one reason, amongst many, to memorize poems

Abraham und die drei Engel, Anonymous, 27th centure

Abraham und die drei Engel (with many hand gestures), Anonymous, 17th century

[Bedtime in the Wee, Small House. A mother is tucking in her daughter.]

Daughter: Mom, can you say that poem you know?

Mother: Which one?

D: The one you said yesterday in the car?

M: Yes. [recites poem]

[Appropriate period of silence after experiencing an amazing poem is observed]

D: Mom, what does that mean — ring around of roses told?

M: Well… you know that game ring around the rosy? I think the poet is playing with those words to make us think about childhood.

D: Oh. Mom, what’s your favorite line?

M: “It is only a dream of the grass blowing / east against the source of the sun / in a hour before the sun’s going down.” What’s yours?

D: “She it is Queen Under the Hill.”

M: Yes, that’s a good one.

[brief lull in conversation]

D: Mom what does that mean at the beginning where it says it’s mine but it’s not mine but it’s near the heart?

M: I think that means… well… you know when you have a memory or a place you like to imagine? And you know it’s not real, but it feels real? I think that’s what it means.

D: Mom, why are you using hand gestures?

M: I don’t know.

D: Do poets do that or something?

M: Goodnight, dear.

The End

friday roundup: the x-acto knife speaks, turning a poem, and “I woke in grief…”

Reader, gotta make this quick. Papers to write, milk and eggs to buy. I’ve bribed myself into looking forward to these items on my to-do list by promising a trip to a lovely little cafe I’ve discovered in the next town up the Peninsula. Where I will drink my tea from a bowl. With honey. Where I will indulge in a little pastry. We do what we have to do. Onward:

the x-acto knife speaks  Poets&Writers interviewed the x-acto knife of poets, known also as Louise Glück (here, I swoon), in their September/October 2014 issue. My first encounter with Louise Glück was her book Ararat. Which I did not love at all. But I had the good sense to think I ought to learn from what I don’t love, so I bought her First Four Books. And I loved, loved, loved. Now she is one of those poets (and her First Four Books is one of those books) I could never live without. Probably many of you have already read the interview, but I am behind as usual. Here are a few things she said that I thought were interesting and/or heartening:

On tone:

“If you can get the right tone, it will be dense with ideas; you don’t initially know fully what they are, but you want by the end to know fully what they are or you won’t have made an exciting work. For me it’s tone — the way the mind moves as it performs its acts of meditation. That’s what you’re following. It guides you but it also mystifies you because you can’t turn it into conscious principles… . It has to remain mysterious to you. You have to be surprised by what it is capable of unveiling.”

On living your life:

“But you have to live your life if you’re going to do original work. Your work will come out of an authentic life, and if you suppress all of your most passionate impulses in the service of an art that has not yet declared itself, you’re making a terrible mistake.”

On dry periods:

“I go through two, three years writing nothing. Zero. Not a sentence. Not bad poems I discard, not notes toward poems. Nothing. And you don’t know in those periods that the silence will ever end, that you will ever recover speech. It’s pretty much hell… .”


turning a poem  I’ve been reading the assigned work from my program, reading at breakneck speed — for me, anyway, and for poetry — and discerning topics for the papers I have to write after reading. One thing I’ve been paying close attention to lately is the turn of the poem. Classically called the volta and embodied in the sonnet, a poem’s turn takes us to a place that is both surprising and inevitable (well, ideally anyway). I’m keeping a running list of all the moves I’m noticing in my reading, moves that help the poem make its turn. Here’s my list so far:

  • Ask a question
  • Allow the speaker to enter the poem explicitly (“I…”)
  • Tell a story within the poem (Ellen Bass does it in this poem)
  • Shift to direct address
  • Use dialogue
  • Apostrophe
  • Use of a conditional phrase (If…)

Would it not be handy to have this list around during revision (or, as I often think of it: redrafting)? I have a feeling I’ll be adding to this list as this day and this life go on.

“I woke in grief…” I started my week — at least, I think I did, I think it was Monday — with a beautiful little poem set to music that showed up in my Facebook feed. I love it when two art forms come together — in this case, poetry and song. Here is a link to Kathleen Kirk‘s poem “I woke in grief and beauty” and the song it inspired by Joe Robinson. I hope you enjoy it.

Happy weekend!


friday roundup: imagination radiating, modifier or amplifier, and “Pale / by the road to the North”

Klimt: "Mountain Slope at Unterach on the Attersee" 1916

Klimt: “Mountain Slope at Unterach on the Attersee” 1916

Hello, Reader and happy Friday. Since the last roundup there has been one, actual FULL week of school (the only one since school started a month ago — and don’t worry, this week was not a full week again, so the kids aren’t getting exhausted or anything. Ahem.); three critical response papers and one creative packet completed and turned in; one novel abandoned (reading, not writing), one Nutcracker audition (not me); two cross country meets (not me); two tennis lessons (not me); one allergy appointment (not me); one orthodontist appointment (not me); one four-point plan (every single one of us). I think if I hear of even one more four-point plan in my lifetime I’m going to have to consider becoming a space colonist despite my fear of flying. **I’ve come back to add a nuance here, because I am no expert about what should be done about QSIS (which some call ISIS or ISIL), but I abhor the slick packaging of words of war.**


Oh also: one marathon drafting session and two worthwhile revisions. Also one measly submission. Alas. This week I bring you:

imagination radiating Last week I had to take a break from le Bachelard. He was starting to get under my skin. It was when I got to “the increased intimacy of a house when it when it is besieged by winter” that I knew I was in trouble. Then when I read, “Winter is by far the oldest of the seasons” and “on snowy days, the house is too old,” I said to myself, Okay then. Enough of that. I put the book aside. (I used to do that with boys, too, and later men; if they started to get under my skin I was like, See ya!)

But Bachelard, Bachelard. I couldn’t stay away. I went back to it. And now I accept the Feeling of Doom that comes when one reads a book they know they will never again live without. Wherever I go in my life, I will be carrying Bachelard along with me — literally and figuratively. It’s like a marriage.

Anyway, here is something to think about regarding images and what Bachelard calls “poetic revery”:

“Poetic revery, unlike somnolent revery, never falls asleep. Starting with the simplest of images, it must always set the waves of the imagination radiating.”

No pressure.

modifier or amplifier  A poet-friend introduced me to this article on line by Rebecca Hazelton. In it, Hazelton says:

“Line can be difficult to talk about because it doesn’t operate independently of other poetic elements, as sense, syntax, sound, and rhythm can. Instead it is a modifier or an amplifier of sense, syntax, sound, and rhythm — which is precisely why an exploration of line can so illuminate poetry as a whole.”

The article then goes through close examinations of line in various poems, and suggests several exercises we can use to explore the options opened up to us by different uses of line in our own work. I have read, marked, scanned and tagged this article as a keeper. I hope it’s useful to you.

“Pale / by the road to the North” Here is the poem I was planning to post last week. Then, Life. It’s by the late Johannes Bobrowski, a German poet who was imprisoned in Russia during WWII and was relatively unknown in the U.S. until his work was translated in the 1960s. I, for one, am glad to have found his work. Here is:

NORTH RUSSIAN TOWN by Johannes Bobrowski

Putoshka 1941

by the road to the North
falls the mountain wall. The bridge,
the old wood,
the bushy banks.

There the stream lives,
white in the pebbles, blind over the
sand. And the caw of crows
speaks your name: Wind
in the rafters, a smoke
toward the evening.

It comes,
a glowing in
the cloud, it follows the winds,
it watches for the fire.

Remote fire breaks forth
in the plain,
far. Who dwell near
forests, on streams, in the wooden
luck of villages, listen
at evening, lay
an ear to the earth.

!!!”the wooden luck of villages”!!! Yes. Also, note his very astute use of “an” in the last line, rather than “your” (I know this was translated, but, let’s assume the translation is faithful). “Your” would’ve limited the power of that ear. The ear would’ve belonged to those “who dwell near forests… .” The “an” allows the ear to belong to the dwellers, yes, but also allows the town itself to become an ear laid to the earth. Well, that’s my reading anyway. Also: O, how he builds tension with his syntax and line. I aspire.

And now, since the kids don’t have school today I guess I will go do a bunch of mom stuff. Happy Friday, happy weekend, and write on.

friday roundup: on finding, primal images, and “a reachable planet”

Hello. It is Friday. All week I have wanted it to be Friday, mostly because on Friday we usually order pizza which means I don’t have to cook. Last night for dinner I served salad and boiled eggs. People complained. I shrugged. I worked out twice this week, so I think I should be done for the year.There either was, or I dreamed, a mountain lion sighting (at first I wrote “citing” — which would also be interesting). At my desk everything clunks and jerks, falls flat on its face and stays there, head folded in its arms. Let’s hope this roundup goes better:

on finding  This week an article by Linda Gregg came to my attention. It’s called “The Art of Finding.” In it, Gregg says: “I believe that poetry at its best is found rather than written.”

She is not talking about found poetry here. She’s talking about the act of discovery — the discovery one makes by writing and/or reading a poem, or as she says, “what is found out about the heart and spirit.” Craft, she says, is only a starting point. Here are her words about “finding” a poem:

“There are two elements in ‘finding’ a poem: discovering the subject matter and locating the concrete details and images out of which the poems are built. In this instance, I do not mean the subject matter to be the ideas or subjects for poems. Instead, I am referring to finding the resonant sources deep inside you that empower those subjects and ideas when they are put in poems.”

It’s a short article, but well worth reading as you consider your generative process– find it here.

primal images  I’m still slogging through — as I think of it fondly, in a poor French accent — le Bachelard. Last night I read about primal images — those that speak to something deep and intrinsic in us. He says:

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color.”

This quote sent me back to a Stephen Dobyns essay on figurative language. In it he says the best images are those that contain an element of both knowing and unknowing (I am paraphrasing here). The best images “create the impression that it could give additional meaning each time the reader returns to it” (that was not a paraphrase).

Every time I read stuff like this I think : Yeah, no pressure! But I can only hope that taking this in and mulling it over will work its magic on my poet’s mind.

By the way, the Stephen Dobyns essay is in his book Best Words, Best Order: Essays on Poetry.

lastly  I’ve been reading Open Interval by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon. This is not assigned reading. Yes, I stray. It’s what poets do, right? Anyway, I’m a sucker for Icarus poems, and also ekphrastic poems, and she has one that is both in the fine tradition of other ekphrastic Icarus poems (a few of which I’ve linked to in this post). I’ll leave you with it and a wish for a relaxing weekend for everyone:


ICARUS by Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon

–for Gus Wing who always knew me when I came home

I hold him together now
Though he is dispersed

He was once held
Together by

Matisse imagined

The hot red throb
A reachable planet

At a man’s center and
All else burned

Away so that against
The sky we saw

Outward inward
The same infinite

Those stars near us

Exploding their color
Flared like

The yellow feathers of birds
I learned

To fly I learned
To want to fly

From him when he flew and
He fell

The way night will
Always fall

Blue skies straight through
To black


friday roundup: permission edition

Vincent: A Meadow in the Mountains - Les Mas de Saint-Paul. wikimedia

Vincent: A Meadow in the Mountains – Les Mas de Saint-Paul. wikimedia

Hello, Reader. Well, there was *almost* a full week of school this week. But not quite. And many appointments. And planning for milestone birthday (not mine). Writing and reading happened. This is a good thing. The Muse has been a bit reticent, but sometimes she’s that way. I’ve still been showing up at my desk to see if she’s hanging around. Now let us discuss permission:

permission: n. act of permitting; a formal consent; authorization; leave; license or liberty granted. From the Latin permittere, “let pass, let go, let loose; give up, hand over; let allow, grant, permit,” from per- “through” + mittere “let go, send”

Got that? Because it’s going to be important. Now:

the trapdoor on the top of my skull  Do you read brain pickings? I do. They once featured a really interesting article about Ray Bradbury’s list-making habits. According to the article, he would begin writing by making lists of nouns — whatever came to him. Stuff like:


As he made the lists (they were longer than this excerpt — sometimes pages long), the lists would break away from themselves into a longer piece, or an idea for a longer piece. The way I see it, Bradbury’s list-making was a way of giving permission for the unconscious to surface and to bring with it a wealth of material. He suggests to us as writers:

“Conjure the nouns, alert the secret self, taste the darkness… speak softly, and write any old word that wants to jump out of your nerves onto the page…”

I believe he just gave us permission to write any word, not any good word, or beautiful word, or rich or amazing or nuanced word. For me permission is a necessary condition for creation. You can read the whole article here.

basically unreadable  At my MFA residency, one of the faculty (not my faculty mentor, but another faculty member who had read some of my work) suggested I read The Poetics of Space by Gaston Bachelard. “It’s basically unreadable,” he said laughing, “but you should read it.”

I am reading it. It’s basically unreadable. But it’s really interesting. And in it, Bachelard, amongst other things, writes about the importance of solitude and reverie in a creative life. In his view, the house is that protective, intimate space where reverie can happen, where one has the freedom and the protected intimacy to create. He says: “poetry appears as a phenomenon of freedom.” And he says a lot of other stuff (much of it unreadable). And I think his view of the house — specifically one’s first house, presumably a childhood house — might be a bit privileged because not everybody has the experience of protective, intimate space in their home. But we all need some kind of protective, intimate space where we are free to imagine in order to do our creative work. Also he says this thing which I’m going to type below just because it’s beautiful:

“And all the spaces of our past moments of solitude, the spaces in which we have suffered from solitude, enjoyed, desired, and compromised solitude, remain indelible within us, and precisely because the human being wants them to remain so. (S/)He knows instinctively that this space identified with his solitude is creative; that even when it is forever expunged from the present, when, henceforth, it is alien to all promises of the future, even when we no longer have a garret, when the attic room is lost and gone, there remains the fact that we once loved a garret, once lived in an attic.”


Personally, I once loved a garret. I once slept in an attic room. I’m going to keep reading this basically unreadable book.

and now, a poem  A poem that also examines the idea of permission, and places where one feels protected and free. This is one of those poems that you just have to read out loud to fully appreciate. It’s not a skimmer. It’s lovely, it’s by Robert Duncan, and it is “Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow.”

Funny, often I am permitted to return to the laundry room. I mean the garage. Anyway, may you always have the time, space, and permission to do your work, to live your life. Thanks for reading.