Category Archives: Poetry

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A Brown Eyed Handsome Man

Screen Shot 2017-03-23 at 1.25.19 PMI’ve been mourning a gifted African-American poet who died this week. Charles Edward Anderson Berry was 90. The news media talked mainly about his brilliance as a guitarist and showman and his historical importance as perhaps the prime creator of rock and roll, and all that was true, of course. But what I always admired most of all about Chuck Berry was the extraordinary verbal fluidity and imagination of the songs he wrote.

Berry loved to tell stories in song. “Maybellene” (1955), his first rec…

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Recovering My Heritage

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It’s January 25, and as everyone knows, that is the birthday of the Bard of Ayrshire: Robert Burns.

And since a small conference on the Scots language is being held today at the University of Edinburgh, there is surely only one possible choice for what to do tonight: We’re having a traditional Burns Night Supper.

A Burns Supper, though the format is informal and flexible, typically involves certain rituals, and of course certain characteristic foods. The food at our gathering will be fully in l…

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The New Cruelty

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Illustration for “Lycidas” by Samuel Palmer

“Look homeward Angel now, and melt with ruth,” wrote John Milton in what was once, I am assured, a poem every schoolboy knew by heart. The poem, of course, is “Lycidas,” Milton’s glorious memorial to a young friend who has drowned.  The line’s first three words became the title of a 1929 novel by Thomas Wolfe, less read now than it once was.

But it’s those last three words – melt with ruth – that might stop you. The sense of that phrase – may the ang…

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How Does It Feel?

ows_147681816330759I feel that today is a day when it’s incumbent on me to be newsworthy, so I’m writing about …

Bob Dylan. When the announcement came last month that he had been selected for the Nobel Prize in Literature, the ensuing hue and cry was, as my Lingua Franca colleague Bill Germano has noted, predictable.  The notion of Dylan-as-poet had been controversial for more than 50 years. Bobby Zimmerman, of Hibbing, Minn., adopted a poet’s last name and over the years published a book of verse (Tarantula), a s…

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An Ill Wind That No One Blows Good

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It’s one of the funniest quotations I’ve ever studied, and perhaps the hardest to source. A search through the chaos of the web rapidly reveals that it has been speculatively attributed to at least a dozen people: Sir Thomas Beecham, Ambrose Bierce, Bennett Cerf, Ornette Coleman, Johnny Dankworth, Duke Ellington, Sylvia Fine, Danny Kaye, Laurence McKinney, Ogden Nash, George Bernard Shaw, and Mark Twain. Even the musical instrument it describes is also in dispute: I have seen it confidently app…

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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…