Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Poetic Power

This year I've had excellent luck picking up how-to books at random at the store and discovering some wonderful resources, but I don't always go to the how-to aisle to find what might be useful to mention on the blog. Sometimes I head there just for me and my eternal quest to clarify, understand, and address my writing life.

Last week I spotted a new release, Writing the Life Poetic, by Sage Cohen, and the title immediately snared me. So did the cover copy, the table of contents, and the first three pages I read. I figured it would be inspirational to me personally, as my poetry of late has been squashed under the pleasures, pressures and madness of writing fiction, but not something I'd talk about here on the blog. I'm rarely willing to inflict my poet-self on my writer friends.

Fortunately Sage Cohen doesn't feel that way, and opened herself up as she extended through the book a no-strings-attached invitation to read and write poetry. The result were short chapters on all the things poets wrestle with: what to write, word and structure choices, metaphor, voice, writing rituals, art, experimentation, and anything else you can think of. She offered some amazing poems of her own and by other poets to exemplify her topic, and also included practical suggestions and interesting exercises for the reader under a Try This! banner at the end of a section.

It's not all exercises and mechanics, though. In the chapter Convenience Kills (pg. 134), Ms. Cohen discusses how our high-speed turbo-powered culture is killing creativity, which affects all of us, as evident in what Charlene wrote in her blog post that I quoted for the May Thought for the Month over there on the sidebar. In Trusting Your Instincts (pg. 208), she discusses all this writing advice that comes at us from all directions, and how we can decide whether or not to follow it. One chapter, From Dysfunction to Duende (pg. 61) explained something I've fretted over as a poet and a writer for the last thirty-four years, but could never even put a name to, much less find an explanation for. That alone blew me away.

While reading this book, I didn't get bogged down in a lot of pretty theory and lofty notion that so often is associated with composing verse. One goal Sage Cohen mentions in the book is the hope of taking poetry down off the academic pedestal and putting it back in the hands of the people. I thought this was accomplished, and rather brilliantly. It's also very non-partisan in how it addresses the creative life. I didn't have to lock up my fiction self in a cage while absorbing the information and ideas. There was as much in it for me the novelist as there was for the poet.

I've always felt writing poetry makes me a better fiction writer, but this is the first time I've found a how-to book that speaks to both sides of my writing life. And if I never wrote another poem for the rest of my life, I'd still consult with this book. In many ways it's not so much about what you write, but the life in which you write.

As always, you don't have to take my word for it. In comments to this post, name one of your favorite poems or poets (or if you're poetry-deprived, just toss your name in the hat) by midnight EST on Friday, May 15, 2009. I'll draw three names at random from everyone who participates and send the winners an unsigned copy of Writing the Life Poetic by Sage Cohen. This giveaway is open to everyone on the planet, even if you've won something here at PBW in the past.


  1. William Blake. :) I love "tiger tiger burning bright..."

  2. I still love the poems of A. A. Milne the best.

    Christopher Robin had sneezles and wheezles
    They bundled him into his bed.
    They gave him what goes for a cold in the nose
    And some more for a cold in the head.

  3. I need some inspiration ... the last time I wrote a poem I think the first Bush was still in office.

    Ahem ...

    They warned me,
    but he warmed me
    like a winter's coat,
    yet easily shed come spring-time.
    It was also the last time I had a significant other. ;p

    — Bonz

  4. For my day job, I sometimes have to find little pieces of poetry to put on client mailers. For some reason, whenever I search Bartleby's for relevant excerpts, I always come up with Leaves of Grass. I can't put Leaves of Grass on client mailers. Well, I could, but then I wouldn't have a day job. Wait a sec...

  5. Emily Dickinson.

    If she'd written nothing but "Because I could not stop for Death"...she'd still be my favorite.

  6. My favourite poets are Luci Shaw and Les Murray (Australian).

  7. Jenny Joseph's "When I am old, I shall wear purple"

  8. I have a great fondness for Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth". Also, Yeats' "An Irish Airman Foresees His Death".

    I had a poem published once :D.

  9. I saw this book the other day and was intrigued. I have favorite poems rather than favorite poets. However, I like Emily Dickinson and Denise Levertov. I haven't read much of Kathleen Norris's poetry, but I really love her prose--Cloister Walk and Dakota.

  10. Anonymous7:07 AM

    Definitely Emily Dickinson. "I'll tell you how the sun rose, a ribbon at a time."


  11. Gah. If ever I needed a non-fic book, it would this one, now! :)

    Poets? I have to PICK? Yeats, Thoreau (even his prose was poetic, he counts!), Whitman, Dickinson to an extent, Shakespeare of course, Donne, Billy Collins is wonderful for a modern poet; I'd like to explore more 20th century poets and broader my sphere.

    I began my writing life as a poet when I was seven or so and it continued until I took a poetry course in college. I'd like to ressurect it.

  12. Wolverine7:21 AM

    I'm really not a poetry person; I like the idea, but I don't find many that speak to me and can keep me reading. One of the few people whose poems I do like (and remember!) is Holly Lisle. I don't know if she has them up still on her site anymore, but I read them years ago and still remember snippets of them. I may go and have a look again, because they're great.


  13. Keita Haruka7:36 AM

    Mmm. oddly enough, I write poetry (or, more accurately...lyrics) but I don't read them. It's weird. I love the challenge of writing within the constraints imposed by poetry, but reading it somehow always feels so...constrained. :P

    I know. I'm crazy.

    So I'll just toss my name in the hat since I don't have a favourite poet or poem. :P

  14. Ah, T.S. Eliot. "I grow old...I grow old... / I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled."

  15. You know I'm a sucker for poetry! And I believe that studying the craft of poetry and writing poetry will improve your prose. Sage Cohen's book is wonderful. Go Poetry!


  16. I first read Elizabeth Bishop's poem, "One Art", in high school and couldn't quite relate to it. Over the years I've grown to understand it and hold it dear.

  17. I love Mary Oliver and Nikki Giovanni.

  18. Emily Dickinson will always be my favorite. But I discovered Stanley Kunitz as a grad student and his work really moved me.


  19. W. H. Auden; and for no particular reason, other than the fact that I can find something in his work that I need, time and time again.

    ... although my childhood says, "The Arab's Farewell to his Horse" by Caroline Norton, wherein a man says goodbye to his horse... then turns around, throws the gold back, and rides off on her. :P

  20. TS Elliot's Book of Practical Cats has a place of honor on my shelf. And I'm so glad you discussed this book, because it sounds like something I need!

  21. Christina Rossetti

    And dreaming through the twilight
    That doth not rise nor set,
    Haply I may remember,
    And haply may forget.

  22. I like "There are Men Too Gentle to Live Among Wolves" by James Kavanaugh.

    The title says it all.

  23. Anonymous8:51 AM

    Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickenson.

    Erin K.

  24. There are so many W B Yeats, T S Elliot, Dylan Thomas, Nickki Giovanni and I could go on. My favorite poem is my Amy Lowell and is called "Patterns". It questions war. I first read it in high school during the Vietnam war and it still retains its impact. The last verse is:

    In Summer and in Winter I shall walk
    Up and down
    The patterned garden-paths
    In my stiff, brocaded gown.
    The squills and daffodils
    Will give place to pillared roses, and to asters, and to snow.
    I shall go
    Up and down,
    In my gown.
    Gorgeously arrayed,
    Boned and stayed.
    And the softness of my body will be guarded from embrace
    By each button, hook, and lace.
    For the man who should loose me is dead,
    Fighting with the Duke in Flanders,
    In a pattern called a war.
    Christ! What are patterns for?

  25. If by Rudyard Kipling.

  26. ooh, poetry. I'm going to go old school and say my favorite poem is "Dover Beach" by Matthew Arnold.

    "Ah, love, let us be true
    to one another, for the world which seems
    to lie before us like a land of dreams
    so various, so beautiful, so new,
    hath really neither love, nor joy, nor light,
    nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain,
    and we are here as on a darkling plain,
    swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
    where ignorant armies clash by night."

    sigh. I love me some Matthew Arnold.

  27. Anonymous9:42 AM

    One of my all time favorite poems is "For I will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey" (from "Jubilate Agno") by Christopher Smart -- cracks me up everytime I read it!

    Here's a link to it, if you need a good laugh:


  28. "Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
    And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings..."

    High Flight, always one of my favorites.

    And Robert Frost -- pretty much anything the man ever wrote.

    And, lest I forget:

    "My Name is Ozymandias, king of kings
    Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair."

    I think it's important not to overlook our modern songwriters -- some songs are drek (of course, so is some poetry), but some have as lyrics some pretty amazing poetry.

  29. e.e. cummings, "anyone lived in a pretty how town", For what it says about human nature.

  30. Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the sould, and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all. Dickinson.

  31. While Sandra Cisneros is known for her fiction, I love her poetry. Esp. the ones collected in "Loose Woman."

  32. Anonymous11:49 AM

    What a great post. I love Yeats, Auden and Robert Graves. Also love Audre Lorde -- The Black Unicorn is astounding.

    I haven't written poetry for years, but love to read it, especially when I can't sleep...

  33. My hands down favorite poet is Olga Broumas. Just about anything by her stops me in my tracks.

  34. "What Do Women Want?"
    by Kim Addonizio

    I want a red dress.
    I want it flimsy and cheap,
    I want it too tight, I want to wear it
    until someone tears it off me.
    I want it sleeveless and backless,
    this dress, so no one has to guess
    what’s underneath. I want to walk down
    the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
    with all those keys glittering in the window,
    past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
    donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
    slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
    hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.

  35. Good Girl
    by Kim Addonizio

    Look at you, sitting there being good.
    After two years you're still dying for a cigarette.
    And not drinking on weekdays, who thought that one up?
    Don't you want to run to the corner right now
    for a fifth of vodka and have it with cranberry juice
    and a nice lemon slice, wouldn't the backyard
    that you're so sick of staring out into
    look better then, the tidy yard your landlord tends
    day and night — the fence with its fresh coat of paint,
    the ash-free barbeque, the patio swept clean of small twigs —
    don't you want to mess it all up, to roll around
    like a dog in his flowerbeds? Aren't you a dog anyway,
    always groveling for love and begging to be petted?

  36. I actually have a non fict proposal being considered exactly about this topic, but for children. If we don't slow down and start to give ourselves time to be creative, we're going to lose the place where creativity answers pressing needs we have as a society. Kids are so overwhelmed with pressures that they are being medicated and commiting suicide over it. We need to let them out from it, and ourselves, too.

    And I LOVE poetry for speaking to me, and for making me a better writer. My favorite last month was Goblin Market by Christina Rosetti, but my favorite poem of all time is GK Chesterson's THE STRANGE MUSIC

    OTHER loves may sink and settle, other loves may loose and slack,
    But I wander like a minstrel with a harp upon his back,
    Though the harp be on my bosom, though I finger and I fret,
    Still, my hope is all before me : for I cannot play it yet.

    In your strings is hid a music that no hand hath e'er let fall,
    In your soul is sealed a pleasure that you have not known at all;
    Pleasure subtle as your spirit, strange and slender as your frame,
    Fiercer than the pain that folds you, softer than your sorrow's name.

    Not as mine, my soul's annointed, not as mine the rude and light
    Easy mirth of many faces, swaggering pride of song and fight;
    Something stranger, something sweeter, something waiting you afar,
    Secret as your stricken senses, magic as your sorrows are.

    But on this, God's harp supernal, stretched but to be stricken once,
    Hoary time is a beginner, Life a bungler, Death a dunce.
    But I will not fear to match them—no, by God, I will not fear,
    I will learn you, I will play you and the stars stand still to hear.

  37. I've always loved Rainer Maria Rilke's Duino Elegies.

  38. Poetry has always been a sort of alien language to me. I rarely enjoy it. However, I do love (nd I mean LOVE)Gypsy ballads (Romancero Gitano) by Federico García Lorca. Sor Juana Ines de La Cruz, a poetess from Mexican colonial age also has a few beautiful poems that I enjoy.

  39. Hi Lynn,

    What a thrill to learn that my book had so much value for you! It's especially rewarding to hear that the invitations within feel relevant to your entire writing life--not just poetry. I sure do appreciate you spreading the word!

    With gratitude,
    Sage Cohen

  40. Anonymous1:36 PM

    If I absolutely have to choose... Wilfred Owen's Dulce et Decorum Est would be my favorite.

    Although, I do love Robert Frost's Fire and Ice and Percy Bysshe Shelley's Ozymandias. But then if I listed every poem I absolutely adored we could be here all year.

  41. I've always enjoyed poetry, but rarely has any specific poet caught my eye. If I get this book, I'll give it to my husband - because he'd absolutely LOVE it (he does have a favorite poet.)

  42. Adele Dawn3:56 PM

    I always liked Shel Silverstein. :) Some things just carry over from childhood. T. S. Eliot and e.e. cummings are also faves.

  43. From the collection by Walt Whitman my favorite poem is Song of Myself. Thanks for this special giveaway.

  44. I'm a fan of the classics (blame those darn English classes) such as Robert Frost's "The Road Not Taken"

  45. I also LOVE this poem by Charles Bukowski which I thought you might like:

  46. Anonymous4:46 PM

    I like John Donne's "The Triple Fool". I'm sure every poet out there can relate to it.

  47. Anonymous7:06 PM

    So hard to pick only one poet or poem. Okay, out of loyalty, Stephen Dunn's "What". I love the ending-

    "what stops things for a moment
    are the words you've found for the last bit of light
    you think there is"

  48. The Little Boy and the Old Man by Shel Silverstein
    Said the little boy, "Sometimes I drop my spoon."
    Said the old man, "I do that too."
    The little boy whispered, "I wet my pants."
    "I do that too," laughed the little old man.
    Said the little boy, "I often cry."
    The old man nodded, "So do I."
    "But worst of all," said the boy, "it seems
    Grown-ups don't pay attention to me."
    And he felt the warmth of a wrinkled old hand.
    "I know what you mean," said the little old man.

    It was hard to narrow down but this one stuck with me from childhood. It is short but powerful.

  49. Anonymous8:54 PM

    Favorite poem is 'Ode to Intimations of Immortality' by Wordsworth.

    Though nothing can bring back the hour
    Of splendor in the grass
    Or Glory in the Flower
    We shall not grieve
    Rather find
    Strength in what remains behind.

  50. I don't know much about poetry. I only know what speaks to me. When I was very young my family moved us from the hills of eastern Kentucky to the big city - Columbus, OH. I cried for days and the only thing running around in my 9 year old head was a poem we had just learned in school - Robert Burns - My Heart's in the Highlands. It calmed me and help me remember my home - to this day I can recite every word and it still calms me. The opening lines always makes my heart beat faster.

  51. Anonymous10:55 PM

    My grandfather was my favorite poet. He wrote throughout his life and was published regularly in the local newspaper. He wrote about life, small and large, simple and yet wise and thoughful.
    Thanks for the reccomendation. I will seek this out.

  52. I would have written Emily Dickinson, but with so much of her fans out her, I would now mention the 3rd best (2nd best was W H Auden), Pablo Neruda

    Sample this:

    Tomorrow we will only give them
    a leaf of the tree of our love, a leaf
    which will fall on the earth
    like if it had been made by our lips
    like a kiss which falls
    from our invincible heights
    to show the fire and the tenderness
    of a true love.

  53. Looks like an intriguing book.

    One of my favorite poets is Walt Whitman. Just so soothing and melodic. I love his references to things found in nature.

  54. I love the ones Alison posted!

  55. "Shirt" by Robert Pinsky. Exquisitely powerful. I also a big fan of his Favorite Poem Project. I heard him speak on it several years ago and picked up the book. Some real gems in there.

  56. I have an English Lit degree but one of my favorite poems is:

    I do not eat green eggs and ham.
    I do not like them, Sam-I-am.

    Dr. Seuss!

  57. My favorite poet who is talented and creative is Leonard Cohen. He is the ultimate.

  58. Longing
    by Matthew Arnold

    Come to me in my dreams, and then
    By day I shall be well again.
    For then the night will more than pay
    The hopeless longing of the day.

    Come, as thou cam'st a thousand times,
    A messenger from radiant climes,
    And smile on thy new world, and be
    As kind to others as to me.

    Or, as thou never cam'st in sooth,
    Come now, and let me dream it truth.
    And part my hair, and kiss my brow,
    And say My love! why sufferest thou?

    Come to me in my dreams, and then
    By day I shall be well again.
    For then the night will more than pay
    The hopeless longing of the day.

    Another of my favorites. I love the hoplessness mingled with hope.

  59. I am a fan of Yeats, Sylvia Plath and Shel Silverstein...among others...

  60. Stanley Kunitz, "Single Vision"

    Before I am completely shriven
    I shall reject my inch of heaven

    Cancel my eyes and standing, sink,
    Into my deepest self; there drink

    Memory down. THe banner of
    My blood, unfurled, will not be love,

    Only the pity and the pride
    Of it, pinned to my open side.

    It's longer (this was just to give you a taste). I love his use of slant rhymes.

  61. I love certain poems by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Frost, Robert Burns, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Christina Rossetti and that poem by Joyce Kilmer that started this way, "I think that I shall never see, A poem lovely as a tree."

    I used to write poems too, when I was younger. But I've stopped for a long time now. Maybe I should try to write once again.