The future is a field of maize.
The future is a magician’s card trick.
I recall asking high school kids I taught to write a poem (such requests were suggested by the syllabi that ruled what we were to teach and when to teach whatever it was. Most kids, except those already naturally “into” poetry and other forms of literature, were most often stumped by such requests. While they might eventually pump out something that had the general form of a poem, I knew their hearts weren’t in the writing of the poem. The deeply satisfying (even if equally frustrating and sometimes terrifying) act of writing a poem that I’ve come to know did not happen to students when I asked them to write a poem in school. I now understand their great reluctance. In retrospect, I now realize the impact of their not having read poetry outside of school, as well as their very limited exposure to poetry in school. It shouldn’t be a surprise that asking them to “write a poem” that would have any measure of commitment or competence, would be akin to asking someone who has never skateboarded to stand on a skateboard and manage to not fall off it within the first few seconds!
I’ve written in earlier blogs that it’s really important to read poetry if you’re serious about refining the crafting of it. I see it as food for heart, mind, and body. If the ”diet” is impoverished, the body suffers and if the body suffers, so does our capacity for emotional and intellectual engagement. Classic literary education included much imitative writing (not plagiarism) – that is, imitating style, not content. That goes back to the notion that refining one’s craft as a poet is a form of apprenticeship to the craft. So take five (5) commonplace concepts and find a poet who does something wonderful in renaming them. Then come up with an additional three re-namings (metaphors or similes)….. the task will stretch you, but the experience will stand you in good stead the next time you write a poem. For example, how does one imitate a line like Sylvia Plath’s “The future is a grey seagull”? The goal is to come up with three equally unfamiliar and fresh metaphors for the future…be daring, be adventurous, take a risk and be surprised with the outcome. I’ve created three examples below:
The future is a fractured triangle.
The future is a field of maize.
The future is a magician’s card trick.
Good luck and have fun with the process and your creations.
Though having chosen a seemingly mundane subject, Dennis O’Driscoll’s (contemporary Irish poet), poem, “Friday,” takes off through a minutely detailed account of the drive home from the city to a rural home, “the weekend ours/like a gift voucher,” and transforms, as good poetry will do, a routine that most of us who work in some kind of office, cut off from the natural world, know only too well.
O’Driscoll’s drive becomes a record of noticing the magic that we always have access to no matter how much we may have shut it out as routinized background scenery. The daily routine of any work day, can and most often does, blunt, numb, and neutralize our senses. In O’Driscoll’s poem, the name of the day of the week (Friday) that he recorded an observation about, becomes a funnel though which we travel with him, feel the liberation as he does, of this “gift voucher” as he describes, so that by the time we are home with him, we feel the elevation he does, and instead of the usual end-of-week drain we so often feel when we stumble to our own Fridays, we’re rejuvenated, ready to notice seemingly ordinary details in the way branches bend over a road, ready to be fully alive again. In O’Driscoll’s poem, the simple passing by of familiar vegetation records his and his passengers’ transformation as the “poplars form a “guard of honor’ between which they ride, the “canopy of branches” spanning the road, form a “triumphal arch,” the leafy underpass through the familiar tunnel, transformed into a “decompression chamber,” and renewed, “filtered,” we, with O’Driscoll and his passengers, are on the “downward slope home,” “renewed, detoxified.” It’s a stunning poem, worth reading and can be found in his collection 1988, New and Selected Poems.
Inspired by this poem to take a fresh view of ordinary days of the week, a poem about Monday tumbled forth from my fingers, and later, a poem also about Friday. A friend with me at the time, wrote about Sundays and soon, we had a poem related to every day of the week. Even if the poem that emerges isn’t one you want to continue to work with, it’s a doorway into stretching away from the way we usually sense any day of the week ─ each day seeming to have its inbuilt pattern, its energies with which we vibrate sympathetically ─ or not. For this exercise, allow a particular day of the week to present itself to you, and write whatever emerges. For some of you, a prose free-write, allowing anything that comes to be recorded as it comes, works best. For others, a line that’s already come to you might be the stimulus to keep going. Above all, keep the flow going until you have the raw material you’ll continue to work with. Allow surprise.
And so….until next month, Anna S.
The three folk above look like I’ve looked at times when I was a participant in a poetry workshop…could be thinking something like “Whaaaat the heck???” Some exercises just don’t work for each of us every time and it’s rather foolish to expect that they will – every time. Some seem to have a magic touch every time. It doesn’t really matter. Truth is, that we all think in unique ways, our brains work in unique ways and so it’s impossible to find an activity that will make everyone salivate with joy and embark on equally eagerly. What also matters is that we honor what we came to a workshop in the first place to do: to write, to engage with the unfamiliar, to take a risk (or two), to learn something we didn’t know. Sometimes there’s a lead-up and other times, you’re asked/invited to leap off before you spend too much time thinking about it. Some products that emerge may be pieces you’ll never revisit; others may be the key to something wonderful, and so on. Just leap and have faith. So, below are five lines I’ve drawn from pieces of writing I’ve done or from phrases I’ve seen on a scrap of abandoned paper somewhere. Following these lines are three ways of approaching this activity --- you can choose any one, two or all three of them.
His, being in it, knows every vein
They call to each other like mothers
The tongues of flame lick the brittle grasses
The ducks and geese hover around lovers’crumbs
This late afternoon, the winter grass, ice-glazed
(a)Read through each one and write one additional line to make the pair of lines a couplet, whether rhymed or unrhymed. You can then follow-up with more lines for any pair that inspires you to return and add to.
(b)Read through each one and write four additional lines of anything that emerges – you may feel impelled to return to one or more of these later and work it/them into a poem.
(c)Read through each one and when you feel the urge, add to the line that stimulated a flow, whatever comes to mind for however long you want to write (it may be a rough poem or a piece of prose. Then go back and prune, re-arrange, add and shape it. You might find it’s “done,” or you might find it just needs to be left in peace for however long that might be.
If you wish, you can do all three of these in the above sequence or start with the third and work backwards. Again, the goal is not to write your perfect poem – it is, rather, to “exercise” the poetic mental muscles, to engage with some dissonance that will dislodge habitual thinking and ways of “doing” the practice of writing poetry. Anything that becomes habitual, ultimately becomes stale and rigid and doesn’t help us grow as poets/writers. Have fun. Anna O.
On The Role of Metaphor in Our Lives and Why Writers Have To Hunt For New Metaphors To Avoid The Clichés
I recently returned to the study of metaphor from a phenomenlogical/psychological perspective and have been reading George Lakoff’s (2004) “Don’t Think of An Elephant!” Lakoff and his frequent co-author, Mark Johnson wrote “Metaphors We Live By” (1980), one of the most significant books to be produced in modern times). That book radically changed the way I think of metaphor, taking it right out of the poetry classroom to the life classroom where it really belongs. I published, in 2014, a piece on “Rescuing Metaphor from the Poetry Classroom,” likening its imprisonment there as the equivelant of it being Rapunzel, locked in her tower, watching the deaths of hapless suitors who attempted to climb up, rescue her and run off with her. Metpahor belongs in the language classroom at the very least, and should not be isolated to the poetry lesson, and dealt with in maybe one or two questions of the following kind: “Where is the metaphor in the first stanza of this poem? “ followed by,”When you’ve found it, explain what it means.” This is what turns most kids off poetry, making them fearful of approaching it, likening it to a landscape filled with hidden swamps and quicksand ponds ready to suck you in and drown you. It also ignores the reality that metaphor pervades ALL our language, our daily speech, our newspapers, politician’s speeches, the advertising industry, indeed, all our thinking.
In “Don’t Think of an Elephant (2004),” Lakoff statess what most of us have never heard in school – a truth about metaphors and their power: ”Everything we we know is physically instantiated in the neural system of our brains.” So, he writes, ”As a metaphor analyst, I want to begin with the power of images and where that power comes from..” I recommend reading his little classic as well as that by Lakoff and Johnson (1980): “Metaphors We Live By.”
Of course, many metaphors in daily langauge quickly become clichéd. Here are some common examples: “you’re on top of things”…I’ve been to hell and back”….”Yes, it’s sad that all those people had to die…collateral damage is one of the consequences of the battle for freedom”…”Be the change you want”….Saadham was threatening our oil lifekine”…. And so on. Metpahor proliferates our lives. So, poets keep on having to come up with fresh metaphors.
A little exercise to conclude with: come up with ten metaphors for kindess or love that you’ve not heard often enough to declare as stale. Cheerio till next time.
To use the comma, the semi-colon, the em-dash, or colon-ize, even the period at times is not always clear in modern poetry. So when do we know that the ‘em’ dash is the right tool and when it is the equivalent of a sledgehammer? Although the subject of punctuation does come up in the context of discussions about rhythm, line breaks, and the like, even John Ciardi and Miller Williams classic text about how poems mean (How Does a Poem Mean?) doesn’t have a separate entry for ‘punctuation’ in the topic/subject index@! For a working explanation, the website “Grammarist” (and others) explains the main distinction between the two dashes (excluding the hyphen which has very particular uses) as related to subtle emphasis:
Em dashes set apart parenthetical phrases or clauses in a sentence. In this use, em dashes are similar to commas and parentheses, but there are subtle differences. For example, em dashes are used when a parenthetical remark contains an internal comma or would otherwise sound awkward if enclosed by commas. Perhaps a useful way to think of the em dash is as a pause or parenthesis with somewhat more emphasis than a comma and somewhat less than parentheses.
Useful examples are provided on the Grammarist webpage [http://grammarist.com/]. Mary Oliver’s commonsense reminder that “the language of a poem is a living material; it is not rigid” and is “far more complex than a list of instructions,” is both useful and excellent caution against hard-line ‘rules’ which change over time at any rate. The key is to develop a keen ear and a keen sense of the rhythms the poem is intended to have, and to use punctuation accordingly. It’s also probably useful to have a hefty dose of courage and to know why you are so attached to a particular use of the em dash or your choice to eliminate punctuation altogether when the critiques arrive! I’m not saying anything goes, but I am saying the decision is often an intuitive response to creating a desired overall meaning as well as the specific one wherever several options might apply.
So if you haven’t felt the confidence to experiment with punctuation, take the plunge and ‘test’ its effect by reading the segment of the poem aloud as if you were reading it to an audience at an open mic or some other context. The performance-level reading aloud of a poem will reveal where the punctuation works or doesn’t far more effectively than any rule book. And, have someone else read it aloud to help you discover how the ‘signal’ (it is, after all, a kind of traffic signal – e.g., give way, stop, slow, turn, exit, etc.) works for them. If they feel that they’re tumbling over a cliff it might be worth taking a second look ☺
Till next month…. Enjoy the end of summer, the coming of the fall, while I enjoy the end of winter and the coming of Spring! Cheers, Anna
I’m sure you all know more about the work of the American poets than I do – even after 3 decades of reading American poetry, I’m still educating myself about the American poetic landscape – and it is one that I’ve come to love more than I had ever imagined. But being back in Australia, is re-awakening my connection with Australian poetry and I thought that in this blog entry, I’d share a little information about who some of Australia’s major poets are. You can access some of this information in the Web (just Google). Major poets of the 20th C include Douglas Stewart, Dame Mary Gilmore, Judith Wright, Kenneth Slessor, Bruce Dawe, Les Murray, John Tranter. So, if you’re interested in pursuing any of these, just Google. Any of these poets will show up on Wikepedia at least and that’ll provide you with other more detailed sources if you’re interested in knowing more.
Not surprisingly, the Australian bush landscape was a dominant subject in pre-20th C and even 20thC Australian poetry. References to dry, oven-fierce heat, an overbearing summer sun, parched land have peppered much Australian poetry even into the late 20thC such as Les Murray’s iron-brown and limitless, the plains/were before me all day (from his poem “Recourse to the Wilderness”) or the sense of the sun as a beast as in At dawn, the sun would roll up from his lair/in the kiln-dry lake country, fire his heat straight through/the blind grey scrub/ (from “Recourse to the Wilderness”). Even though the latter half of the 20thC saw a shift of focus in poerty to the cities, particularly Sydney and Melbourne, convicts, swagmen, struggles with the challenges of the “bush,” even a strange sense of homelessness among those who settled in Australia – seem to be enduring, dominant flavors in Australian poetry. Judith Wright in her poem, “Two Old Men” write, The trouble with our relationship to Australia is that we still don’t live here…We could move out perfectly easily, we still haven’t swallowed the place. It hasn’t even succeeded in swallowing us. [from P.K. Elkin Australian Poems in Perspective, p. 145]
This month’s poetic challenge is to suggest an internet search about Aussie poetry. I’ll leave you with a few lines as well as their poets and sources to whet your appetites [the slash symbol [/] indicates line breaks. Source for all quotes is P.K.Elkin’s Australian Poems in Perspective. U. QLD Press, 1978.
The road unravels as I go,/walking into the sun, the anaemic/ sun that lights Van Diemen’s land.
[from Michael Dransfield’s “Minstrel”, p. 216]
It is your land of similes: the wattle/Scatters its pollen on the doubting heart;/ [from James McAuley’s “Terra Australis”. p. 162]
Hello all you lovely writers! I decided to focus this blog on how poetry feeds good writing, whether it’s prose or poetry. I’ve always found my prose writing to be somewhat wordy, but wordiness in prose (especially nonfiction informational prose) tends to be the norm because that kind of writing emphasizes specificity. Specificity isn’t just achieved through rich and precise vocabulary; it’s also dependent on judicious use of conjunctions (and/therefore/but/ etc.) and prepositions (into/on/from/ etc.), as well as the humble definite and indefinite articles (the/a/an). Prose allows more frequent use of adjectives and adverbs. Poetry, on the other hand, is comparatively minimalistic, and perhaps this is one reason why image is the core of poetic language. The poetic composition entails not only visual image, but the latter brought alive through the poet’s skillful (and intuitive) weaving of sound and movement in combination with the visual.
A good exercise to prune and tighten some prose you may be writing is to engage in some conversion of prose to poetry and, similarly, from poetry to prose. Just take a chunk of each and arrange as if you were writing in the alternative genre. Don’t add words or delete words in the first instance. With prose, the golden rules of punctuation apply. With poetry, well, you know the poetry of e e cummings! This kind of play trains the brain to become more flexible, to consider alternatives in mid-flight. It opens up new linguistic habits. We tend to become as habituated in our uses of language as we do with which side of the bed we prefer to lie on. The next time you sit down to write, consider this kind of practice as a warm-up. You may be very surprised at what you discover. First, arrange the prose in poetic pattern, but retaining all the words used in the prose version. Then…play! See what happens when you make the transformation from poetic structure to prose with another piece of writing. I’ve provided an example below.
This kind of play > This play ─
trains the brain birds the brain ─
to become more flexible, to offers mid-flight alternatives.
consider alternatives in mid-flight.
This play ─ birds the brain ─ offers mid-flight alternatives (back to prose format). It breaks some conventions but it’s a tad less turgid, isn’t it?
Have fun! Check in next month. Cheers, Anna
As some of you know, I’ve recently made the southwest of Australia my home base though will be traversing the Pacific annually for at least the foreseeable future. Back here for only three weeks, hungry to explore recent writing, I was browsing through a sister’s personal library and found Joan London’s latest novel, “The Golden Age.” While in a convalescent home specifically for children with polio, Frank, the protagonist, discovers he “writes poetry.” As a nurse at the home delivers the news to him that his friend, Sullivan, has just died, two lines come to him:
"Oh why do you stand like this before me
Wringing your little red hands?"
So simple and yet so "poetic." That's poetry. Think of an event that you recall vividly and write your two simple lines in the style of those above that capture, without telling, the magnitude of that event. There will be much left unstated. Trust the image. Here are two lines that came to mind as I walked by the ocean this morning:
The pelican dipped her beak into the frothing sea-
A silver fin flashed its last glory.
Resolve to write at least one of these a day for a week. It's wonderful, disciplined practice, and who knows, may lead you to a longer poem that you had no idea had been waiting to be released. Till next month. Anna.
If you want to grow as a poet, making a habit of writing it regularly, is one way to “grow” the art. Doing exercises for the sake of stimulating poetry writing almost always yields some new learning, and even stimulates new ways of writing the familiar, but it is really the reading of poetry by a wide range of poets that feeds the poetic spirit. It’s an education in poetic sensibility that we don’t receive from other kinds of writing; nor do we receive it only from writing poetry.
It’s not so much that the work of published poets offers models, as about giving us ideas about how others craft their poetic work which we can experiment with in our own poetry. The poets many of us admire, learned to hone their craft mainly through reading poetry widely and prolifically, not solely (if at all) through attending classes and workshops. Reading poetry not only provides us with examples of how others practiced their craft, but is also a source of inspiration and creative stimulation.
It’s also vital that poetry is read aloud in order to fully engage the body as well as the heart and the mind. Poetry is a marriage of the senses, the mind and the heart, and reading it on the page doesn’t achieve the same physiological effect that reading it aloud always does. Let the lines and the content dictate the flow of the reading, not some formulaic pattern that has you stopping at the end of every line. Let yourself pause where the content suggests you pause, move on where the content suggests you move on ─ tune in and you’ll know how to read any poem.
Read aloud every phrase and line in the following two excerpts as you would eat one of your favorite foods…savor every bite with every taste-bud alert. Enjoy!
Is the soul solid, like iron?
Or is it tender and breakable, like
The wings of a moth in the beak of an owl?
[from Mary Oliver’s “Some Questions You Might Ask.” In S.Astley (ed.).
Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, 2003, p. 43]
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.
There is no happiness like mine.
I have been eating poetry.
[from Mark Strand’s “Eating Poetry.” In S.Astley (ed.).
Staying Alive: Real Poems for Unreal Times, 2003, p. 449]
If you want to grow as a poet, making a habit of writing it regularly, is one way to 'grow' the art. Doing exercises for the sake of stimulating poetry writing almost always yields some new learning, and even stimulates new ways of writing the familiar, but it is really the reading of poetry by a wide range of poets that feeds the poetic spirit. It's an education in poetic sensibility that we don't receive from other kinds of writing; nor do we receive it only from writing poetry.
It's not so much that the work of published poets offers models, as about giving us ideas about how others craft their poetic work which we can experiment with in our own poetry. The poets many of us admire, learned to hone their craft mainly through reading poetry widely and prolifically, not solely (if at all) through attending classes and workshops. Reading poetry not only provides us with examples of how others practiced their craft, but is also a source of inspiration and creative stimulation.
It's also vital that poetry is read aloud in order to fully engage the body as well as the heart and the mind. Poetry is a marriage of the senses, the mind and the heart, and reading it on the page doesn't achieve the same physiological effect that reading it aloud always does. Let the lines and the content dictate the flow of the reading, not some formulaic pattern that has you stopping at the end of every line. Let yourself pause where the content suggests you pause, move on where the content suggests you move on - tune in and you'll know how to read any poem.
Read aloud every phrase and line in the following two excerpts as you would eat one of your favorite foods savor every bite with every taste-bud alert. Enjoy!
Is the soul solid, like iron?
Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.