I Recommend…

On Rain

It was blacker than olives the night I left. As I
ran past the palaces, oddly joyful, it began to
rain. What a notion it is, after all—these small
shapes! I would get lost counting them. Who
first thought of it? How did he describe it to
the others? Out on the sea it is raining too.
It beats on no one.

Anne Carson

From Anne Carson’s 1995 book Plainwater, “On Rain” is part of a series called “Short Talks.” While there were also short talks that drew me in such as “On Charlotte,” discussing the Bronte sisters, and the standout one line “On Gertrude Stein at 9:30,” this poem’s first line was a lasso. It’s unorthodox to compare night to an olive. I love olives. My friends hate olives. It’s one of those things that doesn’t have a grey area; you either do or you don’t. Such a bold statement captures and enthralls, and this one does the trick.
As silly as it sounds, I can wholly relate to the speaker throughout the poem. I distinctly remember trudging up the hill to my four pm Wednesday physics lab this past fall semester in the pouring rain under a flimsy, red umbrella. I wondered if each drop were a different shape, or if they changed shapes as they fell. How many drops actually battered against the fabric? How many did it take to make that stream running down the sides of the road toward the nearest drain?
It’s a cycle; everything goes back to water. It falls, and it rises, and then it falls again. “On the sea” the rain falls on the tides and “beats on no one.” It makes me question the speaker’s tone throughout the poem. At first, he/she appears to be “joyful” in the rain, observant and inquisitive. But this final line, “it beats on no one,” implies that he/she views it as violently beating on him/her. The more rain that falls, the heavier clothes become in getting soaked, the more weighted down you can become both physically and emotionally.
Also, it can be assumed that the speaker is experiencing a sense of freedom at the beginning of the poem. It is “the night [he/she] left” and is running “past the palaces” in the rain. Maybe he/she is running from an abusive household or relationship in which he/she was beaten. Maybe the rain doesn’t hurt. Maybe the rain heals, instead.

Sci-Fi #4

From Sci-Fi
By Tracy K. Smith

In those last scenes of Kubrick’s 2001
When Dave is whisked into the center of space,
Which unfurls in an aurora of orgasmic light
Before opening wide, like a jungle orchid
For a love-struck bee, then goes liquid,
Paint-in-water, and then gauze wafting out and off,
Before, finally, the night tide, luminescent
And vague, swirls in, and on and on . . . .

In those last scenes, as he floats
Above Jupiter’s vast canyons and seas,
Over the lava strewn plains and mountains
Packed in ice, that whole time, he doesn’t blink.
In his little ship, blind to what he rides, whisked
Across the wide-screen of unparcelled time,
Who knows what blazes through his mind?
Is it still his life he moves through, or does
That end at the end of what he can name?

On set, it’s shot after shot till Kubrick is happy,
Then the costumes go back on their racks
And the great gleaming set goes black.

I discovered this poem in a collection of poems entitled Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith; it is part of a much longer poem entitled “Sci-Fi”, which includes 5 very distinct (and quite long) poems. This poem could read like prose if we got rid of the line breaks. It also reads like the speaker could be talking aloud about her favorite movie and we just happen to be listening in. I’m a big fan of science fiction and have seen 2001: A Space Odyssey, so the references made in this poem were accessible; however, I feel that even without that background knowledge, the images created are still so tangible. For anyone who has seen this movie, the scene she is talking about is one that has been discussed and argued among movie critics and fans over and over again (Watch it here and see for yourself). It’s super abstract and to be honest, I don’t think anyone quite knows what to make of it entirely. But she takes that scene and recreates it for the reader using vivid images. She still acknowledges the mystery, but she doesn’t leave us entirely in the dark with even more abstractions. This poem makes me think about other famous scenes from movies, and how those can be incorporated into new art through poetry. It’s almost like a call and response; someone creates something, and then someone else is so inspired they create their own interpretation. It will definitely be something I’ll try out in the near future, whether it be a movie, image or song. I think it would be a good exercise in seeing how much of the original you take and understand, and how much of your own interpretation can be melded in.

Contradicting Myself

Something that workshop does is help me to isolate what exactly turns me on or off in a poem. **HOWEVER, I often find a very annoying and peculiar phenomena occurring during class. It is difficult for me to isolate exactly how I feel about certain aspects of a poem. It doesn’t mean that I’m wavering around not knowing how I feel, it means I convince myself I feel one way and then I am able to convince myself I feel the exact opposite. This can get rather frustrating. One second I am so sure that I don’t like the placement of the punctuation in the poem and then the next second I find that there may be merit to that exact aspect. I’m constantly changing my mind about how I feel about almost everything in a poem that we receive for workshop. I think this may have a lot to do with the setting. For instance, if I stumble on a poem in the Poetry Foundation app, I think I might be less likely to be as critical of it. I am told that this poem is supposed to be at least “good” or “worthwhile”, so I am already perceiving it in that mindset. It’s difficult for me to be less judgmental and picky with a poem if I know it was written by one of my peers. I think this is a good thing in the context of workshop, because that’s what workshop is for…however, I don’t think it’s good for me to be more or less critical of something because of knowing who wrote it. I think it’s ideal to try to read a poem as is, blind to knowledge of the writer.

This also doesn’t mean that there aren’t some things that are 100% clear to me. There are always aspects that I can really be sure I love and things I just hate. These are often the strongest and weakest parts of the poem. I find that these gut, deep-seated feelings, are the ones that are most valuable and important for the writer. They also help me out the most. Deciding how I feel about other people’s poems helps me to identify what I am trying to achieve with my own poetry.

From Prose to Poetry

A phrase from workshop continues to ring in my ears:
“Prose is not the opposite of Poetry.”
And how thankful I am for that. Moving abruptly from a year and a half of writing prose into poetry has been difficult, but remembering that I am not starting from scratch has been helpful. So…

What have I learned in writing prose that I can translate into poetry? From my short experience, I saw that prose was based in streams of images, based more deliberately in certain environments (settings, cultures, timeframes) than poetry. However, inevitably, it seemed that prose was exploring these realities, which seems to be how poetry is functioning as well. Prose remains realistic (literary fiction) and, simply put, it presents a story that leaves room for interpretation.

Now, there’s poetry, and how similar it is. Poetry thrives on streams of images that interpret and recreate realities in order to probe social aspects of our lives. David Foster Wallace says, as optimal advice to his fiction workshop students, “the reader cannot read your mind,” and he repeats it again and again in an interview with Bryan A. Garner, transcribed in a highly recommended book, Quack This Way.

Moving from prose to poetry, or residing in poetry, we must not forget that we are writing sentences, changed primarily by line breaks.

Life, Art, Image

I’ve been thinking (and talking) a lot about the image recently, so I thought I might as well write a post to get us started on talking about it outside of workshop.

I’ll start with this big ol’ block quote from Aleksandr Voronsky:

“First of all, art is the cognition of life. Art is not the free play of fantasy, feelings, and moods: art is not the expression of merely the subjective sensations and experiences of the poet; art is not assigned the goal of primarily awakening in the reader―good feelings. Like science, art cognizes life. Both art and science have the same subject: life, reality. But sciences analyzes, art synthesizes; science is abstract, art is concrete; science turns to the mind of man, art to his sensual [i.e., sensory] nature. Science cognizes life with the help of concepts, art with the aid of images in the form of living, sensual contemplation.”

Voronsky was a Marxist critic who participated in the Russian Revolution (and was later executed in 1937 under Stalin). What he’s saying, essentially, is that art cognizes reality (life), and therefore it serves an objective social purpose. I think, in this quote, is a statement about the ethics of art too: that art ought to think about life through images corresponding to reality, in order to communicate with society (consequently, bad art fails to do all these things).

Agree or disagree with this (I really want to see what everyone thinks about this quote!), I think it’s an important argument to consider, especially since we’re meeting weekly to evaluate and and improve our own art. So that quote is my way of prefacing this two part question for us:

1) What is art’s function? Why do we write poems in the first place?

2) How can art most effectively communicate?

To put it another way, why do we create art, what should we create, how do we create it?

These are large questions that artists have been debating for quite a long time, but they’re important, and I think we should all be working with these, since we’re in a class about creating art.

I don’t want to preach necessarily, but I do think it’s very important for all of us poets to learn to write through images that correspond to the real, lived, observed world. If a poem consists of images that come from the lived world, and if the artist is thinking through these images to examine or constitute abstract concepts that relate to the real world–to humanity–I think a poem is on its way toward being good, evocative, thoughtful piece of art.

What do you think? Is art a means of cognizing life? Is image the way? Is all good art social?

Blog Post #2: Taking apart post

Something that was said in class was that a stanza is always in movement, that it is like the coast of a sea, coming back to the same point with one constant message. I think we discussed on the 27th of January about this phenomenon, specifically how Chaucer kept coming back to a single message in his writing.

I think this is particularly true of my writing, because I often pose a question in the beginning of my writing (as I will with my first workshop piece, “Memorials in March”) and work to answer, denounce or prove that question.

I think the seeds or genesis of a poem is in a question we pose to ourselves or even to the world, because as writers or in a broader spectrum as people, we are curious beings that seek to find out more and more each day. Scientists do this through the scientific method, mathematicians do this through equations and artists do this by creating art and writers do this specifically by posing a question. A question in a poem need not come through the use of a question mark, but a situation that is not ordinary that creates questions in the reader’s mind.

When writing this post, I thought of John Donne’s The Sun Rising, where the speaker poses a question to the Sun why it disturbs and interrupts two lovers.

Whatever the message is in a poem, I think it is particularly true that as a writer, we seek to come back to a certain message that we pose, most often as a question.

Reaction to “Ozymandias” by Percy Shelley

Ozymandias by Percy Shelley
“I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”

This is probably one of the best known poems by Shelley. I feel as though this is a poem that can be enjoyed by anyone; I actually taught it to a bunch of tenth graders while I was student teaching and was not met with the usual groans and moans. I’ve read it before, but each time I read it I am again amazed by the images and emotions it creates.

I think the main theme here is the realization we all come to at one point in our lives, that someday, maybe sooner, maybe later, we will die, and everyone who has ever known us will also die, and then we will truly be nothing. This is a terrible thought! I think most of us realize this at some point during childhood, and (if you were like me) spent a good number of days obsessing over death and being filled with a sinking feeling of dread. The short, declarative line, “Nothing beside remains.” really gets me here. What’s left of the statue is hardly that of the former glory that is inscribed at the pedestal, and is surrounded by a vast emptiness that reflects that same feeling of dread over death being inevitable. I love that line, and feel that it is possibly the strongest one in the poem. We don’t know whether to laugh or cry at the state of the great Ozymandias and his fall from grace, but that very reaction could be used to describe our own fears and anxieties over what comes after death. The poem is so effective in that it forces us to examine our own understanding of death and dying, and although maybe that’s uncomfortable, it serves its purpose in possibly making you look more closely at how you live presently.

Robert Service: Popularity and Power

The first poem that I knew intimately was “The Cremation of Sam McGee.” The poem was written by Robert Service, a banker who moved to the Yukon Territory in the early 1900’s, around the time of the gold rush in Canada and Alaska. Everyone in my first grade class memorized the opening of the pages-long poem, which reads,


There are strange things done in the midnight sun

By the men who moil for gold;

The Arctic trails have their secret tales

That would make your blood run cold;

The Northern Lights have seen queer sights,

But the queerest they ever did see

Was that night on the marge of Lake Lebarge

I cremated Sam McGee.


The poems of Service, who has been called “The Bard of the Yukon,” detail the charm of the harsh Northern wilderness and the bravery of the rugged men who sought riches and adventure there. Service is rarely celebrated for of exemplifying literary originality or even authenticity. He has been criticized for misrepresenting himself, a banker and a townsperson, as a participant in the gold rush, thus romanticizing a life of hardship that he knew little about. His work has been critiqued as prioritizing appeal to a broad audience over literary integrity. From a literary criticism point of view “The Cremation of Sam McGee” is not great poetry, but it is powerful in that it defines a collective history.

In interior Alaska, where I lived, everyone knows the poem. My Great Uncle Laval whose parents moved to Alaska from the west coast soon after Service wrote the poem recites the whole poem, children like me learn it in school, and books of Service’s poems sit on the shelves of nearly every household that I enter. Why is poetry, and bad, common poetry at that, the medium that carries this memory? Of course there are songs, stories, and visual art from the era that Service writes about, but it is his poems that are at the forefront of the common memory of the gold rush pioneers who many Alaskans identify as part of their heritage.

It appears to me that despite critical scorn for Service’s poetry, his poems fill a need for common representation. The form of “The Cremation of Sam McGee” features easy rhythm and rhyme, which lends the poem to retelling. The relatable language, simple emotion, and sweeping romanticism give voice to a specific, isolated experience. “The Cremation of Sam McGee” conjures sensations that are specifically important to those who live in Alaska. The poem builds a clear picture, weakly constructed as it may be, of the hardy, daring history that Alaskans want to believe themselves a part of. We can critique Service’s style, or accuse him of selling out to the masses, but it is important to avoid equating popularity with weakness. In this case, the power in Service’s poetry is rooted in its easy accessibility, the closeness that many feel with the heart of it.

An Impossible Ideal

A Game of Chess by Gwen Harwood

To John Brodie


Nightfall: the town’s chromatic nocturne wakes

dark brilliance on the river; colours drift

and tremble as enormous shadows lift

Orion to his place. The heart remakes

that peace torn in the blaze of day. Inside

your room are music, warmth and wine, the board

with chessmen set for play. The harpsichord

begins a fugue; delight is multiplied.


A game: the heart’s impossible ideal –

to choose among a host of paths, and know

that if the kingdom crumbles one can yield

and have the choice again. Abstract and real

joined in their trance of thought, two players show

the calm of gods above a trouble field.



While perusing this week’s reading of The Making of a Poem by Mark Strand and Eavan Boland, I found myself drawn into this particular poem. Usually, despite my glorification of William Shakespeare, I’m not disposed to read sonnets. The same feelings applied to the earlier sonnets in this section of the anthology. However, coming across this one was different. It’s probably due to my connection of the first line to one of my favorite classical pieces. “Chromatic nocturne” takes me back to “Nocturne” by Claude Debussy, with which I associate a Monet painting from the cover of the CD.  The “colours drift/and tremble” with a “dark brilliance on the river.” It really is the same image.

At first glance, I assumed that it was written in the Spenserian style. But the rhyme scheme of the first stanza is actually abbacddc whereas the style is ababcdcd. I thought this interesting, but I like how it becomes less “sing-song” than it would have been otherwise.

The first stanza sets up the atmosphere for the chess game and the second explores it. Do we play chess in order to see the outcome of different scenarios, so that we can choose the one that will prove more favorable? In this way, “if the kingdom crumbles one can yield/ and have the choice again.” It is a bit unsettling, and gives us the power to look at our lives from a bird’s-eye view, as though we and everyone connected to us is merely a pawn in the “game” of life (a great board-game, as well, but I don’t mean to advertise). Can humans be so objective, so careless, as to look at their lives and the turbulence within them without feeling anything? I suppose having the option to stop the clocks and try again allows for that. But that isn’t real; as Harwood says, it’s “the heart’s impossible ideal.” If we could truly sit like gods in our rooms with “music, warmth and wine” and not have to worry about dealing with the consequences of each of our choices, then the life would just be a hodge-podge of millions of Choose Your Own Adventure books. How could we learn from our mistakes? How could we grow as people? While it might be a dream for the chance to relive the crucial moments and choose differently, it behooves us to face the “trouble field” we have set up for ourselves.

Poetry from Essay

In the classical meaning, an “essay” wasn’t some assignment teachers doled out like tic-tacs, but a simple attempt to prove something.  It translates into English as “to test” or “to try.”  The simple distinction across eras being that essays were meant as thought experiments written down, not just a thesis and three body paragraphs on a theme in The Great Gatsby. 

I consider myself an essayist in the classical terms, pretentious as it may be.  It is here that the reader might begin to ask my place in a poetry workshop.  I, too, have asked that of myself.  Having looked at everyone’s poetry now—even in the context of  a whirlwind—I belong (in the pedagogical terms) in the turkey class of poets.  Certainly not the mighty Eagles, not even the fair-minded Bluebirds, no, the turkeys. With their foolish gobbles and strangely formed bodies. But even turkeys have some merit, we eat them at Thanksgiving, their feathers were useful for fletching, and they’re rather fun to blast out the sky with a shotgun—plow!

And yet in some convoluted way, it seems to me perfectly reasonable that a poem could be an essay (though an essay not so much a poem). An attempted articulation of self on page, a testing of verbal invention in lieu of logical consistency could certainly fulfill the tenets of “trying” while chasing away solipsism in a way a traditional essay simply cant.  Poetry allows us to sort of leap over the wall of self, essaying demands it stay within the boundary of it. It is that ability that hope to gain from a poetry workshop, so that my essaying might become stronger.