To write is also not to speak. It is to keep silent. It is to howl noiselessly.
Happy National Poetry Month! I hope it will be a productive month for all of us. Perhaps you are taking on a poem-a-day challenge. If so, good luck! Let's marinate ourselves in poetry by attending readings, buying and reading some new poetry books, and showing up at the desk. This month's newsletter should get you off to a good start.
Poem and Prompt
This month's poem is by Laure-Anne Bosselaar. It's from her book, A New Hunger.
On a platform, I heard someone call out your name:
No, Laetitia, no.
It wasn’t my train—the doors were closing,
but I rushed in, searching for your face.
But no Laetitia. No.
No one in that car could have been you,
but I rushed in, searching for your face:
no longer an infant. A woman now, blond, thirty-two.
No one in that car could have been you.
Laetitia-Marie was the name I had chosen.
No longer an infant. A woman now, blond, thirty-two:
I sometimes go months without remembering you.
Laetitia-Marie was the name I had chosen:
I was told not to look. Not to get attached—
I sometimes go months without remembering you.
Some griefs bless us that way, not asking much space.
I was told not to look. Not to get attached.
It wasn’t my train—the doors were closing.
Some griefs bless us that way, not asking much space.
On a platform, I heard someone calling your name.
Now listen to Laure-Anne read the poem.
This form is called a pantoum. Let's try one. But first its rules.
A pantoum consists of a series of quatrains. There is no set number.
The second and fourth lines of each stanza are repeated as the first and third lines of the next stanza. This pattern continues for any number of stanzas, except for the final stanza.
The first and third lines of the final stanza are the second and fourth lines of the second to last stanza. The second line of the final stanza is the third line of the first stanza and the fourth line of the final stanza is the first line of the first stanza.
Ideally, the meaning of lines shifts when they are repeated although the words remain the same. Meaning can be altered by context and punctuation. Also, this is a rule that can be broken a bit. You might want to vary the wording somewhat in the repeating lines.
Lines lengths may vary.
Now do not have a heart attack, but there's also supposed to be a rhyme pattern of abab in each stanza. However, once you get beyond the first stanza, that will just fall into place. And here's the good news: you are free to abandon rhyming. Notice that Laure-Anne does not follow the prescribed rhyming pattern, though she does employ some rhyme.
You may find it helpful, even essential, to write the pattern down the right or left side of your page before you begin writing the poem. For example, a 4-quatrain pantoum with rhyme would have this pattern (numbers are for the lines; letters are for the rhyme scheme):
Notice that the pantoum says everything twice. That makes this an ideal form for obsessive subjects. Notice how Laure-Anne's repetitions hammer away at you, how effectively they convey grief. The loss of a child lasts forever. It keeps coming back.
Think of something that repeatedly returns to your mind, perhaps an experience that haunts you. The spouse who did you wrong. The missed opportunity that seems to have altered the course of your life. The heirloom you lost. The forgiveness you failed to give or receive. Treatment for a long illness. Giving birth.
While the form lends itself nicely to heavy topics, it also works well with lighter subjects. For example, are you obsessing about chocolate? About getting your weight down? About this year's marathon?
Don't be intimidated by the form. Once you get going, you'll see that it falls into place. Some of you will labor over your lines; others of you will find that the poem pours right out of you. Keep coming back to it until you have a satisfactory draft. Then work on it until it's a gem.
Bruce Guernsey is Distinguished Professor Emeritus at Eastern Illinois University where he taught for twenty-five years. Following his retirement, he became the editor of Spoon River Poetry Review. As editor he introduced a regular feature called "Poets on Teaching." That was one of my favorite parts of each issue of the journal. Guernsey would invite a well-established poet who was also a teacher to write an article about the craft of poetry and to include an assignment that teachers and poets might use.
When he left the journal, Guernsey took the feature with him. He has now gathered those articles, as well as some he subsequently solicited, into Mapping the Line: Poets on Teaching. The Foreword by Ted Kooser is followed by twenty essays, including "Who's Writing This?" by Cecilia Woloch, "Metaphor as Form" by David Baker, and "Three Exercises for Free Verse" by Wesley McNair. Other authors include Baron Wormser, Robert Wrigley, Betsy Sholl, and Claudia Emerson. Teachers will find this a very useful and informative collection. Poets will find it instructive and inspirational. This book will be a happy addition to your classroom or your desk at home.
Martha Silano is the author of What the Truth Tastes Like, Blue Positive, and The Little Office of the Immaculate Conception, winner of the 2010 Saturnalia Books Poetry Prize, an Academy of American Poets Noted Book, and a Washington State Book Award finalist. Her forthcoming collection, House of Mystery, will appear from Saturnalia Books in 2014. Her poems and essays have appeared in magazines and anthologies such as North American Review, Cincinnati Review, American Poetry Review, Prairie Schooner, and The Best American Poetry 2009. A recent recipient of fellowships from Seattle 4Culture and the Washington State Artist Trust, she teaches at Bellevue College.
Are Your Titles Like Limp Handshakes?
Every poem’s title is like a handshake, your first chance at making a strong impression. An editor friend often confides in me about poems that cross her desk titled "Rain" and "Insect." Poems with bland and uninspiring titles like these just don't demand to be read. Not one bit. But a poem with a title like "The Gargantuan Muffin Beauty Contest"—who could resist?
Here are a few ideas for how to extend a hand to your reader that he or she will definitely want to shake:
1. Create a title that will be repeated, in part or in whole, in the first line of the poem.
My curiosity is piqued by a title like Theodore Roethke’s “I Knew a Woman,” a title that makes us wonder what’s special about that woman and why the past tense is used. Is there a story to be told? The title then gets repeated and expanded in the first line: “I knew a woman, lovely in her bones /…” The poet rewards our curiosity as the rest of the poem lives up to the allure of its grabber title.
Wyn Cooper’s “Chaos is the New Calm” functions similarly, allowing the speaker to get right to the meat and potatoes, serving up, in the first and second lines, “Chaos is the new calm / violence the new balm” and closing with this pirouetting couplet: “Don’t strand me standing here./ If you leave, leave beer.”
Caution: Don’t overuse this technique. If you use it in poem after poem, your readers will get wise to you and stop reading the first line. Use this technique only if the title bears repeating.
2. Create a title that serves as the first line or first word of the poem.
When done well, the title’s enticement to keep reading pays off in spades. Note how Eduardo Corral’s title grabs our attention and then runs right into the poem, functioning as its first line:
In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes
in a Tex-Mex restaurant. His co-workers,
unable to utter his name, renamed him Jalapeño.
The title of Bob Hicok’s poem “Thought” serves as the first word of the first line: “of Job when her friend died…”
This title technique creates speed by eliminating the usual pause between title and first line.
3. Let the title introduce a word or phrase reiterated in the body of the poem.
In David Rivard's "Otherwise Elsewhere" both words of the title are repeated multiple times throughout the poem. The two words are then collapsed into “elsewise” which is also repeated several times. The title thus introduces the music and wordplay of the poem.
After grabbing our attention with his title, “The Gargantuan Muffin Beauty Contest,” Julian Stannard weaves the word “muffin” throughout his poem. Each time the word is repeated, it gathers steam:
I’ve never seen so many high-quality muffins.
If I wasn’t a religious man, and maybe I wasn’t
I would have said the muffins were walking on water:
I’ve never felt so half-and-half. Have you read the Bible?
The bellhop said: You ain’t seen muffin yet.
4. Incorporate the name of the poem’s form into the title.
You might want to do this if your readers might be unfamiliar with the form, but it can be kind of boring, so to spice things up try rhyming or riffing off the form’s name.
Consider Mark Jarman’s “Unholy Sonnet 1." I don’t know about you, but I’m more likely to read a sonnet if I know from the get-go it’s going to be unholy. Kathy Fagan's "Saloon Pantoum" and Doug Lang's "Tina Sestina” pull me in with their rhyming titles which offer up nice music and provide a little crucial information about the pantoum or sestina I’m about to commit my time to.
5. Create a title that provides essential background information.
Such a title can pave the way for in-medias-res beginnings and preemptively clarify what’s going on in the poem.
These opening lines by David Wagoner might leave the reader confused about what’s going on: I've watched his eyelids sag, spring open / Vaguely and gradually go sliding / Shut again, fly up. But the poet anticipates and kills the confusion with his title, “For a Student Sleeping in a Poetry Workshop.” By the time we get to the eyelids in the first line, we already know that they belong to a student. We can now picture the situation.
Same goes with Paisley Rekdal's title, "Mae West: Advice." Without that title, we'd have no idea who was giving the advice, making the poem way less fun.
6. Create a title that contains details that might be cumbersome in the poem.
Beginning writers sometimes have this notion in their heads that they can't use their titles to explain crucial details about the poem, such as the setting or the impetus for the poem. Simply adding a bit more detail to your title may very well encourage your reader to read on and, at the same time, result in a tighter and often more lyrical poem. Instead of "Rain," how about "My Cat Does Not Like the Rain"? Instead of “Peaches,” Wallace Stevens wisely titled his poem "A Dish of Peaches in Russia." Such a title is an efficient way of providing information.
7. Use a title to add mystery or provoke curiosity, the quirkier and more enticing, the better.
Who could resist reading Kerrin McCadden's "If You Were a Zombie Boy," Marcus Wicker's "Creation Song in Which a Swift Wind Sucker Punches a Transformer,” Cynthia Marie Hoffman's "The Calciferous Substance Speaks to the Sleeping Fetus," or Dafydd Wood's "The Graduate Student in Comparative Literature Weighs the Merits of a Career in Pornographic Film"?
I think you get my drift; such seductively zany titles demand our attention.
Which of these approaches to titling will work best depends, of course, on the poem. Err on the side of the unusual, even the strange, and at least you won't run the risk of making an editor/reader snore.
Advice to a Young Poet
by Richard Kostelanetz
50 quick poetry prompts
Sign up for A Poem a Day
from the Academy of American Poets
Poem a Day Challenge
from Robert Lee Brewer
30 Poems in 30 Days
My poem, "My Husband Discovers Poetry
," along with commentary, is featured in The Lawsonian
, an Australian print newsletter.
If you have friends who might be interested in this newsletter, please forward it to them.
Click Here for Kindle Edition of Temptation by Water
Share the Love