Archives for category: Poetry

Through random surfing this weekend, I stumbled into a whole blog community related to MFA programs: blogs about getting in, blogs about programs, blogs about the idea of the MFA.  Perhaps the most interesting was Seth Abramson’s blog, which is mostly links to music videos, but he has some fabulous analysis and data on MFA programs that he uses to compile an annual MFA program rankings for Poets & Writers.  Abramson also has some great advise for writers considering MFAs.  I admire him for emphasizing the absolute importance of funding in MFA programs.  The best tip I ever received when I began to apply for schools was from a professor who told me that I should not pay for my MFA–my MFA program should pay me.

Now that I’m a few years out of my MFA program, I thought it might be nice to pass along that favor and some other thoughts I have about MFAs to other aspiring writers.  It should be noted, I am not in academia and have no desire to return.  My profession is currently more along the lines of PR.  That being said, I am very grateful for my MFA and I do think it has helped me in my professional life.  My MFA was funded and I also received a stipend for both years of my program (it was more than enough to live on).

Anyway, here are some tips for those interested:

1.  Do not pay for your MFA

An MFA is not a professional degree and as Seth Abramson and countless other people (including myself) will point out to you, an MFA is unlikely to advance you towards any career.  Leaving an MFA program with any sort of debt will put you in a bad spot financially and will limit your choices of what you can do after you graduate.  If you have a funded MFA, you will have less debt and will, therefore, be able to live on less income.  This can free you up to spend a few years working part-time and writing, or to go back to school for a professional degree, or to travel for a while, or to take a low-paying internship, or to be unemployed while you look for something.  Academic teaching jobs and writing fellowships are extremely competitive and difficult to get and you should not assume that you will have one lined up after you graduate.  You likely won’t.  There are many programs that fund MFAs candidates and you should not support programs that do not support you.

2. Have Goals

There are many different types of MFA programs. Although all MFA programs exist to support your writing, they are each different.  Having a sense of what you want out of the MFA will help ensure that it’s a meaningful experience. For instance, it would be a smart idea to consider programs that help you develop professional skills that might lead to a job you won’t hate.  Although many programs will help you learn to teach, you might also find programs that provide opportunities to edit journals and literary magazines, or feed into literary studies.  Are you interested in book making or print making? Would you like to take some journalism classes?  See if you can find an MFA that might open up doors to actual wage-earning opportunities.  This is a very mercenary way to look at it–but frankly, I’m glad I did, because I can afford to feed myself.  I like that.

3. Like the Atmosphere

If you have a chance, visit some of the campuses you’re considering applying to.  This is especially important if you haven’t had much experience in workshops.  See if you like the way the school approaches writing and if you just like the atmosphere.  I imagine that pretensions probably abound in all MFA programs, but see if the students in the program mesh with you.  Is there a nice variety of students and writing–or is everyone essentially working on writing the same poem the professor wrote ten years ago?  Is there a sense of collegiality between students and faculty?

Beyond the school–do you like the city?  Is the cost of living reasonable for your budget? Does it have enough of the right components to make you happy?

4. Look for Teaching Faculty

Although it can be swell to spend two years worshiping at the altar of your favorite living poet–if that poet can’t teach, you may not learn all that much.  Some teaching techniques just don’t work.  Some MFA professors clearly resent their students or have virtually no commitment to the teaching process.  I had a professor who, it was obvious, generally just glanced over the poems before workshop.  She rarely had notes on the poem before class, but would add them during discussion.  Much of the discussion was wasted on her trying to figure out what a poem was about.  Eventually she would have some reading of the poem and would start talking about technique.  This was often helpful, but would then be rushed because we had to move on to other people.  My other professor was better at discussing techniques, but he’s the one that told us to get off our meds because our writing sucked.  Also he hated when I wrote anything that seemed like it was staged in Wisconsin.  Although I had a very tenuous relationship with my professors–it wasn’t anything compared to what I had heard about on some other campuses…Drunk writers=drama city.

I can go on and on, but the main thing that’s important with MFAs is to make sure you get what you want out of the experience.  An MFA is a great opportunity, but it’s important to be honest about its limitations.  Yes it can help you claw your way up the ladder to teaching jobs (but be sure you actually want to teach if this is a goal you have–I hated teaching). MFAs from good schools can impress certain employers by suggesting you have academic skills and creativity.  You can also use an MFA to build towards a literary PhD or a PhD in creative writing–if you really like academia.  Also, if you’re really lucky, like I was, you’ll meet some great people.  Just go into it with eyes open.


Randall Jarrell was hit by a car. Possibly what I remember most from my MFA classes is keeping track of how poets died: head in oven, car exhaust in the garage, getting drunk and walking off a pier, getting drunk and falling down the  stairs, being run over by a beach vehicle on Fire Island, typhoid, Aids, TB at age 25.  Randall Jarrell was hit by a car.

During my MFA, a professor suggested in a workshop something to the effect that not enough poets commit suicide these days and maybe we are all too medicated to write well. That professor loved Randall Jarrell, who was hit by a car in 1965.  Also Randall Jarrell may have walked into the car on purpose.  It’s a mystery!

Randall Jarrell also served in the air force during WWII, which led to some stirring poems about the war experience, including the Randall Jarrell poem you are most likely to encounter in an English textbook: “Death of the Bell Turret Gunner”:

The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner

From my mother’s sleep I fell into the State,
And I hunched in its belly till my wet fur froze.
Six miles from earth, loosed from its dream of life,
I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters.
When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.

As a former English TA, this is a poem I love to see in an English textbook.  First, it is related to World War 2, so a discussion can start just by asking what a Bell Turret Gunner is, and then a teacher can burn off 10 minutes by drawing a bomber on the chalk board and explaining where a bell turret gunner would be in the plane and what that person would.  FACTS impress students.  Also, if the students are 18-19 years old, it’s helpful to point that 70 years ago they could have been stuffed into a glass womb to shoot  at things while 30,000 feet in the air.

This poem is also dense and short so it can be read out loud in class and the whole class can work together on scanning it line-by-line for meaning first and then later for interesting details and devices.  The ending is a rhyme and a surprising rhyme so students can talk about why they were surprised by the rhyme.  Does it seem appropriate to the content of the final line, I’d ask. Then we can talk about rhyme being used for irony and other purposes.  It’s great.  Also, Jarrell’s use of animal and other non-human language is a theme students can track and use to think about what such language says about the gunner.  And then broaden it out to what the language says about the war.

Finally, it’s not an easy poem.  One can read it over and over again and not really know exactly what Jarrell is getting at, but one could come up with a few different plausible interpretations.

Although “The Death of the Bell Turret Gunner” (DOTBTG) is a great war poem, it really isn’t representative of Jarrell’s work. For that, I give you a favorite of my professor who loved Jarrell:

90 North

At home, in my flannel gown, like a bear to its floe,
I clambered to bed; up the globe’s impossible sides
I sailed all night—till at last, with my black beard,
My furs and my dogs, I stood at the northern pole.

There in the childish night my companions lay frozen,
The stiff furs knocked at my starveling throat,
And I gave my great sigh: the flakes came huddling,
Were they really my end? In the darkness I turned to my rest.

—Here, the flag snaps in the glare and silence
Of the unbroken ice. I stand here,
The dogs bark, my beard is black, and I stare
At the North Pole . . .
And now what? Why, go back.

Turn as I please, my step is to the south.
The world—my world spins on this final point
Of cold and wretchedness: all lines, all winds
End in this whirlpool I at last discover.

And it is meaningless. In the child’s bed
After the night’s voyage, in that warm world
Where people work and suffer for the end
That crowns the pain—in that Cloud-Cuckoo-Land

I reached my North and it had meaning.
Here at the actual pole of my existence,
Where all that I have done is meaningless,
Where I die or live by accident alone—

Where, living or dying, I am still alone;
Here where North, the night, the berg of death
Crowd me out of the ignorant darkness,
I see at last that all the knowledge

I wrung from the darkness—that the darkness flung me—
Is worthless as ignorance: nothing comes from nothing,
The darkness from the darkness. Pain comes from the darkness
And we call it wisdom. It is pain.

Jarrell poems tend to be longer first-person narrative structures and not nearly as tight as DOTBTG.   Although “90 North”  has more space than DOTBTG, the lines still feels so controlled and perfectly broken. The language more colloquial, but words finely chosen for sound and clarity.  The ending still surprises by ending on a short sentence after several longer sentences.  I don’t want to analyze this one to death because much of the joy (and misery) of it comes from Jarrell’s incredibly personal voice,  but if anything else, this is just a beautiful human expression to commiserate with the next time you find yourself roaming the Arctic passages of your mind.

Yesterday, I resolved to finally throw myself into translating as part my much greater project of improving my German.  The poem selected (which I mentioned in my post yesterday) was a sonnet by Bertolt Brecht: “Entdeckung an einer jungen Frau” (or roughly “Discovery on a young woman”).  Here’s why this project is stupid and will surely be a disaster:

1. My German is so rusty, but it was once really good.  This means that my brain often gives me cues that it “knows” a word or a phrase, but it doesn’t really know why.  So many words seem familiar, but are often merely close to the correct word I want to use.  Idioms/turns-of-phrase are the worst because they aren’t easy to find in a dictionary and often can only be explained in context.

2. This poem is a sonnet (a Petrarchan sonnet), which means it has requirements regarding not only a rhyme scheme, but also the meter and pace of the poem.

3.  I have read some Brecht, but not a whole lot.  So I need to do a little research into his style of writing to make sure I’m making the appropriate decisions in terms of word choice.

4.  I can’t find an English version of this anywhere, so there’s nothing to check my work against.  For instance, even after translating closely, I’m still not sure I know what the last line means.

Today I completed the first step of the process, which is doing a word-by-word translation to see what I’m up against. It looks confusing but is very helpful.  I welcome any suggestions as I muddle through this experiment:


Title: [Discovery/Detection/Spotting]  [on /at]  a young woman

1. Des Morgens nüchterner Abschied, eine Frau

The morning’s [sober/down-to-earth/rational/plain/unemotional/objective]  [farewell/parting/resignation (as in from an employer)/discharge/Goodbye/], a woman

2. Kühl zwischen Tür und Angel, kühl besehn

[cool/calm] [(between door and hinge) I recall learning that this has a figurative meaning  related to being in transition. ], [cool/calm] to look at/look at oneself

3. Da sah ich: eine Strähn in ihrem Haar war grau

[Here/then/so/there] saw I: a [strand/streak] in her hair was gray

4. Ich konnt mich nicht entschließen mehr zu gehn

I could me not [decide/ determine/ resolve] more to go

5. Stumm nahm ich ihre Brust, und als sie fragte

[Silently/dumbly/mutely] took I her breast, and as she  asked

6. Warum ich, Nachtgast, nach Verlauf der Nacht

Why I, Nightguest (will have to look up whether this has some meaning as an idiom), after the course of the night

7. Nicht gehen wolle, denn so war’s gedacht

Not leave want to, when [such war/so was] thought/expected

8. Sah ich sie unumwunden an und sagte

Saw I she frankly on and said

9. Ist’s nur noch eine Nacht, will ich noch bleiben

It is only still [one/a] nicht, want I still to stay

10. Doch nütze deine Zeit, das ist das Schlimme

[But/Afterall/Any way/All the same] [use/be useful] your time, that is the worst

11. Daß du so zwischen Tür und Angel stehst

That you so between door and hinge stand

12. Und laß uns die Gespräche rascher treiben

And let us the [conversation/discussions/dialogues]  [faster/rapider/swifter/hastier] [drive/rush/push/pursue/carry on/have/create/commit/to beat/make rise/to bring]

13. Denn wir vergaßen ganz, daß du vergehst

Then we forget [completely/wholly/entirely/really], that you [to pass/die/fade]

14. Und es verschlug Begierde mir die Stimme

And it [staggered/lost] (?) [Desire/longing/yearning/burning] me the [voice/register/vote]

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956)  was a poet.  Most people know him as a playwright, but he was a true poet and it slithered its tentacles into his other (more famous) writing.   And yes, poetry is an octopus and its coming for your brain.

If some professor or other clammy-handed intellectual somewhere didn’t sit you down and teach you about Bertolt Brecht, here are some important things to know for your next cocktail party where pale, clammy-handed intellectuals might be in attendance:

1.  Brecht was one of the rare geniuses whose work is so different and creative and influential that it changes an entire art form–he did this for theater.  He experimented with a form of theater called “Epic Theater,” which (and some clammy-handed intellectual somewhere will claim I’m simplifying matters) essentially incorporated unconventional elements to keep the audience intellectually engaged.  Brecht did not want his theater to be a form of escapism.   Actors in his plays, for instance, might have held up signs or had strange songs at inappropriate times. Therefore, the next time you do something in a social setting that is inappropriate and distracting, you can tell people you were having a Brechtian moment and it was for their own good.

2.  Brecht was a Marxist and was questioned by the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee.  Afterwards he was offered and accepted his own theater in Berlin and lived there after his death.

3.  Some really famous songs come from his works:

From the Three Penny Opera (as performed by Lotte Lenya–there’s no actual video because they didn’t know about YouTube yet.):

The Doors did this one, probably because it’s about going to get whiskey. This is from the Rise and Fall of the City Mahagonny:

It’s easy to recognize only the strangeness of the Brecht operas and miss the actually poetry in his lyrics.  But it’s there, which I would show you if I could get my hands on a libretto. But alas, the tubes have failed me.  Below is a sonnet that floored me in one of my German classes.  It’s in German!


Des Morgens nüchterner Abschied, eine Frau
Kühl zwischen Tür und Angel, kühl besehn
Da sah ich: eine Strähn in ihrem Haar war grau
Ich konnt mich nicht entschließen mehr zu gehn
Stumm nahm ich ihre Brust, und als sie fragte
Warum ich, Nachtgast, nach Verlauf der Nacht
Nicht gehen wolle, denn so war’s gedacht
Sah ich sie unumwunden an und sagte
Ist’s nur noch eine Nacht, will ich noch bleiben
Doch nütze deine Zeit, das ist das Schlimme
Daß du so zwischen Tür und Angel stehst
Und laß uns die Gespräche rascher treiben
Denn wir vergaßen ganz, daß du vergehst
Und es verschlug Begierde mir die Stimme

Basically, the speaker just had a tryst with a woman.  She’s about to leave and is indifferent to him. He notices she has a strand of gray hair and decides he doesn’t want her to leave. There aren’t really great translations out there…or any that I could find, so I’ll try to translate it in parts in multiple posts.  Stay tuned.  It will be fun.

Today was such a fortunate, glorious day–perfect blue sky spotted here and there with little puff clouds. By far the best thing was the temperature (upper 70s) and low humidity. After days and days of heat advisories it was nice to have a perfect summer day with no obligations. My big treat was getting in a bike ride around one of the lakes.

It had been over a week, maybe two, since my last bike ride and it’s always striking how the vegetation changes so quickly. In Wisconsin we are currently at our most overgrown and overleafed and it something to be savored.  To be out and about with a crisp breeze this time of year is to be amazed at how loud everything is: the leaves, the bugs, the grass, the flowers, the branches, the lake water.

But the early crispness in the air also reminds me that autumn is only a few weeks away. There were surprising few people out, which triggered some feelings of loneliness.  I recalled all the last glinting days of childhood summers:  the excitement of starting a school year, the the anxiety of holding on to fleeting time.   I also recalled my first summer after college when I worked into September, well after all the school years had started. I was starting an opportunity in October, but missing my first school year after nearly two decades worth, made me feel as those the entire world was populated with school children who were starting something new and leaving me behind. Perhaps that loneliness was a first burden of adulthood, the anxiety of entering it in the first place and knowing that I would never leave.

Here’s where I begin to write a poem. My little bike-ride and the images conjured triggered strong feels with many possible meanings. If I were to write a poem, I would start by compiling images. I would think about the sounds I heard: the leaves like breaking waves, the creaking branches (one that sounded like a screen door). The blue of the lake–surprisingly it was the same color as a porta-potty parked next to it.  What kind of images–how do they set the tone?  I would let them write themselves and see if they could answer that for me.

This is also when I would think about the sounds this poem should make (do I want it to feel jagged, or smooth–to move quickly or stutter when read out loud? Should I mimic the sounds I hear or play against a reader’s expectations?). From there I would just take time to put down words (I would work with a dictionary to help keep myself surprised) and to see if those words lead anywhere.

But when it comes to nature, do I really need to write when everything’s been written already, the emotions already so well conveyed? As one of my bosses would say: something to noodle on.

Here’s a nature poem from the 13th or 14th century–my Norton anthology is not very sure. The notes (in parenthesis) are annotations courtesy my Norton anthology:

Fowls in the Frith (Birds in Woods)

Fowles in the frith,
The fisshes in the flood,
And I mon waxe wood: (must go mad)
Much sorwe (sorrow) I walke with
For best of boon and blood.

(According to the scholars at Norton, the final line could read “the best” or “beast” of bone, which means it could be religious or erotic or both!)

So the beast of burden here is our mortality, our limitations, the futile desires we walk with that the natural world, in its instinctual perfection, never encounters.  Humanity is once again betrayed by its complexity.  This was seriously written 700 years ago and this is essentially the question behind nearly every nature poem ever.  Although I wonder if anyone has ever taken on a porta-potty.

I have so much to say about Gerard Manley Hopkins, but I am so, so tired.  So I’ll just try to summarize it: he changed what people understood about poetry, meter, and the English language. Read his poetry out loud, or better yet, have someone read it to you.  He was a Catholic academic during a time in England when that pretty much destroyed academic careers.  He became a Jesuit priest and projected guilt issues onto his poems and burned them all at one point.  He referred to this as his very own “slaughter of the innocents.”  I could go on and on…he’s sort of like the English Emily Dickinson.  There’s great speculation that he was homosexual, but nothing conclusive, which biographers sweat and stammer over.

My favorite Hopkins story from Gerard Manley Hopkins: A Very Private Life by Robert Bernard Martin is that Hopkins, as a child, bet a classmate on which of the two of them could go the longest without water. Hopkins managed to resist water until his tongue turned black.  This story is also on Wikipedia so all my extra reading is useless, apparently.

Here are some examples of his work.  Perhaps my favorite poem of all poems ever is “The Windhover”:

The Windhover

To Christ our Lord

I caught this morning morning’s minion, king-
dom of daylight’s dauphin, dapple-dawn-drawn Falcon, in his riding
Of the rolling level underneath him steady air, and striding
High there, how he rung upon the rein of a wimpling wing
In his ecstasy! then off, off forth on swing,
As a skate’s heel sweeps smooth on a bow-bend: the hurl and gliding
Rebuffed the big wind. My heart in hiding
Stirred for a bird,—the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!

Brute beauty and valour and act, oh, air, pride, plume, here
Buckle! AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!

No wonder of it: shéer plód makes plough down sillion
Shine, and blue-bleak embers, ah my dear,
Fall, gall themselves, and gash gold-vermillion.

Okay, so this is the Hopkins poem that everyone knows–but it’s that way for a reason.  I loved teaching this poem, because it’s hard for most students to understand “the message” of the poem, but it very easy to absorb the prosody behind the meaning.  This in turn seems to allow students to experiment with sound, form, meter, rhythm without killing the meat of a poem by fixating on expressing “an idea.”  Also this poem is lush and just  wonderful to have in your mouth.  Also the meaning as I see it: I’m a log for God.

The other great thing about Hopkins is that, although a priest, he took on doubt and mortality in a way that most skeptics could relate to:

(Carrion Comfort)

NOT, I’ll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist—slack they may be—these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?

Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? the hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.

There’s another mini-masterpiece of sound.  For a lesson on phonics, this is a nice compliment to “The Windhover” as it’s easy to see the shift in fluidity and corresponding tone.  Here as Hopkins grapples with his faith, the sounds are all jagged and stuttered, mimicking his own tenuous exploration of doubt.

Everyone is throwing around accusations today.  Hercule Poirot is on my television revealing a murder plot as I write.  How can such a demure Belgian be so terrifying?  “The HORNET it was already DEAD! You stung her with this.”  “Poirot, he remembers everything….anesthesia was your specialty long before psychiatry!”

Then there’s this post on Huffington that names “the 15 Most Overrated Contermporary American Writers” according to Anis Shivani, a fellow contemporary American writer.

“The language was already defeated.  You killed it with inscrutable line length!” As an MFA myself, it is easy to see how impenetrable contemporary literature is.  It was often hard to predict which poetry would be reviled and which would be hailed by my professors.  I have not read any of these poets or fiction writers in great enough depth to say whether they are truly overrated.  I have disliked poems by Jorie Graham and have actually felt that other poems communicated something to me. That’s always been the fundamental “moral core” of poetry to me–does the poem communicate something meaningful about humanity? Does the method of communication makes sense within the poem?

There is something so alluring about a hit piece like this, the open acknowledgment of the competitive and strangely political nature of academia-supported writing.  But I always wonder how much it helps to have a fellow writer sound such an alarm–it’s hard not to suspect the author’s motives.  Also, my MFA program paid me to write for two years.  Maybe it was pretentious and miserable, but I can’t argue with young writers getting paid to write.  And I met some great people.

Also I think Billy Collins not-so-secretly hates poetry.  Otherwise I can’t explain him.

Ingeborg Bachmann (June 25, 1926 – October 17, 1973) was an Austrian poet who is also known for her novels and work with radio.  Bachmann was a member of the prominent post-war European  literary circle known as Gruppe 47 (if you can name a German post-war writer, chances are they were in this group).   Although not as well know to English-speaking audiences as some of that group’s other luminaries, Bachmann’s poetry is an important study of the roots of language and its value to contemporary society.  The question behind Bachmann’s poetry: how can something as “delicate” and as aesthetic as poetry ever address the inhumanity of war?

Here’s an example of her poetry, as translated by duchess (that’s me):

No Delicacies

Nothing pleases me anymore

Should I
outfit a metaphor
with an almond blossom?
crucify syntax
upon a stage effect?
Who will break one’s skull
over such superfluous things—

I have come to an understanding
with the words
that are there
(for the lowest class)


With the un-purged sob,
with despair
(and I still despair before despair)
over such destitution,
the sick situation, the cost of living—
I will manage.

I don’t neglect writing,
but myself.
The others know
to help themselves with words.
I am not my assistant.

Should I
take a thought captive,
lead it away to an illuminated sentence-cell?
Eye and ear fed
with mouthfuls of high-quality words?
explore the libido of a vowel?
ascertain the collector’s value of our consonants?

Must I
with a weathered head,
with a writing-cramp in this hand,
under the pressure of three-hundred nights
tear apart the paper,
wipe the floor with these annotated word-operas,
exterminate as such:  I you and he she it

we you all?

(Should do.  The others should.)

My share, it should go missing.