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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