Category Archives: Poetry

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Foul Things of the Night

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Eula Biss was a featured author last week at the Edinburgh International Book Festival. And from her I learned something horrifying about certain vile creatures of darkness.

My bibliophile friend Melinda, a visitor from Hawaii, wanted to attend the session on Eula’s much-praised study of vaccination, On Immunity (Graywolf Press, 2014). It was sold out. Demand for seats is intense. Cognoscenti book their choice of events (only four per person allowed) on the day in spring when the program is ann…

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An Ancient Poetic Device Called — ?

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Dido & Aeneas, in the cave.

As my final Stateside treat before leaving for Corsica this weekend, I’ve just finished my friend Ann Patty’s book Living With a Dead Language: My Romance With Latin. Ann will be subbing for me next week, so I want to introduce you to her — though probably the best introduction would be to read the book, which is just out in bookstores.

My affectionate response to Living With a Dead Language has to do with more than friendship, though. I’m in my third year of trying…

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Trying to Write the Mighty Line

sapphicFor years, now, I’ve taught a mixed-genre “Introduction to Creative Writing” course with a very specific poetry component. Each student in the class must choose a poetic form he or she loves; I suggest two dozen of them, and leave books explicating several dozen other choices on the shelf outside my office. Each student gives a short presentation on their chosen form — its provenance, history, development, parameters, and best-known practitioners. They recite from memory at least 12 lines of a…

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Ars Poetica

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Jake Adam York reading one of his poems in 2007. York died of a stroke in 2012 at age 40.

I like listening to Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac with my daughter. She is in seventh grade. We catch the day’s broadcast on my phone while waiting in the morning at the bus stop. Keillor first offers a bit of literary history, listing the name of writers whose birthday falls that day, and he ends by reading a poem.

I wait for my daughter to say, on occasion, “I liked the poem.” The moment tha…

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Poetically Punctuating

stanleyquotepoetrypunctuationAt last, in the final four weeks of the semester, my “Introduction to Creative Writing” class has come to poetry. I both love and dread this section. I love it because I teach poetry taxonomically. That is, each student must delve deep into the well of poetry old and new until she finds a poetic form to embrace. She then reports to us all on the history and highlights of, say, the pantoum or the elegy; recites a poem in that form; and writes one in that form. The exercise reminds me of the fanta…

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‘Gangsta’ Shakespeare

“It will be like catching butterflies in the dark,” a colleague of mine commented.

He was talking about my signing up to teach a course called “Shakespeare in Prison” at the Hampshire County Jail, in Northampton, Mass. It would have a total of 30 students, half inmates and half Amherst students, and focus on the sonnets and a handful of late plays, including King Lear and The Tempest.

“The endeavor is laudable but impractical,” my colleague added. “Language is an impediment. You will be di…

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When Our Son the Business Student Took Poetry

The poet Simon Armitage 

In his penultimate semester, our son, a double-degree senior in business and economics at Large Public U., discovered he was three humanities credits shy of what he would need to graduate. We weren’t that surprised.

What did surprise us was the course he chose. Who would have thought that our ESPN-watching undergraduate, whose favorite courses were game theory, corporate finance, and basketball, would choose “What Is Poetry?”

As an econ student, he understood that the Un…

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Big Trochee

diagramtrocheeIt’s hard not to be familiar with the term Big Pharma, an acidulated nickname for the pharmaceutical business.

Where drug company  is plausibly neutral and pharmaceuticals generalizes a product into a descriptor, the term Big Pharma points an accusing finger at opaque, monopolistic control over medicines.

Big Pharma isn’t meant as a compliment. The capital letters even look thuggish.

The word pharma is a trochee, a two-syllable foot with the stress on the first element. There’s something abou…

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Tricia

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So many words for dying, deceasing, expiring, succumbing, giving up the ghost, meeting one’s end, passing away, being taken from us, meeting one’s maker, going to a better place, breathing one’s last … If the numerosity of words and phrases for things really correlated with speakers’ degrees of interest in them (a dumb but extremely popular belief I have critiqued before), we would have to assume that English speakers are fascinated by death in all its forms and discuss it all the time in techn…

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W.S. Gilbert: Rhyme and Reason

pin1971Rhymes link words. In the hands of a master like Shakespeare, they gracefully tie together the disparate elements of, say, a sonnet. We admire a rhyme that quietly but firmly makes a bridge from one line or sentiment to the next.

One of the true masters of that aspect of the English language is W.S. Gilbert, famous for light verse but especially for “and Sullivan.” In operettas like H.M.S. Pinafore where Gilbert wrote the words and Sullivan the music, the latter’s perfectly straight and sometime…