Saturday, February 4, 2017

The Poetry Of Snow

Photo by Kathleen Tyler Conklin

Snow is beautiful, exciting, mysterious and sometimes treacherous. So is curiosity.

One man, Wilson Bentley (1865-1931) saw the beauty of snow, was fascinated by it and became curious about it.  As a young man, he was drawn to the natural world around him on his farm in Vermont.  He loved studying butterflies, leaves, raindrops, spider webs and snowflakes. Especially snowflakes,

Bentley devised a way to connect a microscope and a camera in order to photograph snowflakes. He stood for hours in the Vermont cold winter catching falling flakes and pushing them delicately with a feather onto the microscopic lens.

He photographed 5000 snow crystals this way over the course of his lifetime. Magically, every snowflake that he photographed was unique. He published photos of 2300 of these images in his book Snow Crystals and the Smithsonian Archives houses 500 of his photographs.

Ironically, he died from pneumonia after walking through a blizzard.

I read this story recently in The Washington Post and it reminded me how a curious mind responds to beauty. The intersection of science and art. Bentley’s curious mind appreciated and memorialized the unique beauty of the snowflake. His story inspired me to write this poem. 


                                  Humans in some ways
                                  so alike
                                  we share our similarities
                                  hide our dissonances,
                                  alike at first glance
                                  and last chance.

                                  Like falling snow
                                  when examined deeply beneath
                                  our surface sameness---
                                  so different,
                                  as Bentley found
                                  when he captured each snowflake,
                                  memorized its uniqueness
                                  with his camera.

                                  Each of us perfectly unique
                                  as those white hexagons,
                                  when we allow
                                  our truth to fall up
                                  from our

                                  lovely, lonely center.

Monday, August 15, 2016

The Lyricist As Poet

DC Christmas Market

In past blogs, I have mentioned some well-known musicians like Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen,and Bob Dylan whose lyrics are strongly poetic.  

In a recent blog, I did fleetingly refer to a woman, Frand Landesman, who was a lyricist and a poet.  She began her career by putting words to jazz music in the fifties and sixties. She has been labeled “the godmother of hip.”  

Landesman’s lyrics are dark, cynical and strangely compelling.  She put her signature twist on T.S. Eliot’s line “April is the cruelest month” in her lyrics for “Spring Can Really Hang You Up The Most”, one of her best-known songs.  “The Ballad of the Sad Young Men” is another hit song featuring her haunting lyrics.  N.Y. Times critic Stephen Hollen compared her to “a cranky,  jazz-steeped Dorothy Parker.”   It was reported that movies star Bette Davis liked Landesman’s poetry and memorized her poem “Life is a Bitch.”  Fran Landesman (1927-2011) spent the last ten years of her life in London and New York City performing her poetry (from five published volumes), singing her songs and talking about her life.

In contrast, let me turn the spotlight on Mary Chapman Carpenter, one of our contemporary lyricist-poets.  She writes many of her own lyrics, which are also a reflection of her life experiences.  They can be sad, but are often filled with hope, determination and as she matures, a peaceful acceptance of life.  Let me show and not tell, by sharing her lyrics with you.

                                                We press our faces to the glass
                                               And see our little lives go past
                                                Wave to shadows that we cast
                                                On the longest night of the year.

                                           Make a vow when the Solstice comes
                                                   To find the light in everyone
                                                Keep the faith and bang the drum
                                                 On the longest night of the year. 

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most

Photo by Kathleen Tyler Conklin

Spring in the environs of Washington D.C. ranks high on the list of the world’s most beautiful.

It seems especially so this spring, in part perhaps in contrast to the ugliness of the political antics happening, being reported on and endlessly discussed here.  The contrast is poignant, but not only caused by political chaos.  Exquisite beauty can often stir up feelings of longing and sadness…a sickness of heart, sometimes referred to as spring fever.  Bipolar we become…knocked out by the loveliness of nature…but unsettled because we realize our human nature is so far from the perfection we find there.  We can’t quite capture it in our works of art.  We hope others will be able to feel  the beauty we felt, but know it will be fleeting and somehow changed forever.  We are left with a feeling of not quite getting there, a feeling of loss, a restlessness of spirit.

Shakespeare’s sonnets surely speak to the beauty of nature, but also to that feeling of never quite arriving home.  T.S. Elliot reminds us in his poem “The Wasteland” that “April can be the cruelest month”.  The jazz rendition of those words found in the song “Spring Can Really Hang You Up the Most “(lyrics by Fran Landesman) expresses so well the ache found in the sweetness of spring.  Listen to Ella Fitzgerald sing these words and feel better.

Monday, February 15, 2016

The Poet’s House

New York City - Central Park by Kathleen Tyler Conklin

If someone told me to imagine 65,000 volumes of poetry books in a library, I would probably picture the yellowed, cracking pages of dusty tomes on shelves. But not so at Poet’s House, which sits at the tip of Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River.  It is a light filled building, buzzing with activity,  As well as housing those 65,000 poetry books published in the last two decades, it offers work space, readings, art exhibitions, classes, films and even a Children’s  Room for events and parties.

Poets House, founded in 1985 by poet Stanley Kunitz and poetry advocate Elizabeth Kray has become “a national library and literary center that invites poets and the public to step into the living tradition of poetry.” It has the largest poetry collection available to the public in open stacks and welcomes chapbooks, literary journals and multimedia.
Aspirational poets can come there to write, use reference materials, photocopying equipment or attend a workshop. 

Everyone is invited to read, listen to tapes, watch videos, view art exhibits or attend a poetry reading. The professional staff is there Tuesday  through Saturday to help keep poetry alive and well.

Bill Murray, the well known comedian is also a poet and supporter of the non-profit Poets House.  He gives a yearly benefit reading to help support all of the free programs Poets House offers to the public. Far from being dusty and stagnant, Poets House is a well spring that nurtures and celebrates the vital pulse of poetry.

Saturday, December 19, 2015

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Some poetry sticks in our minds. Hopefully, it is good poetry, which is the most memorable.  

I have never forgotten rhyming couplets from my long ago childhood. They would not make the good poetry list, but they come unsummoned  to haunt me around this time of year, when we are susceptible to memories of Christmases past…happy memories, painful ones and some a little weird. ’Tis the season of jolly bells and Scrooge rattling his chains.

The first graders in the Catholic School I attended were part of the annual Christmas pageant. We stood dutifully in our various homemade Christmas-appropriate costumes (shepherds, kings, angels), each holding a letter in front of us. We strung ourselves across the stage spelling out Merry Christmas. The good but rushed nuns made up letter-specific rhyming couplets for us each to recite.  My letter, which I held in front of my tinsel-belted, white sheet angel costume was the Y in Merry.  When my turn came, I recited my couplet from memory, in what I'm sure was a less than angelic voice. “Y is for Yuletide which we keep every year. May Christ be its center as it approaches more near.”

Oh my! The nuns who drilled correct grammar into our young brains every day must have been desperate as the Christmas play approached.  If we had said more near instead of nearer within their earshot, we would have received a firm correction. But there it came…tumbling from my lips without a ripple of disapproval.

At this time of year this couplet sneaks back into my consciousness at odd moments, along with a vision of myself as a six year old angel. I cheerfully give up any analysis and look to the meaning of the message. Let Christmas and all the other holidays celebrated around this time of year remind us to take ourselves out of the center of things and focus on others.  Don’t worry about getting everything just right.  Give yourself poetic license to move more near to what is meaningful.  Offer as much loving kindness and compassion as you are able to the other people who touch your life.  Merry Christmas.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Poetry of Nature

Lower Kimball Lake, NH
by Kathleen Tyler Conklin

When we look for poems about nature, we usually expect to find lyrical poetry about the beauty of nature…poems about stunning landscapes or the change of seasons. We desire to bask in words describing nature’s gifts, words that help us to picture the exquisiteness of a field of flowers or of a singular beauteous bloom.

The poets came through for us, starting with the early Greek poets and their pastoral idylls and moving through time with Emerson, Frost, Wordsworth, Yeats, Dickinson, to the present with poets like Snyder, Oliver, Williams and Gluck (to name a few). I love these poems.

After the strongest hurricane ever hit Mexico, I became curious about the poetry written about the destructive side of nature. As inhabitants of the earth, subject to hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, blizzards, earthquakes, I knew that nature could be fierce and that there had to be poems about such catastrophes. They just didn’t come to mind as readily.

I did find some, even written by the same poets as listed above, but not as many seemed available as the more romanticized versions of nature. They made for a thrilling, sometimes chilling read.  Basho, a master of haiku, the distillation of nature poems, explored nature’s darker, more challenging side in his work.

Here’s one of his that gives us layers of meaning in this autumn season, also the season of numerous political debates.
                               speaking out
                              my lips are cold
                              in autumn wind