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. That's understandable -- there are simply too many other fascinating (read: less prosaic) facets of a poem to consider than the banal concept of antagonist. Villains are for novels, stories, comics, and movies!
Well, they're also for poems. Some are very easy to find, such as Plath's titular "Daddy," or mortality in Frost's "Nothing Gold Can Stay. " Some villains are archetypal, like Poe's Raven, while others are deeply specific, such as Katharyn Howd Machan's "On Learning That My Daughter’s Rapist Has Been Taught to Write a Poem."
Even when you think a poem has no antagonist, it usually does. Take a poem like James Dickey's "The Dusk of Horses." Read as a pastorale, the poem seems enemy-free. The tip-off is the opening words "Right under their noses..." This shows that something has been hidden. The antagonist is implied in the act of "blinding." Of course, we all know this poem is an allegory for political apathy, right?
Let's look at a poem where the antagonist might be a bit harder to find. A full poem. A famous poem. This poem:
In a Station of the Metro
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Petals on a wet, black bough.
I'm sure you're now saying, "The antagonist in Pound's poem is also mortality. So it wasn't hard to find." Well I beg to differ. I think the antagonist in this poem is the "apparition" of life, the veil of it. Which tells us that the "black bough" is where the real action is.
This is all quite easy to follow. The real question is: how can you use villains in your poems? The answer is astoundingly straightforward: just do it. But try to think outside the box. And be careful not to let your villain take over your poem.
Here's a few tips on poetic villains that should even work for prose writers:
I make the same plea to you!
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
Flawless poems may be rare, but they do spring to life sometimes, in the hands of a capable artist. Sher Ting's poem, "Hunger," is that kind of poem. Flawless in conception; smooth in execution, with a clarion resolution to a provocative theme. The poem is from December 22, 2021 and is posted at The Citron Review. Read it in full by clicking the picture above.
If it sounds like I'm gushing, that may well be, but reserve judgement a moment. The poem is virtually flawless from a technical point of view, but what are we to make of a flawless poem, in this throwaway age? Is it realistic to expect readers to notice, let alone appreciate such brilliant lines as:
How 饭 was the ivory harvest from fields of salt and rain,
ploughed to fruition through thunderclouds and a wrist of light.
You and I may soar at the assonance (and thematic concord) of "ivory" and "light" or the dactylic boom of "thunderclouds" in this otherwise pensive unrhymed couplet.
Even the poem's most explicit lines demand phone-less introspection:
Maybe that was what I was—wild rice,
the amalgamation of two entities,
A beautiful conception, particularly if you take the repetition of "was" as a plastic symbol for the "two entities" in question. This is linguistic alchemy. A High Order of logopoeia, melopoeia, and phanopoeia... So, we're making Ezra Pound happy.
But what's the overall impact of the poem. How does it hit?
Read the last two lines to find out. But, as I said, we're dealing with a true artist here, so the final lines of the poem open up new ideas, new potentials, new imaginings. Ting's alchemy is strong.
This is a flawless poem, but it might take a poet to see just how flawless. Which brings us back to my original question: how much of this (or any) poem goes unseen and how much needs to be seen?
I'd love to know your thoughts.
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Michael Cunliffe is an interesting poet with quite a lot of range and insight. You'll find him on Facebook most days, posting clean, imaginative poems. For the most part, Cunliffe plays to his strong suits by writing on traditional themes and delivering what can be best described as warmly expected (and received) lyrics.
Every now and again, though, the poetry angels sprinkle a bit of transcendental confetti across Cunliffe's virtual pages, and the result is almost always a pleasant wisp of Zen.
For example, Cunliffe's, "Other Hand Clapping," (read by clicking the pic) is a pleasantly astonishing concrete poem, based on the classic koan: "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" Here, Cunliffe decides to plunge past the paradox and deliberately identify one hand (the right) with the thunderous sound of ego and self-applause, while the left hand remains a singer of soulful silence.
I actually think this is the "answer" to that old koan -- at least one answer anyway. The sound of one hand clapping is the boundless music of the soul. The silence of the eternal one. And I thank Cunliffe for sharing his gnosis. Imagining the two hands in dialogue, on the precipice of "shaking" or uniting, is a brilliant poetic image, so brilliant it should be painted, or sculpted, or... made concrete.
This is why Cunliffe deserves a double-brilliancy prize here. Not only did he realize the theme deserved visual representation, he was able to pull it off with aplomb. That's poetic instinct. You can't buy it and few are born with it. So how do you get it? Oh, by writing and writing and reading poets like Cunliffe who are solidly following the footsteps of the Muse.
Let's take a look at a couple of other fine points from the poem. The first is the plainness of the diction. Cunliffe realizes that the concrete form provides enough spectacle, so the language can and should be pared down.
Second, the two hands, visualized on the page, are in dialogue, both linguistically and visually. It's a dialogue of the soul and the flesh, but the flesh ain't listening.
Feels not mine
isn't an admission of defeat. It's a declaration of spiritual epiphany. It's the answer to the koan.
Last thing: this poem had to be concrete to work. That's the only, and I mean only, justification for making a concrete poem. It may feel brilliant and inventive to shape your words this way, but unless the poem has to be concrete, you'll just look silly most of the time.
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The title, primary image, narrative, and setting of Byron’s poem “Darkness” (click pic above to read) reflect a sustained nihilism. The poem defies the cultural and artistic conventions of its time and the past. It challenges everything. “Darkness” stands as a rebuke of the Victorian mores and ideals. That rejection is of all existing ideals and philosophies; virtually all aesthetic theories, and all known facts and assumptions. The only thing that's spared (and therefore exalted) in the poem is the power of the imagination.
Byron pens the destruction of every meaningful Victorian value in the poem from human love and rationality, to faith in science or God. The idea of the abyss is very important in “Darkness” and functions as a way for Byron to imagine the destruction of all contemporary mores and strictures. With them go the limitations of imagination and expression that they hold over individuals, poets included. Byron’s imagined destruction is a purposeful imagining. His goal is to see what remains in the face of total apocalypse.
Early in the poem, Byron strikes straight to the heart of what most of us consider the most basic elements of humanity. When the sun and stars disappear and the entire word is engulfed in darkness, connections between people are quickly forgotten in the struggle for survival:
And men forgot their passions in the dread
Of this their desolation; and all hearts
Were chill'd into a selfish prayer for light:
The word “prayer” is an inversion of the socially accepted idea of prayer. Instead of praying for goodness or peace or the well-being of others, the instinctual prayer that emerges during the apocalypse of darkness is based purely on selfishness. Byron alludes rather cryptically to the hypocrisy of religion, rather than simply declaring it in a straightforward way. He uses the idea of all-consuming darkness to ironically shed light on what the world had previously kept hidden.
As the darkness becomes more absolute, more and more hypocrisies and fallacies are revealed. This is in keeping with the romantic tendency to at once delve deeply for truth but also somewhat hide the revelation of what is discovered. The central inversion of the poem, turning darkness into a kind of penetrating light, is Byron’s way of revealing through “resistance.” Darkness is a force of nature; in fact the underlying, primary force of nature and it's this force of nature, rather than Byron-as-commentator, that appears to initiate the nihilistic revelations.
There's no relief even for those poetic or religious traditions of the past that viewed the earth as sacred. Byron rejects the pagan an animistic traditions of the past. His darkness spares nothing. Even the earth itself is reduced to nothing but a heatless, dead rock:
The populous and the powerful was a lump,
Seasonless, herbless, treeless, manless, lifeless--
A lump of death--a chaos of hard clay.
The rivers, lakes and ocean all stood still,
And nothing stirr'd within their silent depths;
The darkness stretches past the earth -- into the reaches of space where the stars and planets were traditionally used as guides for myth, astrology, astronomy, and time-keeping, blotting them out along with everything else:
The moon, their mistress, had expir'd before;
The winds were wither'd in the stagnant air,
And the clouds perish'd
Darkness had no need
Of aid from them--She was the Universe.
Finally, only darkness remains. If anything can be taken as an articulation of “moral truth” in the poem, it is that there is no moral truth.
Instead of truth, there is only darkness. If we want to glean anything further from Byron on this matter we will have to probe the darkness itself, because that is all he leaves us. The interesting twist here is that, while Byron’s nihilism is authentic, it may be that the destruction of the universe is not quite complete.
What remains is: the imagination. To see this in the poem, it is necessary to view the darkness of the poem as being analogous to what later thinkers and scientists, particularly Carl Jung, called the unconscious.
Jung also referred to the creative aspect of the unconscious as the “abyss” and he viewed this as the source of all creativity. While the length of the current discussion prevents any meaningful discussion of Jung’s concept of the abyss, it is enough to simply state that, because the unconscious can only be known indirectly, by its effect, it is clearly associated in dreams, cross-cultural myths, and religious traditions as being connected with images of night and darkness.
When Byron’s central image of darkness is viewed from this perspective, it is not only a symbol for the unconscious and creativity, but for the revealing aspect of art, previously mentioned above. Byron’s rejection of not only the Victorian social and artistic mores of his time but of all times, is an uncompromising affirmation of the power of creativity divorced from any social or cultural meaning.
Darkness is a meditation on the power of absolute creativity, the “prime mover” of all things, which he conceives of in such a way as to maximize the liberation of individuality and creative self-expression. In doing so, darkness becomes the ultimate form of light, the poet’s light, the light of truth. This places Byron’s poem outside of the artistic and cultural traditions of the past but well within the expressed ideals of the romantics.