April 25, 2020

Walt Whitman Webinar

Whitman, age 36

You might want to "attend" a special event with the Library of Congress on Friday, May 1. 

Last year, the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) and By the People teamed up to host a webinar on the day the Library of Congress launched the “Walt Whitman at 200” Campaign which invited us who are online to transcribe, review and analyze primary sources. 

On May 1, they are doing a follow-up webinar and a challenge for educators and students who are interested in analyzing Whitman’s original works. 

All of the 4,000 Whitman papers released last year have been transcribed, but 1,400 still need to be reviewed. Review is a crucial part of the process–it’s an opportunity for someone to check that a transcription matches the original document, and either edit or approve it. In this new webinar, there will be tips and suggestions about how to incorporate book history approaches to textual analysis into your teaching. 

Everyone can take part (NCTE membership is not required to be part of this event).


I have just started reading the brand new book, Mark Doty's What Is the Grass, his personal look at how Whitman entered and changed his life, which I plan to review for the Paterson Literary Review, so I'm interested in what will be said in the webinar.

Mark Doty is an extraordinary poet and has felt "haunted by Walt Whitman’s bold, perennially new American voice, and by his equally radical claims about body and soul and what it means to be a self."

In What Is the Grass, Doty addresses many questions, including Whitman's own question of "What is it then between us?" Doty also asks "How does a voice survive death?" And the book's title asks the big question from a reader of Whitman's Leaves of Grass - What is the grass?


Visit our website at poetsonline.org

April 23, 2020

Mini-Prompt: Stafford's Aphorisms

I have been reading and rereading William Stafford's poetry and prose since I was in college. It was his daily writing practice which inspired my own poem-a-day project in 2014.  It was good discipline and I produced 365 short poems and have continued that project on a weekly basis since then. 

One of his aphorisms explains his ability to write first thing every morning and produce something he considered a poem: "A realization: my slogan for writing—lower your standards and go on—applies to living, to getting old."  

Though I created my own short form for my daily writing so that I wouldn't be intimidated with the task and a form so that I had parameters, Stafford said, "I write short things because no one will listen long."


For this mini-prompt, I used Stafford's collection, Passages from Sound of the Ax: Aphorisms and Poems. I chose a handful of them to use. Your prompt is to select one and use it as a line, epigraph or title for your short poem. If you have his book or find others online, use them. Put quotation marks on the Stafford line if you post it here as a comment. 

Stafford often started the day and a poem with one of his aphorisms as one of his elements of his daily practice.

An "aphorism" — a freestanding sentence, an idea, a question, a puzzle. Often, William Stafford would next write a sentence that "lifted off" from daily experience to observe a pattern, a truth, an idea, or a private joke ("It still takes all kinds to make a world, but there is an oversupply of some"). This provisional understanding from daily life begins to raise your attention out of the mundane into the gently miraculous realm of poetry. It is your own koan. These aphorisms in William Stafford's daily writing rarely become part of poems (though some of his poems are built from a series of such lines). Most often, they are little wonders left to resonate as private treasure, threshold, key. A bell has been struck, bringing the writer to attention. 

If you write a poem and would like to share it with our online community, post it as a comment below this post. Take note that when you post any comment to the blog (and many other blogs), it needs to be approved before it appears. I've noticed that several people have submitted a comment multiple times thinking it didn't go through. Keep calm and don't resubmit.

If you're not familiar with William Stafford's poetry, I would suggest the collection Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford as a starting place.  Here are some aphorisms to consider - even if you're not writing a poem.

Every mink has a mink coat.

Believing our way, we find.

The arrow tells what the archer meant to say.

What can’t be avoided must be endured.

Art is first nothing, then something.

Faith is easy; doubt is hard.

My life isn’t what I thought it was. But the world isn’t either.

Many things we think we are leaving are waiting for us.

I’ve got in a lot of trouble in my life by being careful.

The river keeps looking for the perfect stone.

Strange, the best part of a room is a window.

If there is a trail, you have taken a wrong turn.

I hear the clock’s little teeth gnawing at time.

At first, it’s not much of a river.


Visit our website at poetsonline.org

April 16, 2020

Mini-Prompt: Relativity

Here's another short prompt for those of who are sheltering at home this month and might want some additional writing prompts. Our main prompt still holds for the month of April, but these mini-prompts offer the opportunity to post your resulting poem as a comment at the bottom of this post.

Some history: Poets Online began as an email exchange with a prompt back in the 20th century between a group of poet friends. This prompt can be treated as one of the poetry workshop "write for 20 minutes and then we'll share" assignments. I sent it out via email to some of the original poets who were online and suggested they use a short form like a tanka, haiku, ronka or whatever comes out.

The prompt itself came from a discussion I had with some poets about a poem of mine that referenced the theory of relativity. In 1916, Albert Einstein published his Theory of General Relativity which he began working on shortly after he published his Special Theory of Relativity in 1905. The earlier one is where the famous equation E=mc2 (energy equals mass times the speed of light squared) is found. It explains that both time and motion are relative to the observer. It is not a theory that is easy to understand or explain. One when asked to explain it to reporters, Einstein said “When you are courting a nice girl, an hour seems like a second. When you sit on a red-hot cinder, a second seems like an hour. That’s relativity.”

Write a poem that addresses the idea of RELATIVITY which does not necessarily need to be about Einstein's theory or science. 

Below are several responses that I received to my email prompt. (My own triple ronka response is at writingtheday.wordpress.com

If you write a poem and would like to share it with our online community, post it as a comment below this post. Take note that when you post any comment to the blog (and many other blogs), it needs to be approved before it appears. I've noticed that several people have submitted a comment multiple times thinking it didn't go through. Keep calm and don't resubmit.

Covid19 Conundrum
We're all quarantined. Now fish cavort in
pristine Venetian canals and birds swoop with
glee in clear blue Beijing skies while
we scrub hands and disinfect doorknobs to
obliterate viruses that take our breath away.
     - Barbara Whitehill

At Least Today
      a triple ronka
The sun shines and we can hike
A relatively quiet area of New Jersey
There are waterfalls, squirrels, families and us
We walk six feet from the others
Freedoms we took for granted quickly disappear.

My mother eats a small turkey sandwich
A successful round of chemotherapy helped to
Fight foreigners that have spread without care
Her esophagus open relatively enough for swallowing
Not clear as a pristine Venetian canal.

In the relatively empty morning blue sky
A red-tailed hawk glides over budding daffodils
Sunday, or perhaps every day now Wednesday
My daughter said, “You often compare one
Time to the next.” It’s all relative.
     - Pat Thomas

The spring equinox blossomed, overnight. Seventy-five degree
heat nudged white-purple flowers, house-tall maples budding
rust-berry toward the empty morning blue sky,
a mockingbird song. They weren't there, yesterday,
the mapped virus dots, the epicenter, here.
     - Leon Alirangues

The body produces antibodies to fight foreigners,
but sometimes the antibodies attack the same
body that produces them instead, wreaking havoc
in slipstream ways, causing the body to
spin out of control and, flaming, crash.
     - Susan Rothbard

Visit our main website at poetsonline.org

April 8, 2020

Prompt: Odes to Common Things


Nobel laureate Pablo Neruda decided in his late forties that he would commit himself to write an ode a week. Eventually, he produced 225 odes.

Neruda conceived his odes as an homage to common things that he encountered frequently and might have otherwise overlooked. He wrote about an artichoke, clouds, the moon and onions.

In his "Ode To The Onion," he writes of this "luminous flask" that:

...in the secrecy of the dark earth
your belly grew round with dew.
Under the earth
the miracle
and when your clumsy
green stem appeared,
and your leaves were born
like swords
in the garden...
You make us cry without hurting us...
and the fragrance of the earth lives
in your crystalline nature.

We referenced Neruda's "Ode to Broken Things" in an earlier prompt that featured Yusef Komunyakaa's poem "The God Of Broken Things." But Neruda almost exclusively chose as his topics real things. One of the broken things in that poem is a clock.

And that clock
whose sound
the voice of our lives,
the secret
thread of our weeks,
which released
one by one, so many hours
for honey and silence
for so many births and jobs,
that clock also
and its delicate blue guts
among the broken glass
its wide heart

Are Neruda's odes classic odes? A classic ode is structured in three major parts: the strophe, the antistrophe, and the epode. Greek odes were originally poetic pieces performed as a song or with musical accompaniment on aulos and the lyre.

To be a professor of poetry, I'll say that there are a number of odes forms including the Pindaric, Horatian, English and irregular - but I don't want you bogged down this month in forms that are overly restrictive. Still, many of you probably have discovered the way forms and structures can help a poem move forward.

Pindaric odes consist of three distinct stanzas (strophe, antistrophe, epode with the first two having the same meter and length, while the epode has a different meter and length) and it was very much meant to be used with music.

Horatian odes (from Horace's poetry) have rhyme and a specific stanza structure.

Irregular odes use rhyme but not a formal rhyme scheme and not the three-part form of the Pindaric ode, nor the two- or four-line stanza of the Horatian ode. It offers the most freedom. William Wordsworth and John Keats are two poets who extensively wrote irregular odes.  Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality" and Keats' "Ode on a Grecian Urn" or "Ode to a Nightingale."

All of those seem very formal to us today. So, I return to Pablo Neruda and his collected All the Odes to common things, such as his "Ode to My Socks."

...They were
so handsome
for the first time
my feet seemed to me
like two decrepit
firemen, firemen
of that woven
of those glowing

Keats' odes to that urn or bird are also "common" objects that he saw in the course of his days. Don't make the mistake of assuming that because many contemporary odes are less classical in their form that they are less serious. Neruda's odes have been described as "the personal diary of a man in search of meaning who sings to life itself, to our connections to one another." Wordsworth's "Ode on Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood" is an ode to the Platonic doctrine of "recollection" and John Keats's "Ode on a Grecian Urn" describes the timelessness of art, and Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Ode to the West Wind" addresses the strength of nature. 

Neruda even tells us why those socks are worth observing.

The moral
of my ode is this:
beauty is twice
and what is good is doubly
when it is a matter of two socks
made of wool
in winter. 

 Deadline: Thursday, April 30, 2020

This month we ask you to write an ode to a common thing. It may be strictly done in one of the classic forms or a variation on a form. The ode form is about celebration and reverence and, though we may not accompany ours with music, they still describe or report using celebratory language and grand metaphors.

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April 1, 2020

April Is Still National Poetry Month


National Poetry Month was launched by the Academy of American Poets in April 1996 to remind everyone - perhaps especially non-poets - that poetry matters. It has become the largest literary celebration in the world. Despite the current pandemic, April is still National Poetry Month and it might be more needed than ever. 

Though some things have been revised for 2020 - probably no actual readings or gatherings - there are more virtual readings and workshops online. The Academy of American Poets has added a new online initiative, Shelter in Poems.

Here are some resources from the official website at poets.org/national-poetry-month


Visit our website at poetsonline.org