An Unexpected Victorian Kinship

Image of Helen Hunt Jackson: Academy of American Poets

One of the greatest joys that comes from reading poetry is the ability of a poet, someone I’ve never met, someone who knows nothing of me, to use language to articulate my own experience in just the way I’d always yearned for–but without knowing it. There’s a jolt of recognition, then an instant feeling of kinship and gratitude. The poem I’m sharing with you today, “August,” by Helen Hunt Jackson, is just such a poem. Ironically, when it came into my inbox from the Academy of American Poets’ Poem-a-Day series, I almost stopped reading after the second line because the language was a little too Victorian for my taste.

“August” is in the public domain. For more information about Helen Hunt Jackson and her work, go to https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/helen-hunt-jackson.

 

Good Girl by Angela L. Lindseth

The Late, Lamented Teddy Bear

Note: Angela L. Lindseth’s lovely poem, “Good Girl,” follows my own reflection on honest emotion in poetry, prompted by the poem. Liz

Thou Shalt Not Write Sentimental Poems about Thy Dog

One of the very first thou-shalt-nots I learned as a creative writing student in college was that the literati–our tacit, if not presumptive–audience would not look favorably on sentimental poems about one’s dog. (An even worse literary faux-pas would be to end a story by revealing that the point-of-view character was really a dog.)

In Western Wind: an introduction to poetry, John Frederick Nims makes the following distinction between sentiment and sentimentality in literature:

Healthy emotion is object-directed; sentimentality is subject-directed. . . . The sentimentalist is less concerned with the object of his emotion than with the fact that he himself is feeling it. He is also saying, in effect: “Look how tender I am! How sensitive to beauty! How capable of deep emotions! How rich in sympathy!”

. . . .

Writers of sentimental poetry like to play on our stock responses–those built-in automatic reactions we have to many things we think dear and familiar: childhood; barefoot boys; home, sweet home; the old porch swing; the old oaken bucket; old rocking chairs; dust-covered toys; motherhood; the fidelity of dogs.1

 

Which brings us to poems about one’s dog. As Nims explains the distinction between honest sentiment and false sentimentality, it is easy to apprehend: sentiment is object-directed (the dog herself), while sentimentality is subject-directed (how the poet feels about his dog).

But is the distinction really that clear when it comes down to actual cases? After all, the example Nims uses to illustrate sentimentality is quite exaggerated: The distracted mother narrating the poem has sent her lisping, golden-haired cherub skipping down the street with a postage stamp on his forehead to mail himself to his dead father when he is trampled by a pair of runaway of horses to lie lifeless but still beauteous in the street. (I provide a link to a full-text version of the poem in question for your edification or idle curiosity: “Papa’s Letter,” by Anonymous.)

I think if I were to parse the individual lines of the poem I’m sharing with you this week, Angela L. Lindseth’s “Good Girl,” using Nims’s object-directed versus subject-directed definitions of emotion in poetry, it would straddle the line between sentiment and sentimentality.

Yet for me, “Good Girl” succeeds in conveying the gut-wrenching experience of having to euthanize your dog to end her suffering. The emotion is honest and real, and I count “Good Girl” as a Poem Too Good Not to Share.

1John Frederick Nims, Western Wind: an introduction to poetry (New York: Random House, 1974), 128-129.


Good Girl by Angela Lindseth

Background photo: Vargazs/Pixabay, CC0.
Manipulation and design layout: Elizabeth Stark

Thirty years ago Angela played with the idea of a book while looking out from an abandoned fire tower in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Since that time, she has stumbled her way through life. She obtained her Geological Engineering degree, but ditched that for an electrician’s license. She’s worked a variety of jobs but never found the one that fit.

The skeleton of that story never left her. Today, she has a finished novel and a published collection of flash fiction called Sanity’s Threshold. Finding her calling has opened her imagination and a multitude of words have poured onto the page.

Her flash fiction ranges from dark and twisted, to sad and sappy. For more of her work visit her website and Facebook author page.

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Adelaide Literary Magazine Publication!

My short story, “The Story of Henry: Chapter and Verse,” has been published in the July issue of Adelaide Literary Magazine.

I wrote the story a number of years ago, and after countless rejections, it finally found the right editor. (I sent it to Adelaide Literary Magazine from a call for submissions that seemed a good match for it. Subscribing to e-mailed calls for submissions has definitely paid off!)

“The Story of Henry” was inspired by an event that affected my father very deeply and, in turn, me. The typewriter above is the one that appears in the story. (I made mention of it in a prior post about the need some people have, myself included, to hold tight to our “Things.”)

 

I’m Not a Poet & I Know It

The oddest thing happened this week. I was reading an essay on flash fiction in Rose Metal Press’s Field Guide to Writing Flash Fiction when I was hit with the sudden urge to write a poem about the smell of creosote. I resisted the urge at first–the time was getting on to midnight–but I quickly gave in to it and roughed out a few stanzas. Over the next several nights, I fiddled with it, coming to a version I was satisfied with last night.

I am a fiction-writer. I understand the anatomy and physiology of fiction: the bones of structure, the musculature of scenes, the connective tissue of leitmotif, the beating heart of character.

I am not a poet. The anatomy and physiology of poetry are pretty much the four humors of medieval physic to me. Meter and rhyme, stanza and line break must all be kept in balance somehow for the poem to be thriving and robust, but it is definitely a hit-or-miss affair. Is the poem choleric? Put some leeches on it. Jaundiced with yellow bile? Maybe an emetic will effect a cure, but take care not to kill the poor creature.

So what keeps sending me back to poetry when narrative fiction is my natural means of expression? I’ve known for some time that I will turn to poetry to write about my family; however, that’s not a sufficient explanation because much of my fiction has family relationships as its starting point.

It wasn’t until I read the opening of Sherrie Flick’s “Flash in a Pan: Writing Outside of Time’s Boundaries” that the reason I am sometimes driven to poetry became clear. Fiction is tied to time, time and causality; poetry doesn’t need to be. Poetry can be pure emotion–which brings me to T.S Eliot’s “objective correletive”:

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an “objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked (Eliot).

Now that is the smell of creosote!


Work Cited

Eliot, Thomas Sterns. Hamlet and His Problems to The Sacred Weed. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1921. Accessed April 16, 2017. http://ww.bartleby.com/200/sw9.html.

Things by Marian Kaplun Shapiro

 

Marian Shapiro’s poem so perfectly captures why I’m unable to let go of my “stuff,” this typewriter included. A suicide note was written on it. Yes, I’ve written a short story about it. (More to come in another post.)

Background photo: Dean Moriarty/Pixabay, CC0.
Manipulation and design layout: Elizabeth Stark

Marian Kaplun Shapiro is the author of a professional book, Second Childhood (Norton, 1988),  a poetry book, Players In The Dream, Dreamers In The Play (Plain View Press, 2007) and  two chapbooks: Your Third Wish, (Finishing Line, 2007); and The End Of The World, Announced On Wednesday (Pudding House, 2007). A Quaker and a psychologist, her poetry often embeds the  topics of peace and violence by addressing one within the context of the other. A resident of Lexington, she is a five-time Senior Poet Laureate of Massachusetts. She was nominated for the Pushcart Prize in 2012.

The author. The author.

Sunset with Eiffel tower by Irwin. Eiffel tower from hotel window.

Marian, Rue Cler, 2014. Marian, Rue Cler, 2014.

Library garden poetry reading, Rangeley, Maine. Library garden poetry reading, Rangeley, Maine.

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Juvenalia: “They Felt Like Clapping Hands & Jumping Up & Down”

Apparently, this was my first published byline, which appeared in the Enosburg Standard somewhere around 1967-68. I’m the dejected chubby girl in full Girl Scout regalia in the back row.

I’ve often wondered as I consider cleaning out an overstuffed closet whether one’s juvenalia is an important enough record of a writer’s development to preserve. In my own case, common sense would say no, of course not, don’t be silly.

Yet, I refuse to part with any of it, even though these painfully immature little poems and stories tucked into the folders and boxes that clutter my daily existence are of absolutely no use to me and certainly of no use to posterity.

Regardless, this little article from the Enosburg Standard is worth preserving because it tells me how much I was loved as a child, even a chubby and dejected prepubescent child. My mother had clipped the article and mailed it to my grandmother Velma, who saved it with her papers, leaving it behind when she died in 1975. “They Felt Like Clapping Hands & Jumping Up & Down” came full circle back to me in 2016, when as the eldest of my generation, I became the keeper of The Family Archives.

What about you? Have you held onto your own writing juvenalia? Or has it all gone the way of your finger-painted refrigerator art?

“Poetry Is Dissent,” Richard Hoffman

Richard Hoffman’s essay, “Poetry Is Dissent,” which was published in Agni Magazine’s “conversations” blog on April 24, 2017 is simply too good not to share. I don’t care if you’re a friend, a fellow writer, a work colleague, or a random passerby on the street: you must read this essay!  My favorite passage:

As a child, words come from a world that was there before you arrived, and you presume, because you must, that there is some correlation between the words and the things and actions and qualities for which they stand. This is the original suspension of disbelief required to acquire language in the first place. And then you go about choosing among the words offered. You try to match the right one with the right thing. You try to say it correctly. You test out the words on other people, usually your parents. Sometimes they think you’re cute, other times they threaten to wash out your mouth with soap!

But soon enough and before you’re even aware of it, you are toughening your spirit on the successive disappointments that you suffer as you learn, again and again, that the words are inadequate. You must find new ones, or combine them in a new way. Many, if not most people, make some peace with the inadequacy of language. I think what makes a person a poet (whether they write in verse or prose) is an abiding commitment to try again, all the while knowing that it is in the nature of language, and of the essence of the whole enterprise, that you will fail.

Here is the link to “Poetry Is Dissent”: https://agnimag.wordpress.com/2017/04/24/poetry-is-dissent/.  I hope you’ll enjoy it as much I have!