Archive for March, 2009

Horace started it with his “ars poetica,” his “On the Art of Poetry.” Then other poets decided to use poems to express their raison d’etre, and here we are, centuries later: Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” and the idea that “i, too, dislike it” … Archibald Macleish’s lovely two line stanzas that form up to make his “Ars poetica” … and Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s swinging lines that imagine the poet as an acrobat.

I saw the National Acrobats of China perform a few weeks ago, and I think Ferlinghetti’s ars poetica makes the most sense to me.

So, here they are, three poems by modern poets about the nature of poetry:

“Poetry” by Marianne Moore

I, too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond
all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one
discovers in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high-sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because
they are
useful. When they become so derivative as to become
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless
wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse
that feels a flea, the base-
ball fan, the statistician–
nor is it valid
to discriminate against “business documents and

school-books”; all these phenomena are important. One must make
a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half poets, the
result is not poetry,
nor till the poets among us can be
“literalists of
the imagination”–above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, “imaginary gardens with real toads in them,”
shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on the one hand,
the raw material of poetry in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, you are interested in poetry.

“Ars Poetica “by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit,

As old medallions to the thumb,

Silent as the sleeve-worn stone
Of casement ledges where the moss has grown—

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.

“A CONEY ISLAND of the MIND #15” by Lawrence Ferlinghetti

Constantly risking absurdity

and death

whenever he performs

above the heads

of his audience

the poet like an acrobat

climbs on rime

to a high wire of his own making

and balancing on eyebeams

above a sea of faces

paces his way

to the other side of the day

performing entrechats

and sleight-of-foot tricks

and other high theatrics

and all without mistaking

any thing

for what it may not be

For he’s the super realist

who must perforce perceive

taut truth

before the taking of each stance or step

in his supposed advance

toward that still higher perch

where Beauty stands and waits

with gravity

to start her death-defying leap

And he

a little charleychaplin man

who may or may not catch

her fair eternal form

spreadeagled in the empty air

of existence

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Check out “Smartish Pace,” a poetry review, and a poem called “Floating Hearts” by R.M. Ryan:


… and a poem called “Palinurus” by A.E. Stallings:


… and translations by John Hollander of three poems by Sulpicia:


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“Honey at the Table”

It fills you with the soft
essence of vanished flowers, it becomes
a trickle sharp as a hair that you follow
from the honey pot over the table

and out the door and over the ground,
and all the while it thickens,

grows deeper and wilder, edged
with pine boughs and wet boulders,
pawprints of bobcat and bear, until

deep in the forest you
shuffle up some tree, you rip the bark,

you float into and swallow the dripping combs,
bits of the tree, crushed bees — a taste
composed of everything lost, in which everything
lost is found.

Mary Oliver
(Oliver won the Pulitzer and the National Book Award for Red Bird, a collection of poetry published in 2008)


In ethics class so many years ago
our teacher asked this question every fall:
if there were a fire in a museum
which would you save, a Rembrandt painting
or an old woman who hadn’t many
years left anyhow? Restless on hard chairs
caring little for pictures or old age
we’d opt one year for life, the next for art
and always half-heartedly. Sometimes
the woman borrowed my grandmother’s face
leaving her usual kitchen to wander
some drafty, half-imagined museum.
One year, feeling clever, I replied
why not let the woman decide herself?
Linda, the teacher would report, eschews
the burdens of responsibility.
This fall in a real museum I stand
before a real Rembrandt, old woman,
or nearly so, myself. The colors
within this frame are darker than autumn,
darker even than winter — the browns of earth,
through earth’s most radiant elements burn
through the canvas. I know now that woman
and painting and season are almost one
and all beyond saving by children.

Linda Pastan
(Pastan served as the poet laureate of Maryland)

“The Mother”

Abortions will not let you forget.
You remember the children you got that you did not get,
The damp small pulps with little or with no hair,
The singers and workers that never handled the air.
You will never neglect or beat
them, or silence or buy with a sweet.
You will never wind up the sucking-thumb
Or scuttle off ghosts that come.
You will never leave them, controlling your luscious sigh,
Return for a snack of them, with gobbling-mother eye.

I have heard in the voices of the wind the voices of my dim killed children. I have contracted. I have eased
My dim dears at the breasts they could never suck.
I have said, Sweets, if I sinned, if I seized
Your luck
And your lives from your unfinished reach,
If I stole your births and your names,
Your straight baby tears and your games,
Your stilted or lovely loves, your tumults, your marriages, aches, and your deaths,
If I poisoned the beginnings of your breaths,
Believe that even in my deliberateness I was not deliberate.
But why should I whine,
whine that the crime was other than mine? —
Since anyhow you are dead.
Or rather, or instead,
You were never made.
But that too, I am afraid,
Is faulty: oh, what shall I say, how is the truth to be said?
You were born, you had body, you died.
It is just that you never giggled or planned or cried.
Believe me, I loved you all.
Believe me, I knew you, though faintly, and I loved, I loved you

Gwendolyn Brooks
(Brooks was the first African American to win the Pulitzer Prize.)

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On the Rant! Rant! Rant!

I’m on the rantpage again. I have three points, and I think I can make them all alliterate, but this is no Baptist sermon — it is a RANT.

1. ALLERGIES: Spring has sprung like a bat out of hell and smacked me right in the sinuses. Lord have mercy. I’ve been eating raw, natural, LOCAL honey for six weeks, and this was supposed to be some kind of magical cure for what my father calls “hay fever,” but it WASN’T.

But I found a poem about honey, that is admittedly more cheerful than this rant, and I’ll post it in hopes of finding some REDEMPTION FROM MY MISERY. I found the poem in an anthology, actually. Speaking of which, that brings me to my next point!

2. ANTHOLOGIES — specifically, this one poetry anthology I’m reading right now. Caveat lector! This is not the 250 Poems anthology of which I wrote earlier, but another that shall remain nameless (for its own sake). The anthology that I’m currently reading assumes that just because a poet won the Pulitzer or served as poet laureate or professed English literature at an ivy league university, that poet should be in the canon of American literature. Well, I’m not so sure. Pedigree politics. Affiliation games. Me and Wily Coyote say PISH.

But even when the poets are good souls and great writers, why do editors have to misrepresent them so badly by choosing to anthologize their BAD poems? Or by choosing poems that emphasize the editors’ major themes (and/or prejudices) rather the poet’s?

And why does this particular poetry anthology make it look like most poets in the 20th and 21st c. were depressed to the point of self-harm or suicidal ideation? I like edgy, truthful poems … but not every writer in the last two centuries always wrote about the darkness. They had other things on their minds sometimes. Where are those poems? I know we live in an evil world, but where is the last poem that escaped Pandora’s box? Show me THAT, please.

Show me the light in the dark. The real hope. But the flip side is, of course, false hope, which brings me to …

3. A.I.G.: Yes, the bonuses. C’mon. Like those guys needed more money.
I’ll post a poem called “Ethics” … b/c that’s what these folks need. BADLY. Much more than they need Ben Franklins. I’d like to give them my two cents … no, wait, they already have that … so maybe a piece of my mind … or better yet, my ALLERGIES!

Their new money is probably as good as my local honey for curing their disease: greed.

That thought concludes this rant.

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Last week, I went to CCCC: The College Composition and Communication Conference. I just stopped in for one day, a Thursday, taking BART from the East Bay to the Powell Street exit in SF … where I emerged with a swallow that darted past me … to see a guitar-man strumming on the corner, the cable cars heading off, and a girl in silver-studded black leather posing in front of the entrance to FOREVER 21. I walked to the Hilton to attend three sessions, which were each informative in their own way.

Making Comics

I caught Jason Helms’ presentation at the end of this session. Fascinating! His dissertation project combines his own artwork, colored digitally, with smart dialogic comics … which cite Bakhtin, among other theorists. This “multimodal” approach to rhetorical creation and analysis was inspiring, and I hope to launch a poetry project on the Helms model in the near future.

Check out Jason’s website, “Helmstreet“!

Disturbing Writing

This session examined how to respond when students write about traumatic topics in their composition classroom assignments. I valued this session, since part of my work and ministry is to sexual assault survivors (see sanctuarypoet.net – jsassn). The presenters drew my attention the need for “protocol” and training for writing tutors in college writing centers.

One key question that those reading a piece of traumatic writing can ask is simple: “Is this the first time you have written about this?” Whether it is the first time or the tenth, the teacher or tutor can listen empathetically, establish rapport, ask clarifying questions, and offer resources to the student, such as a counseling referral.

Of course, the student should also receive the help he or she is asking for with the writing itself.

Reinventing the Creative Writing Workshop

This session contrasted in interesting ways with the previous session because of the arguments made by one presenter about the great freedom writers in workshop should have. He made the case that when he chose to write about a pedophile in a short story, the instructor of his workshop should have allowed him to workshop it in class but wrongly censored him instead. This made me think.

Personally, I hate censorship. I experienced terrible censorship as a young person when a youth pastor burned the notebooks of poetry I had written and the fantasy novels I had checked out from the library. It took me years to recover from that experience.

But as an overcomer of sexual assault, who now teaches knowing that 1 of every 3 women and 1 of every 6 boys is sexually abused before age 18, I am sensitive to the fact that a story about a pedophile might trigger traumatic memories in some of my students.

So, how do I handle the fact that I might have a student dealing with her experience of rape and another student exploring the influence of Nabokov’s Lolita on his conception of the short story? Or a devout Catholic writing about how a priest assaulted him as a child and a lesbian writing a love poem in the tradition of Sappho? Obviously these students do not necessarily have the same experiences or world-views.

The presenters in the session argued that we should address all these matters as matters of craft: who is the intended audience? is the character developed well? are the sexual elements of the plot effectively (rather than gratuitously) woven into the story? I think these are good questions to ask.

I think it would also be helpful to establish, at the beginning of the workshop, an ethical understanding that these issues might come up. Workshops participants need to understand that a variety of types of writing will be offered up for consideration. “Author notes” could make clear, before students read pieces, what the basic content and author questions for feedback are. Students can be encouraged to be aware of where their stories are coming from within themselves and, when those stories go out into the world, how they might affect different kinds of audiences. Such awareness is not simply a matter of craft, but a matter of ethics.

I can imagine rape survivors writing a story not from the perspective of the victim, but from the perspective of the perpetrator, in order to process certain elements their experience. Should this be allowed? I think so. But I can imagine another student, influenced by the sexual violence in the multimedia of our culture but who has not personally experienced it, writing as if endorsing such violence. Should this be censored? Not necessarily. But the teacher does have the responsibility to use the “pedagogy of empathy” to educate that student, along with all the other students, about the real trauma such sexual violence causes to other people’s souls.


So, there was a book fair, and I picked up a couple of useful books:

The Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry

Written by an Englishman, this book emphasizes the importance of learning to compose metrically and formally correct poetry. Very useful for teaching poetic metre and genre!

The Power of Personal Storytelling by Jack Maguire

This would be a great textbook for teaching a course on memoir. Chapters on “getting story ideas” by creating lifelines and storylines, being a roving reporter for family news, and getting the picture all present great classroom activities.

250 Poems (Bedford/St Martin’s Press)

This little anthology works well for introducing students in a poetry workshop to poetry in the English tradition from the Middle Ages to modern American movements. The balance between old and new is good.

I particularly enjoyed seeing Robert Pinsky’s “The Shirt” included in it!

“Using Digital Media to Interpret Poetry: Spiderman Meets Walt Whitman”by McVee, Bailey, and Shanahan in RTE (Research in the Teaching of English)

I also picked up the latest copy of Research in the Teaching of English and read an essay on using digital medial to interpret poetry. Very interesting!
I might try the three suggested assignments in the essay, and ask my students to 1) make a PowerPoint interpreting a poem, 2) create a WebQuest using Dream Weaver, and 3) tell a story using iMovie.

To check out one of the authors’ student projects, see: multimodalpoetry.org

Concluding thoughts

From The Power of Personal Storytelling: “to be a person is to have a story to tell … Within each of us there is a tribe with a complete cycle of legends and dances and songs to be sung!” Sam Keen

And speaking of stories, I can’t help but remember St. Francis of Assisi, since I was San Francisco, California, which is named in honor of him. Here is his most famous poem:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace,
Where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy;
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console;
to be understood as to understand;
to be loved as to love.

For it is in giving that we receive;
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned;
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

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I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of the Invocation of the Trinity:
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the Incarnation of Christ with His Baptism,
The virtue of His crucifixion with His burial,
The virtue of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
The virtue of His coming on the Judgement Day.

I bind to myself today
The virtue of the love of seraphim,
In the obedience of angels,
In the hope of resurrection unto reward,
In prayers of Patriarchs,
In predictions of Prophets,
In preaching of Apostles,
In faith of Confessors,
In purity of holy Virgins,
In deeds of righteous men.

I bind to myself today
The power of Heaven,
The light of the sun,
The brightness of the moon,
The splendour of fire,
The flashing of lightning,
The swiftness of wind,
The depth of sea,
The stability of earth,
The compactness of rocks.

I bind to myself today
God’s Power to guide me,
God’s Might to uphold me,
God’s Wisdom to teach me,
God’s Eye to watch over me,
God’s Ear to hear me,
God’s Word to give me speech,
God’s Hand to guide me,
God’s Way to lie before me,
God’s Shield to shelter me,
God’s Host to secure me,
Against the snares of demons,
Against the seductions of vices,
Against the lusts of nature,
Against everyone who meditates injury to me,
Whether far or near,
Whether few or with many.

I invoke today all these virtues
Against every hostile merciless power
Which may assail my body and my soul,
Against the incantations of false prophets,
Against the black laws of heathenism,
Against the false laws of heresy,
Against the deceits of idolatry,
Against the spells of women, and smiths, and druids,
Against every knowledge that binds the soul of man.

Christ, protect me today
Against every poison, against burning,
Against drowning, against death-wound,
That I may receive abundant reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me,
Christ behind me, Christ within me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ at my right, Christ at my left,
Christ in the fort,
Christ in the chariot seat,
Christ in the poop [deck],
Christ in the heart of everyone who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks to me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I bind to myself today
The strong virtue of an invocation of the Trinity,
I believe the Trinity in the Unity
The Creator of the Universe.

St. Patrick
387-493 AD

Commentary: Happy St. Patrick’s Day! I’m Irish, so I have to celebrate March 17th with all my heart.

“St. Patrick’s Breast-Plate,” shared above, is a literal translation from the Old Irish. (For a more poetic rendering, see “St. Patrick’s Breast-Plate.”) The Irish original is preserved in the 9th c. Book of Armagh. Attributed to St. Patrick, it is believed that he wrote it in preparation for “victory over paganism” in Ireland, where he was once a slave, but later served as a missionary to convert the Irish to Christianity.

To learn more about the life, miracles, and prayers of St. Patrick, visit the Catholic Encyclopedia: “St. Patrick.”

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Have you ever heard of the Sugar-Plum Tree?
‘T is a marvel of great renown!
It blooms on the shore of the Lollipop sea
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town;
The fruit that it bears is so wondrously sweet
(As those who have tasted it say)
That good little children have only to eat
Of that fruit to be happy next day.

When you ‘ve got to the tree, you would have a hard time
To capture the fruit which I sing;
The tree is so tall that no person could climb
To the boughs where the sugar-plums swing!
But up in that tree sits a chocolate cat,
And a gingerbread dog prowls below—
And this is the way you contrive to get at
Those sugar-plums tempting you so:

You say but the word to that gingerbread dog
And he barks with such terrible zest
That the chocolate cat is at once all agog,
As her swelling proportions attest.
And the chocolate cat goes cavorting around
From this leafy limb unto that,
And the sugar-plums tumble, of course, to the ground—
Hurrah for that chocolate cat!

There are marshmallows, gumdrops, and peppermint canes,
With stripings of scarlet or gold,
And you carry away of the treasure that rains
As much as your apron can hold!
So come, little child, cuddle closer to me
In your dainty white nightcap and gown,
And I ‘ll rock you away to that Sugar-Plum Tree
In the garden of Shut-Eye Town.

Eugene Field

Commentary: When I was a child, my mother used to read this poem to me out of a big book of children’s poetry, stories, and pictures. I loved it. My father wrote a song that blended words from this poem with words from the book of Revelation … In the song, the Sugarplum Tree became an image of the Tree of Life that stands on either side of the river that flows from the throne of God. When my father picked the guitar strings so that his original melody for the song played in my ears at night, I fell asleep dreaming of heaven.

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This month, I’ve been recording a CD of poems read aloud, musical preludes, and a cappella songs in West Chicago studio. The CD will be coming soon to iTunes, so look there for “Songs from the Secret Life” by Jane Beal.

Last week, I launched a new website: sanctuarypoet.net. Everyone is invited to check It out!

This week, I was interviewed on 90.3 KDVS “Dr. Andy’s Poetry and Technology Hour.”

Once the MP3 file loads, you can skip to the middle, if you just want to hear Dr. Andy’s interview with me. Or you can listen from the beginning and hear an interview with the poet Joan Gelfand as well.


Jane Beal

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I WILL arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made;
Nine bean rows will I have there, a hive for the honey bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.

And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.

I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements gray,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core.

William Butler Yeats
composed ca. 1920

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