old age sticks
youth yanks them
by E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)
old age sticks
youth yanks them
by E.E. Cummings (1894-1962)
Suicide (translation by Alan S. Trueblood)
(Maybe it was because you hadn’t
mastered your geometry)
The lad was going blank.
It was ten in the morning.
His heart was growing full
of broken wings and rag flowers.
He noticed there remained
just one word on his lips.
And when he took off his gloves
a soft ash fell from his hands.
A tower showed through the balcony door.
He felt he was balcony and tower.
No doubt he saw how the clock,
stopped in its case, surveyed him.
He saw his shadow quiet and prone
on the white silk divan.
And the stiff, geometrical youth
smashed the mirror with a hatchet.
When it broke, a great burst of shadow
flooded the illusory room.
by Federico Garcia Lorca (1898-1936)
What the Doctor Said
He said it doesn’t look good
he said it looks bad in fact real bad
he said I counted thirty-two of them on one lung before
I quit counting them
I said I’m glad I wouldn’t want to know
about any more being there than that
he said are you a religious man do you kneel down
in forest groves and let yourself ask for help
when you come to a waterfall
mist blowing against your face and arms
do you stop and ask for understanding at those moments
I said not yet but I intend to start today
he said I’m real sorry he said
I wish I had some other kind of news to give you
I said Amen and he said something else
I didn’t catch and not knowing what else to do
and not wanting him to have to repeat it
and me to have to fully digest it
I just looked at him
for a minute and he looked back it was then
I jumped up and shook hands with this man who’d just given me
something no one else on earth had ever given me
I may have even thanked him habit being so strong
by Raymond Carver (1938-1988)
To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You can no longer quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.
by Edna St. Vincent Millay (1892-1950)
Kaneko places a high value on opposition: “to oppose/ Is the only fine thing in life.” Yet he pushes opposition to such an extreme that it becomes absurd: “I ride my horse facing its buttocks.” What exactly is he trying to tell us here?
In my youth
I was opposed to school.
And now, again,
I’m opposed to work.
Above all it is health
And righteousness that I hate the most.
There’s nothing so cruel to man
As health and honesty.
Of course I’m opposed to ‘the Japanese spirit’
And duty and human feeling make me vomit.
I’m against any government anywhere
And show my bum to authors’ and artists’ circles.
When I’m asked for what I was born,
Without scruple, I’ll reply, ‘To oppose.’
When I’m in the east
I want to go to the west.
I fasten my coat at the left, my shoes right and left.
My hakama I wear back to front and I ride a horse facing its buttocks.
What everyone else hates I like
And my greatest hate of all is people feeling the same.
This I believe: to oppose
Is the only fine thing in life.
To oppose is to live.
To oppose is to get a grip on the very self.
by Mitsuharu Kaneko (1895-1975)
Epizeuxis (ep-ih-zook-sis) is the immediate repetition of a word one or more times, as indicated by the underlined words in the following excerpts from the poetry of Sylvia Plath (1932-1963):
You poke and stir,
Flesh, bone, there is nothing there—
A cake of soap,
A wedding ring,
A gold filling.
Herr God, Herr Lucifer,
Out of the ash
I rise with my red hair
And I eat men like air.
(from Lady Lazarus)
This is a nice little device that’s not too difficult to get a handle on. Moreover, it can pack a punch when used effectively. Note that the repeated word’s article and modifier are included in this next example:
I do not stir.
The frost makes a flower,
The dew makes a star,
The dead bell,
The dead bell.
Somebody’s done for.
(from Death & Co.)
Aside from the pleasant sound its repetition creates, the device is a stylistic favorite of Plath’s. It imbues the speaker’s voice in her poems with an impassioned tone, and sometimes a manic one. It’s as if she’s so animated she cannot help but repeat herself:
Such pure leaps and spirals—
Surely they travel
The world forever, I shall not entirely
Sit emptied of beauties, the gift
Of your small breaths, the drenched grass
Smell of your sleeps, lilies, lilies.
(from The Night Dances)
Be sure to add epizeuxis to your tool box!
“I’ll throw myself at the cobbles…” (Translation by Yan Kandror)
I’ll throw myself at the cobbles of dark empty alleys
While following branch of the maytree in black fancy coach,
And bonnet of snow, and hum of the mill everlasting…
I only remembered the locks overlapping and auburn.
Still acrid from grief, or of ants slightly fragrant and sour,
They leave dry as amber the lips of the one who has touched them.
In moments like these – even air becomes faintly tawny,
And ringlets of pupils adorned with the fur of the iris…
And all that I know of tender and pink apple parings…
But lo!.. Squeaky sound of runners of rented fiacre,
The bristly cold stars peek through the weave of the rough dirty burlap,
And hoofs beat staccato on cobbles of frozen keyboard.
And now all my light is from stars, from their shine, bristly lying.
As life fleets away like lace-foam of the theatre bonnet.
And nobody utters a word from the darkness of streets of the city…
by Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938)
A note on the translator
A dear friend of mine, Yan is a bibliophile, collector and erudite of the occult. He runs a magical little store in Homer, Alaska called the Observance of Hermits Rare and Used Bookstore. Be sure to check it out if you’re in the area! Or take a look at his eclectic selection of books Here and Here.
The One Fundamental of Poetry Most Ignored by Beginners
Although I’d agree that there are no “rules” in poetry, I do believe that there are tools, guidelines and techniques that make some poems better than others. One of the big ones is Concrete Imagery, best summed up in the simple phrase: “Show, don’t tell.”
This was one of the first things I learned in a high school creative writing class. I’ve heard it repeated hundreds of times since then, but ten years later I still have to remind myself how important it is and make sure I’m putting it into practice.
Most beginning poets start out writing because they have a deluge of feelings and/or ideas which manifest as language. Naturally, they want to impress that language upon a poem.
What many beginning poets don’t seem to understand is that once that poem is sent out into the world, it has to stand up for itself, apart from the poet. The poem has to become its own entity.
You could write, for instance, “I love her with all of my heart.” —And although that feeling may be genuine for you as the poet, that line in the poem will not be very convincing to any reader. This is because the line is seated in abstract ideas instead of concrete imagery.
Let’s start by squaring off Concrete Imagery with Abstract Ideas. Love is an abstract idea. Fear, anger and happiness are abstract ideas. Add God, religion and government to the list and you’re off to a good start. Abstract Ideas have no physical counterpart in the world. We cannot actually touch, see, smell, hear or taste them. They have no sensory qualities.
Now Concrete Imagery is just the opposite. These are things that exist in the actual world: apples, microwaves, telephone poles, etc. Specificity plays a big part in concrete imagery, because this log that I want to include in my poem may not just be any log.
It might be the rotten log by the Blackhawk river, on which my brother and I sat while we fished for King Salmon. It might be the knotted log that Old John bludgeoned his wife to death with. It might be the hollow log at the bottom of the river that the minnows run through like a tunnel. You want your imagery to be not only concrete, but fresh and unique. As always, try to avoid cliches.
One of William Carlos Williams most famous lines is “No ideas, but in things.” And true to his word, much of WCW’s poetry strains toward imagery in its absolute sense. Note the specificity of the concrete imagery and the lack of abstract ideas in the following poem:
A big young bareheaded woman
in an apron
Her hair slicked back standing
on the street
One stockinged foot toeing
Her shoe in her hand. Looking
intently into it
She pulls out the paper insole
to find the nail
That has been hurting her
William Carlos Williams (1883-1963)
There is no outpouring of love here, no diatribe of anger. It is just a picture of a woman removing a nail from the insole of her shoe. That’s all it is. That’s all it needs to be. The point is not that “God” and “anger” should be excluded from poetry, but that poetry is better seated in concrete imagery than in abstract ideas.
Other than the pain caused by the nail in the poem, there are no other ideas or feelings explicitly stated. And yet, does the imagery not evoke them? I for one can feel the woman’s annoyance at her discomfort. And it makes me think of how the small things wear us away, little by little, day by day.
Which Is True? (translation by Arthur Symons)
I knew a certain Benedicta who filled earth and air with ideals; and from whose eyes men learnt the desire for greatness, beauty, glory, and for everything that strengthened their belief in immortality.
But this miraculous child was too beautiful to live long. She died only a few days after I had come to know her, and I buried her with my own hands, one day when Spring wafted the contents of its censer even as far as the graveyard. I buried her with my own hands, well sealed in a coffin of wood, perfumed and incorruptible as an Indian casket.
And as I stood gazing at the place where I had hidden my treasure, all at once I saw a little person singularly like the deceased. She was trampling on the fresh soil with strange hysterical violence, and was laughing and shouting:”I am the real Benedicta! and a vile slut I am, too! And to punish you for your blindness and folly, you shall love me as I really am!”
But I was furious, and I answered: “No! no! no!” And to add emphasis to my refusal, I stamped my foot so violently that my leg sank up to the knee in the earth over the new grave, and like a wolf caught in a trap, I remained fastened, perhaps forever, to the grave of the ideal.
by Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867)
A prose poem uses any and all poetic techniques except for line breaks.
Although most prose poems are in the ballpark of a page long, certain novels (such as Joyce’s “Ulysses”) have been considered “prose poems” based on their elevated language and poetic sensibility.
As a writer, the challenge of the prose poem is to create poetic qualities—music, imagery, meaning, etc.—without the aid of line breaks.
Let Them Alone
If God has been good enough to give you a poet
Then listen to him. But for God’s sake let him alone until he is dead; no prizes, no ceremony,
They kill the man. A poet is one who listens
To nature and his own heart; and if the noise of the world grows up around him, and if he is tough enough,
He can shake off his enemies but not his friends.
That is what withered Wordsworth and muffled Tennyson, and would have killed Keats; that is what makes
Hemingway play the fool and Faulkner forget his art.
by Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962)
Metapoetry, simply put, is poetry written about poetry.
A metapoem can be a full-fledged treatise (Horace’s “Ars Poetica”) on composition. Or it can be a passing comment on something like the relationship of the poet to the public, as in the poem above.
Since any one view of poetry is subjective, the poet must write convincingly of the stand he or she is taking.
In this poem, Robinson Jeffers makes a plea that the poet be spared of the contaminants that come with notoriety.