Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Muse Says...

Calling all poetry lovers! The muse informs me that it’s time I read some poetry.

My knowledge and understanding of poetry is sketchy, at best, but one can’t live in the world and not have some of it creep into one’s soul.

My grandfather (who left school when he was nine years old) used to recite parts of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and The Charge of the Light Brigade. My favorite YA (before there was such a thing) book, The Outsiders had that wonderful Robert Frost poem, Nothing Gold Can Stay. Stay gold Ponyboy!!! Naturally, being a New England native, I read lots of Robert Frost. When I was a teenager I found a whole box full of beat-like stuff like Richard Brautigan, Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. My little brother Jessie memorized Poe's Annabelle Lee for no apparent reason at all when he was quite young and I'm sure he can still recite the whole thing today.

The only poem I've ever memorized was one called Abu Ben Adam, by James Henry Leigh Hunt. My fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Helmsdorff made us memorize it. I suppose she was trying to teach us something about humility. I can still remember every line, but I've never met anyone else who's heard it before.

Abu Ben Adam, may his tribe increase
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace
And saw, within the moonlight of his room
Making it rich, like a lily in bloom
An angel writing in a book of gold.
Exceeding peace had made Abu Ben Adam bold
And to the presence in his room he said
' What writest thou?'
The vision raised its head
And with a look of all sweet accord Answered:
'The names of those who love the Lord.
'And is mine one?' said Abu.
'Nay not so' Replied the Angel
Abu spoke more low
But cheerily still and said
I pray thee then Write me as one that loves his fellow-men'
The angel wrote and vanished.
The next night it came again with awaking light
And showed the names of whom love of God had blessed.
And lo! Ben Adam's name led all the rest.

When the movie, Sophie’s Choice came out, I was assaulted by Emily Dickenson’s poem, Part Four: Time and Eternity and I start sobbing before the narrator can even begin to recite:

Ample make this bed.
Make this bed with awe;
In it wait till judgment break
Excellent and fair.

Be its mattress straight,
Be its pillow round;
Let no sunrise’ yellow noise
Interrupt this ground.

I’ve incidentally read and heard lots of poetry, but not with intent.

Until now.

The muse is telling me that the time has come for me to read some poetry and that doing so might help me to become a better writer.

So, my dear friends, it’s time for me to solicit your suggestions. Where to begin? What specific poets, poems and books are your favorites, and what do you recommend I seek in this part of my journey? You know me – what do you think I’d like?

On a side note, Chapter 11 of The Foundling Wheel continues to evolve, but between an unexpected, but welcome visit from a friend this weekend and a scheduled social obligation, it is not yet finished. Soon.


CindyLV said...

Hi Lisa,

Like you, I've been remiss in reading poetry, so I'm looking forward to the suggestions you receive. Two of my favorites, evidence of sophomore English (Thank you, Mrs. Williams) are:

My Lost Youth by Longfellow (the line I particularly remember is: A boy's will is the wind's will and thoughts of youth are long, long thoughts.)

And number two, the ever popular, Love Song of Alfred Prufrock. I can still imagine the man measuring out his life in coffee spoons, and my favorite line is: I grow old, I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled.

I'll be checking back frequently while I'm home these next few days.

CindyLV said...

Of course I meant to type: J. Alfred Prufrock. Sorry!

steve said...


I've always loved the English and Scottish ballads--here's a verse from Sir Patrick Spens:

Late late yestreen I saw the new moone
Wi' the auld moone in her arme;
And I feir, I feir, my deir master,
That we will come to harme.

Then there are the Romantics--especially Keats, Shelley, and Coleridge. And Byron. "She walks in beauty,like the night/Of cloudless climes and starry skies" is perhaps my favorite first line. When I read it, I think of my character Helena, and of my own "dark Scottish love," Kathleen. (She is proud to be have MacRanald ancestry.)

Like you, I love the Beats, along with Kenneth Rexroth, who influenced the Beats.

Lately I've been reading Donne, perhaps because I'm writing a love story, and there aren't many better love poets. I plan to do a post on him March 31, his saint's day. Leave it to the Anglicans to canonize a guy who wrote erotic, as well as sacred verse. Donne's poem "The Canonization" argues that a couple can be "Canonized for love."

I'll stop here--I need to get back to Chapter 14.

Julie at Virtual Voyage said...

T S Eliot's Wasteland is a key work; I think I've heard of Abu ben adam - my mother used to refer to it. I've been dabbling in japanese poetry forms recently; gives a new twist on things....Janice at Drinking the moon is doing Haiku and Haiga at the moment.

Josephine Damian said...

Lisa: that certainly was a tear jerker scene in the movie version of "Sophie" when Stingo reads that poem.

The book I'm reading now, "The Commoner" - a 2008 release, uses poetry quite well for dramatic effect, and I'm working a Rilke poem into my WIP.

debra said...

I would add ee cummings:

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky;and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun's birthday;this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings:and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any--lifted from the no
of allnothing--human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

Shauna Roberts said...

Yes, I know the Abu ben Adam poem! I've always like that one.

Like you, I don't know much about poetry but think I need to read some to help my writing. I will be paying close attention to the suggestions people make. Thanks for bringing up the subject.

My next question for your blog readers is, now that you are suggesting good poets and poems to read, should we, the poetry-naïve, go about reading them?

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

Oh, poetry, I love it. Yes, Robert Frost--"Birches" and "After Apple-Picking". "Death of the Hired Man". I also love e.e. cummings--"since feeling is first" and "anyone lived in a pretty how town" and "if everything happens that can't be done"

A contemporary favorite is Carl Dennis. I love his poem "The God Who Loves You"

Spring and Fall by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89)

to a young child

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older 5
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name: 10
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for. 15

The English teacher in me wants to list more and more, but I'll stop now. And to answer Shauna's question, yes, read poetry. Read it out loud, but softly, by a fire while sipping a nice glass of red wine.

Larramie said...

Parting is all we know of Heaven
And all we need of Hell.__Emily, of course! ;)

Billy said...

Lisa, my love of poetry started in my teens when I read Tennyson's IN MEMORIAM. I also love the romantics, especially Wordsworth. "The World Is Too Much With Us" describes my life very well:)

As for modern 20th C poetry, I find that most people don't like to tackle the syntax, which is certainly more difficult. Everything after T.S. Eliot got more compressed and esoteric. Still, I like Donald Hall (not too hard), Robert Bly, w.s.merwin, Frost, Plath, Adrienne Rich, Langston Hughes, and William Carlos Williams (very challenging). Brautigan gave me a love of the experimental.

Now ... on the other hand, a contemporary poet who is DYNAMITE and very accessible, is Billy Collins, former U.S. Poet Laureate. His PICNIC, LIGHTNING is a delightful book, very easy to read but so artfully done. That's where I would start if I were you--Billy Collins, since his poems almost read as prose.

I forgot to answer your question on my blog--I write a poem or piece of flash fiction every day or two, although some poems come out of my personal word files or previously published category.

Billy said...

And that Hopkins poem above--fantastic. Yes. Gerard Manley Hopkins holds a special place in my heart. He was a tortured soul who used an unusual form, called sprung rhythm. (Geez, I'm verbose! LOL.)

Gabby said...

Hi Lisa,
You don't know me, but I came across your name on a comment on Charles Gramlich's blog, and agreed with it, so I thought I'd see who was behind it. ^_^ I don't understand poetry myself normally (though I did enough to pass my Poetry class in college well enough), so I can't help. But I too am a writer, per se. Some times are better than others. AND, I wanted to say I followed the link to your husbands site -- WOW, what beautiful paintings! They're so vibran, and the style reminded me somewhat of impressionsts (whom I love), then looked at the bio -- hey, look at me, I actually know a little about art. Anyway, they're just lovely. I would love someday to hang him in my home. ^_^

Charles Gramlich said...

When asked, I always suggest Dylan Thomas's collected poems. Awesome material.

Lana Gramlich said...

I had to memorize Wordsworth's "The Ride of Paul Revere" in elementary school. I still remember how it starts (but not much else.) Later I started memorizing ancient, Celtic poetry (in true, Druidic fashion.) More success there, but it still fades if you don't use it!

Melissa Marsh said...

Goodness, I don't think I've read poetry since I was in undergraduate school in my North American and Brit Lit classes! Shame on me, I know...

Every once in awhile I'll write a poem, especially if I'm feeling particularly upset on some issue. Has a way of making me feel much better.

Patti said...

i'm a dr. seuss kinda gal. my fav is: mr. brown can moo, can you?

Lisa said...


I'm looking forward to a lot of great suggestions too. Longfellow! And I don't think I even know Prufrock. I will check him out.


Great poets, all. Although I'm sorry to say, I never studied them and hope to do a crash course starting soon. I'm thinking I might have to read some Byron first.

And I need to read your Chapter 13 in a hurry!


I'm noting Wasteland. I am hoping to start easy and work my way from there so I may wait a while on him.

JD, Oooh, I had forgotten that I own some Rilke. And yes -- what a scene in Sophie's Choice. I loved the book and the movie both. Is there anything Meryl Streep can't do?


Good one! I'm such a philistine that every time I think of e.e. cummings, I think of the movie, "Hannah and Her Sisters" and the line "nobody, not even the rain has such small hands."


Well that's two other people who know that poem. Good! And thanks for the follow on question to mine. I really want to stop being so intimidated by poetry :)


Just beautiful! What wonderful suggestions and list as much as you like! It all helps. Thank you.


Of course :)


I was hoping you'd have some suggestions and I couldn't have asked for more. This is just wonderful and I've already ordered PICNIC, LIGHTNING. I'll let you know how I do. And you're not verbose at all! When I ask for input, I mean it!


So glad you stopped by. It's funny, I tend to follow links back from the people I disagree with ;) I passed your compliment on to Scott and he thanks you.


I was hoping you'd have a suggestion -- just ordered it. Thanks so much for the suggestion.


Ooooh, I forgot about that one and I think I might have had to memorize it too (when you grow up in Boston, there's more pressure to learn early American history I think -- something about those field trips to the Old North Church and walking the Freedom Trail and seeing the Tea Party ship and Concord and Lexington). I'll bet I have more poems rattling around my head than I think!


It hard for even me to believe that I never really tried writing poetry. I think it's because I'm sort of a perfectionist at heart and since I feel like I don't understand it or the rules for writing it, I can't bear the thought of doing it wrong. I don't "get" it and I don't know what makes a good or a bad poem, except or my own visceral reaction to it. I suspect that if I start to read more, I may be tempted to try my hand at it. I have a feeling that it could only help my prose.


Dr. Suess ROCKS. I'm pretty old school so I really have to go with The Cat in the Hat. I totally relate to the kids desire to let the cool cat in the house and the goldfish's anxiety that he should not be there when they're mother's not home -- Yikes! Leftover issues from being a latchkey kid!

Carleen Brice said...

Rumi is who I'm reading now for poetry. But I'd recommend any anthology of poets. I've learned about great poets (like Lucille Clifton) in anthologies.

Anonymous said...

I am not much of a poetry buff, but one of the most influential people in my life did write some poems. I doubt they are all that great, but if ok with you, I can post one of them here.

Lisa said...

Carleen, That's a great idea and Rumi comes up all the time. Any recommendations on anthologies you've enjoyed?

Anon, Absolutely -- post away!

Steve Malley said...

I'm actually going to give this one some thought-- what you'd like.

For me, there's none better than William Butler Yeats.

Charles convinced me to check out Dylan Thomas as well!

Usman said...

When i read prose, I prefer English; it's more structured than Urdu and Persian.
Funnily enough in poetry I do the opposite I read Urdu poets; Ghalib being my favorite. In poetry the conventions of ghazals and other formats are very structured and a delight to read.
Rumi is ever popular for spiritual enlightenment. Ghalib is the poet of choice for me when it comes to hearing philosophical meanderings on life, love and the rest.

Carleen Brice said...

I knew you were going to ask me that! That's the downside of flipping through anthologies...I rarely remember them.

Anonymous said...

Abou Ben Adem? I can remember it about halfway through, and yes, likely from about 5th or 6th grade. I can also do most of The Raven and one other Poe.

I've only read a few books that were only poetry and it looks like you have some great suggestions.


The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Track down a poem called Buying A Dress by James Lasdun. It has the most gorgeous metre and rhythm of any poem I've ever read.

My other favourite poets are cummings, Auden, Larkin and Carroll. My rendition of Jabberwocky is quite the event at any drunken party, let me tell you.

Lisa said...

Steve M, I had a feeling you night say Yeats. Hoping you'll stop back and have another suggestion or two. Thanks!

Usman, I'm afraid I'm limited to reading in English, or maybe French if it's poetry written for pre-schoolers -- although it would be really cool if I said I'd been reading poetry in Urdu or Persian, wouldn't it?

Carleen, How can you say that? You've edited an anthology!!!

Susan, Perhaps Abu Ben Adhem was more of an elementary school staple than I'd thought it was, although we seriously date ourselves by admitting we learned it in public school. I doubt there are too many poems full of God and angels being taught today -- I was always curious about who "Abu" was, since this was written by an English poet, I believe.

EOH, I will indeed track them down. BTW, I just read DISGRACE, by J.M. Coetzee -- are you not originally from South Africa? What do you think of him? I thought he was brilliant.

Sphinx Ink said...

Lisa, I rarely read poetry as a leisure activity--I was an English major as an undergrad and always say I got my fill of poetry then. Yet I've found myself writing poetry at times of high emotion or tragedy. Good poets know how to use language better than any other writers.

I do have a few favorite poems I recall from my college years several decades ago. My all-time favorite is "Dover Beach," by Matthew Arnold. I was going to reproduce it here for you--it's long out of copyright, Arnold having died in the 19th century. However, I realized it would take up too much space/bandwidth, so I'll put in on my blog instead. You can find it easily online at many sites, anyway. I got it from

debra said...

I also love this one by Emerson:
Write it on your heart
that every day is the best day in the year.
He is rich who owns the day, and no one owns the day
who allows it to be invaded with fret and anxiety.

Finish every day and be done with it.
You have done what you could.
Some blunders and absurdities, no doubt crept in.
Forget them as soon as you can, tomorrow is a new day;
begin it well and serenely, with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.

This new day is too dear,
with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the yesterdays.

iyan and egusi soup: said...

i admire poems and poets--and both just scare me.

liz fenwick said...

Lisa, I can see our shared roots in our early poetry... Frost. I was made to memorize the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere by Longfellow...Listen my children...

I was lucky enough to do a whole senoir seminar on the works of Emily Dickinson...

But the last poets i read with any passion were Patrick Kavanaugh - The great Hunger and then onto SEamus Heaney.

Thinking of your post I do think that going back to poetry is a good idea beacuase it can remind one how valuable each word can be....sometimes writing novels it is easy to lose sight of that :-)

Lisa said...

Sphinx Ink, I read "Dover Beach" and I can see why it's stayed with you. It is lyrical and melancholy. My kind of poem.

Debra, How absolutely beautiful.

Olufunke, I find it intimidating, but the more I begin to read, the more I realize how much of it is very accessible, so I have hopes that I can learn to understand a little more.

Liz, What an excellent insight. Yes, every syllable counts in a poem, as it really should in our prose. A novel is such a marathon that I think we sometimes get in too much of a hurry to really give each sentence the attention it deserves.

smoore3731 said...

Susie, my wife, was so very happy I found Abu Ben Adam (Ahdem) on this blog.

Having been in English boarding school many years past, it was an exciting delight for her to read it aloud in its entirety. She had most of it written by hand but was lacking some. Of course, that bothered her a tad.


Lisa said...

Smoore3731, I'm delighted! For some reason, it's the only poem I ever learned in school (in Boston) that I remember. I'm so glad others have this one stuck in their heads too!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf