Friday, April 30, 2010

Poetry Friday - The Clover. The Plover.

When visiting San Francisco last week, I went into the Mission District (thanks to recent VCFA graduate Sharry Wright for the invitation to wander with her and with fellow graduate Sarah Tomp)  to 826 Valencia (the kids' writing center founded by Dave Eggers) and bought a book at their "Pirate Supply Store." First published in 1907, this little book, titled How to Tell the Birds from the Flowers (the original had a subtitle: A Revised Manual of Fornithology for Beginners) was written and illustrated by someone named Robert Williams Wood (1868-1955) - I had NO clue when I bought the book who he was, but I've found out since then that he was a physicist and inventor, well-known for his work in optics and ultra-violet light. He invented something called the "liquid mirror astronomical telescope" and was the father of infrared photography. Not the typical resume for a poet.  It's going to be his birthday on Sunday, so posting this is an homage w/ birthday celebration.

The gist of the book is this: An animal and a flower are compared in each poem. The names of animal and flower must sound alike. Here's a look at the some of the pairings:

The Crow. The Crocus.
The Tern. The Turnip.
The Lark. The Larkspur.
The Parrot. The Carrot.
The Quail. The Kale.

And here's one in its entirety, called The Clover. The Plover. 

The clover and the plover
Can be told apart with ease,
By paying close attention
To the habits of the Bees.
For ento-molo-gists aver,
The Bee can be in Clover,
While ety-molo-gists concur,
There is no B in Plover.

That is just plain great. I wish my name were at the bottom of that.
Today's Poetry Friday Round-up is being hosted by Mary Ann  over  at Great Kids Books. Go see what other people are posting there.

Also: If you're in SF, have a bite to eat at Cafe Divine, on Washington Square in North Beach. Food is SCRUMPTIOUS, atmosphere is just what you want when you come in from a sunny interlude watching people at Washington Square.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Earth Day: Gerard Manley Hopkins' Pied Beauty


GLORY be to God for dappled things—
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced—fold, fallow, and plough;
And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.
All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.
                      Gerard Manley Hopkins

For some breathtaking photographs of Mother Nature at work, take a look at Ragnar Th. Siggurdson's recent photos of the volcano in Iceland.

I also recommend going to to look for thought-provoking talks about this amazing planet of ours. Here are a few:
Nature's Designs - Janine Benyus
Underwater Astonishments - David Gallo
Changes in the Sea - Sylvia Earle

Thursday, April 15, 2010

POETRY FRIDAY - Oulipo, Lipo, O, O, O

O, O, O, So many different kinds of bodies.....

Over at the Miss Rumphius Effect this week Tricia asked us to compose lipograms for the Poetry Stretch. Technically, a lipogram is "a kind of constrained writing"  in which a particular letter or group of letters is left out. Obviously, leaving out letters like x, z, or j isn't difficult. But leaving out vowels is a little harder. The most famous extended lipogram - novel length - is probably Georges Perec's  La Disparition, translated by Gilbert Adair into English as VOID - leaving out "e," the most common letter in both French and English. Imagine writing a novel without using the word "the"? (And up to the end of that last sentence, I used 43 e's!) The Oulipo group, which Perec was part of (as is Italo Calvino)  encourages a lot of this kind of word play.

So here is a much much simpler solution to the challenge - no novels for me! The only vowel I used was "o" - though I tossed in a y. Simple or not, I had fun. I love the way restrictions actually free you up from what you might produce if all you tried to do with poetry was "express your feelings." This poem expresses mine, but I wouldn't have gotten there without the restriction.Thanks again, Tricia.


knows how

to go
slow now,

to fool Doom,
to bow down -

to grow

knows not

how to grow
cool, nor cold,

knows not

to stop,
poor sot.

Poetry Friday today is being rounded up by Jules at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Check out what other people have posted! Since I'm going to be very busy tomorrow, I'll post now - Poetry Thursday!


Friday, April 9, 2010

Poetry Friday: From the Wishing Bone Cycle - Howard Norman

One night I was wishing things all over. 
Then, I thought there were too many stars
in the sky
and not enough light down under,
in the earth. 
That's when I wished a star down
for that mole
to carry on his nose. 
He took it down under. 
He walked around with it under there
and tried it out. 
Now he comes up sometimes
to let his star talk to the other stars
in the sky. 
It's dark down there
but his nose sees where he's going.  

I often cite W.H. Auden, Seamus Heaney, James Merrill, Dylan Thomas, Kay Ryan, and Richard Kenney as my favorite poets. If I'm thinking about kids, I include Lewis Carroll, Walter de la Mare, A.A. Milne, and now Alice Shertle and Joyce Sidman. But if I had to grab one book of poetry off my shelves as I was escaping a burning house (do other people think about things like that?) I might just choose The Wishing Bone Cycle, a collection of narrative poems from the Swampy Cree tribe, gathered and translated by Howard Norman. I often take it out and read it; it never disappoints me. The poems are, as Jerome Rothenberg says in his preface, beautiful in a "gentle, crazy" way. I hope you will all look for it - it's out of print, but it's worth hunting to find a used copy. Reading the poems straight through (which is something I rarely do with a book of poetry) has a cumulative effect that is unlike anything other gathering of poems in a single volume. Howard Norman, of course, has translated them brilliantly - no surprise there, considering his own gifts as a poet and novelist of such books as The Bird Artist and Devotion. Here is one more sample:

One time I wished myself 
into a moose deer.
I was lying down and sleeping
with my own shadow
and then you came along
saying the sun was in your mouth, 
saying you were thirsty! 
I wished you to where you drank tears. 
It was a lake
everyone cried into,
full of people's tears. 
At night
some of the tears left
to look for sad faces
to fall down. 
Then the whole lake cried. 
Some said it was the loons. 

Poetry Friday today is being hosted by the people over at the PaperTigers blog . celebrates multicultural writing from all over the world, with a particular emphasis on the Pacific Rim and South Asia. I hope you will go to their blog site to see what people have posted for Poetry Friday this week. And click here for an interesting article about the art of translation.

I also hope you will read the Wednesday 4/7 post on Cynsations, where author Cynthia Leitich Smith provides information about how to help with Operation TBD - 10,000 Books to Be Delivered on Native Reservations and Tribal Land - a worthy cause, putting books right into the classrooms and librariess of young Native American kids.

Friday, April 2, 2010

Poetry Friday: Asking Questions

Imaginary Menagerie by Julie Larios 
Illustrations by Julie Paschkis

Listen to the waves
break on the shore--
half song, half roar. 
Listen to the beach 
answer back--
half cry, half laugh. 
Underneath it all 
you might hear a splash, 
you might hear a call ,
or you might hear a sigh, 
long and low. 
What does she say,
part woman, part fish? 
I wish....I wish....

I seem to have a soft spot for questions, especially questions that can be answered more than one way. To me, ambiguity - different understandings of a single object - is exciting. It's at the heart of poetry, because it's at the heart of metaphor. For me, a poem is richer if its images and its meanings are open to interpretation.

I heard a teacher once ask her students,  "What does the snow stand for?" when discussing Frost's Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening. I listened to the kids (these were junior high school age)  try to come up with what they thought the teacher wanted to hear. They started guessing. Someone said, "Winter?" and the teacher said, "No...." and someone said "Things that get in the way of what we want to do?" Another student asked, "Old age?" and the teacher said, "'re getting close...." and then someone said, "Death?" and the teacher said "Yes! Death!" I was glad to hear Frost's poem reach the ears of those students - and God bless teachers who use poetry in their classrooms.  But I think the poem was done a disservice. A good case could be made for the snow's "meaning" to be any of those three, plus multiple others. The job of the teacher is not necessarily to teach the "right" meaning of the poem's images - it's to teach how poetry lends itself to our multiple interpretations, and does so with beautiful language and fresh images.

That's why I like to put questions in poems. I want a poem to go out and puzzle people, so that they need to come back to it a few times before they decide what it means to them.  I don't want it to be completely opaque and difficult - I'm not a Language poet -  but I don't want it to be completely clear. There should be some mystery about the meaning - there should be some ambiguity.

In one of my book for kids, Imaginary Menagerie, I ask readers to answer many questions for themselves; sometimes I provide half answers, or riddle answers. What does a mermaid say who is half woman, half fish? "I wish...I wish..." is the only answer. "What does she wish?" kids ask me when I read this poem at schools. "What do you think she wishes?" I ask. You would be surprised how many answers kids come up with.

Who will sing a golden song to a firebird? Who will set it free? "Would you?" I ask. And off the kids go, to imagine their courage, and to imagine what they would sing. I ask whether we believe a centaur can be half man, half horse. "The answer is no. And yes, of course."  The kids ask, "How can the answer be yes and no?" And I answer with a question, "How can the centaur be half man, half horse?" So we go around in circles!   A cockatrice who is half snake, half rooster, asks if he should crow or hiss. The kids aren't sure, but they all have an opinion. The desert sand asks, "How Why? Where?" and the kids want to know "How what? Where what?" But the poem goes on to say, "No one can answer the sand." The poem about the gargoyles asks, "How can a beast speak with a stone tongue, with a stone throat?" There isn't just one answer - "And that's the beauty of poetry, isn't it?" I ask.

The Poetry Friday round-up is being hosted today over at Book Aunt. Check out what people are sharing - and wow, they're sharing a lot, because it's APRIL - it's National Poetry Month!! Go celebrate!