Friday, February 27, 2009

Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes - a Poetry Friday post

I have a confession about today's poem: I didn't realize it was a poem until recently, because I'd always known it as a song. The words were written by Ben Jonson - poet, actor and playwright in the early 17th century, who in 1616 became Poet Laureate of England under James I (hence the Elizabethan spellings).

Song to Celia
by Ben Jonson

Drinke to me, onely, with thine eyes,
  And I will pledge with mine;
Or leave a kisse but in the cup,
  And Ile not looke for wine.
The thirst, that from the soule doth rise,
  Doth aske a drinke divine:
But might I of Jove's Nectar sup,
  I would not change for thine.

I sent thee, late, a rosie wreath,
  Not so much honoring thee,
As giving it a hope, that there
  It could not withered bee.
But thou thereon did'st onely breath,
  And sent'st it back to mee:
Since when it growes, and smells, I sweare,
  Not of it selfe, but thee.

And here is a young man named Jonathan Smallwood singing a version of the song (a wee bit slower than I like, but so were the other 5 performances I checked out, and of those, I liked his best):

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Wednesday, February 25, 2009

La Belle Dame Sans Regrets - an original poem

Last Friday, the ladies at the Merry Sisters of Fate issued a call for submissions. That's right, it was a "Watcher's Prompt Contest". The task: Write a story based on the following picture, post it no later than Thursday, February 26th, and leave a link over there. Not one to pass up a challenge based on such a lovely picture (based on a lovely poem by Keats*), I wrote a little something that I'm called "La Belle Dame Sans Regrets" (why yes, that was the title of a song in French by Sting).

La Belle Dame Sans Regrets
by Kelly R. Fineman

A knight went riding out one day
To slay a dragon on the hill.
Astride his roan, he made his way –
Near water's edge, his horse stood still.

No dragon could the good knight see—
Only a maiden fit to bed:
Her eyes were silver as the sea,
Her smiling lips were poppy red.

In dreamlike state, he reached for her.
He spoke fine words in accents clear.
She came to him without demur—
No word she said as she drew near.

She rode with him upon his steed,
Again she rode him in due course.
Full willingly he met her need—
At last she rose without remorse.

The dragon maiden, fierce and fair,
sat by the dead knight's earthen bed—
With calm, cool hands she fixed her hair,
Her eyes and lips both poppy red.

In case you were wondering about my sources, I based my poem in part on Keats*'s "La Belle Dame Sans Merci", in part on Yeats's "The Song of Wandering Aengus", in part on the legend of Melusine, which I mentioned during my interview with Bruce Coville in question #3, and in part on vampirism.

*Quoth Daniel Cleaver in the movie version of Bridget Jones's Diary: "F*ck me, I love Keats"

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Friday, February 20, 2009

Memory by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

Thomas Bailey Aldrich was born in New Hampshire in 1836, and died in Boston in 1907 after a life of journalism and other writing, including at turn as editor of The Atlantic Monthly. He was friends with William Dean Howell and Walt Whitman, among others. He is possibly best-known for his short stories, although he wrote quite a bit of verse as well. His semi-autobiographical novel Story of a Bad Boy is said to have been admired by Mark Twain, who later used it as a jumping-off point for Tom Sawyer. His last words were "In spite of it all, I'm going to sleep."

by Thomas Bailey Aldrich

My mind lets go a thousand things,
Like dates of wars and deaths of kings,
And yet recalls the very hour—
'Twas noon by yonder village tower,
And on the last blue noon in May—
The wind came briskly up this way,
Crisping the brook beside the road;
Then, pausing here, set down its load
Of pine-scents, and shook listlessly
Two petals from that wild-rose tree.

This short poem is written in rhymed couplets (AABBCCDDEE) using iambic tetrameter (four iambic feet per line: ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM ta-DUM), which makes the formal elements of it very simple indeed. Aldrich's lines all break naturally at the end of the line until you reach the end of the eighth line, when everything shifts. Based on punctuation and natural line breaks, the more natural (or, if you prefer, less forced) way to read the last three lines of this poem would be:

Then, pausing here, set down its load of pine-scents,
and shook listlessly two petals from that wild-rose tree.

What I like about this poem is its attention to detail, and its comments on the vagaries of memory. Names and dates — even some that are important — can fade, but the mind will hold on to seemingly smaller things quite handily. One of the details that evokes memory in this poem is that of scent, which is of course one of the strongest triggers of memory. Aldrich does a good job of using more than just his visual sense in this poem, incorporating movement (brisk wind that crisps the brook), smell (pine-scents) and touch (crisping the brook, "shook listlessly two petals"). The poem is rooted in the details of a single, small moment in time involving nothing more than a bit of wind and two rose petals.

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Sunday, February 15, 2009

CHALICE by Robin McKinley

About 15 minutes ago, I finished reading Chalice by Robin McKinley. I am now seriously in love with Robin McKinley and the characters of Mirasol and Liapnir, and I am grateful to Leila at Bookshelves of Doom, who blogged about this book and her desire for honey with bread, and how it made her heart fit to bust. Not that I disagree with her: I am craving honey cake, and will settle for honey in my tea. And I'd really like a cloak of bees, or to just, y'know, pet some. And I have a strong hankering to find some fabric with bees on it to use in my decor. Seriously. Maybe gold fabric, to echo the cover of the book. That is a seriously gorgeous cover, is it not?

As anyone who has read this book and is being honest will tell you, this is a quiet book, and it will not be everybody's cup of tea. It requires a bit of work to sort out, not just at the start but much of the way through. Some of that is because our main character, Mirasol, is also busy sorting things out, and some of it is because of the fairy-tale way it is written, and some of it is because that is how the author willed it, I believe. It is not the sort of book for someone who wants action, now, no - not fast enough - NOW! But if you can be quiet, and if you have a bit of patience - only a bit, you don't need a truckload - this book is magic.

Chalice had me wondering about the natures and identities of characters throughout. The story opened itself bit by bit to pull me in with its offerings of sweetness and pain, and by the end I nearly took my husband's head off when he dared to walk in and try to speak to me with a page and half to go, because I'd been pulled that far into the book that his reminder that there was an outside world was decidedly unwelcome and unpleasant, and besides, the tension that had been twisted up so tight leading up to the ending hadn't been all the way released yet, and I really, really wanted, no, needed, to savour that last honeyed dollop and finish the story in full.

And when I finished, I took a deep breath. And I petted my cat (who makes an excellent reading companion because she is small and quiet and warm). And I burst into tears, because a heart can't be that full without making room somehow, and evidently, squeezing moisture out of the eyeballs made just enough space to accommodate it.

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This week I have such an abundance of quotes that I am myself nearly speechless.

Last Sunday, at "The Art of Illustration" event in Haverford, PA, I sat in on a presentation by Brian Biggs, who is a most entertaining fellow. He said a lot of great things about illustrating and publishing books, but the quote that really resonated with me had to do with parenting. When asked to what he credits his success as an illustrator, Brian replied:

"I give credit to my parents for never telling me that I couldn't do it."

L.K. Madigan is so talented that she's actually had an entire quoteskimming post devoted to her before. Last week, she put up one of the funniest, cleverest posts about internal criticism that I've ever read, which she entitled "The Tim Gunn in My Head". You really ought to read the post in its entirety, but here's the start to give you a bit of flavor:

Project Novel

Tim enters the revision studio, dapper as always. “Good morning, everyone,” he says. “I’m here to check your progress.”

He approaches Lisa’s work space. “Tell me about this,” he says, eyeing the uneven pacing of the plot.

“Well,” says Lisa, “It’s a YA fantasy.”

Tim peers over his glasses at Lisa. “A fantasy? I thought you were planning to write another realistic YA contemporary."

“I did! I mean, I was. It … the spark is still there, but the premise was a little too edgy.”

“Too edgy?” Tim’s gaze is piercing. “So you just threw it away and started all over on something new?”

My good friend and writing buddy posted about first drafts earlier this week in three or four separate posts. I decided not to pick the one with all the excellent, concrete advice or the one involving duct tape; I have selected her rather scatalogical post involving Anne Lamott instead:

“The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper, because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.” - Anne Lamott

Occasionally Mr. Poopy Pants poops all over my page, but that's okay, it's just a first draft. I'll clean up the mess later. At least my page isn't blank anymore.

Mandy Taylor has been reading some Emerson for school, and she posted this quote of his earlier in the week. Turns out even Ralph Waldo Emerson had bad writing days:

"Our moods do not believe in each other. To-day, I am full of thoughts and can write what I please. I see no reason why I should not have the same thought, the same power of expression to-morrow. What I write, whilst I write it, seems the most natural thing in the world: but, yesterday, I saw a dreary vacuity in this direction in which now I see so much; and a month hence, I doubt not, I shall wonder who he was that wrote so many continuous pages. Alas for this infirm faith, this will not strenuous, this vast ebb of a vast flow! I am God in nature; I am a weed by the wall."

I hope that none of you are "a weed by the wall" in your writing today.

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Friday, February 13, 2009

The Oven Bird - a Poetry Friday reprise

Today, because I'm pressed for time, and because I was thinking of this poem, and because today is the start of the Great Backyard Bird Count, I am providing you with an "encore" of a post that I put up in April of 2007. Man, I love this poem. Happy Poetry Friday, everyone!

The Oven Bird
by Robert Frost

There is a singer everyone has heard,
Loud, a mid-summer and a mid-wood bird,
Who makes the solid tree trunks sound again.
He says that leaves are old and that for flowers
Mid-summer is to spring as one to ten.
He says the early petal-fall is past
When pear and cherry bloom went down in showers
On sunny days a moment overcast;
And comes that other fall we name the fall.
He says the highway dust is over all.
The bird would cease and be as other birds
But that he knows in singing not to sing.
The question that he frames in all but words
Is what to make of a diminished thing.

I've returned to this poem often throughout my life, after studying it in a course in college. It's the question in the last line that sticks with me, that pulls me back: "what to make of a diminished thing." I thought of this line today, as I was casting about thinking what poem I might want to post to mark the passing of Kurt Vonnegut, whose books meant so much to me when I was a young adult reader. Not a teen, mind you -- I came to him when I was in my twenties -- but I loved his vision and his prose. And the world is diminished a little by his passing, I think.

But enough of elegies, let's look at the poem. It's got ten syllables to each line (Frost treated "showers" and "flowers" as single-syllable words here), and it ends decidedly iambic, although it starts a bit shifty, if you must know. It has its own peculiar rhyme scheme (AABCBDCDEEA'FA'F), which makes it a "nonce" form -- a nonce form is a poetic scheme invented for a particular poem. This one has fourteen lines, so it's kinda like a sonnet, but it doesn't fall into a recognized rhyme scheme, not even as a Pushkin, or Eugene Onegin, stanza. Still, I think it likely started as a sonnet, and that Frost decided deliberately to depart from the usual sonnet rules to create something new -- a lovely bit of form meeting function, I believe, if you believe, as I and some others do, that Frost was announcing a new kind of poetry for a changing world.

If you'd like, you can read this as a simple nature poem -- an observation on the call of the oven bird (a loud "Teacher, Teacher", if you didn't know). The oven bird is loud at a time of year when many other birds are not, and Frost tries to decipher what his call means. And if that's how you read the poem, it is an excellent poem.


The poem also works on a deeper level. The oven bird becomes not just the "teacher" implicated in his call, but is a symbol representing the poet. This poem was, in some respects, a war poem.* It was written in 1916, and reflects the sense that it is the world that has diminished, with "dust . . . over all". And the poet is left to ask what is to be done. Can art go on? Can poetry continue in the face of such ruination? (This is not unlike the question implied in yesterday's poem, "Sonnet: To Science", in which Edgar Allen Poe explores the effect of science on creativity and myth.) In the early twentieth centuries, with the horrors it brought along with it in the form of trench warfare, mustard gas, and mechanized warfare, and in its greed and vanity (think about the robber barons we studied once upon a time, and the practice of child labor, and the inhuman working conditions faced by so many people), how can one respond to such indignities and horrors?

Another reading of the poem focuses closely on the line "he knows in singing not to sing." Some commentators believe this line is the answer to a question posed in an earlier poem by a Victorian poet named Mildred Howells, "And No Birds Sing", a Keatsian poem in which Miss Howell asks how the bird can sing with winter approaching.

Full text of Howell's poem

There comes a season when the bird is still
  Save for a broken note, so sad and strange,
Its plaintive cadence makes the woodlands thrill
  With sense of coming change.

Stirred into ecstasy by spring's new birth,
  In throbbing rhapsodies of hope and love,
He shared his transports with the listening earth
  And stormed the heavens above.

But now how should he sing—forlorn, alone—
  Of hopes that withered with the waning year,
An empty nest with mate and fledgelings flown,
  And winter drawing near?

Frost's line, "he knows in singing not to sing," is seen as meaning that silence itself is part of the song. And/or that the oven bird, here representing the poet, is rejecting the old school of thinking and finding a new way to express himself. And this particular bird finds a way to express himself -- loudly, as it turns out.

Finally, others have seen Frost's poem as a criticism of encroaching development -- an environmental poem with a Thoreau-like sensibility, based on the line "the highway dust is over all."

*Perhaps my favorite of the war poems, and one of the best-known, is Wilfred Owen's "Dulce et Decorum Est", which I believe will be a topic for another day. The title comes from a line in the poem Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and seemly to die for one's country).

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Sunday, February 08, 2009


To start with, this little quote from Lemony Snicket's book, Horseradish:

"If writers wrote as carelessly as some people talk, then adhasdh asdglaseuyt[bn[pasdlgkhasdfasdf."

Stephanie Ruble went to the SCBWI conference in NYC not long ago, and when she came back, she compressed their verbal nuggets of coal into this shiny diamond, which I've quoteskimmed in full so you can admire all the lovely facets:

Sometimes you need to write a story or paint a picture that's just for you. It's the kind of project that keeps you up at night, or the brilliant idea that nobody but you will understand. It could be inspired by a story on the news, your kids, or a trip to a museum. You're passionate about it. You lose track of time while you're working on it.

Your evil inner voice says, "No, don't do that! Nobody will want that project! It Sucks!"

Tell your evil inner voice to be quiet. Create that story or artwork, even if you think that nobody will ever want to read it or look at it. You'll never know what it could be unless you let down your guard and lose yourself in that crazy idea you have.

The funny thing about "just for you" projects is that they have the potential to be your best work. Art directors and editors love to see art and read stories that the creator is passionate about. When you take emotional and creative risks, it can bring out universal truths that resonate with everyone, not just you.

Write that weird story you think will be boring! Draw that odd image that you think will be ugly! You might be surprised what happens when you stop thinking and just create.

Do a project just for you!

With the movie Coraline out this weekend and The Graveyard Book having just won the Newbery prize, Neil Gaiman has been doing a lot of press recently. Usually, he's very laid-back, funny, and tactful, but evidently he kind of lost it the other day when a journalist questioned him about his reasons for writing fantasy. Here's how Neil Gaiman described what occurred:

Journalist today, "Do you write books with fantasies because you are not happy in the real world?" Me, "Why would you ask such a question? I mean, do you actually think that people write fantasies because they're miserable, while realistic novelists are all incredibly happy? Is that what you really think? I mean, it seems an astonishingly silly question even to ask. Do you have a point or a reason for asking it?"

Anyone who has ever written a fantasy, science fiction or horror story probably just punched the air, or at least chortled with glee.

Colleen Cook put up a lovely post at Kidlit Central the other day, in which she quoted from and linked to an article by Tim Kreider entitled "When books could change your life". Here is some of what Kreider said in his article:

A girl I once caught reading Fahrenheit 451 over my shoulder on the subway confessed: "You know, I'm an English lit major, but I've never loved any books like the ones I loved when I was 12 years old." I fell slightly in love with her when she said that. It was so frank and uncool, and undeniably true.
. . .
part of the reason art loses its power over us, of course, is, simply and sadly, that we get old; our personalities, as soft, impressionable, and tempting as freshly poured sidewalk cement when young, gradually set and harden over the years with whatever graffiti passers-by scrawled there still indelibly inscribed in it.

It's not that children's books are pure entertainment, innocent of any didactic goal — what grown-ups enviously call "Reading for Fun." On the contrary, the reading we do as children may be more serious than any reading we'll ever do again. . . . Of course, it's also in childhood that we're first exposed to some of life's big shocks and secrets — love and mortality. And the most terrible secret of all is the inevitable syllogism of these two: that the things we love will die.

As Colleen astutely added:

"But even as these books leave us emotionally wiped out, we feel a certain contentment. The world is scary or unfair or downright evil sometimes, but the books tell us that human compassion and decency will help us weather the bad times. It's cathartic and reassuring even in grief."

From Lyle Lovett (during a concert), but I think that you can swap "story" or "poem" or "piece of art" for "song" and it still applies:

"Did you ever notice that sometimes a song means something different to a given listener than they do to us when we write them? . . . Sometimes, it's better."

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Friday, February 06, 2009

Tides - an original poem for Poetry Friday

Today, an original poem. It's from a collection of children's poems about the moon. It is a very small poem, but I like it.

by Kelly R. Fineman

The moon’s pull, gravitational,
draws the tide to shore.
It lingers, meditational,
then goes out once more.

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