Archive for the ‘Joelle Hann (moderator)’ Category

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Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer’s Day—Daily?

posted: 8.24.09 by archived

If you find that even the liveliest poems sometimes feel dead on the page, if now and again you’d like to be at a reading rather than reading, or if you’re just trying to squeeze more poetry into your busy schedule, Our Daily Sonnet will be a treat. Dismayed by the dearth of recordings of Shakespeare’s sonnets available on the internet, Adam Tessier decided to record videos of friends and strangers reading the Bard’s poetry. Videos will appear once a day, every day, until all 154 sonnets have been read.

Today’s sonnet:

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Hayden Carruth, Poet of the Month

posted: 8.17.09 by archived

Earlier this month-August 3-would have been Hayden Carruth‘s 88th birthday.

Carruth was a prolific American poet who authored over 30 volumes of poetry, beginning with The Crow and the Heart in 1959. He also contributed essays, introductions, and his critical and editorial acumen to many other books and projects.

Fascinated and guided by the innovations of jazz, Carruth experimented with poetic forms throughout his lifetime. Still, he was considered a modernist who upheld the ideals of 20th century modernism as expressed by T.S. Eliot, Wallace Stevens, e.e.cummings, and William Carlos Williams.

At the age of 75, he won the National Book Award for his 1996 collection, Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey.

Here’s an excerpt from “Scrambled Eggs and Whiskey” on the Academy of American Poets Web site where you can also hear two recordings of Carruth reading his poems.

Scrambled eggs and whiskey

in the false-dawn light. Chicago,

a sweet town, bleak, God knows,

but sweet. Sometimes. And

weren’t we fine tonight?

Galway Kinnell has said, “This is not a man who sits down to ‘write a poem’; rather, some burden of understanding and feeling, some need to know, forces his poems into being. Thoreau said, ‘Be it life or death, what we crave is reality.’ So it is with Carruth. And even in hell, knowledge itself bestows a halo around the consciousness with, at moments, attains it.” (See more on the Academy of American Poets.)

Critics and contemporaries had to a lot to say about Carruth’s linguistic skill and existential bravery. Alastair Reed is quoted on the Poetry Foundation Web site: “[Carruth’s] poems have a sureness to them, a flair and variety. . . . Yet, in their dedication to finding an equilibrium in an alien and often cruel landscape, Vermont, where the poet has dug himself in, they reflect the moods and struggles of a man never at rest. . . . His work teems with the struggle to live and to make sense, and his poems carve out a kind of grace for us.”

Carruth died on September 29, 2008.

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Why So Serious: Are Happy Poems Taboo?

posted: 8.10.09 by archived

In a recent “Teaching Poetry” meeting, we wondered why poems about happiness weren’t popular. Or were they?

We gave ourselves the assignment to come up with five poems about happiness. But as we started to make our selections, we wondered if the real topic wasn’t “poems that make us happy.” In trying to sort this out, the following conversation ensued:

Nick R: I’ve been thinking about my favorite happy poems — I need to check if they’re actually happy or just bittersweet-hopeful. I want to pick Sharon Olds’s “First Boyfriend” as my first one, but that might actually not be exclusively happy. What gradations of “happiness” are we dealing with/accepting here?

Kim W: Hmm, interesting question. Poems about things that make you happy should count, right? As long as they aren’t undercut by a “but it’s all for naught since we’re gonna die anyway” vibe.

Anyway, maybe the debate over what makes a poem a happy poem is more interesting than the poems themselves.

Joelle: Poetry never is exclusively happy, is it? And what is “happy” anyway?

I was thinking of Jack Gilbert’s poem “Alone,” about his wife who has died. The intimacy of it makes me “happy,” or at least, I enjoy it.

In case you’re curious about the Gilbert poem, it begins:

I never thought Michiko would come back
after she died. But if she did, I knew
it would be as a lady in a long white dress.
It is strange that she has returned
as somebody’s dalmatian . . .

Nick R: I’ve decided that I’m much less invested in intrinsically “happy” poems, and more interested in the story/context of poetry that makes me happy.

So, without context, here are the poems I could think of (off the top of my head, and mostly canonical) that make me happy:

–Sharon Olds, “First Sex
–Richard Brautigan, “The Beautiful Poem“/”Love Poem” (These two only make me happy when read back to back.)
–Andrei Codrescu, “Who’s Afraid of Anne Waldman
–Allen Ginsberg, “A Supermarket in California“/”America” (As companion pieces)
–Frank O’Hara, “Why I Am Not a Painter
–Phil Levine, “M. Degas Teaches Art & Science at Durfee Intermediate School — Detroit 1942
–Philip Larkin, “High Windows“/”This Be The Verse
–Everything by Frank O’Hara

Also, one quatrain in the Auden poem, “On the Circuit“:

Is this my milieu where I must
How grahamgreeneish!  How infra dig!
Snatch from the bottle in my bag
An analeptic swig?

Kim W: I think the idea — there should be poems that make a study of happiness, just as there are poems that make a study of death, melancholy, love, loyalty, sex, loneliness, etc. — is intriguing.

In the pantheon of human emotion, happiness is just as important as any other experience, right? So why doesn’t it get due respect? Do artists, poets, and intellectuals generally view happiness as a myth or a sham? A fairy tale invented by the media and the advertising industry? It’s curious that we can’t find many poems that are meditations on happiness.

Nick, I was reading your book, Triangulating Happiness, again last night and thinking that the whole collection should be on my list, since it’s a book-length meditation on happiness. Right? (If not, please explain so I can disagree.)

Andrew F: For my money — people don’t need to do something with their happiness other than just have it, so they don’t write about it. Not less important than death, melancholy, loneliness, etc., but in no way frustrating, so there’s less impetus to write about, which is why it’s underrepresented.

Kim W: A literature teacher once made that same argument. He reasoned that there were no happy poems because the poets were too busy being happy to write about it happiness. But I don’t buy that. There are happy songs, right. We like happy songs because listening to them makes us happy. Art doesn’t just explore emotions, it evokes emotions.

Nick: Writing is traditionally solitary and introspective, so I think it’s easy to go that route and give the world another coy memento mori.

I set out to write forty-two explosively happy, or at least life affirming, poems that would (hopefully) go past the fleeting Frank O’Hara thing and maybe have some happy gravitas of their own. A lot ended up bittersweet/treacley regardless, but yes.

And I agree with Andrew, people tend not to theorize happiness . . . but I think that’s a mistake. Everyone knows what unhappiness and depression feels like, it’s easy to emote. I don’t think most people have a handle on happiness, personal or ethereal.

Kim W: I’m intrigued by Nick’s idea that happiness is harder to represent than other emotions. (Of course, all our emotions are tangled up together, but that’s another discussion entirely.)

It’s tricky to represent that life-affirming optimism, without getting autobiographical, and it’s hard to avoid the self-congratulatory tone that sometimes goes with that. Whitman avoids it in Leaves of Grass by tying happiness to larger forces of nature.

Joelle H: Maybe happiness is more palpable in language against the backdrop of poignancy? Is the fleeting nature of happiness more palpable than the actual state of happiness? Does it need tension to be representable in language?

Kim W: Are you saying that the threat of losing happiness is more representable (because of its tension) than the in-the-moment experience of happiness?

Joelle H: “Knowing” that happiness is transitory is more knowable in “art” than the actual state of happiness, which, I think, is a highly personal experience. It’s easier to “beam” happiness than to explain how you feel to someone — whether in a poem or not.

Nick R: In the graph below, I feel like any of the quadrants on their own is basically boring. I’m interested in the progression from C (and D, although that’s a weird quadrant) to B.

I feel like most of the poems that we think about when we think about happy poems are forgettable because they’re A. And I don’t like a lot of poetry because it’s C, with little movement. D has the potential to be interesting, but I’m more interested in movement.

This graph may or may not be inherently flawed (my attention is split by MLA updates).

Nick's Poetry Graph

Kim W: Where did you get this graph?

Nick R: Just threw it together on MS paint — realizing now that C and D should be switched, but otherwise I think it sorta holds up.

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Contemporary Politics/Poetics, pt. 1

posted: 8.3.09 by archived

by Nick Richardson

Historically, poetry and politics went hand in hand: orally transmitted national epics, commissioned elegies, Ozymandias’s shattered visage in the sand. But poetry may be the last thing that comes to mind when you think of contemporary American politics. Washington seems too antiseptic and bureaucratic –- too full of statistics and lobbyists, too devoid of romance — to sustain a fragile quatrain.

If this description strikes a chord, you may be surprised to learn that poetry in politics survives! But first, some background: did you know that Abraham Lincoln wrote poetry? It’s true, check out the two bittersweet, thanatotic cantos of “My Childhood’s Home I See Again.” And do you remember when, more recently, Jimmy Carter became the first U.S. president to publish an entire poetry collection (Always a Reckoning, 1995)?

Of course, we can (and should) expand our politics/poetry focus beyond the smiling righteous. There’s something in the easy tears of tropical dictators that makes me, at least, expect a lurking verse or two . . . and a quick Web search doesn’t disappoint. Apparently one-time military dictator Manuel Noriega is said to have been a poet before he turned to drug trafficking and . . . whatever else he was up to in Panama; Saddam Hussein is rumored to have written poetry about George Bush while awaiting trial in 2004.

Two articles mingling politics and poetry recently made the internet rounds, ultimately coming to rest en masse in my inbox! The first centered on Washington’s second big gesture toward poetics since inauguration day (the first being the first ever White House Poetry Slam): President Obama claimed “a great affinity for Pakistani culture and the great Urdu poets.” How funny that something as seemingly small as an individual’s poetic appreciation can grow to represent a cathected geopolitical stance!

The second article (entitled “Sarah Palin, The Anti-Poet”) examines — tongue firmly in cheek — found poems created by adding line breaks to excerpts from some of Palin’s more syntactically byzantine speeches. Regardless of political affiliation, it’s interesting to see: 1) the perceived dissonance between a politician and a poet (despite Lincoln and Carter); and 2) how well some of these found poems actually work, both rhetorically and as “poetry.”

William Shatner Recites Sarah Palin’s Farewell Speech as a Poem:

The above are just a few (literal) instances of contemporary politicians turning poetic. Can you think of any other examples?

Activity: Search for traditionally unpoetic government speeches and documents online. Add line breaks to create your own found political poetry. Does your found poem work as poetry — why or why not?

Nick Richardson is an associate editor at Bedford/St.Martin’s. He holds an MA in Literary and Cultural Theory from Boston College and has published three books (two poetry, one prose) that exhibit what poet Andrei Codrescu has called “a fresh sort of daring in the overstrained broth of contemporary American poetry.” He is also the publisher of A Mutual Respect Books and Music, an underground chapbook press operating out of Brooklyn, NY.

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Memorization and its Discontents

posted: 7.14.09 by archived

By Andrew Flynn

Memorizing poetry is the bugbear of students everywhere. Or, at least that is how I remember things. I felt hatred mixed with ironic bemusement at being forced to memorize Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy in my senior English class, and I was not alone. As with many similar tasks, I stuffed the text down on a Tuesday night and regurgitated it Wednesday afternoon for the test, never having properly digested it at all. So things went.

I have no doubt that high school and college students across the nation have similar stories about the tribulations of rote memorization. So, it may come as a surprise to many to learn that our teachers were not just sadists, as we had long supposed. In the teacher’s notes to her Poems, Poets, Poetry, esteemed critic Helen Vendler explains the value of memorization: [read more]

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Poetry as Performance

posted: 7.2.09 by archived

Last night, June 30th, a poetry event curated by esteemed avant-garde poet Eileen Myles took place on the rooftop of the Hispanic Museum in Manhattan. The performance was part of Tuesdays on the Terrace, and was vaguely (as Myles said in her invitation) in response to “Zoe’s show and the Hispanic Museum’s collection.”

Avant-garde poet Eileen Myles, curates "The Collection of Silence"

Avant-garde poet Eileen Myles, curator

The event was highly unusual as far as poetry events go. For one thing, it was performed SILENTLY.

The invitation says, “All will converge to sit, move, read, and perform silently for one hour on the Hispanic Museum’s incredibly spacious and evocative Audubon Plaza. You as audience are invited to come up and stroll amongst this silent happening at your own genial pace. You are urged to dress vividly and shamelessly as if you were attending a wedding or a renaissance fair or a nature hike, an art opening, poetry reading, or to spray-paint things on your roof.”

“Participants include poets Charles Bernstein, Stephanie Gray, Tim Liu, Mónica de la Torre, Rachel Zolf, Christine Hou, and Julie Patton, dancer-choreographer Christine Elmo, The Village Zendo, and soprano Juliana Snapper.”

After the performance, the “silent texts” were available in a bilingual, printed edition for all to read. And then performers and audience had a party.

More from the press release: “The Collection of Silence, a baroque site-specific work around the possibilities of silence as central to the syntax and punctuation of everyday life. A diverse group of poets will present short pieces at various locations on the outdoor plaza of Audubon Terrace, where they will be joined by a group of students from PS4.

“Also accompanied by dancers, Buddhists, an opera singer, and a life drawing class, this mute and active gathering will demonstrate and celebrate the collective power of silence and the capacity of an unvoiced poem to serve the communal purposes of public life.”

Questions for Teaching:

1. What do you think the purpose would be to having a silent poetry event?

2. What does this event try to say about the role of audience in more conventional poetry readings? What’s the purpose of asking the audience to dress up or to dress outrageously?

3. What relationship might poetry have to art in this context? How are the mediums similar? Different?

4. It might be interesting to contrast Myles’s event with a poetry slam or a lecture on poetry. How are the events different? What qualities do they share? Ask students to reflect on their preferences and consider where those preferences come from.

5. Stage your own poetry event. As a class, discuss what qualities it will have and why.

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Using Poetry to Teach More than Just Poetry

posted: 7.1.09 by archived

In a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Art Scheck makes a good argument for using poetry to teach fundamental reading (and thinking) skills. He laments the difficulty students have reading poetry, and offers insight to teachers who haven’t considered teaching poetic language:

“So what?” you may think. “I don’t teach poetry.” But maybe difficulty with figurative language is just one facet of trouble with analogies: As A is to B, so C is to . . . ? Problems with metaphors and analogies might explain why many students cannot carry concepts from one problem to another, or, for that matter, even learn the concepts in the first place.

Mr. Scheck bravely goes where other composition teachers fear to tread, patiently leading his students through a Shakespearean sonnet until the light of comprehension dawns.

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Poetry Exercise: Interpolation

posted: 6.5.09 by archived

Siân Killingsworth submitted this brief exercise.

Take a poem that you don’t know very well. One of Robert Lowell’s sonnets from The Dolphin will do nicely. Type it out with several lines of blank space between each line of poetry. In the blank spaces, write another line to fit into the poem. Don’t worry if the grammar isn’t quite right. When you’re done, remove the lines from the Lowell poem so all you’re left with are your own lines. Then edit them to make sense. Voila, a new poem.


Siân Killingsworth is a freelance writer, teacher, and poet. She lives in Brooklyn, New York with her husband, daughter, and two ancient pugs.

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Ars Poetica: For Students Who Wonder What the Point Is, Anyway

posted: 5.27.09 by archived

by Nick Richardson

When your students are living in the real world, with oral exams and essays and GRE prep—not to mention dates, soccer practice, rush, the classes they “care about,” and their crummy part-time jobs—it’s easy for them to fall into the trap of thinking of poetry as frivolous. Or as unapproachable solipsism. Or both. Largely irrelevant, in any case.

It doesn’t help that poetry is already a traditionally marginalized artistic medium. Take the floor plan of your local Barnes & Nobel. If space assignation is accepted as indicative of general cultural importance—and I think, on some level, it has to be—the “poetry alcove” squarely places the form as sequestered curio, hidden from all except those expressly searching for it. And even then!

The general feeling, famously articulated by the poet Eamon Grennan, that more people write than read poetry doesn’t help matters. The precepts of supply and demand are latent in the American subconscious; when there’s too much of a good thing it turns bad, and we’d frankly rather not waste our time.

This depressing little idea is the seed of “The End of Verse?”, a 2009 Newsweek article based on recent findings by the National Endowment for the Arts:

Almost as an afterthought, the report also noted that the number of adults reading poetry had continued to decline, bringing poetry’s readership to its lowest point in at least 16 years. [read more]

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Poetry: Ownership & Understanding

posted: 5.21.09 by archived

by Nick Richardson

Farrar, Straus and Giroux put a lot of energy into their poetry blog, The Best Words in their Best Order, this past April—it’s worth checking out. Their interview with Publisher’s Weekly poetry editor Craig Teicher specifically caught my attention:


FSG: You teach Creative Writing at Pratt and Columbia. I did my time in an MFA program, where I taught a few undergraduate courses in poetry. In my experience it seems fairly easy to get students excited about sharing their own work, but not so easy to get them excited about critiquing their colleagues and published works of poetry. Do you have this problem when you teach?

CT: I teach mostly undergrads with whom, I’m grateful to say, I don’t have that problem. Though I will say I’m a big believer in the notion that, for a poet, anything one does is done to enrich or broaden one’s own poems, so when I teach published poetry to my students, and even when I’m leading a workshop, I’m always urging my students to pretend they had written whatever is on the table, to try to read it as if they were spontaneously thinking the work under consideration at that moment.

What do you think about temporarily claiming ownership of a poem under analysis? I can certainly see how it’d be an interesting thought experiment…a sort of literary method acting to help students get into the poem. I’m also hesitant, though; the poet in me feels like it may be an overly aggressive pedagogical tactic.

Be sure to check out the whole interview at The Best Words in their Best Order!

Nick Richardson is an associate editor at Bedford/St.Martin’s. He holds an MA in Literary and Cultural Theory from Boston College and has published three books (two poetry, one prose)…exhibiting what poet Andrei Codrescu has called “a fresh sort of daring in the overstrained broth of contemporary American poetry.” He is also the publisher of A Mutual Respect Books and Music, an underground chapbook press operating out of Brooklyn, NY.

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