Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Poetry By Heart

I wish I had a photographic mind.  Then I could pull up hundreds of poems from memory and recite them word for word by heart.  Alas, that is not the case.  I have a few poetic lines tucked in the brain folds which rise to my lips to be recited for comfort, fun or for the “see I’m a cultured know-it-all “ gamesmanship face-off.  

I envision the substantial value of having great poems in my memory bank to use in crises. It is not likely I will be actually imprisoned (although one never knows), but at times when my thoughts imprison me in fear, loneliness or worry,  I would like to displace them with the well remembered lines of a beloved poem.  

The other meaning of by heart relates to writing a poem.  It is useful to know something about the technique of writing poems…like rhyme, meter, alliteration, metaphor, etc.
It is important to have some of these to use if we wish, but more important to remember they are tools and not the meat of the work.  That comes from the heart, the depths, the heat of the writer.  The tools cannot get in the way of the connection to the writer’s center…that sincere, authentic, hardscrabble voice of the soul…poetry by heart.

I am not saying that the words can be spilled on the page without discipline or some structure…because they then become just non-sense.  
Iambic pentameter you have a valid place in the world of verse, but don’t let me get so fixated on you that I cannot write by heart.

Photograph by Kathleen Tyler Conklin

Friday, October 3, 2014

The Limits of Poetry


I am reading Edward Hirsch’s “How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry”.  It is his own Ode to poetry…a Hymn of praise…264 pages long.   It is a love letter to the poems that touch his heart, bring meaning to his life arouse his feelings and that enrich and comfort him. 


In 2011, Hirsch experienced the sudden loss of his son, Gabriel and found no solace in the poems that once impassioned his heart and quieted his mind. Gabriel, 22 years of age, died
from the club drug GHB that someone gave him at a party. It was a harrowing three days before Hirsch found out what had happened to his son. 
Father and son - Blois, France - Kathleen Tyler Conklin

Hirsch stopped reading and writing poetry after this traumatic shock.  But he began to record the memories of his son by talking with friends and relatives, writing them down compulsively and haphazardly.  After a while his outpouring of words began to take the shape of a poem.  It became a 70 page elegy to his son; a book length poem recently published called “Gabriel”.  The New Yorker called it a “masterpiece of sorrow”.


The poem is written in three-line stanzas without punctuation…a kind of stream of consciousness, a deluge of memories, love and grief.  Perhaps an effort to etch Gabriel’s spirit on the bring him to life with words. Hirsch admits he put everything he could into his poem, but also had to face what poetry could not do.  His passion had been cooled by this tragedy.  He had a new awareness…that poetry has limits. “It cannot give us back the people we have lost.”


And yet, in a sense by writing this astounding elegy, Hirsch has given Gabriel to us.

Friday, August 15, 2014

The Woman Behind the Poet

My last blog was on the poetry of war.  I didn’t want to leave this topic without drawing your attention to the poems of Karl Shapiro.  Karl Shapiro won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry in 1944 for his “V-letters and Other Poems”.  He sent his work from New Guinea, where he was serving in World War!! as a medic, to his fiancĂ©, Evalyn Katz, who was living in New York City at that time.  Shapiro had published a chap book of his poems and had a few poems published in literary journals, but was not a well-known poet.  He needed an advocate and in Evalyn he had found one.

Evalyn was his persistent, hard working editor, and the catalyst for getting his war poems published. I know from personal experience the determination of Evalyn, Shapiro’s first wife, as I met her many years later and became her close friend. I don’t often name-drop as I have few names to drop, but feel that a shout out to her is deserved as the woman behind the poet. She did the hard work of “pounding the pavement” to advance his reputation.  Karl, of course, did the hard work of writing good poetry.

Karl’s career took off after he returned home from the war.  He taught at Johns Hopkins University, The University of Nebraska, The University of Chicago and the University of California at Davis. He also became the editor of Poetry and Prairie Schooner Magazines. He was appointed as Consultant in Poetry to The Library of Congress (1947-48), a position now known as The Poet Laureate.

Most critics agree Shapiro was a good poet, but his work doesn’t seem to have stayed in the poetic limelight as much as some of his contemporaries. I’m not sure why this is so other than the whims of the poetry gods.  I recommend looking at some of his poems.  “Wild Card”, a collection of his poems with a forward by Stanley Kunitz is a good place to start. It includes many of his war poems.
Karl Shapiro-1913-2000
Evalyn Katz Shapiro 1918-2007

Sunday, June 1, 2014

The Poetry of War

Photo by Kathleen Tyler Conklin
How can something as horrific as war be expressed in poetic language?  It seems like an impossible challenge and yet war is a profound, deeply awful and unfortunately constant human experience.  War Poetry…"Theirs not to reason why…theirs but to do and die…into the valley of death rode the six hundred."  These lines from "The Charge of the Light Brigade" rise to my conscious mind from the poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson.  I read that poem in high school and apparently it has stayed lodged in my memory bank. On rereading "Charge” yesterday, I think Tennyson has captured something of the power and insanity of war.  Ironically, he wrote the poem from his flat in London after reading a report about a battle in Crimea in 1854 in “The Times".  He wasn't even there. (Historical aside---the Crimean War was waged between the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France against Russia. Russia was defeated.  Eerily topical.)

So war inspires poetry or is it that war necessitates poetry.  Homer wrote poetically about war and war poetry endures to the present day.  Is it one attempt of the survivors to make something heroic out of power lust or simply to make sense out of that which is beyond understanding?  A struggle to stay sane. 

James Anderson Winn has written a book called "The Poetry of War" a collection of war poems (published in 2008). He suggests that very early war poetry spoke to the theme of honor and as we move to later wars, including the war to end all wars (World War l which produced a lot of war poetry) and the Second World War, liberty became the theme. Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan moves toward an expression of waste and even shame by the war poets. He singles out Phillip Appleman and his poem "Waiting for Fire”.

I cannot leave this topic without calling attention to the lyrics of Bruce Springsteen. "Born in the USA" and "Lost in the Flood".  Anti-war perhaps, but they also record poignantly the plight of the returning Vietnam Vet adrift in a country he loves, which mainly ignores him.

War was a topic which I wasn't eager to explore, but now that I have begun, it has become important for me to read the poetry of war. It is a significant part of the human experience.

Lessons Learned
Kathleen Tyler Conklin

Friday, April 25, 2014

The Yin and Yang of April

April had its mood swings, its ups and downs. It delighted in daily changes of temperature and temperament. It began with April Fools Day and continued to trick us.  Were those snowflakes or drifting petals?  What to wear today?…a warm jacket or closet dive for summer wear.

The cherry blossom made a late arrival and then burst around us with an abundance of bountiful blooms.  The somberness of Lent gave way to the joy and sensual pleasures of Easter.

Dark skies, chilly rain, one day.  The next---bright colors filled our eyescapes---pale lilacs, sunny yellows, vivid reds.  Trees tightly coiled at night, relaxed into frothy green tips the next morning.

We had to become quick change artists, go with the flow, be patient, be ready, slow down, warm up and let April do its thing.

We need April to remind us of the yin and yang energies that pulse in our bodies and surround us in nature.

April did a good job this year.

Hillwood Estate by Kathleen Tyler Conklin

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Women Irish Poets

Eavan Boland

The soul of the Irish poet is given to deep thought and lyrical language.  These thoughts have been expressed by many poets whom we know so well and love so much…to name just a few…

Oliver Goldsmith, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, the great W.B. Yeats, Sean O' Casey, James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, Brendan Behan and Seamus Heaney.  However, we seldom can come up with the name of any woman Irish poet and there have been quite enough.  Google the list and be amazed.

I would like to mention just one in this blog…and a contemporary poet at that…Eavan Boland.  She was born in 1944 and has published over twenty volumes of poetry to the present day. 

She has won numerous awards and taught at various universities in the United States and Ireland.  She also has written a prose memoir "Object Lessons" (1995). 

Eavan "takes on the matter of Ireland and the matter of womanhood " in her poetry…neither a small task in my opinion. And she does it "in a radically different tone and texture from the work of her Irish contemporaries."  I could go on…but see for yourself.  She is a treasure.  She writes in a woman's voice.  She writes in an Irish voice. She writes in a contemporary voice.  Hers is a voice worth reading.
Photo of Oscar Wilde Statue in Dublin
Kathleen Tyler Conklin

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Poetry of Hope

Photograph by Kathleen Tyler Conklin

The third week of February teased us with warmth.  The cold temperatures have returned, but they don't feel quite as bleak.  The springlike days gave us hope that living will become easier soon.  No more heavy coats, icy sidewalks and roads to maneuver or freezing fingertips and toes. Light has nudged aside the early dark afternoons. We trust more light, warmth and color will soon surround us.

Yet, there are times when we feel this will never happen.  We fear that we will be confined to a life that is cold and dark, drained of color and warmth.  In tough times, despair can take up all the space in our psyche.  We can barely take the next breath.

Most of us have experienced this feeling, whether through personal losses and suffering or from witnessing the conflict, violence and misery that afflicts our world today. Likely both. Life is tough. To be alive is to feel despair.  It is part of being human.  It is at our core a longing that will always be there…whether you feel it as a longing for completion or a union with the divine.  I cannot define what it means for you, but I can suggest one antidote…turning to the mystical poets for help.  Their words may bring you to a better place for awhile.

Rumi, a well known mystical Persian Poet writes "The wound is the place where the light enters you."

Hafiz(Hafez), another great  Persian poet, has left the following words of encouragement.

"I wish I could show you when you are lonely or in darkness the astonishing lightness of your own being."

May the light of hope be with you.

Friday, January 24, 2014

January Thaw

The snow that came this January is going to stick around for awhile. 
Usually, our January storms melt quickly in warming temperatures
and bright sunlight.  But this year, the cold will mold it into grayish­
brown lumps that displease the eye and that continue to lurk in odd
 places to trip us, when least expecting it.  It is very, very cold. 
Extremely cold for this area.  It is finger and toe numbing cold. 
Numbing is the word of this month and segues into my January blog.

We have so many ways of numbing our feelings.  We push them
down…freeze them into such odd lumps that they become
inaccessible.  We have learned ways to numb our feelings through
alcohol, food, drugs (prescription or other), shopping, TV in excess,
frantic busyness etc.…a list we know all too well.

There are times when it is necessary to "numb out" and ok to do so.
Whatever gets you through.  But if we stick around in these places,
it will be hard to welcome a January thaw.  We will get used to being
numb.  I refuse to use the old cliche, get in touch with your feelings. 
Let me put it this way.  Get in touch with some poetry, some music,
some close friends.  Have a January Thaw Party.  Go to an art gallery
or dig out an art book and let the landscapes of spring and summer
warm you.  Have a heart to heart talk with a good friend.  Let the
tears flow.  One of the best parts of being human is having feelings. 
Feel them.