End of Year Visit

While visiting relatives a couple of weeks ago, a young woman – a relative’s relative’s girlfriend – said, “It just started happening” as an explanation for a phone’s sudden malfunction. I thought this was a great phrase and that it would be a great lead in to a poem. Unfortunately, I think the young woman thought I was making fun of her when I commented on how great the comment was. Or maybe she didn’t understand how I could get excited over such a banal statement. I guess in retrospect, it was a little odd to get excited over it and forgive her for acting creeped out by me and avoiding me the rest of the afternoon.

As with so many of my poems, the development of “End of Year Visit” came in three stages. The first inkling of it began after the line was given to me by the young woman mentioned above. Then, a Thanksgiving eve snowstorm came up the coast and spread inland reaching us here in Vermont. And lastly, I’ve been enjoying some weaving over the past couple of days, thanks to this quiet Thanksgiving long weekend.

POEM:
End of Year Visit

It just started happening—
a few small flakes meandered by the window
floated down to the stiff grass still packed
with greenness, where each crystal stuck,
one upon another upon another upon another.
In the kitchen, I took a pie from the oven,
turned to the sink under the window to see
it just start happening—
the snow amassing now like traffic
near rush hour, not quite rush hour,
but like those folks who get an early start,
so many of them they almost cause
a pre-rush hour rush hour.

I went upstairs to make up the beds,
pausing in one of the now-vacant rooms,
sheets smelling of spring heaped in my arms,
and watched through a second story window
any last hint of sun fade to gray
and the entire front meadow slowly disappear
under marching snow, the mountain
that usually anchors earth to sky,
already erased. It just started happening—
the advance of a great white wall
built from billions of individual swirling bits
like holiday shoppers whipped into a frenzied
search for unnecessary things by some imaginary cause.

I dropped the sheets in a lump on the third
bed, and while descending the stairs, caught
my reflection in the mirror, a gilded square
hung among the many framed images
on the wall. Two seconds to see the shape
of my face was still mostly in tact, but the wrinkles
were beginning their work. It just started
happening—in the landing window, snow
now hung in clumps on the screen outside the glass.
Back in the kitchen, I turned a flame high under the kettle.
Against the couch leaned a small loom,
shaped like a window, and I picked it up,
settled down and began to weave.

ELEMENT:
Found Poems

In a found poem, the poet reuses text – sometimes small snippets and sometimes large excerpts – that has appeared elsewhere. “Elsewhere” may be in other poems, on walls as graffiti, in a bit of conversation, or any other place in the world. When I heard the young woman say, “It just started happening,” I knew I would use it in a poem. In fact, I thought at the time and still do, that this could be the start of dozens of poems, all very different from one another in content and style. It’s a great writing prompt.

You can find a definition of a found poem in The Book of Forms by Lewis Turco, that whacky poet who at a lecture that I attended at Stonecoast, called Walt Whitman a sissy (whatever, Turco. Have you never read any of Whitman’s 43 poems about the Civil War and when he traveled to Washington to nurse the wounded, such as “Come Up from the Fields Father,” or “A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray and Dim”? Here is a link to An Introduction to Walt Whitman’s Civil War Years). Still, Turco knows his forms and here is his definition:

“A Found Poem is poetry discovered in a place where one would never expect it to be…” (p. 187).

Ok, so it’s brief. But Turco does pack in a lot of information in his 312 page book all about different poetry forms. Turco does go on to give us a couple of examples of found poetry, but I like the one that I found on the Academy of American Poets website, poetry.org, better. It is by Charles Reznikoff who created some of his poetry from law reports (and who has a pretty interesting background, a mon avis). Here’s an excerpt from one:

Amelia was just fourteen and out of the orphan asylum; at her
first job–in the bindery, and yes sir, yes ma’am, oh, so
anxious to please.
She stood at the table, her blond hair hanging about her
shoulders, “knocking up” for Mary and Sadie, the stichers
(“knocking up” is counting books and stacking them in piles to
be taken away).

A common way of “finding” a poem is by selecting words from a larger and non-poetic text. The words can be chosen randomly for a surprise effect. Or, sometimes words just seem to jump out from a text and they seem to select you instead. There are thousands of examples of found poetry on Pinterest, many quite moving and exquisite. In the above poem, “End of Year Visit,” instead of using a found printed text, I used a found phrase someone said as a trigger to write my poem, but it also became one of the themes to the poem and highlights how so many things just seem to happen to us without any effort (or due to no effort) on our part before we realize the years have slipped away.

Many well-known poets, such as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and William Carlos Williams wrote poetry that was composed with found text. Even Homer and Virgil incorporated found text into their works creating a particular type of found poem, the cento, which uses lines of poetry from other poets. The cento is a type of collage poem, and a true cento is made up entirely of lines from other poems. I’ve written one that is 10 pages long and hope to have published soon. More about that on another post.

If you think you are not a poet, try writing a found poem. By paying closer attention to particular words and phrases around you, whether they lie on the page or travel through the air, I am sure you will be surprised at the hidden messages surrounding you and the revelations you will discover.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Norns – the weavers of fate in Norse mythology

About Nature

We need a paradigm shift in order to save the planet. It is a shift to some very simplistic thinking that, if we believed it and followed it, would make all other decisions and efforts regarding the environment easy. This is a shift to caring for each other, for each individual’s well being. Saving the planet begins with the respect of each other.

Walt Whitman had this idea and said it this way in Leaves of Grass:
+++In all people I see myself; none more and not one a barley-corn less,
+++And the good or bad I say of myself, I say of them.”

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that we are above the rest of nature. I am saying that we are such a part of nature that not being as concerned with each other as much as we are concerned with the land, ocean, and air will stymie all of our efforts in these other areas. I am saying that we have to approach caring for each other as we would approach caring for the jaguar.

I’m also not saying that a religious approach to this would work. In fact, I would argue that religion gets in the way of respecting each other. We can’t seem to get over whose god is the right one so I’d suggest we set our gods aside if we want to save the earth.

Comedian George Carlin had the same idea and said it this way:

“We’re so self-important. So arrogant. Everybody’s going to save something now. Save the trees, save the bees, save the whales, save the snails. And the supreme arrogance? Save the planet! Are these people kidding? Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves; we haven’t learned how to care for one another.. . . And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with the planet in the first place. … Compared with the people, the planet is doin’ great. It’s been here over four billion years . . . The planet isn’t goin’ anywhere, folks. We are! We’re goin’ away. Pack your shit, we’re goin’ away. And we won’t leave much of a trace. Thank God for that. Nothing left. Maybe a little Styrofoam. The planet will be here, and we’ll be gone. Another failed mutation; another closed-end biological mistake.”

George was right. We haven’t figured out how to care for ourselves.

If we really truly care for each other, caring for the rest will naturally follow. Cultures in which each individual is not respected – in which women or the poor are oppressed, for example (and you must include our country in this; we are one of the least caring of nations) – will never reach the measures needed to protect the planet. We must look at the bigger cost of our conveniences and expenditures to see who suffers at the price of a bottle of water or a gallon of gasoline. Who really pays for the American nuclear waste site or the oil spill along an African coast or the garbage in the ocean?

As a side note: To learn about how the environmental policies of Obama and Romney fair, read the article “Climate Change and the 2012 Presidential Debate” on one of The Boulder Stand blogs, which happens to be written by my daughter Lucy Higgins. The Boulder Stand, an on-line publication, “publishes and promotes the work of journalists, researchers and thinkers connected to the Boulder community–a nexus of science, technology and environmental research.”

Thoreau wrote: “In Wildness is the Preservation of the World.” I would argue that in the respect of each individual in every culture is the preservation of the wildness.

POEM:
About Nature

See that woman over there?  The one working along side you? Or the one
+++nursing 
her baby? Or the one with the burka? Or the one hauling water? She
+++is not 
your mother, sister, daughter.  She is
You. And because she is you,
You will make sure her water is accessible and clean.
You will not overtake her body, her house, her land because you understand her
 need +++for her to make decisions for her own being, her own shelter, her own
+++
sustenance.
You will care that she has food that is pure, healthy, abundant. Because she is you,
You will make sure the land is rich in natural nutrients, not chemicals;
You will see that cows eat what is normal for cows to eat so that
You eat what is normal to eat.
You will not grow or sell grain for the purpose of profit but for the purpose of
 respect
+++to those who will eat it with you.
You will not hoard water from those who are downstream. How can you drink
+++water 
that isn’t there?
You will not pour hazardous waste in to the streams. How can you drink
+++contaminated water?
You will not dump hazardous waste near any body. If you really care,
You will make sure there is no hazardous waste to dump.
You will allow a patch of garden for her because she is you and your body 
must
+++absorb what it was meant to absorb.
You will conserve, using resources respectfully instead of greedily so that you will
+++always have resources.
You will allow access to education, to the development of her mind, which is your
+++
mind, and allow access to the development of her spirit, which is your spirit.

See the child in that woman’s arms? It is you. It is not your son or daughter, but is
You.
You will allow the child to be a child by providing basic needs.  After all,
You need to eat food that is grown nearby in soil that is rich;
You need shelter that protects you from rain, storms, sun, snow, people;
You need clean water. Because you are the child,
You need access to safe streets, music, trees…

ELEMENT:
Anaphora

Anaphora is a term with its roots in Greek, meaning “a carrying up or back.” As a literary device, it refers to the repetition of an opening word or phrase and works as a type of parallelism throughout the poem or other pieces of writing, such as the short story “The Things They Carried” by Tim O’Brien. The repetition of opening phrases can often resemble a litany. In fact, as “one of the world’s oldest poetic techniques, anaphora is used in much of the world’s religious and devotional poetry, including numerous Biblical Psalms” (from poets.org – see link below).

The repetition of the beginning word or phrase thrusts the reader into each line, renewing and emphasizing the point. Anaphoric lines can also create a list-like effect. Walt Whitman used the technique frequently in his long poems and it is those poems I used as a model for the one above.  If you skim through Leaves of Grass, you will find anaphora such as in “I Hear America Singing”:
             I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
            Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should blithe and strong,
            The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
            The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
            The boatman singing…
            The shoemaker singing…
            The wood-cutter’s son…

Other anaphoric phrases that Whitman used include “Chants of…,” “I will…,” “See…,” “I know…,” “In vain…,” among many, many others including those found in one of his most famous poems “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking.”

While perhaps we think of Whitman first for the use of anaphora, William Shakespeare used it in many of his pieces and Allen Ginsberg used it in his most famous poem, “Howl.”

Anaphora emphasizes the particular emotional tone of a poem and this is what I hope happens in the poem “About Nature.” Beginning so many lines with “You will” and later in the poem with “You need,” the intent is to constantly connect the reader back to well-being of every woman, child, or man on the planet.  Additionally, the repetition is intended to drive home that each of us has a responsibility for caring for each other.

Related Links (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
More on Anaphora at poets.org
Seeds of Self Reliance
Childhood Poverty Research and Policy Centre
SocialEarth
The Walt Whitman Archive

 

Running In The Woods

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If I showed you this poem:

The Runner

On a flat road runs the well-train’d runner,
He is lean and sinewy with muscular legs,
He is thinly clothed, he leans forward as he runs,
With lightly closed fists and arms partially rais’d.

would you guess that it was written in 1867 by Walt Whitman?  Whitman describes the runner exactly as we still see him or her today, the body, the clothes, the stance. Whitman is one of my favorite poets as is Tim Seibles, whom I met and worked with at the USM Stonecoast MFA program. I had the honor of hearing Seibles read his poem, “Renegades,” from his book Buffalo Head Solos on Bowdoin campus a few years ago.  This poem about running is, of course, not about running. As with all good poems, much more lies beneath the surface.

 

POEM:
Running in the Woods

Pulled into trees, lifting
knees, feet rebound
off rotting logs, my feet,
thump, slip in and out
of animal holes, homes.
Don’t see spider webs
grab at me, mask my
face with sticky lace;
I am not afraid,
cannot be afraid
running through the woods.
Faster now, the earth
starts spinning under-
neath me; I am leaping,
dodging, skimming mush-
rooms that glow white
in the underbrush, shine
red in the black earth,
even purple between
the ferns. Suddenly
I spook a grouse, my heart
thumps to its thrumming
wings and my feet speed
up, echo the beat;
the bird is gone. Can’t
be afraid. Listen.
It’s just the wind creaking
trees, clicking sapling
trunks together. I jump,
run, jump the forest’s
lumpy blanket, buried
stumps, decaying timber.
Sticks snatch clothes,
scratch legs, draw blood that I
won’t see until I’m home.
I trip as I look up.
Vines tangle, snake
around. I slip on leaves
catch myself with calloused
hands, scramble up
ridges, now slower, so
think: What if I
meet a moose, six feet
high at the shoulder?
I see its scat all over,
leap every pellet-
filled pile of it.
Run. What if I
meet a bear, fat,
scratching, waiting, ready
for winter weather? I see its
claw marks climb the beech
trees. Run. I cannot
be afraid when the sun
dips, stoops too low,
too low to help me through
darkened woods. I’ve
mistook that ridge before,
it’s not the last this side
of home. I have another
hill to climb, another
mile, another valley
to go before I’m home.
I’m not afraid. I run.

ELEMENT:
Repetition

Poetry is all about repetition: repetition of sound, word, line, meter, content.

The repetition of beginning sounds in words (alliteration), vowel sounds (assonance), and end sounds (rhyme) makes a poem sing.  Sound repetition lets you know what words to invite into the poem. After all, shouldn’t you always invite your relatives into the house? (Okay, maybe I shouldn’t use that analogy). But what I mean is an “o” sound as in “home” invites in another “o” word such as “alone” into the poem.  “Home alone” sounds a heck of a lot better than “home by myself.”

I love repetition in poems and songs, but other than the sound repetition, I find it difficult to incorporate successfully. Repetition of words only works if done enough and not overdone. Repetition is good at medium-rare. Too much and the meaning’s burnt, not enough and it’s undetectable, inedible, indigestible.

Meter is the repetition of a particular pattern of stressed and non-stressed syllables. While I can hear iambs and trochees, anapests, and dactyls in many of poems I read, it’s still a challenge to get the meter “right” in my own poetry.  I have to work at it, and hopefully I have the intended trochaic trimeter pattern in “Running In The Woods.” (After having finished this poem and rereading the chapter on trochees in The Exaltation of Forms, I was reminded that trochee comes from the Greek word “to run.” Of course this poem has to be in trochaic form!). I have to acknowledge Charles Martin here, who must have asked a hundred times in the workshop I had with him, “What is the prosodic convention of this poem?” I cannot start a poem now without hearing him say this, which was his intent, no doubt.

A great example, in my opinion, of perfect sound, word, line, and meter repetition is in Robert Burns’ poem “Song Composed in August.” I first heard this poem as a song many years ago on an album by Scottish singer and song-writer Dick Gaughan. I searched for the lyrics on line and learned it was a Robbie Burns poem written in 1783. During my recent trip to Scotland, I decided I’d memorize the 40-line poem while touring the country, and wrote each stanza until I had it memorized then moved on to the next. I hadn’t intended to learn so much about repetition in such an intimate way. By memorizing the poem, however, I saw the patterns of words, rhyme, and meter that I would have otherwise missed.

Which brings me to another point of repetition: repetition of content. It was Andre Gide who said, “Everything that needs to be said has already been said. But, since no one was listening, everything must be said again.”  I love this. It gives me free rein (free reign?) to say whatever I want to say, since we’re all just saying the same thing everyone else has already said. I read this quote most recently in the book, Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon. He discusses in a quick-light-cartoonish-way how to steal others material and make it your own. Repetition with originality.

 

 

Erica Vega, up and coming poet extraordinaire, gave an excellent presentation during our last residency at Stonecoast, which was titled “Cycling: The Influence of Another’s Fire.” During her presentation, Vega discussed that the “essence of inspiration is influence” and what we create is based upon who we choose to read, watch, and listen to. We repeat the work of others’ with our own twist. (Case in point: can you pick up elements of Robert Frost’s “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening” at the end of my poem above? It surprised me even, but there you have the dark woods, the additional mile to go at the end. I happen to love Frost’s work ). One of the ways in which we can learn and be inspired, Vega asserted, is through writing down the work of someone else, exactly, as Hunter S. Thompson did with the Great Gatsby. As Vega did with Salinger’s short story “A Perfect Day For Bananafish.” As I did with Burn’s poem. In writing down someone else’s work, I am not writing to copy it, but writing to learn, learn techniques, tone, vocabulary, sentence construction, mastery.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, etc.):
Teaching the Art of Poetry by Baron Wormser and David Cappella. Great chapter on repetition  in this book!
Quick Meter Reference Guide – iamb, trochee, anapest, dactyl, and spondee,
An Exaltation of Forms, Contemporary Poets Celebrate the Diversity of Their Art, edited by Annie Finch and Katherine Varnes
Sinnerman, traditional spiritual sung by Nina Simone. Great example of the power of repetition.