June 17, 2017

Listening to the New U.S. Poet Laureate: Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith has been named the next poet laureate of the United States and will begin her role this fall, succeeding Juan Felipe Herrera.

Smith is a professor at Princeton University, where she directs the creative writing program.

She has written three poetry collections, including the Pulitzer Prize–winning Life on Mars , The Body’s Question and Duende, all from Graywolf Press. She has also written a memoir, Ordinary Light  (Knopf, 2015).

“As someone who has been sustained by poems and poets, I understand the powerful and necessary role poetry can play in sustaining a rich inner life and fostering a mindful, empathic and resourceful culture,” said Smith in the announcement from the Library of Congress. “I am eager to share the good news of poetry with readers and future-readers across this marvelously diverse country.”

Tracy K. Smith reads her poem "Wade in the Water," which will be published in a book of poetry in 2018.

Tracy K. Smith was twenty-two when her mother died in 1994. In The Body’s Question, her first book of poetry, she writes about that loss.

In the memoir, Ordinary Light, she also considers the loss of her mother and of her father, who died in 2008. That was also the year her daughter, Naomi, was born.

Life on Mars  in some ways is an elegy for her father who worked on the Hubble Space Telescope program.

... sealed tight, so nothing escapes. Not even time,
Which should curl in on itself and loop around like smoke.
So that I might be sitting now beside my father
As he raises a lit match to the bowl of his pipe
For the first time in the winter of 1959...

Smith reads “Digging” by Seamus Heaney, the poem she feels “invited her to start writing poetry,” and from “My God, It’s Full of Stars,” a poem she wrote about her father.

...Perhaps the great error is believing we’re alone,
That the others have come and gone — a momentary blip —
When all along, space might be choc-full of traffic,
Bursting at the seams with energy we neither feel
Nor see, flush against us, living, dying, deciding...
(excerpts from "My God, It's Full of Stars")

Tracy graduated from Harvard College in 1994 with a BA in English and American Literature and Afro-American Studies. She earned an MFA from Columbia University.

She taught at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, New York, and at the University of Pittsburgh before joining the faculty at Princeton University in 2005.

Tracy K. Smith discusses her interest in science-fiction and the research for her book, Life on Mars

Smith lives in Princeton with her husband, Raphael Allison, and their three children. Her twin sons, Atticus and Sterling, were born in 2013.

Winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize
New York Times Notable Book of 2011
New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice
New Yorker, Library Journal and Publishers Weekly Best Book of the Year

June 10, 2017

Prompt: A Song for the Body

I recently read Marilyn Hacker’s clever poem “Canzone.”  I didn't know much about that form other than it being a kind of song. Her poem is a song to a part of the body - the tongue.

The tongue is certainly an organ with many uses, and to a poet certainly one of interest since it form our words. She writes that it is “sinewy and singular, the tongue / accomplishes what, perhaps, no other organ / can.”

If you read "Canzone" online on our main site or in her Selected Poems 1965-1990, you can see how she examines the multi-uses of the tongue and also how she plays with the words (particularly "organ") as can be seen in this illustrative excerpt from the poem.

...we give
the private contemplations of each organ
to the others, and to others, organ-

ize sensations into thought. Sentient organ-
isms, we symbolize feeling, give
the spectrum (that’s a symbol) each sense organ
perceives, by analogy, to others. Disorgan-
ization of the senses is an acquired taste
we all acquire: as speaking beasts, it’s organ-
ic to our discourse. The first organ
of acknowledged communion is the tongue
(tripartite diplomat, which after tongu-
ing a less voluble expressive organ
to wordless efflorescences of pleasure
offers up words to reaffirm the pleasure.)

​​Marilyn Hacker likes forms. Another interesting poem of hers is the “Villanelle For D.G.B." The poem we are looking at this month for a prompt is labeled a canzone. In ​Edward Hirsch's useful reference The Essential Poet's Glossary (which is the shorter and more focused version of his big encyclopedic A Poet's Glossary ), he notes that this form gets its name from the Italian word for "song."  This lyric poem originates in medieval Italy and France with troubadours and wandering musicians. ​Petrarch established this form of lyric love poem with stanzas of five or six lines, ending with an envoi, and Dante Alighieri was an admirer of the canzone.

Dante created his own version which Hirsch calls "maddeningly difficult... using the same five end-words in each of the five 12-line stanzas, intricately varying the pattern.”​

I don't like to use forms as prompts that are so difficult that they stop poets from attempting to write. Since Hacker, Dante and others have taken liberties with the canzone, we will too. Certainly, you can try to adhere to the form if you like the challenge of a form.

The canzone generally has 5 to 7 stanzas probably meant to be set to music. A end rhyme scheme, as one would suspect of a song, is usually followed.

Your canzone can be as short as two stanzas, because it must conclude with an envoi. The envoi (or envoy) is a short stanza at the end of a poem used either to address an imagined or actual person or to comment on the preceding body of the poem. In general, envois have fewer lines than the main stanzas of the poem

True canzones (and many songs) have a strict number of syllables. For our purposes, you should keep the length of lines equal, even if not strict about syllables. Swinburne worked with the canzone meter in “Hendecasyllabics

In the month of the long decline of roses
I, beholding the summer dead before me,
Set my face to the sea and journeyed silent...

For our June prompt, write a song/canzone to a part of the body

Deadline for submissions is July 2, 2017

For more on the canzone form:
Daryl Hines - “Canzone”
John Hollander​ - “About the Canzone"

June 5, 2017

The First Published Poet in America

Who was the first published poet in America? Anne Bradstreet.

Anne was a Puritan mother of eight children. She is considered to be one of our earliest feminists and the first true poet in the American colonies.

Her collection, The Tenth Muse (AKA The Tenth Muse, lately Sprung up in America), was published by a printer without her consent or knowledge.

The "Tenth Muse" can refer to the ancient Greek poet Sappho.

She wrote the poem below in response to a second edition of that unauthorized edition being printed.

The Author to Her Book
by Anne Bradstreet

Thou ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain,
Who after birth didst by my side remain,
Till snatched from thence by friends, less wise than true,
Who thee abroad, exposed to public view,
Made thee in rags, halting to th’ press to trudge,
Where errors were not lessened (all may judge).
At thy return my blushing was not small,
My rambling brat (in print) should mother call,
I cast thee by as one unfit for light,
The visage was so irksome in my sight;
Yet being mine own, at length affection would
Thy blemishes amend, if so I could.
I washed thy face, but more defects I saw,
And rubbing off a spot still made a flaw.
I stretched thy joints to make thee even feet,
Yet still thou run’st more hobbling than is meet;
In better dress to trim thee was my mind,
But nought save homespun cloth i’ th’ house I find.
In this array ‘mongst vulgars may’st thou roam.
In critic’s hands beware thou dost not come,
And take thy way where yet thou art not known;
If for thy father asked, say thou hadst none;
And for thy mother, she alas is poor,
Which caused her thus to send thee out of door.

The Works of Anne Bradstreet

May 14, 2017

On the History of the Sonnet

To supplement this month's sonnet writing prompt, here is poet Linda Gregerson discussing the history of the sonnet at Poets Forum in New York City in 2015.