Posts Tagged ‘poet of the month’

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Poet of the Month: William Wordsworth

posted: 4.12.10 by archived

For Poetry Month, we chose an old favorite for poet of the month: William Wordsworth.

Wordsworth (April 7, 1770 –April 23, 1850) is one of the most important English Romantic poets. Critics consider Lyrical Ballads (1798), a collection by Wordsworth and fellow poet Samuel Coleridge, to be the publication that began the Romantic era in poetry.

Wordsworth and his Romantic contemporaries valued emotional experience over logic and reason, breaking with the values of the English Enlightenment. Poems like “The Daffodils” and “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey” have become classics because of their eloquent expression of the author’s personal experiences, close observation of nature, and evocative emotional content.

Wordsworth defined good poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings,” and though these spontaneous feelings inspired many of his works, the quality of his poems shows that they were written with care. He began writing an epic poem about his life at age 28, and worked on it for the rest of his life. It was published as The Prelude after his death in 1850, and was dedicated to his contemporary and collaborator, Samuel Coleridge.

In the Classroom:

1. Have students research the fruitful but complicated relationship between Wordsworth and Coleridge and use it to fuel a discussion of literary friendship.  What can they make of the differences between “Tintern Abbey” and “Kubla Khan,” for example?

2. Some of Wordsworth’s language won’t be accessible to some students, but in his day Wordsworth strove for clear, everyday speech.  Use a few lines from his “Preface to “Lyrical Ballads” to talk about how language changes.  Ask students to think of examples of common language today that might sound “stuffy” in 100 years.

3. Have students use Poetry Foundation’s great collection of flower poems to find a poem to compare with “Daffodils.” Have students compare their descriptions of nature, the poets’ responses to nature, and the emotional content (or lack thereof) of the poems.


blog-photo Cecilia Seiter is an associate editor at Bedford/St. Martin’s.

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Poet of the Month: Audre Lorde (1934-1992)

posted: 2.10.10 by archived

Audre Lorde, born on February 18th, 1934, was just as admirable for her activism as for her poetry. Indeed for Lorde the two were inextricably connected.

A native New Yorker born to Grenadian parents, Lorde attended high school and college in Manhattan. As a child she dropped the “y” from her given first name, “Audrey”, because she liked the symmetry between the “e” endings of her first and last names. What poet wouldn’t do the same?

Starting in the 1960’s, Lorde became a civil rights activist. However, as a black lesbian woman, she struggled with racism in the feminist community, sexism in the black community, and heterosexism and homophobia everywhere. Her essays urge her readers to stop fearing the differences between individuals—the fear leads to exclusion, and one group almost inevitably declares itself superior to the other.

In the late 1970s, Lorde was diagnosed with breast cancer. In 1980 she published The Cancer Journals, a nonfiction memoir of her cancer experience. She also co-founded Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press in the same year. In 1991, she was named poet laureate of New York state. She continued to write poetry and essays until her death from cancer in 1992.

You can read Lorde’s essay “Poetry is Not a Luxury,” in Sister Outsider on Google Books.

Listen to a 1977 clip of her reading “A Song for Many Movements” at

The Poetry Foundation has a biography and full text of eleven of Lorde’s poems.

Lorde’s poems and life can show students that not all poets are on a Search for Truth, or trying to Create Beauty, or Express their Innermost Feelings. Sometimes these pursuits are abstract to students: what do they have to do with the real world? Why should anyone study them?

Audre Lorde used her search for truth, and the beauty of language, and her personal experience, to tell people about injustice and try to change American society.

As she said to poet Mari Evans in “Conversations with Audre Lorde,”

“So the question of social protest and art is inseparable for me. I can’t say it is an either/or position…I loved poetry and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest.”

Happy Birthday, Audre Lorde!

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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 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.


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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Kay Ryan, Poet of the Month

posted: 9.21.09 by archived

by Andrew Flynn

Kay Ryan, the US Poet Laureate, turns 64 today.

Ryan is not a household name—not even a poet’s household name until quite recently—and her journey to the Library of Congress does not follow the course of a typical literary career. “It feels very unlikely,” Ryan told Charlie Rose in an interview last November. “I hadn’t ever expected this to happen to me.”

She grew up the daughter of an oil-well driller in the San Joaquin Valley in the 40s and 50s, in a working-class culture that did not welcome the pretensions of poetry. Her adult life has been spent teaching writing—but not of the MFA variety. Since the 1970s she’s taught remedial English classes at the College of Marin, her local community college. She lives in a house she shingled herself, is an avid runner, and has never taken a creative writing class. Carol Adair, Ryan’s fellow teacher at Marin and longtime partner, died earlier this year. Ryan wrote about their relationship and marriage in Salon.

Ryan’s success came later in life. Her early works attracted little notice. The first published essay on Ryan’s work appeared little more than a decade ago—but its author, poet and critic, Dana Gioia, proclaimed her achievements in no uncertain terms. “Over the past five years,” Gioia begins, “no new poet has so deeply impressed me with her imaginative flair or originality as Kay Ryan.” Gioia, who became Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, also became a champion of Ryan’s poetry. The last ten years have marked a rise to prominence for Ryan, with highlights including a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts in 2001, the eminent Ruth Lilly Poetry Prize in 2004, and appointment as Poet Laureate of the United States in 2008.

It only takes one poem to show Ryan’s unique style. Her poems are short, sometimes funny, almost always accessible, yet rich and complex. Analyzing the internal wordplay of “Paired Things,” Dana Gioia picked out the hallmarks of a Ryan poem: “dense figurative language, varied diction, internal rhyme, the interrogative mode, and playful, which elusively alternates between iambic and unmetered lines.”

Paired Things

So many paired things seem odd.
Who ever would have dreamed
the broad winged raven of despair
would quit the air and go
bandylegged upon the ground, a common crow?

“[C]lown suitcase” is her own description of her poetry. “[T]he clown flips open the suitcase and pulls out a ton of stuff,” she said in her Paris Review interview. “A poem is an empty suitcase that you can never quit emptying.” She’s balked at Gioia’s Dickinson comparison—“[H]ow would you like to be compared to God?”

Adam Kirsch wrote in praise of Ryan’s appointment as Poet Laureate, commending her “diffidence and self-sufficiency” and her “dark vision and metaphysical scope,” offering an incisive reading of Ryan’s poem “Chop”:

Here are the short lines, plain diction, and buried assonances—”sharp/chop,” “step/stamp”—that define Ms. Ryan’s verse. But once you ponder the miniature allegory of “Chop,” that homely music starts to look desperately ironic. For Ms. Ryan’s bird is an emblem of man in his arrogant mortality.

Something similar could be said about much of Ryan’s work.

The Library of Congress has aggregated the wealth of resources about Ryan available on the Internet, including essays, interviews, and recordings of readings. If you’ve never read Kay Ryan before, she’s worth discovering. If you don’t read much poetry, she’s still discoverable.

Kay Ryan is noted for her frequent use of recombinant, or internal, rhyme. (See, for instance, “four-oared” and “afford” in “Turtle.”) How is the effect of internal rhymes different than traditional, end-of-the-line rhymes? Why does Ryan seem to use internal rhyme in “Turtle”? For example, how does internal rhyme add emphasis to certain images or change meaning?


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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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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