Shaped Poetry

I wouldn’t call myself a poet, but I do write poetry and do pursue publication of my poems. One weakness I have for poetry is shaped poetry. I’ve tried my hand at it many times, but outside of one shaped poem I’ve completed, I haven’t really fell in love with any of my shaped poems.

John Hollander, a well known American poet, makes some fascinating shaped poetry. For example, his cat poetry:

I want to pet his words.

Reading Poetry Out Loud

Poetry is a unique literary form. Unlike novels and short stories, poetry is meant to be read out loud. And, unlike a play or a script, poetry is not supposed to be performed. Poetry lies between silent reading and the stage. Earlier in the blog, I talked about the difference between a poem on the page and a poem out loud, and I stand by the assessment that poetry needs to be read out loud, but furthermore, for poetry to be understood it must also be read out loud and played with.

While the words of a poem on a page don’t change, the intonation, inflection, pauses, breaths, pace, and reader can have a vast effect on the received meaning of a poem. Often enough, what people remember when it comes to a poem is the inflection of the speaker rather than the words and phrases of a poem. When a poem is read in a romantic way, it is received as a romantic poem and, likewise, when a poem is read in a sorrowful way it is received as a sorrowful poem. Take, for example, this poem by W.B. Yeats titled When You Are Old:

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

Let It Frost

I live in Southern California, so I don’t really get to see snow very often. But I can read a lot of Frost, as in Robert Frost, and so can you. Here are a few of my favorite Frost poems to read by the fireplace with a mug of hot chocolate. Also, here’s a gif of a fireplace. You’re welcome.

Don’t forget some marshmallows!

Dust of Snow

The way a crow
Shook down on me
The dust of snow
From a hemlock tree

Has given my heart
A change of mood
And saved some part
Of a day I had rued.

A Winter Eden

A winter Eden in an alder swamp
Where conies now come out to sun and romp,
As near a paradise as it can be
And not melt snow or start a dormant tree.

It lifts existence on a plane of snow
One level higher than the earth below,
One level nearer heaven overhead
And last year’s berries shining scarlet red.

It lifts a gaunt luxuriating beast
Where he can stretch and hold his highest feast
On some wild apple tree’s young tender bark,
What well may prove the years’ high girdle mark.

Pairing in all known paradises ends:
Here loveless birds now flock as winter friends,
Content with bud inspecting. They presume
To say which buds are leaf and which are bloom.

A feather hammer gives a double knock.
This Eden day is done at two o’clock.
An hour of winter day might seem too short
To make it worth life’s while to wake and sport.

Carpe Diem

Melanie and I are swamped. We’re both ambitious people with gargantuan future goals. Right now we’re busy living each day to its fullest, and by that, I mean using every spare moment of our time to work on grad school stuff. While Melanie is in her home stretch and finishing her publishing coursework, I’m finishing up my undergraduate degree and applying to literature doctoral programs.

In the spirit of seizing the day and making the most of one’s time, I wish to share with you some of my favorite carpe diem poems, or poems about making the most of time.

Here’s a quote from every poet’s favorite movie to set the tone for these carpe diem poems.

First Fig by Edna St. Vincent Millay

My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends—
It gives a lovely light!

Be Drunk by Charles Baudelaire

You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk.

But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish. But be drunk.

And if sometimes, on the steps of a palace or the green grass of a ditch, in the mournful solitude of your room, you wake again, drunkenness already diminishing or gone, ask the wind, the wave, the star, the bird, the clock, everything that is flying, everything that is groaning, everything that is rolling, everything that is singing, everything that is speaking. . .ask what time it is and wind, wave, star, bird, clock will answer you: “It is time to be drunk! So as not to be the martyred slaves of time, be drunk, be continually drunk! On wine, on poetry or on virtue as you wish.”

Dreams by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Twelfth Night, Act II, Scene III by William Shakespeare

The Clown, singing:
O Mistress mine, where are you roaming?
O stay and hear! your true-love’s coming
That can sing both high and low;
Trip no further, pretty sweeting,
Journeys end in lovers’ meeting—
Every wise man’s son doth know.

What is love? ’tis not hereafter;
Present mirth hath present laughter;
What’s to come is still unsure:
In delay there lies no plenty,—
Then come kiss me, Sweet-and-twenty,
Youth’s a stuff will not endure.

Some Poetry to Inspire Voting

While I am an English major and I adore literature, I am also a political science minor, civically engaged, and a supporter of social justice.

Voting is important, especially in mid-term elections. For some reason, people forget that local government is the form of government that has the most immediate control over their lives. The presidential elections tend to draw the biggest crowds but it’s at the local level that a lot of federal policies and actions are carried out.

Local ballot measures, judges, state representatives – I don’t care which way you vote on these, just get out there and vote. If you feel that you’re ill informed to make a decision based off of a lack of information, you can either do a little bit of research using your smart phone before you enter the voting booth, or you can always skip voting for a portion of the ballot. But getting your voice out there on the issues you are aware of and the people you do support is vital to the democratic process.

Just to throw some numbers at you now, political decisions effect 100% of the population, yet less than 50% of the population during midterm elections gets out there to choose who is in office to make these political decisions that effect ALL of us.

With that disclaimer out of the way and my advocacy expressed, I can now share some political poetry to help inspire you to get out there and vote!

Maya Angelou
Excerpt from On the Pulse of Morning

A Rock, A River, A Tree
Hosts to species long since departed,
Marked the mastodon,
The dinosaur, who left dried tokens
Of their sojourn here
On our planet floor,
Any broad alarm of their hastening doom
Is lost in the gloom of dust and ages.

But today, the Rock cries out to us, clearly, forcefully,
Come, you may stand upon my
Back and face your distant destiny,
But seek no haven in my shadow,
I will give you no hiding place down here.

You, created only a little lower than
The angels, have crouched too long in
The bruising darkness
Have lain too long
Facedown in ignorance,
Your mouths spilling words
Armed for slaughter.

The Rock cries out to us today,
You may stand upon me,
But do not hide your face.

What Makes The Epic Epic

We’ve all called something epic – it’s now associated with awesome, big, spectacular – but, as a literary term, the epic means something very specific. Homer’s Iliad and The Odyssey, the unknown author’s Beowulf, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself aren’t epics because they’re long pieces of poetry, but rather, because they all share a very specific elements which puts them into the epic category.

The movie Epic and epic poetry have nothing in common, I’m sorry to say.

First, epic poems open with what’s called a in medias res, Latin for “in the midst of things.” Beowulf opens with a kingdom in need of a Grendel extermination. The reader doesn’t start with the birth of Beowulf, but rather we start with a scene ripe for action.

The setting of epics are vast. Think the exact opposite of The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which mostly takes place in one room. Epics are epic in part because of the vastness of their settings. The Odyssey spans oceans and continents, for example.

Almost all epics call to a muse to set the tone of the piece of poetry to come.

No, not those muses (I knew your brain would go there). The muses were not five gospel singers – and that’s the gospel truth.

Trace in the Mind: The Quiet by Anne-Marie Turza


In her debut collection, British Columbian poet Anne-Marie Turza uses specialized narrative and metaphor to explore the nature of silence. Often, this does not refer to literal soundlessness, but to an awareness about distinct facets of being, some beyond our experience. Say, for example, the subjective truth about a stone cricket, or the physics of a pitch thrown by Satchel Paige. Throughout the poems, the subject eludes the grasp, unable to be defined, but the author persistently grapples with its dimensions:

One says: it was smaller then. And one: it was larger, so
large, its sound was elsewhere. And one: as in measure-
ments. Counting the charged particles. One says: it’s close
and scalpiform. And one: it slips from everything, in all
directions. (13)

A hybrid of poetry and prose, Turza’s lines evoke fabulist Italo Calvino, especially in their inquiry into unrealized worlds. Her syntax is defined more by considered language than meter, her enjambed lines brusquely leading the reader to poetic resolution. Set off by wide margins and the blank page, the text occupies negative space, each poem’s meditation a contrast against its undefined surroundings. In poems like “Barren”, the speaker approaches silence through negation, calling to mind Kant’s noumenon (“thing as it is in itself”):

Nowhere in the real will I divine you.
Not in the shards of stones. Not in the shade of stones.

Neither in the blue tint of the stones’ shade.
Noplace in the air. Your eye. Tell me: what’s caught

your eye? Not the fern, now uncurling, sporing
its split leaves. Where then is your attention held?

I’m barren and I am your mother. Discarnate child,

yours is the stark eye that can’t be born.
The naughting eye: and nothing after (57).

The absence of the speaker’s child is felt as she observes the phenomenal world, alone. Her unborn child “observes” its mother’s experience, its disembodied eye nihilates “the real”. Life for the speaker is meaningless. Paradoxically, the absent child has a presence in this poem; unable to be “divined” with the senses, it exists beyond the edges of comprehension, of language, in an unrealized space. The child permeates and surrounds the phenomenal world, like the whiteness around the text.

Elsewhere in the collection, Turza invites the reader to abandon human subjective experience:

—And its sound?
—As in the toothed whale. There is a buried hearing organ.

—And its sound?
—It enters the immersed body firstmost through the throat.

A hallmark of the collection, the query-response format suggests a disciple/teacher relationship. The teacher mediates the subject through metaphor, using abstraction to map out uncharted territory the same way a whale might navigate its surroundings. In this poem, the texture and reverberation of sound becomes visceral, we feel it enter “through the throat.” Turza’s voice in the collection operates much the same way, attempting to orient the reader in a foreign context.

In The Quiet, Turza asks the reader to transgress the boundaries of the known. We enter a state of silence, of willful imagination and unrealized possibility, to contact what lies beneath. It is a world of degrees. Her treatment is at times private, intensely focused, and at others, cosmic. The collection is a pleasure to read and an inspiring inquiry into the nature of being.

Anne-Marie Turza is thirty-four and lives in British Columbia. She has an MFA from the Writing Department at the University of Victoria. Her poetry has appeared in several literary magazines including Arc Poetry Magazine and The Mahalat Review, and the anthology The Best Canadian Poetry in English 2010.

Poetry In The Age of Instagram

I follow a lot of writers—whether that be on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr (John Green, anyone?), or Instagram. But Cheryl Strayed doesn’t post sneak peeks of her manuscripts. No, she posts photos of her with Reece Witherspoon and Laura Dern, who apparently are now her best friends after starring in the film adaptation of her memoir, Wild:

We wear our sunglasses at night. #wildmovie #tff41

A post shared by Cheryl Strayed (@cherylstrayed) on


I mean, come on. They’re even rocking sunglasses. I think it’s safe to say Cheryl’s living the dream.

It’s harder to share passages of prose on a platform like Instagram. And when authors do release excerpts, it’s generally in a magazine—online or in print. Poets have an advantage on Instagram. For published writers to those less established, Instagram—and features of the digital age, like hashtags for one—gives savvy poets the ability to reach a huge pool of readers from all over the world.

The significance of this is that writers who plan on continuing the craft for years—those who know that they may one day seek to publish a collection of poems or even a novel—can begin developing a following early on in their careers before they ever have a single piece in print. This completely upturns the typical way that the industry works, where publishers act as “gatekeepers.”

There are plenty of ways to approach creating an Instagram for your poetry. As you’ll see from some of the poets whose accounts I’ve included below, some writers choose to separate their personal and professional accounts. This makes sense if you’re a private person or if you simply don’t want to bog down your current followers’ feeds with your poetry (Hey, not everyone’s a word nerd. We get it?). Other writers combine a little bit of it all, the personal, the professional, other hobbies and careers (like photography). And still, other writers choose to remain anonymous, preferring the use of a pen name.

As with all of writing and publishing, there is no one approach, but I think the poets of Instagram prove just how valuable social media can be for writers today. Here are just a few Instagram pages you should stop by:

Alexa Bolton and I went to college together as undergraduates, where we took a creative writing class in poetry. I remember back then, as she so often does now on her Instagram page, hearing her read poems she had written about love. And she does it beautifully. So much so that in the short time since she created her Instagram account (specifically for her poetry) back in January, she has gained nearly four thousand followers. Most of the pieces she posts are unedited. Alexa now teaches at Loyola Marymount University, where she earned herself a fellowship as she works towards her master’s degree.

I was told to pray & He would soon answer. But often, the silence between us feels empty.

A post shared by Alexa Johansen (@alexajohansen) on


15 Historic Poetry Recordings We’re Lucky to Have

Technology has made the life of writers and readers much easier. We can store thousands of books in an e-reading device; write, edit, and save stories with a word processor; and use our phones as a dictionary and thesaurus and skip lugging the heavy books around. Now that many classic literary texts have been entered into the public domain, readers can find some of the greatest works in history with the click of a button. And as William Faulkner once said, “Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it.”

That same logic applies to poetry too, of course. And as poetry is often read aloud, it’s a great idea to listen and learn from some of the masters. Thanks to technology, we have the ability to access historic recordings of some classic poets, like Dylan Thomas and Langston Hughes.

You’d be surprised by how many great poets can’t read well. By that, I don’t mean they’re illiterate, but, for whatever reason, when they read their poems they don’t engage with their audience. Personally, Ezra Pound’s voice grates at me, but I really enjoyed Anne Sexton’s recording of “Letter Written on a Ferry.” It was honest and soothing; it lulled the listener in.

But listen and decide for yourself. I’ve included fifteen historic recordings, with links to The Poetry Archive, where you can hear them, below.

1. “Anyone lived in a pretty how town” by e.e. cummings

Ezra Pound - Creative Commons
e.e. cummings 1917 passport photo

2. “The Waste Land Part V – What the Thunder said” by T.S. Eliot

T.S. Eliot

In Defense of Love Poems

People who know me might be confused by this post. I don’t come off as one overly sentimental, especially when it comes to love or love poems. But I think love is part of the human experience, and thus, like anything that makes us human, is ripe to be explored in poetry and art.

While I agree with Melanie that it is annoying for all people to assume when one says “I write poetry,” that it is mushy-love based flowery poetry, I still think love poetry is a valid and wonderful form of poetry. There are many kinds of love, and many ways of expressing that love through poetry.

Familial love is often celebrated in poems, such as W.B. Yeats’s poem A Prayer for my Daughter written about the birth of his daughter and his hopes for her in the future, or Dylan Thomas’s poem Do not go gentle into that good night written to his father to encourage his dad to fight against his death. Langston Hughes also wrote a poem titled Mother to Son, about a mother summing up her fight for equality and passing the fight and her fire onto her boy.

Brotherly love, or bromance (which is actually a word now, so I don’t feel bad using it), is another theme often explored in poetry. Shakespeare did it in the first 126 sonnets of his 154 sonnet sequence (although, these poems can also be read as being about more than platonic love but there are many subtle things, such as Shakespeare encouraging the youth he admires to procreate and marry so that Shakespeare and the world can admire his offspring, that point to a more platonic reading for me). The best example of brotherly love from Shakespeare’s sequence comes in the form of Sonnet 30, a sonnet that explores how Shakespeare would mourn for his friend in his friend’s death. Robert Frost wrote A Time to Talk about the values of slowing life down to appreciate a chat with friends. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow also wrote a poem The Arrow and the Song about how our actions, both physical in the way of an arrow and spiritual in the way of a song, take root in the world around us and are often carried by those we are close to when we feel that these things are lost.