ESL & Myung Mi Kim

Recently I read an article (here if you’re interested) about a poet named Ocean Vuong, who was born in Vietnam and immigrated to the USA with his family when he was two. In the article, he mentions that his family was illiterate, and that he didn’t learn to read until he was eleven, and says, “For an American who was born here, the mundane might be boring, but for me colloquial English was a destination.”

While I was reading this article, I was brought back to the conversation in class a few weeks ago about Myung Mi Kim’s poem, the one where each line is a sounds derived from Korean with the final line, “you speak English so well transcript”.  It’s really fascinating to me when poets (and all genres of writers, really) choose to go back and forth between their first language and a second language. I think there’s a certain expectation that comes with being a native-English speaker that writers cater to our understanding of the language, not the ways in which they, as ESL learners, understand the language. I’ve recently noticed this trend  among peers in creative writing workshops; a writer will insert non standardized forms of English in their work, or lines/phrases in another language, and others will be frustrated that it doesn’t make sense…to them. Of course this issue is a multi-layered one (here I go again, inserting politics into the workshop) but I do think it’s one worth pointing out, especially for those writers who didn’t grow up speaking English in the USA. I guess my biggest question would be should we take other languages into account when work shopping poetry? Do you think it’s a hindrance or beneficial or neither or something else entirely? I’m wondering what other people think about this.

Snow in April

An April Sunday brings the snow
Making the blossom on the plum trees green,
Not white. An hour or two, and it will go.
Strange that I spend that hour moving between

Cupboard and cupboard, shifting the store
Of jam you made of fruit from these same trees:
Five loads – a hundred pounds or more –
More than enough for all next summer’s teas.

Which now you will not sit and eat.
Behind the glass, underneath the cellophane,
remains your final summer – sweet
And meaningless, and not to come again.

Philip Larkin [April, 1948]


I was ranting to my friend yesterday about the fact that is was snowing in April, and he in turn read me this lovely poem which I thought I’d share here.

I think what I admire most about this poem is it simple language. None of the images are particularly show-y or over the top, yet Larkin is still able to deliver to the reader his feelings about the event. A mixture of shock and sorrow, like how one might feel when it snows just two days after flowers start to shoot up from the ground (or at least that’s how I felt). I think the stanza that really accomplishes this is the final one, with lines like, “you will not sit and eat” and “meaningless, and not to come again.” The repetition of “not,” a simple negation of the words that follow, is effective in pointing out the absence of these things; Larkin is pointing out that these things did once occur, but never will. It echoes the “not” from the first stanza in the lines, “Making the blossom on the plum tree green, / Not white.” A poet can devote entire lines describing one solid image for the reader, but Larkin instead chooses to simply negate these images/ideas we know and propel the poem forward to it’s end.

Writers and researchers into Philip Larkin’s life claim that the poem is about the death of his father in April. The final stanza creates that sense of finality with the phrase “not to come again,” but also seems to be pointing out that the absence of “you”  makes the once meaningful act of canning fruits in the summer empty for the speaker. It’s not just his father who is dead; it’s all the things that made him unique.

I feel as though the living usually react in the opposite way after a loved one dies. They start collecting all the things that made that person special in an attempt to preserve that memory of them. In addition to making me feel less sad about the snow on the ground this week, this poem also made me reconsider again the ways that individuals grieve, especially after our discussion last week during workshop about funerals. I’m wondering what people think about this poem in particular and Larkin’s reaction…but also what you think about the poem’s use of language. Do you think it’s simplicity is really working? Or is it not simple at all?

Jayne Thompson and “Letters to My Younger Self”

I recently went to listen to writer/activist Jayne Thompson speak and I found her work to be really intriguing. She is a creative writing professor, but also runs writing workshops for incarcerated men. She even published a book titled “Letters to My Younger Self,” which is an anthology of some of their work. During her presentation, she played a few recordings of men reading their own poems, and I was amazed to see how powerful their voices were. Here are men, many of whom have very little formal education, who are able to produce writing that evokes such a strong reaction. Literacy issues aside, I think what most got me was that they refuse to be silent despite their imprisonment. Thompson works with them precisely so that their voices are heard, voices that are so often forgotten in our country with THE highest incarceration rate in the world. Working with prison populations is not something I’ve ever thought about doing, but after hearing Thompson speak, I think it would be really interesting to be able to run similar workshops.

The Death of Joy Gardner and the Power of Language

From Propa Propaganda by Benjamin Zephaniah

They put a leather belt around her
13 feet of tape and bound her
Handcuffs to secure her
And only God knows what else,
She’s illegal, so deport her
Said the Empire that brought her
She died,
Nobody killed her
And she never killed herself.
It is our job to make her
Return to Jamaica
Said the Alien Deporters
Who deports people like me,
It was said she had a warning
That the officers were calling
On that deadly July morning
As her young son watched TV.


I first read this poem by Benjamin Zephaniah when I took a course on literature of the African diaspora. Zephaniah is a British-Jamaican artist who has written a number of poems that explore what it means to be black and British in a culture that includes systematized racism.  Although his collection of poems Propa Propaganda was written about 20 years ago, I feel as though it’s content is still highly relevant today. The above section from “The Death of Joy Gardner” is one such example; the full text can be found here if you are interested.

Joy Gardner was an undocumented Jamaican living in London at the time of her death. Police came to her home and, in their attempt to restrain and arrest her, accidentally suffocated her when she resisted. She suffered severe brain damage and was placed on life support, but died a few days later from cardiac arrest. The police officers were acquitted from all charges.

I just want to stop here and point out the language I used in my above description of Joy Gardner. When you Google Joy Gardner, that is the first result that comes up in relation to her death. However, when I originally was trying to write a description of her death, bearing in mind Zephaniah’s poem, it went something like this:

Joy Gardner was a migrant Jamaican woman living in London when she was killed by police officers in a raid. They restrained her with handcuffs, leather straps and 13 feet of duct tape. She suffered severe brain damage from the attack and died four days later in the hospital while on life support. The police offers were charged with manslaughter but were acquitted on all counts.

While I’m personally more of the opinion detailed in description 2, it’s still interesting to me to see how many accounts there can be of a single experience. Think of your Facebook feed, and how two different friends can share different new articles about the same remark made by presidential candidate. You might only read 1 of the 2 articles, and now your opinion is unconsciously shaped in some way.

Of course when you want someone to see things a certain way, you’re going to adjust your language accordingly, as Zephaniah does in his poem. Clearly he wants us to see that Joy Gardner’s death was no doubt consequential of her alien-status in England at the time. However, I can’t help but think about the alternate account of this poem, as told by say, a police officer who was there or the person who makes laws concerning deportation of immigrants. Especially concerning a real event in history, I’m always curious to see what the other side has to say. While I don’t necessarily want to be swayed by the other side, I think it’s interesting to think about how we use language to do precisely that. No one wants to read a poem or listen to a speech that isn’t trying to get some point across. But, I think it’s important to at least consider the opposition.



From Ordinary to Extraordinary

In the spirit of politics and poetry, I wanted to talk about the United States Inaugural Poet. For the past five presidential inaugurations, the United States as chosen a poet to read their work as part of the ceremony. I didn’t even know this was a part of the ceremony until I read about it online a few days ago, but I couldn’t get over how cool it is that the U.S. would make this a part of their political culture. Go America!

Way back in 2012, Richard Blanco was chosen to read during President Barack Obama’s inauguration. It was a huge deal for a number of reasons: not only was he the youngest (he was 44 at the time), he was the first immigrant (he was born in Cuba), first Latino, and first openly gay poet to read at the ceremony. I’ll include the full text of the poem at the bottom of this post, but you can listen to him read it in the video below (notice the awkward clapping when they introduce him as a poet – people don’t know what to make of us)

In an interview with Maayan Silver for NPR Milwaukee, he stated that “poetry makes us slow down and pay attention to things, to really pause and focus on those things that seemingly pass us by everyday as inconsequential.” When asked how he manages to notices these ordinary occurrences, he talks about how one day, while his mother was cooking dinner, he begin thinking about how many times he’s seen her in the kitchen, doing the same motions over and over, and how meaningful these motions meant over the course of his life. He states, “These are the quiet moments that speak to something infinite and important to our lives.” His poems are an attempt to slow down time, to make us meditate on a moment that otherwise would be taken for granted. He also mentions William Carlos Williams “Red Wheel Barrow,” which we’ve discussed in class as being a testament to the ordinary items we overlook. The poem is so very, very slow, but the effect on the reader is that we look closer at the item, and realize it function is truly extraordinary. The so called “ordinary” is transformed into a reflection on the beauty of it’s place in our world.

“One Today”

One sun rose on us today, kindled over our shores,
peeking over the Smokies, greeting the faces
of the Great Lakes, spreading a simple truth
across the Great Plains, then charging across the Rockies.
One light, waking up rooftops, under each one, a story
told by our silent gestures moving behind windows.

My face, your face, millions of faces in morning’s mirrors,
each one yawning to life, crescendoing into our day:
pencil-yellow school buses, the rhythm of traffic lights,
fruit stands: apples, limes, and oranges arrayed like rainbows
begging our praise. Silver trucks heavy with oil or paper—
bricks or milk, teeming over highways alongside us,
on our way to clean tables, read ledgers, or save lives—
to teach geometry, or ring-up groceries as my mother did
for twenty years, so I could write this poem.

All of us as vital as the one light we move through,
the same light on blackboards with lessons for the day:
equations to solve, history to question, or atoms imagined,
the “I have a dream” we keep dreaming,
or the impossible vocabulary of sorrow that won’t explain
the empty desks of twenty children marked absent
today, and forever. Many prayers, but one light
breathing color into stained glass windows,
life into the faces of bronze statues, warmth
onto the steps of our museums and park benches
as mothers watch children slide into the day.

One ground. Our ground, rooting us to every stalk
of corn, every head of wheat sown by sweat
and hands, hands gleaning coal or planting windmills
in deserts and hilltops that keep us warm, hands
digging trenches, routing pipes and cables, hands
as worn as my father’s cutting sugarcane
so my brother and I could have books and shoes.

The dust of farms and deserts, cities and plains
mingled by one wind—our breath. Breathe. Hear it
through the day’s gorgeous din of honking cabs,
buses launching down avenues, the symphony
of footsteps, guitars, and screeching subways,
the unexpected song bird on your clothes line.

Hear: squeaky playground swings, trains whistling,
or whispers across café tables, Hear: the doors we open
for each other all day, saying: hello, shalom,
buon giorno, howdy, namaste, or buenos días
in the language my mother taught me—in every language
spoken into one wind carrying our lives
without prejudice, as these words break from my lips.

One sky: since the Appalachians and Sierras claimed
their majesty, and the Mississippi and Colorado worked
their way to the sea. Thank the work of our hands:
weaving steel into bridges, finishing one more report
for the boss on time, stitching another wound
or uniform, the first brush stroke on a portrait,
or the last floor on the Freedom Tower
jutting into a sky that yields to our resilience.

One sky, toward which we sometimes lift our eyes
tired from work: some days guessing at the weather
of our lives, some days giving thanks for a love
that loves you back, sometimes praising a mother
who knew how to give, or forgiving a father
who couldn’t give what you wanted.

We head home: through the gloss of rain or weight
of snow, or the plum blush of dusk, but always—home,
always under one sky, our sky. And always one moon
like a silent drum tapping on every rooftop
and every window, of one country—all of us—
facing the stars
hope—a new constellation
waiting for us to map it,
waiting for us to name it—together.


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.

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.

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.

“A Quoi Bon Dire?” by Charlotte Mew

Charlotte Mew

A Quoi Bon Dire?

Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
But I.

So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
But you.

And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.

The title of this poem is in French, and the best translation I could come up with (by way of a French speaking friend) is “What’s the good of saying?” After reading the poem in it’s entirety, I feel as though the title is especially relevant to my interpretation of it’s content.

The speaker is lamenting the loss of someone – I hesitate to comment on the relationship because after reading it through several times, I still can’t decide whether it’s a lover or a friend or a family member. During my first read, I thought for sure that the “you” was some guy she was in love with who died tragically while they were still young. That’s an easy enough interpretation – poets have been writing about their dead lovers since poetry was invented. However, I did a little snooping on the internet about Charlotte Mew and found out that she lived a pretty tragic life. Three of her siblings died when she was still a child, another two were committed to psychiatric hospitals and stayed there for the entire lives, and her last remaining sister, Anne, whom she seemed inseparable from, died from cancer later on in life. Following Anne’s death, she committed herself to a nursing home for treatment from delusions, but ended up committing suicide there within a year.

While I know some people will argue that researching a writer’s background is not always the best idea before reading their work, I find it hard to separate the two. You could certainly read this poem and interpret it without knowing about Mew’s life; however, after reading the poem once, and then reading up about her life, I found my perception of the poem to be changed entirely. First off, she was surrounded by death for almost the entirety of her life. The “you” in this poem who everybody thinks is dead but her could be anyone. I can’t limit my interpretation to a lover, as I did upon my first read. Yes, she does say in the final stanza “And one fine morning in a sunny lane/ Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear / That nobody can love their way again” However, I don’t think those lines are enough to prove that she is 100% talking about a lover. I think that the image itself is more a symbol of human connection, and the ways in which our relationships are fleeting despite the promises we make.

There’s a sense of hopelessness that stains the poem; the “you” is dead, and she’s convinced that they are still alive. Worse yet, she’s growing older and watching the world change without the person she is mourning for with her. Going back to my original translation of the title, she seems to have given up . She watches people from the sidelines, and remains removed from real human interactions. She prefers to stay in a fantasy world where the dead are still alive. “What’s the point”, is the idea that I gathered from this poem. She has already experienced the greatest human connection of her life, and knows in her heart that the decay has set in beyond repair.

Response to George Szirtes

One of George Szirtes claims on form in poetry is that it serves as “an act of triumph of meaning and structure over chaos and meaningless, and also with the triumph of civilized values over barbarity.” He then goes on to describe the process of creating form within a poem as “cooking with the raw materials we are given,” which really stood out to me in particular. Form is important to poetry because it allows you to look at words and develop deeper understandings of them within a line. Words on their own don’t have a lot of meaning beyond what we assign to them when we hear them for the first time. Poetic form allows us to take those raw meanings, simplistic on their own, and turn them into something with more sustenance. To take words and put them in order is crucial to the life of the poem.  Without form, it would be words on a page, nothing courageous or graceful to be revealed. I agree with Szirtes that while language it magnificent, it is not necessarily well disposed to us. We are not born with the innate ability to make sense of words on a page, much less assign meaning to every piece of language we come in contact with. Therefore form serves a way of neatly organizing those words, of allowing meanings to arise by the reader within a line. Prior to reading this article, I have always considered form to be a confining aspect of poetry, but now I am under the impression that it’s may be the starting point for all poetry.