December 19, 2022

In the bleak midwinter

Uncredited illustration of Old Man Winter, used for "Winter”
in Child Life: A Collection of Poems, edited by John Greenleaf Whittier

The winter solstice comes this week. It is an astronomical phenomenon that marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year. This is the December solstice in the Northern Hemisphere and the June solstice in the Southern Hemisphere.

The winter solstice is also known as the hiemal or hibernal solstice, Midwinter, Yule, the Longest Night and Jólo.

"Midwinter" seems odd to Americans since it often doesn't seem like winter until December in many parts of the country, so to have December 21 as a midpoint seems wrong. (I always felt the same about "midsummer" - as in Shakespeare's play.) The winter solstice can also be known as midwinter because the days get longer after the solstice, but it doesn't mean that it gets any warmer. In fact, for me in the northeast, the bleakest part of winter is January or February.

Christina Rossetti was a Pre-Raphaelite poet who published her most famous collection, Goblin Market and Other Poems in 1862 when she was 31 years old. "In the Bleak Midwinter" is probably her most famous poem. She first published it under the title "A Christmas Carol," and it does have a songlike quality.

The first stanza is the best-known:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

I think that people today might recognize her poem as a Christmas carol and it is a Nativity poem.

In the Greek myths, the goddess of the harvest, Demeter, had her daughter Persephone kidnapped by Hades, lord of the underworld. It so depressed her, that she became despondent that she could not care for the lands, and winter took over. After a deal was struck with Hades, Persephone was allowed to return to the Earth for six months of the year at which time the lands thrived, but every six months she would return to the underworld and the seasons would change again.

Though some people 

Maybe you should make a Viking toast for the solstice.

Here is the rest of Rosetti's poem.

Our God, Heaven cannot hold Him, nor earth sustain; 

Heaven and earth shall flee away when He comes to reign.

In the bleak midwinter a stable place sufficed

The Lord God Almighty, Jesus Christ.

Enough for Him, whom cherubim, worship night and day,

Breastful of milk, and a mangerful of hay;

Enough for Him, whom angels fall before,

The ox and ass and camel which adore.

Angels and archangels may have gathered there,

Cherubim and seraphim thronged the air;

But His mother only, in her maiden bliss,

Worshipped the beloved with a kiss.

What can I give Him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb;

If I were a Wise Man, I would do my part;

Yet what I can I give Him: give my heart.


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December 12, 2022

The Approach of Winter

Approach of Winter

by William Carlos Williams

The half-stripped trees
struck by a wind together, 
bending all,
the leaves flutter drily
and refuse to let go
or driven like hail
stream bitterly out to one side
and fall
where the salvias, hard carmine,—
like no leaf that ever was—
edge the bare garden.

William Carlos Williams was born in Rutherford, New Jersey in 1883. A highly influential figure in twentieth-century poetry, he was the author of Pictures from Brueghel and Other Poems and many other works. Williams was also a physician. He died in 1963.

Williams was known as an Imagist poet. “Imagism was born in England and America in the early twentieth century. A reactionary movement against romanticism and Victorian poetry, Imagism emphasized simplicity, clarity of expression, and precision through the use of exacting visual images.”    

November 29, 2022

Poetry at the Grammy Awards

I only recently discovered that the GRAMMY Awards added a Spoken Word Poetry Album category. 

Most poets we know do not record albums of their poems, so it may not surprise you who has been nominated for the 2023 GRAMMYs (officially known as the 65th GRAMMY Awards) to be held on February 5, 2023.

The Best Spoken Word Poetry Album nominees (several of which are marked as explicit) for albums containing greater than 50% playing time of new spoken word poetry recordings are:

  1. Black Men Are Precious, Ethelbert Miller
  2. Call Us What We Carry: Poems, Amanda Gorman
  3. Hiding In Plain View, Malcolm-Jamal Warner
  4. The Poet Who Sat By The Door, J. Ivy
  5. You Will Be Someone's Ancestor. Act Accordingly, Amir Sulaiman

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November 24, 2022

Get Started on Your Book of Days

This is a short follow-up to my previous post about day books (AKA a book of days). Are you ready to start one? You don’t need to wait for the new year. It can be your poem-a-day book, but that is pretty ambitious. Or it can be like more traditional day books, recording events of the day.

You could use any notebook, but I am a big fan of bound books for these kinds of projects. One that I found online is specifically a day book blank book designed with 365 pages. Actually, the one I was looking at has pages numbered 1–366. Day 366 is for leap years, like 2024. It has 370 unlined pages so you can write and sketch and paste in pictures, plus a title page and three notes pages – one at the start for your intro and two at the end to wrap things up.

You don’t need a theme or special project to start recording your thoughts, memories, changes, and progress for 365 days. It could be for you but it could be a book to leave for someone else. Record the first year of a baby’s life.

The numbered pages can be a bit of motivation for keeping at the practice, though the blank page shouldn’t be frightening. I know someone whose day book is composed of all images hand drawn and cut out of magazines, mail, or found. Another friend did a gratitude journal as her daily prompt.

Another blank day book I found online has a lock on it. That reminds me of a diary my older sister had when I was a kid. The lock might have protected it but it also made the contents all the more appealing. Day books are not diaries. More almanac than a diary or intimate journal. More log book than confessional.

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November 23, 2022

Marking the Days

A traditional or historical “book of days” (or "day book") was like an almanac. They recorded past events, including Saint Days of the church, and famous people who were born or died that day. Sometimes each day had a little essay – not unlike a blog post. But, at one time, it was also not unusual for people (more often women, from what I have read) to keep their own book of days where they recorded events and observations on the day. 

Not exactly a diary or journal. The traditional ones might tell you on November 19 Charles I of England was born in 1600, and that it is the Feast Day for St. Pontian, pope, and martyr, who died about 235. 

In Chamber’s Book of Days for this day, there’s a curious article about “Patching and Painting” a lady’s face. The beauties of the court of Louis Quinze would put gummed pieces of black taffeta on their cheeks to heighten the brilliancy of their complexions. The “fops” of Elizabethan England had long before anticipated them, by decorating their faces with black stars, crescents, and lozenges. The fashion prevailed and in 1640 it was written that “If it be a lover’s part you are to act, take a black spot or two; twill make your face more amorous, and appear more gracious in your mistress’s eyes.”

A personal day book might record a family birth or death. It might record when the roses bloomed or when Cousin Bill visited or the Full Moon or an eclipse.

This month I saw that Patti Smith has published her visual A Book of Days. It has photographs of her daily coffee, books she’s reading, gravesites of friends and the famous, and daily images accompanied by short text – “captions” but sometimes somewhat poetic. She is a poet, as well as a musician, photographer, and writer of other things.

She describes it this way:

"A Book of Days is a glimpse of how I navigate this culture in my own way. It was inspired by my Instagram but is uniquely its own. Much of it I created during the pandemic, in my room alone, projecting into the future and reflecting the past, family, and a consistent personal aesthetic. 
Entries and images are keys to unlocking one’s own thoughts. Each is surrounded with the reverberation of other possibilities. Birthdays acknowledged are prompts for others, including your own. A Paris café is all cafés, just as a gravesite may echo others mourned and remembered. Having experienced much loss, I’ve found solace in frequenting the cemeteries of people I love, and I have visited many, offering my prayers, respect, and gratitude. I am at home with history and tracing the steps of those whose work has inspired me; many entries are that of remembrance."

Smith uses the word "prompts" and that is something that I respond to as a poet. What is that thing that starts you putting down words? 

Her project came out of her use of Instagram and her acceptance of an iPhone as a camera after they stopped making film for her beloved Polaroid. She takes a photo of poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s hat or her partner Fred “Sonic” Smith’s guitar. These are things from people she knew who have passed and the objects remain unused. Objects she does use, such as eyeglasses, writing implements, and manuscripts, also are featured. Like Smith, if I am in a café, I have my phone and a notebook nearby and I record the day. 

On day #338 in the year, Patti wrote “19 NOVEMBER: Bruno Schulz, the brilliant Polish writer, was shot in the street by a Gestapo officer on this date in 1942. Much of his writing, including a work called The Messiah, was tragically lost in the war. This is Jim Carroll’s heavily thumbed copy of Schulz’s masterpiece The Street of Crocodiles."

My own book of days went online in 2014. I called it Writing the Day. I wrote a short poem every day about something from that day. I had someone interested in publishing the poems as a book, and the question came up, “How important are the accompanying images?” Some of them are mine; some are open-sourced or public domain. In my podcast version of the website, the images get lost (as well as the links). How much is lost in this digital transfer?

Here is what I wrote for November 19, 2022, on Writing the Day.

Not about traditional saints and feast days,
not devotional almanac, calendar, or scrapbook clippings - 
not my journal. Not any of those
but all of those. Life logbook through time.
Capture one good line, images, in words.

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November 14, 2022

The Fall of Icarus

The first time I saw the painting Landscape with the Fall of Icarus I thought "Where is Icarus?" 

The painting in oil on canvas is currently displayed in the Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium in Brussels. It was long thought to be by the leading painter of Dutch and Flemish Renaissance painting, Pieter Bruegel the Elder but that is controversial and it may be a copy of his original which is lost.  

I came to the painting via W. H. Auden's poem "Musée des Beaux-Arts", named after the museum in Brussels where he saw the painting. I later found a poem of the same name by William Carlos Williams, and just recently read "Lines on Bruegel's 'Icarus'" by Michael Hamburger. They are all examples of ekphrastic poetry

Williams' poem

According to Brueghel
when Icarus fell
it was spring

a farmer was ploughing
his field
the whole pageantry

of the year was
awake tingling

the edge of the sea
with itself

sweating in the sun
that melted
the wings' wax

off the coast
there was

a splash quite unnoticed
this was
Icarus drowning

His poem focuses on what is so interesting about the painting's title; that Icarus is insignificant on the canvas. He also tells you where to look for Icarus. His legs are sticking out of the water below the ship near shore.

W. H. Auden’s "Musée des Beaux Arts" goes in another direction. He opens by saying, "About suffering they were never wrong / The old Masters: how well they understood / Its human position. 

Auden wrote the poem in 1938, while he was staying in Brussels with his friend Christopher Isherwood. He was probably thinking of several paintings that are in that museum. In his first stanza, he is concerned with how the Masters displayed suffering. 

The second shorter stanza uses the Icarus painting as an example of:

how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; 

In this poem, the nature of suffering is that no matter how intense it is for the person undergoing it, most of the people around are ignorant or indifferent to what is happening. Accurate though that might be, it's pretty depressing.

Icarus comes to us in Greek mythology. He is the son of the master craftsman Daedalus, who created the labyrinth of Crete. Daedalus and his son are imprisoned in the labyrinth of his own creation with a dangerous minotaur. They attempt to escape using wings Daedalus had constructed from feathers and wax. 

The father warns the boy not to fly too low or too high. The sea's dampness will clog his wings and the sun's heat will melt them. But Icarus, probably thrilled with flight, ignores the warnings and does fly too close to the sun. The wax melts, the wings fall apart and he falls out of the sky and into the sea, and drowns. 

Ovid's treatment of the Icarus myth inspired many English writers (including Chaucer, Marlowe, Shakespeare, Milton, and Joyce. Other English-language poems referencing the Icarus myth are "To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph" by Anne Sexton; "Icarus Again" by Alan Devenish; "Mrs. Icarus" by Carol Ann Duffy; "Failing and Flying" by Jack Gilbert; "It Should Have Been Winter" by Nancy Chen Long; "Icarus Burning" and "Icarus Redux" by Hiromi Yoshida; and "Up like Icarus" by syllabic poet Mark Antony Owen.

 It is generally seen as a cautionary lesson about "high-flying ambition," and hubris.

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November 6, 2022

Prompt: STEM via Flickr

I worked for a decade at a STEM university. STEM stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. That doesn't immediately sound very poetic, but poets do write about all those fields at times, and there were poets at the university. 

The first "science" poem I remember reading in a school anthology is "When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer" by Walt Whitman which is basically an anti-science poem. 

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.

We have all probably sat through some of those lectures and wanted to walk out and just look up at the sky.

There were metaphysical poets, like Donne and Marvell. Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy that studies the fundamental nature of reality, the first principles of being, identity and change, space and time, etc. Not physics in the scientific sense but with some science in the conceits of their philosophy.

Edgar Allen Poe wrote a "Sonnet - To Science." Jane Hirshfield went poetic about proteins.  

Sarah Howe writing about the poetry of astrophysics wrote "It’s not a new idea that poets and scientists should talk to one another. During a visit to Florence in 1638, the young John Milton sought out Galileo Galilei. By then a blind old man, Galileo was living under house arrest, confined by the Inquisition for asserting, after his celestial observations, that the Earth revolved around the sun. Years later, old and blind himself, Milton would pay homage—in his epic poem about the origins of our universe, Paradise Lost—to the great astronomer, who makes a cameo appearance with his telescope pointed at the sun’s dark spots."

Howe's poem titled "Relativity" is dedicated to Stephen Hawking and begins:

When we wake up brushed by panic in the dark
our pupils grope for the shape of things we know.

Photons loosed from slits like greyhounds at the track
reveal light’s doubleness in their cast shadows...

In "The Sciences Sing a Lullabye," Albert Goldbarth lets the sciences sing.

Physics says: go to sleep. Of course
you're tired. Every atom in you
has been dancing the shimmy in silver shoes
nonstop from mitosis to now...
Geology says: it will be all right. Slow inch
by inch America is giving itself
to the ocean...
Astronomy says: the sun will rise tomorrow...

All these are model poems for this month's call for submissions, but I chose Nick Flynn's "Cartoon Physics, part 1" as our example on the website in which he plays with physics the way cartoons play with physics.

...that if a man draws a door on a rock
only he can pass through it.
Anyone else who tries
will crash into the rock... 

Cartoon physics teaches us that

that if a man runs off the edge of a cliff
he will not fall

until he notices his mistake.

Physics seems to attract more poets and I had a physics course in college for non-majors that was nicknamed "physics for poets." We were all theoretical physicists in that lecture hall talking about time travel, quantum mechanics, parallel universes, and the physics that interests the writers of stories and makers of films of science-fiction. 

Of course, science doesn't always get it right. I wrote elsewhere about some "wrong science" which can be funny in retrospect and might even be poetic. 

Our prompt this month is science and more specifically the STEM disciplines and even more specifically we'd like to see some play in the poems.  

Submission Deadline: November 30, 2022.

Nick Flynn is an American writer, playwright, and poet. His writing is characterized by lyric, distilled moments, which blur the boundaries of various genres. Many of his books are structured using a collage technique, which creates narratives with fractured, mosaic qualities. He is the author of five poetry collections, including I Will Destroy You (Graywolf Press, 2019). Flynn was born in Scituate, Massachusetts in 1960. His debut poetry collection, Some Ether (2000), won the PEN/Joyce Osterweil Award. He has also published several memoirs including Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. He divides his time between Texas, where he teaches at the University of Houston, and Brooklyn, New York. His website is 

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October 28, 2022

Publicity And Marketing for Poets

I know several people who have recently had poetry collections published by small presses or self-published. It's great to be published, but both of those situations mean that they will need to do some self-promotion.

Bigger presses will have a publicity person and ways of getting a book into the hands of reviewers, stores, and award judges and getting the poet into bookstores, events, and readings.

If the publicity and marketing is up to you, one place to start might be PR For Poets: A Guidebook To Publicity And Marketing

In the book, Jeannine Hall Gailey, a poet, provides information about getting your book out there using both social media and some old media, like librarians and booksellers, and readers.

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October 19, 2022

Poet Laureates and the Royals

 Queen Elizabeth I and William Shakespeare in Worcester Cathedral

I don't recall hearing that the late Queen Elizabeth II was much interested in poetry. Elizabeth I was quite a fan of Mr. Shakepseare's plays and poetry and she wrote some of her own poetry. 

Her poem, "‘On Monsieur’s Departure," is thought to have been inspired by the breakdown of marriage negotiations between her and Francis, Duke of Anjou. This is her final stanza. 

Some gentler passion slide into my mind,
For I am soft and made of melting snow;
Or be more cruel, love, and so be kind.
Let me or float or sink, be high or low.
Or let me live with some more sweet content,
Or die and so forget what love ere meant.

The lines remind me of the "cruel to be kind’ part in Hamlet that Shakespeare would later write. An influence?

Still, the British monarchy has long had its Poets Laureate. Shakespeare came before the position was established. The first poet was John Dryden (1668–89).

I saw recently the poem "Floral Tribute" by the British Poet Laureate Simon Armitage on the death of Queen Elizabeth II. It s a very flowery poem both literally and figuratively. The first stanza is:

Evening will come, however determined the late afternoon,
Limes and oaks in their last green flush, pearled in September mist.
I have conjured a lily to light these hours, a token of thanks,
Zones and auras of soft glare framing the brilliant globes.
A promise made and kept for life - that was your gift -
Because of which, here is a gift in return, glovewort to some,
Each shining bonnet guarded by stern lance-like leaves.
The country loaded its whole self into your slender hands,
Hands that can rest, now, relieved of a century's weight.

America has its laureates and it seems to be a position that brings attention to poetry and most laureates choose some project for their term. But from what I've read, the British laureates generally don't see that as their objective and some don't seem to enjoy the position. I don't think any of the modern-day ones have said that they produced their greatest work for that position. Tennyson wrote "Charge of the Light Brigade" when he was the laureate.


Then again, attitudes towards the monarchy have changed since Tennyson's time and also during Elizabeth II’s long reign. 

Laureates are asked (or ordered, or obligated?) to write occasional poems for, as one article cleverly described it, "royal hatches, matches and dispatches." A royal baby means a poem.

Being required to write a poem with a deadline and a theme for a big audience is not the same as writing one for Poets Online's latest call for submissions. One American example is writing a poem for a President's Inauguration.

In 2021, Amanda Gorman wrote “The Hill We Climb” and its opening lines tell us something of the time it marked.

  We’ve seen a force that would shatter our nation rather than share it,
  Would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy.
  And this effort very nearly succeeded.
  But while democracy can be periodically delayed,
  It can never be permanently defeated...

In 1961, Robert Frost was President Kennedy's Inaugural Poet. Rather famously, he was not able to read the poem he wrote because the glare of the sun off snow and the wind made it impossible for him to see his paper, so he recited from memory an older poem, The Gift Outright.” Actually, JFK had asked if he would read that poem but Frost composed a shorter poem for the occasion called  "Dedication" (later retitled "For John F. Kennedy His Inauguration") that he planned to use as a preface to "The Gift Outright."

Though we always have a Poet Laureate, not every President has asked for an Inaugural poem and poet.

The Frost poem Americans hear that day begins:

  The land was ours before we were the land’s 
  She was our land more than a hundred years 
  Before we were her people. She was ours...

Across the pond, Carol Ann Duffy wrote "The Throne" on theoccassion of the 60th anniversary of the coronation in 2013. 

...The crown translates a woman to a Queen
endless gold, circling itself, an O like a well,
fathomless, for the years to drown in – history’s bride,
anointed, blessed, for a crowning...

John Masefield was laureate from 1930-1967 and served several monarchs. American Laureates usually serve for 4 years but it varies. He was a popular Georgian and quite conservative poet (none of that Eliot and Auden odernism for him). 

One of his poems for the Queen in 1953 is "Line on the Coronation of Our Gracious Sovereign." It opens with these rather lousy little rhymes.

This lady whom we crown was born
When buds were green upon the thorn
And earliest cowslips showed;
When still unseen by mortal eye
One cuckoo tolled his ‘Here am I’ …

Ted Hughes became Laureate in 1984 and served for 14 years. The first choice for the position was Philip Larkin, who turned it down. Hughes (maybe best known to some as Sylvia Plath's husband) was very English (as opposed to very British) and often wrote about the English countryside and nature, and was a royalist.

Not all of a Laureate's requests for poems come from the place. His publisher, Faber, asked him for a quatrain for the Queen’s silver jubilee. he gave them:

A Soul is a Wheel.
A Nation’s a Soul
With a Crown at the hub
To keep it whole.

"The Unicorn" was written on the 40th anniversary of her accession and I doubt it was one of Elizabeth's favorites.

Falstaff’s our only true-bred Fool,
His belly-laugh the only school
Where liberty guarantees the rule.
Let Licensed Clowns grab ears and eyes.
Britain, Falstaff in disguise,
Laughs with the Queen and keeps her wise.

Andrew Motion (1999-2009) was a Tony Blair modernisation period for the post which was now set at one decade. It also got a pay raise to £5,000 from the honorific £200. It still had no real job description. “The first time I met the Queen,” Motion wrote in the Guardian, “she said the same thing as Tony Blair, whom I’d also just met for the first time: ‘You don’t have to do anything.’ ”

Motion, a friend of popular American Laureate Billy Collins, saw his role as including being an ambassador for poetry. Collin's project was to create Poetry 180 - poems to be used in schools. Motion created the Poetry Archive, an online library of poets reading their own work. 

Motion wrote only eight royal poems. The one that got the most attention - and not in a good way - was his "rap" poem for Prince William’s 21st birthday.

Better stand back
Here’s an age attack,
But the second in line
Is dealing with it fine.

I watched a video of Motion and Collins talking about being laureates. He said that “No other writing that I’ve undertaken, of any kind, has been so difficult … In every case, after I’d written these eight poems, I sent them to my agent, who sent them to newspapers, where they landed on news editors’ desks. News editors don’t think a poem is a story in and of itself, so they then get on the phone to as many people as it takes to find someone who doesn’t like the poem – then they have their story: poet laureate writes another no-good poem.”

Carol Ann Duffy’s appointment in 2009 made her the first woman, and the first openly gay person, to take on the role. She wrote a regular poetry column for the Daily Mirror. In that she wrote about many topical but not royal topics from the MPs’ expenses scandal, to HIV/Aids, and an injury to footballer David Beckham’s Achilles tendon. 

I suspect that for most laureates on either side of the Atlantic, it is more public attention than poets normally get, expect or desire. 

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October 6, 2022

Prompt: Transitions

Photo: Pixabay

Autumn and spring seem to me to be transitional seasons. Autumn is still some summer and sometimes it feels like winter. Early spring in my hometown is cold with frosts and the last snow, and late spring can feel much like summer.

People go through transitions. Most people probably go through at least a few every year - like the seasons. Some of your transitions may even be connected to the seasons -like school semesters or summer vacation or living in a summer vacation place. But there are also the big "life transitions."

In Sonnet 123,  William Shakespeare writes:

No, Time, thou shalt not boast that I do change... 
This I do vow and this shall ever be;
I will be true despite thy scythe and thee.

‘Sonnet 123’ is directed toward a personified version of “Time" who is told that though the narrator gets older, he doesn’t feel that he needs to change his personality accordingly. He resolves that no matter what happens in his life, he will be true to himself. I don't consider this to be one of the Bard's truest observations.

As a writing teacher, I taught about transition words and phrases to connect ideas and thoughts. I learned there were types: Causal (consequently); Additive (furthermore) Sequential (initially, finally), and Adversative (however, nevertheless). To older students, I taught transition sentences that connect one paragraph to another, and then later when they were writing longer pieces, I taught transitional paragraphs.

I learned in college that there was even an "Age of Transition" in the second half of the eighteenth century where the change was from pseudo-classicism to romanticism. The transitional poets mark the beginning of a reaction against the rational, intellectual, formal, artificial, and the unromantic poetry of the age of Pope and Johnson.

Here is part of "Autumn Song" by Dante Gabriel Rossetti:

Know’st thou not at the fall of the leaf
How the heart feels a languid grief
Laid on it for a covering,
And how sleep seems a goodly thing
In Autumn at the fall of the leaf?

One transition poem I like is "Originally" by Carol Ann Duffy. It is about a child who transforms as she emigrates to a new country, loses her original accent, and begins to sound like all the other students. There is loss and gain in this transition. 

All childhood is an emigration. Some are slow,
leaving you standing, resigned, up an avenue
where no one you know stays. Others are sudden.
Your accent wrong. Corners, which seem familiar,
leading to unimagined pebble-dashed estates, big boys
eating worms and shouting words you don’t understand.
My parents’ anxiety stirred like a loose tooth
in my head. I want our own country, I said.

In a small collection of poems about transitions, I found a poem that I have heard Lucille Clifton read several times.

blessing the boats
(at St. Mary’s)

may the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear...

I like the way the poem ends - "and may you in your innocence / sail through this to that

Another fairly well-known poem about transition is "The Journey" by Mary Oliver, which begins:

One day you finally knew
what you had to do, and began,
though the voices around you
kept shouting
their bad advice–

We have used all three of those poets multiple times for our prompts, so this month we'll look at a poem by someone new to the website - Maggie Smith.  Her poem, "Good Bones" (from her collection Good Bones) begins with a wonderful line: "Life is short, though I keep this from my children." The speaker keeps a lot from her children and like a good realtor showing a lousy home, she tells them that life has "good bones."

This place could be beautiful,
right? You could make this place beautiful.

In "The Journey," Oliver writes about that moment when you take the chance and listen to your own truth and set sail (as Clifton says) into a new phase of your life. Transitions can be filled with optimism or filled with pessimism or apprehension. Your poem can be about one of those big life transitions or one of the smaller passages we often make.


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September 28, 2022

Radical Revision

I wrote recently elsewhere about listening to an old "News From Lake Wobegon" segment from Prairie Home Companion. It was a radio program and then a podcast that I followed for a number of years until the host, Garrison Keillor, left the program. I still follow his The Writers Almanac daily even though that is in "reruns" now. The daily poem is from years ago, so most of them seem new even if I did read and listened to them before.

But what also interested me was his mention of how he composed these monologues.

I like Keillor's writing method for these News segments.

I always wrote the monologue on Friday evening, four or five pages, and looked at it Saturday morning, and then not again. I never read it. I never memorized it. I felt that I’d naturally remember the memorable parts.

I took a weeklong workshop with a very well-known poet who gave us a writing prompt one day to work on that evening. "Write the first draft with pen and paper only and make no revisions. Bring the paper to class tomorrow."

We did our assignments and he collected them at the start of the session. Then he, quite dramatically, ripped them and put them in the garbage. Shock in the class. 

"Now, write it again. Anything that you remember was probably worth remembering and what you have already forgotten should be forgotten."

We wrote the poems again. After, as we shared what we wrote, some people recalled much of their poems. Some only retained a few lines or phrases. (I was in that group.) A few people remembered only the title and a few words. That didn't make them feel very good. (Some of those people were the ones who went into the trash after class to find their original.)

I have tried this on my own a few times. Write the first draft. Read it through a few times. Destroy it. Don't use a device. That's cheating if you still have the draft. Then try to write it again. Try writing a few hours later. Wait until the next day. Give it a week. The "memorable parts" should remain. 

This is radical revision. It is a good writing exercise. 

One summer I reread a folder of poems from years past. None were great. I wrote down the titles of a few that I thought I had some potential. Then, quite dramatically, I burned the poems in our firepit. I tried writing some of the poems whose titles I had saved. The title was enough of a trigger to get me back to what had inspired the first draft. I got a few good poems from the exercise.

Do I regret losing the other poems? No. It's not that I do this all the time. In fact, I still have a bound book of poems I wrote in high school on my shelf. they are almost all dreadful. But I keep them. I've never rewritten any of them, but they are like a kind of poetic diary of that time. There are love poems, imitations, things in grand language and attempts at haiku and short forms. 

It reminds me of when John Steinbeck's dog destroyed his Of Mice and Men first draft. Steinbeck's rewrite, some from memory and some new, turned out quite well.

In 1922, Ernest Hemingway had all his writing (originals and carbons) packed in a suitcase by his wife, Hadley, for a train trip to Switzerland to meet him. She left it unattended on the train for a bit while she went to get some water. When she returned, the suitcase was gone. It has never been found. It was everything he had written at the time.

"All that remains of my complete works are three pencil drafts of a bum poem which was later scrapped, some correspondence between John McClure and me, and some journalistic carbons."

He later found two short stories back in Italy.  “Up in Michigan,” which he had buried in a drawer because Gertrude Stein had said it was unpublishable, and “My Old Man” which was out with an editor at a magazine. Two good stories. I have to wonder what was lost.

That suitcase of writing would be worth a lot of money today. Hemingway never really tried to find it. He wrote what he remembered as being good again, and the rest just disappeared forever.

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September 22, 2022

To Autumn 1819

On September 19, 1819, 24-year-old John Keats wrote the ode "To Autumn." It is one of the most anthologized poems in the English language. He wrote to his friend: "Somehow a stubble plain looks warm — in the same way that some pictures look warm — this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it."

Photo by Mohan Nannapaneni

To Autumn 

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,

   Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;

Conspiring with him how to load and bless

   With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;

To bend with apples the moss'd cottage-trees,

   And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

      To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells

   With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,

And still more, later flowers for the bees,

Until they think warm days will never cease,

      For summer has o'er-brimm'd their clammy cells.

Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?

   Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find

Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,

   Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;

Or on a half-reap'd furrow sound asleep,

   Drows'd with the fume of poppies, while thy hook

      Spares the next swath and all its twined flowers:

And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep

   Steady thy laden head across a brook;

   Or by a cyder-press, with patient look,

      Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay, Where are they?

   Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—

While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,

   And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;

Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn

   Among the river sallows, borne aloft

      Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;

And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;

   Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft

   The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;

      And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

1819 is known as Keats' greatest year of creativity. He wrote almost all his great poetry during that year, including a series of odes during that spring and summer, among them "Ode to a Nightingale," "Ode to a Grecian Urn," and "Ode to Psyche." "To Autumn" was the last of these odes. Keats died from tuberculosis at age 25.

Portrait of John Keats by William Hilton

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September 17, 2022

William Carlos Williams

Williams in his 1921 passport photo

It's the birthday of poet William Carlos Williams, born in Rutherford, New Jersey, on September 17, 1883. He the first of two sons of an English father and a Puerto Rican mother of French, Dutch, Spanish, and Jewish ancestry. Growing up in New Jersey, I was interested in Jersey poets when I was in high school and discovered Williams through a used copy of his Selected Poems that I found at a yard sale. Seeing that it was his birthday, I took that old paperback off my shelf and read some breath into his poems again.

When Williams was in high school he decided he wanted to be both a poet and a doctor and saw no clash between the two professions. He pursued both vocations with equal passion for the rest of his life. He wrote poems on the back of prescription slips, and he drew from the passions and pain of the patients he visited in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City and, later, in his practice in Rutherford. 

In my high school days, I fell under the spell of his contemporaries Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot and poetry that "sounded like poetry" and that took some digging to understand. I found Williams' poems oddly simple and almost "not poetry." 

Apparently, Williams admired those poets too but found them "too European." But along with Pound and H.D., he is considered a leading poet of the Imagist movement. It became his aim to capture a uniquely American voice. He wanted to use the plain speech of the local people whose lives he became part of in his medical practice. 

In the second half of my poetic life, I lost interest in the most "poetic" poets and found my reading and writing closer to Williams, though more narrative in form.

The sixteen-word unrhymed poem from 1923 below is among Williams’ most famous poems.

The Red Wheelbarrow 

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

"The Red Wheelbarrow" should be called  ‘XXII’ since it’s the 22nd poem to appear in Williams’ 1923 collection Spring and All and that is how it was listed in that collection - but everyone refers to it as "The Red Wheelbarrow." When I first became really interested in Williams, this poem intrigued me. It is so simple and yet its "meaning" is not so easy to explain.  That wheelbarrow is a metonym for something greater. The fact that it is "glazed" by rainwater is very much "Imagist." 

Williams' poetic reputation was slow to form because it was a time Eliot's "The Waste Land" was considered the pinnacle of English poetry. It was in the 1940s and beyond that Williams gained wider recognition, and his five-volume poem Paterson, (1946 - 1958) is considered his masterpiece.

It is a much more complex and difficult poem on first reading. (It is available online if you can read text on a screen - I can't, so I prefer to read it on the paper page.) Yes, in high school, I took a copy of it to read beside the Great Falls of Paterson, New Jersey feeling very much a poet myself. Corny Romanticism, I suppose, but I still visit those falls quite regularly, without his book but usually with my notebook and camera.

But another of his best-known poems is this very short one that reads like a note left for his wife.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

The poem is very much "modernist and imagist" and so we look at it as dealing with temptation, guilt, and life's simple pleasures as he apologizes and yet doesn't apologize. 

This post is not to say that all of his poems are so simple on the surface or difficult to understand as poems.

Take this opening of his straight ahead and rather erotic poem "Arrival."

And yet one arrives somehow,
finds himself loosening the hooks of
her dress
in a strange bedroom--
feels the autumn
dropping its silk and linen leaves
about her ankles...

And I do love the idea of and this line "Who shall say I am not the happy genius of my household?" from his poem "Danse Russe."

He certainly was a prolific poet. His Collected Poems take two volumes. 


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September 7, 2022

Prompt: Guidebooks

A field guide is a book designed to help the reader identify wildlife (flora or fauna) or other objects of natural occurrence (e.g. rocks and minerals). It is generally designed to be brought into the "field" or local area where such objects exist to help distinguish between similar objects.

My first field guide was a Boy Scouts' Handbook which was a guide to many things from camping skills, to survival in the wild and survival as a proper young man.

I bought a new book of poetry in 1989 by Robert Hass titled Field Guide. It is full of things about nature and the world that surrounded him in the California landscape.

A person can also be a field guide if they have the knowledge of a field guide book and are willing to take others out in the field or through a field of study.

There of plenty of guides to insects, mammals, trees, birds, fossils, and other things. There are also reader's guides to novels and poetry. How about a guide to metaphysical poets or surrealism? Or a guide to Wallace Stevens' poem "The Emperor of Ice Cream."

Howard Nemerov has a poem titled "Beginner's Guide" which is a broad kind of guide to guides.

They stand in the corner, on a shadowy shelf,
Field Books of This, Beginner's Guide to That,
Remainders of an abdicated self
That wanted knowledge of no matter what...

Our model poem for this month is "Survival Guide" by Joy Ladin.

No matter how old you are,
it helps to be young
when you’re coming to life,
to be unfinished, a mysterious statement,
a journey from star to star...

When you think about it, you realize that almost all guides - field or otherwise - are survival guides.

I read Ladin's poem and then looking for more poems and some bio notes, I found this essay where Ladin writes:

"I am not not me. When I lived as a man, I was not me. My 'I'–the leafless tree of my public pronoun–referred to a man I knew I wasn’t. Since I stopped living as a man, my 'I' refers to me, myself as I know myself to be."

I reread her poem thinking about what advice on survival is being given. For example, "Learn to love / the awkward silence you are going to be” and “Turn yourself into / the real you / you can only discover by being other”?

For those who are newly dead and don't know
 it or refuse to accept it - a Beetlejuice edition

For our September issue, we call for submissions of poems that are a kind of guidebook. We suggest that you might want to title your poem with a guide's title. A few other guidebook poems with intriguing titles include "Guidebooks for the Dead" by Cynthia Cruz, and "Guide to Avian Architecture" by Megan Snyder-Camp.


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September 1, 2022

Phillis Wheatley

Portrait of Phillis Wheatley used as the frontispiece of her book.
Attributed to Scipio Moorhead. Library of Congress

September 1, 1773: Phillis Wheatley published Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. She was only 20 years old, but more importantly, it was the first published book of poetry by an African-American. 

She had been born in West Africa and brought over as a slave when she was a young girl. She was purchased by a Boston family, who taught her to read and write, and eventually gave her her freedom. 

On a 1773 trip to London with her master's son, seeking publication of her work, Wheatley met prominent people who became patrons. The publication in London of her poetry brought her fame both in England and the American colonies. It was praised by George Washington, and the Lord Mayor of London, who gave her a gift copy of Paradise Lost

Thomas Jefferson was not kind to her work or to any poetry by blacks. He wrote, "Religion indeed has produced a Phyllis Whately [sic] but it could not produce a poet. The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism."

Black literary scholars from the 1960s to the present in critiquing Wheatley's writing have noted the absence in it of her sense of identity as a black enslaved person. "A number of black literary scholars have viewed her work—and its widespread admiration—as a barrier to the development of black people during her time and as a prime example of Uncle Tom syndrome, believing that Wheatley's lack of awareness of her condition of enslavement furthers this syndrome among descendants of Africans in the Americas." [source]

But other critics consider her work fundamental to the genre of African-American literature. In 2002, the scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Phillis Wheatley as one of his 100 Greatest African Americans. Wheatley is featured, along with Abigail Adams and Lucy Stone, in the Boston Women's Memorial, a 2003 sculpture on Commonwealth Avenue in Boston, Massachusetts. In 2012, Robert Morris University named the new building for their School of Communications and Information Sciences after Phillis Wheatley, and Wheatley Hall at UMass Boston is named for her.

In The Trials of Phillis Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates Jr. explores America's first black poet and her encounters with the founding fathers and how that shaped black literary tradition. Gates posits that Jefferson, unlike his contemporaries Ben Franklin and George Washington, refused to acknowledge her gifts as a writer, and that repudiation eventually inspired generations of black writers to build a body of literature in their efforts to prove him wrong.

Though she continued to publish in magazines after the book's publication and made some money from publications, it was not enough to have a good life. Wheatley was emancipated by her masters shortly after the publication of her book, and she married John Peters, a poor grocer. They fell into debt and Peters abandoned her when she was pregnant. She died in childbirth at 31 years old, in poverty and obscurity.

Statue in Boston

Selections from her book

On being brought from Africa to America

'TWAS mercy brought me from my Pagan land,

Taught my benighted soul to understand

That there's a God, that there's a Saviour too:

Once I redemption neither sought nor knew,

Some view our sable race with scornful eye,

"Their colour is a diabolic die."

Remember, Christians, Negroes, black as Cain,

May be refin'd, and join th' angelic train.

A Hymn to the Evening

Soon as the sun forsook the eastern main
The pealing thunder shook the heav'nly plain;
Majestic grandeur! From the zephyr's wing,
Exhales the incense of the blooming spring.
Soft purl the streams, the birds renew their notes,
And through the air their mingled music floats.
Through all the heav'ns what beauteous dies are spread!
But the west glories in the deepest red:
So may our breasts with ev'ry virtue glow,
The living temples of our God below!
Fill'd with the praise of him who gives the light,
And draws the sable curtains of the night,
Let placid slumbers sooth each weary mind,
At morn to wake more heav'nly, more refin'd;
So shall the labours of the day begin
More pure, more guarded from the snares of sin.
Night's leaden sceptre seals my drowsy eyes,
Then cease, my song, till fair Aurora rise.


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August 15, 2022

Getting to Know Ada Limón, U.S. Poet Laureate

Ada Limón  (Photo by Lucas Marquardt)

Our new Poet Laureate of the United States is Ada Limón. 

Sample her poetry with two of her poems:
"Late Summer after a Panic Attack" 
"Triumph Like a Girl" 

In the PBS video segment below, she talks about the path to that position - and also about groundhogs, Kentucky bluegrass, pokeweed, and, of course, poetry


She is the author of six poetry collectionsThe Hurting Kind (2022, Milkweed Editions); The Carrying (2018, Milkweed Editions), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry; Bright Dead Things (2015, Milkweed Editions), a finalist for the National Book Award, the National Books Critics Circle Award, and the Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award; Sharks in the Rivers (2010, Milkweed Editions); Lucky Wreck (2005, Autumn House Press, reissued 2021); and This Big Fake World (2005, Pearl Editions).

She is also the host of the excellent poetry podcast The Slowdown.

Her website is


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