Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Limerick

My nephew Mark just turned fifty,

The limericks he wrote were nifty,

He wrote with great humor and wit,

His friends agreed they were a hit,

They can't wait 'til he turns sixty.

At his recent fiftieth birthday celebration, my nephew Mark read fourteen (I'm impressed) limericks to 140 of his best friends. They cleverly spanned the story of his life and were a tour de force for some one his age. Also, to show how impressed I was, I borrowed his rhyming scheme for the first two lines of my limerick above.

Since we're discussing age, here's a little of the history of the limerick.

It appears to have originated sometime in the 18th Century in England and/or Ireland.

And according to the limerick scholar Gershon Legman the true limerick is always obscene. How could it not be with a name like that. It seems George Bernard Shaw agrees with him. Need I say more.

In fact, I will. I like the idea that the origin of this type of poem was in the City or County of Limerick in Ireland. The Maigue Poets of Ireland were a fun bunch who liked to play nonsense verse parlour games, which became prototypes for the limerick as we have come to know and love it. Ah, for the good old days.

But, as Mark has shown us the form is old, but not dead. It is simply a five line poem with the rhyme scheme aabba. (Forget meter for now). It is an interesting thing to do with your spare time (think of sitting in traffic) or as a family ties enhancer. It is important NOT to be offensive if you are doing it for the last mentioned reason, although the insult was one of the limerick's main objectives, as popularized by Edward Lear. (It can be used as a way of channeling anger, if you rip it up immediately.) Rule out obscene also unless it's just for private use. We have enough offensiveness and obscenity in other forms. Just have some good, clean fun.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Where has the poetry gone?

Nicholas Kristof

Nicholas Kristof in his New York Times column of November third laments the loss of poetry in our President. He worries that Obama is being faithful to Mario Cumo’s observation of politicians that they campaign in poetry but govern in prose. Kristoff writes that the American people “wouldn’t mind being lifted by an occasional verse of poetry.”

I agree, but I’m not sure we should look to our president for that. I am willing to settle for well thought out lucid prose from the President. We can find our poetry elsewhere.

I think our need for poetry is in our DNA. Note how babies and young children respond to the rhythms of the nursery rhyme. As adults we love the lyrics to our songs, given to us by such poets as Bob Dylan, Stephen Sondheim and Cole Porter. Hopefully, we learn to love and read poetry in our schools. We can continue our love affair after we leave school, by reading poems, attending poetry events and even writing it ourselves.

The pundits have criticized Obama as being too detached and without emotion. Maybe we need to start with ourselves and make sure our passions are getting a workout through remaining connected with poetry. It is out there. Let us passionately pursue it.


Saturday, October 2, 2010

Reaping The Harvest

Maxine Kumin
Lots of poetry events are happening locally this fall. Eight poet laureates are reading at the Library of Congress this Wednesday, October 6th. What an abundance of riches that will be!

The Library is also offering a Fall 2010 Poetry at Noon Series starting October 19th.

The Folger Shakespeare Library has scheduled "The Hardison Poetry Series" for 2010/11. It began September 28th with Edward Hirsch making the case for poetry and continues once a month into May 2011.

Georgetown University has a 2010/11 Reading Series at the Lannan Center, featuring a plethora of poets.

Who said D.C. was just a government town?

Speaking of Poet laureates, former poet laureate, Charles Simic posted (LC site) a list of things to keep in mind when writing a poem. I thought I'd share a few of them with you.

"Don't tell the readers what they already know about life and don't assume you're the only one in the world who suffers."

"Don't overwrite, but do consider what you are writing down a draft that will need additional tinkering, perhaps many months, and even year of tinkering."

I invite you to consider this your mantra for the month of October.

Tinker, tinker, tinker.

Reap, reap, reap.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Speak with forked tongue please.

It’s hard to speak the truth. Sometimes hard to even recognize it. We have to think, check our sources and keep an open mind and heart. Even then, it will be filtered through our genetic pool, value system and experience aggregate. Quite a chore.

We use words to shape our thoughts, clarify them and express them. Words can inform, comfort, mislead, deceive and hurt. They have power.

Freedom of speech is a right and a privilege. A right to be protected and celebrated.

Some people have taken this to mean the right to say anything and everything, everywhere and in any way. The right of free association. The right to be rude, offensive and uncivil.

To speak with forked tongue means to speak with the intention of deceiving. There are times, however, when I think it might be wise to stick a fork in our tongues before we speak. Maybe our pain will remind us to think and to choose our words carefully. Words matter.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A Weapon Of Words---The Obit of Mr. Njawe

"A word can be a weapon, and I believe that with the word...we can build a better world and make happier people."

The above quote is from the obituary of Mr. Njawe, which appeared in "The Washington Post" several weeks ago.

Mr Njawe was an African journalist who wrote his values with uncommon courage. He was an independent writer, editor, publisher and foremost, a fighter for truth in the written word in a country that punished such open, steadfast dedication to freedom of the press.He started Cameroon's first independent newspaper "The Messenger" in which he wrote openly about government corruption and abuses. He received many death threats and was arrested more than 100 times.

I am in awe of such courage, such fierce dedication to freedom of the press and to the truth as he saw it. The world is surely better for his having lived in it. His death in a car accident at age 53 is a loss for all of us.

His quote goes on "....So why give up while duty still calls? No one will silence me, except the Lord, before I achieve what I consider as a mission in my native country, in Africa and why not, in the world."

His life inspired me to write this poem.

Elegy to Pius Njawe

You were called to


with weapons of words,

aimed over and over,

arrows to truth,

the courage of a


silenced by death,

while we are still


Tuesday, June 29, 2010


The hazy, hot, humid days of summer have us in their vise-like grip. The trips from house to car to destination awaken sweat glands. Lungs fill with still, dank air.
According to Thomas Edison, "Genius is 99% perspiration and 1% inspiration." Alas, that doesn't seem to be true for me.

Although at times, my perspiration levels spike to 99%---lethargy has set in and "the muse is on vacation."

So rather than writing something original and fresh, I am coping out and plagiarizing from my own book, At The Turquoise Table. Here's a stanza from one of the poems in the book called "Summer Heat."

Summer heat overstays,

an unwelcome guest

who lingers and exhausts

with endless conversation,

I long to take its sweaty hand

in mine...

lead it to the door

and in most certain tones

ask it to leave.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

I love a mystery

I heard Kay Ryan read at the Library of Congress on Thursday. It was her "retirement" reading from being the poet laureate of the U.S. for the last two years. Many of the poems she read were short, humorous and accessible.

It brought to mind the complaints I've often heard about poetry being hard to understand. So I decided to google her and see if Kay had anything to say about that.

I found her under Poets.org with a link to a panel discussion called "Clarity and Obscurity in Poetry". (interesting read). Kay was one of the panelist and is quoted as saying that she is determined to send her signal as strongly and clearly as possible. I hear the voices asking..."where then is the poetry?"

Kay answered that question by reading Robert Frost's Poem "Dust of Snow". According to her, it is a poem that is quite clear on the surface, yet contains something other, a mystery. "It's clarity points to something that isn't rational."

I love a mystery---so I'm putting the poem below to read and re-read. Join me in the adventure of finding the mystery in Frost's poem.

Dust of Snow

The way a crow

Shook down on me

The dust of snow

From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart

A change of mood

And saved some part

Of a day I had rued.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Honor your own unique thoughts and gifts. It's Spring!

Today I planted a few things in the soft, loamy earth. As I put in a few small plants, I began making a comparison with the fertile ground of the mind. I saw that as I dug, the hard crust began to give way. I pulled out some hard rocks---how like our thoughts. They can often be covered with a a crust of cliches and hardened concepts. We need to soften the mind and dig around, letting the fertile ground appear. Let fresh ideas sprout. April is here. It is poetry month.

Shakespeare's birthday is April 23rd. Honor the bard. Honor your own unique thoughts and gifts. April 29th is carry a poem in your pocket day. Carry you favorite poem and read it to yourself several times. Read it to other people you encounter that day. It even could be one that you have written. Let the ground be fertile!

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Suggestion for a sleepless night

Cant' sleep? Do what a friend of mine does. Read poetry. I am not implying that poetry is so boring that it will put you to sleep. But it can be soothing, especially if read aloud---which may mean moving to another room. But the sounds and rhythms can be as calming as deep breathing. Keep an anthology by the bedside. I recommend "Americans' Favorite Poems" edited by Robert Pinsky and Maggie Dietz.

Beautiful images can quiet a busy mind. Haiku is a garden of beautiful images. One that I re-read often is "The Essential Haiku" edited by Robert Hass.

Of course, there are also many poems that can sprout in your ear buds and are the next best thing to having someone read to you. And we all love being read to sleep.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

We are just plain folks that love words, language, reading poetry...

Anne Bradstreet (America's first woman poet)

"These are not the poets you remember from high school who sit in lonely rooms writing maudlin words that few might hear and fewer comprehend."

Willliam Shakespeare

This is the opening paragraph of an article about protest poetry that appeared in the Style Section of "The Washington Post" on March 12th.

Geoffrey Chaucer

It may be the poets the author of this article remembers, but it is certainly not the poets that I remember that were introduced to me in high school. I am sorry that the author had such bad luck.

Emily Dickinson

The depth and power of the poetry of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Thomas, Yeats, Keats, Milton, Hopkins were not maudlin to me. The poetry of Longfellow, Frost, Browning, Emerson, Dickinson, Crane, Coleridge, Carroll to name a few, were very understandable, even to a teenager.

W.B. Yeats

The author goes on to say..."Poets you say...Aren't they those solitary creatures, slaves to pen and paper, pulling out strands of hair, beating on unforgiving keys of typewriters and computers, always reaching for the more perfect word."
John Keats

I suppose this is written so as to contrast dramatically with the protest poets reading an antiwar poem near the Capitol.
John Milton

I cheer them on. But please dear Post writer, we are among you in other guises---not solitary, slaves, or hair pullers.
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

We are just plain folks that love words, language, reading poetry and sometimes taking a stab at writing a poem.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Thoughts of and hopes for spring

It's hard not to have thoughts of and hopes for spring, even though the winds are chilly and there are blobs of dirty snow looming around us.

To bolster that hope, I bought a small bouquet of tightly closed daffodils, my favorite flower.

True to form, they opened their sunny faces and brightened my life with their utter simplicity.

Here's a poem about daffodils that is in my newly published book "At The Turquoise Table"
Photo by Russell J Smith (flickr)

Late Storm

Longing for an early spring

I sloshed through the slush

to buy

a fistful of bright, yellow


who sit defiantly

on my table

nodding in my direction.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

More on snow (but no more snow please)

More on snow (but no more snow please)

My friend Tom calls me after a snow fall and recites from memory the first two stanzas of James Russell Lowell's

"The First Snow Fall". He went to school in the days when it was mandatory to memorize poetry. That was quite a long time ago and he still can recite the whole poem from memory. I'm impressed.

So for your enjoyment and as a comparison to Mary Oliver's snow poem below are the first two stanzas.

Note the meter and rhyme as compared to Oliver's free verse. I think both are beautiful.

The snow has begun in the gloaming,

And busily all the night.

Had been heaping field and highway

With a silence deep and white.

Every pine and fir and hemlock

Wore ermine too dear for an earl,

And the poorest twig on the elm tree

Was ridged inch deep with pearl.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"First Snow" by Mary Oliver

From the poem "First Snow" by Mary Oliver (yes I know we're way past that)

The snow

began here,

this morning and all day

continued, its white

rhetoric everywhere

calling us back to why, how,

whence such beauty and what

the meaning; such

an oracular fever! flowing

past windows, an energy ti seemed

would never ebb, never settle.....

Friday, February 5, 2010

Can anyone write a poem?

Can anyone write a poem? If someone has a desire to express a feeling, idea or observation in a poetic form---why not? I am sure we all have written haiku at one time or another.

I think the poem had been confined to the academic world for far too long. Although it always existed in the popular culture in the form of song lyrics and recently in rap, poetry seems to be experiencing a current revival of main steam interest. Note the increase in poetry readings, workshops and dare I say blogs.

If the would-be poet enjoys language and words, it can be very satisfying trying to write poems. The best way to get started is the old cliche---start reading and listening to lots of poems---old ones, new ones, sonnets, ballads, rhyming, free verse, etc.

And then begin writing and see what happens.

Is there such a thing as inspiration. I think so. I think some people for a myriad of reasons feel a "pull" toward writing poetry. Perhaps it comes from their unconscious and may give them a bit of an edge in this somewhat mysterious process.

Anyone can write a poem, but it seems some of us must.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

How I write a poem.

People often ask how do YOU write a poem...does it come all at once or in bits and pieces?

Do you sit down to deliberately write it or just grab it when it suddenly hits you?

The answer for me is all of the above.

I keep a notebook where I jot ideas, phrases, words or feelings throughout some days and sometimes at night.

They may gestate in my mind for a day, a week or a month.

Then I will sit down, comb through them, play with them and try to form them into a meaningful poem.

Other times if I have a deadline, I'll sit down and wait for the muse to appear. I may carefully and deliberately grind out what looks like a pretty good poem and then at the end---reject it and write something with a totally different theme.

In other words, for me there are no set rules---oh wait I do have one rule---to be as honest and as true to my experiences as I can.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Poem For Antonio

Poem For Antonio

It is time

to purge, to prune

yellowing leaves from aging spines,

to lift weight from bending shelves.

I begin the process,

putting books one by

one in piles.

Your soft voice is released from its resting place,

when I touch the slim book of poetry

you wrote so many years ago.

I turn the pages to see

your smiling face,

your arms raised in the dance

of Carnaval.

The music, the memories encircle me,

The books will stay on the shelves for now.

My work today is to read your poems

and remember.

The Color Turquoise

My friend Cindy, in an e-mail, commented on the color turquoise as combining the "serene qualities of blue" with the "invigorating aspects of green." The containment of opposites---what a lovely thought...and color.

At the Turquoise Table: At the Turquoise Table

At the Turquoise Table: At the Turquoise Table

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

At the Turquoise Table

After a lifetime of writing poetry, I have finally decided to publish a selection of my poems.  The title is At the Turquoise Table, and it should be available in February.  It represents most of the stages of my life, and each section has several poems that reflect that particular stage. 

Ray and Teresa Hasselbeck - 1927

In the first section, MEAT AND POTATOES, the subject is my family and youth.  Here is a stanza from my poem called GRANDMOTHER:

A picture on the wall,

A lovely face in black and white,

Tortoise shell combs in a trunk

in the attic,

Tears in my father's eyes,

A name—Pauline,

My sister's name, now.


More to follow!