Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Arrival by Shaun Tan

The Arrival by Shaun Tan is a story without words. It's a picture book for teens. It's a graphic novel inside hard covers. All of these statements are correct, and none of them are true.

The Arrival is an experience unto itself.

Imagine that you needed to leave wherever it is you live (for most readers of this blog the U.S., Canada, Australia or the U.K.), for whatever reason occurs to you (to escape war, seek a better life, etc.), and you must move far away to another country you've never seen before. One where you don't speak or read the language much, if at all. Preferably one where they use a different alphabet. (Kelly Herrold: You do not get to move to Russia since you can read Cyrillic. Pick someplace else!)

You pack whatever belongings will fit into one suitcase. Maybe your spouse helps. Inside that suitcase is a picture of your family and whatever you've scraped together to take with you.

You arrive in a land where nothing looks familiar to you. Not the monuments or the buildings or the signs. Everything at the port where you arrive by ship is a mystery, a puzzle, and a huge, busy bustle.

You struggle to deal with the bureaucrats. To find housing. To find work. Along the way you meet other immigrants who share their stories: where they came from, what and why they left. You make mistakes, you make friends. You learn to adjust to foreign words and foreign foods. And maybe, if you're lucky, you get to bring your family over to join you.

Shaun Tan peoples his world with people from a variety of races, and shows back stories for a number of them that explain their differing experiences. The images of war have the possibility of being confusing to some readers (oversized men with flame throwers advance on a town that rises to their knees; other soldiers march off to war and the next page is nothing but skeletons), but they convey the confusion and senselessness of it far more clearly (on an emotional level) than a more classic depiction might. The use of odd-looking pets was in the new world was the one thing that kept making me wonder if I was going to reach the end to find out that there'd been an alien invasion or something, but other than that I was dazzled by the artwork.

I'm not usually a fan of textless books, but in this case the absence of words helps the reader to identify with the main character's isolation and sense of otherness/foreign-ness. I can't decide what to call this one: picture book for older readers? (B&N has it shelved in the YA section, whereas The Wall by Peter Sís is on the picture book wall; I take issue with the placement of both) Graphic novel? No clue. In a year of hybrids like The Wall and the magnificent The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick, it's just one more for the "excellent book in an unclear category" pile.

Decidedly worth a look. Also worth a look? Today's featured snowflake-cum-tree-topper over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. She really is magnificent.

To check out Linda Wingerter's snowflake-crowned tree angel, click on the Robert's Snow button to the left. The link will also get you the list of other snowflakes featured in the blogosphere today. In addition, Jules and Eisha have also been keeping an ongoing list of blog posts thus far featuring snowflakes and the artists who created them.

Friday, October 26, 2007

By the pricking of my thumbs -- a Poetry Friday post

It's almost Halloween, All Hallows Eve when the spirits of the dead are said to walk among the living. What will you wear to frighten the spirits and keep them at bay? Or will you greet them with offerings of flowers and foods and skulls made of sugar, como el dìa de los muertos, honoring the ones who've died? Do you celebrate Samhain (November), the harvest festival that is known as the Celtic New Year, the start of the dark half of the year? Or recognize Toussaint, the French festival that melds Samhain and All Souls' Day, when families visit the graves and bring chrysanthemums - flowers so firmly associated with death that they are not given as gifts to the living? Beginning with Toussaint (the Black Month) and continuing until Christmas Eve, the next portal between the worlds of the living and the dead, the people of Bretagne (Brittany, France) begin their storytelling. At night, families and friends gathered to tell stories of fantasy and horror, of fairies, forsaken creatures and lost worlds.

Today, I'll be sharing part of a story that's perfect for Toussaint. It's from Macbeth, and it's a departure from his usual iambic pentameter (five poetic feet per line, each foot consisting of two syllables, the first unstressed, the second stressed: taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM taDUM). I'm pulling from Act 4, Scene 1, a scene featuring "the weird sisters," or at least that's what Macbeth calls them. That phrase, "the Weird Sisters" was also sometimes written as "the Wyrd Sisters," and they were norns (Norse versions of the fates, of which there were many, not just the three referred to in Greek and Roman mythology - those interested in learning about the norns are advised to check out the two surviving Eddas written about them).

Shakespeare set the weird sisters/witches apart from others by writing their lines in rhymed couplets (two lines that rhyme back to back) using trochaic tetrameter: Tetrameter means four poetic feet per line (shorter lines), Trochaic refers to trochee (TROkey), a two-syllable foot in which a stressed syllable is followed by an unstressed (DUMta DUMta DUMta DUMta). Only most of the time, Shakespeare lops off that last "ta", so each line begins and ends with a stressed syllable. It makes their speech sound very different from that of anyone else, a completely separate cadence. Their ability to complete one another's thoughts is creepy; their chanting in unison creepier still. And then there's the content of their speech, which many believed to be "actual witch's spells."

    Thunder. Enter the three WITCHES.

First Witch

1Thrice the brinded cat hath mew'd.

Second Witch

2Thrice and once the hedge-pig whined.

Third Witch

3Harpier cries "'Tis time, 'tis time."

First Witch

4Round about the cauldron go;
5In the poison'd entrails throw.
6Toad, that under cold stone
7Days and nights has thirty-one
8Swelter'd venom sleeping got,
9Boil thou first i' the charmed pot.

10Double, double toil and trouble;
11Fire burn, and cauldron bubble.

    Second Witch
12Fillet of a fenny snake,
13In the cauldron boil and bake;
14Eye of newt and toe of frog,
15Wool of bat and tongue of dog,
16Adder's fork and blind-worm's sting,
17Lizard's leg and howlet's wing,
18For a charm of powerful trouble,
19Like a hell-broth boil and bubble.

20Double, double toil and trouble;
21Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

    Third Witch
22Scale of dragon, tooth of wolf,
23Witches' mummy, maw and gulf
24Of the ravin'd salt-sea shark,
25Root of hemlock digg'd i' the dark,
26Liver of blaspheming Jew,
27Gall of goat, and slips of yew
28Sliver'd in the moon's eclipse,
29Nose of Turk and Tartar's lips,
30Finger of birth-strangled babe
31Ditch-deliver'd by a drab,
32Make the gruel thick and slab.
33Add thereto a tiger's chaudron,
34For the ingredients of our cauldron.

35Double, double toil and trouble;
36Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

    Second Witch
37Cool it with a baboon's blood,
38Then the charm is firm and good.

**     Enter HECAT and the other three WITCHES.

39O well done! I commend your pains;
40And every one shall share i' the gains;
41And now about the cauldron sing,
42Live elves and fairies in a ring
43Enchanting all that you put in.

    Music and a song: "Black spirits, etc."

    [Exit HECATE.]

    Second Witch
44By the pricking of my thumbs,
45Something wicked this way comes.

You may have noticed that Hecate arrived near the end, there. Hecate was a goddess who came from Thrace, not Greece. The Greeks sometimes thought of her as a Titaness. She was originally a goddess of the wilderness and of childbirth; over the years, she gained a triple face. She's a prime example of the idea of a wise woman/midwife being perceived as a witch, as her reputation altered over time from that of a powerful non-Greek goddess with influence over childbirth and knowledge of wild plants to that of a night-walking, crone-like sorceress.

The last two lines of the scene announce the coming of Macbeth. After all of the "evil" depicted in the scene, Shakespeare makes clear that the truly wicked thing has not yet arrived. The last line quoted has been used in many places, but most famously as a Ray Bradbury title. I can't see the words any longer without triggering the choral performance from the movie version of Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban.

In researching Macbeth, I learned that for centuries, it's been considered unlucky by many theatre folk to say the name Macbeth unless it's during rehearsal or performance, perhaps because Shakespeare presumed to use real magic, but more likely because theatre folks are a superstitious lot, the same as athletes and other folk. Others think it's only unlucky to say the name of the play whilst in or near a theatre, but saying it elsewhere (like in a classroom) is okay. It's usually called "the Scottish play" or "the Scottish king" or "MacBee" in order to avoid the curse. The remedy, should one utter the name aloud, is to leave the room, close the door, turn around three times, say a dirty word (or spit, some say), then knock on the door and ask to be let back in. Or you can undo the ill by quoting from Hamlet, act 1, scene 4, beginning with line 39:

Angels and ministers of grace defend us!
Be thou a spirit of health or goblin damn'd,
Being with thee airs from heaven or blasts from hell,
Be thy intents wicked or charitable,
Thou comest in such a questionable shape that I will speak to thee.

A second superstition is that the play is unlucky to performers, and can be deadly, with actors suffering illnesses and injuries. Fans of The Simpsons no doubt remember the episode called The Regina Monologues, featuring Ian McKellen:

(That particular episode also featured cameos by Tony Blair and J.K. Rowling.)

To check out Amiko Hirao's snowflake and to get the links for the other snowflakes featured in the blogosphere today, click on the Robert's Snow button to the left, which will direct you to the listing over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules and Eisha have also posted an ongoing list of blog posts thus far featuring snowflakes and the artists who created them.

While you're at 7-Imp, don't miss their monster post for Poetry Friday.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

And I Love the Rain

It is autumn now. October. It's been raining since before I woke up yesterday morning, with only an occasional break now and again for the clouds to catch their breath.

Seasonally, of course, the poem that came to mind is all wrong. The one that popped into my head, the one I quoted the final line of as the subject line to this post, is "April Rain Song" by Langston Hughes. But in truth, it's only the title of Hughes's poem that has to do with the springtime.

I first wrote about this poem earlier this year during National Poetry Month, as part of a review of The Oxford Illustrated Book of American Children's Poems, edited by Donald Hall. And today, as I looked outside at the wet and half-lit day, my first thought was "ugh, more rain." But then I thought of all those folks in California who have had to flee their homes before the fires being spread by the Santa Ana winds; fires that are made particular awful this year by the paucity of rain. And I was grateful for the rain.

April Rain Song
by Langston Hughes

Let the rain kiss you.
Let the rain beat upon your head with silver liquid drops.
Let the rain sing you a lullaby.

The rain makes still pools on the sidewalk.
The rain makes running pools in the gutter.
The rain plays a little sleep-song on our roof at night --

And I love the rain.

In the prior post, I noted a bit about the structure of this poem, and today, I'd like to go a bit further with that. When I did school visits earlier this year, kids really loved this poem. If I asked them what they thought the most important part of the poem was, they all agreed it was that last line, "And I love the rain." And many of them could tell me why they thought so. I'm going to share my thoughts on it now

1. Like the cheese, that last line stands alone. Setting something apart like that gives it emphasis and weight.

2. It is one of the shortest lines in the poem (tied with the very first line at 5 words). Something that is so much shorter than what is around it stands out, and gains extra importance.

3. It is the only line spoken in first person. The first three are in second person, directing the listener. "Let the rain . . ." The second three are in third person, describing what the rain does. That last line is all about the speaker.

4. It is the only line that isn't about the rain at all: it's about how the speaker feels about the rain. It gets extra weight (again) for being singular in its perspective and emotion.

That last reason was the one that the kids grabbed onto immediately, even if they sometimes phrased it a little differently. They heard that line, "And I love the rain," and they knew that all the rest of the poem was there as a justification for that last line; that the last line was the key to the whole poem. The rest of the poem explains why the speaker loves the rain with its gentle imagery of kisses and lullabyes and the playing of sleep-songs. It talks of what the rain does. But that final, singular, first-person line that tells how the speaker feels about the rain is the reason for the poem.

To check out Anna Dewdney's snowflake and to get the links for the other snowflakes featured in the blogosphere today, click on the Robert's Snow button to the left, which will direct you to the listing over at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules and Eisha have also posted an ongoing list of blog posts thus far featuring snowflakes and the artists who created them.

While you're at 7-Imp, don't miss today's post in which they interview the members of fictional farm animal band Punk Farm. The band is composed of Cow, Sheep, Pig, Goat, and Chicken, all of whom get a chance to discuss life on the road with Jules and Eisha. Their "manager," author-illustrator Jarrett J. Krosoczka, is nowhere to be seen in this interview. This is truly one of my favorite interviews they've ever done, and that is saying something.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

What if you only had a short while to live?

That is the premise of two books I've read recently, both of which apply that premise in different ways. One has a female author and female main character, the other has a male author and male main character. The particular illnesses vary, and the plot begins at different places in the progression of the disease.

Before I Die by Jenny Downham is about a sixteen-year-old girl named Tessa who is dying of leukemia, and only has a few months left to live. She makes a list of the things she'd like to do before she dies, and convinces her friend Zoey to help her carry it out. There's no possible recovery for Tessa, but before she goes, she wants to experience life in different forms. She wants to commit petty crimes and try drugs and have sex and more, and in pursuing her list, she finds life, but more importantly, she finds actual love.

Downham's book is excellently crafted. It is life-affirming even as it is (I'm sorry to lable it this way, but here goes) a downer because Tessa is palpably sick from page one. And she's not all the way to acceptance in her grief stages, either, so along with sadness you get a few heaping doses of anger. These are the things that make the book read as true, and part of what make it so well-done. If you are looking for excellent writing and story, it's here. If you are looking for a book you can experience as real, that will absorb your attention and remove you from the world you live in, it's here. If you are looking for light-hearted amusement, well, best look elsewhere. book (told in first person) never passes from her p.o.v., so you "experience" her death with her, in shortening paragraphs with lots of white space in between. Before I Die has moments of beauty in it and reads as true (emotionally and factually).

Deadline by Chris Crutcher is about a eighteen-year-old boy named Ben who learns, just as he's about to start his senior year, that he has a rare, incurable form of leukemia and less than a year to live. Because he's 18, Ben manages to swear his doctor to secrecy, which means that for the longest time, Ben's the only one who knows that he's ill. Ben's decision is based on his need to protect others, nothing more. Ben decides to live "balls out". He makes a list of things he'd most like to do before he dies: date Dallas Suzuki (a hot girl), play football, torment his right-wing civics teacher, help the town drunk, get a street names after Malcolm X. Ben seeks not only to live his life, but to make the world a better place for the people he leaves behind in it.

Ben is almost a full year older than his brother, Cody, but they are both in the same grade. Cody's the quarterback, and Ben's a runt; still, he gives football a go. The relationship between Ben and Cody is one of the strong points in this novel. Crutcher tells the story in first person, but unlike Tessa, Ben's a smart-ass, so his voice is breezier (glib, even, to use Ben's own term), and the fact that he keeps his condition a secret allows him to interact with others as if nothing's wrong (with him). Along the way, Ben learns the secrets of other townspeople, and learns that keeping secrets can have devastating results. Kirkus* knocked it for describing only his fatigue, but really, he describes dream-like visions involving Hey-Soos, a Christ-like figure who offers him guidance, and more. The book doesn't end with Ben's death, but with his legacy (and thinking of it makes me cry all over again).

On the surface, these are the same book: Teen MC is dying of leukemia, makes a list of things to do before they die, dies at or near the end. Both look for love and try to get some living in while they can. These books make an interesting side-by-side study for writers because they prove that the devil is in the details, and that it's not the idea that's original, it's the treatment of the idea. Downham's book ends up being about finding love and making the most of time; Crutcher's is about those things too, but overall, it's about truth.

If you're going for an engaging story with the basic plot line I've described, you can't go wrong with either book. If you're looking for an honest exploration of what it feels like, actually, to be terminally ill (and to die), go for Before I Die. If I had to pick only one to read, however, I'd pick Deadline, because I liked the main character better, and I liked the different and complicated plot threads that Crutcher chose to weave together, which include discussions of politics, incest, child molestation, manic depression and more. I'll take a smart-ass over an angstite (is that a word? let's pretend it is) any day. I'm not saying that Deadline is the better book, it's just the way my taste runs. But truly, you can't go wrong with either choice.

*But it was, after all, Kirkus, and the reader seemed to have an axe to grind with Crutcher's politics as well. And really, this is about a kid who was trying to ignore his illness as best he could, so I didn't feel I needed all the details piled on. (If you feel you'd prefer all the awful details, read Before I Die).

To quote one of my favorite movies, The Great Race, "PUSH THE BUTTON, MAX!"

Check out the snowflakes for the Robert's Snow auction being featured today, which you can find listed at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast. Jules and Eisha have also posted an ongoing list of blog posts thus far featuring snowflakes and the artists who created them. While you're there, check out Jules and Eisha's other content. Today, for instance, they interview Sheila Ruth, the force behind Wands and Worlds, the coordinator for the Science Fiction & Fantasy category at the CYBILS, and an all-around smart lady.

Friday, October 19, 2007

To Autumn -- a Poetry Friday post

Good morning. Over at my Live Journal blog, I'm hosting this week's Poetry Friday roundup. As regular readers here know, every Friday is Poetry Friday at Writing and Ruminating.

Today, I'm feeling some John Keats; specifically, his Ode "To Autumn", which features three stanzas of eleven lines each. All three have the same rhyme scheme for the first seven lines (ABABCDE), but stanza one (DCCE) ends a wee bit differently than two and three (CDDE). Such is the malleability of the Ode. What makes this poem special is not, however, the rhyme scheme; it is Keats's use of language and imagery, beginning with his decision to address the poem to Autumn itself, and to speak about it as a living, present thing.

This poem is lovely as is, but reading it aloud will give you further appreciation for the images and the sounds within it. I wish I could find Alan Rickman reading it, because his voice can turn me into a pile of mushy goo (don't believe me? Have a listen as he reads Shakespeare's Sonnet 130. But I digress.) If you feel funny reading this aloud to yourself, then you can listen to Nicholas Shaw read it for the BBC.

To Autumn
by John Keats


Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
  Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
  With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
  And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;
    To swell the gourd, and plump the hazel shells
With a sweet kernel; to set budding more,
  And still more, later flowers for the bees,
  Until they think warm days will never cease,
    For Summer has o’er-brimmed their clammy cells.


Who hath not seen thee oft amid thy store?
  Sometimes whoever seeks abroad may find
Thee sitting careless on a granary floor,
  Thy hair soft-lifted by the winnowing wind;
Or on a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,
  Drows’d with the fume of poppies, while thy hook
    Spares the next swath and all its twinèd flowers:
And sometimes like a gleaner thou dost keep
  Steady thy laden head across a brook;
  Or by a cider-press, with patient look,
    Thou watchest the last oozings hours by hours.


Where are the songs of Spring? Aye, where are they?
  Think not of them, thou hast thy music too,—
While barred clouds bloom the soft-dying day,
  And touch the stubble-plains with rosy hue;
Then in a wailful choir the small gnats mourn
  Among the river sallows, borne aloft
    Or sinking as the light wind lives or dies;
And full-grown lambs loud bleat from hilly bourn;
  Hedge-crickets sing; and now with treble soft
  The red-breast whistles from a garden-croft;
    And gathering swallows twitter in the skies.

How much do I love some of his descriptions here? So very much that I'm thinking hyphenations should be used far more in everyday life. The evocativeness of "the mossed cottage-trees" alone is enough to stop me in my tracks. The entire second stanza is staggeringly gorgeous, speaking of the autumn hay. "[O]n a half-reaped furrow sound asleep,/Drowsed with the fume of poppies . . ." is better imagery and poetry than many can muster in the whole of their poems, and it's only part of one sentence here (and a fragment, at that).

Keats wrote the poem after spending some time out of doors on a fine autumn day. How do I know? Well, he wrote to a friend of his named Reynolds, and said so: "How beautiful the season is now—How fine the air. A temperate sharpness about it. Really, without joking, chaste weather—Dian skies—I never lik'd stubble fields so much as now—Aye better than the chilly green of the spring. Somehow a stubble plain looks warm—in the same way that some pictures look warm—this struck me so much in my Sunday's walk that I composed upon it."

I believe that today, I'll take a walk and see what autumn has to offer. I sha'n't be gone long.—You come too.*

And one more thing: Don't forget to check out the featured snowflakes for the Robert's Snow auction, which you can find listed at Seven Imp (or by clicking the pretty picture to your left - it's a button!)

*Yes, that last italicized bit was Robert Frost, from one of my favorites of his poems, "The Pasture". You can read the full text of that poem in a prior post at my LiveJournal blog. Well-spotted, if you already knew that.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Inside the Library -- a Poetry Friday post

Today, I'm doing something I rarely do — posting an original poem. Even though I write quite a lot of poems, I don't usually share here because I remain hopeful that someday, I'll be able to sell them. Even though that remains an extremely remote possibility. Which means that the only ones I'd be willing to part with for free are the ones that are less than wonderful, if you catch my drift.

This is one of those poems. It represents hours of writing and revision time, but if I've done my job properly in crafting it, you shouldn't notice that. You may, in fact, think it "slight." Poetry is like that — the cost of making it nearly always exceeds its value in the marketplace. But I digress. First, the poem; then, a discussion of its form.

Inside the Library
by Kelly R. Fineman

Jackety Stackety
Inside the Library,
Books of all genres are
Found on the shelves

History, Mystery,
Journals of science and
stories of elves.

Musicians out there, including , and more, will immediately work out that this sort of poem is in 6/8 time, and is primarily counted in six (one two three four five six) with strong beats allowing it to be "conducted" in two (since the emphasis is on beats one and four, and the poem is not counted one-and-two-and-three-and). Anyone confused by this particular bit of information need not worry, all will be explained below.

My poem, "Inside the Library", is a form of poem called a double dactyl. This poem is sometimes called a "higgledy piggledy", because it involves nonsense words at the start. But let's not rush ahead.

What is a dactyl?
A dactyl is a type of poetic foot. Nearly everyone who's read Shakespeare is familiar with another sort of foot called the iamb, which has an unstressed syllable followed by a stressed one: ta-TUM. A dactyl is a three-syllable foot composed of a stressed syllable followed by two unstressed ones, or, as Stephen Fry has it in his wonderful book, The Ode Less Travelled: TUM-titty.

What is a double dactyl?
A double dactyl is a single word made up of two dactyls. It's a six-syllable word in which the first and fourth syllables are stressed. TUM-titty-TUM-titty. Examples: microbiology, gubernatorial, antiestablishment, valedictorian, marketability, extracurricular, etc. Or, in my poem, "autobiography."

What are the rules for the double dactyl form?

1. It opens with gibberish (almost always).
2. The second line of the poem contains the subject of the poem, often a person, but not always.
3. It is composed of two four-line stanzas.
4. The last line of each stanza is made up of a single dactyl followed by a one-syllable word; the rest of the lines have two dactyls each.
5. The single words ending the stanzas must rhyme (e.g., "shelves, elves").
6. It must contain one single-word double dactyl in the second stanza, usually in the 6th or 7th line of the poem.

Any suggestions on how to go about writing one?
Why, I'm glad I asked myself that question. I'm full of suggestions, as this post from 2005 will attest. Only pretty much nobody was reading my blog back then, so if you haven't read it before, I quite understand.

First: Choose your topic, at least in general. For the above poem, I was trying to come up with a poem about books to submit for consideration for a particular anthology. Neither this nor any of the other poems I came up with (different forms and free verse) made it, but that's okay; the fun was in the writing, after all. I started to think about writing a poem to describe what sort of books I might find inside the library. (INside the LIbrary is dactylic, you see, so I opted for this form.)

Second: Brainstorm to figure out possible single-word double dactyls to use in the second stanza. This initially sounds daunting, but trust me, once you get started (playing that TUM-titty-TUM-titty beat in your head), you'll start to come up with some. I decided on autobiography because it's a category of books. Before that point, I'd started writing about different genres of fiction, which I wasn't liking quite as well and for which, moreover, I was unable to arrive at a single-word double dactyl.

Third: Pick your nonsense words. "Higgledy piggledy" are always up for grabs. Other popular ones include "Hey nonny, hey/ho nonny" and "Higgamus Piggamus". For my part, I try to find something a wee bit related to my topic; hence, "Jackety stackety". (Books have jackets, libraries have stacks.)

So, here's the one I free-wrote during that 2005 post on how to write them, interspersed with the writing rules:

Nonsense: Clangety, clattery
Subject: where is my frying pan
Description: I need the one with the
handle that's broke

Start of stanza 2: None of the others are
one-word dd: Super-reliable
They will all ruin my

rhyme w/line 4: fried artichoke.

You can see how that one won't win any prizes, and I toyed with redoing it because the incorrect grammar of "handle that's broke" was really bugging me, but I think it remains a useful demonstration of how the form works. And it's minorly amusing.

Which brings me to my final point: double dactyls are almost always humorous. If you Google "higgledy piggledy", you'll find some excellent ones (and some that are so bawdy as to be blushworthy). Do look for "History Lesson" by Allan Wolf and "Historical Reflections" by John Hollander, both of which can also be found in one of my favorite reference books for form poetry, A Kick in the Head: An Everyday Guide to Poetic Forms edited by Paul Janeczko and illustrated by Chris Raschka. Also have a look at Theodore S. Drachman's "Small Problem", a slightly bawdy poem about Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek, known as the Father of Microbiology. (In addition to being terribly funny, it uses two separate instances of single-word double dactyls, one in each stanza.)

Monday, October 08, 2007

An Emily sort of Monday

I first read this poem by Emily Dickinson about two weeks ago, and I keep going back to it, even though I'm several dozen poems past it in my reading of The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. The poem that's been haunting me is number 18, "The Gentian weaves her fringes."

The Gentian weaves her fringes—
The Maple’s loom is red—
My departing blossoms
&emsp &emsp Obviate parade.

A brief, but patient illness—
An hour to prepare,
And one below this morning
Is where the angles are—
It was a short procession,
The Bobolink was there—
An aged Bee addressed us—
And then we knelt in prayer—
We trust that she was willing—
We ask that we may be.
Let us go with thee!

In the name of the Bee—
And of the Butterfly—
And of the Breeze— Amen!

There are a few things to know, I think, when parsing this poem. One is that Gentian is a fall-blooming flower that is usually found in a bright-blue form in the United States, and which was used in a number of poems during the Victorian era. In the language of flowers, fringed Gentian means "I look to heaven." One famous poem referencing Gentian specifically referred to the Fringed Gentian, and was called (appropriately) "To the Fringed Gentian." It was first published in 1832 by William Cullen Bryant, a fellow Massachusetts resident, and it is likely that Emily Dickinson would have been familiar with this earlier poem. You can read Bryant's poem in full over at Bartleby, among other places, but I'll include the middle stanza here:

From "To the Fringed Gentian"
by William Cullen Bryant

Thou waitest late and com’st alone,
When woods are bare and birds are flown,
And frost and shortening days portend
The aged year is near his end.

Bees in Dickinson tend to be, well, bees. They are free to come and go, sometimes irresponsible, and sometimes rascals. Butterflys are similar, free to flit and go.

And the Bobolink? Well, what d'you know? William Cullen Bryant had a famous poem about the bird called "Robert of Lincoln", which you can read on Bartleby and elsewhere, only it seems to have not seen publication until after the date ascribed to Dickinson's poem. I'd love to say that he was the unknown "Master" to whom she referred in a number of poems (particularly since they both used a lot of four-line hymn stanzas and wrote a lot of nature poetry), but I'm not willing to go there. But I digress.

About the Bobolink: An old farm story holds that the bobolink says "Dig a hole, dig a hole, put it in, put it in, cover't up, cover't up, stamp on't, step along". His presence at a funeral therefore makes sense, right?

Because the poem really is discussing a death. Some say it's the death of a person, but I think not. I think it's Dickinson observing the end of summer, and little more, although it seems as if she's buried something, while the Bobolink says "dig a hole" and the gentian looks to heaven. Whatever it was had a very brief illness, and seems not to have suffered, nor does Dickinson seem overwrought, as one would expect her to be if it were a close friend or relative. We are left there near the woods, where the Gentian is blooming (an autumn flower), the Maple is turning colors, and the Bobolink has not yet flown south for the winter. Summer has flown, and a benediction is offered, not in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Ghost, but in the name of the Bee, and the Butterfly, and the Breeze. I love the pairing of the spirit and the breeze, of course, and so much more about this language.

Anyone else care to tell me what they make of it?

Sunday, October 07, 2007


It's Sunday, and that means only one thing——it's time for some quoteskimming.

"If you write about what matters to you, then you’ll organically and naturally bring all of your talents and attention to it." Ron Carlson, The Writer Magazine, July 2007, ganked from 's post earlier this week.

Emily Dickinson is much on my mind, as I am making my way slowly through The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson. Here's a little something she once said about poetry: "If I read a book and it makes my whole body so cold no fire can ever warm me, I know that is poetry. If I feel physically as if the top of my head were taken off, I know that is poetry. These are the only ways I know it. Is there any other way?" Emily Dickinson in a remark to Thomas Wentworth Higginson

And from Jane Austen, on her fear of reading books that she knows to be clever: "I . . . am always half afraid of finding a clever novel too clever--& of finding my own story & my own people all forestalled." Letter to Cassandra Austen dated April 30, 1811, on trying to get a copy of Mary Brunton's latest novel, Self-Control.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Tap Dancing on the Roof -- a Poetry Friday post

Last weekend, while I was at the Eastern PA SCBWI Fall Philly conference, I participated in the raffle. The raffle at the Fall Philly is wonderful, because everyone brings stuff for the raffle table (editors and attendees). For five dollars, you can buy one ticket; for $20, you get five. The money goes to scholarship funds. If your number is pulled, you go to the table and pick one thing — anything you want. I picked Tap Dancing on the Roof with my first winning ticket.

The full name of the book is Tap Dancing on the Roof: Sijo (Poems), and it's by Linda Sue Park, with illustrations by Istvan Banyai. I've been excited to get my hands on this one since Lee Bennett Hopkins mentioned its forthcoming existence at the LA SCBWI conference. I'm not only excited because it's by Linda Sue, who I know to be an excellent craftsman, but also because it's a new form (to me).

Here's a sijo entitled "Long Division," from which the title of the book is derived:

Long Division
by Linda Sue Park

This number gets a wall and a ceiling. Nice and comfy in there.
But a bunch of other numbers are about to disrupt the peace——
bumping the wall, digging up the cellar, tap dancing on the roof.

I wish you could see the illustration for this one (a two-page spread in black and white and grey, with some of the characters and forms you see in the cover, including the little division "house."

Sijo is a traditional Korean form of poetry dating from more than 25 centuries ago. They are descended from a type of song praising the seasons, but quite a long time ago they were split off from actual songs and accepted as a poetic form, and the need to link to the seasons was dispensed with — any topic will do. According to Linda Sue's author's note, "In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, women who worked as singers and entertainers for the king and his court developed a tradition of sijo written about love and romance. The body of work created by these courtesans——many of them anonymous——makes sijo one of the few poetic forms with a strong legacy of women poets."

Sijo are traditionally written in three lines, each of which serves its own purpose. Each line is supposed to have a fixed number of stressed syllables, which makes it similar to haiku in a way (fixed number of beats) and dissimilar in another way (in Korean, it's not the actual number of syllables, but the actual number of stressed syllables, per line that matters, as I understand it — I hope Linda Sue or someone else will correct me if I'm wrong!).

Number and purpose of lines
Traditionally, there are three lines:
1. The first line introduces the topic
2. The second line develops or expands on the topic
3. The third line has some sort of twist: "humor or irony, an unexpected image, a pun, or a play on words." Just because humor, puns and plays on words are acceptable as final lines does not mean that all sijo are humorous.

Number of syllables per line
Each line has seven stressed syllables, and falls into two "halves": one with three stressed syllables and one with four (or, one with four stressed syllables and one with three, depending on how the line breaks). The line doesn't require a comma or complete caesura*, but breaks naturally due to its metre. In English, this usually results in each line containing 14 to 16 syllables.

Also, because of the natural break in the middle of the line, some poets actually physically break the line, resulting in a sijo written in six lines (each containing three or four stressed syllables). Tap Dancing on the Roof contains sijo split both ways. There is still a third opinion on sijo, and some translators opt for a five-line structure that more closely matches the old Korean songs that were the genesis of sijo.

Here's one from Jung Mong Ju, who lived during the 14th century, translated into the 5-line format:

My body may die, again and again
One hundred times again, and
May turn into but a pile of bones and dust,
My soul may or may not live on, but
My loyalty to my country shall remain unchanged for ever.

What's its title? Well, it doesn't have one. Traditionally, sijo, like haiku, are title-less, but some modern poets use titles now and again.

Here's a six-line version, which (inside the book) is set on a grey page, but on the back of the book, well, see for yourself:

My personal favorite in the book is "Word Watch", a six-line sijo which uses the word "sesquipedalian". And it's got the cutest illustration to go with it, too!

If you think I'm excited about this book, you're right. First off, it's Linda Sue's first published poetry collection. Which is not to say that she hasn't written poetry before. When I heard her speak at the SCBWI Conference in New England in 2006, she spoke about how she's always written poetry just for herself. She said something like "If you can write poetry, you can write anything." Amen to that, sister.

Go. Find this book and learn about a new (very old) poetic form. And hey, someone consider nominating it for a CYBILS award, won't you?