IPM 2MXI – Una Selva Oscura

Dante’s Divine Comedy took him thirteen years to write. I’m not a Dante scholar so I don’t know, but I think he probably revised, crossed things out, rewrote and re-composed over the course of those 13 years and the poem still sings, still makes me blush, and cracks my heart with fear. Dante’s work is, in part, my answer to Charles Bukowski’s so you want to be a writer as it was my answer to two young Latvian poets that I met while living in the hills outside of Florence who asked me: You’re a poet, tell us, it all has to come out in a burst of passion that burns onto the page, yes? Well looking at Dante, and Shakespeare, and William Carlos Williams…no, in part.

The other part of the answer is yes: this is how poetry is: blood and fire, especially when you’re a young poet. Some poets write like this for a lifetime. I am not such a poet, nor am I bound to become a titan of World Literature. I’m about 13 years younger than Dante was when he died, incidentally – just as he finished up Paradiso. I may yet have a Divine Comedy somewhere in me but I doubt it.

I can say that in my life, words have become dense and encrusted with associations over the years. Sometimes I need a poetic structure to bear their weight, to keep them from collapsing in on themselves so that the song of each word can be heard. Other times they do fly out suddenly, as light as startled birds and I have to stop in a parking lot or in the middle of cooking dinner and pen them down, sometimes I don’t and I lose them. Sometimes I write down a bustling crowd of dense images and a year later begin the process of picking the poems out, finding that what I thought was one poem turns out to be three. It is work; but what joyous, intense, full work.

So I write, other poets write, each with their own motives and methods. You read and the poem sings to you, or it doesn’t. We’re all trying: poets to give you, the reader, the gift of an image that cannot be offered in any better way, that cracks you a bit and frees something; you readers are giving us the gift of your searching, your curiosity, your attention. This month we have a proliferation of gifts to offer, I hope that you will find something in the next 28 days that sings to you.

Buona lettura e grazie,

Bonnie M. McClellan

IPM 2MXI – Rhyme’s Reason: the lure of form

Since my tumble for the Romantic poets in high school, I had been writing in Free Verse, not the kind that gives poetry a bad name:

“a kind of free verse

without any special

constraints on it except

those imposed by

the notion – also

generally accepted – that

the strip the lines

make as they run

down the page (the

familiar strip with the


right-hand edge) not

be too wide”

John Hollander from Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse

But the kind that any poet with half a wit will recognize as taking a bit of work: with internal rhyme, intentional rhythm, and subtle resonances within the meaning of words from line to line. I wouldn’t own any of it now, but that is more because of the subject matter: painfully romantic and introspective… impossibly beautiful loves, broken hearts left, battered and beating in lonely silence. Not that one shouldn’t write about those things; it’s just that one has to do so really well in order to overcome the built-in triteness waiting to clog up the poetry with a nasty mix of sugar and blood. I wasn’t that good.

I abandoned Byron and  found a new love: William Carlos Williams. I scrawled out his poem This is just to say on part of a paper grocery sack and stuck it to my boyfriend’s refrigerator knowing that he would understand it as the passionate expression of affection that it was. I flirted with Dylan Thomas, Rilke, and Neruda while maintaining an abiding respect for the acid bite of Dorothy Parker and the amazing craftsmanship of Edna St. Vincent Millay. When the same young man left both me and his refrigerator to go off to art school on the east coast it was her : “Not in a silver casket cool with pearls, that I gave him (along with my broken heart) as a parting gift.

I got older. I kept writing. I turned 30.

Somewhere in the late 90’s I got bored with my life (work, eat, watch TV, shop, do the same things with the same friends: repeat); so, I started taking ‘extension courses’ at Southern Methodist University. I signed up for: Introduction to Philosophy, Intermediate Conversational French, Organic Landscaping. The classes were at night, after work; there were no grades. It was another way to use the only reward that I got for working so hard at my job: money.

It seemed like a good investment. For $74.00 I got a few hours of interesting information and conversation two or three days a week for six weeks. Introduction to Philosophy was fascinating, exhilarating; Organic Landscaping helped me cure the bald patches in the lawn of my rental house and left it smelling of tropical islands and pancake syrup. I had though I might have been overreaching  with Intermediate Conversational French but found that none of the other students even knew the passé composé and I ended up both bored and feeling a bit sorry for the professor.

A new brochure for the next round of courses came out: Writing Poetry in Metered Verse. I was excited, I would learn how to construct a sonnet: then if I wanted to I could. I would meet other grown-ups who were interested in doing the same (an audience!). We were in 14, the professor was Martha Heimburg. She helped us work through the text:   John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse and shepherded us into the world of the Deep Ellum poetry slam (a profound disillusionment for me) and submitting our fledgling work to literary journals. More importantly for me, she introduced us to the work of Sharon Olds and Wallace Stevens. I looked at the poems of these writers not with adoration but with curiosity.

I wrote my first sonnet, my first roundel, my first shaped poem. I met with a firey-haired fellow student at the Inwood Bar and drank martini’s while writing exquisite corpse poetry on cocktail napkins. I sent envelopes full of poems off to prestigious and not so prestigious literary journals and in due time got them back with polite and not so polite rejection slips. I switched the poems out and tried again. I kept writing. They came back again. I took a class in book-making, compiled my own work into a small book, made 14 hand-bound copies which I gave away to friends and family. I fell out of love with poetry. I still liked it but who needed the heartache? Occasionally I rearranged the words from my magnetic poetry kit on the refrigerator.

Then, in the middle of the road of my life, I met HIM…I mean, I’d run across him before but I’d been too young to see how attractive he really was: charmingly fragile and filled with self-doubt, bitterly intelligent, and he’d built this huge, fabulous thing, designed it and tied the words to it…and it SANG, and then something inside of me broke and sang back; it hurt. And then it made me blush with the pleasure of reading language tied so intimately to form.

It changed me, unhinged the order of things, made me stop trying to force the language to ‘do what I wanted it to do’ and to start forming an intimate relationship with words and structures in which publication and attention were no longer a goad/goal. I was overcome with desire, a desire and a curiosity as real and as visceral as that one kindled by a lover’s first kiss…

IPM 2MXI: Don’t be Cavalier!

Or maybe you should?

“That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.”

-Robert Herrick from:  To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time

I have a strong memory of my Junior Year of high school, I was taking, what they called at the time, AP English or English IV. The class was taught by the redoubtable Donna Northouse who had recently received her doctorate degree (of which she was justly proud and of which I was, pure contrarian teen, deeply disdainful. I often think that if I could go back I would give myself a good smack in the head). If I recall correctly she’d done her thesis on the Cavalier Poets; I was disgusted! Poets who didn’t take poetry seriously, how dare they! Poetry was the sacred territory of unadulterated passion that poured forth directly from the heart; poetry was meant to be blood on the page, seething with raw emotion that would provoke tears and spine tingles in the reader! I wanted to go straight from Shakespeare to the real stuff: The Romantic Poets. I was so relieved when we arrived on the turbulent shores of the Mediterranean buffeted about with Byron, Shelly, and Keats:

“All my faults perchance thou knowest,
All my madness none can know;
All my hopes, where’er thou goest,
Wither, yet with thee they go.”

-George Gordon Lord Byron from Fare Thee Well

I was in love with Byron…he never revised (or said he didn’t), he was good looking, we were both born on the 22 of January! Here was the real stuff, passionate poetry with a capital “P”. From there we went on to study other literary movements and my memory becomes muddled; the image that remains is that of the Romantic Poets and those who followed rescuing me from the Cavalier Poets who were…well…so cavalier about it all!

It would be another 15 years before I came out of my swoon and discovered that there was more to poetry than fire in the blood: love, death, and hopeless despair. It would be almost that long again before I discovered that that the folds of language and the terrain of poetry were deeper than my own navel and more fascinating than the surface of my lover’s skin…


Robert Herrick
Robert Herrick - Cavalier Poet
George Gordon, Lord Byron
George Gordon, Lord Byron - Romantic Poet


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