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Celebrating Poetry in Black History Month

posted: 2.1.10 by archived

Terrence Hayes reads at Cornell University, April 15, 2009

With the arrival of February comes the celebration of Black History month in the United States and—on this blog at least—a recognition of the pioneering work of  writers and artists of African descent in this country.

There are a lot of great Web resources to help you appreciate these innovators and to structure activities for your students.

The Academy of American of American Poets has compiled a wealth of material for Black History Month and invites readers to “[c]elebrate and explore the rich tradition of African American poetry through essays on literary milestones, intersections of music, poetry, and art, and profiles and poems of historical and contemporary poets such as Harryette Mullen who continue to pioneer new ground while keeping an eye on the past.”

Highlights include classic recordings, such as Langston Hughes reading “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and Gwendolyn Brooks reading “We Real Cool,” along with overviews of poetic movements like Slam and Negritude, essays, videos, and biographies.

Langston Hughes reads, “I, Too.”

The Library of Congress has provided an equally impressive collection, though its focus is broader, covering the whole spectrum of politics and culture. Of special interest to readers of this blog will be videos of poet Sheila Moses at the 2006 National Book Festival, David Kresh discussing the poetry of Langston Hughes, and poet E. E. Miller giving an interview.

The Smithsonian’s Web site for Black History month features a host of resources for educators including a Harlem Renaissance reading list.

And, on that topic, the History Channel offers a brief video overview of the Harlem Renaissance—the surge of creative activity in Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood in the 1920s and 1930s that involved poets such as Claude McKay and Langston Hughes.

The Biography Channel’s Web site features a lengthier, written introduction to the Harlem Renaissance, with links to biographies to major writers, artists, and intellectuals associated with the movement—including, of course, poets.

About your classroom:

How will you celebrate Black History Month in your poetry classroom this February? How do you celebrate all year round?

Send in your exercises and ideas and we will feature them here on Teaching Poetry.

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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P. K. Page: 1916-2010

posted: 1.25.10 by archived

In 2005, my high school in Canada invited me to give a poetry workshop and reading. After the workshop, the instructor who’d invited me—one talented Mr. Terence Young—took me along on a social call to none other than literary giant P. K. Page. It was an unexpected pleasure during my visit to Victoria.

Then approaching 90, P. K. showed no signs of slowing down. She mixed us stiff cocktails and talked a blue streak. She drank more than I did. When I expressed an interest in Brazil, she talked about her two years there in the 1950s and grilled me on my Portuguese. She was sharp and amusing and easy to like. But I, for one, was also a little afraid. She was full of fire.

On January 14, Canadian poet, essayist, and visual artist P. K. Page passed away at 93.

Patricia Kathleen Page was born in England in 1916 and moved with her family to Alberta, Canada, when she was quite young. Her parents were both creative, artistic people, and she grew up surrounded by the arts. She was a prolific writer, publishing two new books just two months before her death.

As a young woman living in Montreal, she belonged to a group of poets who founded the magazine Preview (1942-45), associated with then-prominent Canadian poets F. R. Scott and A. M. Klein. While not a card-carrying member, she sympathized with Quebecois Communists who resisted the Anglo-Canadian establishment in Montreal, a French city. Her work was interested in language play as well as concepts from psychoanalysis.

Her first book As ten as twenty was published in 1946 and in 1954 her collection The Metal and the Flower won the Governor General’s Award for Poetry, Canada’s highest literary prize. She had a strong sense of social justice and believed in practicing literary form. As she said,“I make myself sit down and write sonnets and villanelles and sestinas because you need bones. If you don’t know all that, you have a very shaky scaffolding for your art.”

Working as a scriptwriter for the National Film Board of Canada, she met her husband Arthur Irwin, who at the time also worked in film. Thanks to his later diplomatic career, she lived for several years in Australia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Brazil.

While living in Brazil she painted often, and kept track of her daily life in a diary later published as Brazilian Journal. (I took her journal on my second trip to Brazil. It was an insightful and often hilarious companion, navigating the absurdity of a northerner in a tropical country without enough of the local language.)

In this 1983 CBC interview, she speaks about her experiences in Brazil, and reads “Traveler’s Poem.”

The CBC Web site published a poignant remembrance of Page’s life written by her friend and fellow writer Rosemary Sullivan. The page includes a video of Page reading her most popular poem, “Planet Earth,” which the United Nations selected in 2001 to be read simultaneously in several locations around the world to celebrate the International Year of Dialogue Among Civilizations.

Upon her death, the Premier of Canada, Gordon Campbell,  issued this statement: “As an author, poet, teacher, scriptwriter and painter, P. K. Page was an extraordinary and varied force in promoting and developing Canadian culture. Her efforts helped to set the stage for decades of cultural growth in our nation.  Her long and illustrious career saw her achieve great heights including eight honourary doctorates as well as being named to both the Order of Canada and the Order of British Columbia.”

Poet and friend Lorna Crozier said in a 2004 profile in Victoria’s local newspaper, the Times-Colonist, “Her engagement with the world is obsessive, passionate and totally clear.”

Some of  P.K. Page’s poems are available online:

“Deaf-Mute in the Pear Tree”

“Cullen in the Afterlife”

“After Rain” (inspired by Rilke‘s “Autumn Day“)

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Poet of the Month: Louis Zukofsky

posted: 1.19.10 by archived

As Guy Davenport once put it, Louis Zukofsky, our January poet of the month, is a “poet’s poet’s poet.” Though he stands as a central figure in the development of modern poetry, he hasn’t achieved the widespread recognition of Eliot or Pound or many of the other Modernists, though poets and graduate students may know and appreciate his work.

Born on January 23, 1904, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Russian immigrants, Zukofsky’s first exposure to English literature was in Yiddish translation. He attended Columbia University where he worked on student literary publications and, in 1924, received a master’s degree in English. A devotee of Ezra Pound, he corresponded with the poet who was impressed by Zukofsky’s early work. In fact, it was through Pound that Zukofsky got his first big break into the poetry world: Pound convinced the editor of Poetry to let Zukofsky guest-edit an issue.

In editing the issue of Poetry, as well as a subsequent anthology, Zukofsky was credited with creating the Objectivist movement. (The Objectivism of second-generation Modernists, not the Objectivism of Ayn Rand.) More a sympathetic cast of mind than a defined school of poetry,  Objectivism sought to treat the poem as an object, breaking up the normal patterns of speech by conscious fragmentation. Much in the mold of Ezra Pound, Objectivists were also concerned with incorporating history into their works. Thus it’s not surprising that Zukofsky’s own poetry is often obscure, intellectual, and rife with allusions.

Zukofsky published forty-nine books in his literary career—ranging from fiction to poetry to criticism—but undoubtedly his major accomplishment was his 800-page poem “A,” an eclectic mix of personal reflection and historical allusion. He worked on this epic project throughout his life.

“A is Zukofsky’s masterwork but was only published in full and made widely available in 1979, a year after his death. It includes twenty-four sections—one for each hour of the day—and is what poet and critic Dan Chaisson called “a mélange of styles and forms, from Poundian free verse to Italian canzoni.”

Chaisson writes of the all-encompassing nature of A: “Zukofsky’s life was unusually directed toward the poem that was unusually open to absorbing it; you cannot talk about Zukofsky the man without talking about the poem that collected, to an extent few writers have ever attempted, the history of one person’s perception of experience, from Bach to Watts, from Spinoza to Kennedy.”

We’d love to offer you a sample of Zukofsky’s work here on our blog, but the strict copyright interpretation of Zukofsky’s son makes that impossible. We encourage you to take a trip to your local library to check out his poetry in book form, or browse the many online sources.

Poets.org has a biography with a link on the Objectivists. The Poetry Foundation’s Web site includes a lengthy bio and bibliography along with a number of links to audio recordings on Zukofsky.

The Electronic Poetry Center at SUNY Buffalo offers links to a large number of critical and academic resources, and Z-Site is a thorough companion to Zukofsky’s work…in case you should find any of it confusing. For those dying for more, Mark Scroggins has written the authoritative Zukofsky biography.

Happy Birthday, Louis Zukofsky!

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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From Classroom to Creative Work: How do You Get There?

posted: 1.11.10 by archived

What did we do in class today?

Oh, nothing.

Early on in my experiences as a poet-in-the-classroom, I went to hear John Ashbery, who read some poems but who also had a few words to say about the teaching of poetry. Someone asked him what his “secret” was as a teacher of poetry—what exercises did he use, how did he structure assignments so that his students produced poems, what were his secrets.

He said that as a teacher of poetry, he believed there was only one thing he could do, one thing it was all about: “creating an environment.”

And that was it.

That was John Ashbery’s big secret.

At the time, I had a picture in my head of John Ashbery in one of the dingy, overcrowded, sweat-stinking NY public school classrooms where I encountered my fledgling poets. He would come tiptoeing in, he would close the door, he would reach up high and pull down the shades or at least turn off the dimmerless overhead lights, and he would switch on an old-fashioned dial radio he had with him. Some bewitching scratchy music of an uncharted station would fill the room, from the linoleum to the flaking ceiling. The radio would screech or hum as he fiddled with the dials and bent the antenna.

And “environment” would have been at last created.

Poetry would fill the room and the students in it would turn to their sheets of paper and begin writing.

That was my first impression of “creating an environment.”

It hasn’t changed much.

From my experiences teaching high school and middle school poets, those standard issue classrooms are not usually the most creative spaces in which to work, add or subtract carpet, linoleum, windows that open or don’t, desks that are welded or unwelded to their chairs, bulletin boards with pushpins, or walls with masking tape.

But creativity seems to abound there, in that range of most uncreative environments.

I read through the anthologies of student poems from past years, looking for traces of what my lesson plans were, as if I were John Ashbery and an earnest teacher had asked me how I teach my students to write poems. And I read through my diligent teacher notebooks. My instructions to myself—and to them—are sketchy. Or rather, sketches. As if the poetry “lesson” were so ephemeral, it never really made it to the paper.

It’s not as if nothing made it to paper: I did write things down, by way of lesson plan, things like the words “Neruda today,” with an accompanying worksheet that has “Ode to My Socks” magnified and Xeroxed onto giant 11×17 paper. This particular worksheet also has, at the top right, a space for the student’s name, with the word “name” written in curlicue cursive, and then a prompt as unhelpful as:  “Now think of some ordinary object and write your own ode, right here next to Lorca’s!”

How could that have possibly lead to poems?

But it did.

As I try to write a few paragraphs about how there is so little “on the page” after all my experience teaching poetry, I think the answer does lie with John Ashbery. What those half-worksheets and rich anthologies attest to is how much of teaching poetry is about creating an environment, in this case a rich classroom environment.

That is how poems get made—you have to conjure them up, call them down, court the Muse or the spirit of poetry, all in the standard issue classroom.

How?

How do you create an environment?

The main way is nothing fancy. It requires no radio, no costumes, no appliances—it is simply by bringing in poems. A poem. And by reading it aloud in a way that brings it to life in that room.

Neruda was an old friend in this regard: His poems seem to fit so well in the classroom because they are about ordinary things, which can make us remember the magic of being in that ordinary space.

You can read a poem aloud by having students, one after the other, in the order of how they are seated, be it in rows or in a circle, read a line from the poem. That can be fun with Neruda, for example, and his Elemental Odes because sometimes his lines are only a few words. You can read it once as quickly as possible, once as slowly as possible. The third time, you can have a few students chime in at random on a line they like. Clumps of students can read clumps of the poem out loud in unison. Little by little, the sounds of the poem, when rendered this way, make the meaning come alive.  And as the students get used to the sounds of the poem, and the way those sounds feel, the poem becomes more and more theirs.

There are mysteries for students to solve which seem to make sense as the poem is brought to life by reading it aloud: in “Ode to My Socks,” who is Maru-Mori? What are green deer? Is the tuna in “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” just a tuna? Or is it someone he loved—someone who worked hard and dies beloved? Is this a serious poem or a silly one? Reading out loud allows for a lot of permission to play, to play with tone, not just sound.

A poem’s mysteries can open up more mysteries, and more ways for students to approach their own odes. There are so many points of entry for the students when they write their own odes—they can invoke their own Maru-Mori, their own green deer, their own line lengths, their own roller coasters of feeling and tone.

But even this starts to sound vague as I write it.

How does the mention of “green deer” lead to another poem, an ode?

How does a poem about a dead tuna lead a 14-year-old boy to write an ode to his father?

I don’t know, exactly, except that I was there and it happened, over and over again.

The reading out loud of the poem, in these cases, was the key to “creating an environment” where poetry could take place.

Even as I write this now, I can remember how urgent it can feel, in a classroom, after experiencing the energy that reading (and rendering) a poem aloud, together, in different ways, releases.

It’s transformative.

In that moment, when the poem is most present in the “environment,” it is at last time to ask the students to flip the page over and write—write their own odes, write until you tell them they can stop.

And they will and do.

There are other ways to create environments, ways involving stopping at greengrocer and buying a Chinese persimmon, or procuring some postcards, or bringing in a scratchy record of your own, or no doubt wearing flowy scarves, but for now, this feels like enough. To create an environment, you must create an energetic focus. You must choose the poem. And you yourself in some real way have to show up in the environment, too; you have to be there, risking something. It’s a collaborative environment, after all, and as a teacher you are using your own link to poetry to help others find their own.

For now: To create poetry in the classroom, create an environment in which poets can work. To create that environment, use poems.

No wonder so little is written down in my lesson plans except the names of the poems themselves. It’s not a class you can make up, really.

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Mary Dilucia, has worked as a teacher of literature and an editor, and has also taught in the Expository Writing Program at NYU. She has a PhD in Comparative Literature from Harvard University and an MFA in poetry from NYU, and now lives and writes in Manhattan.

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Season's Greetings! A New Take on "'Twas the Night Before Christmas"…

posted: 12.22.09 by archived

Clement Clarke Moore’s seminal 1823 Christmas poem “A Visit from Saint Nick”—which became “The Night Before Christmas” and a world-wide favorite—is as emblematic of the holiday season  as candy canes, snowmen, and loop-tracked rock’n’roll holiday tunes in retail stores.

However, new research suggests that Moore, a biblical scholar, might have plagiarized the poem.

It’s true: The poem that gave us the roly-poly, white-beard-donning, red-suit-wearing Santa, along with his reindeer, from Dasher to Blitzen (sorry Rudolph!) in fact might have been written by Henry Livingston Jr., “a gentleman-poet of Dutch descent,” says Don Foster, English professor at Vassar College.

The poem was first published anonymously in a Troy, New York, newspaper. Only after Livingston had died did Moore claim to be its author. It was a time when gentlemen often published anonymously, considering newspaper publications beneath them.

Foster’s literary analysis as well as the sleuthing of Livingston’s heirs suggests that Moore could not have penned the often imitated and parodied poem (“A Florida Night Before Christmas”? “A Laboratory Night Before Christmas”?). For one thing, Moore, who owned much of what is now the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan, was too much of a grouch. As the New York Times writes, “He took a stern approach to being a parent, and his poems and writings often focused on the annoying noise of ‘clamorish girls’ and ‘boisterous boys.'”

Authorship might be a moot point now, anyway: This poem has almost become a part of the fabric of Christmas itself.

As well as the classic 1950s scene rendered in the YouTube video above, you can also hear Bob Dylan recite the poem on his XM radio show, or build your own made-to-order “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” using “crazy libs” to sub in certain words for others.

Whatever you decide, enjoy these poetic tidbits—and enjoy your well-deserved holidays.

Teaching Poetry will be on a two week hiatus now until January. We’ll see you in the New Year.

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Poetry Speaks! Now Online

posted: 12.14.09 by archived

Reading poetry aloud in the classroom is a great idea. Sometimes, however, you ask for volunteers to read and get…total silence. Sometimes even students who are willing to read don’t do the poem justice. Sometimes you have bronchitis. Luckily, PoetrySpeaks.com is here to help.

PoetrySpeaks.com, officially launched November 4, 2009, aims to “create a space where poetry can be discovered and rediscovered.” The brains behind it, Dominique Raccah,  is the founder of Sourcebooks, Inc. and the publisher of the New York Times bestseller Poetry Speaks, (the book), which included three audio CDs of poets reading their work. From the success of that book, she knew she had the fan-base to support the Web site. Online, she’s able to provide many more audio and video resources that foster interest in reading, writing, and listening to poetry.

The site, in the works since 2005, is always adding new features and content. It’s also been developing alliances in the poetry and performance work. A few publishers (Naxos AudioBooks, Tupelo Press, Marick Press) have partnered with the site, and its advisory board includes Anne Halsey from the Poetry Foundation, Bruce George, co-founder of Def Poetry Jam (HBO), and Robert Pinsky, former poet laureate of the United States.

The site has three main sections: PS Voices, which has text and audio for poems by well-known poets (some read by the poets themselves); SpokenWord, devoted to slam poetry; and YourMic, which allows user-poets to upload and share audio and video files of themselves reading their own works. Right now, the site features a short poetry film called “The Captain,” which features the poem “Invictus” by William Ernest Henley, read by Allison Janney (one of my favorites!). You can watch the film and read the poem here.

The site also has a PoetryMatters blog and a Poetry Store.

Yes, a poetry store. Of course, there are plenty of places online to post text, audio, and video files of poetry. PoetrySpeaks.com, however, charges for poems: You can buy the text, the audio, the video, or a combination package. And your payment helps to directly support the poet. The set-up is similar to iTunes: a 30-second professional audio recording is free, but the whole poem in MP3 format is 99 cents. (A recording of “The Raven” is nine minutes long; “Ozymandias” is only one minute, forty seconds; both cost 99 cents.) If paying for poetry makes you balk, think of it as breaking the tired-out tradition of the penniless poet.

Do you like to use recordings of poetry in your classes, or do you prefer live readings? Would you consider asking your students to post their own poetry on a site like this?  What other resources could a site like PoetrySpeaks.com provide?

Related Posts on Teaching Poetry

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Poets House: New Home, Fresh Start

posted: 12.7.09 by archived

With no rent to pay until 2069, and 11,000 square feet in a newly-constructed “green” residential building in Battery Park City, Manhattan, Poets House literally has a new lease on life.

Founded by the late poet Stanley Kunitz and arts administrator Elizabeth Kray in 1985, Poets House lived for many years at 72 Spring Street in a Soho loft.  It housed an extensive library of poetry titles, hosted readings, workshops, book launches, and sponsored poetry in the schools. Kunitz established the institution as a public service to stimulate dialogue and education on poetry and to provide a place for poets to gather.

He also established the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, MA, a prestigious  residency where juried artists and writers focus on artistic projects for 9 months in a beautiful, secluded setting.

Poetry lovers at Poets House

Poetry lovers at Poets House, c. 2009 by Mark-Woods.com

Poets House now has a collection of over 50,000 poetry titles, including chapbooks, journals, tapes, and digital media. In its new location, it has more space for workshops and readings, as well as a new Children’s Room to foster a love of poetry in young minds.

Other innovations—spectacular when you consider they are done in the name of poetry—include an outdoor ampitheatre, where readings will be held in fine weather, much the way music is performed in the summer at Tanglewood. In the near future, projections of sonnets on the sidewalk outside Poets House will welcome visitors into the distinctive space.

Poets House, Reading Room, photo by Elizabeth Felicella

Poets House, Reading Room, photo by Elizabeth Felicella

Recent programs include lectures on poetics and poetic movements, workshops with renowned poets such as Naomi Shihab Nye, seminars on poetry from around the world including the recent 500 Years of Latin American Poetry and Polish Poetry Now, and conversations with poets of various sensibilities and aesthetics.

In late September, celebrities—poets and otherwise—gathered for a week of festivities when Poets House re-opened after an almost 2-year transition from Soho to Battery Park. Marie Howe, Kamiko Hahn, Charles Bernstein, Regie Cabico, Quincy Troupe, Galway Kinnell, and Natalie Merchant were among the poets and entertainers. Excellent event planning by PH staff made it quite a media event.

Natalie Merchant at Poets House opening, c. 2009 by Mark-Woods.com

Natalie Merchant at Poets House opening, c. 2009 by Mark-Woods.com

Poets House is a tremendous gift to the public and to American culture. “Poets House is not just about creating an opportunity for people to fall in love with language, but to enter a conversation with all the poets who ever lived—to enter into a conversation between the living and the printed word,” says Executive Director, Lee Briccetti.

Poets House would make a great field trip, or an excellent winter break destination for budding readers and writers.

Stanley Kunitz, twice the US poet laureate, died in 2006 at age 100.

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Poet of the Month: Rainer Maria Rilke

posted: 11.30.09 by archived

“Now the hour bends down and touches me
with its clear, metallic ring;
my senses tremble. The feeling forms: I can
and I grasp the malleable day.”
–Rainer Maria Rilke, from The Book of Hours, as translated by Edward Snow

This is approximately how I felt as I settled in to write my post this morning. Rainer Maria Rilke is Teaching Poetry’s Poet of the Month for December. Friday is the 134th anniversary of his birth in 1875, and December 29 is the 83rd anniversary of his death in 1926.

Born in Prague, René Karl Wilhelm Johann Josef Maria Rilke had an unhappy childhood. Until he was old enough to attend school, his mother dressed him in girls’ clothes and treated him as a daughter, possibly because her first child, a daughter, died at only one week old. Rilke’s parents sent him to military school at the age of nine, hoping he would become an officer and improve the family’s place in society. Although Rilke was drawn to the glorious aspects of the military and war stories, he was more interested in becoming a poet than an officer. Even as a child, Rilke showed an interest in reading and writing poetry, which followed him to military school and beyond to university studies in Prague and Munich. He published his first volume of poetry, Leben und Lieder (Life and Songs), at his own expense in 1894.

René became Rainer at the suggestion of Lou Andreas-Salomé, an intelligent and influential woman whom Rilke met and fell in love with in Munich. Her marriage to Carl Friedrich Andreas did not stop Rilke from traveling with her (twice) on long trips to Russia and continuing their affair until 1900. In 1902 Rilke came to Paris with his wife, the sculptress Clara Westhoff, to write a book about Rodin. Rilke was always interested in the visual arts, having studied art in Prague and Munich and developed a practice of art criticism. After meeting and studying Rodin, Rilke eventually became his secretary and helped promote Rodin’s sculpture in Europe. Rodin encouraged him to write every day about anything that caught his attention instead of waiting for inspiration to strike. Rilke also loved Cézanne’s paintings, particularly the still lifes. They expressed an intensity that Rilke had tried to capture when describing a single object in poetry—seeing the object fully, knowing it completely, and capturing its essence in one short, well-crafted poem.

Throughout his career, Rilke consorted with intellectuals and aristocrats, though not always well; he was prone to anxiety and melancholy, became ill often, and was rarely happy in one place for long. He was not always liked, but required patronage to continue his writing. One of his patrons was Princess Marie von Thurn und Taxis; she welcomed him to Duino castle where he began the Duenieser Elegien (Duino Elegies) in 1912. They were not completed until 1923, due to the First World War and Rilke’s poor health and emotional state. Rilke also published Die Sonnete an Orpheus (Sonnets to Orpheus) in 1923, just three years before his death from leukemia. These two works are his most famous, and widely considered to be the height of his poetic achievements.

Today, The Rainer Maria Rilke Foundation (est. 1986) hosts a museum, lectures, and celebrations of Rilke at the Maison de Courten in Sierre, Switzerland, the town where Rilke spent the last five years of his life (before you start planning your trip, be aware that their Web site is only in French and German). Much of Rilke’s poetry is available online in German and in English. The quality of the English translations varies, particularly online where anyone can offer a translation. It’s worth it to look up and compare a few translations, both for the sake of judging the poem fairly and for the sheer linguistic fun of it. The Poetry Foundation has several Rilke poems in English and some interesting articles considering Rilke and his poetry.

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Enjoying Thanksgiving with Poetry

posted: 11.22.09 by archived

Thanksgiving is in the air. Can it also be in the classroom? If so, in what form? Before you instructors and students head to festivities this week, perhaps there’s time for one more fun assignment.

There are the  traditional approaches to the holiday, with poems such as Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Thanks” or  W. S. Merwin’s “Listen” serving as models.

Lauren McClung writes that Komunyakaa’s poem sparks interesting writing. “Usually I have the students read it and then spend some time writing their own “thanks” poem.  Often the students will borrow the list-like form and let their own ideas flow.  If they have a hard time I may point out how it begins with thanks to an object.  This has been a great trigger for my classes.”

Sherine Gilmour agrees that while the Thanksgiving the holiday doesn’t provide much fodder, the idea of thankfulness does. She offers the Gerald Stern poem “Lucky Life.”

Sarah Heller writes that the William Matthews poem “Depressive,”  published in the Winter 1980-1  Ploughshares journal, contains the great line “the turkey is stuffed with the memory of turkey…” which could be used as a prompt.

Or, she says, check out Marie Ponsot’s new book for a poem written in the voice of a turkey.  “Not T-giving specific,” warns Heller, “but still.”

Finally, as the New York Times reported last Thursday, so often these kinds of festive gatherings can bring out the most regressed behavior from all parties involved–parents, grandparents, children, siblings, and other relations.  Did you know there is a “Mothers-in-Law Anonymous” section on grandparents.com? Good fodder for poems, perhaps?

Enjoy your holiday! (Gobble gobble.)

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Poet of the Month: Sharon Olds

posted: 11.16.09 by archived

Sharon Olds‘s confessional poems have been hailed as paragons of honesty and denounced as pornography; they have made her one of the most popular and celebrated poets working today.

Happy birthday, Sharon!

A native of Berkeley, California, where she was born on November 19, 1942, Olds received a doctrinaire Calvinist upbringing, and her reaction against that repressive world was integral to the development of her particularly confessional style of poetry.  Olds completed her undergraduate education at Stanford and received a Ph.D. in English from Columbia, writing a dissertation on Emerson’s poetry.

At 37, Olds published her first collection of poetry, Satan Says, which won the first San Francisco Poetry Centre Award.  Since then Olds has published eight more books and volume of selected poems. Her work has garnered critical acclaim—The Dead and the Living was the Lamont Poetry Selection for 1984 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, and The Father was a National Book Award finalist and was shortlisted for the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry.

Her straightforward style has garnered Olds a reputation for accessibility, and popularity has followed on the heels of critical acclaim. The poems featured on Poets.org and the Poetry Foundation’s Web site highlight her intelligence, style, and recurring themes: sex, social politics, and family history.

A long-time instructor in NYU’s MFA program, Olds looms large in the landscape of American poetry. While she’s a popular teacher and guest reader, criticism of her work has been polarized. Adam Kirsch writing in The Modern Element: Essays on Contemporary Poetry argues that Olds’s work “written directly out of the trivia of her life” serves only to console: “Olds’s poems are everything that testimony should be: sincere, resounding, unambiguous, consolatory. But art has other demands, and these, most of the time, she does not even want to meet.”

But, what Kirsch sees as vice, poet Peter Redgrove calls virtue: “I cannot praise [her poetry] enough. It seems to me not only faultless, but it also deals effortlessly with urgent subjects that are left out of so much contemporary poetry. Every poem is a wonder—strong, actual, unsentimental and without bullshit—in a world glowing with solid reality.”

The curious reader can find a wealth of resources on Olds around the Web. In addition to the links above, readers can investigate these interviews with Olds and numerous videos of her readings.

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Andrew Flynn is an editorial assistant at Bedford/St. Martin’s. He graduated from Columbia in 2008, with a BA in history and philosophy. Before coming to Bedford he interned at the Paris Review.

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