Monday, June 30, 2014

Do Me--And Edgar--A Favour With This Poem, Won't You?

June, my Golden Month of Summer, burns out at midnight tonight. When I was teaching, June was my True Summer month, for it seemed that once July blazed in, time began running much faster, the days sizzled so much hotter, and soon, my countdown of the days back to school would start in earnest.

This year, however, June proved to be my July. Over almost before it started, June made me feel as if I never stopped driving, doing, and squeezing things in. And now, Poetry Month is over with this post. Perhaps I shall beg your indulgence and discuss poems every now and then regardless of the month. As St. Patsy, whose birthday is in June (hence her middle name!), would say, "We'll see."

My final poem must be one of my favourites, and it must be by one of my favourite authors. All of my Loyal and Longtime Readers know that I have long felt a strange sense of responsibility toward defending the memory of Edgar Allan Poe. Vilified by a rival who wrote a scathing obituary, Poe's legacy was left to wallow in a mire of jealous inaccuracies and sad half-truths. The blanks were filled in by ignorant analyses of his macabre stories and poems, which, because they have first-person narrators, were mistakenly seen as autobiographical and psychological unburdenings.

As if the facts of his poor life, both childhood and adult, aren't pitiful enough.

This poem is sad, but I want to look at something else about it. First, of course, you need to read it. It is the incredibly beautiful

Annabel Lee.

It was many and many a year ago,
In a kingdom by the sea,
That a maiden there lived whom you may know
By the name of ANNABEL LEE;
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
Than to love and be loved by me.

I was a child and she was a child,
In this kingdom by the sea;
But we loved with a love that was more than love-
I and my Annabel Lee;
With a love that the winged seraphs of heaven
Coveted her and me.

And this was the reason that, long ago,
In this kingdom by the sea,
A wind blew out of a cloud, chilling
My beautiful Annabel Lee;
So that her highborn kinsman came
And bore her away from me,
To shut her up in a sepulchre
In this kingdom by the sea.

The angels, not half so happy in heaven,
Went envying her and me-
Yes!- that was the reason (as all men know,
In this kingdom by the sea)
That the wind came out of the cloud by night,
Chilling and killing my Annabel Lee.

But our love it was stronger by far than the love
Of those who were older than we-
Of many far wiser than we-
And neither the angels in heaven above,
Nor the demons down under the sea,
Can ever dissever my soul from the soul
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee.

For the moon never beams without bringing me dreams
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And the stars never rise but I feel the bright eyes
Of the beautiful Annabel Lee;
And so, all the night-tide, I lie down by the side
Of my darling- my darling- my life and my bride,
In the sepulchre there by the sea,
In her tomb by the sounding sea.

Edgar Allan Poe was a careful, meticulous, downright picky craftsman when it came to his poetry. Nothing--and I truly mean nothing--was by chance in his poems. Every single word, line, stanza, set of parentheses, and exclamation point had been sweated over. He was a bit of the egomaniac; he held most other contemporaries in disdain, so he had to be perfect by comparison.

This poem, like so many of Poe's works, has a first person speaker. He starts out very rhythmically, very calmly as he recalls for his listener the love of his life. But by the time you get to the third stanza, and the speaker is recounting a more emotionally taxing part of his love story, the meter/rhythm begins to unravel. Your reading is a bit choppier; it's as if you are perhaps fighting those sobs, that you are breathing a bit heavily, becoming upset. The fourth stanza is the emotional peak of the poem. You can really see the heavy punctuation, the frequent stops for breath. And the speaker stops using euphemisms for his dear Annabel Lee's fate: in the last line, he says "killing my Annabel Lee." Notice, however, that after this catharsis, the speaker begins to reassure himself, and the poem's sound reflects it. In the fifth stanza, he calms and regains the rhythm of the poem, and the language becomes beautiful again; it is about love and how romantic love is enduring. In the final stanza, the language is at its most beautiful in sound and imagery. The moonbeams bring him dreams of his love, and the stars are Annabel Lee's shining eyes. He will be by her side always as long as he is near the sea. The final stroke of Poe's mastery is that the rhythmic sound of this poem, especially the last stanza, is that of the ocean's waves. He uses repetition and internal rhyme to do it (beams/dreams; rise/eyes and "Of the beautiful Annabel Lee", among other things).

A great many of Poe's poems were meant to be read aloud precisely because of his attention to sound. There would be days when I could not get through this one, and eventually, I stopped teaching it. My threshold for beauty was ever inexplicable to many of my sophomores.

Bring joy to yourself and to Edgar and read this poem aloud if you can.  Do it proudly and with great expression.  I know you will be glad that you did.  And so, somewhere, will he.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Percy Bysshe Shelley Meets Alanis Morissette Meets The Iraq Mess: Plenty To Look Upon And Despair

Every year in Creative Writing II (CW2), which we also called All Poetry All The Time, I assigned the
English Sonnet. To deafening groans and much wailing and gnashing of teeth. It was positively Biblical. We even developed together a Sonnet Map, which was a helpful worksheet showing the metric pattern, the rhyme scheme, the quatrain numerals, and blanks for each syllable so that students could write their poem on it with these reminders in place. Eventually, with peer and teacher conferences, my writers created sonnets that were read aloud and critiqued, and they survived it all. Many times, their sonnets were wonderful: some were traditional, some were funny, some were romantic, and others retold stories from literature, film, or even current events.

I love the form of the Sonnet, and the Elizabethan, or Shakespearean Sonnet in particular. Fourteen lines of iambic pentameter arranged in three quatrains (four-line sets). Each quatrain has a rhyme scheme. The final two lines, or couplet, rhyme with each other.

Some people don't realize that there is actually a pattern of development for the Sonnet as well. The first quatrain presents the problem; the second quatrain is supposed to develop or complicate the problem; the final quatrain restates or summarizes the initial problem with more intensity; finally, the couplet reaches a conclusion or solution. The Sonnet offers a chance for a poet to work Creatively Within Limits. For me, I find this liberating. For many others, it is a prison sentence.

Of course, a lot of Sonnets aren't perfect, and a lot are not the classic Shakespearean. I like all kinds, generally. One of my favourites is by Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was a pretty reprehensible individual in a great many ways. Like several of the Romantic Poets, he was a selfish jerk (I'm looking at you, Byron) whose conduct of his personal life was not as beautiful as his poetry.

This particular poem has been on my mind lately, thanks to the mess in Iraq.


I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: `Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear --
"My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.'

If you read this poem with a sing-songy voice, making sure to start on an unstressed syllable, you can sustain it throughout. That's the iambic metric pattern. You'll have to force it on "boundless" and "Nothing," words for which the natural stress pattern is reversed. (Alanis Morissette does this all the time in her hit song "Uninvited"; it's okay.)

But, in spite of having to Follow Some Poetry Rules, Shelley has crafted a wonderful poem of imagery and wordsmithing. I don't like the device of the poem being the recitation of some unnamed tourist, and I often wonder, "Which antique land has native people who speak so gorgeously? I want to go there!" But beyond that, there is an awful lot to like about this poem.

It has that startling irony there in the last three lines, and that's where the tone of the poem changes, too. The traveler's story is a bit bitter, and his cadence is staccato and abrupt as he describes Ozymandias. Of course, when you read the inscription, you have to read it with that pomposity it demands, and it's the best part of the poem, really, "My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:/Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!" Then it drops dead with quietude, and you can almost hear the sighing of the winds over the desert, "boundless and bare." Ozymandias' kingdom is wrecked and gone, and we know that his hubris was the cause.

I'm not going to go into why "Ozymandias" comes to mind lately due to Current Events, or talk now about how heartbreaking (and frightening) it is to hear words like Mosul and Shiite and Tikrit again with some frequency.  Or even mention whose "shattered visage" it is that I see when I look at the face "half sunk" in the sands.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Having A Reverend Dimmesdale Moment. Back To Poetry Soon. But, Did You Know Miss Indiana Was The New Normal For America's Women?

It's a terrible thing to get up a Good Head Of Steam--and Self-Righteous Steam at that--and run smack up against a Huge Wall Of Startling Self-Realization. It's a humbling thing, too. But because it helps to illustrate my point all that much more, I'm going to Embrace it and lay it all out there, my own cracked armour on display for all to see.

For some reason, in this Day And Age, we still have women who agree to participate in so-called beauty pageants. I am not going to present nor argue their reasons, nor am I going to entertain the discussions regarding whether or not it is Feminist to be the one deciding to put your own body on display for whatever purpose or reward. None of that is my point, and I can end most of the discussions by asking where the Male Counterpart for these beauty pageants is.

My purpose for raising the topic is due to the uproar on social media following the appearance of Miss Indiana in a bikini during the Miss USA pageant televised 8 June 2014.  Here she is.

To quote one news outlet: "Nia Sanchez, aka Miss Nevada, may have won Miss USA this week, but it was Mekayla Diehl, 25-year-old Miss Indiana, that grabbed Twitter's attention. Why?...Diehl, who is also the first registered Native American to represent Indiana in the pageant, stood out during the bikini portion of the two-hour-long competition for the fact that she had 'womanly curves'."

Here also is Miss Indiana's Facebook page, where it is revealed that she is 5' 8", 137 pounds, and a size 4. She has also inspired a teeshirt that reads I'm The New Normal. People from all over the country have posted positive messages, thanking her for being a role model for normal women everywhere. One woman enthused, "God picked YOU to travel this road and speak for others! You are so poised and a true inspiration."

I have no problem with Miss Indiana, aside from the fact that she makes the egregious lose/loose error in spelling.  She is lovely and seems to be sincere about her Platform for her pageant issue.  (Her shoes in this photo are absolutely unforgivable, but maybe they were not her choice.)

No, Miss Indiana is fine.  But can someone, anyone out there, please tell me how a Size 4 is curvy and The New Normal?  Are American Women so incredibly brainwashed by airbrushed magazine advertisements and anorexic fashion models and wispy, starving film actresses that a Size 4 looks chubbily robust to us?  Was there really someone out there--or several Someones--watching that night saying, "Whoa!  Get a load of Miss Indiana!  Bet her car knows the way to all the buffets in Muncie!"?

That was the gist of my Rant to my husband after I read a few blurbs about the Voluptuously Curvaceous And Womanly Miss Indiana.  I had just gotten into my Zone, using a ton of SAT Words and Emphatic Gestures (for lack of Pretentious Capitalization), when suddenly, I stopped and fell silent.  Shocked, I looked up at Rick.

"Oh my god.  Oh. My. God," I said, as the realization struck.  "I'm no better than any of them. What have I been crabbing about for weeks now?  Why have I been so down lately?  Because I have gained weight. Because I'm not a Size 2 anymore like when I was working.  Because now, thanks to my new migraine meds and menopause and a lack of killer stress, I'm never seeing a Size 2 again. And Size 4 is looking iffy. Because I'm Huge.  Holy Effing Crap.  Do you know how, even when I was twenty, I would have killed to be this size?  What is wrong with me?  I am so much smarter than that, but...apparently not.  Even I have fallen for the years and years of marketing and airbrushing and false representation of the Ideal Woman.  I'm fifty-five years old, educated, well-read, a Feminist, and the most pressing issue on my mind right now is that I hate my body because I can't fit into certain clothes like I used to and that they aren't labeled with a certain number which I find desirable or acceptable."

And at that moment, what made me really, really sick and disgusted was that I knew, deep down inside, if my neurologist told me that I could either be a Size 2 again or have no migraines ever again, at that precise moment, I would have chosen being a Size 2.

Something is terribly wrong.  With me, yes.  I'm admitting that, owning it, and without delving any further into my personal trove of the wherefores behind it, putting it here for the Interwebs to see.  Beyond my faults, however, are those of the Others.

It's Terribly Wrong that, despite the public health campaigns regarding eating disorders such as anorexia and bulimia, the bulk of advertising continues to promote only one body type, a sylph-like, slender, and angular female with jutting hipbones and no discernible padding underneath her skin unless it is zeppelin-like breasts for a bra manufacturer.

It's Terribly Wrong that, when Mattel redesigned Barbie's body, it was not so that it was a more realistic reflection of what a young woman's body really looked like. It was in order "for her to have more of a teenage physique," says Mattel spokesperson Lisa McKendall. "In order for [the new doll's debut outfit] to look right, Barbie needs to be more like a teen's body. The fashions teens wear now don't fit properly on our current sculpting."  It's also Terribly Wrong that this occurred in 1997, and almost twenty years ago, the writer of the article observed, "Barbie may not be the cause of eating disorders and body hatred, but her universally recognizable profile makes her a flashpoint, an image of female perfection, a symbol of the drawbacks of any such images, and a convenient scapegoat for our cultural troubles with them."

Pageants are part of the problem.  Miss Indiana is being lauded by many for things like "starting the discussion" and "raising awareness" and "being a role model."  I have to disagree.  Until there is an identical pageant for men in which they are walked in front of a judging panel in various outfits, asked questions, required to showcase their talent, and perform some hokey song and dance in a state costume along with a host of other inane activities, I can't see a true and meaningful purpose for any pageant.  For anyone.  Hasn't anyone--any woman--ever asked herself why there hasn't been a male pageant like the Miss USA, Miss Universe, or Miss America pageant?

What sponsors would pay for time on that?  What network would want that ratings dog?  Who would watch it (besides Mumsy and Popsy of each contestant)?  And let me tell you why it is a ratings dog.  This.  The summary is all you need to read.

But there I go, preaching again.  There's nothing worse than the sinful preacher preaching against Sin.  (Ask Hester Prynne.)

I'm currently on a jaunt in Maryland.  While I'm here, I plan on doing a great deal of deep breathing and re-centering.  It's obvious that I need some Redemption.  And a helluva lot of New Normal.


Monday, June 09, 2014

Poetry: The Cilantro Of The Literary World? I'm Dying To Convert The Haters Out There

Sometimes I think Poetry is like cilantro; you either love it or you hate it. Probably English teachers are largely to blame for this. We can never, ever leave things alone. "Why, what a lovely poem," Innocent Student says brightly after reading. "I liked the idea of that winding vine and the gate. The whole thing sounded nice. And the white rose was pretty, too. Okay, next."

"Oh, really?" English Teacher asks, one eyebrow lifted. "You mean you didn't think the vine was choking the gate, making it struggle to open? You didn't think that was...oh, I don't know...symbolic? Didn't you think that perhaps the gate was a symbol of freedom? And why was the rose white? And what about the word choice? Did it really sound nice?"

Sigh. All that carping can take the fun and enjoyment and appreciation right out of Poetry for some readers. (Even as it puts the fun and deeper appreciation right in for others.) It turns people against Poetry because they become afraid of it. They think that there is some Hidden Meaning that only English teachers and SmartyPants have the key to. They decide that Poetry is For Others. Therein lies the problem.

While traditional "Dead White Guy" poetry usually does employ all kinds of symbols and devices that add meaning and depth, plenty of modern poetry just doesn't go that route. Twenty-first century poets, especially, enjoy experimenting with moments--expanding them, magnifying them, changing them, lending them weight and import. Some poets want to make you feel the way they do about a subject, so they show it to you as only they see it. Still others want to play a bit of The Magician--with a collection of merely a dozen or so lines, they can cleverly beguile you, only to leave you breathless and completely astonished at the end.

photo by Jeannette Palsa
One of my most virulent Poetry Haters became a poet himself. I bullied him into taking my Creative Writing I and II class, and he is now an oft-published author of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction with a few awards here and there to keep his ego warm at night. He's no longer afraid of poetry, and even blank expanses of paper don't scare him. Once, after a long talk with a friend, he decided to write a poem about the One Thing that truly frightens him. Meet my friend Eric Anderson and read his poem about


At first, I mistook them for the hedgerow. That's how still
the dead were, as they stood in my front yard.
In their hands, they held the snow
which they brought all the way from Canada. They had icicles
on their cheeks and chins, heads tilted back, snow
covering their faces. I watched
from the warm window, and when they saw my hand
parting the curtains, they thought I was waving.
The dead waved back. I felt obliged
to put on my coat, go outside. I brought
hot chocolate. The dead weren't thirsty. They were
lonely for the living. We made dead snowmen,
dead igloos, packed the snow into a slide for the dead
children to go down. The dead love to leave
their footprints in fresh snow,
even if they drag their feet. I don't know why
I went with them when they started walking back,
past Canada, past Hudson Bay, farther.
We came to the North Pole. We kept going north;
when you're dead, it's important to stay cool.
I carried snow, no warmth in my hands to make it melt.
To get where the dead are going, it takes forever. You think
you'll never arrive. Then you're there.

--Eric Anderson

This poem works on so many levels that Everyone can appreciate it.  The subject matter is delightfully absurd:  the speaker looks out the window and discovers that what he thought was his row of shrubbery is actually a gathering of zombies. Instead of being terrified, he waves at them (since they waved first), takes them hot chocolate, and plays in the snow with them and their children.  Soon, they leave, and inexplicably, he leaves with them, following them all the way to the North Pole and beyond, where the speaker ultimately arrives at his final destination.

For me, as a creative writing teacher, I love the line breaks.  Each line breaks at a place that creates a bit of suspense or ambiguity for a split second before you get to the next line.  Notice how the line break creates a duality of meaning in some cases, such as here:

The dead love to leave
their footprints in fresh snow,
even if they drag their feet. I don't know why
I went with them when they started walking back,

"I don't know why" could be talking about the the previous image of zombies dragging their feet in the snow, but you don't know until you get to the next line.  This sort of enjambment (bigass poetry term!) also creates a halting, deadening movement to the reading of the poem that is appropriate to its subject.

Yet--you don't have to know or care about any of that.  The poem is like microfiction.  It's a funny little story all on its own.  It has enough imagery that you can picture the scene.  There are enough concrete details (hot chocolate, icicles on cheeks and chins, snow covering their faces) that you can fill in the blanks.  You can even get a little shudder at the idea of dead children going down a snowy slide.

But...but...what's the Deeper Meaning?  What is The Theme?  What did we all Learn?  Is the poem really a Metaphor for Living Life To The Fullest and all that crap?  (Whenever asked for the theme of anything, my students always yanked out "Live Life To The Fullest", and I always threatened to stab myself in the eye.)

Here's what I would say:  Hey.  It's a zombie poem.  I'm not about to go looking for a Deeper Meaning in a perfectly wonderful poem about zombies.  But, by all means, if you would like to, then certainly, go right ahead.

And, if you would like to read more of Eric Anderson's poetry, you can read him herehere, here, and here. Oh, and here.


Friday, June 06, 2014

And Now For Something Completely Different (And Undead)

The Dept. of Nance interrupts Poetry Month to bring you this Moment Of NEO Neighborhood Culture.

I was sitting in my leather easy chair one morning, coffee in hand and catten on lap, about a week ago (30 May, to be exact), when I happened upon this little item in my beloved Cleveland Plain Dealer:

I took the above photo with my iPhone and immediately sent it to Jared and Sam via text message. They live in Lakewood, a Cleveland suburb that is not too terribly far from where I am, but for its culture, it may as well be eleventy thousand miles away. "That is so Lakewood," Jared responded. I think Sam sent me a photo of a sleeping baby giving me The Finger. Sigh.

Maybe I'll post a Zombie Poem next. I know just the right one, too. Until then, be careful out there.

Monday, June 02, 2014

In Which I Kick Off Dept. Of Nance Poetry Month And Discover Another Good Thing About NEO

June has arrived and with it, Dept. of Nance Poetry Month. It's the First Ever, so who knows how things will transpire? Let's get right to it, Readers Mine, and celebrate!

Our first offering is by a poet who comes from Maple Heights, Ohio, a city not too terribly far from where I
live in NEO. She studied at Ohio State and Vassar, and later lived as a companion to Edna St. Vincent Millay's sister in the famous poet's home for several years. Quietly and persistently, she became well-known, reading her poems in almost every single state and earning honors and awards for her verse. This remarkable voice can count among her accolades a Pulitzer, a National Book Award, and several honorary doctorates. I will be forever in fellow blog writer Rose's debt for introducing me to the work of Mary Oliver.

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting -
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

I wonder if there isn't a bit of the Buddhist in Mary Oliver; her nature poems remind me of Walt Whitman's, but are more spiritual and less Nineteenth Century Hippie. She has hundreds more that are better, more breathtaking, and better examples of her astonishing craftsmanship, but this particular poem was like a little bit of therapy for me this morning. Yesterday had been a lousy day for a lot of reasons, and I awoke today with a migraine in a stuffy bedroom. The air was heavy and humid, and my sleep had been hard-fought. My hands were swollen from arthritis; the rest of me was puffy from my new migraine medicine. Not only is my new medicine apparently not working, but it has also made me gain weight--and noticeably, (thanks for mentioning it, Mr. LandscaperFriend, and loudly, too, in the middle of The Garden Center). In short, I was feeling Really Sorry For Myself.

Enter Mary Oliver and Wild Geese. "You do not have to be good," she tells me, and that first sentence is so comforting, such a balm to my wounded psyche, that tears well up in my eyes. I don't have to be a martyr, a penitent, a saint, an ideal. My relief is almost cathartic.

"Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine." How much I needed this reminder! My problems are just that--mine. My troubles would be trivial to people who awoke this morning in a foreclosed home, awoke in a hospital, awoke worrying about a parent in a nursing home, awoke to ready a special needs child for camp. There is despair, then there is my version of it, then there is someone else's. That comma, then the word "yours" is huge--parenthetical, really.

"Meanwhile the world goes on." While this might sound like "suck it up", the examples that Mary Oliver provides are rejuvenating and encouraging. Sun and rain move across the land, and the earth continues its cycle of life. Wild geese rise in the sky and return home.

What I love about the last five lines of this poem is that she anticipates the reader's evolution of emotions. He or she enters the poem feeling sad and alone with her despair. She wants to share her burdens, and then realizes that not only does everyone have troubles, but that hers are not as serious as she first believed. The reader understands that the world still moves on, no matter how sad or despondent she may feel. But, rather than feel isolated and alone by that fact, she should instead feel that the natural world is calling to her, reminding her that she is part of it.

Both Mary Oliver and Walt Whitman see Nature as our source and comfort. They seem to think that denying Nature is to deny our nature. This admonition always makes me think of the Puritans; they tried to curb, deny, or downright outlaw every natural human instinct or proclivity or, at the very least, force it into some unnatural constraint. The Puritans had a healthy respect for nature itself, but they didn't revere or celebrate it. That would have been a Sin. They could have used a little bit of Mary Oliver.

Speaking of which, here she is, reading Wild Geese.

photo credit
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