Saturday, 29 November 2014

Mark Strand dies, age 80

Some among you may have noticed I haven't posted anything in some time- the truth is that while some may feel a sense of exhilaration at casting their voice into the void and hearing nothing in return, I am not one of those. But I felt the need to post this upon the death of one of my favorite poets, Mark Strand. He has not featured previously in this blog largely because he is not a particularly 'accessible' poet- while his language is simple and direct he often deals in abstractions, with themes of nothingness and absence, our literal and figurative deaths. His imagery is often a bit surreal and dark, although I have often found his poetry to be like a delicious winter meal whose ingredients one can't quite identify but which come together under a wondrous gravy of melancholy. Certainly not everyone's taste but it has often been mine.

Here is a link to some of his poems on the Writer's Almanac podcast. Enjoy. RIP Mark. Thank you.

Saturday, 1 November 2014

RIP Galway Kinnell

Pulitzer-prize winning poet Galway Kinnell, a lifelong New Englander, recently died at his home in Vermont at the age of 87.

From his NY Times obituary:

Through it all, he held that it was the job of poets to bear witness. “To me,” he said, “poetry is somebody standing up, so to speak, and saying, with as little concealment as possible, what it is for him or her to be on earth at this moment.”

Here is a link to a tribute to Kinnell by his long-time friend C.K. Williams from The New Yorker:

Here is my favourite Kinnell poem and one of my favourite poems EVER (referred to in the above piece by Williams):

“Saint Francis and the Sow”

The bud
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
the long, perfect loveliness of sow.

-Galway Kinnell

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

A Metaphor for Poetry's Power

It's not often that long, boring car rides provide me with metaphors for how powerful poetry can be but recently I was on just such a drive and was visited by just such a metaphor. The road was long and straight and the scenery repetitive. The radio was playing top-forty trash which seemed to melt into one continuous whine punctuated by a monotonous bass line. I was driving on auto-pilot, no longer aware of my surroundings or what I was thinking at the time.

I gradually became aware of an eighteen-wheel tractor-trailer approaching in the distance although this 'awareness' was more like a nebulous shape forming from the fog of my subconscious than any tangible reality- that is until it was suddenly upon me, past me- and my car shuddered with the accordion of air its bulk was pushing before it and the vortex created behind it. I grabbed the wheel as my heart began to race and I was ripped from my stupor into a more vibrant consciousness where I became aware once again of where I was, the camber of the road, the scenery rushing past.

Good poetry is like that. It has the power to shake us out of the stupor we descend into far too readily and make us suddenly aware again of our surroundings. I'm not sure what kind of truck it was that passed me on the road. I don't know what it was carrying. I don't know where it had originated nor what its destination was. Those details were less important than the way its speed and the churning air around it suddenly transformed the way I was travelling. Sometimes I read a poem and may not know from whence it's come nor where it's headed. But there is something about the way it's going- perhaps the tone or language of the poem, perhaps only a single resonating image- that buffets me in its passing and makes me grip the wheel tighter and with more intention than before.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

September's Favourite Poet: Stu Bagby

September's choice is NZ local, Stu Bagby, highly regarded for his straightforward, conversational tone packed with subtle humor, irony, and feeling. For more biographical information, please check out the Favourite Poets page. Below are a few sample poems. Enjoy!

First dance

Father Doyle and the Sisters decide
a Dance is in order
for Standard Six, a secular
First communion (our parents joke)

to prepare us for life beyond
the Convent. The girls are transformed
from uniforms into beautiful strangers
whose language we boys can hardly

put voice to. I dance.
I dance with Barbara Hackett.
To Perry Como? To Elvis? We dance
to music we will never forget.

             *    *    *
Forty years  later I read of Berlioz
setting off in his sixties to find
the Girl with the Pink Shoes
with whom he once danced when he was twelve.

I don't remember what colour shoes
Barbara Hackett wore when we danced
or was wearing the next Friday night
when I met her out shopping with her mother.

We blushed, I remember that, and I remember
the way her mother looked at us.
She looked as if the whole wide world
was a very sad place.

Walking Red Beach

The off-duty sea
has gone out for the morning
so they can walk and talk
and come back by
the footprints they make,
which are firm and delicate
and moreover there,
and theirs alone.

But the sea sighs
and comes in once more,
a tireless housekeeper
who's seen it all before,

and must make the beach as it was,
and as it will be
when one will ask:
"Remember the time we walked Red Beach?"
And the other reply:
"No, no I don't remember that."

Small steps

Dakota Avenue 1969,
a small cottage rented,
a station on
our newly wed journey.

One bedroomed,
an old grapefruit tree
out back, successful
past imagination.

Coming home one night,
we looked up,
up to where men
were walking on the moon.

We say remember
a lot these days,
going as far back
as we can.

It's how we forget
all the small
fires that turned
away from us.

Queenstown '04

It's the air you notice first.
It's keener than the air
that you are used to breathing.

You're glad, difference after all
is what you've come here for.

And a large part of that entails
a view you've only seen
on films or glossy illustrations.

But the mountains have pulled clouds
around themselves
as if they're cold or modest,

or have small imperfections
they'd rather cover up
until they get to know you better.

coming to new places

is like being reminded of
the time a girl invited you to kiss her,
and then she changed her mind.

Poems reproduced with permission of the author

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

NEW: Jack Gilbert's 'Michiko Dead' in Favourite Poems

Michiko Dead is a powerful poem in which Gilbert likens the grief he feels over the death of his wife, the sculptor Michiko Nogami, to the way a man carries a heavy box. It is an extended metaphor (i.e., the metaphor continues throughout the entire length of the poem) and the way each line on the page runs into the next mirrors the way the subject of the poem tries to wrap his arms around a barely manageable load. The language is simple but the sentiment it so skillfully hints at makes it one of the best 'descriptions' of grief that I have ever read.  

August's Favourite Poet

Better late than never- August's poet is Jack Gilbert who wrote one of the all-time most heart-wrenching poems (see Favourite Poems page) entitled Michiko Dead. Check out the Favourite Poets page for links to Gilbert's bio and sample poems.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

New Poem added to Favourites

Lying in a hammock at William Duffy's farm at Pine Island, Minnesota by James Wright

is a haunting poem that I can read over and over again and find something new each time. The poem starts at a specific time and at a specific location and begins observationally in a pleasant, pastoral tone but by the second sentence I always sense some unease (why is the house empty?) and a kind of disassociation beginning to creep in (not cows following one another but cowbells).

How interesting the transformation of the horse droppings in the next line, but why are they last year's horses? It's an unusual syntax and adds to my sense of unease and discomfort. And then evening comes with the image of a predatory bird looking (but not finding?) home. By now, what can be read as a gentle nature poem has, for me, become something more sinister, although in a very subtle, understated way I find difficult to describe. And then- the dagger through the heart!

I have wasted my life. 

No matter how many times I read this poem, I find this line startling but also quite ambiguous. Has the poet had a sudden moment of utter despair, as sometimes afflicts all of us? Or conversely, is he rejoicing in this moment of intense observation and realising that he has previously walked blindly through his life? I love that this line is so unexpected and can be read in so many different ways. I don't care that I'll never know what James Wright intended- he has written something that continues to surprise and resonate- and for me, that is the essence of a 'favourite' poem!

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

July's 'Favourite Poet'

Jane Hirshfield- click on Favourite Poets tab above for more information and poems

What Makes Poetry Poetry?

Ahhh, the eternal question. Like many things (such as honesty or friendship) it is difficult to define but "you know it when you see it."

I recently came across a few short lines by American poet and teacher Marvin Bell who has tried to 'define' what makes something poetry:

Prose is prose because of what it includes; poetry is poetry because of what it leaves out.

What they say "there are no words for"--that's what poetry is for. Poetry uses words to go beyond words.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Can Poetry Be Resuscitated?

So poetry is dead- or, if not dead, then moribund.

The National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) surveyed over 37,000 Americans in 2012 to find out about their exposure to and participation in the arts (visual, literary, performance, etc.). Not surprisingly (but no less disappointingly) only 7% reported reading any poetry in the preceding year, a number down 55% from the same survey back in 2002!

How has poetry become so marginalised, so limited to a small, mostly academic audience in the US (and probably in most affluent 'western' cultures) when poetry and poets have been celebrated and revered in other cultures (e.g., Middle Eastern and Latin American) elsewhere in the world?

How at a time when the internet and social media can make poetry and dialogue about poetry so accessible, at a time when there is a plethora of creative writing programmes and literary journals, both online and in print, has poetry disappeared from public view?

One reason, as has been discussed in previous posts, is that the teaching of poetry at secondary (and probably university level as well) has had the chilling effect of making poetry seem inaccessible and esoteric. In its emphasis on the 'the classic' poems and poets (no disrespect toward Shakespeare, Yeats, Keats et al intended!) at the expense of more accessible, topical contemporary works, the traditional high school poetry curriculum has turned poetry into a historic relic to be studied from an emotional and temporal distance. In its emphasis on analysis rather than the aural and emotional impact of poetry, the traditional curriculum has turned the reading of poetry into a boring, intellectual exercise to be dreaded rather than embraced.

As Dana Gioia suggested in his 1991 essay entitled Can Poetry Matter?:

"Poetry teachers especially at the high school and undergraduate levels, should spend less time on analysis and more on performance. Poetry needs to be liberated from literary criticism. Poems should be memorized, recited, and performed. The sheer joy of the art must be emphasized. The pleasure of performance is what first attracts children to poetry, the sensual excitement of speaking and hearing the words of the poem. Performance was also the teaching technique that kept poetry vital for centuries. Maybe it also holds the key to poetry's future."

Despite the support poetry has received from academia (in the form of funded literary journals, teaching positions for poets, development of MFA programmes, etc.), its ever tighter and more claustrophobic  relationship with academia has also served to isolate it and reinforce its inaccessibility. As poetry has increasingly been drawn into the realm of academia for its survival, academia has, in turn, become increasingly protective of it. What has resulted from this relationship is a kind of poetry that is more inwardly and pedantically focused rather than an art form that speaks plainly to the quotidian experience of a wider readership.

Poetry can be resuscitated, but as the NEA data suggests, it must be done quickly. More than any other literary genre, poetry can easily fit inside a busy modern life. Unlike a novel, a book of poetry can be picked up and put down without losing one's place. One can begin in the middle or even the end if so inclined. Read it aloud or go listen to someone else read it. As William Carlos Williams warned in his poem Asphodel, That Greeny Flower:

                                    It is difficult
                     to get the news from poems
                              yet men die miserably every day
                                     for lack
                     of what is found there.

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

June's Favourite Poet

This month check out the writing of insurance salesman/poet Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate of the US. He's a great, accessible reintroduction to poetry for those still frightened and intimidated by it.

Monday, 9 June 2014

The Use of Tone in Poetry

Another key to the making and enjoyment of a good poem is the element of tone. The concept of tone is somewhat difficult to define but it can be thought of as the attitude of the poet (or the speaker of the poem) toward the poem or its subject matter- even toward the audience of the poem. The tone of the poem can carry loads of hidden meaning (remember your mother saying to you, I don’t like the tone of your voice?) or can itself be what the poem is ‘about.’ The tone can be laid out or amplified by the language the poet uses, the imagery, the meter, and the diction.

One of my favorite examples of how effectively tone can be used to carry the weight of a poem is Robert Hayden’s Those Winter Sundays: (to hear Robert Hayden movingly read this poem, click here.)

Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?

This is a poem of reticence, a cold, angry place but what makes it so memorable is that it is also a place of reverence for the poet’s father and regret for the poet’s self-centeredness and lack of insight. The first stanza is full of hard consonant sounds (especially ‘k’ : blueblack cold, cracked hands that ached, banked fires) that sets the reader down in a cold, angry, relentlessly blue-collar place that slowly begins to warm in both temperature and language though the father, whose simple yet profound actions on behalf of the poet elevate him to a lofty position, remains largely unreachable. One can almost feel Hayden’s aching remorse in those last two lines, the repetition of the first half of his question emphasizing the obvious, unspoken answer.

Another favorite is Jack  Gilbert’s Michiko Dead which details how the poet has dealt with the death of his wife. It’s tone is amazingly devoid of any hint of sorrow but is quite matter-of-factual about how one deals with tremendous grief. It is that very understated, detail-laden tone that gives the poem its lasting power (Notice too how the appearance of the poem on the page mimics the very box he describes carrying!):

He manages like somebody carrying a box   
that is too heavy, first with his arms
underneath. When their strength gives out,   
he moves the hands forward, hooking them   
on the corners, pulling the weight against   
his chest. He moves his thumbs slightly   
when the fingers begin to tire, and it makes   
different muscles take over. Afterward,
he carries it on his shoulder, until the blood   
drains out of the arm that is stretched up
to steady the box and the arm goes numb. But now   
the man can hold underneath again, so that   
he can go on without ever putting the box down.

Tone does not need to be one-dimensional. It can also shift, sometimes abruptly, which can add to the enjoyment of the poem. A good example of this is in Richard Wilbur’s  A Barred Owl:

The warping night air having brought the boom
Of an owl’s voice into her darkened room,
We tell the wakened child that all she heard
Was an odd question from a forest bird,
Asking of us, if rightly listened to,
“Who cooks for you?” and then “Who cooks for you?”

Words, which can make our terrors bravely clear,
Can also thus domesticate a fear,
And send a small child back to sleep at night
Not listening for the sound of stealthy flight
Or dreaming of some small thing in a claw
Borne up to some dark branch and eaten raw.

The first stanza delightfully describes the calming of a small child who has been frightened by the sound of an owl. It is very domestic and calming in its tone but this tone abruptly shifts in the poem’s second stanza wherein the poet revisits the gruesome truth behind the parent’s/poet’s soothing words. The abruptness of the change lends a sinister air to the obscuring power of words.

The tone of a poem is an element of the poem’s presentation that can often be felt viscerally and requires no special degree in Poetics and Prosody to appreciate. Try reading the next poem you read (and I hope that it will be soon) with a little less trepidation, secure in the knowledge that by listening and feeling for the poem’s tone, you are ‘getting’ a good deal of what the poem is likely ‘about.’

Monday, 12 May 2014

May's Favourite Poet

In keeping with my last post, Thomas Lux is May's Poet of the Month. Check under the Favourite Poets tab above for links to biographical information, sample poems, and audio of Lux reading some of his poems.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Thomas Lux on What Poetry is "About"

One of the best monologues you'll see on the de-mystification of poetry. Lux eloquently breaks down the themes of poetry to just two: Love and Death (although I might add Alienation as a third!). He then goes on to discuss the writing of poetry and how it is based in hard work rather than the traditional notion of inspiration- a wonderful, down-to-earth poet discussing his vision of poetry in a straightforward, down-to-earth way. He engagingly reads one of his better known poems called Soup Teachers and finishes with a lovely and amazing Pablo Neruda poem about tomatoes (though really about Love and Death simultaneously! To watch it now, click here.

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

April's Favourite Poet

Linda Pastan's poems may be slightly dark for the optimistic month of April but they are nonetheless accessible and joyful to read.

Look under the Favourite Poets tab above for a link to biographical info and selected poems. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

March's Poet

This month's "Favourite Poet" is New Zealander, Bob Orr. (No, not Bobby Orr, the Boston Bruins hockey legend!). Check out his poetry and hear him read from his work under the Favourite Poets tab.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014

Breaking Down Poetic Barriers: Imagery

Poetry does not need to be approached as though the reader is a WWII codebreaker and the success of the Allied war-effort is at stake, although one does need to have some familiarity with the common elements of poetic language. Tony Hoagland has a website/seminar (called Five Powers of Poetry) for teachers of poetry which discusses some of these key elements in relatively simple, straightforward language. It's well worth looking at if you're interested in poetry but have been taught to fear it.

The first of these five powers is IMAGE.

 In my stripped-down, non-academic approach to imagery, I think of three main kinds of image-making, although I'm sure there are others:

1. Description

From Jane Kenyon's poem, After the Dinner Party :

A late-blooming burgundy hollyhock sways
across the kitchen window in a light breeze
as I draw a tumbler of well-water at the sink.

This is a good example of descriptive imagery. It serves to set the scene of the poem as well as the tone and voice of the poet (quiet, conversational, domestic). By itself, it's power is substantial but limited.

2. Simile

This is the 'like' or 'as' statement most of us are familiar with from English 101. Sticking with Jane Kenyon for now, from her poem, At the Public Market Museum: Charleston, South Carolina:

A volunteer, a Daughter of the Confederacy,
receives my admission and points the way.
Here are gray jackets with holes in them,
red sashes with individual flourishes,
things soft as flesh. Someone sewed ...

Here is a good example of how simile is just that much more powerful, that much more evocative than pure description, how it can further the poetic intent just that much more.

By the way, notice the power of a good line break as well, which I've included after the simile. The line can then also be read, "things soft as flesh someone sewed" which adds another layer of meaning (sutured up after being shot?) without saying anything directly.

3. Metaphor

The grandaddy of imagistic mechanisms. Imagery on steroids, if you like. Milan Kundera, author of The Unbearable Lightness of Being, says it well:

Metaphors can be created by the clever use of a single word (e.g., verb or adverb) as in Kenyon's poem, Walking Notes: Hamden, Connecticut:

My daily walk takes me past a house
where roses scramble lustily
up the trellises ...

Here, in the personification of the roses which scramble lustily, she suggests a sexual energy, a primal urge that contrasts starkly with the staid, suburban neighbourhood she is exploring.

And from Last Days:

Over the orchard a truly black cloud appeared.
Then horizontal rain began, and apples fell
before their time. Leaves blew
in phalanxes along the ground.

Here, Kenyon, in this poem about the illness and impending death of the subject of the poem begins the poem with imagery of battle, of war, with the apples falling like young soldiers and the leaves moving in phalanxes, which are columns or tight formations of soldiers. But here's where metaphor gives the poet the most bang for the buck: phalanxes are also bones in the hand and it is almost as though the leaves are also the bony fingers of Death coming to claim the subject of the poem! The use of this imagery says things within the poem that the poet cannot, at least not without sounding simplistic and overwrought.

So when next reading poetry (and I hope it will be soon!) keep an eye out for the imagery of the poem and notice how it sets a mood or establishes the voice of the poet or how it might further the event of the poem. But even it you can't figure out what the poem is about, many times the images by themselves, in the way they make you feel or through the other images and thoughts they conjure in a kind of poetic chain-reaction, make the poem enjoyable and worthwhile!

Monday, 3 February 2014

February's "Favourite Poet"

Drum-roll please..... Stephen Dunn: Click 'Favourite Poets' tab for a link to several sample poems and his biography.

Sunday, 2 February 2014


Modern psychiatry now has a name for it- so it must be real!

METROPHOBIA- a disabling fear of poetry, often induced by traumatic early experiences at the hands of well-intentioned but mis-guided poetry teachers who are often times themselves suffering from the same malady. And so the cycle of fear and loathing is perpetuated...

Treatment often includes regression therapy in an effort to expunge the previously imprinted notions of what poetry is and how it must be read and the daily ingestion of well-written poems that can be experienced and enjoyed by readers at all stages of their recovery.

If the thought of reading poetry brings on palpitations, shortness of breath, sweatiness or persistent piloerection, please see your doctor.

Here's one of my favourite scenes from Dead Poets Society which accurately depicts one of the early critical steps in the recovery process!

Friday, 24 January 2014

Book Publication!

Thrilled to report that my first book-length collection of poems has just been published! Entitled A Long Commute Home, it is a collection of old and new poems which, though not strictly auto-biographical, reflect the span of my life across years and two hemispheres. The book feels like a full-stop at the end of a long, run-on sentence!

It's available in print in New Zealand (though still sorting through details about how and where it will be available) and in ebook format for Kindle and iPad/iBook users.

If you are a Kindle user, click here.

If you're an iPhone, iPad, iBook kinda person, click here instead.

I hope you enjoy the poems! Feel free to share with others and to send along your thoughts, comments, reviews.

Thursday, 23 January 2014

Enlightening interview

For those of you who like to delve into how a poet thinks about the world, how and where they derive their inspiration, what their poems may be 'about,' here is a wonderful interview with Jane Hirshfield, a poet, essayist, and translator who will no doubt be a "Favourite Poet on this blog. Enjoy!

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

January's Poet

January's poet is Mary Oliver (See Favourite Poets, above) whose poetry always makes me think of a cross between Buddhism and the English Romantic poets like Keats, Wordsworth, and Shelley. Her poems are an exercise in listening and observation, both in their writing and their reading. Enjoy!