Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Clarifying Power of Poetry

by Dick Allen

The recent tragedy in Newtown, Conn., brings forth, understandably, questions about poetry.

Why poems?

Because poetry, particularly traditional rhymed and metered poetry, is at its best a heightened use of language. It’s a form of art that can “lock” a realization into place, seemingly for all time.

Being occasional, written in the heat and sorrow of the moment, sadly most often these terribly sincere poems are not very good. Why not?

Poetry, wrote William Wordsworth in his famous “Preface to Lyrical Ballads,” is “the spontaneous overflow of powerful emotions recollected in tranquility.” I’d argue that “recollected in tranquility” is what provides poetry’s greatest use: perspective.

In addition to containing considered, crafted and revised and uniquely put language, one does not likely have perspective when responding immediately to a situation.

Can one find solace or an answer in poetry?

I think so.

An answer may arise because in reading a fine poem, already well known, the reader is taken outside himself and encouraged to think clearly. The evocation may be as simple as in the lines from Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,”

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf

Or A.E Houseman’s observation on the brevity of human life:

And since to look at things in bloom,
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow

Or Emily Dickinson’s poem, quoted here in full — a poem among others that I couldn’t get out of my head following the horrific Friday in Newtown:

There’s a certain slant of light,
Winter Afternoons -
That oppresses, like the Heft
Of Cathedral tunes -
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us -
We can find no scar,
But internal difference,
Where the Meanings, are -
None may teach it -
Any -
’Tis the Seal Despair -
An imperial affliction
Sent us of the Air -
When it comes, the Landscape listens -
Shadows - hold their Breath -
When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance
On the look of Death -

Over and over, the great poems provide needed perspective. They remind us, as W. H. Auden did in “September 1, 1939,” that “we must love one another, or die.” This admonition was even more true when Auden later altered the line to read, “We must love one another and die.”

Reading poems, writing them, thinking about them, memorizing them are acts of devotion. Any good book of poetry, any excellent poem, focuses one’s attention. Poems clarify us. A poem may be an act of meditation, as it might have been for the poet writing it and as it is for those reading it. It may be a prayer. It can tell us that no matter what it is we’re feeling, others also have felt this way. It may gentle us. On occasion, with its ambiguity, it may make us see many ways at once.

Or it may instruct us. In T. S. Eliot’s words from his “Ash Wednesday,”

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will.
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.

Poetry causes us to be, in the Zen Buddhists’ term, “mindful.” And to be mindful is to become acutely aware of every moment. It is to cherish each individual moment even in our stunned lack of comprehension of the whole of life and death — as certainly the Newtown tragedy has caused us to be so stunned.

The Japanese poet Matsuo Bosho’s haiku, the most famous poem in Japan, lets us focus on this Present. No moment is trivial:

The old pond -
a frog jumps in,
sound of water

This focus on the acute perception that just to hear a frog splash, just to have a chance to be alive, even for a brief time, as the Newtown children were, is marvelous, a gift, an unforgetableness. It may remind us of a poetic admonition by a Zen Master, one expressed to his disciple as they were walking in the rain. It says simply what must be said always:

"Do not walk so fast, the rain is everywhere."

Dick Allen is Connecticut’s state poet laureate.

Reprinted by permission of the Savannah Morning-News, which published this essay on December 26, 2012.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Poet Marcia Slatkin NY Reading and Book Signing

Marcia Slatkin reads from her new poetry collection

NOT YET: A Healing Journey Through
Alzheimer's Care-Giving

December 15, 2012, 2-4 PM

Village Books, 48 Broadway, Tivoli, NY12573

Published by Stephen F. Austin State University Press, Nacogdoches, Texas

CONTACT: Kimberly Verhines, or Marcia Slatkin,, 917 597 4253

NOT YET: A Healing Journey Through Alzheimer's Care-Giving plunges readers into the four years Ms. Slatkin spent as her mother’s care-giver. The view is intimate. We sit beside the mother bathing, taking meds, doing exercise at her senior center. But we also see the transformation of the author, as the possibility of healing old wounds through role reversal is illuminated, the child now a kind parent to the infirm elder. Many poems rejoice in a newly-found “peace of closeness” that can arise when one uses touch, warmth and humor during prolonged, intimate contact. A difficult situation rewards both care-giver and patient as past anger dissolves. In sensual language, Slatkin uses imagery and music to fashion richly textured, accessible vignettes. The tone combines unflinching, unsentimental honesty, and tenderness. Although there is frustration, confusion and forgetting, times of lucid humor reveal the warm, zany personality still intact beneath the mother’s dementia. NOT YET will console and give hope to those with family members diagnosed with dementia. Please come and be part of the discussion and the refreshments that will follow the reading! And please consider that the book will make an inexpensive, deeply meaningful gift for people you love who face this situation.


“You will both cry and laugh as you read these poems that respect the person within the patient; forgive the sins of the past; find within diminishment, wholeness; and feel ‘the peace of closeness’ in times of intimacy. every caregiver, every family member, every poet should read these poems. Those who do will be humbled and changed. ”
—Cortney Davis, Author, Body Flute

"Slatkin is, as both daughter and poet, affectionate, obstinate, persistent, and brave."
—Mindy Kronenberg, Editor, BookMarkQuarterly Review; Author, Dismantling the Playground

"With keen intelligence, with curiosity and flashes of humor, with an eye for sensual detail, Slatkin's work is unflinching, compassionate, moving. This is a powerful book."
—Carin Clevidence, author, The House on Salt Hay Road

"Honesty mixed with tenderness, a triumph over pathos."
—Claire Nichols White, editor, Oberon Poetry Review, author, The Death of the Orange Tree

"The poems are honest, raw, close to the heart. They will console and inspire you."
—Philip Levine, poetry editor, Chronogram Magazine

“The abundance of life and love is celebrated."
—Alice Elman, Professor of Humanities, Suffolk Community College, Long Island, NY

"Anthem for a generation, and a critical addition to the new literature of Alzheimer's Disease."
—Tom Lombardo, editor, After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events

Former teacher, farmer, care-giver, Marcia now plays cello, works for climate change mitigation, makes photo collages, and writes: poems, plays, fiction. Three of her one-acts will be read at Bard's Lifetime Learning Institute's intersession workshops, January 16th, 2013, 1:30 - 3:30, free of charge. Her collages/ photographs can be seen at the Tivoli Artist's Co-Op and at RHCAN, Red Hook. Her two daughters grown, she lives and cultivates many gardens with her long-time partner, Dan. See for sample poems, photographs. Her poem “A Late Blessing” appeared in the anthology After Shocks: The Poetry of Recovery for Life-Shattering Events, which presented 152 poems by 115 poets from 15 nations.

Monday, December 10, 2012

"A Late Blessing" by Marcia Slatkin

I wake her
with touch, rubbing
her shoulders, telling
the time.

My hug fills
the curve of her chest,
arms circling warmth
through her length.

When she cleans dishes,
I reach to fill the kettle
by nudging her cheek
with my forehead,
then snuggling, and hearing
her squeal.

Despite grease
on her face at sleeptime,
I kiss her, wish her
good dreams.

This is the mother I battled
when young; the mother
who beat my defiance;
the one I hit back.

While we walk now,
she gives me her hand,
its back veined and grizzled—
but its wondrous palm
soft as persimmon,
warm and trusting
as a child.

Reprinted by permission of Marcia Slatkin.

Interview With Marcia Slatkin

How did you come to write this poem?

My childhood was full of intense drama. My ill father was angry. My anxiety ridden mother was intrusive and harshly critical in her desperation for her children to succeed. As I was rebellious, there were constant fights which, often physical, left everyone haggard.

It was thus not easy to realize, forty years later, my father long dead, that my mother, now paranoid and delusional as well as lacking memory, could no longer live alone. Perhaps this is a fearsome occasion for crisis in many families. How do grown children deal with aging and infirm parents, especially if the children bear the scars of early battle? But I was the oldest of four siblings. My children were grown, and I had a free bedroom. I was the only child who used vitamins religiously, so I knew I could keep her healthy longer than any institution could. And I had done "Re-evaluation Co-Counseling" every week for 25 years! It is a psycho-therapeutic modality where by you train, then trade counseling services with peers so that you help one another peel away layers of pain, thus freeing you to... see reality more clearly. I knew that it was fear that had caused my parents to act so harshly toward me, even thought my residual anger remained.

So I decided to give it a try, at least until the family could figure out another option. I gave my mother two Benadryl, told her we were going for a drive, and took her 70 miles east to my hi-ranch on the north shore of Long Island. Several lucky breaks made the decision a good one. I found a wonderful day care program for dementia patients nearby. Our M.D. prescribed two off-label psych meds for her, which cut down the anxiety and stopped the hallucinations/delusions. But it was the realization that I could write about our days together that induced me to keep her. It was like direct contact with the Muse of Poetry! We'd interact, I'd hear lines, write them down, and hear more. The simmering creative jolt that care-giving gave, sustained me through the 3 1/2 years of our journey together. And my own psychological transformation came within and during that "care-giving / creating" context.

How did writing this poem affect your recovery?

"A Late Blessing" was written relatively early in the experience—perhaps six months after my mother began to live with me. But things had gotten easier between us already. I found a zany, adventuresome woman beneath all that paranoia and anxiety. Sometimes, psych meds are miraculous. She responded beautifully to my silliness, and loved physical touching and hugging. I found myself amazed that I could be part of a happy relationship with this woman I'd warred with for so long. I didn't realize it until I reread what I had written, months later, but this poem marks the beginning of the melting of the block of scar that had encased my heart for years.

Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped this poem come to life?

Most of my poems are narrative. I would be struck by a detail of our lives together, and would write focusing on the emotional center of the story, the most intense moment, only later working to enhance language, whether with imagery or sound systems. Often I actually heard/thought of lines at the start -- which made me understand that our connection was an essential catalyst for my writing. Something that induced me to write this poem, but which I have perhaps not completely captured within it—I was struck when touching / looking at my mothers "guileless palm,/ soft as a persimmon, / trusting as a child," that it was the symbol of her current vulnerability. She was dependent on me and trusting that I would not harm her, even though I still harbored enough residual anger so that I was aware that I could hurt her as payback for past pain. She of course never knew such thoughts occurred to me. And I decided that I would never be vengeful, but rather kind and loving. Still, at that moment, there I was, knife in hand, bending over her naked exposed neck, and deciding to sheathe the blade. Perhaps the poem expresses my wonder at this decision. It would be a real writing assignment to try to get all of that into the poem!

Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you'd recommend to others?

I was early attracted to the 17th century devotional poets -- George Herbert, John Donne. I love the muscular sound of their work, I love the often-complex "metaphysical imagery," which I find intellectually nourishing, and I love the yearning outward reach, the belief in and longing for a spiritual dimension beyond, even as the beauty of this life is appreciated, praised. I loved the lyrics of A.E. Houseman much as I love the piano music of Schumannn—simple unpretentious direct utterance, lilting and lovely. I loved Blake above all other writers for a long time, because of his fierce philosophical stance, his love of the pure and good, his hatred of pretense and hypocrisy. "Exuberance is Beauty," I'd write on my wall. "Prudence is an Ugly Old Maid Courted by Incapacity." I loved the lyrics of the early Joni Mitchell for perhaps the same reasons. And my reaction to Sharon Olds was so intense that for a long time I couldn't read her work without crying. That relentless moving deeper and deeper toward the center of experience is mesmerizing for me. She has a courage I wish I had. She goes farther toward the "whatness" of experience than any poet I know. I also love the poetry of Linda Pastan and Stephen Dunn—both of them accessible, beautifully evocative, wise.

What are you working on now?

I think humans now are suffering a very dangerous denial of climate change that perhaps stems from extreme fear and feelings of impotence. I've been writing poems about this issue for about four years, and want to begin to publish some of them as I work toward the completion of a volume I'll call "OP ED: EARTH!" Many of the pieces react to articles I've read about the issue, many are dramatic monologues (i.e. from the point of view of a glacier, or of a CO2 molecule.). The most important task for me, therefore, is to figure out in whose voice I'll tell my tale, then to imagine that entity and try to inhabit it as I write the poem. Compelling.

Former teacher, farmer, care-giver, Marcia Slatkin now plays cello, works for climate change mitigation, makes photo collages, and writes: poems, plays, fiction. Three of her one-acts will be read at Bard's Lifetime Learning Institute's inter-session workshops, January 16th, 1:30 - 3:30 P.M., free of charge. Her collages/photographs can be seen at the Tivoli Artist's Co-Op and at RHCAN, Red Hook. Her two daughters grown, she lives and cultivates many gardens with her long-time partner, Dan. See for sample poems, photos.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

A Poem by Alexa Selph


by Alexa Selph

Let me leave you
     with the wish that someday
             your leaving me

will find its way
     into your own
             mixed bag of regrets, 

along with the unexpected
     notice of insufficient funds,
             the plate of food removed

while you were still hungry, 
     the poem you've always wished
             you could write. 

You I will scrape
     carefully into my compost
             heap, along with a few

potato skins, some used coffee grounds, 
     a little leftover chopped broccoli
             (gone bad), and some broken eggshells. 

Next spring I'll feed you
     to my daylilies, after  
             my memories have had time

to shift and turn,
     decay and change
             into something rich and good.

Reprinted by permission of Alexa Selph.

Interview with Alexa Selph

How did you come to write these poems?

The poem “Leavings” came more from observation than actual experience. In the poem I’m hoping to make the point that, over time, bitterness and anger can be transformed into something “rich and good.”

How did writing these poems affect your recovery?

I like W. H. Auden’s description of poetry as the “clear expression of mixed feelings.” Every stage of life presents new challenges, most of which we face with varying degrees of anxiety and anticipation. Poetry can help us come to terms with the inevitable ambivalence that we all experience as we move forward in our lives.

Can you tell us something about your process of writing that helped these poems come to life?

Those of us who are trying to wring poetry from this wired world of ours feel torn between the opposing messages of “Anything goes” and “Nobody cares.” When I start to write, my goal is to write a good poem, to discover unexpected connections within the realm of the real. As Shelley said in his Defence of Poetry, “Poetry lifts the veil from the hidden beauty of the world, and makes familiar objects be as if they were not familiar.” In my view, the best poems arise from deep emotion shaped by a reverence for craft.

Who are your favorite poets or poets new to you whom you’d recommend to others?

I’m a longtime fan of David Bottoms, whose poems are represented in the After Shocks anthology. Among younger poets, I admire the work of Jeffrey Harrison, Patrick Phillips, and A. E. Stallings, among many others.

What are you working on now?

After the anthology was published, my mother died, and about six months after that, my husband had to have major heart surgery. Poetry—both reading it and writing it—offered solace as I recovered from both those experiences. I think my mom would have enjoyed the sequence of six haiku inspired by events surrounding the time of her death and published in Modern Haiku some months later. My husband and I are now able to find moments of humor as we recall the scary time before, during, and after his surgery, some of which I’ve tried to capture in poetry.

Alexa Selph, a native Atlantan, has an M.A. in English from Georgia State University. She has worked for many years as a freelance book editor, and since 2001, she has taught classes in poetry and has conducted poetry workshops at the Emory University Center for Lifelong Learning. Her poems have been published in Poetry, Habersham Review, Modern Haiku, Georgia State University Review, Connecticut Review, and Blue Mesa Review. Ten of her poems were published in the 2010 Press 53 Spotlight Anthology.