Friday, February 25, 2011

A Poet to Know: Linda Pastan

Every so often as a reader, I come across a new poet that I know I should know already. They're just too good for me not to have read before. But, alas, it happens. Often.

One such poet is Linda Pastan. Her poem "The Bookstall" was one of the first I read in the anthology Poetry After Lunch edited by Joyce A. Carroll. I love it for its similes (a poetry move that I definitely need to write about in the future)...

Just looking at them
I grow, greedy, as if they were
freshly baked loaves
waiting on their shelves
to be broken open--that one
and that--and I make my choice
in a mood of exalted luck,
browsing among them
like a cow in the sweetest pasture.

(I couldn't find this poem reprinted anywhere with permission except in the Amazon "Look Inside" feature for this book. So you'll have find the rest there if you'd like to read it.)

Also featuring some great comparisons is the poem "A New Poet," which in addition to being brilliant is also perfectly suited to this particular post:

Finding a new poet
is like finding a new wildflower
out in the woods. You don't see

its name in the flower books and
nobody you tell believes
in its odd color or the way

its leaves grow in splayed rows
down the whole length of the page. In fact
the very page smells of spilled

red wine and the mustiness of the sea
on a foggy day - the odor of truth
and of lying.

Read the rest here.

In addition to wonderful similes and metaphors, I find Pastan's poems to have vivid imagery. She paints a picture with each one. Her word choice appeals to me, too. Each poem seems to be exquisitely and painstakingly crafted. You can tell that she has poured her soul into each and every one.

Why Are Your Poems So Dark?

Isn't the moon dark too,   
most of the time?   

And doesn't the white page   
seem unfinished   

without the dark stain   
of alphabets?   

When God demanded light,   
he didn't banish darkness.   

Instead he invented   
ebony and crows   

and that small mole   
on your left cheekbone.   

Read the conclusion of "Why Are Your Poems So Dark?" here.

If you want to explore more of Pastan's poems, I recommend her page at the Poetry Foundation, which features many of her best works. Garrison Keilor obviously likes her, too, because she's been featured countless times at the Writer's Almanac. You will also definitely enjoy this post on How a Poem Happens about another excellent poem of hers "Rereading Frost."

Linda Pastan is definitely a poet to know and follow. If she's new to you, I hope you enjoy her as much as I do (and remember this post when she becomes Poet Laureate someday). If you're a previous fan, you have great taste.

Please check out this week's Poetry Friday roundup, hosted at Read Write Believe. And be sure to check back next Friday when Poetry Friday will be hosted here at The Small Nouns!

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Poetry in Prose: Memory Wall

I am just about finished with Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr. It's his second collection of stories and I am mentioning it here on my poetry blog, and highly recommending it, because it reads like a book of poetry. 

When I think of poetry, I think of pieces where every word is chosen deliberately, with great precision. Every word matters in a poem. Changing just one of them--taking one away or adding one more--changes the entire thing. The words of a poem fit together perfectly and they work together to make you think and feel things you didn't know you could.

This is exactly the case in Memory Wall. These stories are exquisite in every way. Doerr needs to win every award possible for this collection. It's not very often that I read fiction and find it so moving, so beautifully created that it reminds me of poetry. Really good poetry. But that, my friends, is the case here.

Please check this book out and you'll see what I mean. I also recommend The Shell Collector, Doerr's first collection of stories, which I'll be re-reading very soon. Let me know what you think.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

New to Me Wednesday: David Lee

I'm going to challenge myself to write about a new poet every week. I'll start with David Lee, whose "Psalm of Home Redux" was just delivered to my gmail inbox. (Thanks!)

Mr. Lee writes a lot about the nature and many of his poems are set in the West. What's not to like? On top of that, his poems have a voice that just seems to speak to me. And I'm not sure if I can describe it any better than that. Much of what I've read so far could qualify as "narrative" poetry (sometimes complete with characters and dialogue), and I like the stories they tell. Oh, and Lee isn't afraid to use profanity in his poems and "Poems with Cussin'" is on my list of things I think are awesome but I'm afraid to admit. Right up there with the new Lean Cuisine spring rolls, Mini Coopers, Dr. Dre's 1992 album "The Chronic," and watching curling on TV.

Or maybe it's just good timing. I've been thinking a lot about moving lately. Asking myself complicated questions like do I really want to live in this run down town anymore and what if in 30 years I regret never having lived anywhere else. His poems speak to this part of me and seem to call me West. Okay, maybe I overshot with "call me," but they definitely paint a very vivid picture in my mind of a gorgeously desolate landscape.

Or maybe because he has this pretty awesome line in his Poetry Foundation bio:

Lee has been a boxer, pig farmer, seminary student, cotton mill worker, and the only white baseball player for a Negro League team.

As for a poem, take a look at a selection of the aforementioned "Psalm"...
Psalm of Home Redux
by David Lee

        after rereading Cormac McCarthy and taking
             a 5 mile run through the River Ranch

                    Laughter is also a form of prayer

Okay then, right here,
Lord, in Bandera,
tether me to my shadow
like a fat spavined mule
stuck sideways in Texas tank mud
bawling for eternity

At midnight's closing whine
of the 11th Street Bar's steel guitar,
when the stars slip their traces
and race the moon like wild horses
to their death in the darkness,
let my hoarse song twine with the night wind

Read the rest of it here. The sounds and the little bit of wordplay is a home run, I think.

Hopefully you'll find time to explore David Lee's poetry. "Parowan Canyon" is another home run or try "The Farm" or the prose poem "Loading a Boar." There's not a ton more of it online, but he's written several books that you might be able to get your hands on.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Poetry Mix Tape: Poems on The End of the World

I like a little music in the morning on the way to work. But it has to be a certain kind of music. Nothing light. Nothing sappy. In the morning, I like my music up-tempo. And I like to play it loud. Is it weird to admit that I use music to pump me up some mornings as I drive to work? Too late now to take it back, I suppose. (I'll leave off the confession that I also like to sing along. At the top of my lungs.)

One song I often turn to for a little waking up is called "How Far We've Come" by Matchbox 20. It's up-tempo. It's loud. It's singable. And it's about the end of the world.

Where exactly am I going with this? Well there seems to be a small sub-genre of poetry that I enjoy--poems about the end of the world. Not sure why I enjoy these poems. I'm sure a psycho-analyst would have a field day with that one. But that's not why I'm here. I'm here to share some good "End of the World" poems with you. Now, I have to admit, there aren't many that I can find, but here are the ones I enjoy.

My favorite has to be this one, by Stanley Kunitz...


Miss Murphy in first grade
wrote its name in chalk
across the board and told us
it was roaring down the stormtracks
of the Milky Way at frightful speed
and if it wandered off its course
and smashed into the earth
there’d be no school tomorrow.
A red-bearded preacher from the hills
with a wild look in his eyes
stood in the public square
at the playground’s edge
proclaiming he was sent by God
to save every one of us,
even the little children.
“Repent, ye sinners!” he shouted,
waving his hand-lettered sign.
At supper I felt sad to think
that it was probably
the last meal I’d share
with my mother and my sisters;
but I felt excited too
and scarcely touched my plate.
So mother scolded me
and sent me early to my room.

Read the rest of this poem here. As with so many end of the world poems, it's the ending that seals it.

Even though there aren't a ton of this type of poem out there, here are some more you might enjoy...well maybe poems about the end of the world aren't "enjoyable" per se, but you know what I mean:

Maybe there are some more out there that I'm missing. Please let me know. And enjoy the mix.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Poetry Classics: Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening

Once again this winter, here in Michigan we are buried under snow. During the past seven days, almost all of the 12 or so inches on the ground melted away. But apparently winter isn't over yet because Sunday night we were pounded with about another foot.

"Watching it Snow at Night" is right up there with "Mountains on the Horizon" and "Waterfalls" and "Sunsets" and "The Sound of the Ocean" on my "Things in Nature I Love" list. And whenever I take a moment to watch or, even better, stand outside in, the falling flakes in the nighttime, my mind often turns to one of my favorite poems, "Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening."

I think I first heard this poem as an elementary school student. Naturally, I was drawn to its near perfect meter and its exquisite rhyme scheme. I return to it often in my teaching and somehow it always comes to mind when there's an evening snowfall. It's ingrained in my memory, for sure. I'd also guess it's one of the most widely known poems in American history. And for good reason. There are some poems that truly will live on forever. And this has to be one of them...

Whose woods these are I think I know.   
His house is in the village though;   
He will not see me stopping here   
To watch his woods fill up with snow.   

My little horse must think it queer   
To stop without a farmhouse near   
Between the woods and frozen lake   
The darkest evening of the year.   

He gives his harness bells a shake   
To ask if there is some mistake.   
The only other sound’s the sweep   
Of easy wind and downy flake.   

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.   
But I have promises to keep,   
And miles to go before I sleep,   
And miles to go before I sleep.

I think the opening image of the speaker trespassing in the woods is a great one. But it's the last stanza that gets me. That intentional repetition reinforcing the remaining journey leaves a lasting impression and probably resonates with anyone who has ever walked the earth.

You might enjoy the version of this poem illustrated by Susan Jeffers:

It's one of the books in my collection that I treasure the most.

So wherever you are, and however many feet of snow you are buried beneath, I hope you enjoyed a few moments with this classic poem.

Poetry Idol: The Genius of Ted Kooser

If you've followed The Small Nouns awhile, you've undoubtedly noticed that I have a handful of poets that I write about quite often. I think the leaders would have to be Naomi Shihab Nye and W.S. Merwin. I think I'll start a new series that, until I think of a better name, I'll call "Poetry Idol."

Today it's time to show some love to Ted Kooser, a brilliant poet and former poet laureate of the United States.

Mr. Kooser has been writing great poems for decades. And among the living American poetry greats, he, along with Billy Collins, have to be considered one of the most accessible poets publishing today. His poems make sense to normal people like you and me. But more than that, they resonate.

But Kooser isn't just writing poems. He's also written an amazing book about writing poetry, The Poetry Home Repair Manual.

It, too, is quite accessible and incredibly helpful for aspiring poets. And not only did I enjoy reading about how Kooser thinks about writing, but he also includes some amazing poems that he and others have written that I hadn't read before.

And then there's his website, American Life in Poetry. It's an ongoing anthology of contemporary American poetry. Each week, Kooser features a poem that you've probably never read. And each week, he hits a home run. I've never read a poem on this site that I didn't enjoy.

But wait, there's more. I haven't even shown you any of his poems yet. Here's what has to be one of my all-time favorites...

After Years

Ted Kooser

Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant

Please read the rest here. It's glorious, isn't it?

I guess I'm technically a Midwesterner, but Ted's neck of the woods, Nebraska is way more Midwest than here. If there's a poet out there who captures the essence of the Midwest better than him, I don't know who it is...

So This Is Nebraska

The gravel road rides with a slow gallop   
over the fields, the telephone lines   
streaming behind, its billow of dust   
full of the sparks of redwing blackbirds.

On either side, those dear old ladies,
the loosening barns, their little windows   
dulled by cataracts of hay and cobwebs   
hide broken tractors under their skirts.

So this is Nebraska. A Sunday   
afternoon; July. Driving along
with your hand out squeezing the air,   
a meadowlark waiting on every post.

Read the rest here.

And if you like these, you'll definitely like each and every poem by Kooser featured at Garrison Keilor's The Writer's Almanac. If you only have time for one of them, choose "For You, Friend." It's a week late but keep it bookmarked for next Valentine's Day. And if you only have time for a second, try the incomparable "A Spiral Notebook." Or maybe "Tracks," another good Valentine poem. So tough to decide with a genius like Ted Kooser.

Hope you enjoyed the first ever "Poetry Idol," Ted Kooser. Come back next week for another of my favorites!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

I Heart Poetry Anthologies

It's snowing again. I think five inches have fallen in the last five hours and there's no sign of it slowing. Nights like this, it's kind of nice to be stuck inside with a nice book of poetry to read, don't you think?

I love poetry books. I like collecting big volumes of my favorite poets' collected works: Kunitz, Cummings, etc. I like reading poets' individual books, too--Merwin, Alexie, and Adonnizio are a few I've read recently.

But for some reason, the poetry books I truly adore are anthologies. Like a mix tape on poetry steroids, a good anthology can keep my attention for weeks or more. And it's anthologies I always return to when seeking new poems and poets to read.

I love their diversity--the intermingling of poetic styles, the combination of poets both lauded and unknown--and yet, when they're done right, the anthology flows seamlessly from one poem to the next. And then there's the fact that you can just dive right in, open it to any one page and maybe discover a new favorite or rediscover a poem near and dear to your heart. Yes, anthologies are the cat's pajamas but unlike feline sleepwear, I think I'll never own enough of them.

Oh, I almost forgot one of the best features of some anthologies--introductions! I get a kick out of reading the anthologist's thoughts about poetry and about how they put their collection together. If you read past the obligatory "There were so many good poems that I couldn't include..." you usually get some insight into the method behind their choices.

Wow, I almost forgot another wonderful feature of many anthologies--appendices! I love it when you get to read a little blurb about the poets included in the book. And it's even better when, as in the Best American Poetry series, the poet's own thoughts are included, letting the reader in to the mystical minds of the writers themselves.

Here's one example of an anthology I came across recently, The Poets Laureate Anthology edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt:

It includes poems from every poet laureate of the United States. Ever. As well as short biographical pieces about each one. I learned a lot from this book. I did not know, for example, that William Carlos Williams and Gwendolyn Brooks were each nominated to this position (which at that time was called "Poetry Consultant"--although Williams never actually served!). Good stuff.

Here's "Abandoned Farmhouse" by one of my favorite laureates, Ted Kooser:

He was a big man, says the size of his shoes
on a pile of broken dishes by the house;
a tall man too, says the length of the bed
in an upstairs room; and a good, God-fearing man,
says the Bible with a broken back
on the floor below the window, dusty with sun;
but not a man for farming, say the fields
cluttered with boulders and the leaky barn.

A woman lived with him, says the bedroom wall
papered with lilacs and the kitchen shelves
covered with oilcloth, and they had a child,
says the sandbox made from a tractor tire.
Money was scarce, say the jars of plum preserves
and canned tomatoes sealed in the cellar hole.
And the winters cold, say the rags in the window frames.
It was lonely here, says the narrow country road.

Something went wrong, says the empty house
in the weed-choked yard.

Read the rest here.

One of my other favorite anthologies is edited by Naomi Shihab Nye and is called This Same Sky.

It features poems from around the world and is a must have, especially for teachers. Take for example, "I Hide Behind the Simple Things" by the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos. Here's the first stanza...

I hide behind the simple things so you'll find me,
if you don't find me, you'll find the things,
you'll touch what my hand has touched,
our hand-prints will merge.

Read the rest via Google Books.

I could go on and on, I suppose. And still I don't think I've truly captured what it is that I love about poetry anthologies and why I prefer them. Maybe something to explore in the future. If you have a favorite anthology, please share it with us in the comments!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Poetry Presentation Countdown

There's a little less than a month left until my 75-minute presentation at the Michigan Reading Association's annual conference. My objective: share with other teachers the ways I teach children to read and write poetry. I want people that come to my session to leave with poems, ideas, and inspiration to use more poetry in their classrooms. That and getting more people to subscribe to this lovely blog!

There's only one problem...I've been assigned probably the worst possible time in the history of conferences...or maybe in the history of time itself. 8:00 a.m. On Sunday morning. And this particular Sunday happens to fall on the first day of Daylight Savings Time. So it will feel like 7:00 a.m. I may be speaking to an empty room. Oh well.

I'll be sharing my handouts and notes here on the blog, so stay tuned. Or, better yet, if you happen to be in Grand Rapids on March 13...and you're a morning person...stop by the Amway Center!

Monday, February 14, 2011

Best Valentine Poem Ever

Super special shout-out to Leah of Chopping Broccoli for being the one to introduce me to this poem...

Okay, my feelings about love poems have been documented and maybe I've evolved a bit since I first wrote about them. I like subtle love poems, not the ones that are so mushy that you want to puke. So it being Valentine's Day today (a farce of a holiday if ever there was one), I thought I'd share the greatest Valentine poem ever.

It's not really about love. And it's barely about Valentine's Day. It's actually more about poetry than anything. However, you look at it, though, it's brilliant. Enjoy...

Valentine for Ernest Mann

By Naomi Shihab Nye

You can't order a poem like you order a taco.
Walk up to the counter, say, "I'll take two"
and expect it to be handed back to you
on a shiny plate.

Still, I like your spirit.
Anyone who says, "Here's my address,
write me a poem," deserves something in reply.
So I'll tell you a secret instead:
poems hide. In the bottoms of our shoes,
they are sleeping. They are the shadows
drifting across our ceilings the moment
before we wake up. What we have to do
is live in a way that lets us find them.

Once I knew a man who gave his wife
two skunks for a valentine.
He couldn't understand why she was crying.
"I thought they had such beautiful eyes."
And he was serious. He was a serious man
who lived in a serious way. Nothing was ugly
just because the world said so. He really
liked those skunks. So, he reinvented them
as valentines and they became beautiful.

Read the rest here. I really like the ending. And the first line. And the idea of poems hiding. And the whole idea that in the process of deriding this person for asking her to write him a poem, Nye has...written him a poem. AND the wordplay of the title is perfect, too, don't you think? Happy Valentine's Day.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Poetry Book Review: Face by Sherman Alexie

Sometimes you get the hiatus, sometimes the hiatus gets you. I hadn't intended to take such a long break from blogging, but life kept getting in the way. I have found some time to read some really good books, though. Like Face by Sherman Alexie.

Alexie has written some high quality short stories and novels, but I find his poems to be just as good. Face is Alexie at his best...humorous, insightful, and creative. And the topics are incredibly wide-ranging--from children to memory to marriage to life on the reservation and more.

In some of the best poems, he combines poetry and prose, almost interrupting himself, like he does in a poem called "Inappropriate."

A lot of the poems fall under the "narrative" category, like "Missed Connections," a poem about mishearing a sentence during an airplane ride. Alexie tells stories just as well in poems as he does in his novels.

I leave you with a poem about fatherhood, "How to Create an Agnostic," which is one of my favorites from the book.

How To Create an Agnostic

Singing with my son,
I clapped my hands
Just as lightning struck.
It was dumb luck.
But my son, awed, thought
I’d created the electricity.
He asked, “Dad, how'd you do that?”
Before I could answer,
thunder shook the house
And set off neighborhood car alarms.
“Dad,” he said. “Can you burn
down that tree outside my window?
The one that looks like a giant owl?”
O, my little disciple, my one boy choir,
I can’t do that
because your father,
your half-assed messiah,
is afraid of fire.
© 2008 Sherman Alexie