How to Build a Poem and the Ars Poetica

by Susan Kelly-DeWitt

I’ve just been talking on the phone to my good friend Kathleen Lynch about her poem, “How To Build an Owl.” Recently Kathleen told me a great story about how she happened to write this poem, a fascinating tale which I won’t go into here because Kathleen is at this very moment writing a piece about it herself. (The story involves Kathleen’s best friend, a wonderful artist, who died of cancer two years ago. That same friend’s marvelous painting is the cover art for Kathleen’s book Hinge.) So instead I’ll talk about why I love to use this particular poem whenever I teach a beginning poetry workshop.

Here’s the poem, reprinted from Hinge, which won the Black Zinnia Prize for poetry three years back.

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by Katrina Vandenberg

Once, my husband and his poker buddies teased me by claiming that, earlier that summer, they’d shaved my cat one night while I was out of town.

“Sure,” Steve said, going into detail about it — the “here, kitty-kitty,” the cat on his lap, the shaving cream, the towel. I smiled politely; it was cute, but not really funny.

Rick, who had been listening all this time, suddenly said, “It made her swim faster.”

That was funny.

Steve’s joke retreaded ground I already knew was under my feet; Rick’s took me to an Olympic-sized pool, my cat frantic and bald, flailing her paws as fast as she could. Fast-er implied that they had done it before.

Rick did something I once heard Matt Groening say that humor writers do: he skipped a step. Rick eliminated information and let my brain fill it in. In the end, what made me laugh was not what he said, but what I saw in my mind’s eye during the mental leap. He let me have it: he prompted the visual, but I filled in the story, I created the image, and that gave me pleasure.

I like jokes that aren’t made at a listener’s expense, and poems that take me along for the ride. I like jokes and poems that are generous, or else a little wicked — like the “desire for irreverence” Charles Simic says first brought him to poetry. I like poems that let me do some of the work. I like the way a well-constructed poem seems full of empty space. I’m not the only poet who thinks about the ways poems and jokes are alike. Cody Walker thinks about it. Robert Pinsky does, too: he writes, in his essay, “Poetry and Pleasure,” about the ways that poems are like jokes, songs, and personal letters — that jokes and poems share what he calls “an alert social texture.” I like the way good jokes and poems are compact, rely on shorthand and association, skip steps.

The Patience of Poems

by Rachel Hadas

One of the things I love about poems is their patience.  They lie in wait
until they are needed; you never know what line, image, stanza, or whole
poems is available until something triggers it.  (Robert Frost said he
wanted to lodge a few poems where they’d be hard to get rid of.)  Of
course much of what we read is consigned to oblivion, or we think it is.
(My composer husband used to enjoy quoting the music theorist Heinrich
Schenker to the effect that a certain amount of bad music has to be
written to exhaust the poison of false theory.  Hmmm.)  But long before
the internet came along, and even now without its help, fragments fo poems
can rise to the surface, float in from outer space, exactly when we need
them, or because we need them.  Lots of reading aloud at an early age,
lots of reading period, certainly facilitates this process; and prose can
float back too.  But poetry, especially lyric poetry, is streamlined,
to be remembered even if piecemeal.

“Intertextuality” has always seemed to me to be a needlessly clumsy word
for the way texts talk to each other.  Could we extend the concept to
include the way people use texts to help them talk to other people?  When
it comes to poetry, allusion is intertextuality’s elegant package.  You
receive a gift you needn’t know you needed until it arrives, whereupon (to
quote Frost from “The Figure a Poem Makes,” though there he was referring
to the act of writing a poem), the wonder of unexpected supply keeps

In my next posting I’ll describe three very different pieces of poetry
(well, one is a whole poem) that recently arrived like gifts.

The Non-Cooking Chefs’ Daughter Blog

by Bernadette James

This is the Non-cooking Chefs’ Daughter blog.  You see, both my parents are chefs. They met at Johnson & Wales University, both in the Culinary Arts program, Dad soon to become an Executive Pastry Chef and one of the few Certified Master Bakers in the country and Mom soon to cook food so delicious that it kept my brother and I home for family dinners every night of the week, even through our teens.

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Joyful Noise: An Anthology Of American Spiritual Poetry

A Book Review by John Samuel Tieman

Here’s something new: an anthology that can be appreciated both as a collection of beautiful poems, and as an aesthetically pleasing textbook.

As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “God himself does not speak prose.”   Certainly that case is well made in this excellent anthology, Joyful Noise:  An Anthology Of American Spiritual Poetry, published by Autumn House Press of Pittsburgh.

This is a book with wide range and varied voices, all of which makes it very American.   It covers four centuries of spiritual verse.   There are Native American songs, traditional African American spirituals, poetry from the colonial period, verse from the eighteenth, nineteenth and twentieth centuries.   We find poems from writers many consider conventionally religious like William Everson, known in religion as Brother Antoninus, a Dominican.   There are also poems from surprising and delightful sources like Ezra Pound, a writer not noted for his spirituality, and Allen Ginsberg, a poet who was noted for a spirituality of the most idiosyncratic sort.

In many ways, Autumn House’s greatest contribution is its inclusion of a great number of contemporary poets.   One expects to hear from Phillis Wheatley, for example, and to read William Cullen Bryant’s “Thanatopsis”.   But this is a book that is filled with the unexpected, the surprising.   Some of the modern poets are known to a wide audience, like the former poet laureate Billy Collins, as well as T. S. Eliot and Robert Frost.   Other poets, excellent poets like Brigit Pegeen Kelly, Jack Myers and Arthur Sze, are best known to fellow poets and that ever so small coterie of contemporary verse connoisseurs.   One poet, Nichole Collen, is just twenty-four.

Our contemporaries, in addition to the excellence of their writing, show something most people do not associate with modern American verse, our spiritual heritage.   This anthology demonstrates a consistent concern among poets throughout our history, the search for God, the longing for the spirit.

In religious circles these days, we all too easily dismiss intellectuals who find God in the unorthodox religious practice.   Yes, as ironic as it may sound, the American spiritual tradition is a history of the heterodox and the unorthodox.   This is very American.   Lest we forget, we need merely recall that Puritans were termed Dissenters.   And so it goes from then till now.   Take Ruth Schwartz, for example.   Schwartz is a self-declared shamanic counselor, who, in her poem, finds true holiness in the trees.   In this regard, she places herself squarely in a long line of poets for whom nature leads straight to the transcendent.   Interesting, her spirituality is not altogether unlike that of another poem in this anthology, Joyce Kilmer’s “Trees”, which, in its turn, is not unlike the verse of the colonial poet Anne Bradstreet, who writes, “Then on a stately Oak I cast mine eye …”.

In two words, this anthology is profoundly American.   The editor, Robert Strong, has given us the very substance of American spirituality.   All this, from the Pawnee to the Puritan to the Moslem to the shaman, this is our liturgy, this is our worship, that most American of all prayers, these our poems.  Joyful Noise indeed makes the case, to borrow from Emerson, that the American spirit speaks through its poetry – in this case, great poetry.


There is one other application for this book, one that makes it most useful not only to the literature lover and the English teacher, but also, among others, to the historian, the sociologist, the theologian.   This is an intellectual history.   To be specific, this book is an intellectual history of American spirituality, from the animistic Native to the Renaissance Protestant, from the Enlightenment Deist to the Transcendentalist, from the Modernist to the Post-Modernist.   From the spirituality of the Pre-Columbian Native to that of the post-modern urban poet, its chronological layout makes it accessible to the specialist and the general reader.

Joyful Noise is a collection of primary sources.   And those sources are great poems.   In that sense, it is a bit unusual.   One tends to think of primary sources as records of events.   However, the sources herein are records of the prayer, the transcendent moment, the salvific instant.   Indeed, one can regard this anthology as the poetic record of the search for theophany in America.

This is an elegant book that at one and the same time has both a vast range and a surprising specificity, the range given by its historical breadth, the specificity given by the vision of the artifact.   In this context, it is worth repeating that the artifacts range from the conventionally religious to the heterodox to the completely unorthodox.   There are any number of writers who may be viewed as conventionally religious.   Cotton Mather and Edward Taylor were both ordained ministers.   Langston Hughes, on the other hand, is widely regarded as a pro-Communist, free thinker.   Yet in his poem, “The Negro Speaks Of Rivers”, he recalls a time when, as a young man, he crossed the Mississippi at St. Louis, and was moved by the holiness of the river.

Joyful Noise:  An Anthology Of American Spiritual Poetry is a beautiful book.   Regardless of the reader’s purpose — poetic, educational, theological, sociological, historical, or just reading for the plain old fun of reading — the end result is an explanation, a poetic and historically accurate explanation of the place of spirituality in American life.

Joyful Noise Robert Strong, ed. Autumn House Press, 2007.

J.D. McClatchy’s Mercury Dressing

A Book Review by John Samuel Tieman

When a poem is at its finest, it is concrete, set in time and place, specific yet transcendent. Like a hymn, it exists both in the voice and the soul, in the text and in the mind. By these means is it savored and remembered. Like that hymn, which transforms notes on a page to prayers on the tongue, so the true poem moves from craft on the page to emotions in the reader. One danger lies, ironically, in being too crafty, that moment when the poem calls attention to its cleverness, rather than its purpose.

J. D. McClatchy is one of the most distinguished living poets and editors. Educated at Yale and Georgetown, he edits The Yale Review. He is the author of six collections of poetry, one of which, Hazmat (Knopf, 2002), was nominated for the 2003 Pulitzer Prize. He is the author of numerous works of criticism, and the editor of over a dozen collections of poetry, including The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Poetry, Second Edition (Random House, 2003).

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