John Irwin, who led The Hopkins Review from its rebirth in 2008, will retire from teaching at Johns Hopkins University this spring. David Yezzi took over the reins of the journal in 2015. A well-known poet, actor and editor, Yezzi joined the Johns Hopkins faculty in 2013. Yezzi joined us to talk about his new position and the special issue devoted to Irwin’s impact on the field.
Tag Archives: poetry
The Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars will host a reading by two long-time friends and JHU Press authors, John Irwin and Wyatt Prunty, on Thursday, February 25, at 6:30 p.m. The reading, reception, and book signing take place in Gilman Hall, Room 50, on JHU’s Homewood campus. The event is free and open to the public; find more information on the Writing Seminars website.
John Irwin has been an extraordinary friend and partner to JHU Press over many decades, publishing six scholarly books with us under his own name; three volumes of poetry under his pen name, John Bricuth; editing some 97 volumes in the distinguished series, Johns Hopkins: Poetry & Fiction, on behalf of the Press and the Writing Seminars; relaunching the literary journal, The Hopkins Review, in 2008; and serving as the intrepid cheer-leader, fundraiser, and inspiration for all these projects. We extend boundless thanks and good wishes to John, who retired last year as Decker Professor of the Humanities at JHU. He will be reading from and signing copies of his (John Bricuth’s) latest volume of poetry, Pure Products of America. Inc.
Wyatt Prunty is a professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South and the founding director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is the author of nine collections of poems (eight published with JHUP), including Unarmed and DANGEROUS and The Lover’s Guide to Trapping. He will be reading from and signing copies his latest collection from JHUP, Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise.
Interview by Yasmine Kaminsky
You mentioned in an interview with the Tennessee Literary Project that although your parents raised you in a cultured household, you initially did not believe you would become a writer. How, then, did your path to poetry form?
I was the son and grandson of professors, so growing up I had plenty of books around and knew how many poets there were in the tradition. Imagining someday being a part of that body struck me as a long shot. I would have said, age 16 to 18 or so, that it was unrealistic from the standpoint of ever making a living let alone making a difference in the lineup of some library’s bookshelves. At the same time I had been making up melodies and songs for years. When I turned twelve I was given a guitar. It wasn’t a very good guitar, but that was all it took for me. This was the 1960s and the coffee house/folk music boom was underway. I sang in a group. The other two members of the group were in college, and they were good. In the summers they had gigs at the Brickskeller and Cellar Door in Washington, and one year they were offered a stint at the Bitter End in NYC, but their parents made them return to the University in Athens, Georgia to finish their degrees. I was still in high school, but we performed some of the songs I wrote. Writing a song and performing it with others was a great way to learn a number of things that were applicable to poems.
I learned that a song can stand on the ground of immediate conviction. When the words and the melody fit really well something beyond one’s individual will takes over. Writing songs is a time-worn path to lyric poetry. Along that way one discovers how deeply a poem can burrow. A song’s music keeps moving so the words must be readily understandable, whereas a poem enjoys more license. When I came to college I brought along a stack of poems and naively walked into the office of the editor of The Sewanee Review. Andrew Lytle read them and gave them to Allen Tate who pronounced a few “publishable.” Then they published one, then some others. There were no superlatives uttered, just something about I could do this if I was willing to work hard enough long enough. With that I was convicted.
In another interview with Chapter 16 a few years ago, you stated your “long-held belief that the first concern for poetry at any time is figurative thought that leads to a dramatic core of meaning.” Could you elaborate on your position and how it relates to your new poetry collection?
I have stated that figurative thought is the “first concern for poetry.” That is because a poem is a mode of thought before it is a form of expression. Poetry uncovers parts of reality we would miss without it. The reason, years ago, I used the term “dramatic core of meaning” had to do with mediating between formalist and free verse arguments. I thought then and still think a poem’s argument and its rhythm are its dominant elements. Listen to a young couple having an intense conversation in an airport, and you will hear argument and the alternation between stressed and unstressed syllables. That experience ought to be enough for anyone to unravel the rest as far as form is concerned. Poetic figure houses a poem’s argument, and the rhythms of the English language reinforce the emotional import of that argument.
I was fortunate to stumble upon a video of your poetry reading last fall at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference in which you read some poems from Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise. One aspect of the reading that strikes me is the humor and tragedy apparent in many of your works (e.g., “Bad Dog” and “Another Christmas Tie”). How do you balance these two elements in your writing?
Humor jars expectation and causes rebalancing. It qualifies and redeems. If you damp emotion, as humor can do, a poem’s durability can increase. My purpose with humor is to disarm the reader and to objectify the subject so the poem has a greater half-life. I do not intend something that is just performative; a poem has a kind of ontology to it. It is a consciousness for as long as it lasts. Finding ways to keep such a mind from exhausting itself with its own obsessions is art. It is a way to dwell in a subject. Art is experience without the cost of experience, and it is understanding fused with value. Along with these there is the ideal of seeing something from many sides and judging along multiple lines. Tragedy teaches this. Most lives are lived among tragedies small and frequent. But Shakespeare to Irish wake, there is a place for humor too. We think both ways at once.
Could you explain to us how self-revision as well as peer-review with others (such as your editor John Irwin) have helped shape the collection?
Of your question about self-revision the main thing to say is that I was more conscious of that process when I was younger. At that time I created an ideal audience for myself consisting of poets whose work I admired. I wrote with the hope my poem would be meaningful in the context of such an audience. I tried to test that poem with the perspectives of whatever my current short list of greats happened to be. I judged poems in light of what I imagined the aesthetic thinking of these poets would be if they were living in the present. That ideal audience changed as my interests changed, and I suppose now I have absorbed certain principles to the point that I feel as though I work alone, though no one does entirely.
In the case of “Nod,” the long poem in Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise, everything derives from the characters in the poem. Revision occurred within the terms of character. And to return briefly to the subjects of humor and tragedy, it is important to add that the characters in “Nod” are not allegorical; they are represented by the poem as physically present. Their humor and their tragedies are real. Were they not real, some of what they say and do would have a different meaning. Humor is a test for what is real. A recent review of “Nod” found it to be an allegory. However the speaker, the main character who narrates the poem, while never named is in fact a living being. He is not Fulton, as one reader supposed. There is no reality to Fulton other than the name used for expression. Fulton, we are told, is like Jimmy Durante’s Mrs. Calabash, an ideal defined by absence. The date of the poem’s events really is July 3, and the location really is a mall outside Atlanta, Georgia where the summer heat rising from the asphalt is hellish.
Floyd Byrom Thatch is a wounded vanity. He is a Georgia cracker on the order of a poor man’s Mephistopheles. And as someone obsessed with security he also has something of Lord Byron’s self-imposed exile. But Floyd is a real person, as all the others are. In the poem’s first part Floyd says to the speaker, “Who’s to remember . . . Who’s to remember a nickel or a dime / Or ever the time you saw your little dog get hit?” The poem’s narrator asks, “And how you think you know my dog was hit.” Floyd answers, “I’m saying, you were six; the dog was four, / Maybe five. Just saying that, nothing more.” That is, these things really did happen, and Floyd’s suppositions trouble the narrator because he has intuited something painful from the narrator’s past. The evil of Floyd’s wounded pride may be metaphysical (and universal on the order of allegory), but Floyd’s body and his history are matters of this world. The events of his life are no more allegorical than those of other lives that participate in the repeated patterns of our nature. In fact the events described are more disturbing than allegory would be. The narrator is hostile to Floyd’s speculation about the dog’s death because that event was real and the pain felt was real as well.
In revising “Nod” I had to come to terms with the fact that Floyd’s suffering is particular even as his judgment is general. Floyd’s thinking tends to generate the very things about which he is so apprehensive. He believes in negative terms. He is in security as a result of his doubt. And June and the two children are fractional presences due to Floyd’s drawn vision. We get another take on the limits of Floyd’s circular darkness when June starts putting him in his place. There he is comic enough that the humor and the tragedy of the poem constitute two sides of the same object, human finitude. I have gone into all this as it relates to “Nod,” but the humor, tragedy, and revision you ask about in my poetry generally stem from situations that are either overtly dramatic or implicitly so. Short poems assume what longer poems unpack from their dramatic situations, but the basis for each is similar to all others. Character and motive, elaborated or not, are the first governing principles in the poems I write. They determine humor, tragedy, and all manner of revision.
Like book manuscripts, book titles are often subject to change before publication. Was naming Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise easy or difficult? How did the naming come about?
My editor, mostly John Irwin of the Johns Hopkins University Press, has frequently been funny and helpful during the process of choosing the title for a new book. When The Run of the House was in press John kept asking me for different titles. Our son, Ian, was still very small but had a booming voice on the order of John Irving’s Owen Meany. There was this big voice and very little guy who made John Irwin laugh. At one point John asked what I thought Ian would say the title for the book ought to be. I said I don’t know, Ian’s not here to ask. John said, “Well what do you imagine Ian would call the book?” I said, “Run of the House, since that’s what he has.” John said, “I like that.” The next time I called, with another title, John said, “Marketing likes it, too.” The answer to your question is that a title should be both telling and cryptic. By a title the reader is introduced to a bit of a mystery. And that is as it should be since the book lives ultimately in the imagination of the reader. The second part of the answer is that we write for others, so title-to-last-line is considered finally in terms of what will work for the reader. The title is the first step in this.
Wyatt Prunty is a professor of English at Sewanee: The University of the South and the founding director of the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is the author of nine collections of poems, including The Lover’s Guide to Trapping, and two critical works. His latest collection of poems from JHU Press, Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise, was published in 2015.
Yasmine Kaminsky, a student at Johns Hopkins University, studies English and interns in JHU Press’s marketing department.
Use promo code “HDPD” to receive a 30% discount when you order your copy of Couldn’t Prove, Had to Promise.
By Hilary S. Jacqmin, JHUP Staff
How did you become a writer? What drew you to poetry specifically? What were your early poems like?
It’s hard to imagine that my early poems weren’t a lot like those of many others. Long on adolescent angst and abstraction. A little lonely and sad with a healthy twist of alienation and a garden variety of anxieties associated with growing up. All those things probably got me into writing in the first place—at sixteen or seventeen. If those first poems I wrote are embarrassing, I can’t very well disown the person who composed them. I mean, I’m still trying to figure that kid out all these years later. As for what drew me to poetry specifically, I’d probably say it was my early belief, as a “sensitive” boy, that poetry (as opposed to prose) was the appropriate venue for my griefs and my grievances and hurt.
When I went through the Writing Seminars it was a one-year program. This was in the late 80s. It all passed by so quickly, to be honest. I couldn’t get past the feeling that everyone I was at Hopkins with (poets and prose writers alike) was smarter and better educated than I was. I still think that’s true. In the end, though, they made me scrutinize who I was and what I wanted to do as a writer and a teacher. It wasn’t that they were back-biting or competitive at all. In fact, quite the opposite. They were generous critics and friends. We took ourselves quite seriously. But we also managed to laugh a lot, too. It was a very happy, if dizzyingly brief, time.
How has your writing changed over the years? And what are you doing differently in The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel? It seems to me, for example, that your lines—while iambic—have gotten shorter and more flexible since your first book of poetry, January Rain, came out.
I suspect that the technical answers to that question—about line length and measure—wouldn’t be that interesting to many people. A lot of it has to do with the way I’ve learned to listen over the years. The big difference or progression, I think, is that the older you get, the more you actually have to write about. At least that’s what I believe. When I was in my twenties, starting out, I had to pretend to know more than I did, that I was wiser than I was, or that I’d experienced more than I had. I suppose if you stay at it long enough, for better or worse, life gives you plenty to work with. Looking at the difference between my three books, I’d say my subjects are more my own. My ideas are more my own, too.
I’m probably drawn to rhyme and meter because the poets I love and study and teach use rhyme and meter in their work—or, at the very least, they explored the possibilities of those elements in their poetry. Even someone like Whitman, right? It also seems to me, because I have a challenged and atrocious memory myself, that rhyme and meter increase the odds (however overwhelming and futile and depressing those odds actually are!) that someone just might remember something I have written. Not that I expect this to happen, mind you, but isn’t that what all writers want or should want? To compose something memorable?
The New Formalist wrangling of the 90s—by which I mean the battle (however academic) fought both for and against New Formalist poetry—has ebbed, but many poets writing now seem perhaps better versed in formal techniques than they were a few decades ago. What do you make of the presence of form in contemporary poetry? Who is currently shaping the field, and to what end?
I studied with and alongside of people who were associated with the New Formalist conversation, but I wasn’t too involved. Or let’s put it this way, the opposing dogmas were pretty uninteresting for me and remain so today. Those debates often turn out to be more about the people arguing than the matter at hand. I think it’s ridiculous that anyone would suggest that rhyme and meter and received formal structures in poetry are something oppressive or obsolete. Similarly, I’m equally ambivalent people clubbing readers over the head with their sonnet sequences and sestinas and villanelles.
I take a lot of pleasure asking students to consider the basic formal (and musical) elements in poetry. Most of the students I’m around get teased out of their complacency by rhyme and meter. It can be fun to watch—when they write a line that really works. It’s important for anyone who wants to be a poet to understand just how difficult it is to write a formal line that sounds like natural speech, or one that sounds like someone thinking beautifully and intelligently out loud about the world. Plenty of people can do a forced march through the form—and I think this was the case with a lot of the New Formalists—but that’s not the same thing as writing a poem necessarily. But then again, neither is talking your way down a page, snapping your sentences off here and there in the name of line breaks, and addressing an unnamed intimate second person who you and—thanks to the obscurity of the poem—only you have feelings about.
I really wouldn’t be able to say who is shaping the field. In part because I think in this age there are many fields or schools or cartels that yell at and over and around one another all in the name of poetry. The only thing that seems to unite poets is when someone criticizes Poetry at large, about how irrelevant it often seems or out-of-touch or impenetrable or self-absorbed or small-minded. When that happens, look out! Everyone becomes indignant. They organize rallies. They write angry letters about whoever said such a thing. They start long-winded threads in the public forums and on Facebook. It’s hard not to be somewhat overwhelmed and discouraged by the bickering. Who learns what from it? I’m never sure.
The poems that appear in The Night Guard are wonderfully image-heavy and meditative. They are engaged with rich detail, light and color, the contrast between society’s rules and nature, nostalgia, householding, food, love, regret, death. Are there any particular themes or subjects that you are interested in writing about at the moment, or any incidents from your life that demand to be written about, but that you feel you haven’t been able to adequately address thus far? And I was hoping as well that you could tell us a bit about your childhood and growing up, as well as your family, which comes into play in poems like “Insomnia at Forty-Six” (“My mother, who was never very young / or happy or at ease”).
I’m working on a nonfiction prose project right now about a childhood friend who committed suicide. Some of the essays I’ve been writing have started cross-pollinating with the poems. In fact, one from The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel, “Someone is Burning Leaves,” percolated out of the prose endeavor. A couple more poems seem to be itching to come out, too. But that’s just a small handful. I have poems in the queue I want to write or think I want to write. But you never know how your childhood or family experiences will sneak up on you when you’re writing a poem.
As for my upbringing, it was fairly unremarkable. I grew up in suburban Cincinnati, Ohio. I was the last of five children and, technically, just squeaked in under the wire to be a “Baby Boomer,” in December 1964. My parents were older than the parents of nearly all my peers, and that was always something I was aware of and somewhat self-conscious over. It certainly wasn’t their fault. But that’s where the observation in “Insomnia at Forty-Six” originates. My parents also divorced when I was seven. I seemed to have grown up in the uncomfortable gap between the generation that was born around the Great Depression and fought in WWII, and the generation that was sent off to fight in Vietnam. I’d say those two conflicts are something I still think about today, and how they shaped my perspective. Throw in Watergate, then Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan. It was a bit of a rollercoaster looking back on it, though at the time (as a kid) I had no idea what was going on. Zero.
In a way, these poems, even though they speak so much of nostalgia, seem out of time, perhaps because they allow the reader to linger in a concentrated moment. The primary exception to this timelessness would perhaps be “Provinces,” which conjures up a scene straight out of today’s Middle East, most likely Iraq, Pakistan, or Afghanistan, although the poem is never actually placed specifically: “It is a chiseled, godforsaken place. / Unmapped. Ambiguous. Potato-beige . . . / But lately, on the hamlet’s Western edge, / there have been strange movements— / convoys of trucks arriving after dark. The construction of a generator shed. / An ever-slight increase / in local population.” The poem’s introspective attitude is characteristic of your usual voice, and its uncertainty about the possibility of terrorism—and how to thwart it—is moving, as is the way you contrast this scene with the supposed innocence of a typical middle American summer. Why did you take on what some might think of as a politicized subject?
It’s interesting that you would make the observation that “Provinces” has a politicized subject. I’ve always thought I did a fairly decent job keeping it apolitical. In much the same way WWII and Vietnam shaped my psyche growing up, September 11th certainly shaped my perspective as an adult (as it did for many people as well as our government). I have strong opinions about what we did after 9/11, opinions that are clearly political and unapologetically partisan toward the people who led us into Iraq, for instance. The same people who began that destabilization now insist on blaming the current holder of the presidency for not being able to foster order and tranquility and, above all else, fear and respect for the United States. And frankly, it wouldn’t have mattered which party held the Presidency in the aftermath of the Iraq war. The irreversible spiral had begun. You can’t have it both ways—you can’t make the mess then blame others for not being able to make it better. See, now that’s what I would call political.
In “Provinces,” I never intended to blame anyone for the persistent and sometimes exhausting anxiety that came in the wake of 9/11. I certainly don’t hold any one political party responsible for that change in our lives. I guess I always saw the writing of that poem as an exercise in expressing a dark and rather guilty gratitude for the peace we do enjoy here. At least the peace I myself am fortunate to enjoy.
I was hoping that you could speak more about “Four Voices for the Afterlife,” a sort of multi-part eulogy for an anonymous figure (M.M.). Why four parts? And how did you compose this poem?
“Four Voices” is a kind of elegy in-the-round, though the poem is a fiction. I wanted to play with different voices that meditated on a particular common grief—the suicide of a woman named Martha McEnroe. I had a lot of models in my head when I was writing it. William Faulkner and William Blake for starters. But also Emily Dickinson and I would also say Anthony Hecht, too. But you almost always have someone’s voice going off in your brain when you’re writing a poem. I believe that.
How do you think about organizing a collection of poetry? What goes where, and why?
That’s a hard question. Much of it is intuitive. I usually lay all the poems that are going into to the book on a table and start grouping them, putting them next to one another, stacking them, rearranging them, etc. It can be a little unnerving, though, because you start seeing patterns and all your tricks and gimmicks—or things that can start to bother you as your own personal tricks and gimmicks—neatly lined up in front of you. At a certain point, you just have to give it up to the higher powers and hope that no one sees the faults you recognize in your own work. I suppose it’s a lot like looking at your reflection. I’m reminded of the line from Auden’s poem about The Tempest, “The Sea and the Mirror”: “All we are not stares back at what we are.”
I was hoping that you could tell me a bit about your writing and revision process. What do you do when a poem is giving you trouble?
I usually write quite slowly and revise as I go along. I get a few lines down then give myself permission to proceed. I don’t write whole drafts and go back and re-write. And when a poem gives you trouble, you learn that there are plenty of others that are waiting for your attention. It took a long time for me to figure that out, but now I’m relatively quick to let a poem sit in a quiet space on its own until I come back to it. Makes for much healthier and happier relationships with the work, I find. That’s not to say I don’t get frustrated because I do. I’m just less obsessive than I used to be about insisting a poem into the world.
Which poets are you reading now? Whose work is inspiring yours?
I’m mostly reading nonfiction. I just finished a biography on Norman Rockwell and am starting one about Frank Lloyd Wright. I’m teaching a craft seminar at the University of Oregon next year on Shakespeare, whom I never tire of reading. So I’ll be going back to those plays over the summer, which I’m looking forward to. As far as poetry goes, I find myself often returning to three poets in particular—Richard Wilbur, Elizabeth Bishop, and Philip Larkin. They’re the ones who always seem to be hanging around in my brain most of the time. They make good company.
And finally, you’ve spent a long time as a teacher at several very distinguished universities. What advice would you give to young poets?
I am so unbelievable lucky to have the job I do. I taught prep school for eight years before I was fortunate enough to get a visiting position at the college level. There was a lot of uncertainty along the way, and there were times when it looked like I would have to give up teaching altogether because the market was so brutal. It’s still brutal, and I worry for all of the fine writers who are also excellent and deeply committed teachers who will be driven out of the field because there are infinitely more candidates than there are jobs. I don’t think setting your sites on teaching at the university level is a viable career plan, that’s for sure. I know that’s not advice, exactly. (Again, I feel unbelievably lucky to be where I am in this age.) If I have any advice at all, it’s to pay attention to the work—your own work—rather than all the noise and chest-thumping and quasi-author photos your friends and contemporaries and even nemeses are posting on social media. I think about the things I scold myself over on a daily basis—not that anyone should use me as a model—and much of it just has to do with getting to the quiet place for clean, uninterrupted blocks of time, where there aren’t any bright colors on a screen blinking at me or ringtones or text-tones jarring me out of my thoughts. Where there are a couple poems and notebooks on a desk or in a stack near that desk. Or where, next to a comfortable reading chair, there are a couple of books. Someplace where people aren’t yelling at each other on the TV about a presidential race that’s a year and a half away, either. I guess I’m saying this more to myself than offering advice.
This First Hot Saturday in May
by Daniel Anderson
The plump, governing bees
discover our tomato blooms,
our squash and watermelon blooms.
They tickle, kiss, and plumb
the open, velvet flower heads
of iris and hibiscus blooms.
They levitate and drift
among the purple hanging clouds
of blossoming wisteria.
This first hot Saturday of May,
the doused and dripping garden smells of green.
The catbird and electric finch,
the feisty jay and oriole
nip thistle, millet, milo seed, and corn
from feeders I have filled.
The world has come alive
with energy and appetite
and all the grand astonishments of sex.
It used to be the only thing
I ever thought about.
Cleavage. Athletic legs.
Tan lines, tight jeans, and lacy bras.
Now it’s the nest egg and the ass at work,
a water heater that’s about to blow,
election politics, and how
it feels the globe is going all to hell.
This would have seemed miraculous if not
entirely impossible to me
a quarter century ago.
What do the young expect?
I guarantee it isn’t this:
a mortgage and a morning picking weeds,
the pleasurable shade
and savory tobacco scent of mulch.
Our fig tree and our lemon tree
survived an April frost.
Now they relax in clear, gold light,
and this, I confess, this brings me joy,
but more than joy it brings
a thankfulness that I’m no longer young,
uncertain, and obsessed.
Besides, it isn’t youth I want.
Who needs the grudges and the big ideas?
The idiot decisions and the hurt?
It isn’t youth I want,
only the high, luxuriating sense,
beneath these excellent and clean
procrastinations of the sun,
that certain days—this one—
may never end.
Daniel Anderson teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Oregon and is a winner of the Pushcart Prize. He is the author of January Rain, Drunk in Sunlight, and The Night Guard at the Wilberforce Hotel and the editor of The Selected Poems of Howard Nemerov.
In honor of Arbor Day, we share two poems from Over the River and Through the Wood: An Anthology of Nineteenth-Century American Children’s Poetry, edited by Karen L. Kilcup and Angela Sorby.
PLANT A TREE
by Lucy Larcom
He who plants a tree,
Plants a hope.
Rootlets up through fibers blindly grope;
Leaves unfold into horizons free.
So man’s life must climb
From the clods of time
Unto heavens sublime.
Canst thou prophesy, thou little tree,
What the glory of thy boughs shall be?
He who plants a tree,—
Plants a joy;
Plants a comfort that will never cloy;
Every day a fresh reality,
Beautiful and strong,
To whose shelter throng
Creatures blithe with song.
If thou couldst but know, thou happy tree,
Of the bliss that shall inhabit thee!
He who plants a tree,—
He plants peace.
Under its green curtains jargons cease.
Leaf and zephyr murmur soothingly;
Shadows soft with sleep
Down tired eyelids creep,
Balm of slumber deep.
Never hast thou dreamed, thou blessèd tree,
Of the benediction thou shalt be.
He who plants a tree,—
He plants youth;
Vigor won for centuries in sooth;
Life of time, that hints eternity!
Boughs their strength uprear;
New shoots, every year
On old growths appear,
Thou shalt teach the ages, sturdy tree,
Youth of soul is immortality.
He who plants a tree,—
He plants love;
Tents of coolness spreading out above
Wayfarers, he may not live to see.
Gifts that grow, are best;
Hands that bless are blest;
Plant! Life does the rest!
Heaven and earth help him who plants
And his work its own reward shall be.
by Paul Laurence Dunbar
As a quiet little seedling
Lay within its darksome bed,
To itself it fell a-talking,
And this is what it said:
“I am not so very robust,
But I’ll do the best I can;”
And the seedling from that moment
Its work of life began.
So it pushed a little leaflet
Up into the light of day,
To examine the surroundings
And show the rest the way.
The leaflet liked the prospect,
So it called its brother, Stem;
Then two other leaflets heard it,
And quickly followed them.
To be sure, the haste and hurry
Made the seedling sweat and pant;
But almost before it knew it
It found itself a plant.
The sunshine poured upon it,
And the clouds they gave a shower;
And the little plant kept growing
Till it found itself a flower.
Little folks, be like the seedling,
Always do the best you can;
Every child must share life’s labor
Just as well as every man.
And the sun and showers will help you
Through the lonesome, struggling
Till you raise to light and beauty
Virtue’s fair, unfading flowers
Karen L. Kilcup is a professor of American literature at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. Her books include Teaching Nineteenth-Century American Poetry and Fallen Forests: Emotion, Embodiment, and Ethics in American Women’s Environmental Writing, 1781–1924. Angela Sorby is an associate professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. Her books include Schoolroom Poets: Childhood, Performance, and the Place of American Poetry, 1865–1917, and three poetry collections, most recently The Sleeve Waves.
Guest post by Michael Wolfe
Over a three-week period in July, Johns Hopkins University Press hosted an epitaph writing contest on the Goodreads website, which you may still access and review here. The Press proposed the contest as a way to mark the shortlisting by PEN/America of my recently published book, Cut These Words into My Stone, a collection of ancient Greek epitaphs in English translation.
As the book’s author and translator, I agreed to judge the contest. The ground rules were simple enough: Compose an original epitaph in English and submit it to our online contest at Goodreads for others to read. From each week’s collected submissions I then agreed to select a winner, whom Johns Hopkins would award with a free copy of the book and publication of the winning epitaphs here on the Press’s blog. Three weeks, three winners, three awards.
Criteria for Judging
The criteria for a good epitaph were presented in a post on the JHU Press Blog site. Rather than reprint them here, let me simply say that authentic emotion, brevity, compression, and the few formal constraints that have accrued to good epitaphs in a variety of languages over the centuries were all recommended to the contestants and abided by in the judging of the winners.
There was one winner in Week One:
He ran as free as a young stag,
but like the stag’s rippling shadow
he also got entangled in the leaves.
by Daniel Abdal-Hayye Moore
No winner in Week Two; but two winners in Week Three:
Do not mourn me . . .
I have lived.
by Tina Paggi
Eye me—you’ll find I’ve changed and so we’re free:
Green maid, green man, two eyes for you and me.
by Wilson Engel
Comments on other submissions
From Week One:
If you don’t live for something you will die for nothing.
Comment: Though more an aphorism than an epitaph, Raphael’s notion contains the core idea of many classical sepulchral epigrams. This was the first submission to the contest.
From Week Two:
Open the windows —
he always loved the sky.
A change of address
from his home in Uruguay.
by Abdal-Hayye Moore
Comment: The voice in line 1 instructing the living to honor something the deceased loved is very much in keeping with the spirit the epitaph. The humor in line 3, when the poet refers to “A change of address,” is subtle but hard to miss, implying the deceased has, as people used to say, “died and gone to heaven.” The rhyme of “sky” with “Uruguay” is admirable, too.
From Week Three:
My body rests below you
Yet no stone at my head
Nor soil to make my bed
Has kept my soul—it is free.
Dry your tears—don’t cry for me.
My spirit soars above you.
Comment: One of the longer submissions, I appreciate this poem for the way it holds together a complex thought from start to finish.
And, lastly, this strophe sent in by JoJo:
Silence the drummer in my chest
He has become too passionate.
He strides and flicks the surface
Having no care of the flames atop my shoulders.
Comment: Although not an epitaph exactly, these lines show passion, powerful imagery, and word for word precision—all hallmarks of Greek epitaphic verse.
Comments on the Process: Looking Back, How Did it Go?
General instructions for a “giveaway” on Goodreads are available here for those who may want to experiment with the format. A contest, however, is not precisely a “giveaway.” The design of the epitaph writing contest, without precedent in more than one way, was produced by JHUP’s Jack Holmes.
Goodreads welcomed the idea but did forewarn us that success was hardly guaranteed. The main challenges to attracting submissions seem to be 1) the problem of distinguishing your contest from a welter of material on the Internet; 2) drawing attention to the fact that a contest exists; and 3) bringing the contest to the attention of likely contestants. It helps, of course, for your page to gain a high ranking on Google and other search engines, but a contest with lifespan of three weeks isn’t likely to do that.
The contest took a while to get up to speed. I had imagined that of the innumerable Goodreads members, some would be writers interested in being published. To hedge my bets, I posted an invitation on a LinkedIn Group called “Poetry Editors and Writers,” which boasts a readership of 16,000. At the end of Week One, with only a pair of Contest entries to judge, my wife suggested we add some potential to the Contest by signing up with Google’s Ad words program, to try to increase participation.
The Ad Words must have helped. Time helped solve our problems too, I think. Week Two saw an increase in submissions (from two in Week One to nine in Week Two). Week Three showed a substantial increase over Week Two both in quantity and quality. I should express thanks here to a couple of contestants, Daniel and Wilson, who submitted multiple entries and not only boosted the numbers of submissions but also, more importantly, explored the potential of the epitaphic form, thus enriched our reading pleasure.
At the end of Week Three, I was sorely tempted to keep the contest going, but free copies of a $20 book don’t grow on trees, and in the end reason prevailed.
Many thanks to everyone on all ends of this effort, from PEN/America, which first introduced us to Goodreads, to Goodreads itself, whose operatives gave us many useful tips, and to Johns Hopkins Press for designing the contest and providing the prize books. The winning poems are also singled out in the final post on the Goodreads Epitaph Writing Contest Page.
Michael Wolfe is a poet, author, documentary film producer, and president of Unity Productions Foundation, a nonprofit media organization. He is the author of many books of verse and prose, including Cut These Words into My Stone: Ancient Greek Epitaphs, now available from JHU Press.
Guest Post by Angela Sorby
Arbor Day is on April 25th this year, but its—um—roots trace back to 1872, when the journalist J. Sterling Morton organized schoolchildren to plant a million trees in the State of Nebraska. By the turn of the century, tree-planting had become a political issue; as Theodore Roosevelt put it to Congress, “If there is any one duty which more than another we owe it to our children and our children’s children to perform at once, it is to save the forests of this country.” By framing this problem in terms of children, both Morton and Roosevelt added emotional weight to an economic issue: timber companies were destroying vast swaths of the continent’s trees for their own “reckless” gains. But why should anyone care? What was the value of forests, if not as a source of building materials?
Both Charlotte Perkins Gilman and a teenage Edna St. Vincent Millay tackled this question, producing children’s poems that were ultimately used to promote Arbor Day and that mark the power—but also the surprising fragility—of trees.
I wonder if they like it—being trees?
I suppose they do . . . .
It must feel good to have the ground so flat,
And feel yourself stand right straight up like that—
So stiff in the middle—and then branch at ease,
Big boughs that arch, small ones that bend and blow,
And all those fringy leaves that flutter so.
You’d think they’d break off at the lower end
When the wind fills them, and their great heads bend.
But then you think of all the roots they drop,
As much at bottom as there is on top,—
A double tree, widespread in earth and air
Like a reflection in the water there.
I guess they like to stand still in the sun
And just breathe out and in, and feel the cool sap run;
And like to feel the rain run through their hair
And slide down to the roots and settle there.
But I think they like wind best. From the light touch
That lets the leaves whisper and kiss so much,
To the great swinging, tossing, flying wide,
And all the time so stiff and strong inside!
And the big winds, that pull, and make them feel
How long their roots are, and the earth how leal!
And O the blossoms! And the wild seeds lost!
And jeweled martyrdom of fiery frost!
And fruit trees. I’d forgotten. No cold gem,
But to be apples—and bow down with them!
Gilman’s famous feminist polemic, Women and Economics, uses the principles of evolution to argue that civilization can only progress if women achieve economic self-sufficiency. Likewise, in her extraordinary children’s poem, Gilman celebrates the scientific miracle of a tree that can simultaneously sustain itself (drinking through its roots), experience passion (through kissing leaves) and ultimately produce offspring in the form of apples.
“Tree Feelings” became a standard recitation piece at Arbor Day celebrations in the early twentieth century—and no wonder, because it offers the perfect fusion of romantic empathy and scientific respect. On the one hand, child and adult readers are encouraged to find the beauty in the tree’s branches—“swinging, tossing, flying wide”—but on the other hand, they are invited to study the complex physiology of root systems. The concept of Arbor Day sometimes reduced a complex problem (deforestation) to a simple solution (“plant a tree!”), but Gilman’s poem undercuts and resists easy environmental bromides. Rather, in keeping with her broad sense of the environment as an interconnected social and natural web, Gilman imagines trees to be independent and dependent, beautiful and strong, stiff and flexible, eternal and yet ever-changing. Gilman’s trees thus become models for human (and especially female) self-sufficiency without surrendering their essential otherness and mystery: I wonder if they like it, being trees?
Monarchs of long-forgotten realms, ye stand;
Unscarred by Time’s destructive hand.
Enthroned on dais of velvet moss, inset
With the royal purple of the violet;
And crowned with mistletoe.
How many ages o’er your heads have flown,
To you is known—
To you, ye forest-founders of the past, alone.
No other eyes may scan the breadth of years,
Each with its share of peace, and joy, and tears;
Of happiness and woe.
Around you all is changed—where now is land
Swift vessels ploughed to foam the seething main;
Kingdoms have risen; and the fire-fiend’s hand
Has crushed them to their Mother Earth again;
And through it all ye stand, and still will stand
Till ages yet to come have owned your reign.
“Forest Trees” by “Vincent Millay” (as she then signed her name) was published in St. Nicholas Magazine in 1906, when she was 14 years old. The poem was in response to a prompt; children were to send poems of no more that 24 lines containing the word “forest.” St. Nicholas magazine was committed to forest conservation, in keeping with its educational mission to train good citizens. Indeed, the same St. Nicholas volume that invited forest poems also featured a humorous Arbor Day story, complete with a tree-planting and poetry-recitation scene.
Like Gilman’s “Tree Feelings,” “Forest Trees” reflects a turn-of-the-century sense that endings and extinctions are possible and that the environment—and forests in particular—should be actively preserved on merits that go beyond the strictly commercial. Millay’s poem thus registers a larger cultural push to teach children (in “ages yet to come) to value living trees over logged timber. Promoting environmental awareness—as the founders of Arbor Day and publishers of St. Nicholas well knew—required not just factual information but also poetry. “Tree Feelings” and “Forest Trees” reminded (and continue to remind) readers that nature has a value—a beauty, a music, a feeling—that can be evoked, and perhaps defended, through the medium of verse.
Angela Sorby is an associate professor at Marquette University in Milwaukee. The two poems in this post, along with many others, can be found in Over the River and Through the Wood, a book coedited by Angela Sorby and Karen L. Kilcup, published by Johns Hopkins Press.