Category: Blog

Listen to “Little Orphant Annie;” Listen to – And Read – Our Newest Issue

Hi guys,

Just another short update this time. I’ve recorded another Halloween poem for your amusement; it’s James Whitcomb Riley’s “Little Orphant Annie,” which is written in the vernacular. I quite enjoy it as a slightly-less usual Halloween offering. Riley actually based his “Annie” off of a real orphan whom he knew – she went by “Allie,” however, and due to a type-setting error most later editions of his poems changed the name from “Allie” to “Annie.” Riley was known as the “Hoosier” poet, for his way of writing in vernacular and about common, everyday subjects. As a result the poem might sound just a tiny bit funny when you listen, as I did try to stay true to the dialact in which it’s written, but it was a fun exercise in language. I hope that you enjoy.

On another note, the newest issue of Kenning (SIX!) is here! I can’t believe we’ve made it to six issues. That may not sound like a lot but there’s both a lot of work and cat-wrangling that goes into every issue we put out. We discuss every submission as a group, whether it’s rejected or accepted, and then of course have to upload them true to form and include sound as well. Beyond that, there’s the solicitation of art for each issue (if you guys know any artists, have them send us copies of their work!) and general organizational principals which can prove very difficult for us here on the staff. :)

I’m really excited with what Kenning has done so far, and I look forward to participating in the making of Issues 7, 8 and who knows how many after that. Best wishes to all who read.

Thanks,

E. H.

October Audio Poem #1: The Raven, by Edgar Allen Poe

The first time I heard this poem was in fourth grade. Of course, it was October, and the librarian at my elementary school was into October, Halloween, bats, cobwebs, the whole nine yards. This is entirely appropriate dressing for libraries. How many horror movies feature scenes in libraries – villains stalking victims through the stacks, the terror of any given corner? The potential for creepiness is great.

For me, with a birthday on Halloween, such features are only bonuses. In fact, the whole month of October is a bit of a bonus for me, as I can indulge in my naturally-somewhat-morbid proclivities and dial dark humor to the utmost. As a result, I thought it would be fun to celebrate with a very light-hearted month of blogging. There will probably be more posts than usual, on subjects such as “What literary character can I be for Halloween?” and “What are the best horror movies featuring poems?” I will be sharing more audio than usual as well – because what’s better than a scary poem or two, in the October night?

At any rate, I hope you enjoy. We have much to look forward to, you and I, before the end of the month, and for me another year.

Click through to listen, or click the image above.

Delineating the Line (Line Breaks, Part I)

I didn’t realize what I was getting into when I decided to write a post about line breaks. It was a topic that often stumped me. When I began this post I realized I had never fully appreciated its depth.

My first experiments with line breaks focused on my own poetry and analyzing my break use. I began to pay attention to particularly successful line breaks in others’ poetry. Terance Hayes’ particularly impressed me, but didn’t help me articulate what constituted a “good” line break.

I began searching online for information. For most subjects, this yields enough for a fully fleshed blog post, and buoys my confidence in my own understanding, but the internet was not forthcoming. I found three or four engrossing, thought-out posts by established poets (Denise Levertov, Dana Goia) and organizations (Warning: Linked Article Is Irritating – Poetry magazine), but beyond that it was mostly lesson plans for middle school intro to poetry units. There was also a wealth of opinionated amateur blog posts* that often contradicted each other and sometimes the opinions of the more established poets whose opinions I’d perused.

I traipsed to a real ink-and-mortar library, at my local university. A search yielded four potentially useful books. Of these, one was somewhat helpful and one more relevant than I could have hoped. I discarded the other books, after review.

A lot can be said about line breaks. I do not present this first post as a complete discussion of the line. I’d prefer to approach this as the beginning of a series. I can’t speak to how frequently this series will appear, but as I explore line breaks, I’ll share what I learn. I hope you don’t object to being my partner in this, my extended exploration of the poetic line.


So begins Line Breaks, Part I.

Line breaks create certain types of lines. The type of line created can then be used to typify the mechanism at work behind a poet’s choice in breaks.

I sought to divide line breaks into “most basic type.” Doing so, I identified three major categories. This is based on my observations, but echoes (with different verbiage) Dana Goia’s article “13 Ways of Looking At Line Breaks.” These categories, listed from most to least restrictive, are breaks that create either:

“closed” lines
“formed” lines, or
open lines

Goia would refer to these as “metrical,” “visual,” and “syntactic” breaks. I prefer “closed” as it allows more leeway – I *think.* That may just be semantics.

“Closed” lines are those whose length, typically measured in meter or syllable, is predetermined by the poem’s form, or structure. Form is usually chosen before or at poem creation, so it is also predetermined. Examples of such forms include sonnets (line determined by meter), haiku (line determined by syllables), villanelles, sestinas, tanka, etc. Blank verse also uses closed lines, as blank verse consists of iambic pentameter, as opposed to free verse, with no such restriction.

“Formed” lines are shaped per the poet’s vision when they create a poem. Here, meter may not determine line length, but physical appearance on the page does. “Shape” poems, such as “Easter Wings,” belong in this category. These are less restrictive than closed lines because, while each line must be a proscribed length, that length can vary and is established at the whim of the poet, as opposed to by the rules of an outside form. I include black-out poems in this category, as the poet chooses and can alter the layout of the base text use to create a black-out poem, which ultimately creates a visual impact.

“Open” lines are the least restrictive line type. Guidance which applies to this type does not apply to the others, as the latter’s described restrictions override these general principles. However, leveraging these principles when writing more restrictive verse would not weaken it.

The basic guidelines for open lines seem to be:

  • the words at the start and end of each line develop paramount importance due to their placement. Break lines with this consideration in mind. Particularly weak words on which to break lines include most “helper” words – a, to, of, and, if, or, on, etc. (This becomes a difficult guideline to practice – how often do you use two “strong, important” words immediately after each other in a sentence? But is a good theory and makes a very important point about how words are visually perceived in a poem or line.)
  • contrary to everything your english teacher told you in middle school, the line break is a form of punctuation and does cause line rhythm and pitch to alter, in addition to creating a small pause in and of itself (this mainly comes from Levertov, but Goia acknowledges it). Your teacher just didn’t want you to think you could ditch commas or periods in hot pursuit of the merry line break.
  • line breaks play a large impact on the speed and flow of a poem. Shorter line breaks slow a poem. Long lines speed it up. This becomes interesting to consider when comparing poets who generally write in shorter lines (Kay Ryan springs to mind) to those who write longer lines or even prose poems, whose lines run margin to margin and therefore are very long indeed.
  • the key to a “good” or “effective” line break lies in its consideration. There should be some reason, for the line to break where it does. Line breaks placed “just because” and for no other reason miss out on the opportunity to capitalize on one of the important nuances of poetry. if you do not attempt to use line breaks to convey meaning/emotion/speed/etc, you are missing out on an opportunity.

These represent the very basic types of line and break. They are difficult and slippery in definition and mastery. I look forward to exploring them with you, dear Reader.


 

*There is nothing wrong with opinionated amateur blog posts. This is an amateur blog chock-full of such. They are simply not my preferred source – they are the same caliber as this blog post, and I think it is better to strive upwards when providing sources for a given type of written product.

The Foot and The River

from heraclitus

The thought being, see, you can’t ever be in the same river twice. Though you may stand in the same wet space you stood before, water so obviously, rapidly, moves through a river that the lesson becomes apparent. You may plant your foot exactly where you’d previously, but nothing around remains.


This might be the same river, but it ain’t the same river at all.


 

A college professor of mine would amend this conclusion further. He would agree: yes, you can’t put your foot in the same river twice – then expound: nor can anyone put their same foot in the same river twice. Our own change may be overshadowed, juxtaposed against the crash and whitewater of a full river, but it is as much a matter of constance. Examining our inevitable volatility over time gives rise to uncomfortable considerations of mortality, perhaps. Life’s malleability may intimidate, but it is a boon.

Platitudes about change are manifold. Say something “change” might be. Say the opposite. Whatever you pick, the words will sound stale and trite on the tongue, already said. Change, as a word, can encapsulate or refer to nearly anything. Change is good – and bad. It can be hard, but it’ll get better. Sometimes change is “same shit, different day.” Sometimes it’s different shit, same day. Even when absolute, it is rare for change to completely devastate or renovate its object. Some vestiges of habit or routine often linger, pallid ghosts or tenacious underground structures too-engrained in our lives to completely disappear. When change comes, we remind ourselves of the new opportunities that it affords. “When one door shuts, another opens.” If not a door, a window. If not a window, perhaps a letter slot. Often, there is an irony to change: everyone seems to want it until it happens. Then, like spawning salmon, we struggle upstream against it.

As a loose and general principle humans do not seem fond of change. Pop psychiatrists and scientists both tell us we are creatures of habit, that our habits make us, so an aversion to change logically follows. Change represents, very often, the unknown. A mystery cannot be trusted. But imagine how boring, the undynamic life – how flat our plots and characters would be, static, inelectric. How impossible then, to write very much poetry.

Drama may be tiresome, uncomfortable, even irritable, but it entertains.

Fall, I think, summons these and such thoughts. To me, fall is the quintessential season of change. It is the season where we watch the world, in many ways, die. This conclusion proves especially unavoidable with a fall birthday, which forces me to acknowledge each year’s gradual passing abruptly, discretely, while around me the leaves and temperatures drop. I often establish yearly goals on my birthday, which are nothing but ways I’d like to direct life’s inherent change. Another irony: the attempt to control change, as it comes.

To commemorate fall’s commencement, I’ve chosen three poems that deal with change and subsequent transformations, in terms more express than general. I hope that you enjoy them.

I begin with Egor Letov’s “Optimism.” Although this poem’s ending is a little heavy-handed, I chose “Optimism” because it possesses an amount of the irony of change. The poem, also available as a song(Letov was both a poet and a musician, as well as an existentialist and nihilist), concerns itself with the ultimate change, death. It highlights the immediacy of mortality via duality. Each line of the first three stanzas begins with a specific life action and ends with an affirmation of death. Therein lies the irony: although the poem is, frankly, obsessed with the inevitable change that death represents, it is determinedly repetitive. It is as if the narrator is attempting to control these circumstances via emphasizing them – as if a constant awareness of death might help mitigate the pain of loss. As a result of this quirk I find “Optimism” worth consideration. On the other hand, I’d gloss over the final three lines. They don’t seem to further the poem effectively and at this point the repetition loses its force. While they attempt to subvert the poem by presenting its perspective as optimism, the title gives this attempt away, and the poem might improve sans its concluding tercet.

Although I might gripe about the formatting idiosyncrasies of Yehuda Amichai’s “A Pity, We Were Such A Good Invention,” only the capitalized lines, not the content of the poem, throw me off. It, too, deals with an inevitable change and subsequent loss. “Invention” discusses the departure of a loved one, less fatally than “Optimism.” In this case it appears that societal or outside pressures acted upon a seemingly-happy relationship to dismantle it. “Invention”’s narrator mourns these influences and their impact. However, it’s important to consider that a truly stable relationship should be able to withstand  assault from the exterior world. I wonder if the narrator presents an idealistic view of something lost, which he did not wish to lose – but which, perhaps, the other party was more willing to leave behind. After all, the last line, “We even flew a little,” seems to imply that for a metaphorical airplane, the pair wasn’t terribly successful. Isn’t flight a minimum aeroplane requirement – its purpose? An airplane that flies “a little” is about as desirable as a driver who obeys red lights occasionally.

I left Jane Hirschfield’s “Changing Everything” for last because of the three, it is my favorite. Hirschfield injects this poem with great humor with her understated, defiant narrator. There’s a definite feeling that the narrator’s actions are really a reaction to some greater, uncontrollable change that occurs in the narrator’s life outside of the poem, and that the narrator acts as she does so that she may feel she has control over at least one thing in her life, albeit one rather small thing. The minutiae of the narrator’s act, contrasted with her bold statement that she has “changed everything,” cannot help but amuse. The narrator’s very demeanor, resolutely “cold” and heartless, demonstrates a belief that her single, minor action will devastate – but what? Whom? This is not clear. But the narrator would not so forcibly harden her heart while affecting change without some belief that said change would cause significant effect. This makes especial sense considered within the context of a narrator who is struggling with an unnamed change in a life outside of the poem’s moment. Overall, I find this poem wonderfully understated and funny.

Perhaps today I shall publish this post, and it will change everything. J

On the plate for next time: a discussion of line breaks in poetry.

 

P.S. An Honorable Mention for Change Poems goes to Jessica Poli’s “How to Change” in the current issue of Sixth Finch,  which is a “how to” poem that generally defies most of the conventions of said format.

September Audio Poetry: One Art – Elizabeth Bishop

“One Art” is another classic Elizabeth Bishop poem, one which I’ve supposedly successfully memorized in the past. (I manage to temporarily memorize a not-insignificant number of poems, much to my distress.) I remember reciting it in a creative writing class on a particularly vivid and quintessential fall day: the leaves were umber and russet, the breeze was just present, and the sun hot enough to elicit a sweat when I walked briskly, with my ungainly messenger bag.

Things were changing for me that day. I had had one of many “last talks” with a particular crush of mine. This one had felt especially final and as I recited this poem I held back tears. It seemed like an especially appropriate choice to memorize that semester, although I couldn’t possibly have anticipated the events that occurred that year when I picked, at the beginning of the class, to memorize Bishop’s “One Art.”

Things are changing for me this season, too. I have just moved (although admittedly, I have now moved every year for seven years – so this is perhaps a repetitive change). Although this isn’t the place to discuss it, the demands of my job are also increasing and I feel myself facing unexpected day-to-day challenges. Fall is irretrievably linked with change, and often, as a result, some small regret for the unachieved, for me. It can be very hard to approach change positively. In Bishop’s “One Art,” the narrator attempts to, but her underlying attitude is ultimately revealed through the turn in the poem’s final couplet. I, too, am working on my “game face.” However, I am full of hope that the future will bring me both good things – and the things that I want.

Happy fall, and happy listening! Click on the embedded file or click through here to listen.

The Examiner’s Conundrum

Literary analysis often provides a gratifying way to better appreciate an already-favored piece. That’s why I wrote a 25-page paper on Stephen King and horror tropes for my undergraduate senior research project. I also like to revisit favorite poems and break them down in different ways in an attempt to determine what makes them work so well, or at least so personally appealing.

However, two valid, almost-opposing obstructions arise when analysis and examination enter the picture. One can remove all joy from the pleasant, navel-gazing potential of analysis, while the other can strip confidence in one’s ability to “successfully” glean meaning from a work. The latter is often summed in a question many ask when first introduced to analysis: “How do I know I’m right?” or, with more pique, “Do authors really intend to put any of this additional, hidden meaning into their work? If they don’t, does that meaning exist?” then followed by “What about when authors vehemently deny analyzed ‘truths’ of their work?”

I suppose it’s possible that this wasn’t exactly what he was talking about, because sometimes Žižek can be hard to follow. But this was my takeaway, and my interpretation is valid, even if it’s wrong. Misinterpretations can still be accidentally true.*

I think the quote above well addresses such concerns. It’s accurate to observe that not all writers consciously inject their works with all the meaning that analysis uncovers. It’s probable that most don’t. Such deliberation would be harrowing on the part of the creator, and I imagine diminish the enjoyment and creativity of production. In addition, it’s not possible to anticipate all potential interpretations of a text, especially one’s own: the creator’s by necessity close relationship with their product logically prevents a disengaged view and the ability to interpret a product without bias. The emotional attachment of creation blinds one to certain subtleties. This also explains authors who, upon analysis, become upset or enraged at their interpreters’ conclusions. Of course those meanings may not have been meant. However, a lack of deliberation does not equate to a lack of result – how many times, for instance, have we hurt another’s feelings without intention? The result and impact remains. As a result, even unintentional interpretations possess validity.

Once the benefits of analysis are realized, a precocious reader runs the danger of falling in its other trap. Convinced of analysis’ value, the reader may become overly enthused. In advanced cases, subjects believe value cannot be gleaned from a work without its full review. Consequently, our dear reader will often endeavor to analyze everything. This scenario seems especially prevalent in poetry. The idea grows that one cannot truly understand or enjoy a poem without analyzing meter, rhyme, multiple schools of symbolism, temporal context and cultural movements, etc, to determine the given poem’s “message.” This idea insists all poems have messages, and that a failure to locate those messages is a failure on the part of the reader. This trap exhausts. It implies only the most mindful reading and review reveals a work’s value. I thought this way for a long time. I didn’t believe that reading poetry without further consideration could help me improve. I didn’t trust that I would learn a thing without conscious identification and articulation of a, any, every poem’s perceived strengths and flaws. The result? I read less and less. I tore my hair out over “Yes, but what does it mean?” One poem was a marathon. Six lines of surrealism would stymie me for weeks. What did it mean? I stopped enjoying poetry. I’d either feel guilty I wasn’t reading closely enough, or I’d struggle with minutiae, hyper-focussed to determine reasons for every detail in a verse. It is a misconception that one cannot learn from or like a poem based on its surface presentation. This is the unintentional lesson of high school lit classes in which poetry lessons are often compressed, toothless, and antiquated – boring – while ‘successful’ poetic analysis is a high-focus requisite. Unfortunately, this lesson sticks. I think it is one reason many people have difficulty approaching poetry today, in their extracurricular or non-academic lives.

I have learned that sometimes, appreciating a poem’s sound and rhythm is enough. While every fragment of a poem may possess hidden meaning, the identification of such should be a result of interest, not obligation. We can learn unconsciously as we read. When I want to understand a poem’s every nuance, or when I envy its success, then I analyze. Surrealist descriptions do not require me or you to determine what those images represent. Every poem does not need deep, philosophical hidden meaning. And you, beloved reader, need not torture interpretations out of beleaguered verse in order to like or even truly it.

Here is to the freedom of analysis – and the freedom of not having to always indulge in it.

*This quote is from the extremely entertaining article, “If Stalin Had A Ping-Pong Table,” about, of all things, Seinfeld, and published by – of all sources – Buzzfeed.

It’s All Politics – Dreary, Irresistible Politics

I find political poems troublesome. As with any genre they have their excellent moments, but I find most temporally limited. Many political poems are great contextually, within the time period of the events they discuss or are incited by. Once out of that timespan, their power – and their relevance – often fades. The irony is that political poems are inspired by specific current affairs, but maintain the most strength over time when they refrain from too directly referencing them.

Because political poems are so inevitably temporal, they’re also often fashioned with wild, wicked speed. Rattle’s Sunday feature is dedicated to poems that respond to events within the past week! Within six days of Sgt. Bergdahl’s highly polarizing rescue I read about it on Rattle. Considering that typical submission return time often stretches to several months, such rapidity is surprising. I have to wonder about the structural integrity of a poem that moves from idea to print so rapidly.* How much nuance can an idea develop in seven days or less? Maybe the author had a perfect metaphor prepared, awaiting a precise event – but how somewhat sinister the thought, premeditating sadness and drama. Does a dark poet somewhere prepare poems predicting the next serial killer?

No. I suspect I am being dramatic.

But I also suspect political poems. I do not trust a poem written so quickly and so tied to events that will become footnotes in textbooks to achieve great success, in our heartstrings or our memory. However, they represent an important genre nonetheless. Their handling of such difficult and atypical poetic matter should be examined. There is a great challenge in conveying an opinion or message without beating the reader over his or her head with it, and another challenge in well-paced narrative. The genre absolutely merits an explore. While I don’t claim that these three political poems master their genre, they do interest me. I hope you enjoy the read.

The Revolution Will Not Be TelevisedThis poem/song has been on my mind a lot recently. Written by Gil Scott-Heron amidst the 1960s civil unrest, it utilizes a technique I enjoy immensely when done well. “Revolution” describes what it will be by saying what it won’t be. In addition, “Revolution” successfully evokes events and the essence of its time period without explicitly naming them, without resorting to what have become stereotypical images of the 60s ad 70s. Instead, it provides minimist details of hallmarks of that era, although Scott-Heron did not have the benefit of distance to identify those symbols retrospectively. His skill lies in being able to encapsulate them while living among them.

Kari Gunter-Seymour’s “a letter to jani larson on the matter of sgt. bergdahl – This is the poem mentioned above that got my brain kicking on poems and politics. Bergdahl was a very hot topic one, maybe two months ago. Now, especially as certain tumultuous events within our borders rage on, he has faded from the news and our public consciousness. It seems reasonable enough – two months is so very long ago – but tell me. Does anyone know the state of the current Ebola crisis? News pushes out old news, even when that news is not so old at all. This is an effective demonstration of political poetry’s dependence on the temporal; success by seizing current events.

Khaled Juma, “Oh rascal children of Gaza…” – To be honest, again because of certain political explosions occurring within the US borders, this poem also seems less relevant than it felt to me nine days ago. However, it’s heartbreaking because unresolved conflict still wages on in Gaza and Palestine, although for now the violence has paused. This poem because it successfully conveys much, without blatantly stating its intentions. It effectively shows, but doesn’t tell. In addition, it’s an excellent example of a poem that gains in meaning via subverting its initial images and thoughts.

Although the point of these posts is three, I cannot leave you without one additional poem. “In The Loop” by Bob Hicok is perhaps the poem that pulls the most on expressing a personal experience and reaction to an event, and then ties that experience into what amounts to a political stance. This work manages to maintain verisimilitude and evoke sympathy from its readers because of how clearly it is written because something needs to be worked through: the narrator of a poem is never the author of the poem, lit class drums into us, but this poem’s narrator seems very near to being Bob Hicok himself. And it seems that this version of Bob Hicok writes poems in order to process and to grieve. This makes the poem deeply personal, and that is where it derives unexpected power.

(If you are curious, Rattle’s most recent Sunday poem responded to the news of Robin Williams’ death. Personally, I felt it lacked efficacy.)


*This is not to discount the hard work of the fine writers published at Rattle. I am sure these poems were worked over with great dedication and repeatedly. However, as someone who can take several months to polish a poem, a week seems incredible.

“The Conjugation of the Paramecium” – Audio Poem: August

Some poems are made. Some poems exist, wild in the world, waiting for the right person to find them and write them down.

Muriel Rukeyser’s “Conjugation of the Paramecium” is one of the latter. It’s one of my favorite types of poems – the factual kind, the one that relies on the beauty of real, even scientific facts in order to convey some sort of message, or at least a story, to its audience. I would hesitate, and shy away from, the idea that all poems must have messages. I’ll talk about that in a later post, but I believe the practice can drive one to frustration and oblivion.

Anyway, I was introduced to “Conjugation” in college. A girl in one of my poetry classes chose it for a memorization or presentation, and I remember moderately enjoying it. I wasn’t struck with it then, however. Then I “lost” the poem, forgetting it entirely until somehow, without conscious cause, it perked up into my mind and I re-found it, on my own. I ultimately chose to memorize it myself my final year of college. (It amazes me, by the way, how many poems I’ve supposedly memorized – many pieces of them have been lost.)

It is a long and narrow poem, free of ornamental language or ornate imagery, and I appreciate it for its directness and simplicity. I hope you enjoy it too.

Click through to listen.

What I Talk About When I Talk About Writing*

In sixth grade I had a reading teacher with a poster in her classroom. It read, “Read Every Day.” At the beginning of the year she asked how many of us read every day. Some portion of the class raised their hands. That’s when she corrected the rest of them.

“How do you know what classroom you’re in right now?” she asked. “How do you know what my name is? How do you know what your homework assignments are?” (They were written on the board.)

“That’s right,” she said, as we began to cotton on to her argument. “See that poster? That says read every day? If you didn’t read every day, you wouldn’t be able to get through life. You wouldn’t know to stop at stop signs. You wouldn’t know where to find toilet paper in the grocery store. Reading is essential. All of you do it all of the time.”

That’s how I feel about writing. We all write, every day. We have to. Whether it’s email, a text, a grocery list: all of these are kinds of writing, and I think it’s important to recognize how much of it we do on a sheer minimal level. In that regard we are all, always, writers. Text messages are a modern medium for story-telling: stories about how our day went, how we feel, what we think. Twitter, though it consists of 140-character quips, is a narrative tool. Consider good tweets the shortest version of finessed flash fiction. Best is that the more we use these varied methods, the better we get (hopefully) at conveying our stories. We learn to pace: how long must one hold a punch line to elicit the right chuckle? We learn structure: where should we begin telling what happened at the bar last night? Is it better to start with this morning’s text from the guy you forgot you gave your number to, or would it better serve the story to begin with the back-to-back tequila shots with which the night began?

I often have email conversations with friends at work. They provide a good opportunity to ask such questions. But unfortunately, sometimes problems can arise when we finesse our interpersonal communications to a certain degree. Everyone develops their own lexicon and style. Sometimes, these linguistic habits become ingrained within us and our friends to such an extent that we forget not everyone speaks, or writes, how we do. Have you ever conversed with someone and not been sure what their words said – what they meant, perhaps, by some specific phrase? While both speaking English, exchanging common words, somehow the interpretation was off.This hiccup is often exacerbated by written communication, which strips facial cues and tonal hints from the message. Was he joking? Is she being sarcastic?

Sometimes you meet someone who gets your personal lexicon. It can be great to meet to meet someone and realize you can talk all day and immediately understand another. Other times it can be real work, or at least real confusing, a battle to meet in the middle. I like to think of these times as challenges, a call-to-arms that can enable one to build an understanding of the flexibility of language and expand personal collections of diction and flair. I am a magpie with slang, phrases, and jargon – I treasure and collect them whenever possible. I joke that I keep up with slang by hanging out with my 20-year-old sister; she keeps me current.

We are all writers. I think it’s valuable to approach the world, literature, and text in general with that approach, to consider that even the person who thinks they never write really writes constantly. And this, dear readers, is what I talk about when I talk about writing.

*With my apologies to Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”

Poetry’s For The Birds

I’ve been wanting to write this post for a long time. Almost as long as I’ve been writing for this blog, in fact. I have “bird poems” on blog-idea-lists from over a year ago. 

A while ago I’d noticed, you see, that poets seem to have this thing ­with birds. Birds show up all over poems. And what started to get to me was that almost every time a bird showed up in a poem, it was this transcendent, beautiful, flying, gorgeous fictionalized concoction of a creature. The bird was breathtaking. The bird was symbolic. The bird could not be killed, or evil would overtake your ship and crew and make you a social pariah, doomed to re-tell the terrible story for eternity. (Thanks, ht) Clearly, in the poetic canon, fowl were sacrosanct.

I love subversion. So I set my sights on birds.

You see, last August I sat through four hours of legal training. The training took place on the top floor of a building in which I don’t usually work – up on 14. I’m not good in meetings. Terrible attention span, me. So when a giant black bird with the widest trowel beak landed on the nearby roof and began flapping and grooming, I was fascinated. I was especially struck by the bird’s grotesque ugliness; the awkward way it hopped from tile to tile, how its feathers stuck out, odd and uneven. It struck me that the common representation of birds in poetry is idealistically inaccurate. Up close, most birds are anything but regal.

I think poets use birds to represent an ultimate grace or quality we cannot grasp. There’s something romantic about hollow bones. When in flight birds exude effervescence, embody liberty – but consider, also, how little there is to trip over, airborne. There is an unconsidered reality in poetry surrounding birds that I think should be explored with all the glee that comes with trope reversal.[1]

At any rate, I wanted to highlight three bird poems that break past their ubiquity. As usual I chose to eschew classics, in part for their role in creating the current feathery paradigms – but I provide links to some of what I consider essential bird poetry at close-of-post. Here, I’d like to discuss somewhat more current selections that fit my taste. Without further ado, I present three poems that feature those mortal winged creatures of air and light.

In Charlotte Boulay’s “Murmuration,” from her book “Foxes on Trampolines,” the potential to descend into romanticism is averted via concrete, stream-of-consciousness narration. Boulay’s narrator describes birds, yes, but instead of a single specimen the poem treats a flock of birds as the unit it becomes in air, as the group practices pinpoint swoops and signaling to perform as a functional whole. In ways, the flock’s movement recalls the inaccurate characterization of lemmings as pack creatures that follow so blindly as to run over cliffs – but precise unity is necessary to avoid midair collision. murmuration

Late Valentine

from the NPR interview with Dean Young here

We weren’t exactly children again,
too many divorces, too many blood panels,
but your leaning into me was a sleeping bird.
Sure, there was no way to be careful enough,
even lightning can go wrong but when the smoke
blows off, we can admire the work the fire’s done
ironing out the wrinkles in favor of newer ones,
ashy furrows like the folds in the brain
that signal the switchbacks and reversals
of our thought and just as brief. Your lips
were song, your hair everywhere.
Oh unknowable, fidgeting self, how little
bother you were then, no more
than a tangerine rind. Oh unknowable
other, how I loved your smell.
- Dean Young

Dean Young always reminds me of birds. As it turns there are fewer birds than I remember in his book, “Fall Higher,” but this poem contains an important one. “Young Valentine”‘s narrator’s lover is a bird embodied, first as she emotionally “lean[s]” to him, then physically: the “fidgeting self,” “no more than a tangerine rind” – light and flitful, a being full of “song.” As the poem progresses, the narrator’s regret becomes clear, and the depiction of his former lover as something so other than human, the epitome of uncatchable conveys his past love’s ephemeral nature well.

In “As Children Know,” by Jimmy Santiago Baca, birds appear twice – first a blackbird as scene setting, then an atypical presentation of the narrator’s heart as bird, a metaphor whose strength deepens if one considers that a heart is housed within the cage of one’s ribs. Elegant indeed! The Red Bird is a wild counterpoint to the narrator’s orderly outer image, and the motif of birds as innately uncontainable repeats as the Red Bird “thrashes” against structure, longing after other personified elements of the earth and Native American mythology that appear within the poem. apache poet

Birds in poetry are deeply symbolic. Humans have long been fascinated with, and envious of, their ability to soar, dart, and dive far above us. Although we imitate flight, ours will never be as innate or seem as graceful. To us, birds represent, in many ways, the impossible. Is it any wonder we, especially writers, surround ourselves with them, putting them where we don’t even realize until after the fact?

Additional Reading

Bird-Named Literary Magazines
Birdfeast
Sixth Finch
Blackbird
Heavy Feather
Corvus (no longer operational, but check out back issues)  [2]
Barn Owl Review

Essential Bird Poems
Leda and the Swan – Yeats
13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird – Stevens
Linnets – Levis
To A Waterfowl – Hall  (Previously discussed here)
The Writer – Richard Wilbur (Listen to me read it here)
Save the Candor – Amit Majumudar  (Previously discussed here; listen to me read it here)

(Footnotes)

1: I experimented with bird poems for a while as a result of this. I am proud to say that “Birds Vol. 2″ will be published by Cider Press Review at a coming date.

2: Full disclosure, I have previously been published in Corvus and am sad to see they are defunct.

Let’s Talk About Preferences

I hate olives and lima beans. Can’t stand either, though I try each from time to time, just in case. It helps that Bloody Marys have an olive garnish. Lima beans, I’m afraid, are probably eternally damned.

I have a coworker who can’t stand tomatoes, cooked or raw. She picks them out of her soup. I, on the other hand, will happily slice and salt them and eat them raw.

We all have things we like, and others we can’t stand. For the fun of it, today I’m talking about certain poetic flairs, tendencies, or style choices that simply jive poorly with me. Some of them drive me bonkers.

But before I get into the meat of this post, a disclaimer: my views are not representative of the views of the editorial staff of Kenning Journal. While I am one editor and participate in the selection process, we form a triumvirate. This post is not meant as a guide to help poets get into Kenning, nor should it be used as a such. I can think of at least two items on this list that I dislike, but other members of the editorial staff wholeheartedly enjoy. I don’t want anyone to edit their poem(s) to fit my personal whims as represented in this post. I can be wrong about things and often even am. It’s important for poets to develop their individual voice – and with that comes their individual taste. Just do you.

With that said, there are some artistic techniques used by entire writing schools, it seems, that immediately set off Big Red Warning Bells in my head when I spot them in a poem. The presence of one isn’t enough to immediately discount a poem, but after enough of these small ticks add up it becomes very difficult for me to see the poem outside of them – I can’t see the forest for the trees and all of the trees are covered in poison ivy and somehow rubbing against me. At that point, all I want is to get out of the damn poem. Today, I’m going to talk about those.

For starters, line breaks. Line breaks are definitely a challenge to any poet, and something I struggle with to this day. (I hope to write about them in the future.) I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment that “Line breaks are hard.” That being said, whenever I see a poem that uses line breaks to place single word on a single line,

like

this,

I am wary. The more single-word lines there are, the more suspicious I become. This is in part because of a tendency I had as a young poet to splash line breaks down anywhere. It greatly frustrated a dear friend of mine, one of my Constant Readers. “Emily!” he said. “They must have meaning! What is so special about this word that it deserves to go on its own?”  Thanks to him, that question always arises when I see an isolated word in a poem. The weight of a word cannot derive solely from its placement on a page; the meaning of the poem must support that placement as well. All too often I find one-word lines heavy-handed, too deliberate and too emphasized, which I find poets should strive against. Poems are things of delicacy. You should never pound me over the head with one.

Another tendency I’ve noticed among some poets, which annoys me and yet at the same time is a little thing, a technical detail, is the capitalization of the first word of every line, closely followed by errant capitalization, when writing in free verse or enjambed lines. I admit I am a grammar purist, but for me capital letters are reserved solely for beginning sentences or for making Very Important, Occasionally Farcical Points. I accept historical capitalization in poets of a certain era, for instance Emily Dickinson’s frequently wayward practices, but unless done deliberately and as a conscious riff on established practices or tropes, such capital letters only put me off. Although I’d like to believe this capitalization is solely the work of militant Autocorrect programs, I’ve seen it often enough and in “big enough” poets’ work to believe that it is a real distinction between poets, the result of conscious stylistic choice and not overzealous, artless word processors. This is a great example where there appear to be two divergent schools of thought on the issue; I land in one.

For an example of another poetic preference, as I’ve previously mentioned, I believe that 90-95% of gerunds used in poetry could be cut out and replaced with stronger versions of the verb. I also steadfastly believe that gerunds are overused for their easy creation of sing-song rhythm and pseudo-rhyme, which make a poem sound at first listen much more complex, difficult, and finessed than it is. As a result I’ve developed a habit of counting the number of gerunds used, especially in quick succession, in poems I read. Essentially, if gerunds are used frequently or clumsily enough that I notice their presence, it’s a poor mark for the poem. If the poem is so good I don’t notice the gerunds until a second or third read, I give them a pass.

I’ve also developed a habit of monitoring for use of the word “like.” Specifically, I mean in the context of similies: I believe that “like,” and additionally “just,” serve mostly as filler words within poetry (and real life). To be specific, I refer to the usage of “just” as synonymous with “merely,” “barely,” “only,” etc – not in regards to a characteristic, but a disclaimer. The use of “like” waters down powerful language, distances the reader from description, and implies that the writer is unable to create an exact, precise image.  It is possible to describe everything exactly. In poetry, this is particularly important. Cut out every “like” you can. As for “just,” I find it a caveat, a cheat of a qualifier, a word inserted in order to justify the rest of the phrase: “I was *just *asking for help.” “I was *just *listening to my iPod.” “He *just *didn’t like me enough.” The word itself almost whines. Cut out “just” and allow statements, emotions, and the like to own themselves. As I write this now I realize I may have another bias against “just,” previously unperceived: it seems to lend itself unnaturally well to pairing with a gerund. Double dark marks in my book!

I could go on. What’s more important, here, however, is realizing not only that everyone has their own writing preferences, but that they appear and develop over time. Five years ago I couldn’t have told you any of this. I wouldn’t have known if I liked these things or not. This was distressing: how did I know my poetry was any good? I liked it, sure, but I didn’t even have a personal metric to measure it against. It’s important to explore what doesn’t work in a poem, at least as much as what does. I think it is both more difficult and more interesting to verbalize what goes wrong in a poem than what goes right. And you know what? At the end of the day, people will disagree with you. That doesn’t make you wrong. As with dating, drinking, and clothes shopping, it comes down to personal taste.

 

Read Out Loud: Elizabeth Bishop’s The Fish

“Elizabeth Bishop, in The Fish, is the only poet ever allowed to have rainbows. Ever. And because she did it so abso-tootin-beautifully, none of you may use rainbows in your poetry this semester. If you are about to have a rainbow figure some way into your poem, think of The Fish. And if you think whatever you’ve got is going to beat that poem out, then – and only then – can you have a rainbow.”

 -a very loose paraphrase of Kenning co-editor and founder Devon Miller-Duggan, during an introduction to poetry writing class

Now, I know what you’re thinking. Devon, clearly, has a Thing Against Rainbows.. She probably hates puppies and happiness, too. Rules against rainbow use. That class must have sucked! Probably had to ask just to use the restroom.

False, all false. There’s a lot of reason behind Devon’s few, but emphatic, poetry rules. Rainbows in poetry run overwhelmingly trite. Impressively, in The Fish, Bishop manages to evade the saccharine associations that rainbows usually evoke, not once but four times in quick succession. And the word builds in tension and meaning with each use, a textbook example of effective repetition in poetry.”The Fish” is brilliant. Never write about rainbows again.[1] They’re Bishop’s.

When older poets are lauded for successfully using some image while evading the minefield of its associations, I always think *yeah, they had it easier. When they were writing there was a lot less poetry to compete with.* Bishop took rainbows from us in 1946. Rainbows, rest in peace.

Their retirement is warranted. Bishop avoids every hint of sentimentality in The Fish, but evokes our sympathy; as the poem concludes it demonstrates, but does not delineate, the narrator’s conflict and emotion. This poem feels like victory with every reading. Today, I wanted to share that victory with you.

Please click through to listen to The Fish.

Through The Lands of Mist And Fog

Not too long ago, I wrote about Ron Reikki’s poem, “This Is The One That’s Going to Get Me Out of The Mines.” A poet’s poem, I called it – a poem for any struggling writer who knows someone inexplicably more successful. In it the narrator asks his friend, who has landed a professorship, what a poem needs in order to succeed. The friend says, mist.

It’s a wonderful moment, a poem mocking poetry for being vague, obtuse, hard to navigate – while dancing on the truth. Successful poems require subtlety. Instead of telling, for instance, “I am in love with someone and can’t have them,” a poem strives to show, with metaphor or surrealist departures from reality that can barely be tied together, and/or so on, the emotion of such statements. Obvious poetry loses the point. The trick of poetry is to convey meaning and feeling without hitting readers in the face with it.

So: poetry is, must be, full of fog. What the successful friend of the poem doesn’t reveal is that great poets know what’s past it. They don’t throw it out there to be obtuse, but subtle. And with that thought I figured I’d hunt down some really good poems about fog/mist. There are more famous fog poems, to be sure – T. S. Eliot’s sticky, feline mists come to mind – but here are three I adore.

In this first poem, the mist is mentioned in passing, almost as scene-setting. Its very lightness is one of the reasons I mention this poem. Many fog poems seem obsessed with the heaviness of fog, its tendency to hide, the menacing aspects of a rather ephemeral weather phenomenon. In “Eleanor Writes She’s Reading Rimbaud” fog is sweet, and softens; it recalls rose-colored glasses in its coloring of the past. The mist is relatively innocuous, perhaps concealing from the narrator some of the less appealing details of the idle, wild past which she finds herself revisiting. I love the idea of apples in a sweet red fog overlying a valley. I’ve read this poem many times over, and hope you enjoy it.

Philip Booth’s “Fog-Talk” reminds me a lot of another poem I love, “Dissertation: Aphasia,” which was published some time ago in The Bad Version. The cloud cover in “Fog-Talk” is heavy and ominous, potentially dangerous in how it hides things – roof edges and cement curbs, potholes. It’s that infamous New England fog you can get lost in, that sticks around all morning and petulantly refuses to burn off. Again, here, it is a fog of memory, as well as age. The two men in the poem live in a constant fog, it seems. The final two stanzas make it clear that the fog reaches for them: it climbs in, one tendril at a time, to overwhelm, and eventually possess, them.

Ingeborg Bachmann’s “Fog Land” begins and ends with mist. The middle, however, is suspiciously sharp and clear. The speaker calls her beloved “faithless” but, considering the text of the poem, I think it’s more likely the other woman is uninterested in her would-be pursuer. The beloved mocks, teases, and chases the narrator away, at best oblivious to her presence. She and the narrator do not speak the same easy language. Here is where the fog rises, from the ground of the poem a little creep. Can you see a fog land, or wouldn’t it be mostly obscure? Could you eat a fog heart, or would it dissolve as it was held?

It is funny how clearly fog seems an instrument of loss in these poems, a symbol of things that have fallen away or can no longer be held. When I wrote about beach poems, a friend commented that they were all ephemeral, caught in the fleeting moment. He didn’t use this word but I think “transcendent” would be appropriate. Consciously or not, certain atmospheres and creative elements seem to possess universal, general meanings across poems(and, most likely, prose). What do forests mean, I wonder? What about swamps?

I hope you enjoyed these poems. Until next time -

Read Out Loud: Matthew Zapruder

Hey!

One of the things I forgot to mention in last week’s anniversary post was a feature that I’m trying to bring back to this blog. Long-time readers may remember that for a while in mid-2013 I posted recordings of a few poemns that I’d read out loud. At first I was going to call it “Reading Wednesday” but I wasn’t able to maintain much regularity about what day of the week I was posting – and of course I don’t want to promise too much this go-round, either. But I have plans to put up an audio post onto this blog about once a month in this year’s worth of posts. I hope you enjoy them. I think it is a project that helps underline and stay true to some of the idea behind Kenning, that poems lose something when they are confined to the page. I certainly feel that there is much to be gained by reading a poem out loud.

Without any further ado, I’d like to present to you Part 5 of Matthew Zapruder’s very fine poem, “Come On All You Ghosts,” from the book of the same name. I hope that you enjoy.

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