April 25, 2021

Poetry and Audience

When I read an entry on The Writer's Almanac about poet Ted Kooser, I was struck by this quote:
"I believe that writers write for perceived communities, and that if you are a lifelong professor of English, it's quite likely that you will write poems that your colleagues would like; that is, poems that will engage that community. I worked every day with people who didn't read poetry, who hadn't read it since they were in high school, and I wanted to write for them."
Kooser was born in Ames, Iowa in 1939 and says he started writing poetry seriously as a teenager. Though he wanted to be a writer, when he flunked out of graduate school he took the first job he was offered. It was at a life insurance company, and he worked there for 35 years. 

Though I was struck with his idea about the community you have in mind when you write, the more I thought about it the less valid it seemed that you write for the community you work or live within.

Another insurance company poet is Wallace Stevens. His poems do not seem to be written for people who hadn't read poetry since high school but more for that college professor.

Billy Collins was an English professor for his career, but his poems always seem to appeal to a wide audience (and maybe less so to those professors).

But the theory works for Kooser whose poetry I really enjoy - even though I spent my life in academia. Kooser's poetry is usually simple and straightforward. 

In his poem "Student," I know very well this student he is watching.

He’s got his baseball cap on
backward as up he crawls, out of the froth
of a hangover and onto the sand of the future,
and lumbers, heavy with hope, into the library.

And it is easy for me to envision the "Four Secretaries" in his insurance company office.

Kooser took an approach to his writing practice that I know matches that of other writers - up early and writing before getting dressed and out to a non-poetic job. It worked for him well. By the time he retired in 1999, Kooser had published seven books of poetry, and he continued to write every morning. In 2004, he got a totally surprising phone call informing him that he had been chosen as poet laureate of the United States. As the poet laureate, he started a free weekly column for newspapers called "American Life in Poetry" that hoped to put a poem into the life of people who didn't typically pick up books of poems.

In a craft book Kooser wrote, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets, he talks about the relationship between poet and reader, which he believes is poetry’s ultimate purpose - to reach other people and touch their hearts.

Certainly, all writers have an audience in mind when they write. For my own writing - and I don't think I am at all unique in this - my audience is myself. I want to write the kind of poem that I would enjoy reading. 

Who do you think the audience is for your writing?

Visit our website at poetsonline.org

April 12, 2021

National Poetry Month 2021

The Academy of American Poets celebrates the 25th anniversary of National Poetry Month.

Each April, the Academy offers activities, initiatives, and resources so that anyone can join in National Poetry Month online and at home:

Visit our website at poetsonline.org

April 6, 2021

Prompt: Metonymy and Synecdoche

Image by M. Maggs

This month we are looking at two famous poets and two similar and often confused literary terms.

Carl Sandburg was born in 1878 and died in 1967. He was a very American poet, biographer, journalist, and editor. He won three Pulitzer Prizes: two for his poetry and one for his biography of Abraham Lincoln. During his lifetime, Sandburg was widely regarded as a major figure in contemporary literature, especially for his poetry, including Chicago Poems (1916), Cornhuskers (1918), and Smoke and Steel (1920). He enjoyed broad appeal as a poet in his day, perhaps because his plain language and the breadth of his experiences connected him with so many strands of American life.

I was introduced to Sandburg in school with some of his most anthologized poems, including "Fog" which we use as a model for this prompt.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888 in St. Louis, Missouri and was a contemporary of Sandburg, though they are not very similar (and I suspect they were not friends). He moved to England and became a British subject in 1927. He wrote widely from The Waste Land and Four Quartets to Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats (which was the basis of the Broadway show Cats) as well as prose, and works of drama. He won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948. T.S. Eliot died in 1965.

I first encountered Eliot in college. As much as I had liked Sandburg's simple poems, I fell under the spell of Eliot and the idea that poetry should be complex and not easily understood on that first reading. My college copy of Four Quartets is full of margin notes about things I had to research to understand.

My taste in poetry and my own poetry today is probably closer to Sandburg than Eliot. It might seem that pairing them is unlikely but this month we are doing that by figurative language and one image.

Figurative language is essential in poetry. Ezra Pound said that his fear with modern poetry that it was becoming "prose with line breaks." He was not a fan of narrative poetry that could be read like prose with complete sentences and little or no figurative language.

Metonymy is often confused with synecdoche. These literary devices are similar but can be differentiated. 

Synecdoche is a figure of speech in which a part of something is used to signify the whole. To ask for someone’s “hand” in marriage of course means to ask the whole person. "Boots on the ground" signifies soldiers. When they ask at checkout "Paper or plastic?" they mean the type of bag made from that material. The "stars and stripes" signifies the entire U.S. flag. "Suits" can mean people in business. "All hands on deck, I see a sails" uses two synecdoches.

Metonymy is a figure of speech in which one word is used to replace another to which it is closely linked, but, unlike synecdoche, it is not a part of the word or idea it represents.

Shakespeare writes “lend me your ears,” and "ears” are not meants as a synecdoche for people but as a substitute for “attention.” “O, for a draught of vintage!” write Keats’s in “Ode to Nightingale,” with “vintage” standing in for “wine.”  A very metonymy-heavy sentence is "The press got wind that the feds were investigating management in Hollywood.

In our two model poems - Sandburg's short poem "Fog" and an excerpt (stanza 3) from Eliot's long poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" - the poets use metonymy and also use the same image of a personified (or cat-ified) fog.

For our April prompt, we ask you to write a poem based on a central image that uses metonymy. If you wrote a poem about "cradle to grave" you would have a double metonymy. If you decide the central image needs to be a synecdoche - perhaps about your "lead foot" - that's also fine.

You might even want to consider building upon these poets' use of fog since it can also mean, figuratively, unable to think clearly as in "she was foggy with sleep" or indistinctly expressed, as in "Exactly what Eliot meant is still foggy."


Visit our website at poetsonline.org