For the first time in my life…and this feels like a momentous shift in the tides of literature to me…I purchased a book of poetry for my Kindle. Having previously succumbed to the convenience and space-saving efficiency of Whispernet for novels and nonfiction, I still planned to always purchase the ACTUAL book when buying poetry. I revisit poems continuously and I feel like the visual of the words on an ACTUAL page that a tree had to die for enhances the experience of reading poetry. Plus I love the look of all those poets’ names stacked on my shelves. Makes me feel brainy, and unique, part of some kind of other-worldly club. Plus my poetry books are my friends. Poetry books are like pets–they always accept me unconditionally and welcome me into their little heterocosms and no litter box is ever involved. But yesterday, the cheapo, instant-gratification side of me won out. I recently discovered the poetry of Maurice Manning and yesterday the price of a Kindle version of his book “Common Man” was four dollars cheaper than a soft-back book of the same poems. That, and I knew if I I-clicked the Kindle version, the poems would be at my disposal in a matter of seconds. The jury is still out on reading poetry on the Kindle. I will probably love this book of poems so much that I will go back to amazon.com and purchase the book form so the entire transaction will end up costing me more money. I am conflicted.
This is a post for a friend of mine from back in the day who teaches junior high English in Oklahoma–home of my poetic soul. When you say the words “best friend,” she is still the first person who comes to mind, probably because she was my best friend at a time when adolescence-survival demanded that I have one. I haven’t seen her in many years, but she is still a “bestie.”
Thank goodness for the Internet as we are able to keep in touch. She and I have been sharing back and forth sometimes about the teaching of poetry. I am going to post from time to time some introductions to poets or certain poems which would be good fits for the junior high classroom.
Davis McCombs is an obvious choice. I am drawn again and again to his poetry because of the sense of place he creates in his work and the history he is able to capture. He is, in my opinion, the best younger, newer, fresh poetic face of our time, (whatever “our time” is in poetic terms).
Through words, McCombs builds not just pictures, I would say he paints haunted photographs, and the lyrical prowess of his work can be addictive, meaning, I return to his work again and again for the music of it.
Here is a link to two McComb’s poems. http://muse.jhu.edu/login?auth=0&type=summary&url=/journals/southern_cultures/v015/15.1.mccombs.html
I am most interested for classroom study in the poem “Lexicon” for my teacher-friend, Jess. In this poem McCombs reincarnates the technical language of the tobacco industry, but of course, a close reading will reveal so much about McComb’s technicality as a poet as well.
First things first, read the poem aloud. For several consecutive days, read the poem aloud. On day four or five or six or seven….approach with your students the lexicon of tobacco introduced in the poem. Have students write down the words in the poem which are unfamiliar and most of these words, of course, will be the technical words of the tobacco plant and the tobacco industry. Show them pictures of budworms, aphids and thrips. Other lexicon words in the poem: white burley, lugs, cutters, Paris Green, topping, side-dressing, setters, stripping rooms, pegs, float plants, tierpoles, blue mold, high color, sucker dope (my favorite), Black Patch, high boys, flue-cured, horn worms, buyouts.
I can see this poet as a little boy sitting on the counter at the feed store with his grandfather surrounded by the swirl of these words which meant life to the farmers and the families. I can see myself doing the same thing only the place was southern Oklahoma and the crops were different.
The next doorway into the poem is the lexicon of the poem itself which thrives mostly on verb tense. By using present progressive tense, McCombs creates a fluid action within the poem. The farmers performed this exact action in the past, in the present and through the future. Have your students read the first line in simple present tense…”the people talk…” Observe what is lost when the tense of the poem is changed.The exclusive use of participles to complete the present progressive tense also softens the poem and serves as a downy landing for the harsh vocabulary to impact the sound and lyric of the poem.
The final line of McComb’s poem turns the lexicon on its ear. This is what they are really saying, isn’t it? The previous lines in the poem are the specific sounds and words, the lexicon…what the poet heard, hears. The final line contains all the meaning, doesn’t it? The final line connotes what the poet hears that perhaps the other men in overalls did not, do not hear. This is the “why” of the poem. Great poems always contain a “why.”
After your students have sufficiently exhausted their tolerance for the reading and discussing of this poem (I never tire of it)…have them attempt to write a lexicon-poem of their own. Go to the grocery store and listen to the shoppers. Go to church. Listen to your family as you all eat dinner together. What are the teachers talking about in their break room? I wrote a lexicon-poem one time as an exercise in poetry workshop about poetry workshop. Each place, each experience carries its own jargon. Use those words to recreate the experience and the place.
You have to figure…if God created you, He probably wants you to be you! This is a great post from one of my favorite blogs about just that. Read on.
One of my poems has been published at http://burnsidewriters.com/2013/02/24/altar/.
I wrote this poem about 15 years ago and never thought this one would get published. It reflects where I was as a poet at that time in my life. The poem’s strengths are a clear conceptual direction and good use of specifics, but it is, in the end, too “prosey” for me. What rhyme there is is rather clunky.
That being said, it’s nice to see such an old poem find a good home. As writers, we need just enough success to keep us in the game.
As is evident in the poem, I have a love/hate relationship with the evangelical prayer room, and with the notion that salvation must be revisited again and again. What must be revisited is the astounding concept that we are saved, made perfect, continually held in the hand of God in our current state, even when we sin.
The poem attempts not to criticize too stealthily the prayer room, but to expand that image to include not only the Christian’s environment (i.e. manmade altar, prayer room, sanctuary, etc.) but also the human body as altar in and of itself with no need for other trappings.
As a Christian, I am not moving in and out of the Light–I am simply forgetting to realize the Light is always there.
The writer is first and foremost in relationship, just not with many of the current surrounding preoccupations. Sometimes relationships suffer because of this. The writer spends all morning in pajamas with unkept hair contemplating Thomas Merton as the “popular” crowd bounces by in the latest Athleta jogging pants on their way to some popular place. They are talking about dog parks and how Heaven is real. It’s impossible to keep up with buzz words and passing fancies and drive-through profoundness.
This sounds like snobbery. Oh it isn’t! I love Athleta and I have a closet full of yoga pants. After I write this post, I will head upstairs put on said jogging pants and do my hair so I can go out in public for a few hours of shopping or lunching or exercising. But the truth is, these last few months have been among the most clear in my life in terms of My Writing Life, and one truth which has pressed upon me and saddened me is that attaining my writing goals means I have to give up some of my relationships.
In the garden of my life, in order to keep the prize plants blooming best, I have to weed out the less integral seedlings. This is not a value judgement, just a reality. If a friendship drains me, I have to cut it. If I have invested many hours attending Bible studies and circles and committees and I have not seen relationships bloom, perhaps that is because I am not supposed to be there in the first place.
No more time for friends who don’t ever say anything intelligent or interesting to me even if it is because they doubt my intelligence while grossly misjudging their own. My guess is this happens to poets alot, and I include this post to make us all, as poets and writers, feel more “normal” about social mazes and ladders we cannot climb if we want to stay true to ourselves.
I don’t choose to forego the climb because I don’t know about Athleta. Or because I am not pretty. I am. Or because I can’t speed-read Francis Chan.
The diet of the writer must be carefully selected. The environment must be pared -down, immaculately constructed, and deliberately set. My relationships right now offer me much less noise, but much more beautiful sound. Keeping busy is treading water. This is flying.
Why is it so difficult for me to explain to the friends who know me best that I am a serious writer? I find it baffling, but I have also come to the realization that I have to take responsibility for the mistaken identity I must be projecting and thereby conning my best friends.
The above article is about learning to love yourself, and the fact that tomorrow is officially Love Day means it can’t hurt to post the link.
The article states that each of us carries a good deal of guilt about the parts of us that are the most gifted or special, and that guilt, which the psychologist emphasizes is universal and not dependent upon upbringing or childhood circumstances is responsible for why we disallow the vulnerability to share our true selves with others, and even with ourselves sometimes. Perhaps this helps explain the reactions of my friends when I tell them I have recently had some of my poetry published.
Friend #1 stopped sharing with me over coffee and gave the general impression that she thought I was writing about her. (She’s never come within a mile of my poetry and perhaps has never read a serious poem in her life). Then she proceeded to explain to me that anyone can get published on the Internet. Friend #2 asked me if I had penned a poem about the birth of my grandson. I almost replied No, I am not Sharon Olds ( I would become a confessional poet in a heartbeat if I could write like Sharon Olds), but then I realized this friend would have no idea who Sharon Olds is.
I have to give these friends a break. It is poetry we are talking about. I believe I am better at writing poetry than talking about it. My writing makes a better impression than I probably do. I don’t want to hide my true self and my gifts from those who matter the most to me anymore. Someday I hope that under “occupation” I can actually write “poet” and mean it without flinching or feeling the imposter.
I knew this would happen. I found out recently that I have been accepted into my top-choice MFA program at Ashland University and I suddenly feel like the master of the simple sentence. All the little critics in my head are harping their responses to my exciting news.
What do you think you are doing? You aren’t good enough. You don’t have any thing to say or a voice to say it with!
Luckily, I have some time to regroup and get my confidence back before the summer residency in July. I know that I am writing too much, revising too little, and reading much too little. So this week I am starting a reading regimen (after I get through the Grisham book for my book club this week…a girl’s got to have some fun) which will include reading a book of poems by one poet each week. I will probably start by re-reading some of the chapbooks I already own. I want to focus heavily on Native American poets–Sherman Alexie, Ai, Joy Harjo, Natasha Tretheway, and others.
I will start, of course, with Seamus Heaney (poetry god). I plan to jot down some thoughts while reading with the particular task of determining for myself how each poet achieves the living thing he or she creates upon the page.
Nothing shuts up the Little Critics like a dose of Heaney. His poetry is unattainable, but it is so beautiful, so gripping, that it gives me cause to participate in the art in whatever meaningful way that I can.
Heaney and Yeats, the two greats in my opinion who tower above all other poets, have a way of turning a poem on a single line. I will post some of those lines as I read them this week. What about you? Which poets have you discovered or re-discovered this week?
Yesterday, I endured the tedium of going through the collection of poems on my hard drive (for many of these poems the DELETE button would be a mercy-killing but I can’t help but hope for them). I selected four poems to submit to a new online literary journal which is affiliated with my former graduate school.
Speaking of graduate school….today I am going to click the appropriate boxes and accept an offer from Ashland University, Ashland, Ohio, to enter the MFA Poetry program this summer.
I look forward to connecting with other poets at the two-week residency and to working toward the goal of a masters degree. Most of all, I look forward to growth and improvement as a writer.
No man is an island. John Donne was right. No writer is an island either. To publish a manuscript of poems will require hours each day of solitude, but let’s face it, when we writers are with our non-writer friends, we are always reaching out to them from our islands, our writer-worlds. We need a community of other writers, other “weirdo’s,” to affirm that we are indeed doing what we are supposed to do with our time and our lives.
Besides, revision not only loves company, it must have company, a community to tell us our word-choice is suspect, our crafting of the poetic line is mish-mash, our concept is limping along on too many crutches.
Let the critiques begin!
Balance, order, rhythm and harmony are much more difficult to achieve than intensity.
There is a subtle difference between tapping into the rhythms of life, biologically and spiritually, and setting an external schedule that one must adhere to. The life of the writer must involve both. For example, if I wait for my internal sense of timing to tell me to do the laundry it will never get done. My inner rhythm NEVER tells me that! Conversely, if I only follow an externally-imposed to-do list, I will soon feel depleted and poetry in my life will never happen.
I don’t make daily to-do lists anymore. I keep a running list of tasks that need to get completed and I try to tackle one or two of those each day. I do a number of “jobs” on a daily basis that don’t require a written reminder. I know I will grocery shop every day. I know I will retrieve my son from school and make myself available to hear about his day. I know I will eat every day and cook most days. I will get some form of exercise. I do household chores every day.
The rest of my day must tap into that inner flow of being. This is where writing happens. It may feel lazy at first, but the writer must ask herself, do I want to accomplish perfectly-made beds today or a piece of original writing? Household order is essential to me, but it must serve as a means to the end, not as an end in itself.
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I have the most adorable reason for not working on my writing all this week! My first grandson was born a few days ago so life as we know it has been temporarily suspended. I am cleaning and cooking and have to get my house ready for my daughters’ return this weekend. They are so excited to meet Baby A. I would post pictures (I would love to show my grandbaby off!) but my son is an extremely private guy and not a fan of social media so I must honor his wishes and keep Baby A’s pictures to myself. Trust me…he’s beautiful!
Writing and real life are sometimes like a bad blind date, aren’t they? But babies are the ultimate poetry. I love it when I return home from an hour of holding my grandson and find that I still have that baby smell on my sleeve. More relevent posts forthcoming after a brief hiatus to Babyland.
****I should add that I did get some writing done this morning. Two “litanies” for my collection. These poems have been sent off as samples to a book publisher. I am anxiously awaiting a response to this book proposal and attempting to write a few litanies each week.