Archive for the ‘Writing Poetry’ Category

Fiddling around with Poetry

As I put together my eighth poetry book, Marianne Moore’s famous poem “Poetry” keeps intruding into my thoughts. Her poem begins with the memorable words, “I, too, dislike it.” She goes on to refer to poetry as “fiddle.” I admit I have been unapologetically fiddling around with poetry since I was sweet sixteen. I’ve decided to title this latest collection of fiddling around Still Unrepentant. I am unlikely to repudiate this sinful pleasure any time soon. I will die both loving and disliking poetry.

I suppose I dislike poetry primarily because few people except other poets actually ever read it. I love it because it increases life’s meaningfulness. I dislike it when I don’t understand it, and I am like the bat “holding upside down” in Moore’s poem. I have been hopping around a long time like a real toad in that imaginary garden, which is Moore’s metaphor for the art of writing poetry. Inherent in that metaphor are two dichotomies: poetry is composed of both fantasy and reality; poetry deals with both the beautiful and the ugly. Gardens are thought of as beautiful places abloom with colorful flowers and greenery while toads with their warts and bulging eyes are perceived as unattractive.  For Moore, good poetry must be both raw and genuine.

When I confess to others that I write poetry, I receive blank looks in response, as if I am, in fact, a strange toad they just encountered in the road, and they are left speechless, not knowing how to react to such an oddity. “Really, a poet?” they’d like to say, staring uncomprehendingly at this eccentric who writes poems rather than action-packed thrillers. In the first poem in my new collection, entitled “Incorrigible,” I imagine asking absolution in Catholic confession for the sin of writing. Afterwards I leave the confessional as unrepentant as ever.

Above all, I like poetry for its playfulness with language and its double meanings, in the very way in which Moore uses the word fiddle. A fiddle is a musical instrument. The poet fiddles, or plays around, with words. Poetry is no more nonsensical or less serious an art than playing the violin. To fiddle around implies that an activity is idle and inconsequential, and therefore a trivial pursuit. Moore’s irony, however, leads to the opposite conclusion. In poking fun at the popular belief that poetry is purposeless, she asserts poetry is what is truly genuine, for it strikes at the core of life. Creativity defines the essence of our humanity. Man is the animal with language. The concision of poetry is the supreme expression of our ability to shape language into meaning. Poetry also is the ideal means to avoid the pitfall contained in Socrates’ dictum: The unexamined life is not worth living. I render my life meaningful, at least to myself, in the act of writing poetry, and I remain unrepentant.


Do I Hate Poetry?

The other day I read a review of Ben Lerner’s new book The Hatred of Poetry, which elicited my own examination of conscience on the matter as a person who has spent much of her life reading, critiquing, and writing poetry. Do I hate poetry? The truthful answer is that I dislike, or do not much care for, most of the contemporary poems I’ve read in The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, London Review of Books, the prestigious Poetry magazine, and numerous literary journals. Although dislike is a milder term than hate, a more accurate description of my attitude toward most of the poetry being published today is that the poems leave me unmoved or uncomprehending; therefore, I cannot really dislike poems that I don’t understand. To like or dislike a poem, I would first have to know what the intent of the poem is and then decide if I like the way the ideas of the poem are crafted in prosody.  I do not ascribe to the postmodernist notion that a poem should be a brain teaser puzzle nor to the Hallmark school of versification. Nor do I think poetry is an exercise in the purely autobiographical. Some would accuse me of being a lazy poetry reader and argue that poetry is not for mental lightweights. I will take the criticism like a woman.

But I do like poetry. I like the poetry of Derek Walcott, Dana Gioia, May Sarton, Czeslaw Milosz, and Wisława Szymborska–to name only a few. I never tire of T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats, Robert Frost, Emily Dickinson, and Walt Whitman–my pantheon of poets. All poets present their own complexities, but what I find eminently likable about the poetry I do like are these traits, which conversely, I find lacking in much of the poetry being published today: cadence or musicality, linguistic virtuosity, a spiritual dimension, universality. There are many ways to achieve sound effects in poetry, but when I don’t hear them when the poem is read aloud, the language is prosaic, and meaning is banal or obscure; then the poem is a car with a flat tire going nowhere in my mental and emotional landscape. Too much of the contemporary poetry I read is too lackluster linguistically and unmelodic for me to get excited about.

So do I hate poetry? I am an indifferent lover of much of the poetry being published today, but hatred of poetry is not one of my sins. I plead not guilty. Poetry stands at the pinnacle of the literary arts, and this art attracts novices, hacks, mediocre practitioners, and artisans. Everyone loved poetry as a young child, and everyone can love it again. It is just more difficult to find poems to love in the morass of uninspiring, pedestrian, incomprehensible, and unmusical poems in the limelight today.

Early Poetry Imprinting

Newly hatched goslings imprint on the first moving object they see, which usually is Mother Goose.  Mother Goose nursery rhymes are the usual way children are introduced to poetry. I’m sure I had my share of exposure to these rhymes in my preschool days. Most children grow away from the rhythms of the poetic line in later childhood, preferring the pace of prose or the lyrics of popular music. My first love in literature is poetry. I came to writing poems before novels or short stories. Looking back on my childhood, two influences played a major role in my enduring love of this art form, which survived the rigors of high school explication and the incomprehensibility of post-modernism.

From third to eight grade, I was a Girl Scout. My Girl Scout leader was Mrs. Xenia Denoyer (1893-1976). She was already in her sixties when she led our troop in Wheeling, Illinois. A white-haired, stocky lady, she was married to the cartographer Philip Denoyer, whose maps hung in many schoolrooms of the day. The Denoyers owned a farm called Singing Grove located near my home, which they had turned into a Girl Scout camp. A large white, green-shuttered ranch house was their residence. For the Girl Scouts they built a log cabin with a big fireplace and loft sleeping area. Mrs. Congdon, the assistant Girl Scout leader, was a British lady who worked in the ladies’ lingerie department of Spiegel Department Store. She stated her profession as corsetiere. To my young imagination, Mrs. Congdon was as fascinating as the Denoyers. She exerted a strong influence on the doings of the scouts, for the large field next to the cabin was named the Plains of Runnymede, the outhouse White Hall, and the cabin Canterbury. Mrs. Denoyer  loved trees and under her forceful tutelage we earned our tree badge. On a tour of the camp, she identified all the trees she had planted. She was particularly proud of her gingko biloba. A special treat during the camping week was the evening the girls spent in the ranch house watching Mrs. Denoyer’s home movie of Queen Elizabeth’s coronation. The two women had attended the event in 1953 and considered it a highpoint in their lives.

Another treat, which not all the girls considered one, was evenings around the fireplace in the log cabin when Mr. Denoyer was invited to recite poetry to us. If Mrs. Denoyer was old, her husband was ancient. If she was in her sixties, he must have been in his eighties.  My research revealed that he formed the Denoyer-Geppert map company in 1916, that he retired from the company in 1947, and that he died in Wheeling in 1964 at age 88. His raspy voice reciting Wordsworth’s “The Daffodils” impressed me as the enactment of a profound rite at which I was privileged to be present. Trees and poetry forever became linked in my consciousness as somehow connected with the religious experience. I wanted to crack the sacred code of poetry. It was mysterious and suffused with an aura of wisdom. Mr. Denoyer, who loved to memorize poetry, was my first influence.

The second influence was the nun who was my teacher in both seventh and eighth grades. I remember her requiring us to memorize Walt Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!” and Oliver Wendell Holmes “Old Ironsides.” We read Holmes’ “The Chambered Nautilus,” and Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” The Bells,” and “Annabel Lee.” Sister Mary Pearce fed my desire to discover more poetry, preparing me for the banquet of Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne and Tennyson and others that I would encounter in high school. I had the pleasure of meeting her again in 2001. She is still alive and well. During that meeting, she informed me she was twenty-seven at the time she taught seventh and eight graders and that she did not have a bachelor’s degree. Yet she was the most memorable, inspiring, and motivating grade school teacher I had. Her teaching was rigorous–no Mickey Mouse lessons in her classroom of fifty-three baby boomers.

Trees, poems, and exploration of nature ordained my eventual path to Montana. Singing Grove is no more. The Denoyer farm is now a housing subdivision, but my first love remains with me to this day, thanks to the Denoyers and one Catholic nun.

Al-Andalus: Latest Collection of Narrative Poems

Continuing the style I began with Women at the Well and Land of the Four Quarters, in this collection of narrative poems I give voice in dramatic monologues to the Moriscos, who from 1492 to their final expulsion from Spain in 1609, struggled to preserve their culture and language within a dominant Christian society. Conversion did not spare them from this fate. Some of the characters are historical; some of them imagined and a few are characters taken from Miguel Cervantes’s monumental novel Don Quixote in two parts, which appeared at the time the final solution to the Morisco problem would be implemented.  In history there are many examples of ethnic cleansing; this is but one of them. Because the policy continues around the world today, I was impelled to write about the Moriscos.

In Al-Andalus, I create an English version of the Arabic poetic form called the muwashshah.  Here is one of them in which the Alhambra speaks:

Arabesques and colored tiles tell my tale.Al-Andalus Cover

The vanished Moor built on a grand scale.


Songs once sung do not die when done

But linger in the air to arise like the sun.

The silence whirs as if silk is being spun

In graceful script and architectural detail

That Ferdinand and his men dare not assail.


Enclosed in alcoves rhythms of the lute

Pulsate accompanied by the plaintive flute.

Banished the kohl-eyed beauty but not mute.

In the Alhambra yet is heard the houri wail

Though her plea to stay is to no avail.


The silence holds sad melody like a bee

Preserved in amber, its buzz in quiet key

Resounds beyond the present century.

Those who came before leave a pollen trail

Though their time was filled with constant travail.


My name corrupts the Arabic word for red

That came out as Alhambra when it’s said

By Spaniards drinking of our fountainhead.

Within these halls although my voice be frail

Those well-tuned will hear a whispered tale.


Carlos the King spent a six-month honeymoon

Ensconced in my walls, like a girl in a swoon

Applauding the dances to tambourine tune.

Granada, tu tierra está llena de lindas mujeres

Is the Spanish song my walls echo nowadays.

In 1492 the Spanish Jews were first given the royal ultimatum to either convert to Christianity or suffer forced deportation. In 1523, Carlos V reneged on the terms of the 1492 surrender, which granted religious and cultural freedom to the Moslems of Granada, serving them the same ultimatum the Jews had received. Mass baptisms of the Moors ensued. The prohibitions against wearing Moorish clothing, practicing Islamic customs and speaking Arabic were suspended for forty years, purportedly to allow for cultural and religious assimilation. Under Philip II the mandates were re-imposed resulting in the rebellion of the Moriscos in the War of the Alpujarras 1568-1570. After the defeat of the Moriscos, Philip ordered the dispersal of the surviving Moriscos to other regions of Spain—a strategy to prevent a concentration of Moriscos that would be capable of armed revolt again. Throughout the sixteenth century the converted Moriscos were suspect. Religious and secular leaders feared they were a third column within the country conspiring with the Ottoman Empire to reconquer Spain for the Islamic world. After decades of debate and suspicion, Philip III ordered the final expulsion of Spain’s Moriscos in 1609. Miguel Cervantes de Saavedra witnessed this process. Indeed, he was writing the second half of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de La Mancha during this removal and must have seen caravans of Moors under guard being marched to the sea ports for transport to North Africa.

In recent history Moslems have returned to Spain. They arrive in boats from North Africa. It remains to be seen whether in this century the efforts at peaceful co-existence will succeed. Can an amalgamation of cultures result?

Idealism and Hedonism

This summer CNN has been running a series of documentaries on the sixties. The decade ended with my having my first child. It was the decade my generation attended high school and finished college. In the seventies they entered the working world, married, and started their families. As I look at that footage of protests, hippie communities, and the youth culture of popular music;  I arrive at my own conclusions at what produced this outpouring of love, free expression, and political activism.  The generation that came of age in that era is an odd mixture of idealism and hedonism. While rejecting the materialism of their parents, they enjoyed the fruits of that affluence. They ascribed to an essentially hedonistic philosophy that if it felt good and hurt no one, well then, do it. That thinking is solipsist, because, of course, our actions affect others. Behavior can scandalize. It can destroy the innocence and faith of those younger than ourselves, creating cynicism and skepticism that there are no verities in life. It can be nihilistic.

Yet the generation of the sixties wanted to change the world for the better. They claimed to want to make peace not war. They wanted the blight of poverty, hunger, illiteracy, and racial prejudice to be eradicated. They wanted inspiration and honesty from politicians. They wanted democracy to work. Utopia has not arrived. When my generation inherited the reins of leadership, did they create a better world, reduce, if not eliminate war? In 2014 listening to news reports from around the world, the answer is “no;” and sadly, I have to ask myself what part this hedonistic and idealistic generation played in the rampant greed that destroyed the strength of the middle class and in the continuation of war after the lessons of Vietnam were not learned.

Supposedly, more of us had a college education; but we knew nothing of other cultures or religions beyond the comfortable suburban existence we embraced after we threw away our love beads and flowers and donned business suits and ties. We gutted the unions; we destroyed the educational system with theories that learning should always be fun and games. We, in fact, outdid our parents in materialism, acquired more than one television, bathroom, and automobile.

The day I dropped out of idealism and hedonism and pursued my bizarre path of multi-culturism was June 4, 1968–me, who had marched on Washington in October 1967 to protest the Vietnam War, and where I saw, as a child of a blue collar worker, I did not belong with the children of the Eastern Establishment. That day marked my disillusionment. That day I left my idyllic childhood in which I believed I lived in the best country in the world.  I wrote a poem a few days after Bobby Kennedy’s assassination.  Here it is:

June 4, 1968

I am young

but want

a rocking chair.

I wonder where

I can find

a rocking chair.


The old lady

who lives with

the Negro maid

has one hid

in her attic room.

I’ll go steal it.


Today he was hit

right in the head.

No more tears to shed,

no use to protest

just give me a chair

a place to rest,

a place to rest

and sneer at the rest—

the students and all.

I lived in a country where good leaders were assassinated. How could this be? I had recited the Pledge of Allegiance in my classrooms and had sung “God Bless America.” Violence and anti-intellectualism were revealed to me that day as part of American history just as idealism was. The assassinations scandalized me and seared my vision, changing my consciousness forever. Innocence was lost.

Maybe this poem written in the 80s expresses my disillusionment better:

Life Is a Blast

Life is a blast—

A blast of bombs

Over Bikini


The beach we named

Our swimsuits for

We wore for Funicello,

Avalon, those Beach Boys—

The one who drowned

Pacifically in the end.


We surfed into

The sixties

Believing the good guys

Always won.

Why couldn’t we win

The war in Vietnam then? 


The sixties went out

With a bang.

Molotov cocktails

To your draft board.

Bring the war home!

Dump the Hump!

Today is the first day

Of the rest of our life!


M-I-C-K-E-Y, M-O-U-S-E

Forever let us

Hold your banner high!

Why must all our heroes die?

Kennedy, King, Kennedy?

Annette sells peanut butter.

Jerry Rubin joins the stock market.


It was a blast!

While it lasted.

There are no

Good guys.

If they exist

They finish last.


Inaugural Parading out the Poet

Ever since I listened to Richard Blanco deliver his poem during the televised inauguration of President Obama on January 21, I have been mulling over the place of poets and poetry in American society.  What overall impact can injection of a written-for-hire poem have on the expansion of poetry’s readership?  After several weeks of digesting Blanco’s poem and other poems written for presidential inaugurations since President Kennedy established the precedent in 1961, and President Clinton revived the custom , my answer is “none.”

None of these inaugural poems represent the poet’s finest works. Fortunately, Robert Frost never read the fusty “Dedication,” 78 lines of awful Augustan couplets that he intended to read as prologue to “The Gift Outright.”  A gust of common sense must have blown through his doddering mind at the last moment and he used the excuse of sun’s glare on the page to skip reading it and proceeded directly to reciting from memory the mercifully short and sweet “The Gift Outright,” the poem he had written years ago. In 1977 President Carter commissioned James Dickey to write an inaugural poem not actually recited at the inauguration but relegated to a post-inauguration party. Dickey’s poem “The Strength of Fields” is forty-nine disjointed lines, too obscure for a poem addressed to the public.  In 1993 Maya Angelou offered “The Pulse of Morning,” much too long, even if the 107 lines are short, to keep an audience from yawning.  In 1997 Clinton chose for his second inauguration the Arkansan poet Miller Williams, whose “Of History and Hope” I have to unkindly call a bad poem.  I rather like as the best of the batch of inaugural offerings Elizabeth Alexander’s “Praise Song for the Day,” delivered for President’s Obama’s first inauguration in 2009.  However, reviewers disagree with me. Written in simple tercets, 14 altogether, her poem ends with a one-line stanza; it is not overblown and just the right length for the occasion.

In 2013, Blanco’s poem “One Today” has a unity of structure, a progression from morning to evening, and a theme that rings well with Obama’s repetition of the word “together,” the last word also of his inaugural address. Although the poem has moments that sparkle, the Whitmanesque listing grows tedious. The poem could have been better with more concision, cutting out the lackluster and preserving what images are fresh to produce a shorter, more pungent poem.

What does it matter that these inaugural poems are forgettable? What matters (to echo Dana Gioia’s 1991 essay “Can Poetry Matter?”)  is that poetry did matter for at least four American presidents in modern history, to the extent they considered it worthy of a place at their inaugurations. Poets are not pop stars, more frequently heard at State occasions, yet to parade a poet on the Capitol steps is wondrous for a lover of poetry to behold.  It has that effect upon me, but does it matter at all to my fellow Americans that a poem is written and recited especially for this historic event? I think not. I think at this juncture, when the poet approaches the podium, the viewer in his living room gets up from his chair and goes to open the refrigerator.


In Praise of Wisława Szymborska

Wislawa Szymborska July 2, 1923 - February 1, 2012

“The world is astonishing, no matter what else we can say about it.”

You may have never heard of Wisława Szymborska or her poetry. I am writing this to spread her fame a little wider. This Polish poet, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Literature, died in her sleep on February 1, 2012. She was 88 years young. How fitting her going, for she wrote in her poem “I’m Working on the World”or dying in her sleep as the desirable way to go, comparing it to music in the dark. She concludes this poem with a sardonic twist, typical of her poetry, describing the rest of life as playing a Bach fugue on a saw.

That wry humor suffuses her whole body of work in which she observes the extraordinary and the ironic in the familiar objects that she never finds ordinary. From plates and fans in a museum, to plants, to clouds, to an onion, everything around her astonishes. Her own penchant for poetry, she finds amusing as she writes in “In Praise of My Sister,” a sister who doesn’t write poems. In another poem “Poetry Reading,” she reflects that a boxing match draws a bigger crowd. She imagines that the snoring man in the first row of her poetry audience is dreaming that his wife is still alive and is baking him a tart. At that point, the poets reading to a room of twelve people and eight empty seats.

I love the way Szymborska uses concrete images; I love the way she thinks of things I would never think of. Her poetry teems with her playful look at subjects. Who else would write a poem “In Praise of Feeling Bad About Yourself. ” In “Hitler’s First Photograph,” she pictures him full of milk and his growing up to be a tenor at the Vienna Opera House, a doctor, a priest, and marrying the burgermeister’s daughter. Even the adult monster was once a cute little baby. The image jars the reader’s sensibilities.

Szymborska’s humor can be black, but her understatements always astound and pack such a wallop, that I wish I could have written a poem nearly as good as her poem that I just finished reading. One of her poems that sticks long in my memory (and there are too many to choose from) is “The End and the Beginning,” possibly the best poem ever written on the subject of war because of its powerful understatement.  The poem begins with the homely statement that someone always has to tidy up after a war as if the task is a housewifely duty and ends by dropping the grisly matter-of-fact observation that rubble has to be shoved to the roadsides so the carts can be loaded with corpses. This is the type of startling, surprise tour de force that frequently concludes her poems.

In her Nobel Prize lecture I discovered the reason why I like poetry more than politics. She states: “Poets, if they’re genuine, must also keep repeating, ‘I don’t know.'” Politicians are always telling us they have the answers; they hold the truth. Szymborska contends “Whatever inspiration is, it’s born from a continuous ‘I don’t know’. Each poem is an effort to answer a question. She continues in her lecture: “But any knowledge that doesn’t lead to new questions quickly dies out: it fails to maintain the temperature required for sustaining life. In the most extreme cases, cases well-known from ancient and modern history, it even poses a lethal threat to society.”

She bases her poetic credo on the belief that the world is astonishing; nothing is obvious. She writes, “But in the language of poetry . . . nothing is usual or normal . Not a single stone and not a single cloud above it . . . . And above all, not a single existence, not anyone’s existence in the world.” Like many of her poems, she cannot resist ending her lecture with an understatement: “It looks as though poets will always have their work cut out for them.”

I recommend you start exploration of Wisława Szymborska with Poems New and Collected 1957-1997. It includes all the poems in View with a Grain of Sand and also the complete text of her 1996 Nobel lecture. A new collection, Here, contains poetry she wrote since she won the Nobel Prize. She also has some unpublished poems in manuscript form that were not ready for publication at the time of her death.  The collaborative translation by Stanislaw Barańczak, Professor of Polish Language and Literature at Harvard and a Polish poet himself, and Clare Cavanagh, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at Northwestern University, is so good that, as far as I am concerned, the poems could have been written originally in English.

Two interesting notes about her fame in Poland: her poem “Nothing Twice” set to music became a popular song. The Polish film director Krzysztof Kieślowski is said to have been inspired by her poem “Love at First Sight” in the making of Red, from The Three Colors Trilogy: Blue, White, Red–three wonderful films.

I wish my mother were still alive. If she were, I would ask her to read aloud in Polish to me all of Szymborska’s poetry and ask for her comments on them. Maybe I should write a poem in which I imagine Alice Dzierzgowska doing this?