Friday, April 30, 2010

Arbor Day--National Poetry Month

It's Arbor Day and the last day of National Poetry Month, so what better way to celebrate than with a few tree poems? I'm guessing more than a few of us memorized Joyce Kilmer's famous "Trees" in grade school. How much of it can you still recite without peeking?


I THINK that I shall never see
A poem lovely as a tree.

A tree whose hungry mouth is prest
Against the sweet earth's flowing breast;

A tree that looks at God all day,
And lifts her leafy arms to pray;

A tree that may in summer wear
A nest of robins in her hair;

Upon whose bosom snow has lain;
Who intimately lives with rain.

Poems are made by fools like me,
But only God can make a tree.

You may also remember "Woodman, Spare that Tree" by George Pope Morris. Here's a Phil Harris rendition on the gramophone:

Modern poets also write of trees. Kids' favorite, Douglas Florian, has a new book book out called Poetrees. Take a look at the poems and art here.

Poet and naturalist Wendell Berry writes "For the Future". What trees--literal or figurative--are you planting for the future?

Happy Arbor Day! So long, National Poetry Month!

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Celebrate Poem in Your Pocket Day--National Poetry Month

Poem in Your Pocket Day, sponsored by the Academy of American Poets, encourages us to share poetry. Print off some of your favorite poems and put them in your pocket. When you meet and greet someone today, hand them the poem. Simple! Silly? Maybe, but I did it last year to great results. The poem recipients were really pleased. If you need poem ideas, click the Poem in Your Pocket Day link.

This year I decided to offer a Robert Frost poem that is not as well known as many of his others. I used to give this to the high school seniors I taught back in the day. Since graduation is approaching, and NASA just celebrated the Hubble telescope's 20th birthday, the poem in my pocket will be

Choose Something Like a Star

O Star (the fairest one in sight),
We grant your loftiness the right
To some obscurity of cloud --
(Click to read the rest.)

Here's a NASA video of images from Hubble about a star's life:

Share some poems from your pocket to someone else's today and let me know the results!

Monday, April 26, 2010

Epic Poetry and the Swedish Chef--National Poetry Month

[This is a public domain image from Kip Wheeler's homepage at Carson-Newman College. Kip Wheeler declared its status thus: "The original image of the Beowulf manuscript comes from the anonymous Anglo-Saxon scribe who wrote the 'Nowell Codex', Cotton Vitellius A.x.v. 129 r. It appears here as reproduced in Julius Zupitza's Beowulf: Autotypes of the Unique Cotton MS Vitellius A.xv. in the British Museum with a Transliteration and Notes. E.E.T.S. O.S. 77. London: Trubner & Co., 1882. This image is public domain."]

Epic poetry, like today's epic novels, sweeps across landscapes and generations. Many epic poems, such as the most famous early English epic, Beowulf, tell of historic heroics, with a dash of myth thrown in. Ordinary people have been drawn to the story for its action adventure, but scholars have poured over it for other reasons. How much is historical? Was it written in the 8th century or later? Who wrote it? Was it told orally before it was written?

What we do know is that Beowulf is a tale of a hero who fights dragon Grendel, Grendel's mother, and an unnamed dragon over the course of his life in ancient Scandinavia. The poetry is not rhymed or metered like modern poetry. It is alliterative, with emphasis on initial word sounds. This is a sample of what the lines look like typeset:

Beowulf and Grendel's Mother
Lines 1357-1382

Hie dygel lond
warigeað, wulfhleoþu, windige næssas,
frecne fengelad, ðær fyrgenstream

under næssa genipu niþer gewiteð,
flod under foldan. Nis þæt feor heonon
milgemearces þæt se mere standeð;
ofer þæm hongiað hrinde bearwas,
wudu wyrtum fæst wæter oferhelmað.

Hear Beowulf in Old English by clicking "audio" toward the bottom of this page.

Something about the way this sounds has always reminded me of the Swedish Chef from the Muppets, which, while not epic, is adventurous in its own way.

What do you think? Is the Swedish Chef a descendant of Beowulf?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Chaucer's Middle English Still Sounds Good--National Poetry Month

Our pear and cherry trees bloom, tulips color lawns, and dormant plants spring to attention. This burst of life reminds me of the first line of Chaucer's "Prologue to the Canterbury Tales":

When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower....

That's from the modern English version. Chaucer wrote it in Middle English, which is still recognizable, but takes a little work to translate:

Whan that aprill with his shoures soote
The droghte of march hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour
Of which vertu engendred is the flour...

Take a minute and listen to it as the Middle English scrolls by:

See the Middle English and Modern version side by side here.

[Canterbury tales mural by Ezra Winter. North Reading Room, west wall, Library of Congress John Adams Building, Washington, D.C. According to the inscription, this mural shows (left to right): "The Miller, in the lead, piping the band out of Southwark; the Host of Tabard Inn; the Knight, followed by his son, the young Squire, on a white palfrey; a Yeoman; the Doctor of Physic; Chaucer, riding with his back to the observer, as he talks to the Lawyer; the Clerk of Oxenford, reading his beloved classics; the Manciple; the Sailor; the Prioress; the Nun; and three priests." (Source: John Y. Cole, On These Walls. Washington, D.C.: Library of Congress, 1995, p. 79)]

Which of Chaucer's tales do you remember? Which do you like best? How are the pilgrims' travels like your own?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Birthday, Shakespeare!--National Poetry Month

Happy Birthday, William Shakespeare! Much of this English poet/playwright's life is a mystery, but he was supposed to have been born on April 23, 1564. Did he write all the plays attributed to him? Had he traveled widely to set his plays accurately in foreign lands? Did he receive an advanced education or was he a prodigy, writing clever lines in his childhood? Most of that we'll never know. Fortunately, his work remains and is held in high esteem through the centuries.

Sonnet 60 gives a mature look at aging:

Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end,
Each changing place with that which goes before
In sequent toil all forwards do contend.
Nativity, once in the main of light,
Crawls to maturity, wherewith, being crowned,
Crooked eclipses 'gainst his glory fight
And Time that gave, doth now his gift confound.
Time doth transfix the flourish set on youth,
And delves the parallels in beauty's brow,
Feeds on the rarities of natures truth,
And nothing stands but for his scythe to mow;
And yet, to times, in hope, my verse shall stand,
Praising thy worth, despite his cruel hand.

Enjoy this student video of Sonnet 116 using Shakespeare's words and a modern twist:

The Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, displays manuscripts of Shakespeare's work, holds plays and poetry readings, and performs educational programs.

The Royal Shakespeare Company is building a new theatre in which to perform Shakespeare's plays in his hometown of Stratford-Upon-Avon. London built a replica of The Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare's plays were produced in Elizabethan times. Shakespeare's work is performed, recited, read, studied, and appreciated around the world. Though he died in 1616, his words live on.

That time of year thou mayst in me behold
When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang
Upon those boughs which shake against the cold,
Bare ruin'd choirs, where late the sweet birds sang.
In me thou seest the twilight of such day
As after sunset fadeth in the west,
Which by and by black night doth take away,
Death's second self, that seals up all in rest.
In me thou see'st the glowing of such fire
That on the ashes of his youth doth lie,
As the death-bed whereon it must expire
Consumed with that which it was nourish'd by.
This thou perceivest, which makes thy love more strong,
To love that well which thou must leave ere long.

What are your favorite Shakespeare lines?

Celebrate Earth Day--National Poetry Month

Celebrate the earth that sustains and nurtures us! Many poets and writers--and people in general--find solace and inspiration in nature. A contemporary poet who writes often about nature is Mary Oliver. Her poem "Such Singing in the Wild Branches" describes the joyful feeling of being one with nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a lot about nature and its restorative powers. In "Song of Nature," he lets nature speak for itself:

Mine are the night and morning,
The pits of air, the gulf of space,
The sportive sun, the gibbous moon,
The innumerable days.

I hid in the solar glory,
I am dumb in the pealing song,
I rest on the pitch of the torrent,
In slumber I am strong.

No numbers have counted my tallies,
No tribes my house can fill,
I sit by the shining Fount of Life,
And pour the deluge still;

And ever by delicate powers
Gathering along the centuries
From race on race the rarest flowers,
My wreath shall nothing miss.

And many a thousand summers
My apples ripened well,
And light from meliorating stars
With firmer glory fell.

I wrote the past in characters
Of rock and fire the scroll,
The building in the coral sea,
The planting of the coal.

And thefts from satellites and rings
And broken stars I drew,
And out of spent and aged things
I formed the world anew;

What time the gods kept carnival,
Tricked out in star and flower,
And in cramp elf and saurian forms
They swathed their too much power.

Time and Thought were my surveyors,
They laid their courses well,
They boiled the sea, and baked the layers
Or granite, marl, and shell.

But he, the man-child glorious,--
Where tarries he the while?
The rainbow shines his harbinger,
The sunset gleams his smile.

My boreal lights leap upward,
Forthright my planets roll,
And still the man-child is not born,
The summit of the whole.

Must time and tide forever run?
Will never my winds go sleep in the west?
Will never my wheels which whirl the sun
And satellites have rest?

Too much of donning and doffing,
Too slow the rainbow fades,
I weary of my robe of snow,
My leaves and my cascades;

I tire of globes and races,
Too long the game is played;
What without him is summer's pomp,
Or winter's frozen shade?

I travail in pain for him,
My creatures travail and wait;
His couriers come by squadrons,
He comes not to the gate.

Twice I have moulded an image,
And thrice outstretched my hand,
Made one of day, and one of night,
And one of the salt sea-sand.

One in a Judaean manger,
And one by Avon stream,
One over against the mouths of Nile,
And one in the Academe.

I moulded kings and saviours,
And bards o'er kings to rule;--
But fell the starry influence short,
The cup was never full.

Yet whirl the glowing wheels once more,
And mix the bowl again;
Seethe, fate! the ancient elements,
Heat, cold, wet, dry, and peace, and pain.

Let war and trade and creeds and song
Blend, ripen race on race,
The sunburnt world a man shall breed
Of all the zones, and countless days.

No ray is dimmed, no atom worn,
My oldest force is good as new,
And the fresh rose on yonder thorn
Gives back the bending heavens in dew.

Children's poet, songwriter, and entertainer, Eric Ode, has a few poems for kids about nature. Here's a link to "Cocoon."

Celebrate Earth Day! What part of nature inspired you today?

Monday, April 19, 2010

Poems Tell a Story--National Poetry Month

Who doesn't love a good story? Stories have been told in poetry form for ages. Many of us first heard poetry as nursery rhymes and songs, and that song connection continues to today. Ballads were especially well known in medieval Britain, and may have been influenced by Beowulf and other earlier works.

Many famous historical events have been immortalized in poetry, such as Paul Revere's ride and the Charge of the Light Brigade.

A song/narrative poem from modern times based on a real event is "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" by Gordon Lightfoot.

The ship sank in Lake Superior on November 10, 1975. Canadian troubadour Lightfoot read newspaper and news magazine accounts of the tragedy and released his famous song a year later. His poetic account is mostly true, with a few bits of poetic license to fill in the gaps.

Made-up stories about love and loss make good narrative poetry, too. "The Highwayman" by Alfred Noyes is a dramatic classic. The ballad "Barbara Allen" has over 92 versions and perhaps as many tunes.

(photo by Creative Commons license 2.5)

Narrative poetry can be just for fun, such as one of my favorites, "The Tale of Custard the Dragon" by Ogden Nash.

What is your favorite story poem?

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Happy National Library Week/National Poetry Month

Everything happens in April! This is National Library Week. I hope you will stop in and give your librarians some kind words. If you've been reading the news, you are aware that these are tough times for libraries, who continue to do more with less, and librarians, who do it more or less cheerfully.

Public and school libraries change lives by finding the right resources at the right time for citizens of all ages and socio-economic groups. Here's an example from one of my favorite poets, Naomi Shihab Nye:

Because of Libraries We Can Say These Things

She is holding the book close to her body,
carrying it home on the cracked sidewalk,
(continue here and scroll to the bottom and click "listen to reading" to hear Nye read the poem)

4/19/2007 Special Collections Michigan State University Libraries 100 Library East Lansing MI, 48823

Libraries, their human search engines (library staff), and their collections provide answers. The answers may take you where you want to go, or they make take you to unexpected places. See this poem by Jessy Randall:

Going to the Library

In the library there are pathways (click to read the rest of the poem)

Some of us get overwhelmed in libraries--so many books, so little time! William Stafford's "In the Library" captures this feeling:

You are reading a book, and think you know (click to read the rest of the poem)

What's your favorite thing about libraries?

Monday, April 12, 2010

Sensational Census--National Poetry Month

(photo by eiratansey

In addition to Poetry Month and Jazz Appreciation Month, it's Census Month! You have no doubt completed and returned your form. Thoughts and feelings about the census vary widely, as the poems below show.

The census can answer questions such as "What areas have gained population?" Here's a Robert Frost poem about the opposite situation:

The Census-Taker

I came an errand one cloud-blowing evening
To a slab-built, black-paper-covered house
Of one room and one window and one door,
The only dwelling in a waste cut over
A hundred square miles round it in the mountains:
(continue reading here).

(photo by Jason Pratt

Some folks are not happy to see a census taker at the door. Hear what Madam has to say to the census taker in Langston Hughes' poem. (Scroll and click "play" next to the + sign.)

When the census results are released, we will know how many people live where, how many live in their own homes, how many live in each home, and other statistics. All these numbers remind me of one of W.H. Auden's poems:

The Unknown Citizen

"He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint(continue reading here)

What do you think of the census? Regardless of your opinion, you count!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

National Jazz Month/National Poetry Month

(photo by fabbio

News to T.S. Eliot, April is the coolest--not cruelest--month because it is the official month to celebrate both poetry and jazz!

We were fortunate last night to be swept away by the jazz of the Brubeck Brothers Quartet. What a feast of talent! Here's a taste:

I've seen them live before, and they did not disappoint last night!

In many ways, jazz and poetry go together. I'll call your attention to children's poet, writer, and musician Jaime Adoff (son of renowed poet Arnod Adoff and children's literature legend Virginia Hamilton). Some of his novels are written in free verse. His book The Song Shoots Out of My Mouth celebrates all kinds of music and has a glossary of music terms in the back.

The title poem begins
"Each word running fast across lips.
A direct line to my hips, twist and shake."
(photo by waifer X

"The Drummer" begins
"I ride on cymbals crashing like metallic waves.
Oceans of colors in my ear."

(photo by boltron

Yes, poetry and music go together. Poetry and jazz go together. Celebrate both this month! What poetry do you hear in this performance?

Friday, April 9, 2010

Poetry Out Loud

(photo by Rob Lee

Poetry, like stories, began in the oral tradition, told around campfires before written language existed. The best poetry still packs its punch out loud.

Poetry slams, performing poetry, can also have an educational purpose, teaching participants the power of language and giving them poise and confidence. This video from Edutopia is an example:

Poetry Alive is a professional touring group that performs poetry for school programs. They live up to their name by making poetry come alive for all ages. See how they do it here.

What's your favorite poem to read or hear out loud?

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Knit Yourself a Poem

(Photo by Mr. T in DC

Let's face it, paper and pen or computer and keyboard are not for everyone. Besides, poetry has many colors and textures. The Poetry Society, a British institution since 1909, feels the same way and has concocted a method of knitting poems.

Here's one square of mine:

Feel inspired? Alas, I couldn't find a way to save the finished product, but I could save the separate letters. Hmmm...

Here's my poem, sans knitting:

(photo by Sujit kumar

Spring blows in fits
and starts. Then
We wait for warmth.
We wait for green.
Til then,
robin's reveille gives

Try knitting your own poem here and have fun crafting your poem! Take a look at what else the Poetry Society has to offer while you're there.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Poetry Tag and Other Sites--National Poetry Month

Today, I'd like to introduce you to some other bloggers who are celebrating National Poetry Month. Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Children is playing Poetry Tag. Poet J. Patrick Lewis kicked it off on March 31. He tagged another poet, who tagged another poet, and so it goes. Take a look for a new poem every day!

Greg Pincus. at Gotta Book offers us Thirty Poets, Thirty Days. He has invited thirty prominent poets (no, poets aren't all dead white men!) to share new poems each day of this month.

Over at poet Lara Salas' blog, Writing the World for Kids, find a new poem for children every day this month by well-known children's poet.

Finally, create your own poems using Scholastic's Poetry Maker! Have fun!! Share your masterpieces--if you dare!

Spring Rain--National Poetry Month

(photo by John Aldersey-Williams,

It's raining this morning! After all the snow melt, you wouldn't think we'd need rain, but we are glad to see it soak the ground afresh and clean things off. To celebrate, here are a couple rain haiku by Japanese masters:

(photo by Tacuma,

In spring rain

In spring rain
a pretty girl

--Kobayashi Issa

(photo by Oimax

Spring rain

Spring rain
leaking through the roof
dripping from the wasps' nest.

--Matsuo Basho

(photo by Leah Jones

And just for fun, go to children's poet and songwriter Eric Ode's poetry page to read his poem "Soggy Sneaker Parade."

What does spring rain remind you of? Happy splashing!

Monday, April 5, 2010

What is Poetry?

(photo by Horia Varlan,

Many people have tried to define poetry, a subjective endeavor. I especially like Emily Dickinson's definition:

"If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry."

This stanza of hers makes the point that language is a living thing:

A WORD is dead
When it is said,
Some say.
I say it just
Begins to live
That day.

What poems blow your mind and bring language to life?

Saturday, April 3, 2010

National Poetry Month--Happy Easter!

(photo by prkos

Today, Christians around the globe proclaim, "Christ is risen! He is risen indeed!" Nineteenth century English poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins put it more eloquently:


THE world is charged with the grandeur of God.
It will flame out, like shining from shook foil;
It gathers to a greatness, like the ooze of oil
Crushed. Why do men then now not reck his rod?
Generations have trod, have trod, have trod;
And all is seared with trade; bleared, smeared with toil;
And wears man's smudge and shares man's smell: the soil
Is bare now, nor can foot feel, being shod.

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs --
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

(photo by Untitled Blue,

Two centuries earlier, British metaphysical poet John Donne addressed death this way:

Death Be Not Proud

Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
Thou art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell;
And poppy or charms can make us sleep as well
And better than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.

(photo by Pink Dispatcher

Early 20th-century Welsh poet, Dylan Thomas, asserts the continuation of life in "And Death Shall Have No Dominion."

And death shall have no dominion. Christ is risen! He is risen, indeed!