Subhra Bhattacharya is providing a blog post this week on William Carlos Williams and his definition of variable foot. Come join us on Saturday March 4 2017 at 11am for an exciting workshop on this topic in Jersey City.
William Carlos Williams elevates the notion of poetic measure to the status of philosophical category. “… what is reality? How do we know reality? The only reality we know is MEASURE” he writes in his essay The poem as a field of action. Though an ardent proponent of free-verse, he disagrees with contemporary wisdom and the false connotation of ‘free’ in free verse, arguing that since measure is an intrinsic feature of poetry, no verse can be truly free, that would indicate lack of measure. Free verse, he says, is synonymous to verse with variable measure, as contrasted with traditional verse having a fixed measure.
This week I learned of a tradition of self love through poetry, after the likes of Frank O’Hara and Ocean Vuong. For this week’s prompt, I must give credit to my wonderful mentor, Elaine Sexton, who granted me permission to share this idea with you. Title your poem “Someday I will love __your name here__.” This is a great exercise to do in the wake of Valentine’s Day in particular. How would you write a Valentine to yourself? For ideas, see Ocean Vuong’s poem Someday I’ll love Ocean Vuong, and also Frank O’Hara’s poem Katy. This poetic exercise, I think you’ll find, has the potential to change your life. If you enjoy this prompt and live in the NYC area, also consider signing up for Elaine Sexton’s Poets House workshop, Finding the Art in the Line, which starts on Tuesday, Feb 21, 2017.
When poetry is set to music, something magical happens to the listener’s brain. If we were watching a scan of the brain activity of the listener, you would see the brain glowing throughout. Yet even if we don’t add a melody to our poetry, we can tap into this great well of inspiration. Today I want you to borrow a poem’s title from a song title or perhaps a significant phrase in the song. For an example, this man decided to make a Spotify playlist where he wrote a poem with song titles. For another example, in Heather McHugh’s collection, Hinge & Sign, she has a poem titled “The Song Calls the Star Litte,” referring of course, to Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star (this poem, one of my favorites, is not available online- try to get a copy of Hinge & Sign from your local library or bookstore). Try to isolate the phrase or title you have chosen and reflect on it- how can you make it new?
When I meditate, I focus on my breath.
All living beings have some sort of breath,
some in and out, some give and take.
Even amoeba are permeable,
they participate in an exchange
of gases and molecules.
All living things are composed of cells.
Plant cells are more prism than prison,
taking in light and converting it to energy.
Plant cells have walls, but cell-to-cell talk
still takes place. Even epidermal cells,
protecting the leaf surface, allow light in.
When we build walls, there are always
openings, small channels that connect
one side to the other. When there is a blockage
in the human heart or the lungs, it often leads to death.
How do we open these passages, return to
In America right now, people typically think of political poetry as poetry of resistance. Robert Archambeau has some interesting thoughts as to why contemporary poets often seem to align themselves with the left. But let’s not forget that patriotic poems, inaugural poems, poems on the American Dream– all of these are political poems. For examples of some powerful political poems, check out Emma Lazarus, Alicia Ostriker, and Leonard Cohen. Consider these quotes about political poetry as well:
“There is an ephemeral quality to a lot of political poetry—most of it dies with the events it responds to—but a political poem need not be a didactic poem. It can be a poem of testimony and memory.”
“No true political poetry can be written with propaganda as an aim, to persuade others “out there” of some atrocity or injustice (hence the failure, as poetry, of so much anti-Vietnam poetry of the sixties). As poetry, it can come only from the poet’s need to identify her relationship to atrocities and injustice, the sources of her pain, fear, and anger, the meaning of her resistance.”
So, I encourage you to write a political poem, based on some recent event that has affected you. It could be based on something in the news, or perhaps you are more upset about how others are reacting to the news. Examine your emotions about this event and try to use those when writing. Is there something you have witnessed that you want to share? Also, are there any techniques you can use to make the poem less ephemeral, and more universal? I want you to delve deep this week.
Imagism is simultaneously one of the shortest lived as well as one of the undying movements in the history of poetry. As a formal poetic movement, its lifespan was less than a decade – three years (1914 – 1917), by some accounts. However, it continues to influence poets today.
This week’s prompt has a special place in my heart because it is inspired by one of the co-founders of Poets House, Stanley Kunitz. I had the wonderful opportunity to see him briefly before he died. I saw him at an event in Manhattan in May 2005 celebrating his book on poetry and gardening, The Wild Braid. In the poem I would like to share with you, The Layers, I’d like to point out the lines “Live in the layers, not on the litter.” In the context of the poem, and in the context of your own life, how do you interpret this? What is living in the layers to you? What is the litter of your life and how do you plan to avoid it? Perhaps it will help to think of a physical object which has layers, like geological rock or lasagna. Can you make a metaphor out of something with layers in your poem? For readers of this blog in the NYC area, I hope you will join us at Poets House on Saturday, Jan 14, 2017.
I’ll let you in on a secret. My mother has always hated William Carlos Williams’ poem “This is just to say…” She always thought the speaker in it did something terribly annoying (eating someone else’s treat) and wasn’t truly sorry.
So, when you encounter a classic poem you dislike, what can you do? Write a parody of it! For a great example, read Kenneth Koch’s answer to “This is just to say…” entitled Variations on a Theme by William Carlos Williams. So, how does Kenneth Koch make this poem so funny? He finds a game in what WCW is doing and escalates it to an absurd level! In WCW’s poem and Koch’s poem, the game is a pattern—the speaker is apologizing for doing something annoying to the person to which the poem is addressed. Koch escalates by making each instance more offensive. He also throws in details about the original poem and the author of the poem which adds to the absurdity, for example, the “the firm March wind on the porch was so juicy and cold,” alluding to the plums in the original poem. Also note the crowning laugh in the parody, that the speaker is so cruel that he would injure the other person in order that he would have a patient (WCW was a doctor as well as a poet).
For another example of a parody, take a look at Billy Collins’ poem Workshop. This one is a bit more complex of a parody, and not of one poem in particular, but it is also a lot of fun.
So for this prompt, I encourage you to take a classic poem in which you notice an interesting pattern (you don’t have to dislike it, really), and try to escalate that pattern in a new poem humorously. Try to carry out that pattern at least in three different instances to heighten the effect. Make sure to make your parody obvious, so someone who has read the original poem will recognize the allusions you are making to the original. Have fun with it!