Poetry is composing for the breath.
June was an exciting month for me. First of all, I've known for several months that my manuscript, The Uneaten Carrots of Atonement,
had been accepted by Wind Publications, but I just learned the release target date—the end of this summer. The cover art is underway. Brian Rumbolo, the artist who did the paintings for my previous three books, is again doing the artwork.
Then I was also thrilled to have a poem featured by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac
had its day of glory on Monday, June 22. The poem is from my second book, What Feeds Us
, and was previously featured by Keillor back in 2009.
Poem and Prompt
This month's poem is by Terence Winch. I came across it in Poet Lore, one of my favorite journals.
We went into lockdown last week as a madwoman terrorized
the city. But I was not afraid even for a second. I read from
my book of prayers, which always helps get me what I want.
A house so enormous that I have bad dreams about the impossibility
of filling it with enough furniture. A house too grandiose for a party
of humble souls who want only to smoke pot in the garage
or maybe sit on the deck observing the local catbirds. There
are prayers that take me to lunch with you in the train station
in the past and that involve my eating baked Alaska for the first
time. I avoid the prayers of erotic longing. Even if they are answered,
it simply means new longings are right around the corner. I do not
pray for rain, for I hate rain, as is well-known. I pray that “before” will
always come before “after.” I pray that now will continue to precede
later, though I recognize that all of these concepts are just words,
not realities. I pray for words to become realities. I pray for one of those
cars that drives and parks itself, as I am not good at those skills
on my own. I pray that my hammer stops thinking everything
is a nail. I pray that it will rain in foreign words of desire.
I admire the way Winch mixes the serious with the humorous. His speaker tells us about a terrifying lockdown, but then adds that he was not afraid because he had his book of prayers. He says that this book “always helps get me what I want,” making us wonder just how devout his prayers are. He lists the various items he prayed for, some serious, some frivolous. Most of the items get details. Some do not. After listing several items, the speaker switches to the negative, that is, to what he does not pray for. Just as a pattern seems to have been established, this unexpected twist adds surprise.
In line 8 an auditor emerges, addressed as “you,” but never again referred to, never identified. We are left to wonder who is being addressed.
In the second half of the poem, the poet makes effective use of anaphora, setting up a rhythmic chant with the repetition of “I pray.” This has the effect of giving the poem steam and increasing power as it moves toward its close.
Notice the stunning metaphor that appears in the penultimate line and notice the skillful line break there: “I pray that my hammer stops thinking everything / is a nail.” Finally, notice how the last line pulls together three items that appeared earlier in the poem: “rain,” “words,” and “desire.”
For your own prayer poem, first come up with a situation that might warrant some prayers. This might be something drawn from the news or from your own life. Instead of prayers, you might think of wishes, wants, or desires.
Brainstorm a quick list of the unusual items your speaker might pray for. Add to this a few things your speaker would not pray for. Mingle the serious and the frivolous.
Now begin your draft. Draw from your brainstorming list and follow Winch’s pattern of positive— negative—positive.
As you continue drafting, add details to several of the items.
Employ anaphora in the second half of your draft.
Imagine an auditor and refer to him/her just once—or perhaps not at all. Even just imagining an auditor will add voice to your poem.
As you approach what feels like the end, move to the metaphorical. End with a final prayer that pulls together three of the earlier prayers. This will almost surely result in a line that surprises you.
When I learned that Steve Kowit had passed away at the age of 76 on April 2 of this year, I went to my bookshelf and pulled off his wonderful craft book, In the Palm of Your Hand, first published in 1995 and reprinted in 2003. Twenty years after its original publication, it remains a bestseller.
My copy is all marked up and the spine has pulled apart a bit. These signs of wear are evidence of how important this book was to me. It was first recommended to me years ago when I was taking a workshop. I was then early in my poetry-writing days and had much to learn. Steve’s book was exactly what I needed then. Looking at it again these many years later, it still offers invaluable insights about the craft of poetry.
The book begins with an excellent introduction by Dorianne Laux who took her first workshop with Kowit. There is information on such topics as getting started, using memory, handling metaphors, writing awful poems, revising, using sound devices, using photographs, understanding meter and forms, working with line breaks, and much more. Interspersed throughout are exercises to enhance skills and to produce poems. One thing I valued about the book when I first read it and still do is the terrific model poems used throughout.
If you don’t already own it, this book belongs on the shelf where you keep your other craft books. You need to place it in the palm of your own hand.
The current Poet Laureate of Virginia, Ron Smith is the author of Running Again in Hollywood Cemetery, Moon Road, Its Ghostly Workshop, and the forthcoming Humility of the Brutes. His work has appeared in numerous periodicals, including The Nation, Kenyon Review, and Georgia Review, and in a number of anthologies published in the US, Canada, the UK, and Italy. In 2005 Smith was an inaugural winner of the Carole Weinstein Poetry Prize; in 2006 he became one of the Curators for that prize. He is Writer-in-Residence at St. Christopher’s School in Richmond, where he holds the George Squires Chair of Distinguished Teaching. He occasionally teaches also at the University of Richmond.
Smith's informative Q&A poetry column for Shenandoah magazine is entitled “Updraft.”
Assuming you’ve got a mimetic spur—perhaps a conversation to record or a landscape to describe—start your poem in common measure (rhyming quatrains in iambic meter) or as an Italian sonnet, a villanelle, heroic couplets, or some other traditional form. Don’t be critical, just fill out the form, jam the words in. Enjoy writing badly and serving frivolously what Helen Vendler calls external form.
In revision, deploy those rules of good writing that you know: omit needless words, find a stronger verb (or no verb at all), remove the forced rhymes and the words that pad out the meter.
What do you have now? A ruin, a bombed-out relic of traditional form.
Then, ruin it some more: Ignoring your original form altogether, break your lines more effectively. Remember that the most meaningful and strongest position in the verse line is the end. Create syntactic ambiguity by placing the right word out there as a lighthouse or by hanging the right word out to dry. Consider the line as a meaningful unit, a unit that cuts across the meaning of the sentence.
Read your draft out loud, preferably to another person or into a voice recorder. What do you hear that you didn’t notice before? Kill the bad, enhance the good.
Finally (if you’re lucky), consider the shape of the overall poem on the page. Does the visual shape suggest or complement the meaning, the sound? Maybe it should. Does the poem look neat, orderly? Should it? Does the poem look ragged? What does the visual shape suggest about the heart and soul of the piece?
Now, tinker—probably for weeks, maybe for years or decades. Read your draft when you’re fresh and when you’re exhausted. Read it in the morning, the afternoon, the evening. Read it when you’re in a great mood; read it when you’re in a terrible mood. These encounters, these layers of response will help you see what you’ve done. Consider contractions, pronouns, punctuation.
It is said that Robert Frost put “finished” poems away for a year before he went back to them and declared them done. I’d say shorten that time—but make it long enough to forget what you had in mind in the early drafts. You can then read with objectivity, with aesthetic distance. Remember that you have to be, as Walt Whitman said, both in and out of the game. Become your Ideal Reader. Ask: What does it do to me? Does it work? If so, you’re done.
And what do you have? A ruined ruin? If you’re fortunate, you won’t end up with, say, a doubly dilapidated Parthenon haunted by tourist ghosts, but something more like the Sydney Opera House, alive with performances of the spirit.
However, if it doesn’t work, try this (not for the faint of heart): Write a parody of your poem. Ask: What would my worst enemy say about this poem? What would he/she mock? Try to enjoy ridiculing your diction, your tone, your line breaks, your oh so precious sound effects.
Put it all away (of course, save all your drafts).
After a while, you can come back to your parody. Lay a printed version of the parody next to your “final” draft, and contemplate what you’ve got. Every time I’ve done this, some of the parody has gotten incorporated into the actual poem.
Frost said, “No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” I would say, No pleasure for the writer, no pleasure for the reader. Find a way to enjoy what people like to call “the process.” Even heart-rending elegies should be, weirdly, paradoxically, a delight to produce.
Five Things You Can Do to Up Your Writer’s Game over the Summer
from Jeannine Hall Gailey and Kelly Davio
Daily Writing Prompts
from Mary Carroll-Hackett
The Ultimate Grammar Resource Guide
Summer Journals A-F
Summer Journals G-P
Summer Journals Q-Z
The Crafty Poet featured in Mary Carroll-Hackett's Monday Must-Read Series
Review of The Crafty Poet by Linda Simone in Writer's Relief
Review of The Crafty Poet by Philip Chase in the Journal of New Jersey Poets
Review of The Crafty Poet by Christine Swint at Balanced on the Edge.
Review of The Crafty Poet by Christina Veladota at Maybesopoetry.
Lynn Domina reviews The Crafty Poet at Lynn Domina, Poet.
"I already have written several poems and find your whole book so great that I am recommending it to all my poetry friends."—PO
Now Also Available As an E-Book. A bestseller 3 months in a row at E-Bookit.
Available at Amazon, eBookIt, or wherever e-books are sold.
featured by Garrison Keillor on The Writer's Almanac,
Monday, June 22
Sunday Poem Feature at Gwarlingo
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