Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year

Dear Blog Readers,

May 2014 bring you good health, joy, inspiration, and peace! May it be a year in which all your wishes and dreams come true.

“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language.
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”

– T.S. Eliot


Saturday, December 21, 2013

Merry Christmas & Happy New Year

I send my sincerest thanks 
to all of you who have visited this blog over the past year,
to loyal readers who visit regularly,
and to those of you who have taken the time to post comments. 
Poetry is about sharing, and I'm grateful for the sharing that happens here!

To readers who celebrate Christmas, 
I wish you special blessings of light, love, and peace throughout this holy season. 

And to all of you, I wish a New Year filled
with abundant good health and much happiness!

Regular posts will resume on Saturday, January 11, 2014, so stay tuned until then.

In poetry and blogging,

Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Advent Reflection by Guest Blogger Joe Weil

“The time of Advent … returns us to the horizon of hope, 
a hope that does not disappoint because it is founded on the Word of God. 
A hope that does not disappoint, simply because the Lord never disappoints! 
He is faithful!” 

(Pope Francis, December 1, 2013)

This week’s guest blogger is Joe Weil, an old and dear friend whom I met at Barron Arts Center in 1981. Winner of the 2013 Working People’s Poetry Competition (Partisan Press), Joe is the author of several full-length books of poetry and chapbooks. Widely published and a noted performer, he appeared in Bill Moyer’s PBS documentary, “Fooling With Words” and has  been featured in the New York Times and in notable quotes for the New Yorker. He is currently a lecturer at Binghamton University, co-editor of the online poetry magazine Maggy, and fiction editor of Ragazine. Husband, father, poet, musician, composer, performer, and teacher, Joe and his wife, the poet Emily Vogel, live in upstate New York with their children Clare and Gabriel (Gabriel, who was born last Monday, December 9th, is my godson).

Of his most recently published The Great Grandmother Light: New and Selected Poems (New York Quarterly Books), Joe says, “I am a Catholic writer, I believe in Eucharistic reality ... in beauty and truth hidden under the signs of what is broken and appears to be discounted.” Weil agrees with George Bernanos: “...all is grace. But this grace is difficult, sometimes impossible to quarry.” His poems are about the difficulty of quarrying grace in places from which no one expects anything to come. “I expect to be ambushed by grace at any given moment,” he says. “This,” Joe says, “is the great grandmother light, present at all times and in all places.”

Joe’s faith, which has always been an integral part of his poetry, is eloquently expressed in this Advent reflection that brings art and spirituality together in prose and poetry that speak to this very special time of year. 

Thank you, Joe, for sharing with us!

From Joe Weil

An Advent Reflection

In one of my poems I called it “that dark season where poverty is blessed.” Or something like that. It is literally the season of early darkness, of least hours of light, though the sun is closer now, and if, like me, you are a watcher, you will note it is a purer light on those days when it is cold and the air is clean and clear. The leaves have all fallen. We can see decay and smell the mulch everywhere. The rocks on my way through the Delaware water gap are my favorite grey. I always joke with Emily that I can close my eyes and hear the black bears snoring in their dens of fallen oaks or small caves and crevices. As we drive through the Gap to go to one of our readings, I say: “There’s bear up there.”

The bears have gone to sleep—not a true hibernation, but a modified shutting down of vital signs. On days of false spring they may even wake for a few hours. They are like us in this respect: dozing, depressed in the sense of low energy. The message of Advent is: Shemah! Listen. Hear the weak pulse of life flowing where the water is too swift to freeze. Observe the pin oaks that do not relinquish all their leaves, and the pines, and the boughs trembling because a squirrel has just leapt from shade into shade. Christ is coming. Christ does not come in the obvious place or the obvious light. He is not in Jerusalem in mid summer. He is in the midst of darkness and poverty. He comes to say: there is nowhere, not even in all this seeming death that I do not abide—and abide more richly with my grace. Or as I think my poem on Advent says: “Despair more deeply into joy.”

Because of my faith, my life is still tied to the seasons. This wintering cannot mean less to me. I am awake each night to the stars, and to the rocks. I know what it means to be alone, even in the midst of my family, and to feel the full madness and beauty of the song “Oh Come, Oh Come Emanuel.” They don’t sing it very often in my church anymore because we have become this manically cheerlessly “cheerful” country that treats any deep and beautiful sadness as if it had cooties. They sing these inferior songs that have none of the truth of Advent. It is a dark season. Our hearts are broken. We hunker down and long for something that will console us in our exile from joy. “Oh Come, Oh Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here, until the son of God appears. Rejoice! Rejoice! Oh Israel. To thee shall come Emanuel.”

Rejoice does not mean cheer up. It means to hear the trickle of water still rushing in the stream. It means to be the thrush in Thomas Hardy’s poem “The Darkling Thrush:” Joy illimited (a joy of which Hardy is unaware). It means to intuit Bethlehem—that nowhere town—and to believe in the deep cave of one’s being that something good, something to redeem us can abide there—in the dark, not in spite of it. To see Bethlehem and know its worth is the whole of Advent: this little place of poverty, this nothing town in the shadow of Jerusalem. If we were going to quote Williams: “this star that shines alone in the sunrise towards which it lends no part.” It is the light lit from within that the world cannot teach us to see. Grace is there. It is what Whitman meant when he said he preferred the air to its perfumed distillation:

“The atmosphere is not a perfume..... it has no taste of the distillation.... it is odorless. it is for my mouth forever... I am in love with it,/ I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked./ I am mad for it to be in contact with me.”

This is a great poet defining his own Bethlehem—the little place where poverty, where the not distilled and free air of the naked and visible is blessed.

So, for me, Advent is a season of being ambushed by grace. I stay watchful and yet am ambushed. I am alert yet am taken unaware. God shows me my blindness. God grants me the dark I need to know what light I have dismissed. Today my wife is getting the lights and I am hanging them. When I was little, I loved the way the cold air gave the lights a halo. I was made for it as Walt suggests. I am still mad for it. My poem “Christmas 1977” was written when my mom had been dead almost a year, and we all thought it was going to be a terrible Christmas, but our love and mutual grief made it one of the best Christmas Eves I ever had:

Christmas 1977
By Joe Weil

Here, where it is always Bethlehem
grimy and grieved—a slum lord’s kind of town,
I watch old Mrs. Suarez string her lights
against the common vespers of despair.

I watch her nimbly snub the cold night’s air,
thwarting a fall into the snow ball bush
beside which Mary calmly stomps the skull
of Satan. Look! Her lights are coming on.

Blue with white specks where the paint has chipped
and yellow, green, all rising to full glow
big gumdrop lights draped from post to post,
haloed where their heat meets the cold.

And something in me tears or has been torn
a long, long time though I have read Rimbaud,
and have been known to chew on my own spleen
and spend an evening jesting at such a God.

Something in me tears and will not mend.
Take up this broken hymn and sing it there
for Mrs. Suarez wobbly and infirm,
who, soon, will be too old to climb her chair.
For her I hang this broken Christmas hymn—
here, where it is always Bethlehem.

Note: Below is one of Joe’s best-loved Christmas-season poems, the title poem from his book Painting the Christmas Trees (Texas Review Press, Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved). 

Painting The Christmas Trees
By Joe Weil

In my odyssey of dead end jobs,
cursed by whatever gods
do not console,
I end up
at a place that makes
fake Christmas trees:
some pink, some blue,
one that revolves ever so slowly
to the strains of Silent Night.

Sometimes, out of sheer despair,
I rev up its RPMs
and send it spinning
wildly through space—
Dorothy Hamill
disguised as a Balsam fir.
I run a machine
that spits paint
onto wire boughs,
each length of bough a different shade—
color coded—so that America will know
which end fits where.

This is spray paint of which I speak—
no ventilation, no safety masks,
lots of poor folk speaking various broken tongues,
a guy from Poland with a ruptured disk
lifting fifty pound boxes of
defective parts,
a Haitian
so damaged by police “interrogation”
he flinches when you
raise your arm too suddenly near,

and all of us hating the job,
knowing it’s meaningless,
yet singing, cursing, telling jokes,
unentitled to anything but joy,
the lurid, unreasonable joy
that sometimes overwhelms you even in a hole like this.

It’s a joy rulers
mistake for proof of “The Human Spirit.”
I tell you it is Kali,
the great destroyer,
her voice singing amidst butchery and hate.
It is Rachel the inconsolable
weeping for her children.
It goes both over and under
“The Human Spirit.”
It is my father
crying in his sleep
because he works
twelve hour shifts six days a week
and can’t make rent.

It is one hundred and ten degrees
in the land of fake Christmas trees.
It is Blanca Ramirez keeling over pregnant
sans green card.
It is a nation that has
spiritualized shopping,
not knowing how many lost
to the greater good of retail. It is Marta the packer
rubbing her crippled hands with
Lourdes water and hot chilies.
It is bad pay and worse diet and
the minds of our children
turned on the wheel of sorrow—

no language to leech it from the blood,
no words to draw it out—
a fake Christmas tree spinning wildly in the brain,
and who can stop it, who
unless grief grows a hand
and writes the poem?


Saturday, December 7, 2013

Finding the Right Words by Guest Blogger Diane Lockward

This week’s guest blogger, Diane Lockward, will be familiar to many of you from previous posts.  Diane shares craft tip #5, which she wrote for her book The Crafty Poet. This tip for poets focuses on language and the process of finding the right words for your poems.

Note: The Crafty Poet is a poetry tutorial designed to inform and inspire poets. It contains model poems with prompts, writing tips, and interviews contributed by fifty-six poets, including thirteen former and current state Poets Laureate. There are also sample poems from an additional forty-five poets. The book has been named a Best Book for Writers by Poets & Writers (Poets & Writers Best Booksand is geared to both experienced and aspiring poets. I recommend it highly as a perfect present for the poets on your holiday gift list.

From Diane Lockward

One of the qualities that distinguishes an outstanding poem from a merely competent one is language that sizzles, sings, and surprises. And yet too many of us settle for ordinary language when extraordinary language is available and free to everyone.

Consider the diction of John Donne in "A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning." The poet startles us by using mathematical language to describe two lovers: If they be two they are two so / As stiff twin compasses are two; / Thy soul the fixed foot, makes no show / To move, but doth, if th’ other do. In another love poem, "The Good-Morrow," Donne pulls diction from the field of cartography: Let sea-discoverers to new worlds have gone; / Let maps to other, worlds on worlds have shown; / Let us possess one world; each hath one, and is one. Donne often fused together language from two seemingly unrelated fields. If you haven’t tried this yet, why not?

Consider, too, the diction of Gerard Manley Hopkins in "Pied Beauty" where the speaker gives thanks for dappled things— / For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow; / For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim… Such language is delicious in our mouths and a joy to speak aloud.

For a more contemporary voice, listen to Sharon Olds in "One Year" as the speaker describes a visit to her father’s grave: I saw the speedwell on the ground with its horns, / the coiled ferns, copper-beech blossoms, each / petal like that disc of matter which / swayed, on the last day, on his tongue. / Tamarack, Western hemlock, / manzanita, water birch / with its scored bark… Notice the precision of the language. No vague tree for this poet but rather the specific names of trees, each one of them adding more music, interest, and imagery to the poem. Olds, like her predecessors, never settles for easy language.

Nor should you settle for the first words that come to you; go in search of the best words. But where to find those best words? You might start with the catalogs, unordered and unwanted, that fill up your mailbox. Don’t be so fast to toss them out. Some of them may contain new vocabulary for your poems. Hang on to that flower brochure, the Harry and David catalog, the circular full of ads for local restaurants.

A simple Google search will often lead you to specialized websites where you can find a feast of language. Let’s say you’re writing a poem about blueberries. Googling just might lead you to the website for the Gierke Blueberry Farm in Michigan and then to esoteric information about blueberries, some tasty recipes, and words like cultivars, domesticated, antioxidant, and these lovely names of different kinds of blueberries: Rabbiteye, Primadonna, Sapphire, and Snowchaser.

Wikipedia is a great online source for new diction. Let’s say you’re writing a poem about a frog. Take a piece of paper with you to the computer and search Wikipedia for “frog.” As you read through relevant articles, jot down words such as carnivorous, amphibian, proto-frog, vertebrate, glandular, and planktivorous. Use some of those words in your poem.

Keep your eyes and ears open. And, of course, keep a notebook where you store words you’ve discovered in catalogs, articles, and books, as well as words you’ve heard on the street, on TV, in a speech. You never know when you might need those words. They might generate a new poem or they might reinvigorate a failed draft.

Example Poem:

Diane notes that her poem “Blueberry” was written with the assistance of the kind of diction search she described in this craft tip. Click Here to Read "Blueberry" by Diane Lockward

(I'm giving this book to several poet and teacher friends this Christmas.)

Thank you, Diane!

Saturday, November 30, 2013

A Meditation on the Relationship of Love and Art by Guest Blogger Michael T. Young

This week, I’m especially happy to post an essay by Michael T. Young—a poet whose work I greatly respect and admire. Michael has published three poetry collections: Transcriptions of Daylight (Rattapallax Press), Because the Wind Has Questions (Somers Rocks Press), and Living in the Counterpoint (Finishing Line Press). His fourth collection, The Beautiful Moment of Being Lost, will be published in 2014 by Poets Wear Prada Press. He received a fellowship from the New Jersey State Council on the Arts and was twice nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He was runner-up for a William Stafford Award and recipient of the Chaffin Poetry Award. His work has appeared in numerous journals including Fogged Clarity, Louisville Review, Off the Coast, The Potomac Review, and The Raintown Review. His work is also in the anthologies Phoenix Rising, Chance of a Ghost, In the Black/In the Red and forthcoming in Rabbit Ears: TV Poems. Michael lives with his wife and children in Jersey City, New Jersey.

Michael’s website: www.michaeltyoung.com/
Michael’s blog: inermusic.blogspot.com/

Margins: A Meditation on the Relationship of Love and Art 

By Michael T. Young

 I have always believed that love is, by definition, creative and that true creativity, likewise, is loving. This belief is conveniently circular, but then again, so are some symbols of love and eternal life like the wedding ring and the Ouroboros. Like the circle, love is what repeats itself because love is what we wouldn't want any other way. But what binds us into these circular love affairs are not seamless, hence the constant misunderstandings of love and art.

Generally, our relationship with art is as clumsy as our relationship with other people:  we trap ourselves in what we mean to each other. But love is not only defined by what someone means to us but by the freedom we grant them to be and become themselves.

To love is to pay attention to the highest degree. Such attention is what the lover gives to his beloved and what the artist gives to his creation. He willingly gives his time and energy, the substance of his life, to bring something into existence. Lack of attention is what renders a manufactured product meaningless. Invented for profit, pieced together by machines, our commodities posses function but not meaning.  Meaning is not a mechanism an artist puts into a work of art but arises through the love he invests in it.  The artist creates a vehicle through which something comes into a meaningful existence. Thus his attention is a kind of obedience to an inspiration, which he allows to define itself. Of course, the meaning of an artwork has limitations. No single work of art can mean everything at once. But then again, every single artwork tends to resist reduction to a singular meaning. If a poem or painting would impart its meaning to us it demands in return no less than that we live with it. It demands that we give it attention, the freedom to continually redefine or clarify itself.

So even for the reader of a poem or observer of a painting, it is the sustained attention he gives to it that will reveal its meaning. But it isn't something that once seen is fully had, like understanding the function of something, such as how a hammer works. For the one who experiences a work of art, meaning is the perspective he gains on himself and the world through transcendence in the work of art. It is what Shelley called, "morals" in his Defense of Poetry when he said:

The great secret of morals is love; or a going out of our own nature, and an identification of ourselves with the beautiful which exists in thought, action, or person, not our own.

The moment one assumes full understanding of a work of art or a person, one has effectively locked them in the past. When you look at them, you will see them as they were but not as they are or as they are becoming. To pay attention to someone or something, to love someone or something is to continually extend to them the freedom to renew themselves in your eyes without jeopardizing what they have always meant to you. In this way one's perspective grows. It is what makes friendship and love profound. It is the depth perception of the mind's eye.

But the horizon sets limits even on perfect vision and nothing shrinks the world's horizons faster than pain. When Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw his wife in her coffin, he placed a collection of his poems into it with her. It was the only perfect copy of his poems and only existed because she had asked him to write them down. Silence followed him out of the room and through the next seven years. Through that time his friends, people like Swinburne, William Morris, and George Meredith became famous poets and novelists. Finally, Rossetti had his wife's coffin exhumed and the poems retrieved. They were published eight years after her death.  One could argue that Rossetti retrieved the poems to achieve fame. But that would require ignoring what inspired those poems: the love not just for his wife, Elizabeth, but for the life in her. What calls forth song is not just love but a love for life, whether it's the life one loves in another or in one's own day to day. When the life he loved died in Elizabeth, he felt it founder in himself. He felt a pain for the loss, a tear in the fabric of what he was. With that he threw the poems into the coffin with the spent life that inspired them. But he continued to feel pain and only the living feel pain. When life had stretched that pain thin over the years and Dante stared into it, what he saw was the blank page he was returning to life instead of the love he truly felt. He had to retrieve from the dead what belonged to the living.

Blake said, "Life delights in life." As many poems that have been written for the beloved, whether man or woman, there have also been many inspired by other art works: symphonies inspired by poems, poems inspired by paintings, paintings inspired by paintings, paintings inspired by poems or philosophy. It is life delighting in life, the motion of love, a circling of life back to itself creating a place for us to mean something to each other. It is also the frame around a painting, the margins around the poem. 

(Copyright © 2013 by Michael T. Young. 
All rights reserved.)

Note: When I asked Michael if he had a poem that expressed something of his essay’s spirit, his response was, It occurred to me that my poem “The Word ‘Anyway’” would make a perfect accompanying piece to the essay. This poem embodies and enacts the idea that the essay states as love and attention being a constant extension of the freedom of renewal without jeopardizing existing meaningfulness.

The Word “Anyway”

Every time I write it’s there at the end of my paragraphs,
so much so, my friends see it as a kind of signature word,
and I realize that whatever it means, it is, in any case,
like a ramp off the highway leading me somewhere else.
And where it takes me, regardless, turns and carries the letter,
the conversation, the e-mail, in another direction, though not,
necessarily, in a better one—the detour this time taken
to wrench the heart from its daily obsessions,
which is to say, I wasn’t trying to take us to our destination faster,
on the contrary, I was trying to spare you,
trying to take us both somewhere neither of us had been,
a place where the view over the valley
gives way to a lake reflecting late summer light
and the crisp air in our lungs expands
like a space we allow each other to become whatever we wish.

(From Living in the Counterpoint, copyright © 2012 by Michael T. Young. 
All rights reserved.)

Poems by Michael:

Essays by Michael:

Click on the Links to Order Michael's Books

Thanks so much, Michael!

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and My Birthday

Here in the U.S., Thanksgiving Day takes place on November 28 this year, which also happens to be the first full day of Hanukkah, and my birthday. Thanksgiving, for me, has always been the unofficial start of the Christmas season, and my house is already decorated (including my giant Christmas tree and three smaller ones). Needless to say, it’s all wonderful, and after church in the early AM, I’ll be home cooking dinner and then feasting with friends. My birthday “cake” will be a large pumpkin pie! In lieu of a Thanksgiving/Hanukkah week prompt or essay, following are some lovely poems that speak to these special holidays. Even if you don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or Hanukkah this week, I hope you’ll enjoy the poems and keep in mind that it’s always a good time to remember the things, people, blessings, and gifts for which we’re thankful.

(Old Rhyme, Author Unknown)

The year has turned its circle,
The seasons come and go.
The harvest all is gathered in
And chilly north winds blow.
Orchards have shared their treasures,
The fields, their yellow grain,
So open wide the doorway—
Thanksgiving comes again!

Thanksgiving Day
By Lydia Maria Child

Over the river, and through the wood,
  To grandfather's house we go;
       The horse knows the way
       To carry the sleigh
  Through the white and drifted snow.

Over the river, and through the wood—
  Oh, how the wind does blow!
       It stings the toes
       And bites the nose
  As over the ground we go.

Over the river, and through the wood,
  To have a first-rate play.
       Hear the bells ring
  Hurrah for Thanksgiving Day!

Over the river, and through the wood
  Trot fast, my dapple-gray!
       Spring over the ground,
       Like a hunting-hound!
  For this is Thanksgiving Day.

Over the river, and through the wood,
  And straight through the barn-yard gate.
       We seem to go
       Extremely slow,—
  It is so hard to wait!

Over the river and through the wood—
  Now grandmother's cap I spy!
       Hurrah for the fun!
       Is the pudding done?
  Hurrah for the pumpkin-pie!

By Edgar Guest

Gettin’ together to smile an’ rejoice,
An’ eatin’ an’ laughin’ with folks of your choice;
An’ kissin’ the girls an’ declarin’ that they
Are growin’ more beautiful day after day;
Chattin’ an’ braggin’ a bit with the men,
Buildin’ the old family circle again;
Livin’ the wholesome an’ old-fashioned cheer,
Just for awhile at the end of the year.

Greetings fly fast as we crowd through the door
And under the old roof we gather once more
Just as we did when the youngsters were small;
Mother’s a little bit grayer, that’s all.
Father’s a little bit older, but still
Ready to romp an’ to laugh with a will.
Here we are back at the table again
Tellin’ our stories as women an’ men.

Bowed are our heads for a moment in prayer;
Oh, but we’re grateful an’ glad to be there.
Home from the east land an’ home from the west,
Home with the folks that are dearest an’ best.
Out of the sham of the cities afar
We’ve come for a time to be just what we are.
Here we can talk of ourselves an’ be frank,
Forgettin’ position an’ station an’ rank.

Give me the end of the year an’ its fun
When most of the plannin’ an’ toilin’ is done;
Bring all the wanderers home to the nest,
Let me sit down with the ones I love best,
Hear the old voices still ringin’ with song,
See the old faces unblemished by wrong,
See the old table with all of its chairs
An’ I’ll put soul in my Thanksgivin’ prayers.

More Poems:

The Thanksgiving by George Herbert

The Thanksgivings by Harriet Maxwell Converse (From an Iroquois Prayer)

A List of Praises by Anne Porter

Dusting by Marilyn Nelson

Starfish by Eleanor Lerman

by Rumi (Translated by Coleman Barks)

Thanks by W. S. Merwin