Spring Plowing

Although April is almost over, it doesn’t look or feel like it’s even begun yet here in northern Vermont. One sure sign it’s April, though, is Mary Jane Dickerson’s annual poetry workshop at the Jericho library. This year’s theme, History and the Poetic Imagination, has led to a variety of poetry from the 15 participants, who will have the opportunity to share their new work this evening at the Deborah Rawson library in Underhill at 6:30. I’ll be reading the poem I’ve written for it, which I include as today’s post.

POEM:
Spring Plowing

With the girls grown and he, too, gone,
she stood at the edge of the fallow field,

behind the two horses—Fetch and Freya—
looking toward their flanks. She clucked

and the team began their work, white fetlock
feathers swishing like snow in storms

finished for the season, sweeping the grass
still brittle and brown as under the single blade

plow the earth roiled, rolled up and under itself
in constant undulation of revelation

and concealment. She trod in the six-inch trench
they cut, knowing the first pass must be straight

to set the pattern for following rows, and locked
her calloused hands on the wooden handles

trying to control the jump of the blade
should it hit rock or start to veer off course.

She cooed the horses’ names, felt the sureness
of this one thing. At the end of the first furrow,

she threw the blade to its side and let the team
continue a few yards before calling: Haw!

Come round Fetch! Come round Freya girl!
and stopped them at the edge of the second pass.

She sat down then, out of shape from winter’s
indoor work. She’d been proud, once, of the farm,

of him, even of herself, but now the sharp
edge of the plow lying a few feet away,
the black rump of Fetch, and Freya’s
champagne mane, and their waiting
for a simple command, humbled her.
She studied Fetch, and snorted herself.
She had more in common with the horse–
a temper and a restlessness–than she’d ever
had with her own husband. Fetch stamped.

She stood up and put the horses in motion. She wanted
the beautiful tension of tugs between horses and plow,

plow and arms and her whole self, a balance she’d watched
him patiently create over the years as he learned

how to orchestrate the crude instrument, the creatures.
She knew what sweet rhythm could rise from this labor.

Her ankles twisted in the ruts behind the horses’ sure
plod. By the end of the second row, sweat shone

on the team’s backs and she set them up for the third
furrow before resting them, wiped her sleeve along

her own forehead. What good was it all now?
Was she wasting her time? She could leave,
follow the girls and live comfortably with one
or the other. They’d have her, probably would
be relieved if she gave up depending on rain
and sun, the cold wet mornings, wind in February,
August dust. She narrowed her eyes at the team;
they had a long way to go, and there was life
in her yet. She would make it. She’d shown the girls

how to do it, hadn’t she? She had plenty of time, years even.
Forecast for the week was good. Fetch! Freya! Come up!

ELEMENT:
Feedback

Feedback isn’t exactly an element of poetry, but it’s an important aspect of writing poetry. A tricky aspect at that. I workshopped the above poem with a small group of poets when we split in to two groups at Mary Jane’s workshop mentioned above. I also showed it to my good friend and accomplished writer and artist Nancy Hayden from The Farm Between. It was especially important to get her feedback as she has actually plowed with horses. I also received feedback from Mary Jane in a one:one conference and from another poet-friend, Patricia Fontaine.

It’s good to get feedback from 1. people you trust and respect; 2. people who know something about the topic you’re writing; 3. people who are well-versed in writing themselves, especially in the genre in which you write.

That doesn’t mean that getting feedback is easy. My heart races when I ask someone to read my poem for the first time, and I have to try hard not to get defensive when they question a decision I’ve made about the poem. But by choosing people carefully to critique my work – not people who are going to think everything I write is great – I create much better poetry.

One of the best persons I’ve received feedback from is Neil Shepard. It’s not because Neil loves everything I write. It’s because Neil takes what I write seriously and puts in a lot of thought about what I’ve written. In his feedback, he references other poems and texts for me to check out and analyzes what I’m doing even though I might not even know I’m doing it.

Getting feedback can be hard, but giving feedback can be difficult, too. There’s a way to do it so the person will listen and a way to do it so the person becomes angry and defensive and doesn’t take your advice, no matter how good it is. Two bits of feedback advice that I try to remember is 1. the writing workshop purpose is to keep the writer writing; 2. there isn’t such a thing as a bad poem, only poems that aren’t finished yet. Okay. Some poems might be a looooonnnngggg way from being finished, but chances are if the person took the time to write it down and share, there’s a nugget of something to shape into a gem.

Sometimes I share a poem when it isn’t ready to share. It’s not a good thing to do. Just because I’ve written down something on paper doesn’t make it worthy of someone else’s time. Share your poetry when you can’t take it any further by yourself and when you’re distant enough from it so that you can stand to have someone suggest changes.

Most of the poems in this blog are quick-writes and early drafts that I have subsequently changed through revision and feedback. Once I’ve emotionally distanced myself sufficiently from the initial creation, it can be fun to go back and see what I can do with it, armed with ideas and suggestions from the supportive critics that I know and trust.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):

These aren't draft horses but cute (and old) Shetland ponies. Taken on the Shetland Islands, Scotland, 2013.

These aren’t draft horses but cute (and old) Shetland ponies. Taken on the Shetland Islands, Scotland, 2013.

Fetch – Irish Mythology 

Freya – Norse Goddess 

 

 

 

 

 

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

Today’s Work

I have six Shetland sheep. They are pets so I named them all. Ruby and Tess are twins with beautiful brown fleece. They were the first sheep I brought home. Then I took a wether from my friend because he was going to be lamb chops, and I couldn’t stand the thought of it. I named him Pan. He is white but has cool black markings around his edges, that is, his face, hind quarters and belly. He’s got cool black horns. This summer I purchased another set of twin lambs with sweet little white faces: Bonnie and Sergeant Butterscotch. Their wool color is ever-changing. Shetland sheep do that. In fact, you never know after a shearing what color will grow in next. The sixth sheep is darling little Merlin, the black sheep of the flock. You can learn a lot from animals.

POEM:
Today’s Work

The first task I finished
was picking through the last
batch of wool, sheared from one
of the twins, my fingers lost
in the brown fleece, warm,
and greasy as I plucked fibers
to get to embedded seed heads
and timothy burrs, caught, carried,
and buried, small burdens
that had created so much work,
tucked inside such an unassuming
surface until I discovered each one
as a little lump and pulled apart
all that clung to it, pulled out
each tiny sun that no longer burned.

I do not recall what I accomplished
the rest of the day. It did not matter.

ELEMENT:
Assonance and Consonance in Poetry

One cannot talk about poetry without talking about sound. After all, poetry’s roots are in music and song and the definition of poetry encompasses elements of music: rhythm, meter, patterns of repetition. With sound comes additional meaning. Perhaps the repeated sounds within a poem create a particular mood. They certainly create pleasure for the listener. Rhyme – the repetition of end sounds – is often thought to be the key sound found in poems, but there is more than rhyme that meets the ear. Sound can also be emphasized in the repetition of vowel sounds found anywhere in the word. This is called assonance. An example can be seen in Robert Burns, “Song Composed in August”:

Now waving grain, wide o’er the plain…

This line does include internal rhyme (rhyming within the line: grain, plain), but it also includes that long a sound found in the word waving. Try substituting another word for waving and it doesn’t sound nearly as delightful. That long a sound works with the meaning of the word to expand the view of that plain.

Particular vowel sounds can create certain moods. The assonance when using the oo sound can be soothing. The repetition of ee can be creepy, eerie. In the above poem, “Today’s Work,” the short u sound kept cropping up. I try to pay attention when a particular sound presents itself a few times. Is it coincidence that the words I’m selecting have similar sounds or is what I’m writing conducive to certain words with those sounds? After I have the first draft (or two) of a poem, I reexamine it for sound. What is happening, sound-wise, at the beginning of this poem? There is the assonance in finished and picking, the assonance of task, last and batch, then that of fleece and greasy, followed by embedded and head – perhaps enough repetition to make it sound pleasant. But with the introduction of the phrase “much work” there is a long series of repeated u sounds: much, tucked, such, unassuming, discovered, one, lump, clung, sun. (A sound can be spelled many different ways). What is going on here? Why all these short u sounds? Some of them came into the poem naturally, but once I noticed a few I worked in more. Why? I don’t know. I thought it sounded good and then there was something about the chug, chug, chug of the tedious work it takes to pull out all those darn little seed heads from a large fleece. That ugly little u sound seems to emphasize the work.

Consonance – the repetition of consonants within and among words – is also a sound element that adds layers to a poem. Look again at the Burns’ line from above along with the line that follows it:

Now waving grain, wide o’er the plain,
delights the weary farmer…

We hear in these lines a repetition of the initial w sound in waving, wide, and weary, giving breathlessness to the lines and adding more emphasis to the grandeur of the farm and the exhaustion of the farmer. The repetition of the initial consonant sound in words is called alliteration. As Baron Wormser and David Cappella explains in their book, Teaching The Art of Poetry: The Moves, “Alliteration is a quickener, a stimulant…” (27). This is especially so when used in close succession to each other as in many nursery rhymes, tongue twisters, and jump rope songs.

In addition to the alliteration in the two lines of Burns above, we also hear the repeated l sound in the words plain and delights, which connect one line to the next, lulling us further into the song, or rather, poem. A third instance of consonance in the couplet above is the r found in grain, o’er, weary, farmer. This sound softens the poem, lets us linger on each word a little longer.

Where is the consonance in “Todays Work”? Well, there is alliteration in first, finished, fingers, fleece, fibers. And there is the consonance of the l sound in last, wool, lost, fleece, plucked. There is the consonance of the “hard c” or k sound in picking, plucked, caught, carried, created, tucked, discovered, clung and accomplished. Interestingly, the k and short u sounds are combined in four of the words just mentioned: plucked, tucked, discovered, and clung. These aren’t particularly pleasant sounds, especially when used together, but the repetition of them emphasizes the difficulty (another word that combines the two sounds) in ridding ourselves of burdens that no longer serve a necessary function, which, of course, is really what the poem is about.

RELATED LINKS (Poems, Places, Books, Videos, Events, and Other Resources):
Each of these books offers chapters on the sound in poetry:
Teaching the Art of Poetry: The Moves, edited by Baron Wormser and David Cappella
To Read a Poem, Second Edition, edited by Donald Hall

Modern Times: What They Were and Are – this is a series of weekly essays that Baron Wormser is writing. He just started on September 1, so you don’t have many to catch up on!

And here is a book all about the sound in poetry:

The Sound of Poetry/The Poetry of Sound, edited by Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin – this is an extensive and deep collection of essays that discuss the role of sound in poetic meaning. On the first page of the introduction we find this statement by Roman Jakobson, a Russian-American linguist and literary theorist:
“’Poetry is not the only area where sound symbolism makes itself felt, but it is a province where the internal nexus between sound and meaning changes from latent into patent and manifests itself most palpably and intensely.’” Indeed.