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.

Breaking from Sound

I think that the hardest part of taking a poetry workshop after just finishing one is the tendency to hold onto the attention to sound.  Last semester’s key or cornerstone was sound: how it paces poems, the way different groupings of sounds can make a line or stanza feel different emotively, etc.  I used a lot of music as inspiration this semester, and I relied on my ears and my mouth to help me shape poems based on the way they sounded.  My poems began to form themselves around sounds, rather than around some narrative or overarching theme.  I would often give up the “right” word to place a more sonically pleasing word in its place, and I grew less and less focused on content.  My poems were more interested in assonance, consonance, and interweaving the re-occurrence of sounds to form a dissonance or harmony that I could fit to my purpose.  The hardest part is switching gears and giving form a place in my poetry.

In my Humanities class, we read Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, and he had a method for improving himself that involved making a kind of calendar and marking each week down in favor of a different virtue he deemed important, and noting the days he was violating these virtues.



While I don’t think this is a habit I’ll begin taking up, I do think that I’ll take a page from his book and try to alternate between different aspects of my poetry; maybe spend a week thinking about sound, and once I feel I’ve given sound its due, moving on to form and content or narrative.  I don’t want to ignore the progress I’ve made with regard to sound, and I do want to think more about form and its importance in conveying my message, so maybe I can keep practicing with both.

Does anyone else have a hard time choosing an aspect of their poetry to focus on, to value above others, when the poem itself demands attention to all aspects of its creation? Or do we naturally tend toward one aspect, as poets, some gravitating to one and others to another?

On Lines of Images

Nearing three weeks into the semester, the reality of poetry casts a long sharp shadow. Poets grapple with lines of images and writing them well is like tuning a guitar, turning the knobs, listening, waiting, turning again, until the sounds ring true.

As workshop enlightens, it shrouds. As it clarifies, it blurs. This dual nature is the basis of the relationship between image and line. Thus poets are juggling bowling pins and balancing plates with as much grace as they can muster, but how do they perfect their act? Why do some deserve to be read and others dismissed?

Enter a simple, refutable opinion: practice, patience, and time spent alone go hand-in-hand with writing poetry or perfecting an act. Poets must be willing to deprive themselves, they must bore themselves with their own company, but remain focused. While tuning a guitar is not playing, it must be done before one begins to play if they want to sound any good. But without instruments to tune, how do poets prepare themselves to write?

They tune their instruments: vocabulary, ear, environment, mind, image, line. And most importantly, they remain patient and write one word at a time. This final point is often overlooked as cliché advice, but if a poet sits and writes one word, and waits, and one word, and waits, they will probably have a much better idea of what they are trying to say, and they will do a much better job of saying it.

Taking Apart: “The Blindman” by May Swenson

As a lover of words and their many meanings, I spend much time surrounded by books–especially books of poetry. I like to randomly select a book off of a shelf and bring it home with me, so that I can expose myself to more poetic forms or poets I would’ve otherwise not found my way to for a while. I did this the other day, and I selected “Half Sun Half Sleep” by May Swenson. On flipping through the pages, I was drawn to one poem in particular, and I will go forth in taking it apart for the rest of this post.

the blindman

I think what originally drew me to this poem, aside from my enjoyment at spontaneity, was the shorter stanzas and lines. The poem is arranged as a series of tersets, the middle line tending to me the longest out of the others. There is an irregular meter which compliments the ruggedness of not being able to use freely all five senses as a human being. With each line, the line breaks created by Swenson gracefully facilitates the rhyming pattern that persists at the end of each sentence.

Each stanza brings a new layer to the poem, concerned with this blindman and the ways he tries to experience color without eyesight. However, just as the blindman is experiencing new sensory ways to experience color, the sighted person is left wondering what not seeing color is like– culminating in the end with “only ebony is mute”–an image which brings up darkness or emptiness.

The use of color in this poem is especially intriguing to me–we are spoon fed cliches from our kindergarten glue-eating days that teach us to associate certain things with certain colors–grass is green, the sun is yellow-orange, fire is orange-red, etc. These seem like very simple things to know and understand; but this poem forces us to consider how a blind MAN must feel, only ever being told what color the world around him is and not ever being able to fully experience it for himself. This is emphasized in the poem by the line breaks between each stanza’s first and second lines– the first line introduces a new method of sensing stimuli besides seeing, and the second line introduces us to the color that the blindman is trying to get closer to: “I have caressed/the orange hair of flames. Pressed” this obviously alludes to our sense of touch, and the flames of a fire. Further, Swenson’s line break after “Pressed” emphasizes the hardened actions of not just touching but ‘caressing’ a flame; capturing the vulnerability which must be felt by this person who is blind but so desperately wants to experience something as universal and integral to the world around us as color.


One of my favorite moments in this poem is the raw and visceral image of the blindman’s tears as “fallen beads of sight”- “In water to his lips/he named the sea blue and white/the basin of his tears and fallen beads of sight” (31). May Swenson does a great job of instilling a sense of empathy in the reader, capturing this man’s emotional difficulty but desperation, as well as exploring the abstract nature of color.



How to Be a Poet

I was staying in a hostel in the middle of a long hike on the Appalachian Trail when I came across Wendell Berry’s “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front”. It was clear and revolutionary. When I returned home after the hike, I read through other work by Berry on the Internet. I came across his poem, “How to be a Poet.” The poems featured the same contained, clear voice, “How to be a Poet” addressed “(to remind myself)” rather than as overt advice to other poets.  At the time I was thinking little about poetry, as a prose writer. Instead, my thoughts were occupied by the incongruity between the mindfulness of the peaceful, deliberate life that I felt I had been living on the trail and the scattered, fast-paced state of my consciousness and lifestyle at home. It was habit and lifestyle that “How to be a Poet” spoke to. Berry writes, “Breathe with unconditioned breath / the unconditioned air. / Shun electric wire.” The poem made me yearn for my life without walls or electricity.

I am now making my way through poetry workshop and I could use instructions on exactly how to write poetry that is good, and correct, and fresh, this poem does not provide those answers. Instead, it starts, “Make a place to sit down. / Sit down. Be quiet.” The poem refuses to honor my assumptions about poetry being written in a mystical, impossible process. It even denies the assumption that poetry is about language. Berry’s advice centers not on words, but instead on the behavior that is conducive to writing poetry. His advice is holistic and simple. In fact, Berry does not say anything about language directly until the last stanza. He writes, “Make a poem that does not disturb / the silence from which it came.”


Something I’ve recently started to get into is making zines. Zines are the perfect little multimedia projects I’ve been searching for. Short for “magazine”, they are tiny little DIY self-publications. They are usually reproduced using a photocopier, although in the digital age, you can find a lot of zines swimming around the interwebs. They usually contain drawings/doodles/poetry/photography/etc. and they almost always have a political agenda or outlook. However, I’ve stumbled across many-a-zine that are extremely personal and have nothing political about them (I’ve also made a few of these myself).

There is something so raw about zines. They are supposed to be rough around the edges—they aren’t supposed to be polished. I think Ben Franklin might have created the first zine, which was meant for staff at a psychiatric hospital. Zines are also really important to the riot grrl feminist movement. I think the best ones are the collaborative ones, the ones where you get as many different hands in the pot as possible. So that’s why I want to maybe propose making a zine together—anyone who is interested! I also have a few that I am working on now that are still not finished and looking for submissions. A current zine I am working on focuses on political correctness, and tries to take a stab at some questions like, “is social media really conducive for real political discourse?”, “where do we get our information from”, and things along those lines. Here is a rap/poem that was written for it:Screen shot 2016-02-03 at 1.44.35 PM

The cool thing about zines though is that it can be a little all over the place! Someone sent me some poems that she wrote using her Iphone autocorrect function, and though that may not fit 100% with the aim of the zine, I still want to include it because it does probe at some interesting thoughts regarding technology and communication in general.

Also, I recently put together an audio zine with a friend of mine, Alex McGrath, that is sort of a conglomerate of speech, audio clips, spoken word poetry, and other sounds that you can check out here: if you want!

If any of this sounds at all interesting to you, let me know if you have anything to contribute or have an idea for a new zine, I’d love to collaborate on some work!

Taking Apart: “The Tropics in New York”

As someone whose life-force drains significantly for every ten minutes that go by without mentioning that I’m from Manhattan, I was ecstatic to find that one of the theme categories on was New York City. As I scrolled I noticed Claude McKay’s “The Tropics of New York”, which was in one of our recent Making of a Poem readings, and thought it might be interesting to take apart.

Bananas ripe and green, and ginger root
     Cocoa in pods and alligator pears,
And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit,
     Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs,

Sat in the window, bringing memories
     of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills,
And dewy dawns, and mystical skies
     In benediction over nun-like hills.

My eyes grow dim, and I could no more gaze;
     A wave of longing through my body swept,
And, hungry for the old, familiar ways
     I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.
“Tropics” is structured into three stanzas, each of which is a quatrain, and is written in iambic pentameter. It follows an ABAB rhyme scheme, and although this may seem overly simple, it reinforces the directness of the poem’s overwhelming feeling of nostalgia, helping the reader connect even more to a feeling they probably understood well already. The structure of the stanzas also augments the poem’s sincerity; the events are told sequentially (narrator sees fruit, narrator remembers home, narrator is saddened) and there’s no ambiguity about what’s happening or attempt to mislead the reader. McKay begins the poem by describing the trigger of his memories – fruit set in the window of a store – using imagery that feels very much real because of the way it sounds on the page. The consonance of the first stanza’s g‘s and p‘s and t‘s feels very tangible and calls attention to the words more than lines that rely on assonance would, and this seems especially noteworthy when it’s considered that the fruit are the most “real” objects in the poem.
McKay’s use of “window” in the second stanza’s first line is in keeping with the straightforward nature of “Tropics” – the window through which he sees the fruit is also the window through which the audience sees his memories. The second stanza deals with the narrator’s memories of home, and the adjectives that the poet uses seem especially poem-y: ladenlow-singingdewy, and mystical are all words that seem highly stylized, and suggest to the reader that the narrator is presenting them with an idealized version of his home that is very much tinted by nostalgia. The third stanza details the narrator’s emotional reaction to his memories, and it’s very clear that he feels saddened – every line, using phrases like “My eyes grow dim” and “wave of longing” emphasizes this point.  “Tropics” is very much striking to me in how sophisticated it remains in spite of the simplicity of its language and structure, and feels to me like a great example of a poem that is easily accessible while preserving the poet’s intent.

Haiku of Regret and Love

Anonymous Haiku:
tsumu mo oshi/ tsumanu mo oshiki/ sumire kana
I regret picking
and not picking

From the Bashȏ period, this haiku is included in The Classic Tradition of Haiku, an anthology edited by Faubion Bowers. I often find haiku to be either very cryptic or very simple, in which case I try to read too far into it. This one, however, is simple but at the same time poignant. The first option leaves the speaker with the decay of the flower, and thus the regret that there can be no maintenance of its beauty. The second option prevents the speaker, who lives in a material world, from possessing this beauty. The beauty of the violets is ephemeral and, no matter what, the speaker will suffer regret.
The nature of haiku creates an unusual atmosphere. It is composed of a 5-7-5 syllabic pattern. However, the English translation of this haiku does not follow the structure. In the past, I have attempted the art of haiku, but I never was truly able to capture the beauty and truth in such few words as those which I had read. It never felt quite right. Could this be that the English language does not lend itself as naturally to the form? Luckily, though, none of the substance is lost in translation. By researching the symbolic meaning of flowers, my findings concluded that violets are associated with being preoccupied by thoughts of love. Perhaps the speaker is regretting having walked away from a chance at love and also at experiencing a love that may have nastily decomposed.
It is fulfilling to get so much emotion and meaning from such few lines. I think that is what draws me to reading haiku. Surely, it is even more beautiful in its original language.

In the spirit of Valentine’s Day…

Ah, love poems! Always good to have one on hand, am I right? Whether you’re attempting to woo a new lover or impress your current flame, knowing one or two (good ones) won’t hurt your chances.

[love is more thicker than forget]
e.e. cummings
love is more thicker than forget
more thinner than recall
more seldom than a wave is wet
more frequent than to fail
it is most mad and moonly
and less it shall unbe
than all the sea which only
is deeper than the sea
love is less always than to win
less never than alive
less bigger than the least begin
less littler than forgive
it is most sane and sunly
and more it cannot die
than all the sky which only
is higher than the sky
This is a tightly formed poem with an ABAB rhyme scheme, with a repeating pattern of the words “love” “more” “less” in stanzas 1 & 3 and “it and than is” in stanzas 2 & 4. According to The Making of a Poem, this poem could be classified as a typical ballad, with the first and third lines of each stanza in iambic tetrameter (4 stresses) and the second and fourth lines of each stanza in iambic trimeter (3 stresses).
The tone of the poem bounces back and forth, with the speaker saying that it is both “mad and moonly” and “sane and sunly,” that it “shall unbe” yes also “cannot die.” The speaker is pointing out that love can take many different forms, big or small, thick or thin, long-lasting or fleeting. It’s almost as if they are throwing their hands up in the air and saying, “Well, I’m not quite sure exactly what to say, but here’s the best I can come up with for right now.” Wow, thanks for the advice! It’s like asking a professor a specific question about the course and them directing you towards their hopelessly ambiguous syllabus.
I’m biting my tongue here but I think that ambiguity is the reason I love this poem so much. Because I hate when something as abstract as love is attempted to be defined, and I appreciate how the narrator is aware of this and makes it central to this poem. Poets are supposed to be great with words, but even cummings realizes that love can’t so easily be attributed to sweeping metaphors like the sea and the sky. Even these metaphors are vague in themselves, and offer no astounding insights. So I feel as though this poem is a play on all those ideas that have been presented time and time again on love.  It’s wonderfully chaotic, yet tightly structured in it’s form. It’s all over the place and unsure of itself, like going on a blind date, and for that reason it is one of my most favorite love poems.