On Memorial Day, We Remember

Two poems perfectly capture the warning that Memorial Day is, from the soldiers who are gone to the blithe population that never understands.

In Flanders Field by John MacCrae

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.

MacCrae’s Poetic Craft at Work

When we glance at this poem, we see the strong rhyme, the opening alliteration, and the juxtaposition of nature with the violence of war, given in the last line of this first stanza.

Deceptively simple, we think, and we are wrong. The power of the first sentence in the second stanza proves it. Lines 2 and 3 of this second stanza connects the Dead with us the Living. So little distance between us, so little separation–that we could also lie there, in Flanders Fields.

He continues his juxtaposition, not only between the LIving and the Dead, but also with dawn and sunset > the span of a day, the span of a life, too short, cut short before we would want it to be.

The third stanza provides the warning. The Dead sacrificed themselves for us. We cannot let the torch they lit be extinguished. If we do, we are cursed, for they will not sleep.

In Flanders Fields Clip Art
Canadian War Bond poster, from https://publicdomainclip-art.blogspot.com/2015/07/in-flanders-fields-clip-art.html
Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier”

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is for ever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

And think, this heart, all evil shed away,
A pulse in the eternal mind, no less
Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.

Brooke’s Poetic Craft at Work

Brooke writes a sonnet, octet and sestet with the accepted ABAB CDCD EFGEFG rhyme.

The Octet

He ties the first and second stanzas together with the word “think” in the first line of each, an obvious connection. Not so obvious is his focus on the physical in the first stanza and the intellectual / emotional of the second. This is working with Plato’s TriPartite Being, body and mind and soul that forms us all.

Mentioning the England of his home, the little dirt of his body that is England in a foreign land, and “English air” and “English heaven” develops the reminder that his death was for his country, for the ideals that his country stood for rather than petty treasure or revenge.

The allusion to the graveside “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” becomes more powerful as he works out the body that gave itself for its homeland: “In that rich earth a richer dust concealed / A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware …”

“Bore, shaped, made aware” is a classic asyndeton, continued on the next line with “Gave”, and the verb introduces the beauty of the country that gave birth to this son who sacrificed himself for her ~

Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.

The Sestet

The last six lines become all the more powerful, for they capture the person that is lost, not just his body but his mind and heart.

The grouped first three are the mind shedding evil, returning to the universal “pulse” and releasing a connection to the land of his birth. The last three are pure emotion: happiness, laughter, gentleness, and peace ~ those four things that all soldiers long for when the violence of war is all around them.

Remember the Sacrifice

Memorial Day is the day we set aside to remember our soldiers, lost in foreign and domestic conflicts, who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our nation’s continued existence and our citizenry’s continued freedom.

Memorial Day is gradually extending to include more than soldiers on the battle fronts.

We have Independence Day to celebration our nation’s founding and Veteran’s Day to honor our warriors. We have Labor Day to honor the workers who helped America progress and become the dream of every oppressed worker in the world.

And we have other commemorations that offer opportunities for poets to practice their craft.

MacCrae and Brooke are master poets. Emulate the masters (don’t copy; study and model) to improve your own poetic skills.

Coming Up: Poems for Father’s Day

Celebrate a Book Birthday!

On this day in 2017, M.A. Lee published Old Geeky Greeks, third in the Think like a Pro Writer series.

We published with one cover. At the end of 2019, as part of the year-long updates to the entire Think like a Pro Writer series, our cover designers Deranged Doctor Design came up with this wonderful cover.

Here’s information for this book. Click the link to Amazon to purchase.

What do these have in common?

Atonement. I, Robot. The 13th Warrior. The Hobbit. Jurassic Park, in all its iterations.

Harry Potter. Ironman. Perseus. Dudley Dooright. Macbeth.

5 Stages of the Hero and the Monster. Blood tragedies. The scariest woman in all literature. Hubris.

These oddly-matched items all have origins in the ancient Greeks and Romans.

The first storytellers discovered many ways to intrigue and thrill their audiences.  They laid strong foundations for what worked and what didn’t work. Their techniques are still used, re-packaged as exclusive insights, glittery infographics, three-point seminars, and Wham-Pow webinars urging modern writers to Buy Now!

Old Geeky Greeks: Write Stories with Ancient Techniques presents these techniques in a clear, organized method for writers.

Chapters in OGG cover understanding characters, plot requirements and the oldest plot formula (the Blood or Revenge Tragedy), and such concepts as in medias res and dulce et utile and more, all to solve the sticky problem of audience expectations.

The bright minds of Classical Antiquity first explored that problem, and the answers that they developed are applicable in this age of the internet, special effects, and infographics.

Save yourself the hours spent at seminars and in webinars or scanning social media. Spend that time writing—and study the Old Geeky Greeks at your leisure. Whether writing novels or plays, blogs or non-fiction, poems and songs, this guidebook offers information to improve your writing.

Old Geeky Greeks is a seminar in book form, 28,000 words of time-proven techniques.

Writer M.A. Lee has published 25-plus titles under various pen names since she began self-publishing in 2015. She has over 30 years of experience in guiding college and high school students as they examined, analyzed, and applied these techniques.

Two More Poems for Mother’s Day

On May 5th, W.Ink looked at Li Young Lee’s free verse tribute to his mother. Today, we offer two more poems for mothers, appropriate for Mother’s Day. As Shakespeare told us, lines of poems endure long beyond a life span.

Lee’s poem was appropriately nostalgic.

George Barker offers a more affectionate view, love salted with reality, while Judith Viorst provides a mother’s advice to her son.

George Barker :: Sonnet

Click the link to read the poem then return here for our analysis, all to help you write your own occasional poem.

“Sonnet”, Barker announces as his title, and most of us wouldn’t have noticed that he chose one of the most tightly controlled poetic structure if he had not announced it.

“Most near, most dear, most loved, and most far” begins the poem, four hyperboles with the contrasting near and far bracketing the line, letting us readers know that these two words mean more than distance.

The first line sounds like the traditional Mother’s Day greeting card. Surprise comes in the third line. No woman wants to be described “as huge as Asia”. “Seismic with laughter”, yes. Barker gives us the reality of his mother. He doesn’t gild the lily, for it is not the pretty image that makes up the mother he loves:  a woman who helps the weak and hurt, brash but alluring, fascinating and courageous.

These are powerful images that he creates for us, laded with emotion, two of the four requirements of song.

She has her weaknesses, but he bolsters her with “all my love” and a reminder of “all her faith” as she copes with a devastating death, punned into the last line.

By now we are studying the poem, re-reading the strongly written portions.

  • the juxtaposition of the first line
  • the similes and metaphors that complete the first stanza
  • the continued comparison of the second (sestet)
  • followed by the anaphoric “all my faith and all my love”

As we conclude, we nod to ourselves, for this is a woman we know, a person we want to emulate.

And although he has written a sonnet, his rhyming is as atypical as the woman herself.

Surprising poems like Barkers draw us back and back—and isn’t that what we want with our poetry? Readers returning over and again.

Judith Viorst :: Some Advice from a Mother to her Married Son

Off to Poem Hunter again, to read this deceptively simple poem.

Mothers are known for their advice. Teenagers think it’s nagging, but young adults have a comprehension of the wisdom that flows from the mother, advice oft-repeated because we do not understand the simplicity of the truth.

Viorst gives the most important advice for the first years of a happy marriage. She begins by imagining argument-causing statements that she wants her son to avoid. Such comments can HURT, and they awaken common feelings that everyone has had, has, and will have whenever they are in a relationship. Such comments will damage a relationship. And a couple of them will destroy it.

Here is the emotional connection and strong lines of the 4 Requirements of Song. The connection and strength occur because we have all heard these or heard instances of these.

Her son obviously wants to avoid the arguments, and Viorst knows his wife will eventually ask “Do you love me?”

That question always comes at a trying moment, when no one wants to answer any question at all.

The answer to do you love me isn’t, I married you, didn’t I?

Or, Can’t we discuss this after the ballgame is through?

It isn’t, Well that all depends on what you mean by ‘love’.

Or even, Come to bed and I’ll prove that I do.

She continues by describing the typical scene when that “Do you love me?” question will come: burned bacon, messy house, screaming children, and more. These tight little lines create powerful imagery, a third requirement of song.

For Viorst, the answer is simple.

The answer is yes.

The answer is yes.

The answer is yes.

Simple repetition of the truth.

Join us on the 25th, early Morning for Memorial Day and looking ahead to Flag Day, for a first look at examples of patriotic poems.

Occasional Poems for Mothers in May

The Stone Boat: constructed in the mid-1700s. Photograph of the Marble Boat Pavilion on the grounds of the Summer Palace in BeijingChina. Photograph taken on April 172005 by Rolf Müller. Permission to Share from Creative Commons.

Occasions: When Audience trumps Poet

May and June and July are jammed with occasions.

  • Mother’s and Father’s Days ~ May and June
  • Memorial and Flag and Independence Days ~ May and June and July
  • Graduation and Wedding and many other types of days ~ May and June, typically but also constantly

For poets seeking an audience, these occasions are opportunities to practice crafting poems.

Poetic Occasions: 2 Chief Reminders

1] For a poet writing an occasional poem, the most important remembrance is that the audience controls the writing.

Many new poets write only when their emotions need an outlet. They require the emotion for the inspiration. Professional poets know that poetry occurs constantly. Poetry is for every day, not just for the days when anger or grief rule.

Occasions are excellent opportunities for poetic growth. Logic drives poems that endure, not just the canonical Shakespeares and Rilkes, e.e. cummings and Dickinsons, Poes Whitmans and Dickinsons, and so many more. Logic forms the enduring songs we hear in popular cultures, those songs on the radio, like the Eagles and Dolly Parton, Cold Play and Joni Mitchell, the Dixie Chicks and Sting, U2 and Chris Tomlin, and on and on.

Logic does not mean that poetry becomes lock-step.

Logic does mean that the poet controls the poetic craft.

Occasions go one step more. Occasional poems require poets to stretch their abilities without causing deliberate offense to the audience.

In other words, poets write with other people in mind.

2] The poet also needs to remember the 4 Requirements of Song.

The writing must be heartfelt without being smarmy.

Powerful lines and strong imagery must keep the audience engaged:  a listening-only audience will break attention faster than a reading one. Occasional poems are often read aloud.

Rhetorical devices that emphasize points are especially necessary as they help the audience “hear” the ideas through repetition and climactic ordering. These devices “control” the sequence of thought and must be carefully controlled.

Two Poems to Study

Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of the Morning” and Robert Frost’s “The Gift Outright” are perfect examples of occasional poems written for presidential inaugurations.

Angelou gives us a free verse poem as sprawling as American cities while Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is tightly focused and structured over its 16 lines. For the audience, this is the difference between a 20-minute speech and a 5-minute one. It’s the Gettysburg Address that we know and love, not the hour-long speech that preceded it which everyone has forgotten.

Angelou’s poem resonates when we can hold it in our hands, peruse it, muse over it. It is a poem for future anthologies.

Frost’s “The Gift Outright” is powerful in the moment yet is then rarely referenced as more than an inaugural poem.

Craft an occasional poem well. It can gain power to reach into the ages.

Intimidated? You can always fall back on a greeting card.

Here is our first poem for Mother’s Day.

Li-Young Lee & the Water of Time

In “I Ask My Mother to Sing”, located here on the Poetry Foundation website, Li-Young Lee presents the connection of the past to present to future.

Go off and read. I’ll wait.

Mothers connect past to present to future for their children in many unconscious ways. They ground their children with who they are (present) and who they come from (past) even as they encourage who they will become (future).

Lee celebrates this ability of his mother and grandmother through their singing. The women’s joy comes across in the second line: “Mother and daughter sing like young girls.” Then Lee sidesteps the typical encounter of a mother-based poem—much as Langston Hughes did with “Mother to Son”, another excellent poem of past to present to future. Lee adds a memory of his departed father, reminding us that these two women who give him such joy will not always be with him.

Just as our mothers will not always be with us. A gentle reminder: Be with them in this now, for time will have its cruel way.

Lee’s second stanza has the readers wishing that they knew this song ::

“I’ve never been in Peking, or the Summer Palace / Nor stood on the great Stone Boat to watch / the rain begin on Kuen Ming Lake, the picnickers / running away in the grass.”

It’s the third stanza, however, that contains the powerful imagery of soothing serenity ::   waterlilies become a bamboo fountain, “spilling water into water / then rock back, and fill with more”.

from Wikipedia, Kuen Ming Lake, spelled there Kunming Lake, at this link.
We finish the poem, but it’s not done.

We read the poem, read it again, basking in the soothing imagery and the wistful ideas. Then, in preparation for moving on with our busy lives, we read the title, those few words that we scarcely glanced over in our rush to read the poem.

Lee has done something wonderful with this title. It is a necessary part of his poem. It pours us into the words, just as the waterlilies pour water into water, from the first line to the next and the next and then pour us out of the poem.

Three stanzas, unrhymed, with very little tying the poem together—yet still with a tranquility that draws us back and back, reading the poem a second and a third time, remembering it, connecting it with our lives.

Return on the 15th for another Occasional Poem in Celebration of May for Mothers.

Riddling Allegories :: “Tapestry” by Carole King

We continue our poetry series with the mysterious “Tapestry” by Carole King, a 1971 song from the album of the same name. Rolling Stone ranks the album at ranked 35 in the top 100 albums of all time. It also is second on the Billboard’s longest-running albums list (Number 1 is Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon).

Songs and poems may haunt us. They may entice us to return again and again, especially when their words pose a riddle we must decipher.

In challenging us to return for the clues to the riddle, the song serves the writer’s purpose ~ to have us read and re-read their words.

Sometimes the enticement is the riddling mystery that surrounds the work. We long to decipher the maze of words.

Sometimes it is the beauty of the words or the music or both.

And sometimes the enticement is the emotion and memories that the song or poem evokes.

The best writers tell us everything in fragments. They reveal even as they veil.

This is Carole King and her “Tapestry”, the 1971 song and album.

Lyrics are here, and the video is here. If you are not familiar with the multi-award-winning Carole King, then this 28-minute video from YouTube will give you her biggest hits by the year 1971. She had more hits after that year, too.

What is an Allegory?

First, an allegory works like an extended metaphor. We have a comparison with multiple points for linkage. An allegory, though, is more than a simple comparison. In it, a story is told.

A tapestry is a picture stitched with different-colored threads. The canvas upon which it is built is blank. The needleworking artist creates the image as she stitches. If the threads are pulled out or unraveled, the created image is lost.

The allegory begins by stating the metaphor > life = tapestry. Then elements of the comparison are revealed. As King works through her allegory, the various elements of the story create the points of the extended metaphor, each as interconnected as the threads in a tapestry.

How to Write a Riddling Allegory

In “Tapestry”, King does not bother with the usual refrain (or chorus). Each stanza serves a distinct purpose. The first builds the metaphor. The second and third and fourth work out the story. The last connects the story to herself (and us) and concludes the metaphor.

To help tie the lines together, she uses alliteration:

  • 1st stanza :: rich / royal, vision / view, wondrous / woven, bits / blue
  • 2nd stanza ::  soft silver sadness / sky, torn / tattered, coat / colors
  • 3rd stanza :: what / where, hanging / hand
  • 4th stanza :: rutted road / river rock, turned / toad, seemed / someone / spell
  • 5th stanza :: gray / ghostly, deepest darkness / dressed

The story of the allegory ties the poem together, yet King also rhymes with each stanza through a simple paired couplet. The rhyme scheme is the simplest of all, AABB. The concluding fifth stanza has five lines instead of four (a neat echo to the stanza), but the very last line is a repeat of the last part of the line before.

In the song itself, King concludes with a piano repetition of the last stanza, unvocalized.

So, a seemingly simple structure for her allegory.

However, King is extremely clever with the elements of her story.

How King Writes a Riddling Allegory

Like the Moonspinners of Greek mythology, the speaker in “Tapestry” is weaving different threads together to create an image of her life. The Greek Fate Clotho spins the thread. Her sister Lachesis measures it. The third sister Atropos cuts the length with her dreaded shears.

According to King, “my life has been a tapestry”. We are our own Moirai, controllers of our fate. We select the colors for our lives, of “rich and royal hue”. In the paradox of the antithetical repetition “everlasting” and “ever-changing”, we construct meaning through the opposing constancy and change.

Our lives push steadily onward even as they alter visibly and invisibly. When we end, our souls continue to a new existence.

This is the magic, the miracles that we don’t recognize.

The last line contains another seeming paradox:  “A tapestry to feel and see, impossible to hold.” If we can feel it, how can we not hold it in our hands? Ah, “feel” has a dual meaning ~ touch and emotion.

Riddling Starts in the 2nd Stanza

The allegorical story begins in the second stanza with the entrance of the tatterdemalion drifter, each bit and piece symbolic of his wanderings.

He wears a coat of many colors, like the biblical Joseph, forced to leave his homeland because his brothers sold him into slavery. Joseph had to make the best of his situation—just as we should when we sell ourselves into the slavery of work. Joseph interpreted the Pharoah’s dream, just as we must interpret our own dreams and turn them into reality.

Much Mystery in the 3rd Stanza

This drifter “moved with some uncertainty”. That’s like us, again. We go for years without understanding our purpose. I’m certain Joseph had many years when he wondered why he was where he was.

In pursuit of–something, we reach for a golden item, unnamed, unclassified. We desire it. We think it’s the ultimate treasure. Like Adam & Eve, we eat of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.

In the poem, though, the drifter’s hand grasps nothing. He reaches for his treasure, reaches for the knowledge of his desire. He hasn’t found it yet. Like the fairy tale of the Enchanted Song Bird in a gilded cage in a tree, we desire songs of love—but how often do we find such love?

King merely hints at this allusion, yet it fits best with her other wide-ranging allusions.

4th Stanza Reveals as it Veils

On the rutted road of his journey, the drifter takes his ease on a river rock only to fall victim to a curse. He becomes the frog prince, transformed by a wicked spell. We also are transformed when our desires are thwarted, again and again, dreams deferred as in Langston Hughes’ “Harlem”.

Yet who created this wicked spell? Why is the drifter cursed? Would anyone have triggered the curse? Or was the spell intended for him alone?

Also suggested by the lines is that the accursed drifter / frog needs his princess. Only she can kiss him and remove the curse. He will be trapped in his toad-eous form until he receives that kiss from someone both inherently great and innately kind.

5th Concludes and Continues the Riddling

An unknown figures enters the tapestry. The speaker recognizes this person as a companion even as she questions who he is. Is he the Reaper? Is he Death (as in Donald Justice’s “Incident in a Rose Garden”)?

Before she can discover, the tapestry and life unravel. The Moonspinners’ thread is done.

Riddling to Truth

The Moonspinners who provide the threads to weave the tapestry are from Greek myth. Joseph is biblical while the golden treasure in the tree could be the Enchanted Songbird story from China. The Frog Prince is a European fairytale, and Death—gray and ghostly, sometimes dressed in deepest black—comes from the mythologies of many cultures.

What is this journey to find the greatest treasure of all? What is this journey that exhausts us? And when we stop briefly to rest, are we falling into the wicked spell of non-pursuit? Is the drifter Perseus, bringing back a gorgon’s head? Is the songbird the golden nightingale that heals the dying emperor? Or is it the golden bird sought by the young prince who constantly makes mistakes and needs the fox’s avuncular help?

Like the best of the ancient balladeers, King doesn’t give us any the answers—deliberately, she does not.

These questions keep us returning to decipher the clues she has given us. Her allegory draws from every where and every when and every what, just as we do.

We don’t have all the answers. We keep returning to our own story to decipher the clues we are given. Clues we may never decipher.

Writing Riddling Allegories

When constructing your own poems, play with the idea of the allegory. Set up your extended metaphor, and guide your story through it.

Use a comparison that is universal. When story speaks to everyone in every time, story endures.

Use simple methods to tie your lines together. Use clever methods to develop your story. King is clever with her use of allusions to develop her structure and story.

Leave enough clues so that your readers, like Hansel and Gretel, will journey back to your work, over and again.

And remember the 4 Requirements of Song:

  • 1] Clear Communication
  • 2] Heart-felt Emotion
  • 3] Strong Lines
  • 4] Powerful Imagery

Coming Up

We’ll touch on another allegory as we dream through the heat-heavy days of summer when we look at the classic rock “Hotel California”.

First, though, we’ll venture through the requirements of occasional poetry by looking at poems for our origins: mothers, fathers, and the country of our birth.

The Eagles land after that in August.