August 14, 2017

Emily Dickinson on Gilligan's Island

In reading a post online about some Emily Dickinson trivial curiosities and the one that struck me again (because I heard Billy Collins talk about it years ago in a workshop) was her connection to the castaways on Gilligan's Island.

If you want to sing most of her poems (and I could imagine myself doing this with students), use the theme to TV's 1960s "classic" Gilligan's Island.

Give it a try and sing this first stanza of "Because I Could Not Stop For Death."   (If somehow the melody of "The Ballad Of Gilligan's Isle" is not burned into your neurons deeper than any poem, give a listen below)

Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

And the why of this working is that Emily usually used the "common meter" in her poems. The TV theme also uses it, and it is used in lots of nursery rhymes and Protestant hymns. It's four beats followed by three beats.

Wikipedia tells us that common meter (or metre or common measure) is a poetic meter consisting of four lines which alternate between iambic tetrameter (four metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable) and iambic trimeter (three metrical feet per line, with each foot consisting of an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed syllable).

It has historically been used for ballads such as "Tam Lin", and hymns such as "Amazing Grace" and the Christmas carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem". The upshot of this commonality is that lyrics of one song can be sung to the tune of another. This ca make for some great singalongs around the campfire. For example, "Advance Australia Fair", the national anthem of Australia, can be sung to the tune of "House of the Rising Sun." "Amazing Grace" can be done to the tune of "Material Girl".

But I am quite happy to just imagine Emily on the beach with Ginger and Maryann, swinging in their hammocks, drinking from a coconut and singing her poems to the delight and total misunderstanding of all those around her.

If it is raining on your summer day, trying singing Emily's "Summer Shower" poem.

A drop fell on the apple tree,
Another on the roof;
A half a dozen kissed the eaves,
And made the gables laugh.

A few went out to help the brook,
That went to help the sea.
Myself conjectured, Were they pearls,
What necklaces could be!

The dust replaced in hoisted roads,
The birds jocoser sung;
The sunshine threw his hat away,
The orchards spangles hung.

The breezes brought dejected lutes,
And bathed them in the glee;
The East put out a single flag,
And signed the fete away. 

August 11, 2017

Summer School Poetry Class

You might not have taken an AP (Advanced Placement) English course in high school. On the website you can "study" 21 Poems for AP Literature and Composition. These are poems frequently taught AP English Lit and Comp classes. 

For each of the twenty-one poems there are resources including audio clips and video, primary source documents and photographs, timelines and, of course, the poems.

For example, Robert Frost's “Mending Wall” is one selection, and the site offers The PoemAbout this Poem from the Poetry Foundation, On “Mending Wall” from Modern American Poetry, a lesson Robert Frost's "Mending Wall": A Marriage of Poetic Form and Contentand more about Robert Frost from Voices and Visions.

School is closed for the summer, but some AP students are assigned summer reading and might be assigned some of these poems. Well, here is some help from the teacher's file cabinet. And for the rest of us, we can do some summer school and not have to worry about tests, homework or grades.

The poems:  
  • Matthew Arnold: “Dover Beach
  • Elizabeth Bishop: “In the Waiting Room”
  • Gwendolyn Brooks: “We Real Cool”
  • Robert Browning: “My Last Duchess”
  • Emily Dickinson: “Safe in their Alabaster Chambers” (124)
  • John Donne: “A Valediction: Forbidding Mourning”
  • T.S. Eliot: “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”
  • Carolyn Forché: “The Colonel”
  • Robert Frost: “Mending Wall”
  • Robert Hayden: “Those Winter Sundays”
  • Langston Hughes: “Let America Be America Again”
  • John Keats: “Ode on a Grecian Urn”
  • Andrew Marvell: “To His Coy Mistress”
  • Wilfred Owen: “Dulce et Decorum Est”
  • John Crowe Ransom: “Bells for John Whiteside’s Daughter”
  • William Shakespeare: Sonnets
  • Percy Bysshe Shelley: “Ozymandias”
  • Wallace Stevens: “Sunday Morning”
  • Dylan Thomas: “Do not go gentle into that good night”
  • William Carlos Williams: “Danse Russe”

  • William Butler Yeats: “The Second Coming”
  • August 6, 2017

    Poem as Self-Portrait

    Picasso -Self-Portrait at age 15
    age 25

    I was looking recently at a series of self-portraits by Pablo Picasso that show not only his physical aging, but the development of his style.

    Like a writer, Picasso’s experiments and changing style mirrors not only changes in himself, but also changes in the art world. Sometimes he is influenced by that world; sometimes he influences the art world with his work.

    There are also many self-portrait poems.

    In writing about her poem, "Self-Portrait on the Street of an Unnamed Foreign City," Jennifer Grotz says:

    “Ut pictura, poesis: as with painting, so with poetry, the saying goes, and perhaps this is why from time to time poets, like painters, use the exercise of the self-portrait to practice seeing. If either the poet or the painter is lucky, sight leads to insight. In this unabashedly autobiographical poem, I use a shop window on a busy street, not a mirror, to view myself, and though my poem aims for truthful precision, I think it renders what, I’m convinced more and more, poems are meant to achieve, that is: registering what it feels like to pass through time.”

    age 56
    The confessional poetry movement of the mid-twentieth century opened up new themes and subject matter that had not been used openly in American poetry.

    This poetry of the personal or “I” style of writing emerged in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was originally associated with poets such as Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and W. D. Snodgrass.

    I didn't read Lowell’s book Life Studies until I was in college and was surprised at how highly personal it was - revealing his life and the lives of his family. I liked it, but I couldn't imagine writing my own poems in that style if I had any intention of publishing them.

    Plath and Sexton, students of Lowell who spoke about the influence of his poetry, shared their own personal and "private" experiences and feelings about big themes like death, but also very intimate details of their own trauma, depression and relationships. Poetry became more autobiographical.

    The term "confessional poet" became a term that was sometimes used in a derogatory way to describe poets and poetry that seemed like pages from a diary rather than formal poetry.

    But the autobiographical element has remained and today, though the term "confessional" may not be used, poems that use the specifics of the poet's life to write about universal experiences is common.

    Although the autobiographical writing of Sexton with its psychological aspects (which she started writing at the suggestion of her therapist) may not be as common, Marie Howe, Maria Gillan and Sharon Olds are examples of contemporary poets whose writing largely draws upon their personal experiences.

    These poets are not just recording their emotions like a diary, but applying the craft and construction of the best poetry, while still breaking conventions of subject matter and themes and shocking some readers in the process.

    Many of these confessional poems might qualify as self-portraits, but because the self-portrait in art is a particular type, the self-portrait poem also follows some of those established rules.

    The artist generally is looking in a mirror to paint a self-portrait, but could also be looking at a reflection in a window or water, or at a photograph.
    age 90

    In our model poem for this month's prompt, "Self-Portrait at 36 w/ David" by Ellen Hagan, the poet moves from photograph, to photographer, to mirrors, including the one inside a camera.

    Any well done self-portrait is more than just a literal reflection of the artist, and as a poem it is not just the autobiographical details of the poet's life at that moment.

    Some poets have even mixed their poems with artists or others self-portraits. In "Self-Portrait as Vincent Van Gogh at the Asylum at Arles" by Roger Reeves, and Self-Portrait as the Bootblack in Daguerre’s Boulevard du Temple by Robin Coste Lewis, the poets look to art to find something of themselves.

    For this month's writing prompt, "self-portrait" should appear in the title of your poem, and the poem itself should capture you with specificity and details in some particular time and place that you feel captures yourself like a painting or photograph. Think about using the techniques of other artists and writers who work in portraiture, confessional and memoir.

    SUBMISSION DEADLINE: Tuesday, September 5, 2017
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    July 31, 2017

    Upstart Crow Will Shakespeare on the Small Screen

    Currently, William Shakespeare has a television program. The cable channel, TNT, is showing an original drama series called Will.

    Even though there are more books written about him than probably anyone, we don't know that much about William Shakespeare. This is especially true for what are known as the "lost years" from 1578-82 and then from 1585-92.

    The first period covers the time after Shakespeare left grammar school, until his marriage to Anne Hathaway in November of 1582. The second period covers the seven years of Shakespeare's life in which he must have been perfecting his dramatic skills and collecting sources for the plots of his plays.

    That second lost period is what the TNT series focuses on. Will is a struggling playwright who is tired of working in the family business as a glover (making gloves) in order to support his wife and three children. He leaves them to travel to London and seek his quite literal fame and fortune.

    Shakespeare purists may have problems with the liberties that those lost years allow the filmmakers. It is no surprise that some aspects of the telling are updated. The most obvious inclusion is a pop-punk soundtrack to Will's adventures.

    Though this story begins in 1592, two years after the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, with Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne, there are allusions to future plays by Will alluded to. In one episode, Will learns about exploration in the new world - a brave new world - and jots a note to use for The Tempest in about 20 more years.

    Pretty quickly after arriving in the funky London, he co-writes the play Edward III to a great reception and a star is born. I'm not sure it was that fast in real life, but then no one is really sure. Will the charms theater James Burbage, befriends the acting company, pushes out the previous playwright, has a rap battle with Christopher Marlowe in a pub and falls in love with Burbage's daughter, Alice.

    Alice? Burbage's son Richard did become one of the most celebrated actors of his era and the elder son, Cuthbert, followed in his father's footsteps as a theatre manager. Alice?

    One aspect of Shakespeare's real life that is emphasized in the episodes I've seen so far is religion. Will keeps his Catholicism secret from those who would threaten to kill him and exploit his connection to the wanted Robert Southwell.

    Though Will is out-of-place - a Catholic from the small town of Stratford in a turbulent big city during a time of religious turmoil -  he seems to adapt quite easily.

    The first real reference to Shakespeare as an actor/playwright was in 1592. He was attacked in a pamphlet, written by a well-known poet and playwright, Robert Greene. Greene was one of the university wits. They were the Cambridge/Oxford trained literary scholars of the era and that included Christopher Marlowe and Sir Walter Raleigh. Both of those wits appear in the series. The pamphlet was called the 'Groatsworth of Wit' in which Greene attacks the actor William Shakespeare as an "upstart crow."

    I like Shakespeare. The real one. And his plays. I also like that the plays remain relevant because people keep bringing them into the present. Some people have a problem with that. I don't. Some people protested this summer at a New York production of Julius Caesar during the assassination scene and shouting: “This is violence against Donald Trump.” Yes, Caesar looked like Trump.

    The play was part of the annual free Shakespeare in the Park series. I have attended many of those performances over the years. I've seen Kevin Kline and Meryl Streep. I've seen old style and new style Shakespeare there. I love it.

    Company spokesperson Oskar Eustis addressed the audience one night before the performance and said “Anyone who watches this play tonight… would know that neither Shakespeare nor the Public Theater could possibly advocate violence as a solution to political problems, and certainly not assassination. This play, on the contrary, warns about what happens when you try to preserve democracy by non-democratic means, and again, spoiler alert: it doesn’t end up too good.”

    Go for it, Will and company.