September 23, 2023

Oppenheimer, John Donne and the Bhagavad Gita

July 16, 1945, Trinity, the first nuclear weapons test.

The film Oppenheimer was a big hit this summer and if you saw the film and especially if you read the book it is based on, American Prometheus, you know that there are some literary references. Two that influenced him were the poetry of John Donne and the Hindu scripture Bhagavad Gita.

Both were important to him during the Manhattan Project and at the Trinity test. In 1962, Manhattan Project leader Gen. Leslie Groves wrote to Oppenheimer to ask about the origins of the name Trinity. Oppenheimer said, “Why I chose the name is not clear, but I know what thoughts were in my mind. There is a poem of John Donne, written just before his death, which I know and love.” 

Oppenheimer quoted the sonnet “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness” which is about a man unafraid to die because he believed in resurrection.

Oppenheimer continued, “That still does not make a Trinity, but in another, better known devotional poem Donne opens, ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God.’ Beyond this, I have no clues whatever.”

That second poem,“Batter My Heart,” expresses the paradox that by being chained to God, the narrator can be set free.

Oppenheimer wanted to read the Bhagavad-Gita in the original Sanskrit, the primary sacred language of Hinduism. Before Los Alamos, when he was a professor at Berkeley, he audited Sanskrit classes with Arthur W. Ryder, who had published an English translation of the Bhagavad-Gita.

The "Bhagavad-Gita" expresses a life structured by action. One should detach from desired outcomes and work. Preparing for Trinity, Oppenheimer’s thoughts were on the success of the test and the impact of the bomb on his life and the world. 

As you see in the film, at the Trinity detonation, Oppenheimer was said to have  recalled the line from the book, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” 

However, some critics have said that the quote has been widely misinterpreted. Oppenheimer is not Krishna/Vishnu, not the terrible god, not the ‘destroyer of worlds’ — he is Arjuna, the human prince who didn’t really want to kill his brothers, his fellow people but he has been enjoined to battle by something bigger than himself.

Historian James A. Hijiya wrote that Oppenheimer believed, “It was the duty of the scientists to build the bomb, but it was the duty of the statesman to decide whether or how to use it.”

Before the Trinity test, Oppenheimer sipped coffee, rolled smokes, and read French poet Charles Baudelaire. T.S. Eliot was another poet Oppenheimer admired. He met Eliot when he invited him as the director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Eliot wrote, “Do I dare / Disturb the universe?”

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September 13, 2023

Prompt: Broken Off

This month's model poem is the shortest we have ever used as a writing prompt example for our submissions. Not even 17 syllables, it is shorter than a haiku.

Two Linen Handkerchiefs
How can you have been dead twelve years
and these still
   by Jane Hirshfield

The poem asks the reader to complete the thought, as poems often do. No ellipsis, no dash, just broken off.

It was in listening to a short interview with the poet, that I discovered this poem and her explanation of how it came to be.

"The poem is broken off in exactly the way a life is broken off, in exactly the way grief breaks off, takes us beyond any possible capacity for words to speak. And yet it also, short as it is, holds all of our bewilderment in the face of death. How is it that these inanimate handkerchiefs — which did belong to my father and are still in a drawer of mine, and which I did accidentally come across — how can they still be so pristinely ironed and clean and existent when the person who chose them and used them and wore them is gone? ... Some poems have a way of, sometimes quite literally, looking out a window. They change their focus of direction, they change their attention. And by doing that, by glancing for a moment at something else, the field of the poem becomes larger."

Jane Hirshfield is a poet I have used multiple times for prompts and she is a poet I have heard read in person multiple times. She seems to be a very gentle and compassionate soul, and that is often clear in her poetry. She is an ordained lay practitioner of Zen. ("I'm [also] a Universal Life minister, but that was just so I could marry some friends," she says, laughing.)

I think compassion, in a way, is one of the most important things poems do for me, and I trust do for other people. They allow us to feel how shared our fates are. If a person reads this poem when they're inside their own most immediate loss, they immediately — I hope — feel themselves accompanied. Someone else has been here. Someone else has felt what I felt. And, you know, we know this in our minds, but that's very different from being accompanied by the words of a poem, which are not ideas but are experiences."

I don't know if all that can be contained in her two-line poem. And we don't expect you to submit poems that are only two lines. 

Our call for submissions for the October issue is for poems about things "broken off." Your poem might be about a relationship broken off. Maybe your poem will literally break off at some appropriate point, as Jane's poem does. Maybe it is about an actual object that has a part broken off, or more figuratively, a person with something broken off. What do those two words mean to you?

Submission Deadline: September 30, 2023

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August 21, 2023

A Poetry Prompt from Kurt Vonnegut

The doodle that Vonnegut sometimes used as a signature,
as with the letter below. His actual signature is that mess that
is the ear and hair on the doodle.

In this reply to a high school class, Kurt Vonnegut gives a poetry prompt that you might want to try. It's not one that would work well for Poets Online, but it makes a good point about the rewards of writing poetry.

Dear Xavier High School, and Ms. Lockwood, and Messrs Perin, McFeely, Batten, Maurer and Congiusta:

I thank you for your friendly letters. You sure know how to cheer up a really old geezer (84) in his sunset years. I don't make public appearances any more because I now resemble nothing so much as an iguana.

What I had to say to you, moreover, would not take long, to wit: Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what's inside you, to make your soul grow.

Seriously! I mean starting right now, do art and do it for the rest of your lives. Draw a funny or nice picture of Ms. Lockwood, and give it to her. Dance home after school, and sing in the shower and on and on. Make a face in your mashed potatoes. Pretend you're Count Dracula.

Here's an assignment for tonight, and I hope Ms. Lockwood will flunk you if you don't do it: Write a six line poem, about anything, but rhymed. No fair tennis without a net. Make it as good as you possibly can. But don't tell anybody what you're doing. Don't show it or recite it to anybody, not even your girlfriend or parents or whatever, or Ms. Lockwood. OK?

Tear it up into teeny-weeny pieces, and discard them into widely separated trash recepticals [sic]. You will find that you have already been gloriously rewarded for your poem. You have experienced becoming, learned a lot more about what's inside you, and you have made your soul grow.

God bless you all!
Kurt Vonnegut


August 2, 2023

Prompt: Conversation

Whenever our call for submissions involves formal poetry, submissions decrease. I understand that. Forms - villanelles, sonnets, sestinas et al - can be difficult. They can also remind some poets of the kind of poetry that was pushed upon them in their early schooling and might have turned them off from reading and writing poetry. But there are other forms for poems that are far less "formal."

I was reading “Walking Home” from Magdalene by Marie Howe and it struck me that the poem is a conversation. It lacks the punctuation of dialogue but maintains the form.

This is the kind of poem that will sometimes make a reader ask "How is this a poem and not just a chunk of prose lacking punctuation?"   A fair question.

I suspect that this conversation happened to Marie Howe and her daughter. Is it an exact transcription, a paraphrase or is it a poet's version of a conversation recalled. I think it is the latter. The opening "Everything dies" is a good poem opening but the poet doesn't recall how that came up as the topic of conversation. Was it something they saw on their walk?

The tone of the poem seems light, with laughter and joking, but the topic is one of the classic big and serious themes - death. If you're a reader of Howe's poems, you know that life and death are very much a part of her themes.

This month's call for submissions is simply a poem that is a conversation. How you format the dialogue, how much narration and commentary is contained and the topic or theme is up to you.

Though it is difficult to draw a clear line between this kind of prose and poetry, there are clearly poetic elements that can be employed that separate what you write from a prose passage.


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July 29, 2023

No Comment

"Anonymous" posted a comment here that said...

"I'm very curious about poets as bloggers. No doubt you know quite a few poets
and at least a few poet-bloggers. Poets Online is a wonderful site so many of us come to  in order to be inspired or simply to read some of the new (or older, archived) poems. Being a poet myself, I realize I need time to reflect a lot before committing to paper (or screen) while many of the bloggers I see around tend to be people who like to plunge in and get ideas out very quickly.
So here's the question: why is it so few of the poets who use this site
don't add their own comments to the blog? Any thoughts on this?"

Anonymous, I'm not sure if you're commenting on the lack of comments, the lack of comments identified as being from poets, or about why some poets don't respond in a timely fashion to a post or prompt. 

My hope in allowing comments (and it does open the door to abuse and spam) was that it would create conversations about poetry, especially relating to the current submissions. That has not really materialized in any big way. 

We also have a Facebook page and a Facebook discussion group where some conversations occur and people post their poems and poems of others that they want to share.

The comment that Anon had referenced was posted on August 4, and that particular blog post had 6 comments at that point, which is actually a good number of comments. Before I had a chance to respond, this lengthy comment/response came from oneyenoeye who wrote:
It's an interesting question--my guess is that not commenting allows one to retain a sense of complete detachment and invisiblity. Why are there more lurkers and leachers than content producers on the web?

You can spend lots of time posting responses to blogs, if that's your thing. If you're the "plunge right in type," and subscribe to the "first thought, best thought" school of spontaneity, it's no big deal to leave a comment. To comment implies a willingness to engage in a conversation that could lead anywhere. Whenever I post a comment, it feels as though some invisible hand has given me a hard shove between the shoulder blades, causing me to stumble forward out of the darkness into the light.

If you're like me, after I read a blog entry, the brain starts constructing a chain of associations that leads away from the page. Once that happens, I don't return to post a comment. Rarely do I jot down an intial thought or reaction to a blog entry.

Comments that provide a new slant on a subject or that nudge the conversation in an interesting or surprising direction are appreciated. An intelligent comment can take quite a bit of time to compose. I always check out reader responses to books listed on Amazon, for example. Many of those posts are better than the publisher's editorial remarks. Some readers have submitted hundreds of insightful reviews, as well as useful recommendations for further reading, and make up a pretty savvy group of unpaid book critics.

But if you're afraid of sounding stupid, it's probably better not to post your ideas for the world to read. Mindless comments are like litter on the side of the road--the kind of garbage you find posted on political blogs or under a UTube video.

Post a comment and you invite a response. I've seen rather innocent comments lead to some pretty heated exchanges. Poets are sensitive creatures, not really looking to stir up trouble. Most people, it seems to me, have learned to keep their heads down for fear of getting them blown off.

The question reminds me of the typical classroom situation where a few students actively participate in a discussion while the rest of the class listens but does not voice an opinion or offer any additional insights. It's not that those students are disengaged or disinterested; they're simply content to lie on the bank and watch the river flow without ever getting a toe wet. Maybe that reluctance to dive in serves as a kind of quality control that eliminates the dumb comment, the ill-considered remark. In that case, it's a good thing that most people don't feel compelled to add their two cents worth to the conversation. If all comments were thoughtful as well as thought-provoking, there would be no need to monitor what is posted to a site.

As for me, I'm content sitting on the sidelines as a spectator unless there is some overwhelming compulsion that makes me want to take the field. To comment or not to comment--it's a question of rechanneling energy and giving something back. Most of the time, I'm too lazy to do that.

Posting a comment entails a degree of commitment that most people prefer not to take on for whatever reason--limited time and/or distraction, most likely. But without comments, you don't get that sense of vital community, that feeling of being involved in a common endeavor.

oneyenoeye says he or she is "content sitting on the sidelines as a spectator unless there is some overwhelming compulsion that makes me want to take the field," so something overwhelmed about that comment.

On the main Poets Online site, poets are invited to give their email addresses along with their submissions if they want to invite comments from readers. I have no hard statistics on how many poets actually get emails from readers, but my anecdotal evidence is that very few poets get responses. Do you think that lack of response comes from the same reasons as the lack of comments?

I've given poetry readings and attended many more readings and haven't noted all that many "comments and responses" after the reading to the poets.

Look at the comments here and on other blogs - lots on anonymous comments. Maybe those are comments from the poets who contribute to the site.

I have no answer to these questions, but it's great to get thoughtful comments on the blog. I had hoped in creating the blog to encourage some conversation about the prompts while they were active, and about the poems after they are posted. I can't say that has happened in any substantial way.

Want to comment about no comments? Here's the place...

July 26, 2023

Punctuation and Poetry

We used punctuation as part of a prompt in 2012 that featured a poem by Thomas Lux - see

PUNCTUATION: Some poets use it. Some don't.

Of course, there are many poems where punctuation is most definitely necessary, but there are also cases where it is not. Are there any "rules" for its usage?

Students have asked about when they should use punctuation - or should they use it or do they have to use it?

When lines are short - three words or less - punctuation (commas and periods) can look silly.

“Cut out all these exclamation points. An exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke,”
 wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald may not have been a fan of the exclamation point, but the New York School of poets took a liking to it.

  • Walt Whitman liked... the ellipsis.  
  • Emily Dickinson was fond of using -  the dash. 
  • A.R. Ammons did things with: the colon.  
  • E.E. Cummings, besides his experiments with Upper and LOWER case, liked to make use of (parentheses).
Much of this has been studied and I'm sure there are more than a few graduate theses out there on related topics.

From the Guide to Emily Dickinson's Collected Poems (pdf download)
A typical manuscript for a poem might include several undated versions, with varying capitalization throughout, sometimes a "C" or an "S" that seems to be somewhere between lowercase and capital, and no degree of logic in the capitalization. While important subject words and the symbols that correspond to them are often capitalized, often (but not always) a metrically stressed word will be capitalized as well, even if it has little or no relevance in comparison to the rest of the words in the poem. Early editors removed all capitals but the first of the line, or tried to apply editorial logic to their usage. For example, poem 632 is now commonly punctuated as follows:
The Brain – is wider than the Sky –
For – put them side by side –
The one the other will contain
With ease – and You – beside –

The Brain is deeper than the sea –
For – hold them – Blue to Blue –
The one the other will absorb –
As Sponges – Buckets – do –

The Brain is just the weight of God –
For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –
And they will differ – if they do –
As Syllable from Sound –

"E. E." Dickinson and E.E. Cummings may have more in common in this regard than you would expect. Cummings made his use of punctuation so much of a style that it may seem to be a parody at times. This poem about a grasshopper has just about everything happening in it.

a)s w(e loo)k
S                                      a
rIvInG               .gRrEaPsPhOs)

He uses words, punctuation, and space to create a "concrete" visual image of a grasshopper jumping. The word and letter jumble makes more sense as we dig deeper and yet some of it is for pure visual rather than reader effect.

I have used some of his poems with children who like finding the hidden poem. They find the jumping-all-about grasshopper r-p-o-p-h-e-s-s-a-g-r who as we look up now gathering to leap leaps arriving...

They realize the poem is not just meant to be "read."

And then, there's the ampersand.  &  Not really punctuation, but an abbreviation of a sort. As I have written on another blog:.
The ampersand is a curious thing in our language that dates back to the 1st century A.D.

Originally, it was a ligature of the letters E and T. What's a ligature? In writing and typography, a ligature occurs where two or more graphemes are joined as a single glyph. Ligatures usually replace consecutive characters sharing common components.

Suffice it to say, the ampersand is the most common one we use in English.

"Et" is Latin for "and" - as in et cetera, which is such a mouthful that we feel the need to shorten even that to etc. It can actually be further shortened as &c.
The & picked up traction in poetry with the Beats and the Black Mountain poets. (Ginsberg: "blond & naked angel") and e.e. cummings, Frank O'Hara, Amiri Baraka, John Berryman, and Nick Flynn. 

July 17, 2023

Emily Dickinson on Gilligan's Island

I was reading a post I did some years ago about an Emily Dickinson oddity. I needed to update the post and so I checked back to the article about some Emily Dickinson curiosities that inspired my post. The one that caught my attention ( and was also something I heard Billy Collins talk about years ago in a workshop) was her connection to the castaways on Gilligan's Island.

That seems like a big stretch of the poetic imagination, but you can sing most of her poems (I could imagine myself doing this with younger students), using the theme to TV's 1960s "classic" Gilligan's Island. That theme song is an earworm in many brains of people who grew up watching the show. 

Give it a try and sing this first stanza of "Because I Could Not Stop For Death."   (If somehow the melody of "The Ballad Of Gilligan's Isle" is not burned into your neurons deeper than any poem, give a listen below)

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

How come this works? (And here is the lesson for the class.) Emily usually used a "common meter" in her poems. The TV theme also uses it, and it is used in lots of nursery rhymes and Protestant hymns. It's four beats followed by three beats.

In more detail, Wikipedia tells us that common meter (or metre or common measure) is a poetic meter consisting of four lines that alternate between iambic tetrameter (four metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) and iambic trimeter (three metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).

It has historically been used for ballads such as "Tam Lin", and hymns such as "Amazing Grace" and the Christmas carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem". The upshot of this commonality is that the lyrics of one song can be sung to the tune of another. This can make for some great singalongs around the campfire. 

For example, "Advance Australia Fair", the national anthem of Australia, can be sung to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." "Amazing Grace" can be sung to the tune of Madonna's  "Material Girl".

But I am quite happy to just imagine Emily on the beach with Ginger and Mary Anne, swinging in their hammocks, drinking from a coconut, and singing her poems to the delight and total misunderstanding of all those around her.

Is it a rainy day where you are? Try singing Emily's "Summer Shower" as if you were on that island with Gilligan and the crew. Coconut drink is optional but advisable.

A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away. 

There were episodes of the show when the gang sang and performed. One of those was the 1965 “Don’t Bug the Mosquitoes.” This is the time of Beatlemania and a pop group called the Mosquitoes arrives on the island to escape their fans. Ginger, Mary Anne and Mrs. Howell form their own pop group, the Honeybees. 

How did the Mosquitoes get there; why didn't they help the castaways leave; where did the ladies get their outfits and the record player, record and electricity? Oh, nothing is ever explained and everything is possible on that island.

I would love to have given Emily a vacation on a tropical island and seen her sing some of her poems with the ladies. I think she needed a vacation from Amherst. And some tropical drinks.

July 7, 2023

Baudelaire, Sex, Death and Banned Poems

Portrait de Charles Baudelaire
 en 1844 par Émile Deroy 

I don't recall reading the French poet Charles Baudelaire in my college days. He is most famous for his collection of prose poems, Les Fleurs du mal (The Flowers of Evil). I think I would remember poems about sex and death. When the book was published in 1857 it made Baudelaire famous. 

There were 126 poems. Six are about lesbianism. The poems linked sexuality, love and death, and touched on lesbian love and some of the seamier side of Paris. One 1857 reviewer wrote: “Never has one seen so many breasts bitten or even chewed in so few pages.” 

In this time where we hear about so many books being banned and attacks on the LGBTQ community, it seems like a moment to revisit his problems publishing in the 19th century.

The entire book was considered obscene enough that Baudelaire, his printer, and his publisher were put on trial. The six poems were banned from future printings of the book and banned in France. Baudelaire responded, “Give them only carefully selected garbage.” The judgment of obscenity was finally reversed in 1949 and the poems were restored. T.S. Eliot called Baudelaire “the greatest exemplar in modern poetry in any language” 

One of the banned poems is "À Celle qui est trop gaie" (To One Who Is Too Gay), which though it is in the old sense of gay meaning "happy," seems like a curious coincidence to a modern ear. 

...To whip your joyous flesh
And bruise your pardoned breast,
To make in your astonished flank
A wide and gaping wound,

And, intoxicating sweetness!
Through those new lips,
More bright, more beautiful,
To infuse my venom, my sister!
   (translated by William Aggeler)

Baudelaire barely made a living from his writing. Besides his poetry, he did art reviews and articles and translated Edgar Allan Poe’s works into French. He became addicted to laudanum, then opium. He became quite ill, moved in with his mother, and the last two years of Baudelaire’s life were spent in semi-paralysis in an aphasic state. He died in 1867 at the age of 46. Most of his poetry was published after his death and then it sold well.


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July 1, 2023

Prompt: What I Learned From

In Julia Kasdorf's poem "What I Learned From My Mother," she does just what her title sets us up to expect. The first time I read the poem, I knew nothing about her life. When I read her biography and found that she was raised as a Mennonite, I had to reread the poem through that lens. That is not a required lens to read the poem but it did change my reading.

For example, she talks about her mother's practice of canning fruits. That seems like a nice, old-fashioned activity. But through the Mennonite lens, I read the lines:

to slice through maroon grape skins
and flick out the sexual seeds with a knife point
in a different way. 

Most of the things she learned are not specific to her upbringing. They are more universal.

I learned that whatever we say means nothing,
what anyone will remember is that we came.

Our call for submissions this summer month is straightforward. Write a poem about what you learned from your mother, father, sister, brother, cousin, neighbor, kindergarten teacher...

Choose someone that you had a real relationship with and who really did teach you a lesson of some kind. Must it be a good, positive lesson? Not necessarily. 

In Kasdorf's poem, I feel like as the poem progresses, the lessons she learned were not directly from her mother but were extensions of the larger lessons her mother intentionally wanted to pass on. That seems to be a very natural progression.

Either your title or a line in the poem should include "what I learned from." 

Submission Deadline: July 31, 2023

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To see our past prompts and more than 300 issues,
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June 8, 2023

Our Random Poetry Line Generators Are Not AI

Image: Mohamed Hassan

On the main  Poets Online website, we used a tool back in 1999 that I called a "random poem generator." They were two pages that had code that could generate a random line that can be used to start a poem or just give you an idea for a poem based on the line. You could even generate multiple lines and try putting them together as a poem. (We had a few poems submitted that used the tool in 1999.)

I thought about that again recently because of all the talk about artificial intelligence chatbots, such as ChatGPT, and how they can "write a poem." My own experiments with that AI produced some terrible "poems" full of bad rhyme and no emotion. My little random line generators - so crude they cannot be called any kind of AI - were meant more like our writing prompts.

If you have been in writing workshops, you probably have had a leader suggest some words or lines as a starting place. The idea is that this will be a line that you would not have thought of, and because there is some randomness in the process, you will get some interesting combinations of words and phrases that might take your writing to a new place. 

I went to the generators and asked for two lines today and I rather like these that came up for me:  "After the rain of our imagination, young lovers sing, Before the moment of longing the old ones sleep,"  I don't know where that would lead me and maybe I would only use fragments such as "the rain of our love" or "in the moment of longing" or some other variation. 

The pages are still online, so give them a try if you need a little prompting to trigger the Muse. Perhaps try it for our current call for submissions for the next issue of Poets Online.

June 4, 2023

Prompt: Books

One of a series of book-themed dresses from Dina Dennaoui

For some of us, summer arrived unofficially his past Memorial Day weekend. Summer arrives officially later this month. Do you have any summer book plans?

The first time I read “The Bookstall” by Linda Pastan (from Carnival Evening) I paused at the second line and thought her greediness would come from seeing other people who had books and wanting to be one of those writers. I was wrong. I was projecting my own greediness at that time. 

Her greediness was wanting to read all of them. All those unread books led her to believe that "life is continuous / as long as they wait / to be read." That's a nice thought, though completely unrealistic.

I saw a t-shirt at a film festival that said "I can't die because there are so many films I still have to see." I too have many things I still want and plan to do, but that doesn't lead to immortality.

This month's prompt is very simple: books. But that broad simplicity leads to many possibilities. What do books mean to you? Escape? Enlightenment? As June arrives, are you getting together a summer reading list? Do you envy writers or think you could write something as good or better? Do you like to write but don't enjoy reading? Do you have shelves of books unread? Are they there just for show? Have you been cleaning out your book collection, or are you unable to browse a bookstore or garage sale and not walk away without getting something to add to your shelves?

Send us a poem in which books are the central reflector for whatever you really want to say. 

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To see our past prompts and more than 300 issues,
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May 27, 2023

Attention Is the Beginning of Devotion

Mary Oliver has published many books of poetry and is best known as a poet, but included in her 25 books is also prose and one of those books is Upstream. It is a collection of essays about her relationship to the natural world, and how it influences her writing and reading.

In the title essay of that book, she describes getting lost in the woods as a child. You would expect her to have been fearful, but she says she had “the sense of going toward the source.”

“One tree is like another, but not too much.
One tulip is like the next tulip, but not altogether.” 

The essay asks all of us to teach and show children how to notice the world. She suggests that we stand them in a creek and walk upstream, noticing the sticks, rocks, leaves, flowers, and insects. All of those things seem silent, but they're not. You need to listen. Attention is the beginning of devotion. 

In a 2015 interview on the radio program On Being, Oliver talked about all this and especially how walking and writing in the woods saved her life.

One of her best-known poems is "Wild Geese." I can imagine her walking in the woods and hearing, then seeing, those geese above her, heading somewhere unknown.


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May 3, 2023

Prompt: Quiet Machine

I had listened to the On Being podcast interview with Ada Limón in which she read her poem "The Quiet Machine." (listen to her read the poem and see it as text, or listen to the entire podcast)  I made a note to consider the poem as a prompt here, but I had some trouble with formulating what I wanted to say.

I have come to think of the machine that creates quiet as ourselves. It is also the way you write. It is a process. It is a writing prompt.

Some writers prefer silence but it's not really required. I can write in a noisy café, or listening to the sound of the wheels as I ride a train or with the sounds of children on the playground as I sit on a bench in the park. You might even be inspired or find the sounds entering your writing - a bit of café conversation, the meter of the train wheels on the track, the music of those children at play.

Ada Limón's poem is a prose poem. I had a hard time accepting prose poems when I first saw them. I remember first hearing a poet read her poems and liking them, so I picked up her book. Prose poems. Where were the line breaks, pauses and stanzas that I heard in her reading?

Maybe Ada Limón's poem works better for you in this format:

I’m learning so many different ways to be quiet.
There’s how I stand in the lawn, that’s one way.
There’s also how I stand in the field across from the street,
that’s another way because I’m farther from people
and therefore more likely to be alone.
There’s how I don’t answer the phone...

I have come to semi-accept prose poems because I now think of them as a form of enjambment; that running-over of a sentence or phrase from one line to the next. It keeps the poem flowing, like a river which we only perceive in sections. No terminal punctuation.

It is the opposite of end-stopped; lines ending at a grammatical boundary - dash, closing parenthesis, colon, semicolon, period, or if it is a complete phrase. An example of that is Alexander Pope’s “An Essay on Man: Epistle I”:

Then say not man’s imperfect, Heav’n in fault;
Say rather, man’s as perfect as he ought:
His knowledge measur’d to his state and place,
His time a moment, and a point his space.
If to be perfect in a certain sphere,
What matter, soon or late, or here or there?

This latest call for submissions is not for prose poems but to take Limón's idea of creating a quiet that leads to inspiration. For me, her "silence that comes back a million times bigger than me, sneaks into my bones and wails and wails and wails until I can’t be quiet anymore" is the sound of the poem coming from the quiet machine, from inside of us.


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April 25, 2023

Poetic Forms

We occasionally use poetry forms in the calls for submission prompts on the website. Here are a few books we have used that you might want to use to broaden your use of forms.






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April 19, 2023

Beatnik Bob Kaufman

I saw that yesterday was the birthday of the man who inspired the word "beatnik" - poet Bob Kaufman. I learned of him via the archive of  but if you have never heard of him, it's not surprising. His wife encouraged Kaufman to write down his many poems, but he wished to stay hidden from history. He said, "I want to be anonymous. My ambition is to be completely forgotten."

Robert Garnell Kaufman was born in New Orleans, Louisiana in 1925. Kaufman's mother was a Roman Catholic woman from Martinique who loved to play the piano and buy books at auctions. His father was a German Jew. Details of his life are hazy because he didn't keep a diary or leave behind any letters, and while he completed three volumes of poetry, he preferred to recite his poems in coffee houses rather than write them down.

As a teenager, he joined the Merchant Marine. In his 20 years as a sailor, he circled the globe nine times and survived four shipwrecks. On his first ship, he became friends with the first mate, who lent him books and encouraged him to read. It was at sea when he first read about the Beat poets, many of whom also had maritime ambitions. 

Gary Snyder wanted to experience the culture in port cities around the world, and he worked as a seaman during the summer of 1948 and again in the mid-1950s. 

When Jack Kerouac, as a freshman at Columbia, failed chemistry and lost his scholarship, he joined the Merchant Marine to make money to re-enroll. 

Allen Ginsberg was suspended from Columbia for fighting with his dormitory housekeeper, and he followed Kerouac into the Merchant Marine. 

When he was 22, Lawrence Ferlinghetti fell in love with the sea when he lived on the Maine coast for a summer and after the attack on Pearl Harbor, he enrolled in Midshipmen's School and was deployed at different lighthouses and naval watch posts throughout World War II.

Back on land, Kaufma studied briefly at the New School in New York City, where he met William S. Burroughs and Ginsberg. The three eventually moved to San Francisco and joined Gregory Corso, Kerouac, and Ferlinghetti to form the heart of the Beat movement.

Improvisational jazz influenced Kaufman's street performances and earned him the nickname "The Original Bebop Man," but it also earned him the attention of local police. In 1959, he was tossed into jail 39 times for disorderly conduct. 

San Francisco Chronicle columnist Herb Caen said he had Kaufman's spontaneous oral poetry in mind when he created the word "beatnik."

Later, Kaufman cofounded Beatitude magazine, which helped launch the careers of many other poets, but he continued to live a mostly itinerant life, filled with drugs, a stint at Bellevue Hospital, where he underwent electroshock treatments, and continued police harassment. 

By the mid 1960s, he had published two volumes of poetry — Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness (1965) and Golden Sardine (1967) — and in the early '80s, his friends gathered old recordings and notes and had them published as The Ancient Rain: Poems 1958 - 1978 (1981).

When President Kennedy was shot in 1963, Kaufman took a vow of silence and didn't speak again until he walked into a coffee shop in 1975 and recited his poem, "All Those Ships that Never Sailed." 


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April 12, 2023

Late Night Clint Smith

You don't see many poets on late-night talk shows. You don't see many writers of fiction or non-fiction either. But poets are the rarest writers for that particular medium. So, I am always pleased to see and hear a poet on a show that gives the poet and poetry a wider audience.

I saw Clint Smith on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert and I will admit that I did not know Clint or his writing at all. It is particularly good to discover a new poet this way. I found a variety of his poems online and picked up his latest poetry collection for this week's reading.

Clint Smith is the author of the narrative nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning With the History of Slavery Across America, which was a #1 New York Times bestseller, winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction, the Hillman Prize for Book Journalism, the Stowe Prize and selected by the New York Times as one of the 10 best books of 2021. He is also the author of the poetry collection Counting Descent, which won the 2017 Literary Award for Best Poetry Book from the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and was a finalist for an NAACP Image Award. He is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

In this video, he talks about what poetry can mean to people and how a teacher's encouraging words to a student can stay with them for a long time. He reads the first poems in his new collection, "All at Once." The poem alternates good and bad things happening all at once around the world - "The river that gives us water to drink is the same one that might wash us away." His latest collection of poems is Above Ground.

His website is

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To see our past prompts and more than 300 issues,
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April 4, 2023

Prompt: Triversen

William Carlos Williams invented a stanza and poem form he called the triversen. I have always liked William Carlos Williams who wrote both short poems ("The Red Wheelbarrow" and "This Is Just To Say" are almost too well known, anthologized, and taught) and epic poems such as Paterson. (Plus he is a Jersey boy like myself.) I like the triversen which allows you to write on any subject but within a structure.

A verset means “in one breath” and triversen means “three” so this is a triple verse stanza. It is a form but it is not formal.

Here are Williams' 3 simple rules.

  1. Each stanza equals one complete sentence, and each sentence/stanza breaks into 3 lines. S, each line is a separate phrase in the sentence.
  2. Williams wanted each line to have a variable foot of 2-4 beats per line.
  3. In its pure form, he wanted the poem to be 6 stanzas (18 lines).

Each line can vary in length with two to four stressed syllables. No more than four because he hated iambic pentameter lines! He did not want to write in verse, but he also did not want his poetry to look or read like prose. He often used this stanza in poems that were not triversen but also in poems that follow the pure 18-line triversen form.

You can see this stanza used in Williams' "The Artist" which also uses some unusual spacing, indents, and no punctuation - though that is not required of the form. Our model poem for this prompt is his poem "On Gay Wallpaper."

The green-blue ground
is ruled with silver lines
to say the sun is shining.

And on this moral sea
of grass or dreams lie flowers
or baskets of desires.

Heaven knows what they are
between cerulean shapes
laid regularly round.

Mat roses and tridentate
leaves of gold
threes, threes and threes.

Three roses and three stems
the basket floating
standing in the horns of blue.

Repeating to the ceiling
to the windows
where the day.

Blows in
the scalloped curtains to
the sound of rain. 

Some of you might start with a single complete statement or observation that you break into three lines. But those breaks should be strategic - perhaps by phrases or where you want the reader to take a breath, or pause to ponder. His occasional wider spacing also emphasizes the thoughts or pauses.

Some people have suggested that Williams' triversen his "triversen" is the equivalent of the Japanese haiku or the three-line katauta in that each line is a connected idea for the statement in the first line.

Williams' poem longer poem, "January Morning," is an example of him using the stanza form mixed with other stanza forms. That poem begins:

I have discovered that most of
the beauties of travel are due to
the strange hours we keep to see them

and Wallace Stevens' "Not Ideas About the Thing But the Thing Itself" uses the stanza and the six stanza structure, though it does not follow all three of Williams' rules. The poem begins:

At the earliest ending of winter,
In March, a scrawny cry from outside
Seemed like a sound in his mind.

He knew that he heard it,
A bird's cry at daylight or before,
In the early March wind.

Our April call for submissions is for pure triversen poems that follow all three of Williams' rules.   Deadline: April 30, 2023

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April 3, 2023

The Poetry Midday News Break

More than a decade ago we set up something online called "The Poetry Midday News Break." It used a service called that advertised, "You pick the topics and we'll deliver great curated articles to your inbox, every day. With a click, you can share them on your personal webpage, social and newsletter. People can subscribe to you."

The .li domain suggested "paperly" but I liked that .li domain names are registered to little old microstate Liechtenstein.

Our online newspaper was built to pull articles from social networks, news sites, blogs, and almost any place that mentioned a series of keywords (poem, poetry, poets, literature...) It was automated.

But we were informed this month that sadly will sunset (a rather poetic tech term) on April 20, 2023. It ran for 13 years. After April 20, papers will no longer be accessible, and all data will be permanently deleted. 

Even digital newspapers are going away. 

We never heavily advertised the paper and although I checked it most days to see if there was news to pass along on this blog or the Poets Online Twitter account, or on our Facebook page and poetry discussion page, I don't think most people accessed it. 

There would be posts there such as:

But it will be no more. Check it out before it vanishes. maybe something will inspire you.

Follow this blog for all things poetry, and to see all of our past prompts and more than 300 issues, visit our website at