11  A Poem for National Poetry Month

A friend informed me last week that April is National Poetry Month.  She plans to add a new poem to her blog every day for the next month.

That really impresses me, and I intend to read each one.

I won’t add one here each day, and I won’t even write one each day.  But I’ll add one poem to these notes so that I will have contributed something to the month’s poetic output.  Perhaps this small effort can encourage you to read other poets’ work and to write poems of your own.

For those of you who don’t like poetry:  apologies.  For those who do like poetry:  I hope you enjoy it.

 

Crossing the Bridge

1

The river has its own seasons, regardless of calendars.

From the middle of the bridge you can see them all

as they shape the water to their own ends.

I cross the bridge daily to keep an eye on the water:

someone must. . . .

 

In earliest spring, as the day begins to stretch its light,

the last perplexed rays cast demon eyes on the water.

High with unseasonal rain, the water, in a vast shadow,

rises, meets the eye with obsidian,

and sunset casts clouds overtop in orange and blue.

Eliot’s fog skitters over the water and its clouds,

making depth impossible.

2

When air and water finally warm with summer,

the surface oblates a layer of green algae.

Thin and oily, it fractals its own course,

ignoring the water beneath.

A goose, too slow in rising,

squawks as it nearly crashes into the bridge,

aborts its course, and sinks again, unhappily,

onto the ooze.

3

In autumn pigeons, testing their flocks,

fling themselves like fisherman’s nets

over the water that rushes to the dam beyond the bridge.

They drop, twist, rise again above the bridge,

empty of everything but resiliency.

4

Winter, before it can scratch the water into ice,

turns it black:  thick as coal tar,

it moves as though the bridge has squeezed it

from a large-mouthed bellows.  Oh black water–

soon months of stillness will hold it

creaking, yellow-white with streaks of false, blue youth.

 

The bridge is its own place, and can,

through us and its waters,

make a heaven of its hell, a hell of its heaven.

12  Another poem for poetry month

Though I new I couldn’t manage a poem per day, I’ll try instead for one per week.  Here’s this week’s–again, apologies to those who don’t like poetry.  Perhaps you’ll check in on Bingley instead.

 

At Dinner, In Praise of Potatoes

 

Potatoes, like cats and whales,

can do anything.

Well, not anything.

They can swim, sit meditatively, face the heat.

They can fly, though not unaided.

 

Potatoes go with anything.

Well, not anything:

not with starches, like rice,

but with vegetables or meat,

with eggs or alone,

with herbs and condiments,

dips and onions and beans,

not with pasta, but with talk or silence.

 

Against all odds,

they’re now good for the heart,

good for the waist (in moderation),

good for the soul

with milk or greens

or coffee (in moderation).

I will treat my potato respectfully,

pray over it,

and then devour it.

13  Favorite Poems

Every now and then one of the students will ask me if I have a favorite poem.

I think that’s a kind and thoughtful question for someone to ask, but I always have to think about it for a bit before I can give an answer.

Do you have a favorite poem, or maybe several favorites?  Has your favorite been your favorite since you first heard it or read it, or does your favorite change over time?  Would it come to mind immediately were someone to ask you that question, or would you need time to think about it, too?

One of my professors told me he liked Wordsworth more and more as he got older.  That made sense to me, though for me it has probably gone the other way around–not that I have ever come to dislike him.  “Tintern Abbey” and The Prelude remain two of my favorites.  Another professor chose Donne and Herbert:  he said they had the best combination of intellect and emotion.  Another favored Keats:  she said she found the odes the greatest poetic achievement yet in English.  Another favored Shakespeare, claiming he never wrote a bad line–as much as I love Shakespeare, that struck me as an overstatement.

In my experience, in general younger readers tend to prefer the Romantics:  they like in their poetry what Wordsworth called the “spontaneous overflow of powerful emotion recollected in tranquility,” though they often forget the remainder of Wordsworth’s statement, that it tends to happen only for those who have thought long and deeply.  Sadly, many of the Romantics didn’t live long enough to think long and deeply.

Yet two of Keats’s poems have been among my favorites also:  “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and “To Autumn.”

As I’ve gotten older, a few others have climbed my list:  Adrienne Rich’s “Diving Into the Wreck,” Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Kitchenette Building,” A. E. Housman’s “On Wenlock Edge,” and Langston Hughes’s “Weary Blues.”  Maybe you need to be a little older for those poems get a firm hold on you.  Shakespeare’s sonnets 29 and 30 have been close to the top of the list since the first time I read them.

Many readers I’ve talked with chose their favorites almost exclusively by content regardless of what they or anyone might call independent poetic quality.

I know when the students ask that question they mean lyric poems, but can’t a person have an epic poem as his or her favorite?  Sometimes I answer Paradise Lost or Beowulf or Omeros or even Dante’s Commedia or Blake’s Milton.  Those answers tend to draw wide eyes and uncertain looks.

Another of my old professors, Dr. Margaret Berry, once said in class, “Students, The Iliad and The Odyssey:  everything else is a footnote.”

And that leads to another interest question:  between the two do you chose The Iliad or The Odyssey?  The answer to that one can tell a lot about a person.  Or do you make a bold leap for Aurora Leigh or Prometheus Unbound or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight?  I think with any of them,you’d find yourself in good company.

And how do you chose your favorite?  Do you go for the poem or poems that you think the best, or those that stay in your memory and move your thoughts and emotions regardless of how you may rationally judge their quality?  That question is, I think, especially worth asking–and answering.

 

14  Imagination

I was thinking about an exercise to do with the poetry students today.

For class I asked them to read Rich’s “Diving into the Wreck, Yeats’s “Sailing to Byzantium,” and Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan,” all poems that can lead to spirited discussion of the power of the imagination and how to reach it and use it.

I also did a little reading, thinking, and note-taking on ideas of the imagination.  One that always comes back to thought is Coleridge’s distinction of the primary imagination (receiving impressions and perceiving deeply), secondary imagination (an effort of will to make sense of perceptions), and fancy (the aggregation of association of images by superficial resemblance).  All three, even the sometimes denigrated fancy, contribute to the poetic process.

Not everyone thinks imagination a good thing–I’ll sometimes hear someone speak of it as a waste of time dreaming about things that aren’t there–but I think most folks value it because it can lead to new thoughts and ideas and potentially to solutions to problems that may have seemed intractable.  I see imagination also as a way to keep the mind active, alive, engaged, and ready for new challenges.

So here’s the problem for today’s class–let me know what you think.

Look through the poems we’ve studied, and try to find examples of fancy, primary imagination, and secondary imagination.  Explain why you think them good examples.  Take your example of primary imagination and try to explain or guess how the poet got to it (i.e., what if it’s an objective correlative rather than a simply description of an experience?).  Now, by using first your sensory perception to collect impressions, try to open your secondary imagination to move from those perceptions to an entirely new and fresh observation about the world.  (For the impressions I’m going to bring to class an especially fragrant tea bag in case they have trouble recalling strong sensations.)

Yes, I know:  that’s a really hard exercise.  Don’t worry:  I’ll be doing it right along with them.  Even if it doesn’t work, it may help them get into the imaginative process to build something unusual, surprising, and pleasing.  We always aim for that.

15  Final Volleys for National Poetry Month

In the next couple days I’ll try to get some new poetry up to help celebrate the month along with the rest of you.  Together we can make Eliot’s cruelest month into something more enjoyable for all of us.

 

A Certain Kind of Woman

  1. She likes money, cares less for renown,

wears a tailored suit and never a gown.

Her shoes polish bright golden-brown.

Each sentence concludes with a frown.

She stays at the Hilton Downtown.

 

2. You won’t hear her haggle or fuss.

Her hair has a slight, stylish muss.

She’ll sometimes ride home on the bus.

Politics she will never discuss.

She stays at the best Western Plus.

 

One lives in New York, visits Boston.

One drinks Chardonnay and reads Austen.

 

Thanks for visiting–more tomorrow.

16  One more for Poetry Month

As April turned into May, feeling bad for those under water literally I got under water figuratively, and so fell behind on my goal for National Poetry Month.  Here’s my last for April, submitted, as Rod Serling would say, for your approval.

A Certain Kind of Man

 

A certain kind of man

can wear snakeskin boots,

a white cowboy hat

and a bola tie.

He will eat steak rare

and order beer in a wine bar,

and no one will blink.

 

A certain kind of man

wears a tweed coat and waistcoat,

a tweed hat and oxfords

and half-lensed reading glasses.

He will eat sushi or tapas,

order tea in a bar

and no one will blink.

 

Each can be diffi-cult.

Each must be diffe-rent.

Neither gets diffi-dent.

Neither shows defe-rence.

 

Thanks for reading, and happy May!

17  Four technical tips for writing

If you find acronyms useful as you work on your writing (or to help you teach or coach others to write better), you may find the following offerings useful.  They’ve helped me for nearly thirty years.

PRISM

This acronym slightly revises one I found in a business writing textbook by Jeanne Halpern, Judith Kilborn, and Agnes Lokke.  It works best for expository or critical writing, but it can help with fiction, too.  The P is purpose:  get your purpose for writing clearly in mind before you begin–and keep it there.  The R means reader:  who will read your work, and what will they need or want to find there?  The I reminds us to collect all the information we need beforehand, and make it clear and complete in the text.  The S indicates we must select the proper style for the task at hand.  The M refers to method of organization:  how can we best structure the text to make it easy to follow and enjoy?  I recommend putting PRISM right at the top of one’s page to assist in the composition process:  it immediately eliminates that deadly enemy:  the blank page.

SAD

This acronym revises one from the linguists, SVO:  subject, verb, object, the simple deep structure of English sentences.  It casts the idea in a way to remind writers to focus on using active verbs:  subject, active verb, direct object.  Replacing passive verbs, being verbs, or boring verbs with good, descriptive, active verbs immediately improves sentences by an order of magnitude.  The word SAD implies not the construction of melancholy sentences, but the Renaissance and Romantic meaning of the word:  serious and pensive.  Even humor writers must take their work seriously and think it through.

ThUMB

One of my “rules of thumb” aims to help writers think about structure:  remember to include a clear, informative thesis statement that gives the reader the main point of your work; think as you go about the unity of the whole work (it shouldn’t stray too far from its purpose); in the Poetics Aristotle mentions the power of metaphors, and we should remember that trope as we write–a few good metaphors can improve even the most technical piece or writing (all words are, after all, metaphors); finally, balance implies giving all aspects of a piece of writing appropriate and sufficient weight, avoiding excess and sentimentality, comparing and contrasting, trying to keep the piece fresh and energetic throughout.

PATS

For you football fans, I’m not thinking of points-after-touchdowns, but punctuation as traffic signals.  I’ve read the work of even brilliant critics who do so badly with punctuation that they annoy readers and drive them away rather than easing them in.  Punctuation clarifies for a reader when to stop, pause, yield, or maintain or change direction.  Writers should know that even though a hyphen and a dash look a little alike (the dash is longer), they mean each other’s opposite:  a hyphen says “link these two things,” and a dash says “separate these two things.”  A semicolon implies a two-way stop (the same grammatical unit on either side), while a comma implies a yield (giving way to a new syntactical unit).  Thinking through the process provides a fun and helpful way to think about punctuation in a logical and repeatable way.

I hope these acronyms prove as useful to you as they have to me, and, as always, thanks for reading.