Archives For Poetry


John Glenn-Spaceman and Lollipopimage

A few days after John Glenn orbited our Earth three times, Mrs. Murphy gave each of us a lollipop to make an astronaut.

I was in kindergarten when she counted out three pipe cleaners and showed us how to carefully, carefully, carefully wrap them:

one fuzzy wire around the middle, three times for arms;

one fuzzy wire around the bottom, three times  for legs;

one fuzzy wire bent in circle around the top for the space helmet.

We were a classroom of John Glenns in different favors, with white pipe cleaner arms waving, cheering, pointing, celebrating.

We could not understand the vastness of space or the feats of engineering that had launched him into history, but we all imagined with our spacemen.

We were six; we understood the world was suddenly different.

My John Glenn, spaceman and lollipop, was orange, and I gave him to my father,

My father took this tribute and put it in his brief case, a high honor for a craft project. For years after, I would look to find my John Glenn in the brief case, buried beneath files and papers.

His arms and legs were always bent in celebration, and he still wore his space helmet.

Only his candy head showed his age, the clear cellophane wrapper protecting the orange-white powder and tiny shards of sparkling sugar.

“Space dust,” my father assured me, “he is made of space dust.”



Continue Reading…

Lin-Manuel Miranda’s gift to high school social studies teachers is Hamilton, his Pulitzer and Tony award winning play.  Using musical theatre, he rescued history from the mind-numbing facts listed in textbooks and gave students an alternative narrative, a hip-hop lens to view the tumult of America’s creation.

His gift to English teachers came on Sunday, June 12, during the Tony Award Ceremony in NYC. These awards were held the night after a mass killing in an Orlando, Florida, nightclub, and throughout the broadcast actors and actresses paid tributes to the victims.

When Miranda’s name was called for Musical Best Score, he bounded on the stage. He began this acceptance speech (the first of 11) with an apology, “I’m not going to free-style” (note: he is famous for his free styling poems) ….”I’m too old (note: he is 36)…”

He opened a folded paper:

“I wrote you a sonnet instead.”

A sonnet!

One can imagine the heads of English teachers nationwide snapping to attention.

A sonnet!??

That 14-line poem with a variable rhyme scheme that originated in 14th Century in Italy? (Yes!)

Sonnet? As in...Shakespeare? (Yes!)

Miranda began to read:

“My wife’s the reason anything gets done
She nudges me towards promise by degrees
She is a perfect symphony of one
Our son is her most beautiful reprise.
We chase the melodies that seem to find us
Until they’re finished songs and start to play
When senseless acts of tragedy remind us
That nothing here is promised, not one day.
This show is proof that history remembers
We lived through times when hate and fear seemed stronger;
We rise and fall and light from dying embers,
remembrances that hope and love last longer
And love is love is love is love is love is love is love is love cannot be killed or swept aside.
I sing Vanessa’s symphony, Eliza tells her story
Now fill the world with music, love and pride.”

Of course the sonnet was his choice to connect the joy of winning a Tony Award to his love and inspiration, his wife Vanessa. The sonnet was his poetic choice to contrast the heartbreaking tragedy of a massacre in a gay nightclub with the more powerful forces of music and love.

Why the sonnet?

Here’s a quick refresher on the sonnet:

  • it has 14 lines (could be stretched to 16 lines…and this sonnet was s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d)
  • it is written in iambic pentameter (a rhythm that sounds like 5 “heartbeats”)
  • it has a rhyme scheme:
    • Italian (Petrarchan): ABBA ABBA CDECDE or ABBA ABBA CDCDCD 
    • Shakespearean: ABAB CDCD EFEF GG (note: this sonnet is more Shakespearean)
    • The word sonnet means “little song.”
    • A sonnet traditionally settles upon a single sentiment (love, anguish, friendship, etc)
    • A sonnet has a “turn” (also known as the volta) where the question or problem posed in the first part of the poem is answered or solved in the concluding lines.

Miranda’s Sonnet

Like most poems, Miranda’s sonnet was filled with word play: allusions, metaphors, figurative language. Contained in the first quatrain of the sonnet was a musical conceit (extended metaphor), consistent with an award for “Best Score”; his wife and son are the “symphony” and “reprise” in this “little song.”

The next quatrain directly referenced to the Orlando shootings and the arbitrary violence, or “senseless acts of tragedy” that can happen at any moment.

Miranda then cited his play Hamilton as “proof that history remembers,” claiming that “hope and love last longer.” He then launched into eight (8) successive “love is,” an emotional refrain  (rhetorically, an epizeuxis: repetition without any words in between). He “sings” this symphony, just as the character Eliza Schuyler Hamilton tells the story of Alexander Hamilton.

And then came the volta or turn; the reason he “wrote you a sonnet, instead.” In the last line Miranda offers his answer, his solution to tragedy. His last line is a command, a command given to his audience watching the awards “to fill the world with music, love and pride.”

A Sonnet Instead

Tickets for the musical Hamilton will probably still be at a premium this coming fall, but this sonnet by Miranda is available-(and free!)- now.

English teachers can take this opportunity to share with their students these three points:

  1. That a poet who excels in free style rap chose a sonnet, instead;
  2. That a lyricist who reimagined American history through hip-hop chose a sonnet, instead;
  3. That an actor trained to gain an audience’s empathy through prose chose a sonnet, instead.

In making a choice in art to combat tragedy, the playwright Manuel Lin Miranda chose a sonnet, instead.

The term ekphrasis is Greek in origin, meaning “writing inspired by art”.

So, what better excuse for ekphrasis than Greek statues of antiquity? And where better to find Greek statues, than in a museum?

This past week, the Seine River that bisects the city of Paris ran over its banks, cresting at 21.3 feet. This flooding has meant that the curators of the many art museums and galleries that line the Seine scrambled to save works of art that had been stored below flood level. The Louvre Museum closed to the public as masterpieces were relocated to higher ground.

The lead story for the June 3rd, 2016 NYTimes, “In Paris, the Seine Rises to Highest Level Since 1982” (by Lilia Blaise and Benoit Morenne), reported on this disruption:

The evacuation of artworks from the Louvre, which was closed to visitors, has attracted particular attention…

…An estimated 150,000 artworks in storage rooms and an additional 7,000 pieces in galleries were vulnerable to flooding, and a large portion of those were moved to higher floors as a precaution, officials said.


6/3/16 NYTIMES: Staff at the Louvre scrambled Friday to move artworks to higher floors as Paris experienced its worst flooding in 30 years. Credit Markus Schreiber/Associated Press

 NYTIMES: (6/3/16) Staff at the Louvre scrambled Friday to move artworks to higher floors as Paris experienced its worst flooding in 30 years. Credit: Markus Schreiber/Associated Press


Here, then, is my art inspired poem-an ekphrasis


A Collection at the Louvre


Ancient visitors, unearthed from the basement,

fix their gaze on pieces from the collection

of 21st Century office furniture

in the famed Louvre’s Salon de Files.


They are stolid, polished rock, 

marveling at the smooth steel geometry:

a maze of files and crates;

appraising the nuanced shades of black:

obsidian, charcoal, onyx, jet;

admiring the asymmetrical shapes:

tall, narrow, wide, short.


They note the detailed inset pulls on metal drawers;

they puzzle over the labels on such Decorus artem,

translating into Latin or Greek

the names, dates, and numbers.

They pose and ponder in thought

as they have seen others do.


Sculptures who tilt an antique head

(if there is one)

or raise an antique arm

(if there is one)

to point and question, “Qu’est-ce que c’est?”

something they have heard others say.


Far in the background, 

a suspicious guard keeps watch

on this underdressed crowd.


They stand still, 


as if poised to hear,

with their cool marbre ears,

the stories contained in these modern repositories.

“Si haec lima loqui. Quod si dixerint ad fabulas ?”

(“If only these files could talk. What stories would they tell?”)


This week’s Poetry Friday is hosted by Carol Varsalona on her blog Beyond Literacy Link. Stop there to visit some of the other poetic submissions for June 10, 2016.

What came first…the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS Egg?

Screenshot 2016-03-29 10.37.46First, let’s define terms:

The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is the “largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of what America’s students know and can do in various subject areas.”

The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are “a set of goals and expectations for the knowledge and skills students need in English language arts and mathematics at each grade level.”

Back in 1992 and through 2007, the test reading framework for the NAEP centered on three broadly defined genres for assessment content: literary, informational, and document. By 2009, however, the NAEP was revised to offer eight defined genres of assessment content, part of a larger shift to separate reading content into distinct categories.  Of the eight genres in the 2009 reading frameworks, reading content was categorized into more specific forms of nonfiction: literary nonfiction; informational text; exposition; argumentation and persuasive text; and procedural text and documents. There was fiction included on the 2009 test along with selections of poetry, some of which could also be categorized as fiction.

Before 2009, a nonfiction selection might fall into any one of the broadly defined genre categories. After 2009, 5/8 of the NAEP or 63% of the reading frameworks on the NAEP test were in well defined sub-sets of nonfiction.

Now consider, while the NAEP was being revised, in 2009 the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) were in development. The CCSS designers for literacy placed an emphasis on complex informational texts (nonfiction) stating:

“Most of the required reading in college and workforce training programs is informational in structure and challenging in content; postsecondary education programs typically provide students with both a higher volume of such reading than is generally required in K-12 schools and comparatively little scaffolding.”

These designers were pushing to expand reading beyond the fiction and literary analysis that traditionally dominated the ELA classes, particularly at the high school level. This was an effort to include reading in other content areas as necessary for the post-secondary experience. As a result, there were standards developed for literacy in grades 6-12 in History/Social Studies, Science, & Technical Subjects

By 2010, 42 states had adopted the Common Core standards  and began revising curriculum to align with  the The Key Shifts of the CCSS and reducing fiction from being 50% of a student’s reading diet in 4th grade to 30% of the reading diet of a graduating senior.

The connection between NAEP and the CCSS was evident, and the recommendations in the literacy standards of the Common Core called attention to this connection:

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 7.51.04 PM

Six Years Later: The Rise of NonFiction

Not surprisingly, six years later, one of the anecdotal findings released from the 2015 NAEP is the increase in nonfiction assigned by teachers in both grades 4 & 8 . This  information came from a voluntary survey where teachers could select the genre they emphasized in class “to a great extent.”

In 2015, fourth grade teachers who had previously created a 25% point gap favoring fiction over nonfiction in 2011, led the reduction of fiction to 15%  in 2013 and to single digit 8% in 2015.

Similarly, in eighth grade, the 34% preference for emphasizing fiction declined to 24% in 2013, and to 16% in 2015.

Screenshot 2016-03-25 17.06.47

The Egg Hatches…and It Looks a Little Different

The truth is, all the emphasis on increasing nonfiction in schools at the expense of fiction has had an positive impact on the genre. An article in the October issue Publisher’s Weekly Moment of Truth: Trends in Nonfiction for Young Readers by Sophie McNeill offered comments from bookstore owners and librarians about the increased interest in factual prose:

Suzanna Hermans of Oblong Books & Music in Rhinebeck, New York who says,

“Common Core has raised awareness of kids’ nonfiction. We are seeing parents and teachers talking about it differently in home and at school.”

Sharon Grover, head of youth services at Hedberg Public Library in Janesville, Wisconsin, adds:

“Nonfiction has really improved in recent years. Books are more readable, with more pictures and less straight recitation of facts. Kids really appreciate that, since they have become used to reading websites and apps.”

The article also referred to the 21st Century Children’s Nonfiction Conference (2014) which advertised its aim “to display the verve and capabilities of nonfiction, and to show that it can be just as creative as fiction.”


All this added attention to increasing nonfiction appears having an impact on the genre itself, not only in the in quantity produced but also in the characteristics of nonfiction itself. While the nonfiction genre is generally understood to be based on real events, a statement by the Newbery Award winning children’s nonfiction author Russell Freedman seems to blur those clear lines that the NAEP and Common Core have tried to separate as distinct. Freedman has stated:

“A nonfiction writer is a storyteller who has sworn an oath to tell the truth.”

Note the word storyteller?
Can truth be that objective?

Sounds a little like non-fiction is borrowing a little from the fiction genre playbook.

Eggs and Evolution

Whether it began with the the NAEP Chicken or the CCSS egg, the pressure to emphasize nonfiction is like any other evolutionary force in nature. While the Common Core has fallen out of favor with many states, with at least 12 states introducing legislation to repeal the CCSS standards outright, the nonfiction genre is growing and responding and adapting under the current favorable conditions.

The reduction of fiction in favor of more readable nonfiction in grades 4 & 8, as evidenced by the NAEP survey, continues. The evolution of the nonfiction genre may increase readership as well, especially if engaging texts increase interest in reading in the content areas of history, social studies, science and the technical subject areas.

Today’s educators may break a few more fictional eggs, but the end result could be a better omelet.

George Washington… poet.


Yes, I know.

The descriptor that follows George Washington is usually something like:

….father of our country.

While poet is not a word usually used to describe Washington, a visit to an exhibition at the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Connecticut, suggests Washington was gifted in expressing his romantic sentiments through verse.

The exhibit titled Sound & Sense: Poetic Musings in American Art (November 14, 2015 – April 17, 2016). The installation

“…explores the connections between American poetry and painting, sculpture, and decorative arts from the Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art. The exhibition presents a diverse landscape of masterpieces from the museum’s collection that incorporate poetic inscriptions in their composition or have direct relationships to America’s rich poetic traditions….”

In the exhibition, a painting by Rockwell Kent and sculpture by Daniel Chester French are paired (predictably) with verses by Robert Frost and Walt Whitman. The walls are painted a soft grey with generous space allotted between each object and its curated verse. The space allows the viewer to appreciate each new composition of word and art.

On one wall, the portraits of Martha (left) and George Washington (right) are placed so they appear to be gazing at each other. Moreover, at first glance, the poem appears to be a a expression of George’s love for Martha. However, the note above Washington’s verse explains the sentiment was taken from a personal letter 1749-50, nine years before he married Martha. IMG_0028


The verse placed on the wall reads:

From your sparkling Eyes, I was undone;
Rays you have, more powerful than the sun,
Amidst its glory in the rising Day
None can you equal in your bright array

The text next to the portraits -painted by James Sharples (1798)- explains that at the time the letter was written, Washington was a “lovesick teenager” who “penned a passionate sentimental verse to an unknown maiden” before he served as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army.

Historians suggest that young Washington had crushed on several young women including Sally Fairfax, the wife of a friend. Regardless, the evidence that Washington had dabbled in romantic poetry in addition to the genres of letter-writing and speeches, speaks to his early comfort with expressing himself with the written word.

Granted, the comparison of the maiden in question with the sun is not terribly original. Shakespeare used the comparison in a more surprising manner when he began Sonnet 130 with the line

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;

But Washington’s conceit, or extended metaphor, does reveal his sophistication in convincing the maiden the depth and sincerity of his affections.


Pastels on paper; James Sharples (1798) bequest of Daniel Wadsworth; property of Wadsworth Atheneum

On January 6, 1759, Washington, age 27, married the wealthy widow Martha Dandridge Custis, age 28 years old. According to historians, their marriage was successful, and the union increased Washington’s property holdings and social standing. He acquired a portion of the Custis estate upon his marriage, worth about $100,000 at the time. Although he and Martha never had children of their own, he cared for Martha’s two children from her previous marriage.

On this extended weekend (2/13-2/15/16) , one that combines Valentine’s Day with President’s Day, we have yet one more reason to celebrate George Washington, our first President, and our first Poet-in-Chief.

It’s December, and in keeping with the season,  I had planned on a post celebrating Robert Frost’s poem “Christmas Trees”. Instead, however, I found myself on an inquiry path on a Frost holiday tradition.

I first inquired, what is the story behind Frost’s poem Christmas Trees?

The poem opens:

The city had withdrawn into itself  
And left at last the country to the country;  
When between whirls of snow not come to lie  
And whirls of foliage not yet laid, there drove  
A stranger to our yard, who looked the city,   
Yet did in country fashion in that there  
He sat and waited till he drew us out,  
A-buttoning coats, to ask him who he was.  
He proved to be the city come again  
To look for something it had left behind   
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.

The stranger asks to purchase Frost’s trees:

 He said, “A thousand.”  
“A thousand Christmas trees!—at what apiece?”  
He felt some need of softening that to me:       
“A thousand trees would come to thirty dollars.”  

Rather than sell them, Frost conclusion is more metaphorical:

A thousand Christmas trees I didn’t know I had!  
Worth three cents more to give away than sell,  
As may be shown by a simple calculation.  
Too bad I couldn’t lay one in a letter.       
I can’t help wishing I could send you one,  
In wishing you herewith a Merry Christmas.

I found (on that beginning in 1929, Frost and the printer Joseph Blumenthal partnered up to produce beautifully illustrated Christmas cards featuring Frost’s poetry.  I was surprised to discover, as reported in the NYTimes, Blumenthal, who ran the Spiral Press of New York, created the first card without Frost’s knowledge:

“…he printed 250 copies—for his wife and a small group of colleagues—of a letterpress chapbook of Frost’s early poem “Christmas Trees.”

When the poet saw the publication, his first response was to contact Blumenthal and request a few copies to send out to his own family members: ‘My sympathies have been enlisted on the side of small presses and hand setting. My heart will be with you in your work’.”

A slideshow of the cards is available on the NYTimes website. This tradition continued for another 30 years, and the Frost-Blumenthal productions were holiday “greetings” in the form of chapbooks.

I then needed to inquire, why a chapbook?

I discovered that a chapbook was historically “a small pamphlet containing tales, ballads, or tracts, sold by peddlers” in contrast to its current contemporary meaning, “a small paperback booklet, typically containing poems or fiction.” These chapbooks are very simple, stapled in the center, with some illustrated covers.

The Blog Poetry and Popular Culture posted their inquiry about the chapbooks as well:

  • What was the annual press run?
  • Did the press have a list of subscribers committed to buying a set every year, and how much money did Blumenthal and Frost eventually make off of the limited editions?

I did find out on the site that Blumenthal printed 275 copies of the first greeting, and the last, “The Prophets Really Prophesy as Mystics, the Commentators Merely by Statistics”  had an edition run of 16,555 copies. There was no collective information on the money exchanged, other than the note that the cards can sometimes be found for purchase on E-bay (example).

That led me to inquire, what other poems did Frost place into chapbooks?

Oher poems sent as chapbooks were “Birches,” “A Boy’s Will,” and “The Wood-Pile”. There was an exhibit of the chapbooks in 2012 at the Pequot Library in Southport, CT. The exhibit was titled “Good Wishes from Robert Frost” – a set of 19 chapbooks loaned by Elinor Wilber, granddaughter of the celebrated American poet Robert Frost. Several have a personal inscription from Frost to Elinor and her husband. A video showing these chapbooks is available here:

The video ends with a copy handwritten by Frost of his poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

That led me to seek out a better copy of this manuscript, and my path of inquiry took me to the Library of Congress where there is a photo of the poem in its entirety:

Screenshot 2015-12-18 19.02.41

Robert Frost. “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.” Holograph manuscript, n.d. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (195C)





This inquiry led me a different publisher. Frost’s Snow to Snow, was issued by in 1936 by Henry Holt & Company. They published twelve of Frost’s  verses, each one corresponding to a month of the year and ending with December’s “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening”.

So how does one find out what the poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” means?

I then decided to chase down the popular story (one that I have often repeated without checking its veracity) that Frost was in the audience of group of people listening to a lecture about the meaning of this poem.

I had heard that “The poem is about death,” the lecturer supposedly reported, and he continued for many minutes pointing out all the images related to death:”darkest evening” and  “sleep”. At the end of the lecture, there was an opportunity for questions and comments from the audience. Now (according to the rumor), Frost patiently waited his turn, and then firmly stated: “I wrote that poem. It is not about death. I was going home in the snow.”

As much fun as that rumored story is….I could not find anything to confirm it happening. I am chagrined that I have kept the rumor going.

However, I was relieved to find some form of confirmation in quotes from a book: Robert Frost an introduction: poems, reviews, criticism with quotes from Reginald Cook regarding this poem:

  •  “it’s all very nice but I must be getting along, getting home.”…
  •  “I always thought,” he explains, “it was the product of autointoxication coming from tiredness.”
  • When a friendly critic asked if the last two lines in “Stopping by Woods” referred to going to Heaven, and, by implication, death, the poet replied, “No, all that means is to get the hell out of there.”

On this path of inquiry, I also discovered a video of Frost reading this poem. The introduction is by the radio host Garrison Keillor:

Susan Jeffers on Frost

My final thought on Frost’s poem “Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening” was of the picture book illustrated by Susan Jeffers that I read to my boys as part of our holiday preparation. The man in her rendition bears a striking resemblance to Santa Claus and the little harness bells look very festive. I know Jeffers makes the poem more child-friendly than alternative interpretations!

Finally, to sum up Frost’s attitude towards analysis, in a letter to Louis Untermeyer (1964) in Robert Frost: A Backward Look, Frost writes:

You’ve often heard me say – perhaps too often – that poetry is what is lost in translation. It is also what is lost in interpretation. That little poem means just what it says and it says what it means, nothing less but nothing more.

Or, here is a more unceremonious statement in his own voice:

“….What are the promises?….If I wanted you to know, I would have told you in the poem.”

Therefore, on this post I offer no translations…and no interpretations. Here are discoveries-and at least one correction- on my inquiry journey of the winter poems of the aptly named Frost.

Happy Holidays!

Several years ago, I was teaching John Keats’s Ode on a Grecian Urn to a group of sophomore students. While they did struggle with the first four stanzas of the poem, they lingered on the the memorable last stanza of the poem:

O Attic shape! fair attitude! with brede
Of marble men and maidens overwrought,
With forest branches and the trodden weed;
Thou, silent form! dost tease us out of thought
As doth eternity: Cold Pastoral!                           45
When old age shall this generation waste,
Thou shalt remain, in midst of other woe
Than ours, a friend to man, to whom thou say’st,
‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’        50

Like other students before them in previous years, they wrestled with the conclusion that Keats arrived on with the closing lines:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty”

What is beauty?

When I asked students, “What is beauty?” they had many different ideas. In one session, we discussed physical beauty. It was not a surprise that each student held a different idea about physical beauty. After they listed the characteristics,  I offered a photo of “beautiful” face. When I shared this photo, they all agreed she was beautiful.

Computerized face: Survival of the Prettiest by Nancy Etcoff

Computerized face: “Survival of the Prettiest” by Nancy Etcoff

After they agreed, I revealed that this particular face had been generated by a computer. The beautiful face was developed as part of the research by Nancy Etcoff, a Harvard psychologist and medical researcher. Her research on attitudes towards beauty resulted in a book titled, Survival of the Prettiest.

The face they all agreed was a beautiful face was, quite literally, an average[d] face. The graphic at right had been generated by a computerized program that averaged the faces of hundreds of women. In other words, this was not a single woman who defined beauty, but a representation of multiple women.

The conclusion my students reached was, although the face of the woman was beautiful, a  “virtual babe”, she was really just “average”.

The Truth in Averages

The students discussing the computerized face understood averages; they were confronted with the term daily. They maintained an attendance average; they received a grade point average. They knew mathematically that an average is a form of reduction; a division into an arithmetic mean. They also understood that calculating an average did provide a kind of truth in their performance, but not the whole truth. There was almost always a test or quiz or project that could be in “dispute” or “unfair.”

They did agree that the face created by the computer program was probably more equitable in making qualitative judgements. Every face was weighed by the software program in exactly the same way. They suggested that there was probably more “truth” (fidelity to an original or to a standard or ideal) in the averaging process in the face’s creation than in their GPAs.

Truth is Beauty?

“So, is this particular beauty ‘truth’?” I asked again, pointing to the computerized face, “…is this a true individual ‘beauty’?”
They did not think so.
“Collectively, then?”
“Mrs. Bennett, all this proves is everyone together is beautiful…and that is the truth!”

What say you, John Keats?

Visitors to the annual summer Sunken Garden Poetry Festival at Hill-Stead Museum in Farmington, Connecticut can picnic in the criss-crossed paths that separate tidy flower beds. Those familiar with the festival know to bring collapsible chairs that sit just little higher up so as to see the small stage over the tall stalks of bee-balm, phlox, roses or delphinium.Screenshot 2015-06-28 21.25.27

On June 24th, that small stage was bathed in warm setting-sunlight as Ted Kooser, United States Poet Laureate (2004-2006), stepped up to read several of his poems. The tail of his light jacket was rumpled  into his right back back pocket; above him, the tail of a circling hawk flashed red with each wide turn.

Only 24 hours earlier, there had been hail, damaging winds, and a reported micro-burst. Now, New England held back her willful nature, as if to say, “Yes, I can be a gracious hostess…” to those who organized the poetry and music for the evening.

Ted Kooser is both a poet and essayist, whose collection Delights & Shadows was awarded the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for poetry. He is also a Professor of English at The University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He is probably best known for his promotion of American poetry through the free weekly American Life in Poetry column that features contemporary American poems:

 The sole mission of this project is to promote poetry: American Life in Poetry seeks to create a vigorous presence for poetry in our culture.

In each column, Kooser makes a brief introduction to the poem that is featured, why it might have been selected, or what is most striking about the poem. For example, in his introduction to Barbara Crooker’s poem “Sparklers”, he writes the poem was selected because

“… in 2004 we set off the fire alarm system at the Willard Hotel in Washington by lighting a few to celebrate my inauguration as poet laureate.”

Crooker’s 15 line poem is featured in From American Life in Poetry: Column 484 and  she begins with a familiar image, how she wrote names in the air using the light of the sparkler:


We’re writing our names with sizzles of light
to celebrate the fourth. I use the loops of cursive,

make a big B like the sloping hills on the west side
of the lake….(cont)
Poem copyright ©2013 by Barbara Crooker from her most recent book of poems, Gold, Cascade Books, 2013.
Kooser’s promotion of poets like Crooker may be the reason for the large crowd attending the reading. Once he took the stage, Kooser spoke about poems that centered on his relationships with his father, his mother, and in particular his mother’s cousin, Pearl.
He read the poem “Pearl” (read here at Chautauqua, a lake community in southwestern New York/text of the poem reprinted on this site.)
This poem opens with his mission to speak to his mother’s elderly cousin, Pearl:

Elkader, Iowa, a morning in March,
the Turkey River running brown and wrinkly
from a late spring snow in Minnesota,
the white two-story house on Mulberry Street,
windows flashing with sun, and I had come
a hundred miles to tell our cousin, Pearl,
that her childhood playmate, Vera, my mother,
had died….

After he finished reading, Kooser noted that this poem had been adapted and made into a 17 minute film that won a New England Film Contest in 2012:

When a midwestern poet (Dan Butler) visits an elderly relative (Frances Sternhagen) to bring news of his mother’s recent death, the visit takes an unsettling turn.

He told the audience he was “quite proud of” the film, which can be viewed here:

Many of the poems he selected to read were short, from the break up of a marriage (“Neither of us would clean the aquarium”) to the memory of his dog (“The ghost of my good dog, Alice,sits at the foot of my ladder”). Too soon, it seemed, that Kooser explained that his “voice was giving out” as he wrapped up the reading from the stage.

But this crowd did not seem disappointed. Seasoned by unpredictable weather, they appreciated the rare quality of the evening.

On this beautiful June night, while the Nebraska poet spoke, the setting offered by Connecticut was sublime.


This weekend marks the 100th Anniversary of the World War I poem “In Flanders Fields”. This poem was written by Canadian physician and poet Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae on  May 3, 1915, as a tribute to his fallen friend, Alexis Helmer, who was killed at the Second Battle of Ypes. Canadian forces lost 5,975 men in this battle that marked the first use of poison gas by the German army.

According to legend, McCrae threw away the poem, but it was rescued from obscurity when fellow soldiers retrieved it from a wastebasket. The poem is popular as one of the memorial statements for WWI particularly in Canada. McCrae never returned home as he died of pneumonia near the end of the war.

The poem is written as a rondeau, a form of song that originated in France  between the late 13th and the 15th centuries. The format has a fixed pattern with a refrain; the scansion is AB-aAab-AB, where “A” and “B” are the repeated refrain parts, and “a” and “b” the remaining verses:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.
We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

Ceramic poppies commemorate British soldiers killed during WWI

Ceramic poppies commemorate British soldiers killed during WWI

The poem was published in the British magazine Punch seven months later, and its references to the red poppies that grow on the fields of battle where soldiers fell gave rise to the “remembrance poppy.” Sales of remembrance poppies, usually made of silk, were used to fund war bonds, and after WWI, continued to be sold to fund veteran’s programs.

This past year (August-November 2014), a total of 888,246 ceramic kiln-fired remembrance poppies, hand formed by artists, were planted on the grounds of the Tower of London. Each of the poppies represented a British soldier killed during WWI.

The Tower Remembers Project website hosts videos on the creation of the poppies, which are the brainchild of artists Paul Cummins and Tom Piper.

888,246  poppies spill from the walls of the Tower of London; one for each British soldier killed in WWI.

888,246 poppies spill from the walls of the Tower of London; one for each British soldier killed in WWI.Paul Cummins

The exhibit called Blood Swept Lands and Seas of Red was installed at the Tower of London, in order to mark the one hundred year anniversary of Britain’s engagement in the First World War.

The ceramic poppies were sold and the proceeds split between six different charities, all associated with supporting veterans of war.

The poem also inspired the In Flanders Field Museum in Ypes, Belgium. In the museum, the poppies are on bracelets with imbedded RFID-chips that allow the wearer to read the personal stories about the war, filmed monologues and aerial photography.

Here in the United States, the American Legion adopted the poppy as their official symbol of remembrance in 1920 through the efforts of University of Georgia Professor Moina Michael.

The poem that McCrea wrote for a friend has inspired memorials to those who fought and died in World War I and all other wars as well. The poppy has been the torch, a way to “not break faith with us who die.”

National Poetry Month was first suggested in 1995 by the Academy of American Poets as “a way to increase awareness and appreciation of poetry in the United States.”

20 years later, this celebration of poetry has taken root and flourished.

This year, in 2015, the celebrations will be promoted with a poster designed by National Book Award finalist and The New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast. The poster‘s nine panels contain the words from the opening stanza of the poet Mark Strand’s poem Eating Poetry:

Ink runs from the corners of my mouth.

There is no happiness like mine.

I have been eating poetry.

Screenshot 2015-03-29 17.56.35

Teachers can order the poster from the website or download a smaller page sized copy to use in their classes.

In addition to the poster, the Academy of American Poets has developed a program titled “Dear Poet”, a set of four lesson plans that teachers can use with students in grades 5-12. The lesson plans connect to the literacy standards of the Common Core in a “multimedia education project that invites young people in grades five through twelve to write letters in response to poems written and read by some of the award-winning poets who serve on the Academy of American Poets Board of Chancellors.”

Examples of some of the activities in the lesson plans connected to English Language Arts standards include:

Speaking (and gesturing):

  • Students make a sound, using their own voice, without words, to express how they are feeling at the moment.
  • Right now I feel… (using only a hand gesture)
  • Right now I feel… (using only their voice with no words)
  • Right now I feel… (using their gesture, voice, and descriptive words)


Students listen and describe the sound by writing in their journals.


Students read six poems and complete a T-chart with one side with what “jumps out at them” in the poem and on the other side, why they think this is important to the poet’s voice/poem.


Students draft a letter addressed to a chosen poet, telling him/her what in the poem spoke to them, and asking questions relating to how the poet wrote this poem.

The lesson plans include links for students to upload their letters as an authentic task.

During the month of April, teachers can follow updates on Twitter using the hashtag #npm15 and follow the Academy of American Poets @POETSorg.

The end of National Poetry Month will conclude with “Poem in Your Pocket Day” (April 30) and teachers and students alike can celebrate by selecting a poem, carrying it, and sharing it with others throughout the day. Copies of suggested poems (in the public domain) are available by download.

For those who would want to continue the celebration of poetry all year, there is also a link to a poem a day a previously unpublished poems is delivered by e-mail daily during the week and classic poems delivered on the weekends.

There is a behavioral theory that practicing a specific skill for 66 days will make that practice a life-long habit. While the planned 30 days of poetry practice in the month of April will fall short, the American Academy of Poets should attempt a co-op the “National Fitness Month” of May using the ploy, “Poems are a work-out for the mind!”

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