Saturday, July 30, 2011

Poetry Prompt #64 – Wishing Well

This week’s prompt is simple: if you had a chance to throw a coin into a wishing well and make a wish that would definitely come true, what would your wish be? (For a twist on this prompt, think in terms of the old adage, “Be careful what you wish for.”)

Though the prompt may be simple, your poem shouldn’t be – work toward layers of meaning, and be sure to give your poem room to work out more than one subject (the literal topic, of course, but the unspoken subject as well). Be sure to avoid the typical wish list poem – we’re going for something more substantial this week.

Sample wish poems:

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Poetry Prompt #63 - Carousel

The heat here in central New Jersey has been especially oppressive with a high yesterday of 104 degrees (Fahrenheit) and a heat index of 114! There’s something about summer and hot days that always makes me think of sand and surf, amusement parks and, especially, carousels. There’s something romantic about carousels – whimsical, magical. 

The earliest known representation of a carousel appears in a Byzantine bas-relief that dates to c. 500 A.D. The relief shows riders in baskets suspended from a central pole. Later, carousel was the term used for 16th century spectacles in which riders tried to spear gold rings with lances as part of court festivities. This sport ultimately replaced combative jousting and inspired the carousels that became popular in Europe by the late 1700's. In America, the glory days of the carousel or merry-go-round stretched from the 1880s into the 1920s.  Many carousels featured a device filled with plain metal rings and one or two made of brass. Grabbing a brass ring while the carousel was in motion meant that the rider was entitled to a free ride. Some interpreted that as good luck and, when I was a child, my mom and dad said that grabbing the brass ring meant a wish would be granted.

1. Imagine this: you’re riding the carousel at an amusement park or at a local fair and you reach to grab the brass ring. As your fingers touch the ring and pull it toward you, the carousel begins to spin faster and lifts into the air. As weird as this is, you aren’t afraid. In fact, you’re filled with a wonderful sense of excitement. What happens next? Write a prose poem in which you fill in the details and describe the outcome.

2. An alternative is to write about an amusement park, a side show, a freak show, or how your life is like a merry-go-round.

3. You might want to try a poem inspired by, but not necessarily about, a carousel. To see what I mean, read "Central Park, Carousel" by Meena Alexander.

4. You may even write a series of haiku, senryu, or short poems on the carousel or amusement park theme. Read Alan Pizzarelli's "Amusement Park" poems for inspiration.

5. What does the term “Carousel Dreams” suggest to you? Try writing a poem with this title. For inspiration, here’s a lovely and moving video of Verne Langdon's song ("Carousel Dreams") narrated by Jonathan Winters.

And ... just for fun, here's a video of carousel riders hoping to catch a brass ring.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

When is a poem not a poem?

We’ve all read them in journals and heard them at poetry readings – poems that make us think, “Whaaaaaaat? That’s not a poem!” But there they are – in print and heard by audiences – poems that lack substance and surprise, music, immediacy, energy, and power.

How do we define what a poem is not? For me, a poem is not a poem:

when it’s sentimental, overly cerebral, or obscure,
when it’s self-consciously “poetic,”
when it’s clumsy, contrived, or cutesy,
when it leaves no gaps (when it “tells” too much),
when nothing in it leaps, trumpets, or thunders,
when its imagery fails,
when its “dismount” falls flat,
when it tries to be something it’s not,
when it’s forgettable.

Following are some insights from five poet and editor friends.

Diane Lockward
Author of Temptation by Water

A poem is not a poem:

when it's prose broken into lines,
when it's all brain and no heart,
when it's all syrup and no substance,
when its diction has no fire.

Donna Baier-Stein
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Tiferet: A Journal of Spiritual Literature

A poem isn't a poem when it could just as easily be laid out on the page as dull prose, when there's no unexpected magic in the language or rhythm in the sound. 

 Joe Weil
Author of The Plumber’s Apprentice

A poem is not a poem:

when it is part of a group sensibility (any group sensibility) and does not challenge, stretch, or try the reader's (or the poet's) aesthetics,

when the poet hedges his or her bets in the poem to the point of making no wager at all,

when the poem offends no one, baffles no one, troubles no one, and allows the reader or listener to go to bed comfortably still hugging the consciousness they had prior to reading the poem (while completely forgetting the poem),

when the poet relies on directness to the point of being merely overt or on indirection and ambiguity to the point of saying absolutely nothing in as bland and intelligent a way as possible,

when the showing does not tell, and the telling does not show and it's all done in neat tercets of medium length lines,

when the dog's the dog, and the tree's the tree, and the dying lover is the dying lover, and any old dog, tree, and dying lover would have done just as nicely,

when the poet employs one cliché after another and is as untroubled by it as a sociopath might be upon slitting a child's throat,

when the poem is ignorant of its own interior rules (it's organic necessity), and obeys some outward construct that destroys the virtue of obedience for the cheap rewards of conformity,

when the poem does not allow for at least the same amount of possibility as a white sheet of paper,

when there is nothing I could change, add, or correct in it and yet I still say: so what? In short, the equivalent of a pianist who can play all the notes correctly but never makes music. 

Adam Fitzgerald
Publisher of Monk Books Click Here to Order  

I wish there was an easy answer about how to know the difference between what is a poem, and what is not. The second one feels tempted to be a little bit reactionary, of course, it’s important to remember Shakespeare’s plays were not published during his time by the author because Elizabethan drama was considered entertainment, and the idea of anyone taking an interest in playwrights’ works would be equivalent to HBO screenwriters publishing their collected works. Emily Dickinson’s work, though published soon after her death, was also not considered “poetry” – what many of the early reviews praised were her themes, her provinciality, her mysticism. When it came to the mechanics of verse, she was considered faulty.

… the short answer as to what makes a poem still seems to me to be what William Carlos Williams said, defending Marianne Moore, whose admitted aesthetic was to write “well-ordered prose” – he said it qualified as poetry because it was intended to be read as a poem. Then again, as John Ashbery articulated shrewdly in an interview I did with him this spring, one has to be open to encountering poetry anywhere: a sewing manual, a train bulletin, an info-mercial, even a blog, no? 

Renée Ashley
Author of Basic Heart

A poem is not a poem:

when the poem feels for you rather than leading you to feel,
when all the narrative and/or rhetorical gaps are filled,
when it’s selling something,
when it lacks a modicum of doubt,
when it’s out there instead of in here,
when it doesn’t mean more than it says,
when it’s merely clever,
when you get to the end and have not been startled into deep attentiveness,
when it falls in the forest and no one hears it. 

In 1870, Emily Dickinson remarked to Thomas Wentworth Higginson, "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?"

What do you think? Your comments are welcome!

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Poetry Prompt #62 - Chants & Charms

When I was a little girl, my English grandmother taught me many old British nursery rhymes and a few chants. Along with Humpty Dumpty, Little Jack Horner, and Jack Sprat, this chant has stayed with me:

“Trefoil, vervain, John’s wort, dill,
hinder witches of their will.”

When I was little, I loved chanting it, singsong style, with Grandma, and I was surprised to encounter it recently in a mystery novel that I was reading. When I Googled the rhyme, I found that it was once believed to act as a countercharm against spells that might do harm, and I found what appears to be its earliest written version in Michael Drayton’s 1627 poem “Nymphidia” (lines 390 & 391) Click Here to Read "Nymphidia" by Michael Drayton

Memories of my grandmother, a dozen or more visits to England over the years, and the old “trefoil, vervain” chant are my inspiration for this week’s prompt. Here it is:

1. Make up your own protective chant that includes herbs or flowers. Use the chant above as a model.  (There’s lots of info about herbs online that might be helpful if you'd like to do some research.)

2. Use your chant in a poem. It may be an epigraph or a first line. It may even be a refrain or the last line. You may address the poem to someone, venture into the world of faerie and create a narrative fantasy, or go in any direction that your poem wants to go.

Sage, verbena, mint, and thyme,
will surely help you with your rhyme!

Make a little magick!

Saturday, July 9, 2011

Poetry Prompt #61 – My Favorite Age

The great thing about getting older 
is that you don't lose all the other ages you've been.

– Madeleine L'Engle

For this week’s prompt, begin by looking back and thinking about a specific time in your life that you remember as especially good. How old were you? What wonder-filled quality did being that age have? Reflect for a while on that special time or “age” in your life and then freewrite for at least ten or fifteen minutes. Read what you’ve written and see if there’s anything that you might develop into a poem. Your poem may be about a particular experience or about being a certain age in general. Some things to consider: What made that age so special? What special things happened to you? Who were the important people in your life at that age? This week, time-travel back to an age of happiness and relive it in a poem!

“Fern Hill” by Dylan Thomas

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Poetry Prompt #60 - Last Lines First

When Patricia Smith read in the Carriage House Poetry Series recently, she mentioned that she usually writes the last line of a poem before she writes anything else. That way, she explained, she always knows where her poem is going. For this week's prompt, let's give Patricia's approach a try. 

Knowing where your poem is headed presents a unique challenge. As you write your way up, you’ll find countless options for choice as you plot a course through the possibilities. It’s a bit like knowing the destination of a trip and then discovering the roads you’ll take to get there. 

1. To begin, and to get things rolling, think of a subject and Google it. Yes, that’s right. Google it!

Did you know that poetry created using search engines is called flarf poetry? Although, many don’t consider flarf real poetry, the form (created by poet Gary Sullivan) is defined as an avant garde movement of the 20th and early 21st centuries in which practitioners mine the Internet with unusual search items and work the results into sometimes funny, sometimes disconcerting poems.

Flarfing isn’t our goal, but starting with the flarf method and Googling a subject may be helpful. So, enter your word and search away.

2. Check out some of the sites that come up and extract words, phrases, and ideas that interest you. Make a list.

3. After you’ve compiled your list, consider the items you’ve recorded. Has connecting to the Net made any “connections” for you? Does anything in your list resonate in a special way?  Has something you’ve discovered triggered a particular image? A memory? Now try working a few of the things in your list into images or phrases.

4. Pick one of your images or phrases and write a line of poetry that includes it. This will be the concluding line in your poem. (You may want try this with a few subjects and then select the one you find most interesting.)

5. After you’ve written your last line, work backwards to compose the rest of the poem. Write to your last line, but, as always, let the poem lead you (even if that means changing your last line when the rest of the poem is written).