What? I thought we were looking at poems by Americans for Americans.
Well, no. Any writer who celebrates freedom and living freely would be appropriate for these July blogs on occasional poetry.
Besides, I used Rupert Brooke’s “The Soldier” (the first poem for the July 5 blog) as one of the first examples of sacrifices reminding us to live our lives, not just drive.
The Wilfred Owens poem selected for this July 25 blog reminds us of the best of life and living that life.
Owens died in 1918, exactly one week before the signing of the Armistice that ended World War I.
His poetry reflects his years in the war: his rage at the senseless cruelty and devastation of war alongside his compassion for his comrades trapped in the mucky trenches and on the bloody battlefields. Three of his best of these are “Dulce et Decorum Est”, “Anthem for Doomed Youth”, and “Strange Meeting.”
Yet he’s more than just a war poet. Other poems revel in nature and life and love.
This poem, a practice in alliteration and consonance, takes as its title “From My Diary, July 1914”.
Murmuring by myriads in the shimmering trees.
Wakening with wonder in the Pyrenees.
Cheerily chirping in the early day.
Singing of summer, scything through the hay.
Shaking the heavy dews from bloom and frond.
Bursting the surface of the ebony pond.
Of swimmers carving the sparkling cold.
Gleaming with wetness to the morning gold.
Bordered about with warbling waterbrooks.
Laughing the love-laugh with me; proud of looks.
Throbbing between the upland and the peak.
Quivering with passion to my pressed cheek.
Of floating flames across the mountain brow.
Of stillness; and a sighing of the bough.
Of leaflets in the gloom; soft petal-showers;
Expanding with the starr-d nocturnal flowers.
July closes our three-month focus on Occasional Poems—Mother’s and Father’s Days, Memorial and Flag Day, and these three July blogs on what we should remember as we celebrate our independence in the mid-summer.
I’m preaching, aren’t I? Sorry. Not.
Should you have a question about copyright, please refer to the July 5 blog.
On August 5 we have the promised Rock Allegory, “Hotel California.” While you’re checking that song out, try a bit of Carmina Burana as well.
Independence should be celebrated all through July, not just on the 4th.
Memorial Day and Flag Day are commemorative occasions just ripe for a poet. While we’ve had this Plague Year, most writers are practicing their skills. Special occasions—especially in this climate–offer many opportunities for practice.
The hardest thing for any writer is to share the work. We spend so much time in our heads and at our desks, tapping away on ideas, that we forget the whole reason of writing is to communicate. We would like our brains to communicate with our hearts. Honestly, though, most of us want to communicate our ideas to other people. Special occasions give us that chance.
Poets in groups can become addicted to Open Mic nights. Everyone reads a bit of their ideas. However, sharing with other writers is not sharing with the hardest audience: families, friends, and the greater world.
Public ceremonies will stretch any writer’s abilities.
When writing and performing for occasions, we have 2 Chief Reasons to remember ~
1] Adhere to audience requirements.
2] Keep to the 4 Requirements of Song.
Now let me add a 3rd:
3] Manipulate structure to stand out. Poets who do so can provide copies of their poems to participants. It’s like free publicity. “All politics is local”, 1930s newspapermen said, and word-of-mouth is the best marketing.
On Independence Day we celebrate our freedoms. Only rarely do we stop on July 4th and remember those who sacrificed so that we have those freedoms. Our two poems for this blog are commemorations, one autobiographical by a soldier prophetic for his own life.
My apologies before we begin for the double-spacing. I am still–still struggling with the new Block Editor in Word Press. The Classic Editor used to let me single space. Grrrr.
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 the 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 sighs and sounds; dreams happy as her day;
And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness;
In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
This poem is especially poignant, for Rupert Brooke sacrificed himself for England in 1915, at the start of World War I, called at that time the War to End All Wars. Unfortunately, that title was not possible and never will be, as long as human nature is what it is.
Brooke himself was prophetic, for he died at the age of 27. An excellent brief biograpy of Brooke and analysis of his poetry is here.
“The Soldier” helps us to envision this person living, just as we live. That connection grips our own hearts closely, for we could easily be required to sacrifice ourselves as Brooke was.
This poem is a sonnet unannounced, for Brooke does not tell us—as many poets do—that this is Sonnet 11 or “A Sonnet”. The opening octet presents to us the loss, ending with the sadly ironic “suns of home” for England’s dead sons buried away from home.
The closing sestet presents the gain and the reason for the sacrifice. The cleansed soul, giving back as England gave. The last three lines are a list, almost like a catalog, individual items with the grouped phrases linked by semicolons: sighs & sounds; dreams; laughter with friends; gentleness; and peace.
Death arouses emotion, but Brooke asks us to THINK about the life lived before death came. Think about life. Be in the present. Celebrate freedom—before we have to sacrifice to keep it.
Gwendolyn Brooks’ “the sonnet-ballad”
Brooks announces her sonnet but also ties it to the form of “ballad”. Because of copyright issues (see below), you can find her complex poem at this link.
A ballad tells a story, highly repetitive, strongly emotional. The reader must infer parts of the story. Those parts are obvious, however. (A good clue for those of us practicing poetry: not every element has to be included. If it’s obvious, then the reader can figure it out.)
Every folk ballad has the three subject matters of love, betrayal, and death. Most literary ballads (so-called because we know the writer’s name—and that’s the only reason for the word literary) also have those same three subject matters.
In “the sonnet-ballad”, the poem’s speaker mourns her soldier gone. Thus, she reminds us of the sacrifices by those on the home front. They feel betrayed by the death of their beloved.
Particular phrases in Brooks’ poem that haunt us—just as the speaker herself is haunted by her loss. She remembers “my lover’s tallness” and “an empty heart-cup”. She knows her lover had to “court / Coquettish death”.
We also have the powerful circular rhetorical device, when the writing opens and closes with the same line. These two lines are the obsessive repetition of grief: love betrayed by death.
That repetition then makes us see and heed more repetition: the ending of the opening octet is the opening of the concluding sestet—“would have to be untrue”. We want the words that tell of death to be untrue. Here is Brooke’s cleverness: the betrayal is not by her beloved but the betrayal is her beloved.
And now we back up into the poem, this deceptively simple poem of complex ideas, which is the chief reason that I love Brooks.
She personifies Death as a female; that’s nothing new. Brooks, however, crafts Death as a flirty temptress, coquettish, with strange possessive arms. We know that no soldier is truly tempted by death.
Her lover, though, falls to Death. He “stammers”—that hesitation that reaches for life but cannot grasp it because Death draws him in.
He is the “hard man” who changes, an unwanted change by him, by her, by family and friends … yet still changed.
Both poems—Brooke and Brooks—are poems of the sacrifice that gives us freedom. The cost is destruction, of life, of hopes, of dreams, of potentials.
For that reason, we view Independence Day as more than picnics and fireworks. And for that reason, all this July we look at poems that remind us of the cost of Independence.
We must never forget that art is not a form of propaganda; it is a form of truth. ~` John F. Kennedy.
As you write your own Occasional Poems, remember the lessons of rich details and heart-deep emotions, of stories hinted and lines crafted, all to be memorable to your audience.
Copyright Notification: Every writer needs to understand copyright. Works enter Public Domain 70 years after the writer’s death. Rupert Brooke died in 1915; his still-powerful work is now in the Public Domain. Gwendolyn Brooks is an important modern American poet. She died in 2000. I can analyze her poem, but I should not provide it here without permission. That’s the reason she has a link—and when you check all the previous blogs, that’s the reason those poems also have links rather than being presented as part of the blog.
The remaining words of the blog are mine. I’m still alive. All of the remaining words are copyrighted to me, as of the date of the writing of this blog post.
Free-wheeling behavior. What I want / when I want / how I want. Places to see, people to do, things to go. [Yes, I know that’s not quite the phrase ;)]
Do those comments describe independence?
Let’s try “Self Reliance”, an early idea on what a democratic republic nation should be–the ideals of ancient Greece, the best governance of ancient Rome. A pride in viewing everyone the same because we are the same. A willingness to stand up and be counted when it matters.
How about now? Are we describing independence?
On the 4th of July America celebrates its beginnings and all the best that this country comes together to be. Yes, we have problems. Who doesn’t? We’re working on them. (Are you working on yours? Good. Haven’t got any? Think again.)
Writing for Independence Day
Find the reason/purpose for writing.
Identify the audience.
Select the images to use. Seven?
Subtract anything too maudlin. Strong memories defeat smarmy emotion.
Determine the focus idea to convey.
Use repetition and alliteration. Audiences listen for key words. Their minds chain the keys together to build sense.
Figurative language works in performance only when it controls the entire text. Extended metaphors will carry more power than simple similes.
Subtract anything too maudlin. Yes, again.
Manipulate the line structure.
Practice before performance.
To celebrate the USA’s Independence, I’ve gathered several poems that meet the requirements of the occasion. A wide-range of poetry, and the last one not even considered a poem by the majority. In looking at these poems, we can see directions for our own attempts to celebrate any patriotic occasion.
All the poems use tight construction through repetition, the time-honored rhetorical device when constructing any writing for performance.
Our first poems are the total spirit of what enables the independent spirit.
Walt Whitman: Equality, Fraternity, Liberty
Whitman is one of the two great American poets who can be identified by the appearance of their poetic lines alone. Emily Dickinson is the other. Like the USofA, Whitman sprawls across the continent, celebrating all of us. Dickinson writes compact poems with introspective individuality.
Perhaps the most well-known of Whitman’s poems is his “I Hear America Singing”. Free verse with his signature catalog of details, it rejoices in the plain people who began turning America into the powerhouse of industry that it became in the 20th Century.
I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear, Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong, The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam, The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work, The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck, The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands, The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown, The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing, Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else, The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly, Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs.
How did Walt Whitman craft this poem? The method he used is called the catalog. He lists the series of workers and what they are doing. These are common people in common jobs, each one vibrant, each one essential for everyone to progress (a lesson we all learned about essential work during the pandemic).
Men and women. Old and young. Owner and worker. Tough work and fine work. Hard work and working at play. Morning, noon, night.
“The day what belongs to the day–at night the party”.
His first two lines present his purpose. He balances every other detail, either by twos or threes (the line about women presents three ages).
Whitman isn’t concerned with the length of the line. The stringencies of the computer screen alter the actual line lengths: the lines for the boatman and woodcutter and the women should stretch to their entire length rather than drop down.
Whitman gives us pure egalitarianism.
The everyday person, working hard to enjoy the harvest of his own hands—this is the person that 4th of July speeches should praise. Picnicking, jumping whole-heartedly into games, glorying in the fireworks—this is the poem to celebrate Independence Day.
Waldo Emerson: Pillars of Independence on the Colossus of the People
I am not a fan of Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Concord Hymn”, the usual read for Independence Day with its famous “shot heard round the world”, leaves me cold. His “A Nation’s Strength” stirs the feelings of pride in our country.
A Nation’s Strength
What makes a nation’s pillars high And its foundations strong? What makes it mighty to defy The foes that round it throng?
It is not gold. Its kingdoms grand Go down in battle shock; Its shafts are laid on sinking sand, Not on abiding rock.
Is it the sword? Ask the red dust Of empires passed away; The blood has turned their stones to rust, Their glory to decay.
And is it pride? Ah, that bright crown Has seemed to nations sweet; But God has struck its luster down In ashes at his feet.
Not gold but only men can make A people great and strong; Men who for truth and honor’s sake Stand fast and suffer long.
Brave men who work while others sleep, Who dare while others fly… They build a nation’s pillars deep And lift them to the sky.
Emerson writes a simple meter and a simple rhyme scheme (abab). His structure is a simple question and answer format: Is it this? Is it that? No, it is not what you expect. “Sinking sand” and “abiding rock” are allusions to the Bible.
The “red dust” of empires offers another allusion >> “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” with the ashes picked up in the next stanza. Money, war, and pride cannot keep a nation strong.
What then? Only a nation’s people. Only those who stand for truth and honor. Only the brave who battle while others sleep.
While others applaud the nation or its elected leaders or its industry leaders, Whitman and Emerson both remind us that nations are nothing without their people standing strong.
These are our first two volleys in the four-post celebration of occasional poems on Independence. Return on July 5th for the next offerings.
The summer months offer several opportunities to practice occasional poems. First Mother’s Day, now Father’s Day … and coming soon is Independence Day.
Occasional poems–meant to be read, not perused–usually are light on structural elements and heavy on powerful details and emotional points. Clever ideas–like a time progression–can resonate with our audience. The strongest time progression is Past > Present > Future.
Fathers, like our mothers, connect past to present to future. On the 5th, we had a close examination of a traditional poem by Robert Haydn—the famous “Winter Sundays”—and a free verse from Li Young Lee—“The Gift”.
Here are two more, without the involved examination. All four poems–just as the Mother’s Day poems–offer practice opportunities for new poets. Without concentrating on a complicated structure, we see powerful details. Those details create lingering memories for us.
Fathers Must Let Go of the Past to Give us our Present
Father’s Day poems usually provides the child’s perspective. Cecil Day Lewis’ “Walking Away” provides us the father’s perspective.
This link comes from Genius.com and offers two annotated explanations.
Fathers Give Us the Future Because of What They Lost
Jan Beatty presents “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”, a soft-sounding poem until we meet the strong voice of the first lines. The link connects to an archive of The Seattle Times, with a bit of information before and after to explain the father’s viewpoint.
We can hear Jan Beatty asking her father what work is like. How many children and teenagers have wondered the same thing? We see work as the money we earn and what independence that we think that money will give us. Instead, in the father’s hard voice, we get the harsh reality.
The short lines, staccato hard, give us a painful truth–“same thing again. / Nothing more. Nothing less. … All this other stuff you’re looking for — / It ain’t there. / Work is work.”
Once we’re past those sharp words, those of us who have worked years will laugh—and then nod, realizing the truth the father gives his daughter..
Look again at Beatty’s title. Through those words “My Father Teaches Me to Dream”, unspoken is the father’s wish and the child’s realization of how to escape such toil and pursue the career that will create happiness in the slavery of work for $$$.
That gift of the future dream, the gift of MORE than the humdrum work world, is the greatest gift our fathers can give to us.
Practice Occasional Poems
Both poems offer memories, just as did Haydn’s and Lee’s poems. In searching for a subject to practice your occasional poems, look into your memory. The details that create your strong memory strongly will transfer to the page and to your audience.
On the 25th, we are past Father’s Day and looking toward the next big occasion of the summer months >> Independence Day.
The day that we honor our fathers rapidly approaches. It’s a perfect opportunity to write poems for Father’s Day.
As practicing poets, we might think that writing poems for our fathers is easy. That is, we think that until we crack open the laptop, fire up a Word app, then realize we can only think of pablum.
We don’t want to give our fathers bland, tasteless, emotionless words.
Unlike Father’s Day, poems for Mother’s Day flood the world. Unfortunately, most of those poems are line after line of overblown sentiments better suited for greeting cards. Or cutesy little poems trying for loud laughter.
Occasional poems should awaken the mind and tug at the heartstrings.
Avoiding the overblown and the cutesy are the two pitfalls for all Occasional Poems, most especially for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day. We need our poems to be real, to be personal, and to be touching.
Father’s Day offers another barrier that we stumble against. We don’t think “sentiment” when we consider writing for our dads.
Yet tossing in emotion after emotion never works. Both Mom and Dad deserve truth instead of watery pathos.
We have three chief reasons to practice our poetic craft with occasional poems for all**.
1] Keep to audience requirements. Who are we writing for? Ourselves? Nyah. It’s the fathers we wish to honor.
2] Keep to the 4 Requirements of Song. Remember those? Powerful Lines. Strong Imagery. Heartfelt Message. Clear Communication.
3] Keep a focus on structure to stand out from the multitude of other poems swimming in the universal current.
(**Occasional Poems for All. That’s a book, isn’t it? Filled with all the trite, complacent pathos we could want. Let’s not fall back on this or on greeting cards.)
How can we achieve truth in our Poems for Father’s Day?
Consider the role that your father plays in your life. Look to the character archetypes to determine which role we want to celebrate. From there, we ask “What does that role require?” Once we know that answer, we find specific images (especially a dominant image) to represent the role.
Two Views of Fathers
Fathers as Protectors
Robert Hayden gives us the sadness of missed opportunities to express to his appreciation to his father for his sacrifices, sacrifices that were unknown and unrecognized by arrogant and selfish youth.
Look at the harsh reality of the first stanza: blueblack cold, “cracked hands that ached from labor.” Strong alliterative B’s and the hard K sound of the C’s emphasize those winter Sundays when everyone else is sleeping, everyone else is free from work, and everyone else snuggles just a little deeper under the bedcovers–because someone else will do the hard thing … just as Haydn’s father did.
The second stanza presents the frozen reality of the world–from the weather, from the difficult emotions between father and son as the son challenges that the father wants … because the father sees his world and doesn’t want that world for his son.
The father drove out the cold of the weather … and the world by giving his son the ability to do more than that hard labor that cracked the father’s hands. And his son can go into the world with newly polished good shoes, putting a shiny clean face on his future … because of his father’s “austere and lonely offices”.
We have fourteen lines in this poem–5 in the first stanza, 4 in the center, 5 in the last. A hidebound traditionalist wouldn’t call this poem a sonnet because it breaks the common sonnet structures. Yet what does a sonnet do? It presents an argument, provides evidence, then through a Volta (a turning viewpoint) it reaches a truth.
Haydn argues that his father loves him–even though the house was filled with “chronic angers”. He gives several details as evidence. Then, in the last two lines (where Shakespeare always turned his Volta to achieve his truth) Haydn gives the rhetorical question “What did I know / of love’s austere and lonely offices?”
The question is rhetorical because we know the answer. None of us know about “love’s austere and lonely offices”, not until we have years between event and emotion, years to reflect on what actually occurred, and the wiser understanding of those years to see.
Fathers Teach Lingering Lessons
Li Young Lee, who had an example of a Mother’s Day poem, also presents his father’s love in a rather oblique way, via Lee’s relationship with his wife. Find “The Gift” here on Poetry Foundation.
The poem opens with Lee’s memory: his father draws out a splinter, distracting his son with a story. The second stanza gives us the details of his father’s love: “his voice … a well of / dark water”, his hands “two measures of tenderness / laid against my face”, and “flames of discipline” similar to Haydn’s father with the “chronic angers”.
In the third stanza, Lee moves us from past to present. He invites us into the poem as well as he moves from the literal “planting something in a boy’s palm” to the figurative, for Lee’s father did plant something in his son–the ability to be tender when a necessary hurt must occur. He reinforces this with the repetition of details from the first two stanzas. The “silver tear” is the “well of dark water” as well as the tears on the little boy’s face as he confronts a painful splinter and its withdrawal. The “tiny flame” is the memory of those “flames of discipline”, reduced by time.
Using his father’s technique, he performs the same splinter withdrawal. Then Lee shows us his mark–humor mixed with memory … “Metal that will bury me” and “Little Assassin”, the extremes of childish thought. And he charges the poem with further emotion when he thanks his father with a kiss, doing “what a child does / when he’s given something to keep”.
A memory of his father.
Two more views of fathers, just in time for Father’s Day.