20: Elegy

Elegy: In traditional English poetry, it is often a melancholy poem that laments its subject’s death but ends in consolation. – Poetry Foundation


Breathing white in sodium light
Up Epuni St on election night,

There is little to mark the passing
Of six years upon the face of this city

Or even the faces of my old friends.
This is waking, that a dream;

A dream ten years driving me
Into a flooded night when I knew

It wasn’t worth dying for and it wasn’t possible
To live for.

After a long break, I’m back on the project. I’ve been in the process of moving back from Iowa to Wellington and looking for a job which has been tough in a lot of ways. I think I also got stuck with this particular form because I knew I wanted to write about leaving Iowa and leaving the PhD and by extension the whole life as a professor I’d been so wedded to for so long. The elegy, with its mourning and its consolation, seemed perfect but I couldn’t seem to find the right objective correlative. I’m actually pretty happy with how this turned out eventually though, short as it is.


19: Ekphrasis

Ekphrasis: “Description” in Greek. An ekphrastic poem is a vivid description of a scene or, more commonly, a work of art. – Poetry Foundation

Perception #1 (muff), Robert Barrett, 1975

It’s an ugly room she stands in,
a bare and cold-looking room
looking out over what might be water
or snow and in the distance a vague skyline.

There is a coat on the chair behind her
but it does nothing to keep her warm.
There is at least a sheet under her feet.

I wonder if I could find
that room from its view and I wonder
if the room would still be there
and whether it would hold any trace of her.

It is an ugly room she stands in
but she is beautiful. That was her job:
to be naked and to be beautiful.

Like those of the chair behind her, her lines
are subtly wrong – her breast
misplaced with medieval indifference
to the realities of anatomy.
She looks bored.

I hope she was paid well. I hope
she bought something selfish
and a little mad – an instrument
whose strings made the river bend shine,
a dress woven with the silver of rain
lit by summer lightning, a ring
whose stone was an eye
with which she contained the world.


I love ekphrasis. It’s something that, for whatever reason, I’ve just always done. It wasn’t until I hit this week that I really thought about it as a specific technique. This particular poem is about a painting that hangs in the art building here at the University of Iowa. You should be able to see it here (nsfw, in an arty sort of a way). It’s a big painting and it hangs right by the doors of the library where you see every time you go in, so I spent a long time sort of thinking about it briefly but regularly and never quite knowing how I felt about it. It’s not, I don’t think, actually very good but I always liked the woman in it anyway.

I asked the head librarian for some information about the painting and apparently it was Robert Barrett’s Master’s thesis work, submitted in 1975. He is now an illustrator, chiefly producing religious illustrations for the Mormon church, which is he is a member of. I guess he probably wasn’t a Mormon in 1975? I have no idea whose decision it was to hang it by the library door.

18: Eclogue


Eclogue: A brief, dramatic pastoral poem, set in an idyllic rural place but discussing urban, legal, political, or social issues. – poetryfoundation.org

A Homecoming Eclogue

A: What brings you back to native countryside,
to these verdant fields that cushioned
your childhood’s feet?

B: With long sojourning in a foreign land,
my heart grew heavy.
Among strangers I was always a stranger
and the skies were not my own,
the stars and winds and rain
unfamiliar to my soul. I have returned
to rest in the shadow of the mountain
that oversaw my birth.

A: And will not you stay, then, having rested?
Why do you leave us again for the city,
for nights loud with sirens and skies dirty
with light that hides these homelike stars
and stains the clean clouds? I wonder,
perhaps, if is love of a pretty face that draws you hence.

B: No, although there are many pretty faces
in the city, it is not love that makes me to abandon
these sheep-tracked hills and this mist-breeding bush.
For what is left here for me now
– how could I earn my living
when here we scrape by with farming and tourists?

Eclogues are weird. I don’t feel like really got a handle on what they do exactly or why, even after reading around. But this is my attempt anyway. The reading around was fun too – beyond Virgil, I found Percy Shelley’s “Rosalind and Helen, a Modern Eclogue,” which fit perfectly with the gothic novel kick I’m on, and Louis MacNiece’s wonderfully strange eclogues.



17: Dramatic Monologue

Dramatic monologue in poetry, also known as a persona poem, shares many characteristics with a theatrical monologue: an audience is implied; there is no dialogue; and the poet speaks through an assumed voice—a character, a fictional identity, or a persona. – poets.org


Not extinguished, not quite,
I burn still here, waiting to discover
what soil might nourish me now.

You and I, we were wolf and lamb
but no little child came to lead us
and the world is a hungry place.

That flaw, that madness in you,
it was a new room, suddenly,
in the house of my heart;
it was as a new colour
or an extra limb, intimately alien.

And you… you were strange again,
as you were when we first met in the garden,
But I chose you in your strangeness
and I preferred the danger
of your open sky to the cage
of my father’s making.

This was another hard one for me. I ended up going with the convention of using an existing fictional character, like in Tennyson’s “Ulysses,” because that seemed easier than making up my own character like in Browning’s “My Last Duchess.” I went with Desdemona because I’ve spent a lot of time thinking and talking about her of the years as I’ve been teaching Othello.  I would always ask my students to discuss why Desdemona refuses to name Othello as her murderer, instead blaming herself. This poem is a meditation on that moment in the play, picking up threads of imagery from Shakespeare.


16: Dirge

Dirge – A brief hymn or song of lamentation and grief; it was typically composed to be performed at a funeral. In lyric poetry, a dirge tends to be shorter and less meditative than an elegy. – Poetry Foundation

Mourning in Chicago

I lit candles in St Peter’s
or rather I pushed buttons
to activate timed bulbs in plastic candle-shells.

It was the best I could do, not finding
even electric candles in the churches here
but I wish I could have given my dead living flames.

You can cry in a church and no one stares,
a space set aside for our naked selves
as much as for God.

The lights were still up from Christmas
and the manger scene sat dark in the corner.
It was the wrong season for mourning

And my tears were belated anyway, waiting
for this ritual to make real my loss.


This is a poem about mourning for my grandparents and uncles who passed away while I’ve been in the US, so it’s more personal than a lot of what I’ve been writing here so far. The dirge, though, is necessarily a personal form, I think – it’s hard to write about death and mourning in the abstract.

This poem ended up coming as part of one of those odd, unplanned confluences of a theme – here, death. It was Easter, I’d just seen Noah (so good!) and just read Hannah Kent’s amazing Burial Rites, about the last woman to be executed in Iceland. I had also stumbled upon Mahler’s Kindertotenlieder (Songs on the Deaths of Children), which are musical settings of a selection of five out of a total 428 poems which Friedrich Ruckert, a 19th C German poet, wrote on the deaths of his children.

15: Cinquain


Adelaide Crapsey, an early twentieth-century poet, used a form of 22 syllables distributed among the five lines in a 2, 4, 6, 8, and 2 pattern, respectively. Her poems share a similarity with the Japanese tanka, another five-line form, in their focus on imagery and the natural world. – poets.org


Not food,
but life itself.
Villagers rioted
when fed potatoes, knowing bread
their right.

I make
my own these days, it’s quiet growth
an intimate ally
against the days’

I’ve been doing a lot of nature poems lately and I didn’t really feel like doing another straight one of those, so I went with bread as my subject – bridging the gap between the natural and the manmade. The first cinquain is inspired by Catherine Gallagher and Stephen Greenblatt’s “The Potato in the Materialist Imagination,” which for whatever reason has always stuck me – possibly because of my deep love of both potatoes and bread. I wanted to get to making my own bread too, so I added in another inverted cinquain to make a “mirror cinquain.”

I enjoyed working with such a small form, the enforced economy focusing down my ideas.

14: concrete poetry

 Concrete or shape poetry is poetry in which the typographical arrangement of words is as important in conveying the intended effect as the conventional elements of the poem, such as meaning of words, rhythm, rhyme and so on. – wikipedia

 Spring Isspring grass

I tend to be attracted to poetry at an aural level, so concrete poetry isn’t generally my thing but I like the idea of it.  Before looking it up for this post, I hadn’t realized that the term ‘concrete poetry’ was so recent (the 1950s) or that it had ever been held up as an avant-garde mode. I tend to think of it as old (because George Herbert’s “Easter Wings” is so anthologized) and as being childish (because it’s a form taught to children a lot). The theory, for the Niogandres group, was that concrete poetry foregrounded the materiality and specificity of the words, rather than allowing words to disappear behind the ideas they convey. I must admit, I’m not really sure how this works – I guess by dislodging the word from the line makes more strange, more visible?

It’s interesting, too, that the Niogandres group thought poetry needed shaking up into a visual form to achieve this effect. The Russian Formalists claimed, some thirty years earlier, that poetry – all and any poetry – worked to estrange language, to make it anew from the dead metaphors of prose. My cursory research doesn’t indicate whether or not the Niogandres poets were responding to the Russian Formalists, but I’d like to think so.

In writing this – constructing it? – I somewhat returned to chance operation. I used a word cloud generator with customizable shapes and plugged in a short piece I wrote apropos of the recent and very sudden burst of new growth we’ve had here.



13: Cento

From the Latin word for “patchwork,” the cento (or collage poem) is a poetic form made up of lines from poems by other poets. Though poets often borrow lines from other writers and mix them in with their own, a true cento is composed entirely of lines from other sources. – poets.org

You and I: A Cento

To prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet
You may tarry forever.
This debt we pay to human guile.

I gazed – and gazed – but little thought
That you and I are as real
As the flight of birds.

Do what you are going to do, and I will tell about it,
Black pearls of want inside the body
And all their myriad voices.

Your machinery is too much for me,
The lines of your face and the print of your hand
All things counter, original, spare, strange.

Sources: T. S. Eliot, Robert Herrick, Paul Laurence Dunbar, William Wordsworth, James Merrill, Archibald MacLeish, Sharon Olds, Joan Fleming, Emily Bronte, Allen Ginsberg, Charles Brasch, Gerard Manley Hopkins.

This was a fun one – a lot of reading around eclectic places and piecing bits together like a jigsaw. I started off by just reading around for anything that caught my eye, with no overall plan. After a while I decided to use “you” and “I” as a connecting thread, since so much poetry is built around this kind of direct address. With that in mind, I gathered a few more pieces and then strung together something rough which I filled out by specifically hunting for a few connecting lines that fit with what I already had.

I was pretty indiscriminate about where I took lines from, although I can see that restricting yourself to a specific group of poets or poems would be a great way to approach this. There are some limits in terms of keeping a reasonably consistent style and tone (if that’s something you want to do), which here meant working within a relatively modern Western tradition of works.

Also, if you don’t know Joan Fleming’s work already, check it out. She’s great.

12: Chance operation

Chance Operations are methods of generating poetry independent of the author’s will. A chance operation can be almost anything from throwing darts and rolling dice, to the ancient Chinese divination method, I-Ching, and even sophisticated computer programs. Most poems created by chance operations use some original text as their source, be it the newspaper, an encyclopedia, or a famous work of literature. The purpose of such a practice is to play against the poet’s intentions and ego, while creating unusual syntax and images. The resulting poems allow the reader to take part in producing meaning from the work. – poets.org

Titus Groan, page 367
the now After And him would . , . would flung through passions daybreak now and ; echoes . , violence along lights . , and tears soon in open; . it laughter the itself be And a Fierce no shall births for ! there there And flickering . of There yet insurrection there , beneath wandering a by was disenchantment

ceilings be be honeycombs had be would like though he dreams day heard strange love umbrageous would emptiness their and quick flame . green there and – passageways sound cry be stone doors walls the would will And deaths the and Through in tumult , be


I guess this is sort of the point, but this poem was kind of boring for me – all I did was pick out a section of text (from Mervyn Peake’s amazing Titus Groan) and run it through an online randomizer. What I did have fun doing is working this randomization into something coherent and poem-like. I was going to post that worked up version, since that seems to be what some people do when the publish chance operation poems, but I felt that missed the point of removing the poet and creating space for the reader to find their own patterns of meaning.

This poem and next week’s cento have lined up perfectly with The Found Poetry Review‘s National Poetry Month project, Oulipost – they’re giving a new prompt for constrained writing techniques applied to text sourced from newspaper.

For the original text and my shot at making something coherent out of the randomization, see below the jump.

Continue reading

11. Carol

A hymn or poem often sung by a group, with an individual taking the changing stanzas and the group taking the burden or refrain. – poetryfoundation.org

 A Spring Carol

Though the fields are bleak and brown
Soon they will grow tall and green
The trees in bud,
The squirrels and the robins

Though the cold snow flies today
Soon will come the kinder rains

Though the ice lingers in the shade
The creeks and rivers run freely

Though the winds are sharp and cruel
Soon soft breezes will bring us Spring’s softness.


The carol being a seasonal song, this is a celebration of Spring in contrast to last week’s poem. Or, more accurately, a celebration of Spring to come since we had snow yesterday and it was below freezing today again. I also drew somewhat on the Spring section of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana.

I considered trying to do Middle English for this, since I’m mimicking the medieval form of the carol, but I decided my ME skills weren’t up to it.