I want you to consider two things right now: plane crashes and poetry.
Some of us might think it would be a grand gesture to write one last poem on a plunging plane -- moments before death.
Some of us might think it would be cool if we could write a poem that predicted the future.
Lee Campbell may have come close to do doing both.
On February 25th,1989, United Airlines flight 811 experienced and emergency when a cargo door blew open, ripping a hole in its fuselage that sucked nine passengers out into the sky above the Pacific ocean. A four minute fall to the sea waited for all of them, including the twenty-four-year-old Campbell.
Of course it goes without saying that Campbell and the others all plunged to their deaths. Many questions surrounded the disaster; Campbell's family remained persistent in trying to find answers.
One eerily interesting thing that Campbell's parents found after their son's death was the following poem that he'd written not long before the disaster:
`Was That Me?''
Waves hypnotizing me with green, beckoning fingers
A dream of space flight weightlessness
Air rushes past to fill a vacuum,
Progressive holes which must be filled
That's all there is to the poem, unfortunately. However this little poem says a lot, does it not? What I'd like you to do is simply imagine that the poem was written by someone who didn't die in a plane crash.
Is it still an interesting poem ?
What do you make of the title ?
I have my own thoughts as always, but for now, I'll simply say that this little fragment-poem can teach us all a lot -- it's up to us to extract all we can from it and from Campbell's unfortunate death.
You might say that any poem can teach us a lot -- and that's true, but I still think this one's special. I hope you do too. Please leave a comment or send me an email or a message to let me know how you feel about it.
Also if you'd like a set of fresh eyes for your poetic endeavors, I offer a poem polishing service. I think you'll be happy with the results, so check it out my clicking the link below.
You can also order my Seven Secrets of Poetry PDF by clicking the button below.
Read Lee's full story by clicking on the plane crash picture above.
I've been meaning to blog about silence and nothingness. These are two elements that every serious artist needs to master. Silence is the backdrop to every poem. You need to know how to make that endless emptiness work for you when you write. And sometimes it's not easy.
Nothingness is where every poem begins. Perhaps, according to modern physics, where everything begins. If you can't fish the nothingness for art, then you probably should give up being a poet.
It can be tough going to teach the silence and nothingness of poetry. Luckily for us, Dong Li's recent poem, "when it is time" from Plume: Issue #130 June 2022 is an ideal example for discussion. Read the poem by clicking on the picture above.
So far as silence goes, the poem is masterful. In fact, you might say the poem rides on silence the same way a ship sails on the sea. This is interesting because it leaves the reader room to think and it also defies "weight." You feel a sense of freedom in reading the poem because it asks so little for you and gives back so much.
So what's it giving?
Other than the obvious moment of reflection and peace, the poem is actually a "confession" of the creative process. It tells you where art is born.
These two lines are the heart of the poem:
and you look back to the sky
whose blue recalls all blues
and what they do is cause the eye to sweep up and out of one's self. You become one of the "bridges" you've left behind. Art is the movement up and out of old blue into new blue. In the end, by diving deep into the sky, the artist becomes a magician:
you wave your hand
and it is becoming light
who creates light out of nothing. Your job as an artist is to pull poetry "out of thin air." But to do so, you have to leave yourself behind. So read the poem very carefully and listen to its silence and recognize that silence as your forever collaborator in poetry, and one whose contributions are frequently overlooked.
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"Salt Pieces" by Taghrid Abdelal from New England Review 43.2 is a challenging poem that defies breezy explication. But I'm going to breeze through it anyway, and leave you to do the heavy lifting. Read the full poem by clicking the picture above.
See what I mean?
Don't take the easy road and tell me, "The poem's a translation."
Take the hard road, with me, and try to grapple with the poem line by line. Image by image.
The first three lines, to my ear, are virtually flawless:
Everything will melt
at the bottom of childhood:
the road is the salt.
That is they sound flawless. Does this mean they have flawless meaning? Does this mean they should have flawless meaning? And what's flawless meaning anyway? For that matter, what's flawless?
Forget all that. Let's just stick to the poem. The next stanza promises us that salt:
will devise new noses
to seek us out.
Then the poem gets sort of strange. There are jugs, unspecified observers, unspecified losses, the hint of an age defying anthem that promptly fragments, until we reach the poem's first vertical pronoun:
I observe myself:
I adhere to falling things
because they are fractures
of butterflies in a race
Incredible lines. Beauty dripping throughout and a sense of inventive longing. This is as subjective as poetry gets, but it's still speeding tantalizingly toward the universal. I can't tell you why, or how, precisely, but I feel it.
The poem reaches it's conclusion in a flurry of questions. This rhetorical repetition is almost a reproach to the reader who certainly has no context through which to answer.
This is where it stuns.
Because the poem is a complete statement. It's the fractal of an unnamed emotion that, possibly, is unnamable. Yet we all experience it: the dream (or nightmare) quality that mixes with normal life until you can't really see it, and just when you do, it's gone again, but always there.
I mentioned the idea of pataphysics in my last blog post. This poem is a tour-de-force of pataphysical epiphany. I'd love to hear what you make of its associations. Clearly, in this case, I need a little help from my friends. Drop me a line through the link below.
Michelle Tinklepaugh's a special poet and I'm going to tell you why. She does with words what a great watercolorist does with paint, but she paints the most serious, often tragic, archetypal images you're apt to find from any poet on social media. This means two things: first, she has a unique voice and, second, she's immersed in themes that many poets typically avoid or fumble.
Her poem "mustard bones and other ways to pay the ferryman" is a brilliant piece of poetry. Click on Michelle's picture above to read the whole poem and you'll soon see why I've got my work cut out for me in this post.
Sure, this poem feels like Emily Dickinson and intones like Sylvia Plath, but I defy you to keep these associations past the final line. This poem goes somewhere neither of those Titans visited, and it's purely Tinklepaugh's vision, theme, and aesthetic. It's not surrealism, precisley, and it's not only Symbolist. This fusion and originality generally signals a complete poet, one that should be published regularly in the literary journals, have books out, and be taken seriously by critics.
I can't do much about the first issue, but I'm happy to announce that Tinklepaugh has found a publisher and will release a book sometime soon. It's only on the third count that I can contribute. I'm not a critic, per se, but I take Tinklepaugh's art very seriously, as seriously as I take anyone publishing in the journals or elsewhere.
I urge you to read her work, which you can do by following her blog or following her on Facebook. My upcoming First Flashes anthology features a poem from Tinklepaugh and I'm excited to include her work.
It's going to take another blog post to get down to actually talking nuts and bolts about her poetry. For now, read the linked poem, think about it, and realize that this poem starts with:
i carry your bones in my pocket
the smooth round ends
into knife points
but every single line gets better until, 75 lines later, we reach what's best described as the poem's true beginning.
I'll be blogging more about Tinklepaugh's excellent poetry soon, which will gain her a category of her own on this blog, something her work well deserves. mustard bones and other ways to pay the ferryman
Don't click Bernardo Wade's picture above because, if you do, you'll be whisked away to his excellent poem "Another (Damn) Crow Poem" over at Crazyhorse, soon to be known as swamp pink. The reason you don't want to click over and read the poem is because it will remind you how lonely you are.
Sure the poem's about watching a murder of crows take off in harmonious flight from a late autumn tree. And, sure, the lines are delivered with melodious grace and musical infection:
Once the leaves abandon the tree,
the crows, who seem to sense
the loneliness of a limb,
rise up like musical notes
syncopated by the brisk
Wade goes on to describe the familial gathering of birds with a sense of detached intimacy:
I watch them huddle close
like strange fruit nestling
warmth—the survival of kin.
He then concludes that crows don't deserve their reputation as birds of ill omen, or as thieves, or tricksters. After-all, they don't have loving mothers, probably never experience tenderness, or gentleness, and everyone associates them with spooky things.
So, why in the world should this make you feel lonely? Well, because Wade's played a brilliant trick here. The conclusion of the poem that describes the negative things we associate with crows actually applies to ourselves. The things that he imagines the crows not having are our own lacks. The giveaway is in the stanza quoted above, where the crows huddle together and endure. They are part of the music of nature, no matter how harsh or dangerous it may appear to us.
We are the lonely crows. When Wade writes:
I wonder if the mother
crow sits her chicks down to impart
the resilience behind black wings,
He already knows the answer: he has already acknowledged natural instinct and the rhythms of nature all through the preceding poem. Crows don't need loving lectures; but people do. IS seeing love in the circle of nature, through the portent of a murder of crows, a warning that we're out of harmony with nature?
So this poem is a call for what might restore us to the music of nature. To embrace ourselves, our families, our friends, and society as a whole... as a murder.
But with deepest love.
Every poem has a villain. From the gentlest haiku to the stormiest saga. Yet, I've the feeling many poets (myself included) seldom reflect deeply enough on this aspect of poetry...
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I've got two words for you: Cunliffe rules. In fact, Michael Cunliffe is so gifted, he's the first poet other than Sylvia Plath and Camille Ralphs to get his own category on my blog. That's fine company -- I'd love to be mentioned in the same breath as either of those poets.
Cunliffe earned this distinction despite two formidable hurdles. First, as far as I know he never formally publishes his work, which is not a big deal, but it makes it harder for poets like me who read mainly in the literary journals to discover him.
The second problem is a bit more problematic. It's that Michael Cunliffe doesn't exist.
Sure he has a name, a body, an enthusiastic Facebook following, and maybe even a wife, kids, grandkids, cousins and uncles and dogs and chickens. He's exactly the kind of guy I'd like to smoke a pipe with, chug an ale with, sip some wine with -- or talk poetry with because he's got game.
The problem is: there is no Michael Cunliffe. Every day in every way, poetry is eating the Michael we all know and love and replacing him with pure creativity. In other words, Cunliffe's swimming so freely in the Kether mind of Bell's interconnectedness and Buber's I-and-Thou, that he's breathing in pure archetypes and exhaling mind-bending poems.
Take a look at, "Michael is not a Poet," which you can read by clicking the picture above.
Notice anything? Of course. There's actually two poems. It's a dialogue. One might say, a concrete expression of eudaimonia (in an esoteric sense) if one were a gnostic magus. Since most of us probably aren't, let's try another angle of attack.
What Michael's doing here is digging just about as far into the nature of being that can be accomplished in what must be called accessible language. One can perhaps plumb more deeply into the nature of being with other forms of language, but Being wants expression in all forms of language. If you read the poem, you'll quickly see that the message is up-front; the words slip easy into your mind and soul.
And yet, the poem is a mystical event, no less than Crane's "Atlantis" or Roethke's ""The Far Field." Don't believe me? Try these lines:
I am the spark in the cells--
No, not just in the brain.
In each and every cell.
Electrons and I dance hand in hand.
Compare them with Crane's:
Forever Deity’s glittering Pledge, O Thou
Whose canticle fresh chemistry assigns
To wrapt inception and beatitude,--
Hear me: no thematic difference exists between "Atlantis" and "Michael is not a Poet." Both speak to the Divine and to the celebration of the ego's destruction. Yes, this means Cunliffe has channeled the same message that Crane (and many other artists) picked up from the aether, but he's done so with ordinary aplomb.
And for that, he deserves extraordinary praise!
Shelley Wong's poem "The Winter Forecast" from New England Review 42.4 is a tough nut to crack. So tough that I've put off blogging about it for just about as long as I dare. It's a remarkable piece of work that quite possibly slashes at some uncut underbrush and points a thorny way forward for those of us interested in following poetry to inspiring terrains. By this I don't necessarily mean new forms or even themes, but simply a fascinating way of looking at how language unveils our world and ourselves.
Read the poem in full by clicking the picture above and be patient with me as I try to distill this wine into gadfly brandy. Actually, absinthe might make a better analogy, a fact that's evident from the first line:
this open interval: when nightgowns glow & stalk the field
Stunning use of muted surrealism with a bit of a Gothic flare. But the "interval" is "open" -- so this sip of spookiness is, indeed, just a pawn push. The true takeoff comes next.
Go on, read the next lines...but imagine they're prose! That's right. I want you to mash up Wong's poetry and spit it back out in prose. I won't do it. I'm a gentleman. But I want you to see something spectacular.
It won't work. No matter what you do to these words, they won't make decent prose. They only make poetry. That's an incredible achievement and it means something.
It means: when you read this poem, you're reading pure poetry. There's nothing in this piece that isn't built out of poetry. Well, shouldn't that, alone, be enough to blow W.S. back to Stratford-upon-Avon to polish up Cleopatra's death scene?
Nope. But it does tell us something about the nature of poetry and language. What it tells us is that language is a key that opens up the hidden (sacred) nature of our world. Let's look at a couple of examples.
we can hear tree rings rendered as sound
diamonds shine in icicles, in a spidering necklace
aboard the single swan boat,
This is beautiful poetry. It shows us the connectivity of all things, and the promise of continued (endless?) growth and exploration. Synesthesia is objective reality. Even the banal words you're reading now are neither sound, nor sight, but touch on soul-sensations that glitter... like well, spiderwebs and diamonds! But it doesn't sound as good in bloggy prose!
Wong's mastery of poetic language is notably sophisticated; so much that it'd be easy to write a proper essay on this poem. Perhaps I will, but for now let's skip to the closing line, something I rarely do in these posts.
women in black embroider orchids in the orchestra pit
Poets: this is a call to action. Music's starting. Do you hear it?
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A march can really get your feet moving. It can make crowds move, and sometimes rally teams and armies to victory -- never mind pillage and murder. But what happens when that same inspiring feeling is expressed through the lilting melodies of a pan flute, or the rainbow surface of a drifting soap bubble?
Is this even possible? If so, is it an example of transcendence?
Yes. And emphatically yes.
Take a look at Nancy Miller Gomez's poem, "Still," posted at Rattle on January 26, 2022. Click the picture above to read the full poem.
The first stanza describes a wilted apple via one of the more striking similes for death I've encountered lately:
Shriveled and brown as a shrunken head,
it holds onto the branch even while falling
The next images carry this same sense forward:
The woman who shows up daily
for her dose of methadone.
The man punching the clock shift after shift
though he carries his heart through each day
in a cold, empty chest.
Finally, we see a boy who struggles in the classroom, a father on his deathbed. All of these images tie together with Gomez's single anthemic line:
Isn’t persistence beautiful?
Do you see the march now? Of course you do. The march of those of us who are wounded, suffering, flummoxed, defeated, lonely, stranded...
We're all in it. And we're all in it together. No matter who you are, you're broken in some way or, I'm sorry to say, probably will be someday. The good news is: persistence is beautiful . And when we persist and overcome our challenges, we are as the bird in this eloquent stanza:
The bird drops its song, over and over,
picking it up and dropping it,
little notes spilling down the mountain.
Gomez's tune is delicate and empathetic. But her theme booms like the most infectious (and righteous) of marches. It's the march of humanity and we're all in the ranks, following the beat (and overcoming the beatings) of life.
Let me know your thoughts and follow me on Twitter @BlackstonDan
Some poems unlock with a single word. "Spillage" by Nisha Atalie from Breakwater Review, Issue 31, is such a poem. If you speed past the key word in this poem, you're liable to lose the whole thing. Read the poem through by clicking the picture above and see if you can spot the key.
That's right, it's the word "mixed." Without this single word, it's unlikely that even a close reader would Sherlock out the poem's deeper theme. Yes, it's about race and identity, but it's actually about going beyond race and identity to find selfhood. I've got essays on perceptual psychology, poetry, Plath, philosophy, and mysticism that fall right in line with Atalie's theme, you can find them in the navigation menu up top, and I truly hope you'll read and think about them, but poems are a lot more fun.
So, if "mixed" is the key word, what does it unlock? It unlocks the "lie of apparition" that's anything or anyone that appears to be, or believes themselves to be, unmixed.
The word "mixed" actually means the imperceptible fine gradations of Self, the Alchemy of the Soul. Or if you prefer a more mundane nomenclature: the endlessness of self-identify.
Lines like these refute the default notion that heritage or race defines Self:
... Ancestors laugh
in opposing cadences. Who will edit me now,
who will pluck or disentangle,
decipher me all the way into the deep?
The "spillage" of the self reaches a place without name:
predicated on exception.
The entire poem is a masterful display of what figurative language can accomplish. The big lesson here is: whoever you now think you are, it's a metaphor. And every metaphor you read or write, brings you closer to another self. You can despair at the "mix" or start adding in your own colors.
Let me know your thoughts and follow me on Twitter @BlackstonDan