August 26, 2021

A Former Free Verse Poet and a Cat

Archy and Mehitabel (styled as archy and mehitabel since they couldn't use the shift key on the typewriter to make capital letters ) are two fictional characters created in 1916, by Don Marquis, a columnist for The Evening Sun newspaper in New York City. Archy is a cockroach. Mehitabel is an alley cat. The characters appeared in hundreds of humorous verses and short stories in Marquis’ daily column, "The Sun Dial". 

Don Marquis said that Archy the cockroach was a former free verse poet who "sees life from the underside now." Mehitabel was a friend with questionable morals. She said that she had been Cleopatra in one of her former lives.

His columns were humorous but also had social and political undertones. Archy said, "a louse i used to know told me that millionaires and bums tasted about alike to him.” 

Archy produced free-verse poems which I read in seventh grade when I discovered a book of them in my school library. I was not a big reader of poetry and I'm sure that most poetry people don't rank Archy's writing very highly, but I was attracted to the oddness of it and the satire.

Archy tried punctuation after being criticized for not using it and  I liked this poem's start:

say comma boss comma capital
i apostrophe m getting tired of
being joshed about my
punctuation period capital t followed by
he idea seems to be
that capital i apostrophe m
ignorant where punctuation
is concerned period capital n followed by
o such thing semi

Both characters had been reincarnated at the low end of the social scale. They roamed the streets of New York City in that time between the world wars. Marquis wrote the columns with them for 10 years and then collected them in book form.

Archy used the newspaper boss' desk to write in the after hours.

i climbed upon my boss his desk
to type a flaming ballad
and there i found a heap grotesque
of socks and songs and salad

Read more about Don Marquis and read some of his work at


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August 18, 2021

Stanely Kunitz, Fathers, the Dictionary and Halley's Comet

I love the poetry of Stanley Kunitz and reading about his life illuminates some things about his poetry but they are also interesting stories by themselves. 

He was born in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1905 to Jewish immigrant parents. I had read earlier that his father committed suicide in a public park before Kunitz was born. His mother tried to erase his father from Stanley's life. Photos were destroyed and she refused to speak about him.

One of the few things from his father that she allowed remaining were his books. Most of hem were classics - Tolstoy and Dickens - but one of Stanley's favorites was the dictionary. 

"I used to sit in that green Morris chair and open the heavy dictionary on my lap, and find a new word every day. It was a big word, a word like eleemosynary or phantasmagoria — some word that, on the tongue, sounded great to me, and I would go out into the fields and I would shout those words, because it was so important that they sounded so great to me. And then eventually I began incorporating them into verses, into poems. But certainly, my thought, in the beginning, was that there was so much joy playing with language that I couldn't consider living without it."

Stanley wrote an essay about the quest for a father. One of my favorite poems of his about his father is "Halley's Comet." It is about learning in school that the comet was heading to Earth, though he was misinformed about it possibly hitting Earth. The poem ends with a message to his father that he never met.

Look for me, Father, on the roof
of the red brick building
at the foot of Green Street—
that's where we live, you know, on the top floor.
I'm the boy in the white flannel gown
sprawled on this coarse gravel bed
searching the starry sky,
waiting for the world to end.

He attended Harvard, moved to a farm in Connecticut and sold fresh herbs to markets, and also worked as a reporter. He was drafted into World War II.

After the war, he was offered a teaching position at Bennington College. Here's a great story from 1949. The college tried to expel one of his students (it happened to be Groucho Marx's daughter Miriam) right before her graduation because she had violated curfew. Stanley decided to be part of a protest against the decision. The college president came to his house and demanded that he stop. Kunitz took a plant that he was potting and threw it in the president's face. Then, he quit his position.

He published two books of poems that garnered little attention and his third book was to be Selected Poems (1958). It was rejected by eight publishers but when it was finally published it won the Pulitzer Prize. It was a slow but steady climb. An avid gardener, Stanley was a patient man. He didn't publish his next book until 1971, The Testing Tree

He was appointed the U.S. Poet Laureate when he was 95 years old. He died at the age of 100.

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August 11, 2021

Tarot With Sylvia Plath

I saw a curious note online this month that a lot of about 50 items connected to poet Sylvia Plath brought in more than $1 million in London, according to auction house Sotheby’s. 

Some of the items up for sale included Sylvia's and her husband Ted Hughes’ gold wedding bands, which went for nearly $38,000. There were more than a dozen love letters from Plath to Hughes dating from early in their marriage. There was a family photo album. 

People also bid on some odd things like a set of family recipes and a rolling pin, two serving trays and a drinking cup. Those sold for a collective $43,130.

I thought the whole thing sounded rather offensive. Who had this stuff? It turns out the items were sold by Frieda Hughes, the daughter of Plath and Hughes.

I know that Sylvia Plath has an almost cultish following, so I understand the interest, but what do people do with these things?

Plath's writing is dark and often depicts mental illness and issues with the men in her life (fathers and husbands). Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, and poems lead readers to assume they know about her inner life.

Sylvia was born in 1932 in Boston but spent much of her life in England after moving there in 1955 to attend the University of Cambridge as a Fulbright Scholar. She met poet Ted Hughes there and was married just four months later. Hughes began an affair with a family friend and the couple separated in 1962 and just seven months later, Sylvia committed suicide in the home she shared with her two children in London. 

She wrote most of the work that would make her famous in the short time between her separation from Ted and her suicide at age 30. Much of that writing was published posthumously. Ariel, her collection of poems dealing with mental illness, is the best known of her poetry. 

A more understandable item for the devotee might be a deck of French Tarot cards that belonged to Plath. That was the most expensive at $206,886. Ted introduced Sylvia to the occult and gave her the cards for her 24th birthday. The tarot did have an impact on her work. One example is her 1960 poem "The Hanging Man." 

I imagine someone with those cards tapping the deck, asking a question (to Sylvia?) and making a spread on the table and trying to feel a connection with her. 


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August 3, 2021

Prompt: Historical Intimacy

When I was in a weeklong poetry workshop with Billy Collins a chunk of years ago, he looked at a poem I was working on titled "Sex with Amelia Earhart." He said it reminded him of his poem "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes" (which appears in his collection Picnic, Lightning).

The two poems both have a title intended to give a little shock. Collins uses a lot of allusions to Emily's poems including well-known lines from them. His poem is more romantic and less sexual than mine, but I imagine both poems would gather around them the same criticisms: sensationalist and maybe even misogynist. I know that both of us thought about that and both of us disagreed with those appraisals. I think we both thought of them as love poems. Male poet imagines a romantic relationship with a female inspiration from the past.

In an interview on Fresh Air, Collins said "I mean, I actually at one point, when there were so many books out about speculating particularly on Emily Dickinson's sexuality, you know, was she lesbian, was she celibate, did she have an affair, I was driven actually by all of that curiosity and speculation to write a poem called "Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes," in which I attempted, in a kind of playful way, to put the matter at rest by having sex with her."

I showed both poems to another poet, Kristin D'Agostino, and she suggested they might be a prompt here .

Create an intimacy between you and a historical person. Imagine a conversation or romantic encounter. "Intimacy" can occur at many levels. I did some searching online and it seems that some psychologist list four types of intimacies: emotional, mental, spiritual, and physical. Only one of those involves touching.

That is your prompt for this month. Choose your person. Select the type (types?) of intimacy. A conversation over coffee? A passionate weekend? So many possibilities.


Deadline for submissions to our next issue: August 31, 2021

Please refer to our submission guidelines and look at our archive of more than two decades of prompts and poems.

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