," I thought - what's that all about?) Does she really mean this snow is only figurative?

Maybe a tree bloomed in February (In Amherst, Massachusetts? Hmmm...) but got hit with a winter blast and lost all its blossoms. If every storm was as "spice" (scented), "the Value could not be" - What could it not be?

"We buy with contrast — Pang is good / As near as memory —"  Do we 

Oh, Emily. If only we could chat over some cake and tea. We have so many questions.

What is your interpretation of this poem?
Post a comment answer below.

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December 10, 2020

Thanking Margaret Maher on Emily Dickinson's Birthday

I’m Nobody! Who are you?
Are you – Nobody – too?
Then there’s a pair of us!
Don’t tell! they’d advertise – you know!

How dreary – to be – Somebody!
How public – like a Frog –  
To tell one’s name – the livelong June –  
To an admiring Bog!

Taking a few minutes to remember Emily Dickinson, born on this day in 1830 and Margaret Maher.

Emily wrote nearly 2,000 poems, but she only published about 10 of these in her lifetime.

The family's maid, Margaret Maher, was the only person who knew about the full output of her writing. While Emily was in the kitchen with Margaret, baking loaves of bread and cakes, she sometimes scribbled poems on wrappers and the backs of shopping lists. Maher was literate and she even dabbled in poetry herself now and then and the wrote some poems back and forth to each other. Some scholars believe that Maher’s Irish syntax made it into some of Dickinson’s work. 

Dickinson trusted Maher with her poems and stored them in the trunk that Maher had brought over from Ireland. Dickinson left strict instructions for Maher to burn her poems after she died, but when the time came, Margaret, thankfully, couldn’t bring herself to do it.

She brought the poems to Lavinia, Emily’s sister and though Lavinia had already burned most of her sister’s letters, she agreed with Maher that the poems should be published.

Maher also supplied the only daguerreotype that we have of Emily Dickinson. The family didn’t like the picture, but Maher kept it and gave it to the publisher to include with the first edition of Dickinson’s poems.

Thanks to Margaret for allowing the world to share those poems.

To make a prairie it takes a clover and one bee,
One clover, and a bee.
And revery.
The revery alone will do,
If bees are few.

You can read some of those poems at


December 6, 2020

Prompt: Thanks

Image via Pixabay

It's the end of a terrible year. In America, we celebrated Thanksgiving last month, though celebrating was very different than in past years. Many families could not get together due to pandemic restrictions and fear of hurting those they love. Still, I felt like people were still looking for things to give thanks for despite all the bad news in 2020.
Our model poem this month is "Thanks" by W.S. Merwin from his collection Migration: New & Selected Poems (Copper Canyon Press, 2005).

A reading of Merwin's poem. Part of a longer series of readings.

I can identify with many things in the poem in the context of 2020 though it was written years ago. Of course, that is what is true about all great literature - that it continues to be relevant long after it is written.

with the night falling we are saying thank you
we are stopping on the bridges to bow from the railings
we are running out of the glass rooms
with our mouths full of food to look at the sky
and say thank you

That makes me think not only of Thanksgiving dinner but of the several meteor showers that appear in the final months of the year.

back from a series of hospitals back from a mugging
after funerals we are saying thank you
after the news of the dead
whether or not we knew them we are saying thank you

Hospitals and funerals (though very different when they do occur)  and the news is full every night about the number of cases of COVID19 and the number of deaths globally.

over telephones we are saying thank you

Over phones is very likely how you have stayed in touch and talked with friends and loved ones.

And we may be frustrated with
the officials and the rich
and of all who will never change
we go on saying thank you thank you

There is a kind of optimism in the idea that

we are saying thank you faster and faster
with nobody listening we are saying thank you
we are saying thank you and waving
dark though it is

William Stanley Merwin was born in New York City on September 30, 1927. Over the course of his long career, Merwin published over twenty books of poetry and almost as many books of translation. Merwin served as Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress and as Poet Laureate of the United States from 2010 to 2011. He died on March 15, 2019.

Some might call this a praise poem which is one of tribute, of gratitude, of honoring something or someone. I think it is different than that, but you can read some praise poems online and decide for yourself.

It is interesting that in Merwin's list of things to be thankful for are probably some things for which you would not be thankful. Perhaps, his final lines -  “we are saying thank you and waving / dark though it is” explain their inclusion.

An additional poem to consider is one by Joy Harjo that was included on a list of "Thanksgiving poems for kids." I'm not sure how old a "kid" would need to be to understand that poem, but I like the image of the kitchen table which is both a real kitchen table and the table of the world. 

I also like how the rather pessimistic title - "Perhaps the World Ends Here" - leads rights into its opposite - "The world begins at a kitchen table. No matter what, we must eat to live" so that when we arrive again at that title line it continues with "while we are laughing and crying, eating of the last sweet bite." 

For this year-ending prompt that concludes a very difficult 2020, we ask you to consider thanks in all forms. From a list of many things to be thankful for, to a dismissive, sarcastic thanks, there are many things on that table of thanks - some we love, some we cannot love.

SUBMISSION DEADLINE: December 31, 2020      We wish you a healthy new year!

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November 25, 2020

Mini-Prompt: What If

Image by John Hain from Pixabay

I saw a video interview with Ray Bradbury a long time ago in which he said almost everything he has written has been inspired by asking "what if."  Bradbury wrote novels and stories but a lot of his writing advice applies to poetry too.

The short story, if you really are intense and you have an exciting idea, writes itself in a few hours. I try to encourage my student friends and my writer friends to write a short story in one day so it has a skin around it, its own intensity, its own life, its own reason for being. There’s a reason why the idea occurred to you at that hour anyway, so go with that and investigate it, get it down. Two or three thousand words in a few hours is not that hard. Don’t let people interfere with you. Boot ’em out, turn off the phone, hide away, get it done. If you carry a short story over to the next day you may overnight intellectualize something about it and try to make it too fancy, try to please someone. (from a 2010 interview with Sam Weller, published in The Paris Review)

Bradbury told about an encounter he had as a boy in 1932 with a carnival magician, Mr. Electrico. Wreathed in static electricity, Mr. Electrico touched the young Bradbury on the nose and said, “Live forever!” Ray returned to the carnival the next day for advice about magic. Mr. Electrico introduced him to the other performers in the carnival and told Bradbury that he was a reincarnation of his best friend who died in World War I. 

What if he could live forever or he was reincarnated or if there could be a truly magical carnival? Bradbury later wrote, “a few days later I began to write, full-time. I have written every single day of my life since that day.” That carnival came back to him along with all the "what ifs" of his boyhood and became his novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. What if a magician at a carnival could grant your greatest wish? "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes," says one of the witches in Shakespeare's Macbeth.

I used to ask my teenaged students to write a what-if poem after we had read a few Bradbury stories. One of the model poems I use that they always seemed to like was an old one - "What if you slept" by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. I never told them before the poem or the writing how old Coleridge or the poem was because not only is that irrelevant to the lesson but because the poem doesn't seem old at all - especially coming from the opium addict that wrote "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner."

What if you slept
And what if
In your sleep
You dreamed
And what if
In your dream
You went to heaven
And there plucked a strange and beautiful flower
And what if
When you awoke
You had that flower in your hand
Ah, what then?

Coleridge by John Chubb - from the collection of the Blake Museum

Coleridge's life is interesting - and sad. Born in Ottery St. Mary in Devonshire, England in 1772, he wrote that he was falling into a deep depression when he was introduced to the poet William Wordsworth in 1795. That first year of their friendship was the most productive period of Coleridge’s life. 

They both liked to compose their poetry while walking, so they took long walks together throughout that summer, though Wordsworth preferred to stay on the path while Coleridge liked rough terrain. 

That winter, they spent several days hiking along the coast, and to pass the time they made up a gothic ballad about a tragic sea voyage. Coleridge became obsessed with the poem when he got home, filling it with images from nightmares he’d had since he was a kid, and it became “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” (1798).

It's a difficult poem to read today though the story of a sailor who brings a curse on his ship when he kills an albatross is full of sea monsters and the ghosts of his dead shipmates.

The poem brought him some fame and money but within a few years of writing it he became addicted to opium, which killed his creativity and ruined his friendship with Wordsworth. He failed to complete most of his ambitious projects, including a 1,400-page work of geography, a two-volume history of English prose, a translation of Faust, a musical about Adam and Eve, a history of logic, a history of German metaphysics, a study of witchcraft, and an encyclopedia.

His friend Charles Lamb wrote of Coleridge, “His face when he repeats his verses hath its ancient glory, an Archangel a little damaged.” What if he had not become addicted to opium?

If you try writing a what-if poem and would like to share it, post it as a comment to this post. (All comments must be approved before they appear.)

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November 4, 2020

Prompt: The Future

Future Time by Pete Linforth

I read Mary Jo Bang's poem "How it will feel months from now" when it was part of the Shelter in Poems series on With that title/first line that feels so appropriate in this pandemic year, I paused and thought to myself, "How will it feel months from now?"

Mary Jo has said of this poem, “The sameness of quarantine can feel at times like a state of suspended animation, a perpetual NOW. With so little by which to measure time, I found myself noticing those things that did change, like the sky in the window at the end of a day. Seeing the color shift reminded me of other changes—some that had just happened (a siren had sliced through the silence), and some that had happened before now (a different silence, a different siren)—and that made me wonder what this NOW would feel like in the future.”

People have been calling every day "Blursday" as they seem to blend one into another. I saw someone post in October that the date was March 225th, as if once they started to "shelter at home" in March the month just never ended.

The poem says as much -

The walls of time dissolve whenever
the lights are turned off. The lights
that made the day so easy to be with.
I fold myself away. 

Looking up the poet's bio, I found another poem of hers that seems to have a connection. It's another 2020 title-is-first-line poem about thinking of the future. The poem is "Speaking of the future, Hamlet":

is saying, someday this day will be over.
A moon will presumably still be above:
a bone quiet, an inflatable in the scene

—the cool blue swimming pool
it finds itself in. And I will want to be.
My mother, the Queen, will want only

my father, the King. All will be want
and get. And I will be me. And O, O,
Ophelia—will be the essence of love...

This month we are going to ask you to write a poem about how it will feel in a few months (or years). We want you to explicitly think and write about the future. This does not have to be a pandemic poem, but it might be one. We also want you to follow Mary Jo's example and make your title your first line, or at least have the title continue directly into the main poem. (This is something that usually happens in an "untitled" poem but your first line should also serve as a proper title.)

Submission Deadline: November 30, 2020

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October 14, 2020

Global Poemic

India-based poet/curator VK Sreelesh and U.S.-based poet/curator Betsy Andrews invite poets the world over to contribute to Global Poemic: Kindred Voices on the Era of COVID-19

In this unprecedented era of extremity under Covid-19, these poets share stories that differ across nations and other structures and create a web across the poetry world. Poets can bear witness and share what we witness. 

Their guidelines are simple.

1) Please email 1 – 5 previously unpublished poems and a brief bio to The curators may also solicit poems from poets. Poems are accepted and published on an ongoing basis.

2) For poems in languages other than English, please provide an English translation. Both the original and the translation will be published if accepted.

3) We are looking for poems of any form that engage with this era of a global pandemic. We welcome poems that recognize the multifarious, complicated, messy nature of the human condition. We do not welcome, and will not publish, poems that peddle hatred or bigotry of any kind.

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October 5, 2020

Prompt: Aubade

An aubade is a morning love poem/song, though it is sometimes about lovers separating at dawn. If you search for aubades online, you will find many using that as a title that do not follow the morning-lovers motif. Since there is no fixed meter or rhyme for the form, there is usually no way to identify a poem easily as an aubade.

This month's model poem is one that I found that follows that original definition. What I find interesting in Dore Kiesselbach's "Aubade" is that the loved ones are a mother and child.

Aubade is a French word meaning "dawn serenade" that first appears in English in the 1670s. In English, it came to be used for a song or poem of lovers parting at dawn, and later it came to refer to songs sung in the morning hours. Today, we think of a serenade as a song sung in the evening, so a "morning serenade" is a bit of an oxymoron.

In earlier centuries, the aubade had an even narrower definition of being a lyric sung, said or addressed to a sleeping lover by the departing lover. That may be an idea for your own aubade this month.

We will be strict with our prompt and ask that you write a poem set in the morning and related to leaving a loved one - "leaving" and "loved one" are open to interpretations.

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September 28, 2020

An Anthology of Native Nations Poetry

It's interesting that when U.S. poet laureate Joy Harjo was working on the Norton Anthology of Native Nations Poetry, she and the other editors decided they needed to hear the whole collection.

"At one point in the editing, we decided to read the whole manuscript aloud," Harjo tells NPR's All Things Considered's Michele Martin. "That's how I revise, so that's what we did — is we took it into our mouths and took it to our bodies."

When the Light of the World Was Subdued, Our Songs Came Through is an anthology of poetry from more than 160 poets, representing close to 100 indigenous nations.

Harjo sees the poetry in this new collection as an opportunity: "A poem opens up time, it opens up memory, it opens up place, the meaning of place, the meaning of ... our place in history," she says.

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September 27, 2020

Tips On Submitting to Literary Publications

Here are some tips from the Superstition Review's Founding Editor Patricia Murphy and Hayden's Ferry Review Supervising Editor Katherine Berta about submitting to literary magazines.

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September 23, 2020

Defining "Published"

Image by Janet Gooch from Pixabay

A poet new to the Poets Online website emailed me some questions about her submission which was recently published on the site. I thought her questions might also be those of other poets submitting to Poets Online or to other publications.

Can I submit my poem on Poets Online to other places? 
That depends on the publication's rules. Many print and online publishers now do not accept work that has been previously published, in print or online. Resubmitting poems for contests and for anthologies often waives that rule. Some publishers (Rattle is an example) do not consider self-publishing to blogs, message boards, or social media as a publication with respect to this rule. Always read the submission rules carefully for any submission.

Muse-Pie Press's policy is much stricter and doesn't consider previously published poems, stating that "if a poem is posted on a blog, website, or social-networking site, or another online journal, we consider it published."

If my poem is posted in the archive at Poets Online is it considered to be published?
As with the answer above, I would say that Yes, it is published and if included in a collection that should be acknowledged. If you're submitting again, research the submission guidelines.

Should I copyright my poems?
As noted on the Poets Online copyright page in greater detail, poems published on the site are protected under the U.S. Copyright laws regardless of whether they are registered with the copyright office. It is not necessary for the symbol © to appear beside a poem for that poem to be protected by copyright law. All work published on are copyrighted one time only and then the copyright reverts to the authors.

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September 16, 2020

The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America

Today is the day in 1672 when America’s first published poet died. That was Anne Bradstreet.

She married Simon Bradstreet when she was about 16 and left England with him two years later, in 1630, as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony that eventually settled in Andover, Massachusetts.

Anne raised eight children. In her few free minutes each day, she wrote poetry for her family and close friends. 

It has been almost 400 years since she was writing but the idea of a mother writing in her precious free time is not an outdated story. We still fairly regularly hear of women who have written a novel or their poetry in those early morning, naptime, schooltime and late nigh quiet minutes.

Anne wrote about her husband, her children, and God. I like her later poems which were shorter and more about daily life. She wrote about how she feared childbirth, the fire that destroyed their home, her discontentment with a Puritan woman's life, and later, the death of her granddaughter. 

I wonder what she would have written if she felt free to write her innermost thoughts. I wonder if she did write those poems but that they were hidden away or destroyed by someone.

She didn't know it but her brother-in-law took her poems to England where they were published. The British publication was titled The Tenth Muse Lately Sprung Up in America, By a Gentlewoman of Those Parts (1650). The introduction notes that “These poems are the fruit but of some few hours, curtailed from sleep and other refreshments.” 

It was Anne's only poetry published in her lifetime and it was the first published work by a woman in America, and it was the only volume of her work published during her lifetime.

In Adrienne Rich’s foreword to an edition of Anne's poetry, Rich portrays Anne as a person and as a writer and as an early American feminists, as well as the first true poet in the American colonies.

I have written about Anne here before. It's not so much her poetry that interests me, but her life and the parts of it we will never know.

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September 6, 2020

Prompt: The Personal and History

In a poetry workshop I had with Thomas Lux, he said "All poems are ars poetica." I know Lux didn't mean that literally, but many poems are about poetry in some way. Former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky said, "All of my poems are about history." I wonder how literally he meant us to take that statement.

History can mean the whole series of past events, but those events are always connected with someone or something. Look at some of Pinsky's poems, such as "Shirt," or "From The Childhood of Jesus," and you know those poems are about that larger history.

Stanley Kunitz at age 95 became our tenth Poet Laureate in 2000. I have heard him read his poem " Halley's Comet," with the energy of that young boy who is thrilled and frightened on the rooftop. The poem takes us from the ground, up the stairs, onto the roof and, as he calls his father, the reader rises into that starry sky. (Kunitz's father committed suicide before Stanley had the chance to know him.)

What I like about Kunitz's poem is that it mixes the historical appearance of the comet in 1910 with his personal history and also some of his family history. (Halley's comet will next appear in the night sky in the year 2062

For this month's prompt, select a historic event as the starting point for a poem. Do not write only about the event, but also on your personal history and your connection to it. Is there an event that triggers a personal history because of when it occurred? The history lesson here is personal.

Watch and listen to this video where Kunitz talks about history and his poetry. This Bill Moyers video was recorded at one of the Dodge Poetry Festivals in New Jersey where I heard him read "Halley's Comet" and many of his other poems.

August 9, 2020

Prompt: Reimagining the Myths

Peter Paul Rubens - L’enlèvement de Proserpine (The Rape of Proserpina, 1638)
 Proserpina is the Latin name for the Greek goddess Persephone.

Recently, I listened to the NY Times Book Review podcast with Stephen Fry on Reimagining the Greek Myths.  Fry's latest book is a second about the Greek myths. In Heroes: The Greek Myths Reimagined , a sequel to his Mythos, Stephen Fry moves from the exploits of the Olympian gods to the deeds of mortal heroes.

What interested me in Fry's sequel is that these are not the stories of the gods but of the mortal humans who sometimes live in the favor of the gods and goddesses, and sometimes are punished by them. Some of their names are also well known: Perseus, Jason, Atalanta, Theseus, Bellerophon, Orpheus, Oedipus, Theseus and Heracles.

When I first encountered the myths as a young student, I took a liking to Prometheus who stole fire and gave it to the mortals on Earth. That really pissed off Zeus who saw this as the beginning of the end for the gods.
"...Prometheus himself – the Titan who made us, : befriended us and championed us – continues to endure his terrible punishment: shackled to the side of a mountain he is visited each day by a bird of prey that soars down out of the sun to tear open his side, pull out his liver and eat it before his very eyes. Since he is immortal the liver regenerates overnight, only for the torment to repeat the next day. And the next.

Prometheus, whose name means Forethought, has prophesied that now fire is in the world of man, the days of the gods are numbered. Zeus’s rage at his friend’s disobedience derives as much from a deep-buried but persistent fear that man will outgrow the gods as from his deep sense of hurt and betrayal.

Prometheus has also seen that the time will come when he will be released. A mortal human hero will arrive at the mountain, shatter his manacles and set the Titan free."

Who saves Prometheus from this torment? The Greek hero, Heracles, frees him (though with Zeus's permission). Saved by a mortal.

The podcast and book got me thinking about how myths are used in poetry.

One poem I thought of is by Alicia Ostriker:

    There is one story and one story only
    That will prove worth your telling
        —Robert Graves, “To Juan at the Winter Solstice”

That one story worth your telling
Is the ancient tale of the encounter
With the goddess
Declares the poet Robert Graves 

You can come and see 
A sublime bronze avatar of the goddess
Standing in the harbor holding a book and lifting a torch
Among us her name is Liberty

She has many names and she is everywhere
You can also find her easily 
Inside yourself—
Don’t be afraid—

Just do whatever she tells you to do

In that poem, the goddess seems to come to Earth as the Statue of Liberty.  In "Selfie with Pomona: The Goddess of Abundance" by Alexandra Teague, we also encounter a goddess as a statue at the Pulitzer Fountain in New York City.

She has all the advantage. Two sculptors
for her single body. Bronze prepossession. Bare arms
muscled as if she plucked each apple in her basket, 
then scythed the reeds to weave the basket—heaping on peaches
and pearls of snow. What seasons? 
What death? She’s seamless as light...
Where’s the best light to look human?

But the book of poetry I thought of is Mother Love by Rita Dove who takes Demeter and Persephone out of the Greek myths and sets them into Arizona, Mexico, and a bistro in Paris. She retells this mother-daughter story in our world. 

Rita Dove has said that she thinks of her verse-cycle as a "homage and as counterpoint to Rilke’s Sonnets to Orpheus.”  You could choose almost any one of the poems from the book as a model for this month's prompt, such as "Persephone, Falling." 

I chose "Hades' Pitch", in which the god of the dead and the king of the underworld that bears his name makes a pitch to Persephone.

If I could just touch your ankle, he whispers, there
on the inside, above the bone—leans closer,
breath of lime and pepper—I know I could
make love to you.  She considers
this, secretly thrilled, though she wasn’t quite
sure what he meant...

Persephone is the daughter of Zeus and Demeter, goddess of the earth. Hades abducts the young goddess one day as she is gathering flowers by a stream. Demeter goes in search of her daughter but is unable to find her. Demeter’s grief causes the earth to die — crops fail, and famine comes upon the land. Zeus intervenes and commands Hades to return Persephone. Reluctant to release her, Hades forces Persephone to eat a pomegranate seed, food of the dead. As a result, she can spend only six months out of the year with her mother, and the other six months she is destined to spend in the realm of Hades. To the Greeks, the return of Persephone from the underworld symbolized the return of life in the spring. 

This month's prompt is to reimagine a myth or mythological character in our own world or in a modern situation. Is there a god, goddess or mortal from mythology that connects to your life?

Here, I have focused on Greek and Roman myths but you can look to myths from other cultures. And though I do like tales of the poor mortals mixed up with the immortals, the choice is yours. Include in your poem's title a clear reference to the character or myth you are reimagining.


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July 13, 2020

Prompt: Undoing

The Treachery of Images (This is Not a Pipe)
Magritte's "The Treachery of Images" with its caption "This is not a pipe"

If only life had an undo button. 

In Linda Hillrinhouse's poem "Tatiana" (from The Things I Didn't Know to Wish For, NYQ Books, 2020), the speaker wants to go back to a time and undo one-by-one a series of related actions. 


I am twenty-five again 
and I am not
in bed with 
whoever you are.
I am not sleeping 
until noon or wearing
my nightgown inside out. 
I am not trying to sound smart
or make someone like me. Nor am I
getting stoned and painting happy
dead people with no eyes.
I am not telling some guy 
I just met on campus
that my name is Tatiana 
to sound exotic, to annihilate
the nobody in me.
When I first read her poem, I thought of other "not" poems I have read. There are the well-known poems that carry "not" in their titles, such as "Do not go gentle into that good night,"  "The Road Not Taken" and "Not Waving But Drowning

Hamlet says that the ultimate question is "to be or not to be."

There are other examples we can consider. "The Poems I Have Not Written" goes in a different direction. "This Did Not Happen" comes a bit closer to our model poem. 

I like Mark Yacich's poem that begins "You are not a statue / and I am not a pedestal. / We are not a handful / of harmless scratches on a pale pink canvas..." which makes me think of Billy Collins' "Litany" with its list of things that someone both are and are not.

That listing is also used in Dan Albergotti's "Among the Things He Does Not Deserve" which is catalogs things undeserved ranging from "Greek olives in oil, fine beer" to the final "soft gift of her parted lips." 

René Magritte's famous piece "The Treachery of Images" with its caption "This is not a pipe" is a commentary on artistic illusion. The pipe is not a pipe: it's a painting of a pipe.  Korzybski's "The word is not the thing" and "The map is not the territory" and Diderot's "This is not a story" live in the same place. And so it is with the "treachery" of images in poems - things are often not literally what the poet says that they seem to be.

Girl Behind Branches by Linda Hillringhouse

Linda Hillringhouse's poem takes this negation further. The voice of the poem not only confronts the truth of a time in her life that is painful to remember but finally tries to speculate on the driving force behind this truth that she wishes to undo.

Your poem for this month might use "not" in its title, or be a series of negations, but it should also try to address a particular subject and expose a reason for the undoing.

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June 6, 2020

Prompt: Once Upon a Time

I wasn't a big fan of fairy tales as a child and I didn't read many of them to my own children. They can be pretty cruel and violent. 

When I was a college student, a book by Bruno Bettelheim, a 20th-century child psychologist, was very popular in literature and education classes. That book is The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales, a study of fairy tales and their universal importance in understanding childhood development. His examples include stories like "The Three Little Pigs,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and “The Sleeping Beauty.” Bettelheim admits that the tales are often cruel but that they do help teach lessons about finding meaning for one’s life.

Our prompt for June is a poem that tries one of these four paths through fairy tales:
based on a fairy tale, based on characters appearing in those tales, a new fairy tale, or a poem using the conventions of fairy tales. 

Here are some samples to consider. 

...Only a girl like this
can know what's happened to you.
If she were here she would
reach out her arms towards
you now, and touch you
with her absent hands
and you would feel nothing, but you would be
touched all the same.

"Mermaid Song" by Kim Addonizio finds a fairy tale character lying on her sofa.

Damp-haired from the bath, you drape yourself 
upside down across the sofa, reading, 
one hand idly sunk into a bowl
of crackers, goldfish with smiles stamped on... 

Alicia Ostriker's poem "Utopian" is about a new fairy tale world created by a child that the poet then needs to interpret. 

My neighbor’s daughter has created a city
you cannot see
on an island to which you cannot swim
ruled by a noble princess and her athletic consort
all the buildings are glass so that lies are impossible
beneath the city they have buried certain words
which can never be spoken again
chiefly the word divorce which is eaten by maggots...

"From the Country Notebooks" by Geffrey Davis uses some fairy tale conventions - including "once upon a time" and some of that violence, but the tale is very real.
Once upon a time, my father was offered a shovel
and ten minutes alone with the prized stallion—Just don’t
kill him.    Once upon a time, I asked about the apple-
knotted scar on my father’s back shoulder, as he dressed
for work: That’s from when Sammy tried to kill me.
Remember?    Once upon a time, my father accepted a shovel
and the problem of answering violence without loosing
too much blood from Sammy’s chestnut body, nervous
in the stable.    Once upon a time...
Though we think of fairy tales are meant for children as a way to help them solve problems such as separation anxiety, oedipal conflict, and sibling rivalries, your poem will probably be meant for adults.

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May 31, 2020

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass and Self-Promotion

whitman 1854
Whitman at age 35, image used as the frontispiece to Leaves of Grass - a steel engraving by Samuel Hollyer
 from a lost daguerreotype by Gabriel Harrison

The daily Writer's Almanac reminded me that today is the birthday of the poet Walt Whitman. He was born in West Hills, Long Island, New York (1819) and he lived in many places but he lived out the last part of his life in Camden, New Jersey until his death in 1892.

My first memory of Whitman was reading his short poem "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" which was in the high school sophomore anthology we used in English class. 

When I heard the learn’d astronomer, 
When the proofs, the figures, were ranged in columns before me, 
When I was shown the charts and diagrams, to add, divide, and measure them, 
When I sitting heard the astronomer where he lectured with much applause in the lecture-room, 
How soon unaccountable I became tired and sick, 
Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself, 
In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,
Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars. 

That poem resonated with me. That person in the astronomer's lecture who gets bored and going outside and seeing the stars of that lecture and is much more pleased and in awe, reminded me of me. At first, I identified as a high school student and later as a college student in a classroom bored with theories and wanting practices. I also began to understand that people interpreting poems, literature, songs, art, films, and the natural wonders of Earth and the universe were far less interesting than the things they were interpreting. 

I will admit that I didn't love Whitman's much more famous Leaves of Grass which is often mistakenly thought of as a single poem but is a collection of poems that are loosely connected. It is considered an American classic. 

Walt was really into self-promotion with Leaves of Grass. In 1842, Charles Dickens came to America for a tour and is sometimes credited for started the book tour. He could reasonably have been billed as the most famous writer in the world after Oliver Twist and The Pickwick Papers. Perhaps, Walt had that in mind when he published the first edition of Leaves of Grass in 1855. 

Though self-publishing your writing once had a bad name (still does, sometimes) Whitman did so with the collection. He even did most of the typesetting for the book himself. He wanted the book to be small enough to fit in a pocket. He paid for the publication of 795 copies. He was 37. 

It might surprise a 2020 reader that some of those poems were criticized for being openly erotic. Reviewers at the time said it was “a mass of stupid filth” that promoted “that horrible sin [homosexuality] not to be mentioned among Christians" and that it was “full of indecent passages” and that Whitman himself was a “very bad man” and a “free lover.” 

Henry Thoreau, not a fan, wrote, “It is as if the beasts spoke” but his friend and mentor Ralph Waldo Emerson said the collection was “the most extraordinary piece of wit and wisdom America has yet contributed.” 

Whitman was always revising. He added 146 poems to his third edition. He spent those New Jersey years revising and expanding the collection until the 1891 eighth and final edition. 

Walt had no social media for self-promotion but he had a journalism background. In 1855, he got at least three anonymous positive self-reviews of the first edition of Leaves of Grass in the United States Review, the American Phrenological Journal, and the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The one gain with an overly confident statement that we have  "An American bard at last!"

What Walt did is no secret. He was discovered early on. In 1856 Leaves, a reviewer in the New York Times identified Walt as the author of the three anonymous reviews. Whitman reprinted the "exposé" with the original self-reviews in a publicity pack along with the 1860 edition.

modernized Walt
A slightly updated image of Walt by Courtney Nicholas
Whitman was open about those reviews and his self-promotion and viewed it as he did the initial self-publication - a necessary way to get his work out to the public.

I think if Walt had been writing in the 21st century, he would be on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, posting videos on YouTube and offering his book's first edition as an Amazon Original. Walt would have loved the self-promotion of social media. And today he might be an openly gay author but when he was asked about his sexuality even at the end of his life, he declined to answer. At the end of his life he said that sex was “the thing in my work which has been most misunderstood — that has excited the roundest opposition, the sharpest venom, the unintermitted slander, of the people who regard themselves as the custodians of the morals of the world.”

He was unorthodox in his life, his writing and his way of creating the image of the "The Gray Poet" not unlike a modern-day Bob Dylan or any celebrity artist who has created a persona that mixes reality and fiction. 

In the film Dead Poets Society, Mr. Keating (Robin Williams) alludes to Whitman's poem "O Captain! My Captain!" and other passages from Leaves of Grass. When Keating is fired from the school because his unorthodox teaching, his students use the poem to salute him.

I rediscovered some of the Whitman poems individually through other sources. "I Sing the Body Electric" came back to me through Ray Bradbury using it as the title of a short story and the title of his story collection. Earlier it had been the title of a Bradbury episode written for The Twilight Zone in 1962. Of course, I went back to the poem and though it had not changed, I had and so did my appreciation of the poem. 

That poem is a good example of the versions of the poems in the collection. Originally, like the other poems in Leaves of Grass, it did not have a title and it didn't have the line "I sing the body electric" until the 1867 edition because "electric" was not a commonly used term in 1855. 

Last summer was the 200th birthday of Whitman. I went to an exhibit at The Morgan Library and Museum in New York, "Walt Whitman: Bard of Democracy," much of which was about Leaves of Grass.


About 20 years ago, I visited Whitman's New Jersey home in Camden which is now maintained by the state. Touring the modest home wasn't inspiring. Unlike some other author's homes I have visited, I didn't feel Walt's energy there. 

I'm reading poet Mark Doty's new book, What Is the Grass: Walt Whitman in My Life, which begins with Mark's visit to the home. It's about the connections he has made personally with the poet and Leaves of Grass. His visit also seemed to be less inspiring than expected, but he works his way through the poems and Walt's life and looks for how it has influenced his own life and work. It's an interesting journey.

This essay originally appeared at Weekends in Paradelle

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