Friday, December 23, 2011

The Longest Night

Yesterday the axial tilt of the earth’s polar hemisphere was farthest away from the sun at

12:30 am. EST or in other more poetic words, last night was the longest night of the year.

Darkness arrives early in the daytime and stays late into the morning hours during this time of year.

Being clever beings, we compensate by lighting up---filling our houses and yards with the glow of Hanukkah and Christmas candles and lights.

But perhaps the plentitude of darkness can soften the glare of our busy lives and invite us to take some quiet time to reflect. Time to sit with our thoughts and become enlightened in a different way.

We take the risk that the ghosts of past regrets and the rattling chains of sadness will arise Scrooge-like into our consciousness. But it may be a time to welcome and sit with these dark moments. It may be a time to greet this dark energy and embrace it as part of our very human selves…and to let it deepen our compassion.

Tomorrow the earth will have tilted a little more toward the Sun and we can celebrate the new day…the longest night will have once again passed.

To all a Good Day!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Mixed Bag Of November

Autumn at Great Falls, Maryland

One day, I walk the neighborhood, looking up at the beautifully rich palette of the leaves of fall. The next, I am looking down at a soggy mess or a row of ugly, black plastic bags. This has been the theme of my November---a mixed bag of sadness and joy.  It was painted initially in somber colors by the death of a dear friend. I was stopped by a loss that seemed impossible to put into words. Grief is so difficult to express verbally in our culture. Oh, to be in Ireland now that gloom is here.

The somber hues continued when the tree that creates a pink haze outside my window every spring was cut down, rotten to it its core. The days darkened early and cold days chilled.

But then there would appear an astoundingly beautiful autumn day---warm and colorful.  And soon we are about to gather and give thanks for the harvest of the good times, the abundance of our lives, the lasting ties of family and friends. We will laugh and cry, pet our animals, breathe in the fresh air and imagine a better world. It seems to me that joy is often undercoated with a darker color…but “the world goes on and the geese head home.”

Here is the poem by Mary Oliver called “Wild Geese”
You do not have to be good.

You do not have to walk on your knees

For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.

You only have to let the soft animal of your body

love what it loves.

Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

Meanwhile the world goes on.

Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain

are moving across the landscapes,

over the prairies and the deep trees,

the mountains and the rivers.

Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,

are heading home again.

Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,

the world offers itself to your imagination,

calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting --

over and over announcing your place

in the family of things.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Poetry On A String

Poetry On A String

I mentioned in last months blog, an exhibit at the Library of Congress which

featured one form of the literature of Brazil called “cordel”.

I was lucky enough to be able to see the wonderful woodblock illustrations that accompanied some of the poems and stories from the northeastern part of Brazil.

Cordel is a Portuguese word meaning string and is given to these traditional folk art pamphlets, because they were hung on strings to be sold in the local marketplaces.

The poems and stories were relevant and vital, reflecting the everyday events in the lives of the Brazilian people. Topics included birth, death, love, conflict, marital strife, Religion, and politics. The folk hero, Lampiao, a kind of Brazilian Robinhood was a popular subject. They were often done with humor and usually accompanied by a simple woodcut, which pertained to the subject matter. They are still being done today in all parts of Brazil, but more often as an information conduit, focusing on teachings for children, public health issues and politics. Sometimes they are done as an honorary tribute and are biographies of famous Brazilians. It is an art form that is still evolving and in 2011 a special edition cordel was given to President Obama in honor of his visit to Rio de Janeiro

Seeing the exhibit gave rise to many thoughts of my time spent in Brazil and I was thrilled to hear the beautiful Portuguese language spoken by some of the commentators.

It must have put me in a poetic mood, for a few days later I wrote this poem.

Poetry On A String

Write your thoughts

Hang them on a string

in the market place

so people have to


more than a penny

to read them.


be happy when the

wind whirls them away

leaving you

in peace.


Thursday, September 15, 2011

The Sounds of Simon

Paul Simon sings for the 9/11 10-year memorial

I thought one of the most touching moments during the recent 9/11 anniversary memorial was Paul
Simon’s playing and singing of “The Sound of Silence”.

His simple and direct rendition brought tears to my eyes. The song somehow seemed to evoke a sense of sadness with its first words—“hello darkness my old friend”. These and the words that follow awakened memories of our shared national tragedies when we did come together and speak words of comfort and compassion.

But as the song continues, the silence begins to take over and grow “like a cancer”.

This lack of connection---the inability to embrace each other with words or even to understand each other has taken over center stage in many of our encounters.

I think the poet of song, Paul Simon captured these dark moments. Hopefully, we can find the courage to cross the abyss and dare to “stir the sound of silence.”

“Fool said I, you do not know, silence like a cancer grows

Hear my words and I might teach you, take my arms that I might reach you

But my words, like silent raindrops fell, and echoed in the wells of silence.”

Some links of interest for the fall.

Library of Congress is featuring a September Symposium on Brazilian literature

which is featuring folk poetry called cordel----booklets of poetry illustrated with woodblock images.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Hitting the Books

 It's that wonderful time of year, or at least getting close, when the doors of learning swing open for eager minds. With that in my mind, I'd like to mention two books that deal with the subject of poetry.

The first, "Beautiful and Pointless", I alluded to in my May blog. The author, David Orr, is the poetry critic for the New York Times. He termed his book his "peculiar project". I agree with him in that it is an odd mixture of very analytical, technical moments sprinkled with flights of fancy...i.e humor and lyricism. It is always dense in the sense of richness of thought...albeit at times disjointed.

His chapter headings speak to its content. He addresses the differences and similarities between the personal poem and the political one. He even expresses the idea that poetry can create a change in opinion as it edges toward politics. A powerful idea!

He then launches into a pretty technical analysis of form, but not without creating a category of his own called Resemblance. Curious? I was too.

He then talks about the poet in terms of personal ambition and the need to be in the spotlight or fishbowl.

The best chapter for me was the final chapter "Why Bother?". Why spend time reading or writing poems when we could be doing something else---anything else? I recommend reading Orr's book to find out his take on that. Trust me when I say it won't be simple and it won't be short, but it will hold your attention.

The second book "Unless It Moves The Human Heart" by the distinguished author Roger Rosenblatt records a running dialogue between Roger and his students during one semester of his writing class. It flows like a lively conversation, which it basically is ---with asides from Rosenblatt, the teacher, who distills the craft and inspires the art of writing. It is a small book--- written by a teacher with a large intelligence and a generous, passionate spirit. I wish you all teachers of this caliber as you pass through the swinging doors.

Friday, July 15, 2011


Claire with her muse
David Orr and his book have been pushed to the back of the shelf. Lethargy is front and center. Heat, Haze and Humidity have settled into my brain. I would be sitting and happily staring into space, but for the summer summons to jump into the gene pool for our annual family reunion.

We come together, a mixed set of ages, experiences and perspectives, tied together by ancient history, common ancestors and shared memories.

Flying from east and west coast into the center where it began and ended for the immigrants and will end in distant days for those who stayed. The much maligned snow capital, tiresome and difficult in winter, gifts us with warm, sunny days and cool evenings.

The poetry of our encounters embraces many forms: the rambling prose poetry of one on one long conversations, short, punchy exchanges that leap---haiku to haiku and the occasional blank verse.

Some of us speak in lower case, others in italics. There is an ease of language, a connection without the need for explanations that eliminates the dictionary and takes us quickly to the heart of the matter or perhaps better said---the matter of heart.

It is a language of mixed metaphors---losses, disappointments, accomplishments, leavings, beginnings, and secrets once whispered that are now openly spoken and enrich the family history.

In many ways it is a universal language---one that all families speak and understand, but since it does have its own idioms and dialect, it becomes the poetry of our family.

A poetry that is comfortable and comforting and a joy to speak.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

The Poetry of Surgery

I'm not crazy about the idea of these blogs getting too personal or straying far from the theme of poetry in all its wonderful forms...but I
think the anesthesia from recent surgery has dulled my brain, so I'm going to write a few lines about a seeming oxymoron--the poetry of surgery. When I mentioned this idea to my friend and fellow poet Helen, she replied that I would then be on the cutting edge. Indeed.I guess one could stretch and see the surgeon as an artist and not just a technician, depending on the canvas on which she's working. Some intuition must come into play.

I could go on with metaphors---the knife as a brush---the gall stone as a jewel (apparently some of them are quite luminous), but I'm going to jump to the patient as poet and write a few lines about the hospital experience, I hope for your reading pleasure. If I miss the mark, blame
it on the drugs.

Hospital Hype

Blanket fed by a vacuum hose
puffs warm air over me...I imagine
floating above 5th Avenue in the
Macy's Christmas Parade...floating
freely, bumping along giddy and gleeful

Suddenly diminished, I am deflated but
not quite
my tethered legs gasp on the bed
inhaling, exhaling
giving me hope
I will rise again.

Next month I will return to semi-sanity and continue writing some
impressions of David Orr's book "Beautiful and Pointless" {A Guide to
Modern Poetry}.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

The Critic

Years ago, my friend Pam and I used to discuss the art critic's power. Pam was a fine artist and often commented that one critic could make or break an art career, even though it was just one man's opinion. The art world has opened up since then, but it is often the opinion of one man (it seems most art critics are still men) which carries a great deal of power.

Which brings me to David Orr, the New York Times poetry critic. I was ready
Mary Oliver

to devalue Orr's opinions because he made a rather condescending remark about Mary Oliver's poetry, which I like. I rethought this and admitted I might have been too critical of the critic. I read a few more of his recent reviews in the "New York Times Book Review" and decided to read his recently published book "Beautiful and Pointless" (A Guide To Modern Poetry). I have reached the halfway point in the book and am ready to cut Orr some slack. I still don't agree with his opinion of Mary Oliver, but am aware he has done his homework and brings some heft to his criticisms. Still one man's opinion, but one worth considering and a lot of food for thought in what he terms his "peculiar project." I won't comment any further until next month's blog by which time I will hopefully have thoroughly digested his book. The first course certainly has been tasty enough.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Poetry and Film

In “Poetry” a Korean film to be released this fall in the United States, a sixty-six year old Korean grandmother enrolls in a poetry class at her local community center. She is told by the instructor to look deep and hard at everything around her for the inspiration to write poetry. Great advice. It is advice that can be applied to many of the arts, including filmmaking. The film “Poetry” won the 2010 Cannes Film Festival Award for Best Screenplay. Mija, the main character, turns to poetry to help deal with her sullen grandson with whom she lives and her own medical challenges. Poetry as self help? I don’t want to trivialize it by calling it that, but reading and writing poetry can help one find liberation. The Australian poet, Les Murray in his book “Killing The Black Dog” credits writing poetry with having helped to save his life. He goes on to say “I’d disapproved of using poetry as personal therapy, but the Black Dog (depression) taught me better.” The words and images of poetry carry great power.

The images in the film “Of Gods And Men” are also powerful. It is clear that the writer Etienne Comar and the writer/director Xavier Beauvois looked deeply into the lives of the Trappist monks living and working in Algeria during the ongoing civil unrest of the 1990’s. Comar and Beauvois met with theologians and did extensive research as well as contacting the relatives of the deceased monks. The writers and the actors lived for weeks with the monks of TamiĆ© Abbey in Savoie to ensure the authenticity of the film’s historical and liturgical content. “Of Gods and Men” won the Grand Prix at Cannes in 2010. The film inspired me to write this poem.

The Monks

I want to tell you about the monks,
that band of mismatched brothers bound
by a strange, strong calling
to live and work in the mountains
between sea and desert.

I want to tell you
of the utter simplicity of their lives,
of their service to the Muslim people
stacked in poverty on the Algerian hillside.

I want to tell you of their fear,
caught in the confusion and cruelty of civil war,
and finally I want to tell you of
their courage and faith
that stuns me into silence.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Close To The Ground

"Language is not an abstract construction of the learned, or of dictionary makers. but is something arising out of the work, needs, ties, joys, affections, tastes of long generations of humanity, and has its bases broad and low, close to the ground."-Noah Webster, lexicographer (1758-1843)

I somehow always sensed that Noah Webster was a smart guy, but I absolutely love this quote. It describes so perfectly for me the fertile ground from which poetry springs.

Poetry is not "an abstract construction of the learned" but arises from "the needs, ties, joys, affections and tastes" of the humanity of the poet. I could add a few adjectives to Webster's list, but why burden a good thing?

I love the idea that the base of language is broad and low. It means to me that good poetry appeals to everyone, does not put on airs---is in fact close to the ground and close to the heart. It is of the earth and earthy. It can take us to new heights, but it flows from our very humanity which after all will end in the earth.

The earth is so much with us these near spring days. As the sun warms it, I can smell it and long to put my hands into it.

I remember my father putting cooling mud on my bee sting when I was a child. It was a folk remedy and probably the coolness that relieved the sting, but who knows what magic healing power it contained. The earth is magical in so many ways. Imagine the potter taking a lump of earth and making it into a bowl from which we eat. And the food that we eat growing from that same earth. Magic.

So here are some thoughts as spring nears.

Live close to the ground.

Write from your humanity.

Celebrate our earth. It might be all the magic we need. It and poetry.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

The Poetry Of Love

February, a sometimes hated month because of the snow and cold it brings to many parts of our country, is one of my favorite months. When I was a kid in school, there were two guaranteed holidays---Washington and Lincoln's birthdays---celebrated separately. There was another birthday I used to eagerly anticipate---my own. Then of course, there was Valentine's Day and the poetry of love printed on flimsy paper valentines and passed out in the classroom. The valentine verses were usually pretty bad, but it didn't matter to me, as long as I had an acceptable pile on my desk.

Today, I am thinking about the poetry of love and whose poems would be considered the best. I'm not going to mention the obvious amorous geniuses, but write about two poets who happened to appear---one in a book that I borrowed from a fellow poet yesterday and one that popped into my memory today.

The book "Valentines" is by Ted Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate and Pulitzer Prize winner. This slim volume of poems, published in 2008, is a collection of the annual Valentine Poem Ted sent to women fans and friends on Valentine's Day for twenty-two years. He printed them on the back of a postcard and had them mailed from Valentine, Nebraska. He started with fifty postcards and ended up sending them to twenty-six hundred women in 2007, which was the last year for his lovely tradition. Alas, I was never on the list, but here they are all in one book.

What a mensch and what good poetry.

The other poet who came to mind is Phyllis McGinley (1905-78), also a Pulitzer Prize winner in 1961. She is known mainly for her humorous poetry. I dug out an old book of her poetry (published1954), "The Love Letters Of Phyllis McGinley" and became re-enamored of her wit and skill. I'm going to let her words ensnare you---with just three stanza's from her poem, "A Kind Of Love Letter To New York".

Love is a mischief,

Love is a brat.

Love is, admittedly, blind as a bat.

So I'm in love with

The City of New York.

Too new for an empire, too big for its boots,

With cold steel cables where it might have roots,

With everything to offer and nothing to give,

It's a horrid place to visit, but a fine place to live.

Ah! some love Paris,

And some Purdue.

But love is an archer with a low I.Q.

A bold, bad bowman, and innocent of pity.

So I'm in love with

New York City.

What can I say but---Phyllis McGinley, I love you.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

And the beat goes on

I believe that poetry is communication and we shouldn't have to say "huh"?--at least not too many times when reading a poem. We need to say "Ah yes" and feel our heart beat a little more quickly.

Shakespeare's heart beat largely in iambic pentameter (an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable called a foot, with five feet to a line) in his plays and sonnets.

You (mostly) get what Shakespeare is trying to communicate once you get into his rhythm. Shakespeare also wrote a lot in rhyme. Some experts say rhyming poems are easier to memorize. Some of Shakespeare's rhyming lines do stick in our collective mind eg."--- the Play's the thing--Wherein I'll catch the conscience of the King."

Chaucer's "The Canterbury Tales" are written in rhyming couplets. Couplets with a meter of rhyming iambic pentameter are called heroic couplets. It is indeed a heroic job to write a poem in rhyming iambic couplets and have it be a good poem. Just because a poem rhymes doesn't make it a good poem. It can be terrible. What's worse is you may not be able to forget it.

Likewise, you can refrain from meter, rhyme or any set pattern and find you have written a lousy poem or a very good one. This is called free verse.

A poem has the best chance of being a good poem, if we worry less about rhyme and meter and more about trying to communicate what we are trying to say and let it come straight from our hearts. That's where all good poetry starts.

Let the beat go on.