Think of your poems as time bombs. Each line brings the reader a tick closer to the explosion.
All through the poem, some part of the reader sweats it out, wondering how big of a bang is waiting and wondering if they'll be wounded, or maybe even scarred.
Some poems, like Eliot's The Wasteland are atom bombs that vaporize cities of tradition, aesthetics, and comfort. Others, like many of the poems we all write but hopefully don't show, go off like duds. They make a corkscrew of smoke, more pathetic than profound.
What I'd like to consider in this post is how the metaphor of the time-bomb helps us understand the role of a poem's penultimate line. That's the line right before the last line. And I'm telling you here and now something you'll likely never hear from anyone else and that's this: a poem's penultimate line is just as important as the closing line. Sometimes more important.
Not only is it sometimes more important; it's far easier to flub. Why? Because this is where most poets tend to ease off. It's where we all tend to get a bit slack. It's an understandable urge. After-all, it's the job of the last line to tidy everything up and make the "boom" really go off. Right?
Well, not really. In fact, I think it's better to look at your penultimate line as a tee for the last line, or even as "fanfare" for it. Readers will feel the acceleration whether you take advantage of it or not. If you slack off just as they get ready to climax, well we all know how that goes!
Let's take a look at three obvious examples of great penultimate lines. The first one is from Shakespeare's Sonnet 18:
"So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,"
Here the Bard takes full advantage of the penultimate thrill by injecting newness right before the close -- the idea of a group of men, rather than a single speaker, and the idea of overcoming mortality through art. The poem makes a sudden shift from the personal to the universal and does so precisely on the penultimate line.
Here's another brilliant penultimate line, from Sylvia Plath's "A Winter Ship:"
"The sun will diminish it soon enough:"
With a single line, Plath waves away her brilliant imagery -- her poetic evocation of a winter seascape in all its frigid glory. She simply introduces the image of the sun, and with it the obvious connotation of melting ice and snow, to turn her poem around like the most graceful of skaters on the thinnest of blades.
Finally, Joy Harjo's poem 'Ah, Ah" uses an increasingly more intense set of call and response couplets. She shifts the enjambment in the penultimate line and capitalizes on the reader's natural excitement by connecting the final "response" line to a claim of eternal being:
"on our return, over the net of eternity thrown out for stars."
This poises the reader at the edge of wondering if the "Ah Ah" refrain will endure. Of course, it can't do otherwise, but the suspense is what drives the poem's final sacred theme straight into the heart and mind.
These are brilliant tip-of-the-iceberg examples to get you started thinking a little more deeply about your penultimate lines. That was mine; I wish you good luck with yours!
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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Today I'm going to share a simple trick to infuse your poems with life and personality. The tip's very easy to grasp, effortless to employ, and works as consistently as whiskey. But, like whiskey, a little can go a long way!
In other words, there's potential danger in this tip, so consider yourself warned....
The gist of the tip is this: use people, particularly parts of people, to paint with in your poetry. This is a bit different from writing of poem about a person, or even writing about a part of a person as I did in my poem "Picasso's Eyes."
In this case, instead of writing directly about a person, we're going to use them as spice. For example:
"The Mozart night...."
"Tall as Lincoln's hat..."
You can also use people as verbs:
"Lebron-ed to victory... "
"Einstein-ed a fix... "
"Oprah-ed the crowd... "
This works with groups (or teams):
"Cursed as the Cubs... "
"Blind as the KKK... "
"Rich as the cast of.... "
You get the idea. Another really effective variation is to use something a person or group is know for wearing, having, or using, such as:
"Joan of Arc's sword... "
"Holmes's pipe... "
These are bland examples by design because I want to make a larger point, not distract you with my inventiveness. The more specific you can be, the better. So if you said "Brady's trophy" instead of "winner's trophy" it will carry all that legendary power.
If I wrote: "The wind whistled all afternoon" that's fairly poetic, but: "The wind McCartneyed all afternoon" is better. Assuming people still remember Paul McCartney! If it was stormy, you might say "Hendrixed."
But that's where you have to be careful, or you slip into irony. If you want to be ironic fine, but there's a danger here. For example, if I said: "I changed by tire with "Elon Musk precision," this can only be read humorously. Or you better get a better idea of what Elon Musk actually does, or at least purports to do.
You don't have to use famous people, either, but if you go "local" be sure to get enough of the person in so everyone gets the connotation. If you say, "the sky looked scary, like my friend Tammy when she gets mad" that has a much different impact than: "the sky looked like my dad after ten drinks."
The technical term for this is: personification. You're writing about an object, action, or quality as though it's a person. This is slightly different from anthropomorphism where you describe non-human or inanimate things as acting in human ways. As I said, the distinction is slight and may not even be meaningful, but it's there.
In my experience, this kind of personification has no limit. And it really draws people into a poem because, take a look around, what people are interested in is ... people.
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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.
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This is a repost of an earlier tip. I'm just moving it to the blog.
Here's a fast tip to pump up any poem.
Remember, you only have a few seconds of trust and interest from your reader before they yawn their way to something more exciting.
So you need to grab attention as fast as you can.
Titles are important.
But so is...
Your opening word.
Here's a list of very common, but very bad, choices:
When a poem starts with these words, you bore (and risk losing) the reader, especially if the reader is an editor who reads a thousand poems a month.
Am I saying you can't start a great poem with the words in that list? No. What I'm saying is: if you want your poem to stand out, you should make every word count. Particularly the first word.
Now, here's the secret to getting the most out of your first word.
Use a strong verb.
Verbs are what give poems motion, energy, direction, and pulse. When you start your poem with an action word, it pulls the reader in.
Here are some examples of good verbs to use to start you poem:
As an editor and poet whose read and submitted more poems than I have hairs left on my head, I can tell you that starting a poem with a strong verb like one of those above totally works.
The rest of the poem has to be good, but if you start with a verb, you can bet you'll get people to read on!
Should you do this in every poem? Of course not! But you should pay attention to your verbs in every poem.
If you find this tip useful in any way, please consider checking out one of my poems linked below:
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For bonus impact try to use a series of connected verbs throughout your poem. For example, verbs associated with a particular event or motive. You could use "mix," "bake," "slice," and "serve," for example, as steps in baking a cake, but apply them to something completely different, like falling in love.
Also, if you look closely at the list of verbs, you'll see another big poetry secret: noun-verbs. Noun-verbs are nouns like "table," "knife," or "hammer" that also work as action words; in other words: verbs. In fact, one of the lucky things about writing poems in English is virtually any noun can be turned into a verb.
I challenge you to think of an English noun that can't be used as a verb.
© 2022 Daniel E. Blackston
Absolute radio silence on my recent "Prose or Doze" post, which asked you to define prose poetry.
Not one reply.
To be honest, I'm not surprised. That's because 1) it's incredibly difficult to define prose poetry 2) most people don't seem to have much of an interest in prose poems. Personally, I find them tempting. And I think a meaningful, if not complete, definition for what makes a prose poem could be attempted.
"A prose poem is a poem without stanzas that combines poetic and prose devices, emphasizing mood, theme, and emotion over plot."
Not so in a prose poem.
Allow me to demonstrate these principles with a single prose poem. The poem is "All Girl Band" by Utahna Faith. It's posted at The Cafe Irreal. You can read the full text by clicking the picture above.
Your first reaction is probably going to be: "But, Daniel, it's flash fiction, not a prose poem."
Wrong I say!
This is a prose poem. And it's a really good one. Even better that Faith has pushed the form just about as close to prose as you could go without crossing over. That will prove my definition true!
Reading over the poem, the first thing we notice is the plot does not resolve. We never know what crime the all girl band is guilty of or why these pretty vamps are headed to jail. The second thing we notice is that the lack of resolution doesn't seem wrong for the work, artistically.
It seems, in fact, perfect for the mood and emotion. That we don't know makes the all girl band more than Stoker groupies; it paints them into myth. Into imagination. Which is where they originated.
So, we're actually talking about poetic ideas like maturity, nostalgia, karma, self-expression, wisdom, and individuation. Yes, those are themes equally applicable to prose, but prose tends to resolve them for good or bad. In this case, the ghosts of the girls hover forever in a blood-craving precipice of lost youth; in a loop of language and imagery that proves that a talented poet like Faith is not only free to swim in fantasy and nostalgia, but can emerge from the depths with captivating, somehow still "living" relics.
The girls are sexual freedom youth and rebellion lost in the prison of adulthood. Yes, but did you see this coming? They can get free whenever they want. They did so when Faith wrote this poem which defies all convention, is very sexy and rebellious, and about as free as any piece of comprehensible writing can be.
I think the poem demonstrates harmony of age and youth -- reflected in harmony of prose and poetry. Get it? Sure you do! But it can be either way. The prose can be youth or age. Which, again, defies convention, and frees us up if we really engage with that poetic koan.
Finally, here are two solid examples of how Faith "straightens" poetic lines into shining prose poetry:
"How can I be so white-skinned, ebony-haired, red-lipped and ethereal, when my mother, at my age with the same face and body, was suntanned, golden-haired, peach-lipped and earthbound?"
"I am back in our old house, bad house, in my old room, changing clothes. What does one wear to jail? I am frightened."
We know that the "jail" here must be metaphorical so that resolves the issue of whether the line above is just good, honest prose. It's not allegory. It's more akin to tone-painting and expressionism. The idea of "jail" and eternal youth make a beautiful poetic statement, but to effectively pull it off in prose you'd need at least 10k words. You'd have to make the reader know and care for the characters and their histories. Here, this isn't a consideration because, as I've been saying, this is poetry.
So why arrange it in paragraphs and not stanzas?
Because in paragraphs it moves like a narrative and makes the lack of resolution more powerful. It's a brilliant artistic choice. An analogy might be a song like "Sympathy for the Devil" where the Rolling Stones tried numerous traditional formats for the song before finally hitting on the calypso beat that gives the song a sinister edge to Western ears. Without that sinister edge, you've still got Jagger's amazing lyrics but Lucifer / Legba is only half-materialized.
If you wrote "All Girl Band" as a short story or novel it would be YA vampire fiction? That's light years from what we have here which is more like accomplished Confessional poetry combined with surrealism. Anne Sexton might crib something here, if she could look past her dogeared copy of Illuminations.
I rest my case?
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Color's crucial to poetry. But as much as you might want to use words like "azure," or "verdant," or "purpurean" or even plain old: "blue," "green," or "purple," your readers (and editors) are eye-thirsty for new rainbows.
And they want shiny words for every color. In every new poem.
"Impossible!" you say.
Not even the least bit difficult if you use this trick. And not only is this trick easy; it's fun.
Here's what you do. Instead of using your handy color thesaurus (or thesaurus in general) you use your imagination to visualize places, things, and even people that fit the color in question.
I'll give you an example. In my poem "Picasso's Eyes" I wanted to end the poem by stating how black Picasso's eyes were: just "Spinal Tap" level black. But in our current age of the Kali Yuga, black happens to be the most worn out crayon in the box.
So, here's what I came up with:
"Slick pigments black as rues"
For those of you who know even less French than I do, "rues" means "streets." I compared his eyes to dark Paris streets. I still used the word "black" but I powered it up with something new.
In another poem I used "bone-colored foam" instead of "white" in describing a wave. In yet another poem I used "a rose on a pond" to describe something red and shiny.
In one case I even described moonlight silver as "sunlit sands" which may be a stretch, I admit. But I'll point out that that's what moonlight actually is. Unless you think the moon is made of cheese.
Let's try some simple examples.
Blue: "prize ribbon," "dead monitor," "jay feather," "smurf-colored."
Green: "turtle colored," "Kermit colored," "avocado," "Martian."
Red: "stop sign," "rooster," "holly," "poppy."
Yellow: "honeycomb," "aphid," "baby chick," ""road sign."
Often, you'll need to pair up your new color-phrase with the old word. For example, "road sign yellow." So don't abandon the old standbys, just give them new dance partners.
But be careful with his trick because a single color might not only take over a line; it might try to take over your whole poem. Which may not be a bad thing!
What you really want to do is dig deep in your memoires and feelings to find colors that hit hard emotionally, because if they strike you that way, there's a good chance others will feel the same.
Colors are emotion and vice-versa. So when you express color in new ways with this technique, you're actually finding new "words" for your emotions. Or even "new" emotions.
Speaking of which, I hope you'll check out my newly live Desert Nudes sequence to see what I mean! But don't click the link if you're offended by erotic images.
If you find this tip useful in any way, please consider checking out my poems link below.
I'd also really appreciate it if you followed me on Twitter -- I update a lot with tips and markets for poets.
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© 2022 Daniel E. Blackston
I recently had the chance to do something you'll now never get to do. That's read "Death and the Miser" by Jeff Fearnside over at Plume Journal without having first viewed the Hieronymus Bosch painting on which the poem is based.
Setting aside this now remedied gap in my education for a moment, let me say, like most of you out there, I'm a big fan of ekphrasis. Poetry and painting, in particular, seem to be a match made in Heaven, so I'll just let that speak for itself as we turn to Fearnside's poem. (Click the pic above to read the full text.)
In an ekphrastic poem, we routinely expect to be dazzled by color, images, passion, and other painterly devices. Not so, in this case. The poem starts in a prosy, almost banal way:
When death comes, it all goes:
the fine clothing,
chest of treasures,
And continues on in this fashion, listing all the losses anyone would expect to see in a poem about death. Nothing eye-catching or spine tingling to be seen as we dig further down into the poem, deeper in the grave, so to speak.
We then reach what is almost a transliteration of the images on the canvas:
Death’s minions see it all.
One peers from above
the death bed’s canopy.
You're now wondering: why is this poem about death so...boring? So far, anyway.
Well, Fearnside has a point and it's a brilliant one. When we reach the seventh stanza (yes, Holy Seven), the dolor breaks away thunderously and we wake to sudden revelation:
Your one hope
is the angel behind you,
hand on your pale, bony shoulder,
eyes on the beam
of light from the high
window with the crucifix.
Now this is not only original; it's startlingly original. You'll need to read the closing lines to get the full effect of the turn in stanza seven, but you can surely see now that the poem is epiphanic, just as Bosch's painting. What they're both saying is that death, despite all the hype, is really just another banal, materialistic illusion.
It's the angel waiting to take you to a higher life that's the exciting part.
But to follow your angel, you'll need to put away your money, your "wasted gut," and your whole earthly life.
So, a neatly effective ekphrastic poem that's as much an allusion to the great vanitas painting traditions of the past as it is to this specific painting by Borsch.
So why am I lucky that I didn't see the painting before I read the poem? To get an angle for this post, of course!
Tell me, please -- what is a prose poem?
What makes it different from a poem in stanzas -- other than it's not in stanzas?
Of course, I've got my own ideas and I'm happy to share them (later), but I'm far more interested in hearing what you think.
Just hit the talk button, or send me an email, or comment here or on Facebook, or hit me up at Twitter. Whatever works for you because I need to know.
What, for you, is a prose poem made of?
Don't be shy! I need and appreciate your input!
Political poetry. As soon as you read those two words, an opinion flashes through your mind. You either think it works, or you think it's generally a bad idea.
My mission, in this post, is to change your mind either way.
I'm going to focus discussion on a magnificent poem by Rick Lupert, a wonderfully imaginative poet, who also happens to helm Poetry Super Highway. Rick is an incredible creative talent; I encourage you to check out his numerous books, his poetry blog, his daily web-comic, Cat and Banana, and everything else he does. But for now, we're going to focus on his poem "RBG" from the September 23rd, 2020 issue of Oddball Magazine.
Click the pic above to read the poem in full.
The poem's title clearly states Lupert's political intentions. He wants to place deceased Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, in the same place of memory as JFK or MLK. This is an understandable impulse, but what's amazing is how Lupert starts the poem:
In a year that has taught my stomach
how to take a punch
Bringing the body into a poem is always a good idea. Here, Lupert accomplishes three things at once: he gets your attention, he brings you into the poem bodily, and he sets up a confessional element. This isn't a poem about beauty or nature or falling in love.
Despite the open political theme, nothing truly divisive or even potentially controversial appears until the lines:
With evil across the street
you were the balance.
This is outright jingoism. Or is it?
I think we have to look very closely at the poem here. If we read these lines too literally, we miss Lupert's authentic originality. Instead of editorializing, what he's doing here is continuing the "gut-punch" reaction from the opening line. The speaker remains so dazed that, for an instant, spouting easy platitudes is all that seems possible -- that is, until we reach the crucial word "balance."
What the speaker seeks here is a sense of closure. And that closure is found through purpose. Read the closing line to see how Lupert expertly turns the poem around from despair and confusion to optimism and resolve. This is what you want to do in any poem, make a dramatic arc of emotion, but it's particularly effective in political poetry because it wards off dogmatism.
OK. A brilliant piece of work to be sure. But I promised to challenge your assumptions. If you think political poetry is a good idea, I'd like you to read the poem and consider the fact that it's impossible for some people to read the poem without seeing only gushing propaganda. Simply by taking up such a theme, you've alienated potential readers.
If you're of the mind that politics and poetry should remain separate, let me say: a poem like this proves that assumption false. The poem succeeds on any technical or aesthetic level you care to name. I've only scratched the surface here.
It's truly inspired work.
So, again, I ask: is politics a good fit for poetry? You tell me.
In a bit of unrelated news: I've put out a call for poetry submissions -- paying $1.00 per line. I'm buying all rights. Click the "submit" button below.
Thanks, btw, to D.D., E.B., D.P., and R.H. for your recent poems and comments!