Friday, May 25, 2012


What did Frost mean by that word “dramatic”? He could’ve meant many things, but I would think that he had in mind something dynamic and with some tension, rather than something static. Poems—and Frost said this too—employ words in such a way that they act up. Poetry is a performance in words. I say it this way: poets are word athletes.

Watch a cat dozing, but with its eyes still half open. Notice how anything that’s static, not moving, doesn’t get its attention. But the second it sees something moving, it perks up, and is ready to move (or pounce) because of that movement. Get your poem moving—somehow—and your reader’s eye, and mind, will follow it.

One way to do this is to put something or someone in motion at the beginning of your poem, with, say, one good verb—or, try to create a context or atmosphere of words in which drama can take place. That’s why opening lines are so important: they either draw the reader in or they don’t. Consider the following opening lines of poems, some of which you may already know.  Do they strike you as dramatic in any way? Do they make you want to read further? Do they, in your estimation, create momentum, or action—something dynamic as opposed to static? 

                  Tiger, tiger, burning bright...
                  Go, soul, the body's guest,
                  upon a thankless errand...
                  One two, buckle my shoe,
                  Three four, shut the door...

                  Great A, little A, bouncing bee...

Hinx, minx, the old witch winks...

Iron thoughts sail out at evening on iron ships . . .

When serpents bargain for the right to squirm . . .

Go to the Western Gate, Luke Havergal.
go where the vines cling crimson to the wall . . .

I caught a tremendous fish . . .

I must go down to the sea again,
to the lonely sea and the sky . . .

Wild Nights—Wild Nights!

It was my thirtieth year to Heaven . . .

Because I could not stop for Death,                                           
he kindly stopped for me . . .

Over Sir John’s hill,
The hawk on fire hangs still . . .

Oh I leap up to my God, who pulls me down!

Traveling through the dark I found a deer
dead on the edge of the Wilson River Road . . . 

Let us go then, you and I,
when the evening is spread against the sky. . .   
                   [Here are a few openings by James Dickey,
a poet who was as dramatic as any poet I could

                   All wheels, a man breathed fire
                   Exhaling like a blowtorch down the road
                   And burnt the stripper’s gown
                   Above her moving-barely feet.
                   A condemned train climbed from the earth
                   Up stilted nightlights zooming in a track.
                   I ambled along in that crowd . . .

                   Bums, on waking . . .
                   I have just come down from my father . . .

                   And now the green household is dark.
                   The half-moon completely is shining
                   On the earth-lighted tops of the trees . . .

                   Here and there in the searing beam
                   Of my hand going through a night meadow
                   They are all grazing
                   With pins of human light in their eyes . . .

I’ve always enjoyed both reading and writing poems about physical action, including poems about sports: athletes in motion. The subject of sports, for me, is inherently dramatic: for instance, a pole vaulter rising up and over a crossbar, a sprinter running the 100-meter dash, a gymnast doing a gymnastics routine. (What an understatement, I’ve always thought: that word “routine!”)
I’ve always spoken of two basic kinds of “action” or “sports poems”: the participatory kind, in which the speaker is performing some sort of physical activity that he or she is, in the poem, engaged in; and the non-participatory kind, in which the speaker is observing someone performing. For decades I wrote the first kind mostly—why? Probably because I was familiar with athletic competition and physical action, as an athlete. But more and more, no longer a competitive athlete, I tend to write the other kind of poem. Obviously, it doesn’t matter which kind you write; what matters is how you write it!

Describing dramatic moments and humans or animals in motion, of course, won’t automatically guarantee that you’ll have a good poem; but again, the human eye, like the cat eye, is more interested in motion and drama than in something that’s standing or sitting still. Is there anything inherently exciting about, say, someone sitting in a chair reading a book? It all depends, of course, on how the poet sees what’s going on, and what words and phrases are used. It can be dramatic, depending on the poet’s sense of drama in this specific situation. For instance, something going on inside the head of the person in the chair.  

Here’s a poem by X.J. Kennedy to look at in light of what Frost said about drama in poetry. 
                                     For a child who skipped rope
 Here lies resting, out of breath,
Out of turns, Elizabeth
Whose quicksilver toes not quite
Cleared the whirring edge of night.

Earth whose circles round us skim,
                                    Till they catch the lightest limb,
                                    Shelter now Elizabeth
                                   And for her sake trip up death.
A few things to think about: when you say the poem out loud, what do you hear? Perhaps a jump rope song? “Johnny over the ocean, Johnnie over the sea . . .” there are hundreds of these songs, which have come down to us from a long time ago. That little song in our memory is dramatic—it conveys images and sounds of kids skipping rope, in a steady, animated rhythm.

The poem’s rhythm, then, emulates and dramatizes that regular, fixed, jump-rope rhythm, with its trochaic tetrameter meter, and it also has rimes:

                   HERE lies REST ing, OUT of BREATH,
                   OUT of TURNS, e LIZ a BETH,
                   WHOSE quick SIL ver TOES not QUITE . . .

And yet the rhythm/meter breaks down at the end of the poem’s last line. (The poem is an elegy, which means it’s about someone’s death.) And the breakdown, ironically, is both metrical/literal, and symbolic. That is, the rhythm is interrupted in the last stanza with those three, final, stressed syllables, or beats, “TRIP UP DEATH” (instead of TRIP up DEATH, which would be the expected trochaic meter of the rest of the poem, except that you don’t read it aloud that way). And so the meaning comes through: the girl has been literally “tripped up” by the rope, but also by death. We don’t know what caused the death, and that is not necessary to know in this poem.

Note too, how “breath,” at the end of the first line, ironically rimes with “death,” at the very end of the poem. And of course the phrase “out of breath” is another irony in this dramatic poem. (Poets are known for their fondness for irony and paradox.)

It’s a very physical, active poem, isn’t it? Dramatic for sure. After all, it’s about skipping rope, about youth and vigor, and about kids having a good time doing something they love to do—giving themselves to the total pleasure of play. The great Greek poet Pindar said it well: “The season of youth is brief.” And of course this is especially true when it comes to the death of a child. The poet—and all of us reading—would hope that, for the sake of Elizabeth, who skipped rope, death could be tripped up, not an innocent little girl. But of course we mortal humans are not in charge of such things.      
Why not try writing a poem in which you imitate, with its rhythm and/or repetition, something you’ve heard or seen and felt. Try to find some correlation between the words and phrases and images you use, and what you are speaking of. What about going for a walk, or listening to a song? Or taking your dog for a walk? Or even reading a book to a child or grandchild?
Or, why not write a poem about swimming, or baseball, or some other sport—be the swimmer or the ball player, or write from the point of view of a spectator. Emphasize verbs and nouns. Emphasize action, drama.   
[NOTE: Correction. In my 5th blog article (POETRY TENDS TO BE PLAIN-SPOKEN AND PERSONAL) I said, referring to a poem by James Wright, that the person spoken of had jumped off a bridge and drowned. Not true. Actually, in Wright’s poem, “To the Muse,” the speaker is thinking of a childhood friend who drowned. And in fact, I misquoted slightly from those last lines of the poem (I was quoting from memory in this case). So for the record, here is my correction for my 5th article: 
     There’s a poem by James Wright in which the speaker is looking down into a river, thinking of a childhood friend who drowned. Here are the last lines:

 Come up to me, love,
out of the river, or I will
come down to you.]

Monday, May 7, 2012


When we read poetry, we are often made aware of those positive qualities of human existence that everyone appreciates, such as happiness and joy, beauty, generosity, love, hope, gratitude, and forgiveness. Not that poetry doesn’t address such things as grief, tragedy, crisis, and loss. It does, of course, since all these are also part of being human. Often, however, when a poem does call up negative emotions and experiences, it can still be affirmative. The first two stanzas of “This Being Human is a Guest House,” by the ancient Persian poet Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks), are an example of what I mean:

This being human is a guest house
Every morning new arrival
A joy, a depression, a meanness
Comes as an unexpected visitor

Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they're a crowd of sorrows
Who violently sweep your house
Empty of its furniture
Still treat each guest honorably
He may be cleaning you out
For some new delight! 

Rumi ends his poem by saying that we should “Be grateful for whoever
comes/Because each has been sent/As a guide from the beyond.”

I like to think that Rumi has some wise advice for us in his poem.

My main point in this article is that the most memorable poems, and lines from poems, are ones that tend to affirm life, to say yes to life.

It shouldn’t be surprising that when big national disasters take place, poetry flourishes. We saw this just after 9-11, and after the death of Diana, who had been married to Prince Philip. Thousands of poems were written, collections of 9-11 poems appeared, and in the case of Diana’s death, thousands of flowers with notes and poems attached to them were placed on the huge lawn outside Diana’s home. Trouble and catastrophe tend to cause people to respond with words that can be helpful, both to those who suffer and to those who wrote the words. When we are in the presence of suffering, we often feel the power of our connection with others.    

Consider the following lines, which I have for this article deliberately recalled from memory without looking them up in books. What I’ve found with this enumeration of lines is that my memory has a very strong bias toward positive, affirmative lines rather than ones with negative connotations or denotations. I’m personally glad this is so, since it seems to be evidence that I’m more optimistic than I sometimes assume! You might want to try this yourself and see what happens. Just let favorite lines from poems (and even songs) occur to you, and write them down. I would guess, based on my example, that they too would be mostly positive and upbeat. And if my little experiment is valid, doesn’t that say something about the usefulness—even the necessity—of poetry? I think it does. I also think that many of the readers of my blog will already know by heart some of the lines I quote here (Note: some of the line breaks may not have been accurately remembered):    

Put your arms around me like a ring around the sun.

Give me the splendid, silent sun . . .

Oh beautiful for spacious skies . . . (song)

When to the sessions of sweet, silent thought,                                       
I summon up remembrance of things past . . .

I believe a leaf of grass is no less                                                        
than the journey work of the stars . . .

I celebrate myself and sing myself,                                                     
and what I shall assume you shall assume,                                                       
for every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

Ah, love, let us be true to one another . . .

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,                                          
and a small cabin build there . . .

You are so beautiful . . . to me (song). . .

But thy eternal summer shall not fade . . .

That’s the way (that’s the way)                                                              
I like it (I like it) . . . (song)

Fair and fair and twice so fair,                                                               
And fair is any may be,  
The fairest shepherd on the green,                                                          
A love for any lady.

I shake my white locks at the runaway sun . . .

Springtime is my time, is your time, is our time,                                     
for springtime is love time, and viva sweet love.

In a dark time, the eye begins to see.

I love you all day. It is that simple.

Jenny kissed me when we met,                                                    
jumping from the chair she sat in . . .

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways . . .

Earth has not anything to show more fair . . .

We die, and rise the same, and prove                                              
Mysterious by this love . . .

And death shall have no dominion . . .

Your eyelashes are a narcotic.

How shall we praise the magnificence of the dead?

And the Sabbath rang slowly in the pebbles of the holy stream . . .

The mind is an enchanting thing,                                                          
is an enchanted thing . . .

I measure time by how a body sways.

Be with me, early and late.                                                                    
I will study wry music for your sake.

You are my sunshine, my only sunshine,                                           
you make me happy when skies are grey.  (song)

The bird is on the wing.                                                                           
Drink to the bird.

And therefore, while youthful hue                                                            
sits on thy skin like morning dew . . .

There will be an answer,                                                                       
let it be . . . (Beatles’ song)

An aged man is but a paltry thing,                                                               
unless soul clap its hands and sing,                                                        
and sing for every tatter is his mortal dress . . .

Drink to me only with thine eyes.
Smile, though your heart is aching,                                                 
smile, even though it’s breaking (song)

Here are a few more ending lines of poems from memory (there are some above too):

Look for me under your boot soles.                                                       
I stop somewhere, waiting for you.

Lord let me die, but not die                                                                    

I must lie down where all the ladders start,                                          
In the foul, rag-and-bone shop of the heart.

I move at the heart of the world.

As you from crimes would pardon’d be,                                               
let your indulgence set me free.

The wives, the beautiful wives,                                                            
are with their men.

And miles to go before I sleep,                                                              
and miles to go before I sleep.

Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

We are such stuff as dreams are made on,                                         
and our little life is rounded with a sleep.

Never again would birdsong be the same,                                          
and to do that to birds is why she came.

Affirmation. Optimism. Gratitude. Hope. Love. Courage. Kindness. All these feelings and thoughts make us feel worthwhile as persons whenever we experience them in our everyday lives—as well as in poems. Nothing makes me feel better as a poet than to have someone say that they appreciated a poem I wrote, or that the poem affected them in a good way. I’m sure this is true of any poet. 

Robert Frost once called a poetry “a momentary stay against confusion.” I agree, but I also believe that within that “momentary stay,” poetry has the power to show us how to live. Think of those poems and lines of poems that you have carried in your mind for years, perhaps decades. How have they influenced your life? Have they been useful to you? Have they been, in fact, downright indispensible at times? Would your life be the same now without them?