Auld Lang Syne

Monday, April 16, 2018

Yes, poetry matters: to all of us

In a world of digital everything, and yes here I am blogging on my laptop, the question that always comes up when discussing poetry, is what if any relevance does poetry have now that anything is fair game to be reduced to 140 characters or fewer? I would answer that poetry is more important than ever. When we relegate ourselves to text-speak, we nearly eliminate syntax, spelling, grammar and we obliterate complex thought and nuance.  

A few years ago I wrote a poem in text-speak just to do it. Its dryness and clinical nature reminds me that I love words filled with the sounds and feelings that vowels produce. Being a person who has the ability for visual closure, my brain will fill in the vowels for understanding. However, minus the actual vowels, I lose something. Beauty.  Look at this small stanza of Richard Wilbur's (from The House) written as it was intended and again in txt spk (apologies to Wilbur for the bastardization of his beautiful words):

Sometimes, on waking, she would close her eyes
For a last look at that white house she knew
In sleep alone, and held no title to,
And had not entered yet, for all her sighs.


Smtms, on wking, she wd cls her eys
Fr a lst lk at tht whte hse she knw
In slp alne, nd hld no ttle to,
nd hd nt ntred yt, fr all hr sghs.

Can you "read" the second version? Probably. You can get the likely "meaning" as well. But did you sense the beauty of the diction, the intricacy of one word played against another? Were you moved?  Not likely.

While this is an extreme example, a rather silly one I might add, it underscores what I mean about language for its own beauty. Think of your favorite word. Say it (aloud or silently) and let its sounds take you, rolling them off your tongue and around the cavern of your throat. What do you FEEL?

My two favorite words are ocean and lullaby.  I love the sounds of them, the way they fill my mouth, the way they encompass me with joy. Imagine now how these two words can work together to make something of a heightened joy through their complementary imagery. This short poem is an example of how they do this for me:

When I was a baby, rocked
to sleep by the waves, I had no word 
for ocean, knew only the rise
and fall of its heartbeat, like the lullaby 
heard below my mother's own 
tidal days and nights. Lullabies are like that: 
no beginning, no end to the soothing. 
Tides too without alpha, omega, 
just a repeating lullaby on the shore.  
Now I am here at its lip, awash
in the music of the ocean, 
lulled toward sleep
as if stilled from my cries 
by an invisible mother.

Plain language to be sure, nothing fancy or hard to pronounce. It is the way the two plain words work together, spurred on to make a feeling and to paint a picture of that feeling. 

Author David Biespiel writes, in his NY Times article about the importance of poetry, that: 

Poetic utterance ritualizes how we come to knowledge. In the same way that poems illuminate our individual lives, poems also help us understand ourselves as a culture... Poetic utterance mythologizes our journey of being. Poetic utterance tells and interprets our stories. 


I would add that human beings think in metaphor, which is a wonderful testament to complexity and interconnectedness  which makes us sentient beings with souls. 
Dana Gioia in his famously controversial essay, Can Poetry Matter, tells us that poetry is an essential human art. He tells us that to be fully human we need nuanced language and delicacy or rigor of diction. He says that we are separate from other animals in large part because of complexity of thought and language which is the life-blood of poetry.
Poets are sure that each word in a poem has its own value in that a word creates (in concert with other words) an inner and outer landscape. Each word is important not only in its connotation but also in its denotation. Words have power, intrinsic power to inflame, inspire, inculcate. When words get together in the way poets hear them, the power is great, almost magical. It is why poets are (generally) so careful about word choice, word order, word play. 
Bespiel says: No matter what language we speak, we follow the guidance of poetry to better perceive sorrow and radiance, love and hatred, violence and wonder. No matter what continent we call home, we read poetry to restrict us in time and to aspire toward timelessness — whether we are in our most vibrant cities or in the remote woods. 
Poetry is like a road map therefore, or a genealogical chart, connecting past to present and leading to the future. Poets hold a great responsibility in making certain that the path ahead is one of beauty, even in its darkest moist dangerous spots. Poets are responsible for holding up a mirror to history in order to tug at our present conscience. Poetry is a vehicle taking us from there to here. It can heal as well as (sometimes) wound. Even in its wounding, there is healing. If we care about ourselves, about our cultures, poetry will always matter because it is the best way to know who we are in the world. 
Poetry is not in competition with other kind of written communication, not as some say a mere shorthand for prose. It is its own.  When we read a poem, something entirely different happens than when we read the newspaper, a novel, a text. We are stirred to think beyond the naked words, even beyond the meaning of those words. We are stirred to a new vision of the world outside our windows, outside our relationship to that world. We are more deeply connected, even if we are alone.

Poetry matters because it is the art of the utterance a balance between the beautiful and the bizarre. Poetry matters. It is lullaby and explosion, daylight and darkness, truth within truth

Saturday, April 14, 2018

Odes; why we write them

The ode is a lyric poem, classically structured in three major parts (as in the Pindaric Ode): 1. the strophe 2. the antistrophe, and 3. the epode.  

The parts of the poem correspond to movement of a chorus to one side of the stage (strophe), then to the other (antistrophe), and a pause midstage to deliver the epilogue (epode). 

The epode is of a different meter than the strophe and antistrophe. For example: iambic tetrameter, iambic tetrameter, trochaic dimeter. This change of meter is a great way to make a final point without being over the top in terms of diction. 

Pindar, as a poet, was determined to preserve and interpret great deeds (athletic and heroic) as divine values. He did this by writing odes to celebrate such victories or values. We write odes for these reasons, even now.

Let's look at the (traditional) Ode and its 3 parts:

1. Strophe typically begins the poem, consisting of two or more lines in a dominant meter, repeated as a unit.

2. Antistrophe, second stanza, is metrically harmonious with the strophe.

3. Epode is a one or two line stanza, in a different meter than the previous two stanzas.

A good contemporary ode doesn't announce itself by ay of overdone meter. In fact some contemporary ode writers eschew meter altogether. Sharon Olds' latest book, Odes, doesn't use any of the traditional poetic devices (rules) for odes. The heralding gesture of these odes is the praising (or scoffing at) of the topics she has chosen for her poems. As Olds shows, the contemporary ode is open for interpretation as to the person, place, or thing it is celebrating or praising. Here is a partial list from her table of contents:

Ode to Stretch Marks
Ode to Dirt
Ode to a Composting Toilet
Ode to Buttermilk 
Ode of the Corner I Was Stood In

One might say that Olds is breaking the form even in her choice of topics. Perhaps she is. There is nothing wrong with breaking form. Clearly Olds' choices are unconventional. I think, however, that she is leading the charge for those who want to fly in the face of tradition and strike out in new directions. It seems to me that poets writing today, especially those who write away from form, will find the praise and honoring of the ode to be a great vehicle for their work. For those who wish to stay with the traditional approach of Pindar's, brava! But this is 2018. We can ode as we are comfortable. 


It may be worth doing a few formal odes, just for the satisfaction and for getting to really KNOW the form. Then, off you go into your own space with odes, reinventing as you go but with the foundation well-built first.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Because I am not feeling kissable today

Yesterday I had some surgery on my face. A little thing called basal cell cancer on my nose and a trip to the surgeon has left me feeling awkwardly un-kissable. I love love love kissing, so this is a great hardship.

My husband is a great kisser. I am always happy to kiss him or to be kissed by him. When we were first together, kissing was one of the best parts of learning about each other, about learning how we fit together in terms of personality and approach to relationship. There is simply no way to hide inside a kiss. The kiss is a barometer of relationship. Marcel Danesi, in his The History of the Kiss!, says that "unlike sex, there is nothing to prove in kissing." I might not wholly agree with that. I think the kiss IS a proof of many things, including tenderness, loyalty, forcefulness, aggression, and more.

When I was in 8th grade I discovered kissing, the non kiss-your-grandmother-goodbye kind of kissing. I was taught to kiss by the bother of a friend. He pushed me gently against the coats in the coatroom at a dance and put his lips so gently on mine that I got dizzy. His lips were warm and soft and he put his hands on my face. The kissing he did with me remains one of my best boy-girl memories. It was so impressive that I celebrate it every year on his October 3rd birthday. All of my adult kissing has been measured against his kissing. Sometimes however kissing style or approach can be a deal breaker. I once was kissed by a boy whose braces cut my lips. He smelled of sour food too. I was so repulsed I never spoke to him again. Sometimes the kiss is a signal of the end of a relationship (the kiss-off).

I am currently reading a book edited by Brian Turner, The Kiss, which is a series of essays about all kinds of kissing, contributed by a melange of wonderful authors. Reading the book is, for me, like going to a fine restaurant and ordering a sampler. Each author/contributor shares unabashedly and honestly, adding both spice and substance to the conversation. Reading this book has made me consider how fortunate I am to have been well kissed in my lifetime. It makes me know all over again how wonderful it is to be kissed now, even as I must admit I am no longer a young kisser trying to find a mate. I am fortunate to know and expect lovely wonderful kissing on a daily basis by my sweet husband. I do know that kissing has been a make or break situation for me my whole kissing life.

In thinking about kissing today,  I took to the internet for a bit of fun looks at the "science" and non-scientific conjecture about kissing. I found a site called You Tango where there is a fun look at how various signs of the zodiac are assessed as to their kissing styles.  I share this here — just for the fun of it.

Note: the website writer put these in order from what are supposedly the best kissers to the worst. I do not agree with the line-up. Kissing is so personal as to style and effectiveness that I doubt anyone could rank them. Kissing is to be enjoyed. Great kissing is to be celebrated.

According to the web site, each zodiac sign has its unique way of kissing, from soft pecks to an open, deep French kiss. Some zodiac signs are passionate while others approach intimacy in a methodical or mechanical way, some with hands involved and some without. I offer these as they were offered by the web site writer. You be the judge.

1. Scorpio    They use their tongues. Literally, penetrating your mouth with their tongue. This can be wonderful or dangerous (if you were to bite down, it would be quite unpleasant!)

2. Virgo    The Virgo's kissing style is a sweet kiss on the hand when you're driving or watching a movie. When they get serious, the sweetness remains. 

3. Leo    Leos are passionate kissers who will brush your hair away and look into your eyes first. Otherwise, they'll wrap their arm around your neck and pull you in to give you a simple kiss on your cheekbone. They are both passionate and tender.

4. Taurus    Taureans are driven by the need to use senses, to feel their partner’s plump lips (if they are plump), smell their enticing scent, touch their soft skin and take you in. They love to kiss the neck to feel the skin and get a deep whiff of scent.

5. Gemini   Gemini is (supposedly) in fifth of the top five best kissers. Gemini, being a cerebral sign, will go for the forehead. It's a great way to feel connected. Getting a chance to gaze into expressive eyes after the kiss is a bonus for the Gemini.

6. Aries   An Aries is a physical person, making kissing a full body experience which might start pressing both of your lips, add in a little tongue, and finish with a bite. They enjoy a partner who is a little aggressive too.

7. Sagittarius   Fun and game kissing here. Sagittarius likes to use lips to trace the skin, beyond your mouth.

8. Cancer   Cancers are not wild kissers. They’re tender-hearted kissers who build tension slowly. If the They might work themselves up to holding you against something during the kiss.

9. Pices   Pisces kissers are always gentle. Unafraid to sink into their emotions, they get lost in them. At first, their go-to move might be a single lip kiss that leaves you feeling connected and wanting for more.

10. Libras   Libra kisses are soft and light. They’re shy kisses. They like to go for the butterfly kisses where your eyelashes touch together. They leave you feeling a bit lightheaded.

11. Capricorns   Capricorns are a little more classy in their kissing, but they are go-getters. They might nibble and bite you like an Aries, but more softly. They'll try not to kiss you where it might be uncomfortable for you as long as you let them know.

12. Aquarians   They show their mental connection by kissing you on the eyelid. This is more common in spouses or with parents and their children. Still, it shows a strong mental connection.



What do YOU think about kisses? Have a memory of a wonderful kiss or memory of a kiss that turned you off? Please share. I'm in the mood for writing some poems about kisses and kissers. Send me some material.


Monday, April 9, 2018

Because it's Poetry Month

Because it's poetry Month and because I am a bit nervous over some surgery scheduled for tomorrow, I am reposting a previous blog post. It is I hope worthy of your renewed attention.

The Poem, unpacked, with some translation from medieval Scots English to English.
The Thrissil and the Rois (Thistle and Rose), composed by my ancestor, William Dunbar of Scotland, is comprised of stanzas in rhyme royale form. It is a bit of a struggle to get the poem to levels of deep understanding in its original language. However, as you read along, the elements of thought and expression begin to emerge. 

To clarify, rhyme royale stanzas consist of seven lines, usually of iambic pentameter (typical for narratives of the time). The rhyme scheme is a-b-a-b-b-c-c and is normally made up either as a tercet with two couplets  (a-b-a, b-b, c-c) or as a quatrain with a tercet (a-b-a-b, b-c-c). 
This allowance for variance is particularly helpful in longer narratives.  

Notice that the poem uses aureate vocabulary (using both Latin and French) to glide it forward. Aureation is seen nowadays by some critics as being pretentious, however it is a method not of embellishment for embellishment’s sake but as necessary dressing. The narrative of Dunbar’s herein is presented via a quite common medieval device: dream vision. Since the poem was written to celebrate/commemorate a wedding (James IV of Scotland and Margaret Tudor of England), the embellishment of aureation and the dream vision devices are appropriate. 

aureate ˈôrēətˈôrēˌāt | adjectivedenoting, made of, or having the color of gold• (of languagehighly ornamented or elaborate

Let’s look at the poem itself now, beginning with Dunbar’s description of Spring (also emblematic of the beginning of married life).
Quhen Merche wes with variand windis past,
And Appryll had with hir silver schouris
Tane leif at Nature with ane orient blast,
And lusty May, that muddir is of flouris,
Had maid the birdis to begyn thair houris,
Amang the tendir odouris reid and quhyt,
Quhois armony to heir it wes delyt,

The sleeping poet has a dream in which he is addressed by the personification of May.

Me thocht fresche May befoir my bed upstude
In weid depaynt of mony divers hew,
Sobir, benyng, and full of mansuetude,
In brycht atteir of flouris forgit new,
Hevinly of color, quhyt, reid, broun, and blew,
Balmit in dew and gilt with Phebus bemys
Quhill all the hous illumynit of hir lemys.
"Slugird," scho said, "Awalk annone, for schame,
And in my honour sumthing thow go wryt,
Quhairto quod I, Sall I uprys at morrow,
For in this May few birdis herd I sing?
Thai haif moir caus to weip and plane thair sorrow,
Thy air it is nocht holsum nor benyng,

May reminds him that he had previously promised her to write a poem about the rose. 

With that this lady sobirly did smyll        [smile]
And said, Uprys and do thy observance,
Thow did promyt in Mayis lusty quhyle
For to discryve the ros of most plesance.
Quhen this wes said depairtit scho, this quene,
And enterit in a lusty gairding gent.
And than, me thocht, sa listely besene,
In serk and mantill, full haistely I went,
Into this garth, most dulce and redolent,
Of herb and flour and tendir plantis sueit,
And grene levis doing of dew doun fleit.

In the garden, Nature (seen of course as a woman) sends messengers to the animals, birds and plants of the world, requiring their immediate presence, their homage. [All present were in twinkling of an eye, both beast and bird and flower, before the queen ... as embodied in the last couplet of this part.]
Scho ordand eik that every bird and beist,
Befoir hir hienes suld annone compeir,
And every flour of vertew, most and leist,
And every herb be feild, fer and neir,
All present wer in twynkling of ane e,
Baith beist and bird and flour, befoir the quene.


Nature calls the Lion forward, described as the Lion Rampant standard of Scots Kings. Notice the rich description of this kingly beast and know Dunbar, as poet of the Court, was wont to thusly honor James:
Reid of his cullour as is the ruby glance,
On feild of gold he stude full mychtely,      [on field of gold he strode most mightily.... think of royal banner]
With flour delycis sirculit lustely.
This lady liftit up his cluvis cleir,
And leit him listly lene upone hir kne,
And crownit him with dyademe full deir,
Of radyous stonis most ryall for to se,          [of radiant stones most royal for all to see]
Saying, The king of beistis mak I thee,
And the chief protector in the woddis and schawis.
Onto thi leigis go furth, and keip the lawis.
Exerce justice with mercy and conscience,
And lat no small beist suffir skaith na skornis
Of greit beistis that bene of moir piscence.


The lion is the embodiment of the duty of the King to bring justice to all of his subjects,
the humble and the more powerful.The animals therefore acclaim their new King. 
The Eagle appears to symbolize the King's plan to keep the peace within Scotland and,
perhaps, with England. Nature crowns the Eagle King of the birds, sharpens his feathers
to dart-like points, enjoining him to let no ravens, or other birds of prey, make trouble.


All kynd of beistis into thair degré
At onis cryit lawd, Vive le roy!
And till his feit fell with humilité,
And all thay maid him homege and fewté, 
Syne crownit scho the Egle, king of fowlis,
And as steill dertis scherpit scho his pennis,   [pennis = feathers]
And bawd him be als just to awppis and owlis 
As unto pacokkis, papengals, or crennis, 
And mak a law for wycht fowlis and for wrennis. 
And lat no fowll of ravyne do efferay,
Nor devoir birdis bot his awin pray.


Nature then inspects the plants and judges the spiked thistle to be 'able for war'. The thistle (thrissil) is crowned King of all plants with a gleaming crown of rubies.
The thistle seems to represent the King's determination to defend his Kingdom.
Nature then advises the Thistle to show discretion when judging other plants.

Upone the awfull Thrissill scho beheld
And saw him kepit with a busche of speiris.
Concedring him so able for the weiris,
A radius croun of rubeis scho him gaif.
And said, In feild go furth and fend the laif.
And sen thow art a king, thow be discreit,
Herb without vertew hald nocht of sic pryce
As herb of vertew and of odor sueit,
And lat no nettill vyle and full of vyce          [and let no nettle vile and full of vice]
Hir fallow to the gudly flour delyce,
Nor latt no wyld weid full of churlichenes
Compair hir till the lilleis nobilnes,              [compare her to lillies’ nobleness]

Dunbar is a not-so-subtle admonisher to the King in this next part, wherein he seems to be warning the King to be done with the practice of having mistresses. He does this in the voice of Nature who praises the red-and-white rose over all the other flowers.The rose represents Margaret of England.

Nor hald non udir flour in sic denty
As the fresche Ros of cullour reid and quhyt,
For gife thow dois, hurt is thyne honesty,
Conciddering that no flour is so perfyt,          [considering no flower is so perfect]
So full of vertew, plesans, and delyt,               [so full of virtue, pleasance, and delight]
So full of blisfull angelik bewty,                      [so full of blissful angelic beauty]
Imperiall birth, honour, and dignité.               [imperial birth, honor, and dignity]


It is clear that these lines are meant to praise the lovely Margaret of England, and to serve as a warning to James that he has it all at home, and should not stray. Nature addresses the rose directly, praising her and calling her forward to be crowned.

Than to the Ros scho turnyt hir visage
And said, O lusty dochtir most benyng,
Aboif the lilly illustare of lynnage,
Fro the stok ryell rysing fresche and ying,
But ony spot or macull doing spring,
Cum, blowme of joy, with jemis to be cround,
For our the laif thy bewty is renownd.
A coistly croun with clarefeid stonis brycht,
This cumly quene did on hir heid inclois,  
Quhairfoir me thocht all flouris did rejos,
Crying attonis, Haill be thow richest Ros,
Haill hairbis empryce, haill freschest quene of flouris!
To thee be glory and honour at all houris!

The birds join the acclamation of the new Queen who is compared to a pearl which is totally expected in the poem as 'Margaret' is derived from the Latin term (margarita) for a pearl.
The commoun voce uprais of birdis small
Apone this wys, O blissit be the hour,
That thow wes chosin to be our principall,
Welcome to be our princes of honour,
Our perle, our plesans, and our paramour,
Our peax, our play, our plane felicité:
Chryst thee conserf frome all adversité! 

Now the poem switches from the dream of Dunbar to Dunbar himself.  Birdsong merges with the dawn chorus. Dunbar awakens and looks for the garden he saw in his dream but finds it gone. While half-frighted, he “begins” to write the poem. This is reminiscent of what would later be seen as a magical realism poem, much like Xanadu.

Than all the birdis song with sic a schout,
That I annone awoilk quhair that I lay,
And with a braid I turnyt me about,
To se this court, bot all wer went away.
Than up I lenyt, halflingis in affrey,
And thus I wret, as ye haif hard to forrow,
Of lusty May upone the nynt morrow.
It is the ninth of May.



This poem may be one of Dunbar’s best. It certainly engendered a fairly robust admiration for his work from James IV, who appointed him as Poet to the Court. Dunbar’s ability to connect nature (with a capital N) to the monarchy is without reproach, either then or now. I am reminded of Sir Elton John’s remake song sung at the funeral of Princess Diana, wherein he refers to her as England’s Rose. I’d like to think Sir Elton has read Dunbar’s Thrissil and Rois, but I’m not taking that leap. But I will happily claim a certain visceral intertextuality that comes from the collective unconscious. In the world of magical words and symbols, we can rest assured that there is more “out there” waiting for us if we allow ourselves to be dreamers and writers, and to pay attention to the issues of the day, happy and not so... all is the stuff of poetry.



Saturday, April 7, 2018

Sharon Olds and her new book; another expansion ahead for me

Sharon Olds changed me from a timid vanilla ice cream with raspberry sauce writer to more of a rum raisin ice cream writer. From expected to unexpected. From bland to bold.

When I read her book, The Father, Alfred A. Knopf 1992I became brave. She wrote bravely and I could do the same. This collection of poems became a touchstone for poems I knew needed to be written.  What she wrote about (the dying of her father) and the way she wrote about it did not mince words. She used skillful diction and structure to come at this topic with honesty. Death and dying was taken off the pedestal of veiled sentiment or sentiment at all, and placed right there in front of us. Death, and in particular slow dying, was no longer a topic to be hedged, but was confronted in its nakedness and inevitability. We all secretly want to know, but no one was talking about it. Certainly no one was talking about it like Sharon Olds. Here is a poem that exemplifies that for me:


My Father's Eyes

The day before my father died
he lay there allay with his eyes open,
staring with a weary dogged look.
His irises had turned hazel in places
as if his nature had changed, bits
of water or sky set into his mineral solids.
...

and he swerved his blurred iris toward me and with-
in it for a moment his pupil narrowed and
took me in, it was my father 
looking at me. This lasted just
a second,
...

Then his vision sank back down
and left only the globe of the eye, and the
next day his soul went out
and left just my father there 
...

I'd never read such a thing. No overt emotion whatsoever, no flowery speech, just clear vision, inspiring diction. The poem shows what is possible in the intimate moments of our lives and our deaths. The rest of the poems in the collection are as barefaced, some even more so. I wanted to write with such clarity, such attention, such bravery. Olds' work gave me permission.

I'd always written safe poetry. I did not tackle topics that were lurking in me. It was not that I did not want to/need to write about being molested as a child, or about my father's post WWII PTSD, or my difficult relationship with my mother. I very much wanted to write about those things, not just to serve my need to vanquish them, but because I knew (have always known) that others had similar experiences. Maybe they needed to hear someone else say these things out loud. But who would say them? Maybe me? But I was a good girl poet. I was concerned about whether or not I came off as a good girl in what I wrote. I was trapped in the good girl image fostered by my very proper parents, an image I eventually held for myself too. I chose silence because that was what good girls did, to the point that my poems were too safe to be real.

Along came Sharon Olds and her book. For the first time in my reading life, a woman writer was telling some big Truths. She was writing in such a way that there was authenticity even boldness, all the while using the tools poetry uses to attract. Her skills as a poet showed me how to write. I could say the previously unsayable and still be a good girl. Good had nothing at all to do with Truth in writing. I could get at the reality in my own life and connect to the lives of others if I was brave enough. I did not need to shy away from the tough parts and hide in the shadows of safety, but it would be a dance. I would need to balance my writing to expose Truth through careful diction and style. Fortunately I have had great teachers and models for doing this. Sharon Olds, unbeknownst to her, played that role for me. When I think of the balance, the dance, I remember these words from Ric Masten about relationship:

Let it be a dance we do
Let it be a dance for two.
In the good times and the bad times too,
Let it be a dance.

Of course Masten was referring to a relationship between two lovers, but I see it as the same relationship between poets and readers. The steps must be careful and skilled. The dancers must be in a partnership.

Once I discovered my bravery in writing, I was faced with figuring out how to tell my own truths without disrupting the life I wanted to live as wife, mother, daughter, friend. Since that moment I have defined and redefined Truth and revised my way of getting to it. I am certain this will be an ongoing project as I move along my own timeline as a writer, as a woman, as a woman writer. It is not a simple thing to stay authentic in writing. It would be easy to slip back into the bowl of vanilla ice cream, that safe place where no one is ruffled by my writing. It is too easy to back down, back off, back away deferentially. But I will not back up and become the timid writer I was.

Until last evening, I had never met Sharon Olds in person. I did not yet have a copy of her latest book of poems, Odes. (by the way, the ode is not my favorite kind of poem to write, or to read). I was privileged to hear her read and to meet her afterward as part of the 16th Annual Terry Plunkett Poetry Festival, where I was a featured reader. The topic for the festival this year: Poetry and Truth. It was wonderful to hear her read, to engage with her audience for Q & A. A high point of the evening for me was meting her, getting her to sign my First Edition copy of The Father  as well as her new book, Odes, and being able to thank her for helping me to become brave.

Her new book is all about being brave even within the parameters of form (the ode) and I discovered in these poems a bravery coupled with humor, pun, word play, and liveliness of expression. I have only read (or heard) five of these odes, but I can tell you that there is another lesson for me therein. I urge you to find a copy for yourselves and read it. If you dare. It is a risky book. But then again, why not take the risk and discover something. I look forward to another expansion for my own work, thanks to this book and thanks again to Sharon Olds.

Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Revising is an art unto itself

Poem made. Seems pretty good. Is it done, ready for prime time? Well...

I write almost every day. But not all of my writing is writing. Most of it is revising.

For me as poet, revision is the best part of the process. I look at a particular poem and ask the same question: what does the poem want? Years ago I took a week-long workshop with poet Michael Dennis Browne wherein he posed that question to us, a question I had never considered. Since that time, I cannot revise without the question. As I wait to hear what the poem is saying, I review some possible revision strategies, try on a few and see what might make the poem stronger or more definitively a "poem." (another topic for another post)I used to think of revision as something I would do to peel away layers that were obstructing the poem's message or motive. Until the Browne workshop and later Jack Myers' workshops that was my strategy.

Myers says in his helpful book, The Portable Poetry Workshop (Thomson Wadsworth, 2005), that revision was once thought of as violating a sacred gift... the workings of the unconscious. The idea that a poem comes from somewhere unearthly or is bestowed as a vision or is some kind of dictation from on high has always befuddled me. I've been in workshops where someone defended her/his poem by saying this didn't come from me and I have no right to alter it. I wonder why the person is writing at all if the writing is mere dictation. Do people who feel this way see themselves as prophets or soothsayers or mystics? Isn't automatic writing best left to the religious?

Myers tells us that re-vision is actually the act of taking a closer look and seeing a poem with new eyes, then implementing techniques which potentially make the poem stronger. He promises that this process is engaging, rewarding, and worth doing. He is right.

Let's look at three types of revision.

1. Reductive Revision

This refers to the kind of cutting that most think of as the hallmark of revision. Get rid of the following and at least the poem will be tighter:

a. unnecessary modifiers (cut out extra or extraneous adverbs, adjectives!)
b. passive or flat verbs
c. obvious and over the top transitions
d. narratives or plot elements that are fillers (do not add to the poem but only provide back story)
e. too many prepositional phrases
f. poet-intrusive or editorial comments

This is a decent strategy for the beginning poet to find ways to tighten his/her poem, however this is just one way, and a base-level way to revise.

I am as guilty as the next poet when it comes to having extraneous elements in my poems. I get so intense over the imagery, the syntax, line breaks, end words, stanza construction, etc. that sometimes the throwaways creep in when I am distracted. Using articles (a, an, the, etc.) is my biggest issue right now. I must pare them, tame them, even obliterate them.

I am getting better about adjectives and adverbs. I've been on a campaign to free the literary world of ly words for some time. They almost never add much to the understanding of a poem. Clearly, less is more. But some poets are married to adverbs.

Ing  words are on my hit list too. I try to rewrite without them. Always seems to make the poems better.

Adjectives in strings of 4 or 5 drive me up the wall. Just because one is good doesn't mean 3 are better. How many dark, grey, ominous, threatening, thunder clouds are better than one nimbus. A wise choice of adjectives is a better strategy. Hint: if there is a list of adjectives that uses a bunch of commas, revise them out.

Another way (my personal favorite after doing the reductive revision) is to ADD material or elements to the poem. The poem may want to be more, say more, embody more.

This, in my opinion, is where the art comes in.

2. Additive Revision

If a poem seems clunky to me, the first strategy I use is to print out a copy and write some notes in the margins, arrowing where the places in the poem are not quite right. I may do a free write or I may write out (in prose) what I mean to say here is.... I can find new material in the free writing of my intentions. Sometimes clarity appears and I can move toward fixing the clunky part(s). Sometimes I just look for places where there might be something new or surprising to insert. This may seem a bit dangerous and I get a feeling in my spine or in my chest that I am venturing into deep water. I was working on a poem just yesterday where this was the case. The poem was ok, but lacked something to unify and to give it a bit of a punch. I chose a single line, a repeating line. I inserted the line in three places, the result being that the POINT of the poem emerged. It was a line that had been running through my head, that I had pushed aside in my desire to get the incident just right, accurate. Once I agreed to let the line into the poem, it began falling into place. Is the poem done yet? Maybe not. But it is better, clearer, more like itself.

Here are a few ways to insert additive elements to a poem:

a. add images
b. add flashbacks or flash forwards — be careful here, consider changes in verb tense a way to go back or go forward in time
c. insert an anecdote (SMALL) that is supportive of the larger story being told
d. add a line that repeats at least 3 times
e. add color, landscape, food,  or even game elements ... let it flow and look a the results; can always take out later
f. add a mysterious line that seems dystopian or utopian
g. add a quote or phrase from science, mathematics, or literature

These are just some ways a poet can be additive in her/his revision. Be creative. Settle in and let the poem reveal what it wants/needs. Worth remembering: when writing about something that happened, it is not necessary to be wholly factual. Get at the essence; the kernel of truth that lies somewhere, perhaps somewhere buried in fact. You can lie a little. Sometimes you need to lie a little.

3. Deep Revision

This can be the scariest, also the most rewarding, process of all. It requires a poet to be somewhat relentless and cold-minded. It requires a poet to be willing to change everything about the original in order to arrive at the real poem. It requires a poet to fall purposefully out of love with every part of the original, only to discover what is really wonderful.

What would happen, for instance, if the poet took the original poem apart, laid all its elements separately on the table, then reassembled (rewrote) using either reductive or additive revision strategies? Deflate or expand each element.  Every line, every phrase, every stanza.

Certainly, separating the elements will give the poet a new view of each as an independent gesture. It allows the poet to assess the strength or weakness of each and make informed decisions about revision.

The poet should consider changing the shape, format, or form of the poem. Sometimes a poem just wants to be a pantoum, a sonnet, or a poem in heroic couplets. Sometimes, it wants to be a prose poem. It is helpful not to be nailed to writing (constructing) the poem in one way.

The great thing about revision in general, deep revision in particular, is that the possibilities for great improvement abound. Be brave enough to try.

Quickie Revision Checklist:

1. Read the poem aloud until you get to point where you KNOW it deeply
2. Do not revise while writing the first draft.
3. Keep every draft until you are certain the poem is satisfied.
4. Do not title the poem until (at least) two drafts into the process.
5. Play line/element agains each other to check for repetition (the bad kind) and for confusion (always bad)
6. Check for mixed metaphors.
7. Check all verbs for activity and power. 
8. Check for a overabundance of adverbs and adjectives.
9. Try making the end (line or stanza) the beginning, the beginning (line or stanza) the end. What happens?
10. Put the poem away for a week or two (or longer) after you think it is done. It may not be.

When you are ready, send your poem to a trusted poetry reader. See what glitches she/he may find. If needed, go at it again. Remember, if you have to explain the poem to someone, you have not let the poem have its own voice. 


Revise, re-envison, re, re, re  until the poem has had its say. Listen to the poems. They will speak on their own behalves. And keep in mind, remember ... it is a PROCESS.


Sunday, April 1, 2018

Metaphor is not just for poets, although it may be the poet's life blood

Yesterday my husband forwarded me an article on metaphor which I share in a link below. It is worth reading even if you are not a writer.

I admit that I think, speak, and operate in metaphor all the time. I see this as one of my strengths.

People often say to me, oh you have such a way with words or I've not thought about ___________ quite like that.  I am speaking in a metaphorical way, choosing comparative language or substituting an image or idea to make the idea, issue more pointed, clearer, relatable.

My kids used to accuse me or inserting drama when I did this. True enough if drama means heightening the conversation or my speech with metaphor. When I would say your room is a pig sty I did not mean that literally, but even at a young age they got that pig sty was not good. Later they understood the full meaning of pig sty and knew I meant to compare directly the dirty nature of their rooms to the mucky, icky place in a barnyard.

Two gestures of metaphor:

There are two types of metaphor. Direct and Comparative: your room is a pig sty (direct) or your room is like a pig sty (comparative... aka simile). The clue here is the use (or not) of comparatives such as like, as.

We hear metaphor in our daily lives, in advertising and political speeches and even in the music we enjoy.

(Direct metaphors)

She is sunshine on a cloudy day. When it's cold outside, she is the month of May.
(from My Girl) 


(similes/comparative metaphors)

He is behaving like a bull in a china shop. 

I wandered lonely as a cloud. 
(Wordsworth)

black as night

sweet as candy

sharp as a tack

guilty as sin

These are not obscure. They may be oblique however, choosing a different path to get to a truth. Sometimes comparative metaphors end up being clichés due to overuse. Metaphor creation, therefore, can be a bit tricky.

There is another way to use a simile which is to emphasize by opposite:

clear as mud 

We all know mud is not at all clear, so we understand that these two words do not equate. That makes the argument for whatever the phrase refers to as being in fact unclear, murky, muddy.

Another way to examine metaphor in literature and in speech is to look at single words to find a controlling metaphor. 

A controlling metaphor is one that dominates (controls) an entire literary piece or is ubiquitous in a person's speech. For example, a character or a live person may refer to things in light of certain images or actions. Constant references to food for example may indicate the person sees life as a banquet. Depending on the tone of the piece or the tone of speech  that may further indicate that the person sees life as a banquet to which she/he is not invited. The use of controlling metaphor is a great way for a writer to enhance a scene or develop a character.

This literary device is frequently seen in poetry.  For poets, metaphoric diction, including controlling metaphor, is tantamount to creating intensity and deepening (expanding) meaning. 

Controlling metaphor is similar to extended metaphor, which extends over a large portion, but not all, of a literary piece. When you read the article linked below, be very careful not to confuse controlling metaphor with metaphor used to control. There is a difference.

For now, I absent myself to the kitchen where my side dish for Easter dinner is cooking like a champ. (mixed metaphor), which is a topic for another day, along with the way slang has evolved (or perhaps devolved) into or from metaphor.

Your assignment: READ the article