Weekly Poem Project

Weekly Poem Project: the ballad, at last

When I went on sabbatical a year ago last May, one goal I had was to write a poem each week, adopting a different form of poetry each week. As the weeks and months went by, I had fun writing lots of different kinds of poems– limericks and double dactyls and haikus to begin with, then sonnets, and so on. One form I tried and failed many times to write was one of the simplest: the ballad. Stock-in-trade of plangent singer-songwriters everywhere, I just couldn’t write one that didn’t sound trite or stupid. Funny ones, sure. But serious ones? Seriously.

My difficulty with this form made me gain measures upon measures of respect for all those songwriters. Sure, some really dumb ballad lyrics were helped along and probably carried by great melodies, a chunky guitar riff, or even some crazy funky drumming, but the words remain.

And then, there are the poets who specialized in the ballad. I’d already learned to admire these poets, but my experience trying to write this form– stanzas of four lines each, alternating lines of iambic tetrameter and rhymed iambic trimeter– made me realize that this form, so easy to write, is one of the hardest to write well. My cap’s off to you, Emily Dickinson, who wrote over a thousand of these suckers, each one seemingly more simple yet more profound than the last. Here’s one that gets at the heart of the matter:

I dwell in Possibility –
A fairer House than Prose –
More numerous of Windows –
Superior – for Doors –

Of Chambers as the Cedars –
Impregnable of eye –
And for an everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky –

Of Visitors – the fairest –
For Occupation – This –
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise –

I just couldn’t put the Weekly Poem Project to bed without writing a ballad. It just didn’t seem like I’d finished the project without having written one. This weekend, a line finally came to me, and I put a poem together. It is workmanlike at best, and maybe ends up benefiting from not taking itself too seriously, but it seems to fit the subject. The subject is my dog, Lucy.

She is totally unremarkable in every way, and is actually one of the dumbest animals I have ever known. However, I am very attached to her. And I will say– she does her job, which is basically to bark loudly at people who don’t belong in our house, and to remind me that life, in the end, is really just about eating, sleeping, and getting some attention. Many possibilities, I’ve discovered, dwell here.


My dog is not loyal, or wise.
She pricks her ears up smart
If there should be a beefsteak near.
In this, there is no art.

She eschews begging, not because
To do so would be crass.
It just never occurred to her
To send a hint, or ask.

She enjoys a rub behind the ears,
A walk is always nice.
Baths, she’s willing to tolerate.
She’s somewhat afraid of mice.

On questions of philosophy
She’s troubled not one bit.
This is why she gives me joy.
I count on her for this.

Weekly Poem Project

A New York poem for a New York Sunday

Two posts in one day– only the second time I’ve done that, I think!

No sightseeing or gallivanting about for me in New York today, even though it was Sunday. I had to do a lot of work. Writing, reading, organizing all the photos and notes I took yesterday, and bummed about the rain this morning and the sticky heat this afternoon. Sigh.

At about three I decided to take a break and walked over to Brooklyn Bridge Park, just 3 blocks away from where I’m staying. It was really lovely, restorative even: the Manhattan skyline across the East River, planted firmly against the blue sky and clouds, the Brooklyn Bridge soaring above my head, straddling these two islands. Happy people everywhere, playing in the kiddie fountain, eating ice cream, playing basketball, just laying on the grass freshened by the morning’s rain.

When I got back to my cheerless dorm room, grumpy about having to get back to work, I checked my Facebook feed one last time. There I was delighted to discover a poem by Sharon Olds that had been posted by the Society for the Study of American Women Writers. It struck a chord with me for reasons that will be obvious once you read it. On this longest day of the year, I hope it reaches you as it reached me.

Summer Solstice, New York City

By the end of the longest day of the year he could not stand it,
he went up the iron stairs through the roof of the building
and over the soft, tarry surface
to the edge, put one leg over the complex green tin cornice
and said if they came a step closer that was it.
Then the huge machinery of the earth began to work for his life,
the cops came in their suits blue-grey as the sky on a cloudy evening,
and one put on a bullet-proof vest, a
black shell around his own life,
life of his children’s father, in case
the man was armed, and one, slung with a
rope like the sign of his bounden duty,
came up out of a hole in the top of the neighboring building
like the gold hole they say is in the top of the head,
and began to lurk toward the man who wanted to die.
The tallest cop approached him directly,
softly, slowly, talking to him, talking, talking,
while the man’s leg hung over the lip of the next world
and the crowd gathered in the street, silent, and the
hairy net with its implacable grid was
unfolded near the curb and spread out and
stretched as the sheet is prepared to receive a birth.
Then they all came a little closer
where he squatted next to his death, his shirt
glowing its milky glow like something
growing in a dish at night in the dark in a lab and then
everything stopped
as his body jerked and he
stepped down from the parapet and went toward them
and they closed on him, I thought they were going to
beat him up, as a mother whose child has been
lost will scream at the child when its found, they
took him by the arms and held him up and
leaned him against the wall of the chimney and the
tall cop lit a cigarette
in his own mouth, and gave it to him, and
then they all lit cigarettes, and the
red, glowing ends burned like the
tiny campfires we lit at night
back at the beginning of the world.

–Sharon Olds, Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)

Weekly Poem Project

Weekly Poem Project: listening, and the listeners

I’ve heard so much about Evie Shockley. “She’s amazing,” one of my colleagues recently gushed. I’d never read any of her poems– or read any of her scholarly work about poetics and African American poetry. So when I saw that she was receiving the Stephen Henderson Award for “outstanding achievement in poetry” from the African American Lit and Culture Society, and that she would be giving a reading at the American Literature Association conference I’m attending this week in Boston, I was excited to see her.

I like going to poetry readings where I haven’t read the poems in print, because it makes me really listen to the poems and think about how their sound, as much as line breaks or stanza spaces, shapes the way they should be understood. And I really love how Evie Shockley’s poems sound.

At the same time that she conveys a strong voice, a sense of self, through her language, the words she chooses take on a shape and personality of their own, jostling against and sometimes dancing with one another through pun, internal rhyme, echoes, snippets of music (sometimes actually sung), and onomatopoeic pops, drumbeats, whispers, and moans. These sounds evoked spontaneous and sometimes incongruous laughter from all of us in the audience, as well as murmurs of assent and gasps of surprise. Take, for example,  this excerpt from her “fare-well letters” (which she read in their entirety last night):

dear ink jet,

          black fast. greasy lightning.
won’t smear. won’t rub off.
          defense: a visual screen: ask
an octopus (bioaquadooloop).
          footprints faster than a speed-
ing bully, tracking dirt all
          over the page. make every
word count. one. two. iamb.
          octoroon. half-breed. mutt.
mulatto. why are there so few
          hybrids on the road? because
they can’t reproduce. trochee
          choking okay mocha. ebony,
by contrast, says so much.

The Poetry Foundation (poets.org), from which I lifted that excerpt, aptly describes her poetry as being, among other things, “sentimental without being saccharine.” Some of her poetry indulges in the sort of black-mother-love and the close-to-discipleship of figures like W. E. B. DuBois that is so familiar to people who study African American literature and poetry. But somehow it avoids being trite. I think this is, in part, because Shockley carefully uses poetic form to give her ideas a kind of spine, a firmness that keeps her ideas from collapsing into a mush of feelings, associations, or emotions.

Last night she read sonnets and other forms of metrical verse, as well as visually structured poems. I loved her three-sonnet cycle “The Ballad of Anita Hill,” though I could not “hear” the sonnet form when she actually read it out loud. Now that I read the words, it’s clear that Shockley uses straight-up English sonnet form, but disguises it aurally through enjambment (breaking lines in the middle of a phrase, rather than having them coincide with natural pauses, commas, periods).

She also read poems that one would think could not be read out loud. One of them took a form I’d never heard of before: the mesostic, apparently invented by the avant-garde composer John Cage, it works like an acrostic, where the letters that begin each line of the poem themselves create a word or phrase when read from top to bottom, but instead, as the prefix “meso” indicates, the letters you string together appear in the middle of each line. Here’s the one she read:

doroThy dandridge
yellow maRy peazant
hAlle berry
helGa crane
marIah carey
Clare kendry

maMa day
lAni guinier
zora neale huRston
anIta hill
ntozAke shange
aliCe walker

saartjie bArtman

sallY hemings
nOla darling
maya angeloU
harRiet jacobs

joSephine backer
janEt jackson
margaret gaRner
Vanessa williams
desiree washIngton
sappho Clark

Now that I actually see the poem “on the page,” as it were, I wonder if it’s as effective as it was when she read it out loud. She explained what the form was before reading it, but did not reveal the mesostic message running down the middle of the lines until she had read all those names. By withholding the connecting theme of the poem, we listeners had to struggle to find the connections between these names– they are all black women, some historical, some fictional– and there was an audible gasp when Shockley “finished” the poem by stating what should have seemed obvious: that they were all “tragic matriarchs at your service.”

The poem that I both found most powerful and most troubling as a poem–funny how those things go together–was one that I believe has not yet been published. In her remarks preceding her reading of the poem, Shockley said that she started thinking about it when Michael Brown was shot by police in Ferguson, Missouri, and then “reached backwards and forwards” to include all the young black men killed by police and other white authority figures: Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Emmett Till, Freddie Gray– to name just a few. Her poem is a kind of meditation on the seeming dispensability of the lives of young black men in America; she ruminates about how many “black boys” it takes to do various things: how many is too many? how many not enough? The phrase “black boys” is repeated in every line, filling the poem with boys, boys boys. Boys that are so numerous that they lose any sense of individuality or value. Finally, the poem ends with a sort of motherly admonition, which Shockley conveyed with a sort of vocal shrug, by ending with an upward inflection: “Black boys don’t grow on trees.” You know this; we all know this; but we waste them anyway.

This last line was a punch in the gut– an indication of both the poem’s power, and what troubled me about it. The reference to the “strange fruit” of lynching, tossed off in the form of a dead metaphor, emphasizes through irony the lip service we pay to the preciousness of life, especially the lives of young black men. But I think it also comes across as a bit flip. Is irony really how we want to address the actual disregard many people have toward black lives?

As I thought about this, it struck me that the reading had been very noisy. Not the audience– though occasionally chuckling, laughing, gasping, applauding, the audience as a whole had been attentively hushed for the most part. But I suddenly realized that starting a few minutes into the reading, the bar staff at the back of the room was making a lot of noise. Clinking glasses, crashing bottles. They tore boxes and crushed down piles of plastic plates and cups in trash cans. They kept opening and closing doors, hauling trays and dollies and racks of glasses and bottles and cans in and out of the hotel ballroom.

Initially I thought they were just cleaning up after the open bar that had preceded the reading, where conference attendants (most of them, being college professors and grad students, just slightly more credentialed versions of hungry, opportunistic college students) had joyfully descended to partake in indifferent wine and bottled beer. Although I found the bar staff’s noisy industry incredibly rude, like everyone else, I just tried to tune them out.

But at the end of this particular poem, I realized that there was an edge to this noise. In fact, it seemed that the bartender– a plump, balding man with an unkempt red beard– was making most of the noise himself.

After the reading was over, they announced that the bar would be open for 5 more minutes and so I thought I (like the rest of my kind, not about to refuse a free drink) would get one more beer. As I approached the bar, I saw a middle-aged African American professor ask, with a smile, for a whiskey. The bartender glared at him, threw a couple of ice cubes in a glass, sloshed a slug of whiskey into it, and slammed it onto the top of the bar so hard that at least a third of the whiskey splashed over the sides. When it was my turn, he gave me the same glare. He savagely wrenched the cap of the beer bottle off and slammed that on the counter too. When I thanked him, he rolled his eyes, and muttered something through his teeth. I couldn’t understand what he said– all I could hear was a heavy Boston accent.

The guy was pissed. Furious.

And I realized, he’d been listening to Evie Shockley just like the rest of us. But his response was so different. To us, she’d said, “Oh, it’s so nice not to have to explain who Anita Hill is.” She’d repeated, several times, that she hoped her poems, including the “fare-well letters” excerpted above, wouldn’t “try our patience.” It was clear that when she said these things, she was not speaking to the bartender, but to the slightly more credentialed people sitting in the chairs arranged in neat rows in front of the podium at which she spoke.

She knew who she was speaking to, but was she hearing who was listening? Was her seeming obliviousness to the bartender a cool, cultivated response to the untold instances where service workers, servants, and slaves remain unrecognized as listeners, despite their presence, which is not just expected, but demanded? Or had she done the same thing that various men–white and black alike–had done to their “tragic matriarchal servants”?

I wonder. I suppose, now, that I am also asking.

Weekly Poem Project

Weekly poem project: aubade

“Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.” Henry David Thoreau famously declared this sentiment in his treatise on the purpose of life, Walden (1854).

After tussling with his crotchety observations about materialism, social climbing, and bad architecture in the “Economy” chapter of Walden, my students read these words with exuberant relief. How could these words fail to inspire? Thoreau makes the dawn a leitmotif in Walden, evoking it not just here, but in the epigraph (“I do not propose to write an ode to dejection, but to brag as lustily as Chanticleer in the morning, standing on his roost, if only to wake my neighbors up”) and in the final paragraph (“The sun is but a morning star”). Thoreau, the rooster, calls us to the dawn, calls us to recognize the possibilities of life.

Perhaps this is why there is a whole genre of poetry devoted to the dawn. They are called aubades. Early on, the aubade often depicted that most poignant (or perhaps embarrassing) of moments, the parting of lovers at dawn, as in John Donne’s “The Sun Rising,” from the early 17th century:

Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
Why dost thou thus,
Through windows, and through curtains, call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers’ seasons run?
Saucy pedantic wretch, go chide
Late schoolboys, and sour ’prentices,
Go tell court-huntsmen that the king will ride,
Call country ants to harvest offices,
Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime,
Nor hours, days, months, which are the rags of time.

Thy beams, so reverend and strong
Why shouldst thou think?
I could eclipse and cloud them with a wink,
But that I would not lose her sight so long:
If her eyes have not blinded thine,
Look, and tomorrow late, tell me
Whether both th’Indias of spice and mine
Be where thou leftst them, or lie here with me.
Ask for those kings whom thou saw’st yesterday,
And thou shalt hear: “All here in one bed lay.”

She is all states, and all princes I,
Nothing else is.
Princes do but play us; compar’d to this,
All honour’s mimic, all wealth alchemy.
Thou, sun, art half as happy as we,
In that the world’s contracted thus;
Thine age asks ease, and since thy duties be
To warm the world, that’s done in warming us.
Shine here to us, and thou art everywhere;
This bed thy centre is, these walls, thy sphere.

What I love about this poem is that Donne takes a specific moment in the day–the dawn– and transforms it into a continuous state. On the one hand he compresses the love of the couple into a single moment, “contracted thus,” yet at the same time makes that moment represent all time, since “Love, all alike, no season knows, nor clime.” A classic Donne-ian paradox. It’s a fleeting moment, but one that we wish could characterize all of our consciousness–the moment when one is awake is when there is a dawn in one. It’s also a moment of parting, leaving behind sleep and dreams, possibly even a lover.

Another way of viewing the dawn, of course, is that it’s the moment when one has to face reality. The aubade usually doesn’t do more than hint at this darker view of sunrise, but in doing the research for this post I was really struck by this “anti-aubade” by Philip Larkin, first published in 1977. It probably is the only kind of aubade he was capable of writing.


I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.

And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.

Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

There might be a specific name for the stanza structure Larkin uses here (if you know, please clue me in!), but I see the poem as a modified sonnet sequence, where each stanza is made up of 10 lines that are divided into 4, 2, and then 4– rhyming abab (like an English sonnet), then a rhymed couplet (like the final couplet of an English sonnet), and then a quatrain rhyming abba (like an Italian sonnet).

Totally equivocal, indecisive, using the rhymed couplet in the middle of the stanza like a fulcrum, the poem teeters at the moment of the dawn, horrified by the sight of “The sky … white as clay, with no sun,” caught between darkness and light, between life and death (or between the anaesthesia of sleep and the living death of office life and postmen), between what is and what will never be, between “here” and “everywhere.”

This poem explains why so many people would rather sleep in than face the day.

I guess I’ve been thinking about the aubade as the days finally are getting longer after a long, snowy winter. Everyone here in Baltimore seems to be emerging from hibernation. Trees are leafing out, the bulbs have burst into bloom. It’s suddenly spring.

Which means it’s also time for baseball. I am not a lifelong fan, and so the beginning of the baseball season calls up a weird mix of emotions that still feel new. On the one hand, opening day heralds summer, sunshine and cold beer. On the other hand, I also steel myself. 162 games, played nearly every day for six months, is a long (some would say interminable) haul. Baseball is a commitment. Like the dawn, the beginning of baseball season is full of promise, but also reminds us, as Larkin writes, that “Most things will never happen.” Last year the Orioles had a fantastic season, then finally got swept by the formerly lowly Royals in the ALCS … one stop shy of the World Series. I think that was our big chance. But there’s always hope. Here’s my attempt to express all that.

Opening Day

Ah yes, the dawn. Beat your chest
and yawp, barbarically–
how trite.

Why not just lay back on your couch
or hammock, if you like–
and tune

Your radio to the home opener,
static like bees’ buzz.
First pitch

Cracks out high into cloudless sky:
and then, drops over
the wall

Out of sight, a harbinger
Of the opposite

Header image “Baltimore at sunrise” by Addison Berry, 2010.

doing, research, Weekly Poem Project

Weekly Poem Project: sestina

Tough week? Try winding down by writing a sestina. I’m only half-kidding.

I had a terrible week last week, trying to revise chapter 2 of How the Other Half Laughs. The problem is that I’m trying to kill two birds with one stone. Bird #1 is to revise the chapter so that it fits with the book. Bird #2 is to revise it so that it addresses the comments of reviewers at a journal where I’m trying to get the thing published. I think I realized after weeks of trying to wrangle the thing into a coherent form that the two goals are incompatible. I mean, hitting two birds with a single stone is pretty hard to do!


Why bother with #2? Well, I think in order to get a raise next year I need to get something from the book published in a journal. And if the book doesn’t find a publisher, then I’ll need the journal publications in order to apply for promotion to full professor. (This promotion comes with a ~$10k raise, so it’s nothing to sneeze at, especially since literature professors tend to max out at a little over $100k. Needless to say, I have not yet “maxed out.”)

You won’t be surprised to learn that I ended up playing a horrible game of Twister with myself, trying to cover too many dots in incompatible directions.

TwisterOn Friday, I decided to just blow up everything I had and take a few days (i.e., the weekend!) as a breather, and to come back to it and see if I could approach things with a clearer head.

Maybe it’s because I had spent the whole week torturing myself, but for some reason I thought it would be a great idea to spend my weekend relaxing by writing … a sestina. If you don’t know what a sestina is, it’s famously complex. It’s probably the most complex form that I will try to attempt during my year of writing a poem every week (sort of). There are more intricate forms– the chant royal, for instance–but this is about as difficult as I’ll get here. It’s so complicated that I can’t remember how it works– I have to refer to a chart.

Ironically, however, I found writing a sestina surprisingly easy. Maybe it’s just easier than trying to do the impossible task I set out for myself with my one-stone-two-birds revision. (Note to self: learn from this.) Or, it may have just been such a relief to have someone provide a rigid structure for my words that no matter how complicated it was, it was more enjoyable than having to make so many choices between amorphous, overlapping, and contradictory options, as I’d been doing with my chapter revision.

My poem took 2 days to write, over a few sessions of less than 15 min. each. I was very surprised. I won’t make any promises about its quality, but I think it at least makes sense. One thing I’ve learned in reading a bunch of sestinas in preparation for writing this post is that many poets, even well-known ones like Elizabeth Bishop and John Ashbery, write poems verging on nonsense in order to get them to fit the rules of the form. I tried really hard not to resort to the fantastical in mine.

So, now that I’ve whetted your appetite, here’s what a sestina is. Basically, it’s 39 lines: 6 stanzas of 6 lines each, and a final, 3-line stanza called the envoi. The poem doesn’t have a strict meter or rhyme, but rather is governed by an intricate pattern of repetition, where the last words in each line rotate in position from stanza to stanza. Let’s say you have the first stanza, which has lines ending with the words A, B, C, D, E, F. Then in subsequent stanzas, you end each line with the same words, but in a different order, as follows:


If you look closely (or if you’re just really anal), you can see that the rotation follows a specific pattern. First of all, the last word in each stanza becomes the word ending the first line of the next stanza, and the second line of that stanza ends with the word that ended the first line of the previous stanza. The rest of the words are determined by basically matching the words of the previous stanza in pairs, where lines 1, 3, and 5 end with the words ending lines 6, 5, and 4 of the previous stanza, and lines 2, 4, and 6 end with the words that ended lines 1, 2, and 3 of the previous stanza.

Head spinning yet? I found this diagram quite useful in figuring out how the end-words moved from stanza to stanza:

sestinaAnd then in the final 3-line envoi, all six words are used, 2 in each line, in an order I can’t remember but you can find on the poem’s Wikipedia page ;-).

Even though the rules of the form are impossible to remember, I think you’ll see (or hear) that the poem does have a sort of trancelike, circular quality. Your body feels the pattern of repetitions, even if it can’t quite put a finger on how it works. I really like how the lines in each stanza are both reversed and followed in order in the next stanza– for some reason the pattern reminds me of the blooming of a flower, moving from inside out.

It is a meditative form, like the pantoum (which I attempted here) and the villanelle (which I have yet to try). (Or it may simply may show up the repetitiveness of human expression, as this amusing sendup of the art exhibition rejection slip shows.) But the richness of variation prevents the form from seeming repetitive, the way a villanelle can.

Arnault Daniel (supposedly)
Arnault Daniel (supposedly)

So who came up with this thing, which for poets represents a torture chamber and brass ring alike? It’s attributed to a 12th-century French troubadour named Arnaud Daniel, who is praised by Dante, Petrarch, Pound, and Longfellow–though Dante did sentence him to Purgatory in his Divine Comedy. (Here’s a side-by-side translation of one of Daniel’s sestinas, if you’re curious.)

Upon reflection, I think I thought about writing a sestina because the process seemed so much like the process of revision: an endless permutation of words in different combinations, looking to see how things might fit. It also seemed a lot like practice, which I’ve also done a ton of as a musician, a tennis player, a writer, a knitter, a baker, and … yes, as an aspiring ballet dancer.

Unfortunately, I was a bit too plump and short to make it in ballet, but I loved those Saturday mornings in ballet class when I was young. Here’s the poem:


Plié; rélevé. Hand resting gently on the barre.
A novice can blithely enjoy such
Quiet, dust motes rising in sun.
Regular practice makes muscles go.
Practice hones movement, the body a clock.
Turns muscle contractions into art’s touch.

Fingers clasp a pen, or touch
Keys; the hand rests on the barre.
An anchor, firm, like the tick of the clock,
Controlling the flow of words, such
Unruly figures, which wantonly go
Darting into corners, away from the sun.

It shines through the windows, early spring sun,
Uncomplicated; one wants to touch
The warm light on the wall, to freely go
Off to the horizon, that faraway bar
Of sand on the bank, one wants to drift to such
Distance. Ticking, the clock

Reminds us of the task at hand. The clock,
More reliable, steady, than the unfaithful sun,
Warmth, yes, but on cloudy days, such
Confusion. Better to simply touch
The button, “Set alarm”; touch the bar,
“Snooze”; one knows how far, today, to go.

But no one knows how far an idea might go.
There is no way to set the clock
For completion, one would never want to bar
The light that breaks through storm clouds, sun
Emerging, warmth released with a touch.
Practice rooms have no windows. Such

Restriction; schedules; practice; such
Discipline required to make one go.
Write and rewrite, touch and retouch
A thing until it makes you sick, the clock
Reminding you of all the cycles of the sun
You’ve wasted, gone, and on the wooden barre

Your fingers so calm, such faith in the clock
Dividing the time left to go; still, the sun
Too far away to touch; so high, the bar.

I had a lot of fun writing this poem. In case you’re curious, the way I did it was by thinking of the six words that I wanted to incorporate as line-endings, and then writing the envoi first. I incorporated some rhyming words, just to see what would happen when they cycled through the proscribed pattern.

Throughout, I was reminded by something that my chamber ensemble coach and flute teacher at Loyola, David Lavorgna, has said about practice: that you basically just want to try out all possibilities and figure out, through doing, what ends up expressing what you want to express. He suggested to me once that I should just try all the possible combinations of slurring, tonguing, or tonguing in duples or triplets or whatever, to see how a phrase should be. And trying all kinds of different tempos. And different dynamics. Without trying, how do you know?

I also was reminded of a book I use in teaching my Understanding Literature course, The Art of Poetry, by Shira Wolosky. I love this book. It actually taught me how to understand the “art of poetry.” One of the things that Dr. Wolosky says in one of her chapters– on sonnets, I believe– is that people like Wordsworth and Keats turned to tradtional forms because they learned that “creativity is generated by restrictions.” The rules actually force us to reach outside the little gray cubicles of our lives and express something new. I definitely felt this as I tried to write something that made sense given the seemingly arbitrary rules of the sestina form.

That said, I also learned that this is a poem that celebrates repetition and the desire for organic/free expression against a rigid, algorithmic form. It’s a poem that demands discipline, and perhaps because of that, makes one yearn to escape it. Yet it also makes one appreciate repetition and discipline, too. If you’re interested in reading more, the Academy of American Poets has a great definition and discussion with lots of links. And McSweeney’s has a lot of good contemporary examples.

Weekly Poem Project

Weekly poem project: the clerihew

Is the term “light verse” a polite euphemism for “bad poetry”? I am starting to think so. Take, for example, the clerihew.

Brett Maxwell, a recent acquaintance whom I’m a bit afraid I’m going to offend here, suggested that I take on the clerihew as part of my Weekly Poem Project (if you’re new to the blog, you can read a description of the project here, though I haven’t been posting even close to weekly of late). After all the trouble I had with heroic couplets, and the fact that I’m wrestling mightily right now with a chapter of my book, I thought that writing a clerihew might be a nice little break. It’s short, easy, and silly. What could be better?

Well, maybe something good. And I’m not sure if it’s possible for a clerihew to actually be a good poem. Which I suppose is part of its point. But reading (and writing) clerihews reminds me a lot of watching the Ricky Gervais series Extras, which for me involved lots of cringing, and lots of wondering who actually finds cringing fun. (Here’s a good scene involving the very good-looking Orlando Bloom.) Even more so than the original The Office, which definitely makes one squirm in delicious discomfort.

So what’s a clerihew? It’s named after an Edmund Clerihew Bentley, who invented the poem in the 1890s when he was a bored teenager in science class and then continued to write them for the rest of his life. (Meager sustenance!) They are biographical poems, much like the double-dactyl, which I profiled early on in the Weekly Poem Project. The rules for a clerihew, however, are much simpler than the double dactyl. They are as follows:

  1. The clerihew has four lines.
  2. They rhyme AABB (i.e., the poem is two couplets–possibly but probably not of the heroic sort).
  3. The first line contains a person’s name; the name should end the line (so you have to rhyme with the person’s name).
  4. The poem is supposed to be comical, and can distort meter, incorporate non-sequiturs, improbable or forced rhymes, or burlesque the subject of the poem for humorous effect.

The problem with these rules is that I think because you’ve got rhymed couplets, which are already hard to write without sounding pretentious (or ploddingly dim, or both), and then you’re supposed to violate meter, stretch comparisons, or incorporate other elements of “bad poetry,” you pretty much end up having to write bad poetry in order to write a clerihew at all. This is what I discovered when I tried to write some clerihews. They aren’t hard to write. But they are really bad. Here’s one:

Mahatma Gandhi
Liked his beaches sandy.
When summer is breezy
Peace always comes easy.

And how about this:

Johannes Sebastian Bach
Wrote music against the clock.
That’s why so many compositions
Really did come to full fruition.

It struck me that it was easier to write clerihews for longer names than shorter ones, just because you have a bit more real estate to work with, which makes rhyming easier. So I tried something short– my own name, which has only 3 syllables (and which only has that many syllables because I took my husband’s last name when we got married, tacking it onto the two one-syllable names I’d been given). But this wasn’t too hard, either:

Jean Lee Cole
Has no soul.
Brain, maybe less.
How much, she’ll let you guess.

To give props to Brett, he actually challenged me to write a clerihew by writing one based on his own name, to wit:

You won’t find Brett Maxwell
Eating a Snackwell
Instead I get fat
On pain au chocolate

Now that I am a seasoned practitioner, I will say that I think that’s a pretty darned good clerihew, as far as they go. Even W. H. Auden wrote terrible clerihews. And he wrote a whole book of them! (I guess he got a big advance? Ha! Just kidding!) I think Auden must have known they were terrible, since he titled his book American Graffiti. But he still published them, so he must not have been too ashamed. Here are two of his:

Lord Byron
Once succumbed to a Siren:
His flesh was weak,
Hers Greek.

When Karl Marx
Found the phrase ‘financial sharks,’
He sang a Te Deum
In the British Museum.

<groan> <cringe>

The clerihew, of course, has its defenders. One of them wrote– in a blog sponsored by the Kenyon Review, no less, that “something in the clerihew’s collision of loud rhyme and pith and fanciful biography draws many of us back to it.” Well, that may be true for “many of us,” but for most of us I think that what draws us back to it is that it’s pretty easy to do, and doing things that are easy can be satisfying. It’s like taking out the trash– it’s a little chore that satisfies when, and because, it’s done with. I did something productive with my day. Still, I think that if chores must be done, I’d rather water the flowers than take out the trash. And for my money, the grook, another short, simple, and humorous form of verse, is a lot more satisfying, though it is much harder to write a good one (I discuss the grook at the end of this post, and my friend Melissa Girard expounded eloquently on their virtues here).

But I must admit that now that I’ve got the hang of it, I’m having a hard time turning off the spigot. In case you’re still reading, here are a few more. These two are literary:

Jane Austen
Loved Boston.
OK, I’m probably lying.
But I’m pretty sure she was afraid of flying.

Walt Whitman
Hired a hitman
To settle all the rising feuds
Between his contained multitudes.

One could go on ad nauseam. Oh wait. I think I already have.

Weekly Poem Project

Weekly poem project: heroic couplets

I said early this year that I wanted to try a poem in heroic couplets. I’ve been meaning to get to it for weeks, but I’ve been doing a lot of writing on my book (I finished a draft of a chapter last week– that means I’m four down, 2–maybe 3– to go!) and so I just haven’t had the mental space or time.

While I haven’t gotten around to writing a poem myself, I wanted to share one with you. In fact, it was reading this poem, “Madonna and Child,” by Rafael Campo, that inspired me to try writing a poem in heroic couplets. Which I will do eventually. I promise.

Like the sonnet, heroic couplets are a poetic form that anyone who has completed high school should know: rhymed pairs of iambic pentameter. I’ve always thought poems written in heroic couplets are, in a word, BORING. Alexander Pope, of “Rape of the Lock” fame, is my favorite whipping boy on this subject.

What dire offense from am’rous causes springs,
What mighty contests rise from trivial things,

The poem begins. Trivial, indeed. Sparknotes claims that Pope’s couplets are not boring, “flowering instead with a rich rhythmic variation that keeps the highly regular meter from becoming heavy or tedious.” Well, you can put that on your midterm exam, but I won’t give you extra credit for saying it.

Recently, someone who was interviewed by my department for a job in U.S. Latino/a literature spoke to us about Rafael Campo. I’d not heard of him, not being a big fan of poetry (until recently, of course), and so after the job candidate’s presentation I searched around the web to find out more about him and to read more of his poems. If you have any English professors in your life, you probably have heard us complain about how awful the job market is for English Ph.D.s. There are lots of horrible things about the whole process for getting a job as an English professor, but as someone who has crossed the River Jordan to the other side of tenure, I can say that one really cool thing about interviewing people for professorial jobs is that it gives you a chance to see what’s new and cutting-edge in literary studies, especially if you are teaching somewhere (as I do) where you don’t work with grad students or work with lots of cutting-edge scholars. I always learn a lot from the candidates we interview, whether it’s about literature I’ve never read or even heard of before, or literature I thought I knew very well, or about ways to teach students about literature of any kind.

In reading about Campo, I discovered that he is not only a poet, but a physician. He continues to practice and teach medicine, even as he publishes award-winning books of poetry. That’s pretty amazing. It was especially cool to discover that he works at Beth Israel Deaconess Hospital in Boston, where my dad did his residency–and where I was born.

I think Campo, much more than Pope, imbues the heroic couplet with “rich rhythmic variation” that avoids heaviness and tedium. See if you agree:

Madonna and Child
Rafael Campo

By menopause, it’s not just estrogen
my mother lacks. She’s lost her eldest son—
that’s me, the one who’s queer—the doctor who
once made her very proud. These days, I do
my own wash when I’m home, I cook for her
so she can take a break from all the chores
she now refuses to assign to me.
She sits, half-watching Ricki through her tea’s
thin steam, her squint of disapproval more
denial than it is disgust. She hears
much better than she sees—it’s easier
to keep out vision than it is to clear
the air of sounds—and yet I know it’s age
that stultifies her senses too. Enraged
because she’s lost so much, I understand
why suddenly she looks so stunned
as from the television: “. . . Bitch, she stole
my boyfriend, my own mother did! . . .” I fold
a towel noiselessly. I know she thinks
it’s garbage, sinful, crap—just as she thinks
that taking estrogen in pills is not
what God intended, no matter what
the doctors say; or that I’m gay is plain
unnatural, she can’t endure such pain.
The oven timer rings. The cookies that
I’ve baked are done. I’ll make another batch
though she won’t touch them: given up for Lent.
My mother’s love. I wonder where it went.

Now if Alex Pope had written heroic couplets like these, I might still be reading. I love how natural Campo makes the couplets sound, and how he uses this most rigid and artificial of forms to express his anguish at his mother’s rigid perceptions of what is and is not natural. And how he modifies this most masculine and supposedly heroic of forms to speak as a “queer.”

I’ve tried a couple of times to write something in heroic couplets, and I think what trips me up is that the form is so predictable that it is almost impossible to say anything that actually sounds natural as a result. Those rhymed couplets plod along like a trite pop song performed badly. Everything I write sounds like a parody of itself. I suppose that’s why so much doggerel is written in heroic couplets– the heroic pose it takes automatically sets it up for a fall; it’s a form that embodies hubris. Stated self-referentially:

The poet marches on and beats his drum,
Declaiming lines not aimed at anyone,
But speaking universal truth in verse,
A truth that might be someone else’s curse.

Ha– did you see that? I did it! I am more than glad to leave the heroic couplet behind. I’ve learned by thinking– a lot– about it, and trying it, and reading Campo, that sometimes these simple forms are the hardest of all to write. And this results in my having gained a new–if grudging–respect for Mr. Pope. So I will give him the last word, from his “Essay on Criticism”:

True ease in writing comes from art, not chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance.

links, Weekly Poem Project

From the hive mind: Sonnet Love

Here’s a valentine to the sonnet form by Catherine Chandler, from her book Glad and Sorry Seasons, “reprinted” online in Verse Daily, and shared by Jane Satterfield. I am glad this poem finally found me– I hope you are glad it has found you! Enjoy!

Sonnet Love 

I love the way its rhythm and its rhymes
provide us with a promise, a belief
familiar voices at specific times
may modulate unmanageable grief.
I love the way we’re called to referee
the mind-heart match-up in its scanty ring;
how through it all our only guarantee
is that for fourteen rounds the ropes will sing.
I love the way it makes us feel at home,
the way it welcomes fugitives and fools
who have forgotten all roads lead to Rome
from shared beginnings in the tidal pools.
Life’s unpredictability defies
clean denouement. I love the way it tries.

doing, flute, music, research, Weekly Poem Project

Halfway– but not half finished

I have just passed the midpoint of my sabbatical– it’s hard to believe it’s half over, but also hard to believe I still have half of it left!

This blog was intended to document my sabbatical year, and I suppose it’s as good a time as any to take a step back, see what I intended to accomplish, what I’ve actually gotten done, and where to head from here. I listed a number of goals in my first sabbatical post in May. And … how’d I do?

The main goal, of course, was to complete an entire book, currently titled How the Other Half Laughs: The Comic Sensibility in Art and Literature, 1895-1920. I’m pretty happy with my progress on that front. I began my sabbatical with one chapter (out of 6) drafted. I now have two– nearly three– more. I also decided to add a chapter, but I feel pretty comfortable saying I’m about halfway finished, maybe a bit more.

Also on the book front, I completed a book proposal, which I sent out to publishers last July. I have good news there: two publishers have said they want to see the finished manuscript! I also have one chapter out for consideration at a journal, to be published as a stand-alone essay. It’s been rejected once (at a top journal in my field, so I wasn’t super surprised or even disappointed, really), and now is under revision for another. I hope to get the revisions done in the next month. I’ve also applied for two grants, and plan to apply for one more, to do research, mostly in New York City. I wrote one of the applications while I was on vacation last week in Hawaii, unfortunately, but this was my fault– I totally forgot about the application deadline, which happened to fall while we were actually in Hawaii. Luckily (??) I had my computer and most of my files with me, so I was able to knock it out in a day. I am so the absent-minded professor these days!

I also did some research travel. I spent a week at the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum at the Ohio State University in Columbus; a couple of days at the Delaware Museum of Art in Wilmington; and probably a week or two’s worth of days commuting in to the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Altogether that’s about three weeks of my sabbatical doing research “off-site,” as it were.

In that first post, I also talked about the fact that I like to learn and try new things while I’m on sabbatical. At the time, I mentioned four things that I wanted to do–in short:

  1. Get back into playing the flute.
  2. Do some plein-air painting and life drawing.
  3. Write a poem every week.
  4. Write something every day.

This list surprises me now, especially when I recall what I was thinking when I wrote it:

I will just dismiss #2 at the outset. Ok, so I did some plein-air painting. I think I went out twice last summer. I kept intending to do more, but work on the book as well as various other things ended up filling all of my time. Maybe I’ll be able to fulfill that goal in the second half of the sabbatical.

I also did not succeed at #4, writing every day. I realized <insert dope-slap here> that when you write a book of scholarship, you need days to actually do the scholarship. That means lots of days doing nothing but reading, scanning microfilm, taking notes. You also need to give yourself time to actually think. I have decided that the mantra of constant productivity and writing every day is, in a word, bullshit. (But see #3, below.)

I did pretty well with #1. I’ve definitely been playing the flute! And the piano– a welcome byproduct of joining the Loyola Chamber Ensemble. Every Tuesday afternoon last semester, I spent about 2 hours with a lovely group of people– mostly students, but also a staff member from the advising office, and our coach, flutist and professor David Lavorgna. We dug into some interesting music, listened to one another, and grew into actual ensembles working together to produce music. I learned a lot from this, not just from the pieces I played (which I discuss here and here), but from watching and listening to everyone. The end-of-semester concert was a great success and a ton of fun. (FYI, if you check out the links: Maria and I did not end up ever rehearsing the Debussy cello sonata, but we may get to it someday.)

As a teacher myself, I was really inspired by David. He does such a good job finding music that will stretch, but not freak out, players from a wide (I mean wide) range of ability, and he also encourages students with lots of stories about his experiences with other musicians ranging from renowned performers like James Galway to beginning students. I’m looking forward to the upcoming semester– David dropped off my music at my house last week (we live a couple of blocks away from each other … Smalltimore!). Four pieces this time, two on flute, two on piano. Composers include Gaubert, Puccini, and Rachmaninoff. Can’t wait!

Now, for #3: writing a poem every week. This has been the biggest surprise of all. I initially thought that this would be a silly experiment, writing lots of bad poems and not taking things very seriously, but just using the experience to learn a little bit more about poetic form, which I spend a lot of time teaching. I did not end up writing a poem every week (fail!). However, I ended up taking the writing of poems much more seriously than I expected, and learning that I actually enjoy writing and reading poetry (win!).

In the past 7 months, I’ve written and posted a total of sixteen (or so) poems, some in multiple versions, and a couple that I decided not to post. I think, looking back, that my most successful poems were Karla’s Garden, a poem written in quintains; and two poems about Baltimore, a haiku and a pantoum.

I am especially surprised by the haiku. This is a form I have always detested. However, I realized that a lot of times you resist things because you don’t really understand them. (I tell my students this all the time. Funny how seldom we heed our own advice.) I’ve also learned the truth of another chestnut–the strongest writing often comes out of a deeply personal experience. I’m no good at writing philosophical poems, or abstract poems about Big Ideas. I threw a lot of those away. But I think I will write more about Baltimore. This is a town that you fall in love with; then, it will turn around and break your heart. Living here has been something that I need to write more about.

Another surprise: I ended up writing– a lot about poetry over the past 7 months. Much, much more than I’d planned. I guess it comes with the territory: I’m a teacher, and a scholar. The Weekly Poem Project posts brought everything together for me. But when I calculate the number of words I’ve written for this blog– altogether, over 30,000 words since late May (that’s 100 double-spaced typed pages, if you haven’t done much writing since college)–I’d guess that somewhere around 25,000 of those words have been about poetry. As a point of comparison, I’ve written about 28,000 words of my book during the same period. (I should mention that not a single word of my book–so far–is about poetry.)

This kind of blows me away. Another thing that blows me away is finding out how many people who read this blog also read– and love– poetry. It’s reassuring to know that in a culture that seems to be vapidifying at an exponential rate (Ice Bucket Challenge, anyone?– can you believe that took the nation by storm only 5 months ago? Have you already forgotten about it? I had.) that there are still lots of us who like to pause over a few words and really savor them.

It’s been great to reconnect with lots of old friends from college, high school, etc. We really did– and clearly, still do– have something in common, even though we didn’t realize how much so at the time.

I needed to take a break from the poems at the close of 2014, partly due to a different kind of productivity required of me during the holiday season (crafting!), but also because I needed to recharge. I’m ready to start again, though, so I’m going to take this opportunity to announce my plans.

  • I’d like to try some poetic forms that are defined by their subject matter. This is a way of defining form that I haven’t really dealt with up to now, and there are some storied kinds of poetry in this category: the aubade, the elegy, and the ode, to name a few. I think this would be fun.
  • I also stumbled upon a whole range of poems that are based on rounds and circles– primarily medieval in origin, and related to the ballad (another kind of poem I haven’t attempted writing yet, even though it’s one of the most basic types). Examples: rondel, rondeau, rondelet, triolet, lay. I think these are all different. Isn’t that crazy??
  • I also need to try, as promised, some classic, very complex (or difficult) forms. I flirted with the idea of doing a villanelle in the fall, but chickened out. But it’s still there, breathing quietly in a dark corner of my mind. And then there’s the sestina, and the chant royal, and others, I’m sure.
  • And– the heroic couplet. I am going to try this first. I have always hated the neoclassicists (The Rape of the Lock, anyone?), but hope that I will undergo an epiphany with this as I did with haiku. Walk a mile in Alexander Pope’s shoes … or something. This experiment may, of course, lead to blank verse and my own version of Paradise Lost– set in West Baltimore. I’ll keep you posted 🙂

One thing I won’t be doing more of is song forms. I tried doing a drinking song at the behest of my friend Ron, who also suggested I try a calypso. Both of these have really interesting histories, but I realized that the musical aspect of songs is really crucial, and doesn’t come across well when you’re dealing with lyrics alone. And I ain’t taking on composing on this sabbatical.

But I will be doing more research. And writing my book. And writing more about poems.  And playing music. And maybe painting some. And sharing what you all share with me about all of this. Onward to Sabbatical, Part Second!

P.S. Lucy’s latest blood tests came back yesterday and she is back to normal! So she is ready for a fresh start in 2015 too. 🙂

Weekly Poem Project

Is silence golden? If yes, then, for whom?

I haven’t really felt a whole lot like writing these days, which has made producing my weekly poem a bit of a challenge. Last week, just when I had decided to give up on the possibility of posting anything, a little snippet of verse popped into my head– a grook, in fact. And a title– “The Color of Silence.” And yet more, an image to accompany it, which I had quite a good time putting down on paper. Yes! I did it! I thought, with great satisfaction. Done!

(If you missed the posts on grooks, here’s my initial description, and my friend Melissa Girard’s guest post on why she loves them.)

I was just about to post the poem, and then the non-indictment of Darren Wilson happened. As I type this, and create my link, I am thinking, how many people in this country even know who Darren Wilson is? Who would have recognized his name a month ago? And who will recognize it a month from now? (To be honest, I’m not sure if  I even will. I keep thinking his name is Darryl, which is what I typed first when I was drafting this post.)

Well, he is the police officer from Ferguson, Missouri, who shot and killed Michael Brown, an unarmed black teenager, this past August. Protests– or riots, depending on who you talk to– ensued. People were arrested. Tear gas was deployed. Meanwhile, much of the world– including the worlds of many people I am nominally “friends” with on Facebook, continued on. Meals were enjoyed. Exotic cities were visited. Ice buckets were dumped. YouTube was watched. Television too.

The use of passive voice is intentional.

No one contests the fact that Darren Wilson shot and killed young Mike Brown. No one disputes the fact that Mike Brown was unarmed. Basically, what we know is: shit happened. This is our country, and we have nothing to do with it. Shit, simply, happens.

But isn’t it strange that in the end, we will so easily forget the name of the person who actually killed Michael Brown? Isn’t it strange that we are more likely to forget his name more easily than the forgettable name of Michael Brown himself?

All this makes it strange for me to now post the poem that I wrote last week, but the longer I wait the more apropos it seems to be. Here it is:

The Color of Silence

If you open your mouth wide
And nothing comes out,
You’ve likely got nothing
Worth talking about.

That is how I was feeling last week, and how I (mostly) continue to feel this week. But the events in Ferguson have compelled me to speak, even if I’m not sure if I have anything worth saying.