Saturday, September 24, 2016

Prompt #262 – Poems for Summer's End

Here in the northern hemisphere, autumn began on September 22nd. August, in my corner of the pond, was a stretch of heat and humidity that makes this change of season very welcome.

This week, I thought it might be interesting to write poems about the end of summer. To get you started, here are some examples:

"End of Summer" by Stanley Kunitz

"Three Songs at the End of Summer" by Jane Kenyon

"End of Summer" by James Richardson


Try free writing for a while and see where you go.

Then, go through what you’ve written and select any ideas, phrases, and emotions that seem connected. Let your own words and feelings guide you as you work these into the first draft of a poem. 

As you continue to work on your poem, think about your obvious meaning and the deeper intentionality of the poem. What's your "up front" meaning? What deeper meaning have you written into the piece? Think of tone and mood as well.

Keep the following in mind as you edit, and fine tune:

1. Try to write in the active, not the passive, voice. To do that, it can be helpful to remove “ing” endings and to write in the present tense (this will also create a greater sense of immediacy).

2. Be on the lookout for prepositional phrases that you might remove (articles & conjunctions too).

3. The great author Mark Twain once wrote, “When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them—then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when close together. They give strength when they are wide apart.” This is especially true in poetry. So ... as you work on a poem, think about adjectives and which ones your poem can live without. (Often the concept is already in the noun, and you don’t need a lot of adjectives to convey your meaning.)

4. Avoid clichés (and, while you’re at it, stay away from abstractions and sentimentality).

5. Show, don’t tell—through striking imagery, a strong emotional center, and an integrated whole of language, form and meaning.

6. Challenge the ordinary, connect, reveal, surprise! And … remember that a poem should mean more than the words it contains.

7. Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”

8. If you take a risk, make it a big one; if your poem is edgy, take it all the way to the farthest edge.

9. Understand that overstatement and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Don’t ramble on, and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long.

10. Bring your poem to closure with a dazzling dismount. (Be careful not to undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp.)

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Prompt #261 – Haiku, Related Forms, & How To

I'm leading a haiku retreat on Saturday, hosted by Tiferet Journal and I thought this might be a good time to do some haiku work here on the blog! 

  Haiku and Related Forms

Haiku, a minimalist form of poetry, has enjoyed considerable popularity among modern poets. Allen Ginsberg and Pulitzer Prize winner Paul Muldoon, wrote collections of haiku and haiku-like poems are found in the works of such literary notables as Ezra Pound, Amy Lowell, Richard Wright, and Gary Snyder. During the 1960s, a haiku movement began in the United States, which catapulted haiku into popular consciousness. Since then, haiku has been widely taught in schools, and hundreds of haiku journals have published the works of numerous haiku poets. The Haiku Society of America, Inc. was established in 1968 and continues with a membership of many hundreds. 

Although something other than "mainstream" poetry and very much its own genre, haiku are compact and direct, and are usually written in the present tense with a sense of immediacy and of being “in the moment.” The natural world and our responses to it are integral to haiku. While haiku appear to be light and spontaneous, their writing requires profound reflection and discipline.  Haiku are about spiritual realities, the realities of our every-day lives, and the realities of human and natural world relationships. Most importantly, haiku honor the inside of an experience through attention to the outside.

Despite the brevity of its form, haiku inspire detachment as well as interrelationship detachment without self-interest or self-absorption but, rather, with a sense of inward and outward direction. the best haiku are life-affirming and eternity-conscious, spontaneous and unpretentious but entirely focused and either gently or startlingly profound. Through haiku, both the writer and the reader are invited to reflect upon minute details that lead them to larger realities. 

Haiku's origins have been traced to a form of Japanese poetry known as haikai no renga, a form of linked poetry that was practiced widely by Matsuo Basho and his contemporaries. Over time, the first link in a renga, the hokku, evolved into the haiku as we understand it today.

In traditional Japanese, the haiku was typically written vertically on the page  (from top to bottom). Each contained seventeen onji or sound symbols. The onji were usually divided into 3 sections, with the middle one being slightly longer than the others, and often with a pause at the end of the first or second section to divide the haiku into two thoughts or images. These thoughts or images contrasted or pooled to create a sense of insight or heightened awareness and usually involved nature. A kigo (season word) was used to indicate the season or time of year.

However, early translators were mistaken when they assumed that an onji was equivalent to a syllable in the English language and that haiku should be written in three lines containing 5,7,and 5 syllables respectively. Although incorrect, these “defining” qualities of haiku are still accepted by many. A more acceptable standard for English-language haiku is 10-20 syllables in 3 lines having a longer second line and shorter first and third lines. That said, the parameters are often stretched depending on content and meaning, and successfully experimental haiku of a single words have been written. Three lines have become the norm, but haiku of one and two lines are also seen, although less frequently. Typically, haiku contain two phrases (or images) that are inherently unrelated but are juxtaposed to show some commonality within a particular experience.

Haiku describe things in a vey few words, usually a in a single image – haiku never tell, intellectualize, or state feelings outrightly. They never use figures of speech (similes, metaphors, etc.) and should not rhyme. Some haiku poets feel that one measure of a haiku’s success is its ability to be reading in a single breath.
Haiku Sequences
Haiku can be linked together to form a sequence that moves from moment to moment in a perceived experience. A good haiku sequence is built on an idea that underscores the sequence and becomes a longer poem. That is, haiku (or haiku-like verses) fused to form an integrated whole. Depending upon the content of the individual haiku, it’s important to have a central idea or theme in a haiku sequence: nature in general or something specific in the natural world, love (or another emotion), a season, a journey (actual or spiritual), or any part of life that is common to each haiku in the sequence.

A great way to begin experimenting with sequences is to think in terms of a narrative approach in which order of the haiku follow the chronological arch of the event:  beginning, middle and end.

A senryu is a poem, structurally similar to haiku, that highlights the foibles of human nature, usually in a humorous or satiric way. In senryu, human nature is more essential, and the poem itself is more playful, humorous, or ironic. A senryu may or may not contain a season word or a grammatical break. Some Japanese senryu seem more like aphorisms, and some modern senryu in both Japanese and English avoid humor, becoming more like serious short poems in haiku form. There are also "borderline haiku/senryu", which may seem like one or the other, depending on how the reader interprets them. Many so-called "haiku" in English are really senryu. Loosely defined, senryu are haiku-like poems that deal most specifically with human nature. In Japanese, the word "senryu" sounds like the English phrase "send you" with a Spanish flipped-r in place of the d. For those unfamiliar with this sound, a three-syllable word, "sen-ri-you" may be substituted in English. 
Tanka, the 5-line lyric poem of Japan is like haiku, its shorter cousin, in that they are grounded in specific images but are also is infused with lyric intensity and intimacy that comes from the direct expression of emotions, as well as from implication, suggestion, and nuance. The tanka aesthetic, however, is broader. You can write on virtually any subject and express your thoughts and feelings explicitly. 

The third line of a tanka may be a “pivot line” or turning point similar to the shift in a haiku. In Japan, tanka is often written in one line with segments consisting of 5-7-5-7-7 sound-symbols. Some people write English tanka in five lines with 5-7-5-7-7 syllable to approximate the Japanese model. To approximate the Japanese model, some poets use approximately 20-22 syllables and a short-long-short-long-long structure or even just a free form structure using five lines. You may wish to experiment with all these approaches.
A haibun is a terse, relatively short prose poem that typically ends with a haiku. Most haibun range from well under 100 words to 200 or 300. Some longer haibun may contain a few haiku interspersed between sections of prose. In haibun, the connections between the prose and any included haiku may not be immediately obvious, or the haiku may deepen the tone, or take the work in a new direction, recasting the meaning of the prose. Japanese haibun apparently developed from brief prefatory notes occasionally written to introduce individual haiku, but soon grew into a distinct genre. The word "haibun" is sometimes applied to longer works, such as the memoirs, diaries, or travel writings of haiku poets, though technically they are parts of the separate and much older genres of journal and travel literature (nikki and kikôbun).

How To Haiku
1. Bashō said that each haiku should be a thousand times on the tongue. Before writing anything, read many haiku from a range of sources to get a “feel” for the form. Be sure to read some haiku that have been translated from the Japanese, but spend more time on good haiku written in English. Read some of the haiku aloud.

2. After you’ve read many haiku and have a sense of what they’re about, think about an experience that you’ve had. 

3. Remember the season in which you had the experience, and then think of a work or phrase that suggests that season. For example, peonies is a season word for spring; snow and ice are season words for winter. A simple phrase like “autumn leaves” can evoke feelings of loneliness and the coming of darkness (shortened days, longer nights) in winter. While many haiku appear to have a nature focus, they are more-specifically based on a seasonal reference that is not necessarily about nature.

4. Organize your thoughts into approximately three lines. First, set the scene, then suggest a feeling and, finally, make an observation or record an action. Use only the most absolutely necessary words. Write in the present tense, don’t use figures of speech, and keep things simple.

5. Be sure to include a contrast or a comparison. Many haiku present one idea for the first two lines and then switch quickly to something else in the third. Alternatively, a single idea is presented in the first line and a switch occurs in the second and third lines. Nearly every haiku has this kind of two-part, juxtapositional structure. A Japanese haiku achieves the shift with what is called a kireji or cutting word, which “cuts” the poem into two parts. One of your goals is to create a “leap” between the two parts of your haiku. Creating a haiku’s two-part structure can become a balancing act because it’s difficult to create just the right equilibrium without making too obvious a connection between the two parts or leaping to a distance that’s unclear or obscure. At the same time, you must work toward sparking the emotions (not ideas) that you want to communicate.

6. Try to think of haiku in terms of your five senses—things you experience directly, not ideas or your interpretation or analysis of “things.” Think in terms of sensory description and avoid subjective terms.

7. In a nutshell: 
·       focus on a single moment (detach from everything else); recreate that moment in words,
·       write simply and clearly,
·       forget about 5,7,5 syllabic structure (start with about 10-20 syllables in three-line format),
·       include a season word,
·       make sure you create a two-part juxtapositional structure,
·       include a shift between the two parts of your haiku,
·       avoid figures of speech, rhyming, anything forced or contrived.
Ways in Which Writing Haiku Can Inform and Enhance Your Longer Poems

     Writing haiku can:

1.     Increase your sense of imagery.
2.     Broaden your awareness of—and attention to—details.
3.     Teach you about compression, conciseness, and clarity.
4.     Help you understand the importance of removing unnecessary words.
5.     Develop your ability to write poems that are efficient and clear, even when their meaning and message are complex.
6.     Show you how to create lines breaks that have a clear and non-intrusive logic.
7.     Illustrate ways in which you can achieve clarity with just a hint of being on the edge of understanding.
8.     Form the basis for longer poems. That is, a haiku may be extended into a longer work of poetry; it may be become the opening, closing, or “somewhere inside” part of a longer poem.
9.     Work toward your understanding that the best poems show rather than tell.
10.  Improve your ability to connect, reveal, and surprise.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Prompt #260 – Both Sides of Sentiment


“Poetry is when an emotion has found its thought 
and the thought has found words.”
—Robert Frost

Emotion in poetry is a tricky thing to make work. It’s too easy to fall into the rut of sentimentality. Like overstatement, being mawkish, mushy, or maudlin are deadly when it comes to writing a poem. There’s a world of difference between true poetic sentiment and sentimentality.

This week’s challenge is to do exactly that. Yes, that’s right. Begin by writing a sentimental, mushy, maudlin poem about a time when you felt a powerful emotion (marriage proposal, wedding, birthday of a child, breakup of a romance, death of a loved one).

Make the first draft of your poem everything a good poem shouldn’t be. Let yourself be carried away on a wave of emotion, and let it all out on the page. Use clichés, tell about the emotion instead of showing it, use dozens of adjectives, ramble on, use lots of almost-always-deletable relative pronouns ( that, which, who, whom), end your poem by telling what it’s about (state the emotion you felt as obviously and blatantly as you can). In short, do as many poetry “don’ts” as you can.

Then, read your awful, emotional, sentimental poem and circle all the traps you’ve fallen into.

Next, rewrite the poem, taking out all the blatant sentiment, mushiness, and all the poetry “don’ts” that you’ve included. Let your emotion find its thought, and let the thought find the right words.
  • Don’t: End with a moral.
  • Don’t: Close with an “I’m going to tell you what this poem is about” ending.
  • Don’t: Go with an expected outcome (especially in a narrative poem). Shake up your readers’ expectations.
  • Don’t: Use up all the air in your poem on the last couple of lines—leave the reader room to breathe.
  • Don’t: Undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers gasp.
  • Don’t: Conclude with a sentimental or emotional statement (both sentiment and emotion may be heartfelt but, when they’re blatantly stated, they can detract from the power of your poem).
  • Don’t: Close the door on your poem; leave it slightly ajar.
  • Do: Link the end of the poem to the beginning but not overtly—and don’t over-write.
  • Do: Write beyond the last line, then go back and find the last line hidden in what you’ve written.
  • Do: Resist the urge to wax poetic (stay away from lofty expressions and heavy language). And ... delete adjectives wherever you can.
  • Do: Leave your reader something to reflect upon.
  • Do: Point toward something broader than the body of the poem.
  • Do: Create a new resonance for your readers, a lit spark that doesn’t go out when the poem is “over.”

Let both versions of the poem sit for a while (a couple of days) and then go back and read both again. How is the second one better than the first? Did the first version inform the second in an appreciable way?

Saturday, September 3, 2016

Prompt #259 – Tips for Poets


Hi, blog readers! I hope July and August were good months for you! As we end the summer reruns and move back to regular prompts and posts, I thought it might be a good time to review some of the things that poets can do, or not do, to make their work better. With that in mind, I hope you find the following useful.

  • Read! It’s important to “know” both time-honored and contemporary poets. Whenever possible attend readings and participate in workshops – learn what other poets are doing in their work, and be part of the poetry community.
  • Write little – embrace the minute on the way to the universal.   
  • Be aware that every poem needs a strong emotional center that doesn’t smother meaning with sentiment. (There’s a big difference between sentimentality and poetic sentiment.) And … every poem should have an obvious meaning as well as underlying meanings.
  • Understand that overstatement and the obvious are deadly when it comes to writing poetry. Many promising poems don’t measure up because they’re over-written. Don’t ramble on and don’t try to explain everything. Think about this: a poem with only five great lines should be five lines long.
  • Remember what Dylan Thomas wrote, “You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick … you’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words. The best craftsmanship always leaves holes and gaps … so that something that is not in the poem can creep, crawl, flash or thunder in.”
  • Beware the dreaded Prose-o-saurus! A lot of people who “write poetry” work from a prose impulse and a prose logic. They arrange their writing in lines and stanzas that make the writing look like poetry when it really isn’t. It’s a kind of poetry masquerade.
  • Memoir poems can be wonderful if they are not exercises in journaling that are presented as poems. If you write in this genre, ask yourself, “Is this a poem, or is this a diary entry?”
  • Work on a sense of immediacy (even when you write in the past tense). Stay away from the passive voice, and be wary of words that end in “ing.”
  • Avoid over-use of adjectives and too many details (bulk without substance doesn’t work).
  • Eliminate prepositions whenever you can (i.e., the sky’s length rather than the length of the sky)
  • Be specific – avoid abstractions and generalizations. Imagery is key. Write about things, not ideas. William Carlos Williams wrote: “No ideas but in things.” Tell it “like it is” in specifics, not through philosophical musings on the “meaning of it all.”
  • Each poem you write should include at least one image that makes your readers gasp.
  • Tune your ear to natural rhythms, especially if you are writing free verse. Develop a sense of sound in your poems (sonic impression): use alliteration, assonance, and internal rhymes. Read your poem aloud – listen!
  • Avoid the slippery slime of lofty language and literary affectation. Neither big words nor literary pretensions will save a bad poem and may weaken a potentially good one. Be real!
  • Subvert the ordinary. Language and figures of speech (i.e., similes and metaphors,) should be memorable and fresh, not hackneyed or tired.
  • Steer clear of cleverness and “cutesiness.”
  • Don’t be sucked in by fashionable clichés, and don’t think you must flatter current prejudices about what constitutes “popular” poetry.
  • Be the poet you most truly are. You may really love another poets' content and style, but don't try to write like that poet.  Be your own person and your own poet.
  • Stay away from foul language that doesn’t enhance anything and has no contextual significance. Shock value is cheap.
  • Be generous with caesuras. Allow spaces in your poems for the unspoken silences. (Sometimes the best part of the poem is the part left unsaid.)
  • Don’t use up all the “air” in your poem on the last couple of lines—leave the reader room to breathe.
  • Resist the urge to “finish” a poem by tying it up in a neat package. Last lines that explain or sum-up can ruin an otherwise good poem.
  • Don’t undercut your poem’s “authority” by ending with trivia or a “so what” line that doesn’t make your readers catch their breath.
  • Think about an unexpected outcome (especially in a narrative poem). Shake up your readers’ expectations.
  • Discipline yourself for the process of revision and revise, revise, revise! Often during tweaking, you’ll need to shorten a poem, not make it longer. Ask yourself, “Do I really need that word, phrase, or line?” When you revise your own writing, you have to play critic to your own creation. Be tough on yourself. Sometimes it will be necessary to sacrifice words or images you love for the sake of the poem. However, beware of over-editing and recognize that when the editing process is no longer one of discovery, it’s time to stop. As Leonardo DaVinci said, “Art is never finished, only abandoned.”
  • Spend time away from a poem you’ve just completed – put it aside for a few days (or weeks) and then look at it again. Take time to refine your work. Keep the keepers (and file away the poems that you know aren’t exactly right).
  • Don’t be so “stuck” on your own work that you fail to take the advice of workshop leaders and colleagues. Be true to your own voice, of course, but understand that you can never be completely objective about your own poetry.
  • Listen to criticism and try to learn from it. Advice (even if you don’t like it) is often a very good thing!