May 31 is the 195th anniversary of Walt Whitman’s birthday—surely a date worth celebrating with your own reading of Whitman’s poems. Our library has a selection of the most famous passages from his compendious and ever-rewritten masterpiece, Leaves of Grass, and we are always adding more. If you’re looking for seasonal reading, try the two Whitman poems collected in our Summer Poems anthology:Song of Myself” for the delicious flow of his words on your tongue, his capacious long-lined catalog of all humanity and the natural world streaming out of the poem. Then visit the Walt Whitman Archive, where you can listen to an audio recording of Walt Whitman himself, reciting four lines from “America,” his voice preserved from more than 100 years ago on a wax cylinder. Happy Birthday, Walt!
The Byronic hero is a character who appears often in contemporary popular culture—think Bruce Wayne in Batman, Edward Cullen in the Twilight books and movies, Don Draper in Madmen. He’s usually dark and handsome, jaded and melancholy, often of noble descent but always essentially an outsider, smart and proud and contemptuous of “normal” society, but troubled by secret guilt in his own past. Nearly 200 years ago, George Gordon, Lord Byron was both the original Byronic hero in his life and the creator of the first literary Byronic heros in his work.
He was also the 19th century model of a modern spoken word performer. His poem “Darkness” was inspired by the pall of abnormal weather in northern Europe caused by a volcanic eruption in 1816, and it’s a great parlor performance piece that simply demands to be declaimed before an audience—read it aloud for the full effect!
Dante’s Divine Comedy was the first and remains the best-known example of terza rima, a poetic form marked by intertwining, “chained” rhymes linking through three-line stanzas, so that the poem seems to be dancing forward and glancing back at the same time as it trips down the page. There are always special difficulties when poetic forms cross from one language to another—witness the varied saga of haiku in English. Yet despite the relative paucity of available rhymes in English as compared to the original Italian, terza rima has migrated quite strongly into English poetry, having been taken up by poets as widely spread out in space, time and sensibility as Geoffrey Chaucer, William Carlos Williams and Sylvia Plath. If this imported form of tripping triplets intrigues you, browse through our selected terza rima links to see its various permutations in English.
When this Web site was new, back in 1997, we published an article on poem phone phenomena around the U.S., cataloguing the local phone lines devoted to putting poems in people’s ears. A few years later, most of those phone lines were dead. But there’s something special about the private experience of listening to a poem read to you on the telephone—and we wonder if that experience can be replicated on the Internet.
John Giorno originated the Dial-a-Poem concept in New York in 1969—his 10 phone lines offered recordings by people like Allen Ginsberg, Ed Sanders, Ted Berrigan, William Burroughs, Anne Waldman and Diane di Prima. Many of the Giorno Poetry Systems recordings now reside online at UbuWeb Sound.
In 2009, Kelly Writers House created a Dial-a-Poem phone line using recordings from its PennSound archives. Does anyone know if this phone number still works?
In 2012 the Museum of Modern Art revived Dial-a-Poem for its “Ecstatic Alphabets/Heaps of Language” exhibition. You could call 347-POET001 (a local New York City number) to hear poems the old-fashioned way, on the telephone, or visit MOMA’s Dial-a-Poem Web site to play a poem online.
And this year, The Village Voice prevailed on all the poets contributing to its special National Poetry Month April issue, “Free Verse: A New York Miscellany,” to record their poems for a real-live Dial-a-Poem phone line and an Internet podcast (with the editors’ caveat, “but how 2014, really....”).
So what do you think, folks? Does filling your ears with a poem from an online audio archive recreate the intimate experience of hearing a poem read to you on a telephone receiver? Or are we just indulging in misplaced nostalgia? Can you share about any currently working Dial-a-Poem numbers?
Some of the shortest poetic forms are most difficult: the triolet, for instance. Like the pantoum, a triolet takes part of its structure from the repetition of entire lines—in fact, three of its lines are repeated, so that the poet only actually has to compose five lines to write a triolet. This extreme repetition, and the fact that only two rhymes can be used in the eight-line poem, restricts the language so tightly that both poet and reader must focus on the very subtle ways in which the sound and meaning of the same words evolves line by line during the progress of the poem.
Examples of triolets in our library:
“Triolet” by Robert Bridges (1876)
“How Great My Grief” by Thomas Hardy (1901)
“The Coquette, and After” (a pair of triolets) by Thomas Hardy (1901)
“Winter in Durnover Field” by Thomas Hardy
Four Triolets by Sara Teasdale (1911)
Is the line-break the defining element in a poem? Can poems be poured onto electronic screens without violating the sanctity of the line? How can we be sure the poet’s artistic choices are preserved when poems migrate from the printed page to digital media? These questions have been hovering in the world of online poetry since the beginning of the digital age (see our previous postings on these topics listed below). The difficulties in the process of translating poems into electronic formats are sticky ones, requiring lots of detailed hand-coding and resulting in hand-wringing by the poets, consternation in the publishers, and occasional eye-crossing in the readers. Witness Alizah Salario’s 2010 essay for the Poetry Foundation, “Breaking the Poetry Code: The future of poetry e-books, and why it’s not what you think.”
Since then, some of the small press poetry publishers interviewed in Salario’s article have distributed e-books, and a few major publishers have also taken the leap into e-distribution:
from Associated Press:
“Poetry Finally Joining E-book Revolution,” by Hillel Italie
“The problem had been how to transfer a poem from paper to screen without either breaking a line up—a primal violation of the art form—or making the font size too small to read. It’s unlikely that publishers can design a perfect solution, but they have managed to find acceptable compromises. In part, they credit advances in technology that make it easier to keep the original look intact. They also cite a technique long used in print.... The hanging indent.” [Note: The funny thing is, news stories online don’t use the hanging indent, so the example that follows in this very story, showing its use in the iPad version of a Sharon Olds poem, is invisible.]
So what’s your take on this, poetry readers? If you’re like me, you wish you could load up your Kindle or Nook with lots more poetry.... but you’re bothered by the way poems lose their shape on those little screens.
Past Postings on Poetry’s Migration to Electronic Screens:
“iPad Poetry: It’s the Real Deal” (2012)
“Poems Mangled in the Move from Page to Screen” (2010)
“Misprints—Are They Serendipity, Inspiration or Embarrassment?” (2008)
“Typos Are Like Viruses.... They Replicate on the Net” (2007)
Defining what makes a poem a poem is no easy thing, and if you’re not theoretically inclined, you may find yourself ending the discussion with a simple statement, “I know one when I see it.” Poetry is commonly defined by distinguishing it from prose: On the page, a poem has lines of different lengths, and the line breaks are chosen by the poet, while the visual shape of a passage of prose is determined by the typography and the size of the page. Prose is constructed from sentences and paragraphs which fill a page or column, while a poem is made from lines and stanzas, and the white space between them (or the pauses or silence, if you’re hearing the poem) is part of the poem, as rests or hesitations are part of any musical composition.
Then we come to the prose poem. It looks like ordinary prose, it may be divided into paragraphs but you would not call them stanzas, and deliberately placed line breaks are nowhere to be found. But the poet calls it a poem. We’ve put together a collection of classic English and American prose poems from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and we invite you to dip into this anthology and tell us what you think makes a prose poem a poem.
Oscar Wilde named his 1894 collection Poems in Prose, but just what is it that makes his parable “The Artist” into a poem? The paragraph-like passages in Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons are certainly not narrative stories—do their echoes and rhythms and repetitions make them poems? Amy Lowell’s lovely “Spring Day” looks at first glance like a series of prose paragraphs, but its use of language certainly feels like an Imagist poem. Coming at the issue from the other side of the prose-poetry divide, consider Carl Sandburg’s “Wilderness,” a poem that unlike many prose poems does not try to disguise itself as prose, but simply substitutes ellipses for line breaks. And what to make of William Carlos Williams’ Kora in Hell “improvisations,” so unlike the short-lined poems for which he is best known?
To continue exploring the inter-genre world of prose poetry, we’d like to add some contemporary prose poems to our collection. Poet-readers, we invite you to submit your own prose poems to be considered for the contemporary section of our anthology.
Most poets’ lives take shape in tension between devotion to their art and the need to make a living, and every poet must find his/her own way to juggle these things or weave them together. Some poets choose day jobs that are undemanding, or at least demanding talents and skills very different from those they apply to making poetry, “saving” themselves for a separate life as a poet. Regan Good’s 2006 essay in New York Observer, “Arbitragedy: A Hedge-Fund Poet’s Bittersweet Ballad,” is a poignant exploration of the dimensions of this choice, ending in a declaration that “poets have the best job” and backing up this faith with W.B. Yeats’ poem, “Adam’s Curse”:
...to articulate sweet sounds togetherOther poets devote themselves to making a living as poets—teaching, touring, selling books, opening poetry cafes, making poetry films, and always trying to make poetry pay. For this path, we can recommend no better guide than Gary Mex Glazner’s How To Make a Living as a Poet (Soft Skull, 2005, ). It’s chock-full of goodies from the practical to the sublime, wryly comic and fully committed to the art, including outlines of poetry projects, interviews with poets and poetry impresarios, and nuts-and-bolts chapters on how to give readings, plan a tour, get published... all firmly based on Glazner’s years of experience creating a career for himself as a poet. If you want to be a professional poet, you must read this book.
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.
More on Poets and Work:
Poets’ Work, Poets’ Jobs
Readers Respond: How Do We Make a Living?—Tell us how you survive.
“The Barbaric Yawp,” How to give a good reading of your poems, adapted from Glazner’s book.
Many of the formal kinds of poetry we know in English today can be traced to origins in the poems and songs of French troubadours of the 12th and 13th centuries, and many of those fixed forms are cousins, from the rondeau with its repeating refrain and strict rhyme scheme, to the brief and even more tightly rhymed triolet, to the complex scheme of alternating refrain lines that marks the villanelle. In addition to the rondeau, there are two more kinds of “round” poems in our glossary of poetic forms—the rondel, which also derives its name from the French word for “round” (in this case “little round”), and the roundel, Algernon Charles Swinburne’s variant form invented in the 19th century. Our library has selected examples of all these forms, for poets and readers alike to share the fun in serious word play.
William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were separated in childhood after their parents died, but developed a very close relationship as adults and spent the rest of their lives together, even after William was married to Mary Hutchinson. Dorothy and William walked the Lake District hills together, her detailed observations of the natural world served as inspiration for his poems (he wrote “She gave me eyes, she gave me ears...”), and she contributed her ideas to the poetic discussions between Wordsworth and Coleridge. Dorothy kept journals—intended not for publication, but solely for William’s eyes—and their publication a century later opened a window on the writing life of a Romantic poet. After reading those journals, British biographer Frances Wilson wrote The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth: A Life (published by Faber in the UK, 2008, Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the US, 2009 ), a fascinating story of the intertwined lives of a poet and his sister and helpmate.
In The Telegraph, Frances Wilson explained how she came to write the biography, after discovering in the journals a Dorothy very different from the accepted stereotypical “maiden aunt”:
“A demure virgin? Not the Dorothy I know”
When the book was published by Faber in the United Kingdom, a good number of illuminating reviews came out in UK newspapers:
from The Telegraph:
“Wordsworth’s intriguing sister Dorothy,” by Caroline Moore
“This account is actually constructed, with scrupulous care, from Dorothy’s own words.... Frances Wilson is meticulously aware of the ‘tantalising economy’ of Dorothy’s writings, and how they resist our intrusive sympathies.”
from The Guardian:
“More than her brother's keeper...,” by Virginia Rounding
“Frances Wilson’s The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth reveals a passionate, talented woman whose love for her brother defined her and finally destroyed her.”
also from The Guardian:
“The agony, the ecstasy and the hot soup,” by Andrew Motion
“...a subtle and iconoclastic life of Wordsworth’s brilliant and devoted sister.... By aligning her life with his, and assuming from early womanhood that they would always be together in some kind of menage or other, she discovered freedom and self-validation but also embraced self-denial.”
And when The Ballad of Dorothy Wordsworth appeared in the United States, Frances Wilson spoke to National Public Radio about the relationship between Dorothy and William:
from All Things Considered:
“Sister Act: A New Take On Dorothy Wordsworth”
“Wilson describes the relationship as ‘extraordinary.’ In some ways, she says, it was the most passionate relationship of both of their lives.... On the night before William’s marriage, Dorothy wore the ring he intended to give his bride. She later detailed her brother’s wedding in her journal, writing:
On Monday, the 4 of October 1802, my brother William was married to Mary Hutchinson. I slept a good deal of the night and rose fresh and well in the morning. At a little after 8 o’clock, I saw them go down the avenue towards the church.... I kept myself as quiet as I could, but when I saw the two men coming up the walk coming to tell me it was over, I could bear it no longer and threw myself on the bed, where I lay in stillness, neither hearing, nor seeing anything.Following her brother’s marriage, Dorothy retreated to the top room of the cottage, where she lived for the next 20 years—a sort of mad woman in the attic, according to Wilson.... But Dorothy’s voluntary seclusion wasn’t permanent; when her brother died she reemerged as her old self: ‘It was as though William Wordsworth was holding her back,’ says Wilson. ‘When he’d gone, she could breathe again.’”
More on William Wordsworth:
Profile of William Wordsworth, seminal British Romantic poet
Library of poems by Wordsworth
Memory and Nature: A Guide to William Wordsworth's "Tintern Abbey"
Wordsworth’s Daffodils Spring Up on YouTube