January 31, 2020

Live in the Layers

Searching for poems this past week to use in our upcoming prompts, I came upon Stanley Kunitz's poem "The Layers." It is a poem I have read often and heard him read in person. It is a poem that invites multiple readings and - like Kunitz himself - "Though I lack the art / to decipher it" fully, I continue to try.

...In my darkest night,
when the moon was covered
and I roamed through wreckage,
a nimbus-clouded voice
directed me:
"Live in the layers,
not on the litter."
Though I lack the art
to decipher it,
no doubt the next chapter
in my book of transformations
is already written.
I am not done with my changes.

I don't know that Stanley would have agreed with me, but the layers and litter of the poem always make me think of the garden and my compost pile. "Leaf litter" is the leaves, twigs and pieces of bark that have fallen to the ground and make up an important component of healthy soil. Stanley was well known for his gardening and I'm sure his compost pile was an important part of it. Compost is itself a place of transformation. There are creatures that live in the litter and the litter certainly encourages life and growth.

But that voice from the clouds advises not to live in the litter but in the layers.

Yesterday, I took the photo shown at the top of this post because it looked like the clouds were in layers. If the litter is the earth, then there are many layers above it going up into the sky and far beyond our own planet.

Listen to Stanley read the poem, and if you have your own interpretation, please post a comment here.

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January 28, 2020

Opening Emily Dickinson

We know Emily's poems. Emily didn't write prose. No notebooks, journals or diaries. Well, wait - she wrote letters. Lots of them.

If you're looking for who Emily Dickinson really "is" I think you will find it in the letters - when you read them along with the poems.

I remember reading Emily's poems in high school. My impression of her (bolstered by that one sad photo) was of a hermit, virgin who had a sad life spent mostly in her room, house and garden. Poor little Em.

I didn't really like Emily's poems back then. I like them a lot more now, but that came through learning more about her. I know I'm not supposed to enjoy poems more because I like the poet, but that's what has happened. I seem to write a lot here about Emily and her writing.

There is more joy and life in her letters. She's not the lonely spinster in many of those letters. There is life, love and passion.

There are a number of collections of her letters including multi-volume sets like one facsimile set published by Forgotten Books and also shorter edited (and sometimes censored) selected letters.

The letters that interest me most - and are getting more attention lately - are ones to Susan. Those letters record a thirty-six year correspondence with her childhood friend and neighbor, Susan Gilbert, who would later be her sister-in-law, Susan Dickinson.

There is a good introduction to the Susan and Emily relationship in a post on BrainPickings. I read through the single volume collection of these letters titled Open Me Carefully. These are not censored and so offer a different Emily Dickinson and her letters (also some poems) to Sue, Susan, Susie.
Show me Eternity, and I will show you Memory —Both in one package lainAnd lifted back again —Be Sue — while I am Emily —Be next — what you have ever been — Infinity.

Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson's Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson  is a new book that shines a new light to Emily. Not a lonely spinster in her letters which are presented here without much commentary. They speak for themselves.

"... unlike previous editors who altered line breaks to fit their sense of what is poetry or prose, Hart and Smith offer faithful reproductions of the letters' genre-defying form as the words unravel spectacularly down the original page." - Renee Tursi, The New York Times Book Review

There have been several modern screen versions of a more passionate Emily Dickinson. The latest one is an original on the new Apple+ channel called Dickinson. It is a historical period comedy-drama series that stars Hailee Steinfeld as Emily. It explores Emily's love for Susan Gilbert. The first season was released in November 2019 and a second season will follow.

In a letter to Susan:
I need you more and more, and the great world grows wider . . . every day you stay away — I miss my biggest heart; my own goes wandering round, and calls for Susie… Susie, forgive me Darling, for every word I say — my heart is full of you . . . yet when I seek to say to you something not for the world, words fail me… I shall grow more and more impatient until that dear day comes, for til now, I have only mourned for you; now I begin to hope for you.
Now, farewell, Susie . . . I add a kiss, shyly, lest there is somebody there! Don’t let them see, will you Susie?

And finally, in a mix of Emily's poems and letters, there are her poems written on envelopes which were finally published as The Gorgeous Nothings. This is a full-color facsimile edition of the envelope poems. There are 52 envelope poems.


PHOTO USED ABOVE IN SECTIONS: Daguerreotype of Emily Dickinson taken at Mt. Holyoke in December 1847 or early 1848

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January 18, 2020

Into the Glittering White Snow

Back in 2015, we based a writing prompt on the poem "Shoveling Snow With Buddha" by Billy Collins. It's snowing outside my window today and I was rereading that poem.

I like this Buddha being in a situation that's a bit odd. This is not a seated and meditative Buddha. And I don't think of Buddha in the snow - even though my garden Buddha is being covered with snow beside the St. Francis statue. They seem quite comfortable with each other. They don't seem to mind the cold and snow. They really enjoy it when I sprinkle birdseed around them and the little birds hop in the snow to eat.

When I head outside today to shovel some snow, I'd like to think that I can take Buddha with me. He's in my mind but he's not in my mind. Shoveling snow can certainly be an exercise in mindfulness.

I know from the poem not to talk to him out there.
This is so much better than a sermon in church,
I say out loud, but Buddha keeps on shoveling.
This is the true religion, the religion of snow,
and sunlight and winter geese barking in the sky,
I say, but he is too busy to hear me.

Why be quiet? Because:
He has thrown himself into shoveling snow
as if it were the purpose of existence,
as if the sign of a perfect life were a clear driveway
you could back the car down easily
and drive off into the vanities of the world
with a broken heater fan and a song on the radio.

Soon, outside to shovel snow with Buddha.  And then, with my boots dripping by the door, some hot chocolate.

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January 13, 2020

Seduced By Statistics.

It is easy to be seduced by statistics. I know several friends who have websites and blogs and are rather obsessed with their web statistics. They are always checking to see how many hits the site gets or what pages or posts are most popular or what search terms are being used to find them. Social media has encouraged this with Likes and Retweets and Reposts. Our smartphones love to send us notifications that someone has engaged with some piece of our content.

I got this alert last month about this blog:

Your page is trending up
Your page clicks increased by more than 1,000% over the usual daily average of less than 1 click.
Possible explanations for this trend could be:
  • Modifications you did to your page's content.
  • Increased interest in a trending topic covered by the page.
Of course, I am happy that people found this post from 2010 and are still reading it and hopefully enjoying it. Google's "possible explanations" for this are both correct, as I did update the page last month and the topic of the Winter Solstice was probably trending across the web as we slipped into the new season.

I do glance at my websites' analytics occasionally. I have ten sites and blogs that I do, so it can't be a very regular thing. I do like to look at the end of the year at each of them to see what has been happening. I also have a half dozen clients that I do websites for and they are always interested in their stats.

What did I learn this year about this blog and its main website at /poetsonline.org? One big takeaway is that people are more likely to find this blog than find the website. In fact, people tend to find the monthly writing prompt on this blog rather than on the main website. For that reason, I have tried to make the blog version of the prompts a bit more expansive - more examples, images, links.

One issue that came up with the website this year is that since Google has demoted "insecure" websites that still have an http at the front of their address rather than an https, ("s" for "secure") some people can't access the website anymore. I could make the website be S secure but that costs money and since Poets Online is a non-profit that actually loses money each year, I don't really want to lose more money.

There is no business plan for Poets Online. I had always hoped that if people clicked on any of the Amazon book links on this blog or on the website when they shopped that those pennies would add up to enough to cover web costs - but that has never happened. Still, it would be great if you did use the Poets Online link to shop at Amazon.com for books or anything. It doesn't cost you anything extra and a very small percent is passed on to us.

Poets should not be seduced by statistics. It's nice to know that people are reading your poems or buying your books but if number s and dollars are your intention in being a poet, you're in the wrong vocation.

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January 6, 2020

Prompt: Factoid Prose Poems

"Which one of us, in his moments of ambition, has not dreamed of a miracle of poetic prose, musical without rhythm and without rhyme, supple enough and rugged enough to adapt itself to the lyrical impulses of the soul, the undulations of reverie, the jibes of conscience?" - Charles Baudelaire

Since Charles Baudelaire and others suggested this new poetry form - a genre with an oxymoron for a name" - it has intrigued and baffled readers and writers.

A prose poem is a composition that, while not broken into verse lines, demonstrates other traits such as symbols, metaphors, and other figures of speech common to poetry. It is not just a poem without line breaks or poetic prose.

There are passages in early Bible translations and the Lyrical Ballads of William Wordsworth that can be considered prose poems, but the form was formalized by the nineteenth-century French symbolist writers such as Aloysius Bertrand and Charles Baudelaire.

Here is Baudelaire's "Be Drunk":
You have to be always drunk. That's all there is to it—it's the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.
But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.
And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: "It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish."

I saw a notice last month of the passing of Louis Jenkins, a prose poet who I have workshopped with and whose work I have enjoyed. Here's a sample of Jenkins' prose poetry - "Too Much Snow" from his collection Just Above Water.

Unlike the Eskimos we only have one word for snow but we have a lot of modifiers for that word. There is too much snow, which, unlike rain, does not immediately run off. It falls and stays for months. Someone wished for this snow. Someone got a deal, five cents on the dollar, and spent the entire family fortune. It's the simple solution, it covers everything. We are never satisfied with the arrangement of the snow so we spend hours moving the snow from one place to another. Too much snow. I box it up and send it to family and friends. I send a big box to my cousin in California. I send a small box to my mother. She writes "Don't send so much. I'm all alone now. I'll never be able to use so much." To you I send a single snowflake, beautiful, complex and delicate; different from all the others.

This month's prompt is inspired by a new collection of prose poems from Renée Ashley titled Ruined Traveler. Renée writes poetry, such as in her collection The View from the Body, but also prose (Minglements: Prose on Poetry and Life) and even a novel, Someplace Like This, so Renée has four feet in all those modes!

Her collection of prose poems, Ruined Traveler, contains compressed poems. Most have rigid justified margins to heighten pressure on the language. A few short poems shoot out from the right margin. Titles often start the poems [bracketed]. There are also long segmented poems (such as "Ruined Traveler" and "from Her Book of Difficulties") that are interwoven throughout the collection.

Looking at two model poems from her collection, you can see that rather than punctuation, capital letters indicate "lines" (though without line breaks). That's certainly not a prose rule, but it is another possibility.

from Her Book of Difficulties
[Soon after she] dreamt the velvet of young bucks upholstered the bark of deciduous trees behind her house There was a fusillade of sunlight She knew that a soul was just a tale of the body told but the fortress of wisteria was real --that may have been the thing that saved her Ah Bride of Dirt and Bride of Sea dreaming of what's overhead The light looking as if it were water and some part of the largest sky about to break out A fault line quivering Pennies tingling inside her skull Her terrible wakefulness All that had to put bees in her veins

Everything Was News to Me

The night wasn't starless but it was white sky It was snowing Had been snowing for days The snow was up to the sky The waves were scouring white when the search-lights found them The birds wore white we could not see them We could not see the sand She said again she could not begin without a story She said could not begin The wind drew nearer hard like a rock thrown She was looking for a word to help her understand Occlusion Impediment Projectile She tried salt and chalk Tried pearl  She didn't want a metaphor She had the common white belly of the moon Of wishbone Of thigh Of breast and nape Of nape The word came to her then: lumen She said it aloud: lumen You could build cities in that man's heart she said Said together we could watch them fall
In Ashley's two poems, you won't find the straight story narrative of the Baudelaire or Jenkins poems. Both of her poems are much closer to poetry than many prose poems. But that range of styles over several centuries shows you the possibilities.

For this month's prompt, we are asking you to write a factoid prose poem. That is one that begins with or uses at least one piece of factual information. The best of these poems mix information and imagery and create (as Mallarme said) “the intersections, the crossing of the unexpected with the known.” This prompt was suggested by Danielle Mitchell and here are two of her own poems and another factoid example by David Ignatow, “Information.” 

This is our fourth prose poem prompt so take a look in our archive on the main site for other examples.




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