Possession of even a small piece of history can bring us power, whether it’s personal history or cultural history. Such possession can give us context for current situations, and a deeper understanding of motives and patterns of behavior.
I’ve been outraged to see so many people shocked at the government’s cruel treatment of children at America’s southern border. As if children have never been abused here. Please.
Children have always been the least powerful among us and they have always – in every country’s history – been subject to shameful cruelty and exploitation.
Writing poems and essays is one way I try to understand others and myself and to communicate my concerns. My poem, “Moloch upon Awakening,” recently published in the lovely Parentheses Journal, is an attempt to communicate the horror of both child sacrifice, and the very human complicity that makes it possible.
Literary journals are often looking for book reviewers, especially for folks willing to review small press and university press publications. Writing book reviews means investing hours of your time in the serious work of analyzing and evaluating another writer’s book, and if you write them for nonprofit journals, you may be donating those hours, and earning a very modest stipend.
If you’re a reader, though, the good news is that by writing reviews, you get free books. These can be hard copy book, or e-books. Either way, they are yours to keep!
But if you’re a writer, you may wonder why you should spend spend time you could devote to your own stuff on reviewing other writers’ books. The answer is simple: it will make you a better writer.
Reviewing a book requires reading a book, and we all know that reading will improve our writing. Beyond the simple reading, though, is the re-reading and analysis that forces us to focus on either theme, craft or genre strategies. I always learn something important about craft while writing a book review, and it’s usally something I can put to use in my own writing.
For example, in this review of Anna Lena Phillips Bell’s poetry collection, Ornament, I considered how this poet works with form and repetition:
In addition to rhyme and meter, palilogy shapes some of these poems. As subtle as slant rhymes, repetition of individual words resonates like the often-invisible patterns in nature and in housekeeping. The poem “Trillium,” which is set outside of the home, is particularly rich in meter, palilogy, and internal rhymes.
. . . our eyes, kept closed against branches,
opened slowly to a shimmering white,
flower sleeves that lit themselves and flared
over dark leaves. Like stars, whose light is both
a wailed call and calm response, they leapt
out from shadows as we leaned down to breathe
the barest scent of pepper from their centers
and walked among green leaf and flame-white petal,
careful that our feet did not catch fire.
The review is one of several that appear in the December selections of Tupelo Quarterly, a journal that publishes original poetry as well as reviews of poetry collections. If your chosen genre is fiction, try Necessary Fiction for reviews. And yes – reading reviews of books in your chosen genre will make you a better writer, too!
I felt that way when I began an MFA in Creative Writing program in the 1990’s. I was at a loss as to why my fellow students kept mentioning “Hugo.” It was “Hugo this” and “Hugo that.” I broke down and asked one of the professors, “Why does everyone keep talking about Victor Hugo?”
If you’re a fan of 20th century poetry, you’re probably laughing at me (good-naturedly, of course).
The other students weren’t talking about Victor Hugo, the 19th century French author of Les Miserables. They were talking about Richard Hugo, a poet, teacher and literary theorist from the Pacific Northwest. I’d never heard of him.
I had a solid background in European literature, especially Romantic and Victorian poetry, but I knew very little about poets of the twentieth century, except for poets associated with feminism, like Plath and Sexton and Rich, and a few other New England poets. Richard Hugo had not been on my radar.
Soon, I was reading his book, The Triggering Town, a collection of essays and lectures on poetry. Hugo’s overarching thesis was that rather than “writing what you know,” poets should open themselves to the unknown via triggering subjects. His approach had a spiritual element to it, as represented in the following passage:
“Your triggering subjects are those that ignite your need for words. When you are honest to your feelings, that triggering town chooses you. Your words used your way will generate your meanings. Your obsessions lead you to your vocabulary. Your way of writing locates, even creates, your inner life.The relation of you to your language gains power. The relation of you to the triggering subject weakens.”
Sadly, I was never able to enter fully into conversations about R. Hugo. I found him difficult to comprehend, but I did understand about being moved to write by an encounter with the unfamiliar, and writing about the unfamiliar by imagining yourself into that unfamiliar space.
Where I stopped following Hugo’s logic, though, was in his suggestion that the poet’s relation to the triggering subject should weaken. I was committed to the opposite: immersion.
This probably had something to do with my intense admiration of persona poems, or dramatic monologues, in which the poet takes on the identity and voice of another. Examples include “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning and “The Kid” by Ai.
Years later, when I lived in Maine, a very old woman told me the story of a black walnut tree that grew in her front yard. I was enchanted by the tree, the story, the woman, and the way she represented an archetypal Maine figure: independent, resilient, crotchety. The woman and her story were the triggers for the following poem, originally published in my poetry collection Back East.
He offered us a thousand bucks
for all — the trunk and limbs and roots —
of our black walnut. It didn’t arch
above our roof as it does now.
He wouldn’t tell us why, or how
he’d haul it out, a monstrous job
if you consider how the roots
extend their feelers underground,
mirroring the walnut’s crown.
We told him no, and when he bent
to crack a fallen nut, we warned
him of the stain. He didn’t listen.
With a skull-sized rock, he split it open. His handprint, darker than the door-
yard mud in spring, still gripped the front
porch rail the year he came again.
We watched him through the window then. He lay his hands along the trunk
as if he thought himself a healer,
and we mistrusted him more. We couldn’t
ask why he wanted what we wouldn’t
sell. We don’t meet others halfway,
or go beyond the wall out there where some glacier gave up and left us rocks.
While it lacks the line breaks associated with poetry, the prose poem maintains a poetic quality, often utilizing techniques common to poetry, such as fragmentation, compression, repetition, and rhyme. The prose poem can range in length from a few lines to several pages long, and it may explore a limitless array of styles and subjects.
Labels seem to me to have a limited use. In my 30+ years of activity in the poetry community, I’ve seen the lines between poetry and prose continue to blur. In fact, some journals now expressly solicit work that defies easy labelling. They call it hybrid work.
As a recovering formalist and fuddy-duddy, I’m okay with saying that I doubted the prose poem once myself. But one day a subject and an image seemed just right for the prose poem (I admit it) form.
This baby below was originally published in the now-defunct but engaging magazine concīs. The “bastards” in the title doesn’t refer to nasty people. It refers to the original use of the word: people born out of wedlock, like me and many of my fellow/sister adoptees. For more on the adoptee rights movement, check out Bastard Nation.
Family Trees for Bastards
1. Dead so long, you can see right through them. The branches fell first, then the crown, then the bark sloughed off like snakeskin, and the cores collapsed, leaving suggestions of strong columns spun upward in helix fashion. Below the shifting leaf litter and sand, roots entwine with limestone. What’s left has put on the pocked and scored look of karst, but a tree remains a tree.
2. Dead, but still intact, this one has some juice for chalk-white fungi spiraling around its trunk. Shelves for tree frogs, pale question marks, frilled platters for dolls.
3. Still alive, this one ripped the floor with it. New name: windthrow. Had something loosed its anchorage and prepared it to let go? A hole opens in the canopy, saplings stuck in the pole stage wake. The earth that ripped with the tree, once part of a forest floor, now named a tip-up mound.
4. Pine cone. Alone on the floor, waiting for a fire to free its seeds. So it can start over.
All over the world, poetry was originally an oral art form.When only the elite could read and write, poetry was the art form of the people. People, poets and otherwise, memorized poems and recited them. The people reciting and the people hearing the poems all experienced the pleasure of poetry: its narratives, its meter, its rhymes, its imagery. No one felt left out.
During certain periods in history, evil powers (am I exaggerating?)conspired to make poetry inaccessible to the masses.They wanted to turn poetry into an elite venture.
But over and over again, poetry fought back. In the 1990’s, for example, the poetry slam was a powerful phenomenon that brought poetry’s power back to public venues and people who didn’t have (or want) college degrees. The New Formalists pushed for a revival of rhyme and meter, two elements of poetry that create pleasure. In America in the 21st century, poetry has risen up again as a political force as writers and audiences fight back against political and social oppression.
Poetry is powerful, but it’s nothing to be afraid of.
You might have heard that all interpretations of a poem are valid. That’s not true; poems must be read with attention to their words, and they mustn’t have meanings slapped on them willy-nilly.
But all great poems are open to multiple interpretations.Complexity is an element that makes poetry powerful, and complexity results in multiple meanings.
It’s okay to have a different reaction to a poem than someone else. Here’s an example of a poem that readers often have quite opposite reactions to: “My Papa’s Waltz,” by Theodore Roethke.
The whiskey on your breath
Could make a small boy dizzy;
But I hung on like death:
Such waltzing was not easy.
We romped until the pans
Slid from the kitchen shelf;
My mother’s countenance
Could not unfrown itself.
The hand that held my wrist
Was battered on one knuckle;
At every step you missed
My right ear scraped a buckle.
You beat time on my head
With a palm caked hard by dirt,
Then waltzed me off to bed
Still clinging to your shirt.
[Could there be an invalid interpretation of this poem? Sure: It’s about a pink dinosaur roaming over mountains in search of a candy bar. The words of the poem certainly don’t bear that out.]
Back when I taught literature classes, I often chose this poem as part of the curriculum because the words of the poem do bear out two opposite interpretations. And more. Students usually argued about whether:
This is a poem about a warm and loving father-son relationship, or
This is a poem about an abusive father
Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally positive connotations: Dizzy, waltzing, romped.
Consider the words in the poem that have traditionally negative connotations: Scraped, battered, death.
Then there are words that can be taken positively or negatively, depending on the reader’s context: Whiskey, unfrowned, dirt, clinging.
Sometimes, a poem can tell you something about yourself. Sometimes, it can tell you something about an “other.” Sometimes, it even widens your understanding of the human condition.
In my classes, students batted this poem back and forth. It was a great delight to me when they concluded, as a group, that a relationship could be both violent and tender, that the father could be a hard-working mechanic who stopped off for a quick drink on his way home before romping with his kid, and a habitual, unkempt drunk whose unpredictable ways were frightening to a child.
Human beings are usually not one thing or another, wholly evil or wholly good.Complexity.Poetry can sing about that to us.All we have to do is pay attention to the words.
Weather has been a rich subject for poets across all boundaries. No matter our country, continent, time, or season, we all experience weather in very intimate ways. If we commute, the rain or snow can tangle up our days; if we garden, the sun and rain can feed us; if we take our leisure time outdoors, the weather can delight us — or make us miserable.
No matter how old and cranky I get, I remain a fan of the British Romantic poets. Ode to the West Wind by Percy Bysshe Shelley is, I admit it, a little adolescent (“A heavy weight of hours has chained and bowed / One too like thee: tameless, and swift, and proud.”), but it still thrills me.
Who has seen the wind?
Neither I nor you.
But when the leaves hang trembling,
The wind is passing through.
Who has seen the wind? Neither you nor I. But when the trees bow down their heads, The wind is passing by.
More modern poems about weather include Snow by Naomi Shihab Nye and Flood by Eliza Griswold.
Not surprisingly, poems “about” weather, whether old or new, are often about something else, too. Poets are devious.
Here’s one of my poems “about” weather, in this case, Hurricane Matthew, which raked the Southeast coast of America in 2016. It was originally published in Tuck Magazine, and picked up by a reporter for a regional South Carolina magazine who wrote an article about it, including an audio recording of the poem.
T.S. Eliot (why do I keep bringing him up when I claim to resent him?) is credited with saying “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” Of course, it’s plain wrong to plagiarize, and Eliot’s statement shouldn’t be taken as a license to lie. In fact, if we practice good research habits and read the statement in context, it becomes clear exactly what he meant by “steal.”
One of the surest of tests [of excellence] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
Modernists like Eliot and Pound were not the first to grapple with the distinctions between imitation and theft. Generations of poets have been influenced and inspired by their forebears.
The literary critic Harold Bloom devoted an entire book to what he called “The Anxiety of Influence,” arguing that all literature is a response to the work that preceded it. The book, published in 1973, was the literary equivalent of the Biblical dictum, “There is nothing new under the sun.”
What creative person wouldn’t become anxious at the idea there is no possibility of creating anything wholly new?
Maybe mature creative persons don’t become anxious. Readers of poetry may come across epigraphs that openly acknowledge the influence of other artists. Those epigraphs are usually framed as “After Jane Doe.” Or, sometimes the title of the poem tells us who the poet is imitating, as in “After Horace” by Carolyn Kizer.
Here’s an attempt of mine to “make it new,” originally published in Mezzo Cammin. It’s an imitation — or theft — of a poem by Louise Bogan titled “The Changed Woman,” which got me thinking about how not changing can be a way to accomplish change.
The Unchanged Woman
— after “The Changed Woman” by Louise Bogan
Again she bears what she once bore,
And not because she has forgotten
The weight. Asleep, she opens the door
To peace: a single chair, pale cotton
Shift, empty pages. No fuss.
Awake, the garden reminds her of
Her choices: dahlias, hibiscus
Weighed down by honeybees’ love,
The way some women bend below
Their children’s weight. Not her. She dead-
Heads blossoms past their first hello
And brushes past the bees that spread
Their busy legs and baskets, winnowing
Out pollen she doesn’t wish to capture.
Her burden isn’t in the finishing,
Or mundane seeds that once were rapture.
Some of us fight aging. Some of us embrace it. Whichever approach is yours, though, aging beats the alternative. In the immortal words of someone.
People in my family die young. Maybe that’s why I’ve always wanted to be old. Or maybe it’s because I’d hoped to be old and wise, to stop making the same foolish mistakes over and over again.
That hasn’t happened yet, but aging has made me lazier, meaning that I now have no energy at all to boss other people around about how to spend their days. It’s all I can do to manage my own days.
One of my favorite poems that examines aging is “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot, even though I harbor great resentment against Eliot for his efforts to turn poetry into an elitist art form.
W.B. Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old” is about aging, but it’s also a love poem, sort of. “Warning” by British poet Jenny Joseph starts with the famous, exuberant line, “When I am an old woman I shall wear purple.”
The poem below, originally published in Poet Lore, is not particularly exuberant.
When It Descends
Winter, tell me how my body
makes changes without me. You know.
Your beautyberry is gone again, eaten by cardinals.
The nights grow longer and call me to their altars:
bedsheets I stroke like a lover’s skin,
bedside table piled with books, breeding
beside a cup of ginger tea.
I pray for sleep, and when it descends,
my two husbands trade places in my dreams,
as if they’re only stand-ins
for limitation, when I know they were more.
Tell me how my body changes without me,
and I’ll tell you how I learned
to speak a loving thought out loud.
If only I’d stopped right there.
It sounds so boorish, so self-aggrandizing, but some psychologists (and novelists) say we all do it. Carl Jung, who wrote exhaustively about the function of myth in the human psyche, generated a host of followers who expanded this idea.
The arts can be one way to access or untangle our personal mythologies — the tales we tell ourselves, the stories that help us make sense of chaos and then survive through difficult times, the ones that also, sadly, encourage us to make the same mistakes over and over again.
Writers including Diane Wakowski have written treatises on using the personal mythology in creative endeavors, and poets including Albert Goldbarth have written poems titled “Personal Mythologies.”
A little introspection can help us see at least an outline of our personal myths. The story patterns will sound familiar: the rags-to-riches waif, the loyal but jilted lover, the abandoned child, the powerful but tender man.
Our lives can resonate with more than one myth. I see myself as the abandoned child, but I also see myself as the survivor.
Some poets use astrology or tarot to locate their personal myths. Others use literature or film, or meditation, or hypnosis.
Here’s a poem where I critique some of my personal mythologies — in the context of a fungal disease. Occasionally, I get quite tired of those old myths of mine. The poem was originally published in Mezzo Cammin.
Effective measures don’t exist to treat
this malady attacking hardwood trees.
Prevention by avoiding injuries
can minimize the harm, but not defeat
the possibility. Twice this week
a fallen tree has blocked my way. The first
one shocked a city street, the second burst
in view more secretly beside a creek,
and cut across my path’s trajectory.
My mind suggests these trees are messages
for me; here come the hackneyed images
that feed my personal mythology:
abusers, festering with wrongs they did
to me, and still my memories forbid
free passage. Such is metaphor’s temptation.
I learn that healthy trees wall off decay
in tissues injured on the wounding day,
and grow around the rot, and rarely will
uninjured wood fall prey to fungi. Still,
it’s hard to see which limbs were scraped or mauled,
and harder still to tell which heart holds walled-
off rot behind some calloused acclimation.