A Spoonful of Metaphor

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20180214_154924.jpgAfter spending way too much time scrolling through social media, my mind closes down to metaphor to an alarming degree. Then, when I turn to my own poetry or prose, the same tired phrases and bedraggled clichés chase their tails around my head.

Is there any medicine for this modern malady besides unplugging all electronic devices and retreating into nature for months at a time?

Well…yes. I’ve discovered a powerful antidote: poetry. The very act of reading a poem–preferably out loud–throws open the windows of my mind. Curtains flutter at the window; imaginary landscapes draw into view; new ideas emerge and my creative self breathes again. Even my dreams contain more vivid and colorful imagery!

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Some years back, I heard U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins—great master of metaphor and whimsy that he is—read at the National Arts Club in NYC. Years later, one of his lines still lodged in my brain:

“…when we have compared everything in the world to everything else in the world…”

Collins was referring to poetic metaphor, but for the life of me, I couldn’t recall the poem or remember its name.

Luckily, when I put that line into a search, Voilà! the entire poem popped up! Eagerly I read…
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The trouble with poetry, I realized
as I walked along a beach one night —
cold Florida sand under my bare feet,
a show of stars in the sky —

the trouble with poetry is
that it encourages the writing of more poetry,
more guppies crowding the fish tank,
more baby rabbits
hopping out of their mothers into the dewy grass.

And how will it ever end?
unless the day finally arrives
when we have compared everything in the world
to everything else in the world,

and there is nothing left to do
but quietly close our notebooks
and sit with our hands folded on our desks….

–From Billy Collins, The Trouble with Poetry and Other Poems, 2007.

My favorite use of metaphor sneaks up on me unawares, when one thing is described using the language of another. Here’s an example from Collins’s poem, “Shadow.”

“…how tired I am of reading and writing,

tired of watching all the dull, horse-drawn sentences

as they plough through fields of paper.

“…tired of being dragged on a leash of words

By an author I can never look up and see…”

–From Billy Collins, The Art of Drowning, 1995.

How well I can relate to these sentiments. And yet, after spending a few minutes chewing over some juicy metaphors—where poems multiply like baby rabbits or proliferate like guppies, and prose writing is likened to trudging carriage horses or reluctant dogs—when next I put fingers to keyboard, my writing executes joyful cartwheels in the cool grass, and I join those ranks of poets and writers who strive to compare everything in the world to everything else in the world.

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References:

Scholes, R. (1969). Elements of Poetry, Oxford University Press: NY, London, Toronto.

For access to thousands of poems: https://allpoetry.com/

 

How you keep your own poetry and prose vibrant and fresh?

Thanks for stopping by. Please leave a comment.

I’d love to know what you think!

 

 

When Autumn Pivots into Winter

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20171117_093517.jpgAs October slides into November, pagans experience a thinning of the veil between this world and the next. That’s why Samhain or Halloween is full of ghosts and ghouls, witches, and warlocks—and why All Soul’s Day (Nov. 1st) and La Dia de Los Muertos (Nov. 5th) follow soon after.

What is the intersection between poetry and writing for children? To me, the underlying themes of life, death, and loss are the same. With its use of metaphor and rhythms, poetry telegraphs the deepest human emotions. It cuts through extraneous verbiage and gets to the heart of being human.

In my middle-grade fantasy WIP, poetry provides language for magical creatures—both demonic and benign. Helpful sprites speak in simple iambic tetrameter, while frightening demons express themselves in more complex, anapestic rhythms—reminiscent of the galloping beat used in Edna St. Vincent Millay’s, Moriturus, a poem about death.

Poetry with its compelling rhythms roots us in time, mimics the ticking of the clock, the pounding of the heart, the silence when a poem—or a life—ends. Children instinctively understand these rhythms. I include poetry in a blog about children’s book writing because it serves as the basis of my creativity, and fuels my prose.

A few years ago, a deadly October blizzard underscored the fragility of life and inspired the following poem. Last week, after returning from 70-degree days in Aqaba, Jordan to subfreezing weather in New York City, I revised Magnolia Leaves, which appeared on my blog: Poetry: Drinking from the Well. It seemed like a good time to revisit it.

 

Magnolia Leaves

 

Magnolia leaves clatter

like salad plates

onto bluestone walkways.

Chipped and brown,

the wreckage stacks up

while we wait for spring.

 

Temperatures plummet.

Icicles smash from rooflines.

 

Winter’s coming and Elizabeth

(our magnolia hybrid) shakes

her mustard yellow skirts,

bares her mouse-brown arms,

and folds her hands quietly.

 

She will gestate, patiently, coolly,

through twelve weeks of winter.

 

Her bowl-like blossoms

(butter-yellow in April)

will unfold from tapered buds

the shape of paintbrushes.

Each branch’s tip unfurling,

like velvet origami:

tender, triumphant.

 

She will gestate, patiently, coolly,

through twelve weeks of winter.

 

Picturing those massive yellow blooms

gives us strength to see

another season through

to its conclusion.

 

Temperatures plummet.

Icicles smash from rooflines.

 

In Buffalo, nine feet of snow fell

over three days. Twelve people died—

frozen in cars, or crushed

under buckled roofs.

Whole nursing homes evacuated.

 

Picturing those massive yellow blooms

gives us strength to see

another season through

to its conclusion.

 

Not everyone makes it to spring.

But I hope we do.

 

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A magnolia tree illustrates the uncertainty of life and death and the hoped-for rebirth of Spring. How do you deal with mortality? Are there particular metaphors you use to describe the cycle of life?

Please leave comments below. I’d love to hear from you!

 

Visiting Psychologist & Physicist: Ramzi Suleiman Offers up a Poem

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A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of hosting Ramzi Suleiman during his brief stay in New York. Ramzi is Chair of the Psychology Department at Haifa University. He’s also a physicist, engineer, and poet—in short, a Renaissance man. His presence in my home was as enlivening as a writer’s colony. By the end of our visit, Ramzi and I were exchanging poems and commenting on each other’s work.

After I read three of his poems I said, “It makes me realize how poetic your speaking voice is. Reading your poems is like hearing you tell stories around the table–as you have done many times this week. The imagery and metaphors are so rich, and the insights are so deep.”

I was especially taken with one poem translated from Arabic: Things Have Their Reasons. It carried me along like the ocean. Like ocean waves I found myself returning to it again and again, and emerging from it breathless.

Things have their reasons 

(translated from Arabic) 

Because things cannot be complete 

without their shadows, 

God created the candles 

And the glittering lamps 

on the water’s surface 

————

Because the sea surface rises up 

and collapses Down, 

like a lover’s chest 

Because lover’s sighs 

stumble one after another 

like the sea waves, 

God created the moon 

————

Because the Earth 

does not stop spinning, 

in search of its rendezvous 

God created the hours 

and asked them 

to look after the minutes and the seconds, 

and because, usually, appointments 

choose their appointees, 

God spared chance 

————

Because the pomegranate tree 

keeps its vows, 

and the full chestnut 

yearns for its self, 

God created the earth 

————

Because the night holds its grip 

On the day’s sleeves 

Like a blind man 

clinching his hand on his cane, 

Because the day 

Throws the remnants of its light 

And slips underneath the evening’s gown 

God created the opposites 

————

Because nothing is complete 

without what compliments it 

God created love 

Because things have no being 

without what is not in them 

God spared the pain. 

— Ramzi Suleiman 

Things Have Their Reasons will appear in “Trees Die Standing,” a book of Arabic poetry by Ramzi Suleiman, Raya Publishing House, Haifa, Israel,  Autumn 2015.

When the Heart Skips a Beat: Poetic Meter

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Most people would agree that poetry is best read aloud.

I was fortunate to have had a mother who read poetry to me from the time I could walk. Our first shared poems included those of A. A. Milne:

The End

When I was One,

I had just begun.

When I was Two,


I was nearly new.


When I was Three

I was hardly me.


When I was Four,

I was not much more.


When I was Five,
 

I was just alive.

But now I am Six,
 I’m as clever as clever.

So I think I’ll be six now for ever and ever.

Having absorbed Milne’s satisfying dimeter, I wrote my first poem. It was an ode to sweet hot cereal.

Brown sugar

all around,

Up and down,

Oh, hear the happy sound.

I can still feel the movement of my spoon shmushing and melting the brown sugar into my cereal. 

Only now do I notice how this early poem breaks the rules by having two beats in each of the first three lines, followed by three beats in the last. At the same time, doesn’t that last line act as a stop to the forward motion of the poem—like a flashing yellow light and clanging bell signals the lowering of the bar for an oncoming train?

I’m currently adapting 19th century poetry by a well-known children’s book writer/illustrator to serve as voices for some of the magical creatures in my middle grade WIP. The original poems employed four feet to a line (tetrameter). Sometimes the rhythm was a bit “off”, but I liked the quirkiness and interest this created. Yet, people–editors, writing groups—warn that meter must be spot on if it’s to appear in a published work for children.

When did children become so picky?

On the other hand, I balk at poems that begin with a certain meter and change into something mushy and undefined. Once established, listeners depend upon a reliable meter—as reliable as a heartbeat, so that when the heart skips or rushes on, or god-forbid, stops—we sit up and take notice.

Two useful guides to poetic meter and stressed syllables:

https://web.cn.edu/kwheeler/documents/Meter_Handout.pdf

http://www.poetryfoundation.org/learning/glossary-terms?category=rhythm-and-meter

Do you think poetry for children should follow a different set of rules than poetry for adults? I’d love to hear your comments.

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