Poetry Exercise: Poem du Jour

I’ve devised a little exercise called “poem du jour” for when I want to get riffing on the page, laying ideas and images and rhythms down.  It’s a good calisthenic for those cold and rusty mornings.  Sometimes it results in a poem I want to keep, other times there’s only a good little bit in it, and sometimes it’s a throwaway.  But the nice thing about this exercise is that it gets the mind focused on poetry quickly.  Here are the guidelines:

  1. Find a poem that’s going to provide your template, the poem du jour.  Page through a favorite book, or a new book you’re reading, or scroll through a website like Verse Daily.  It should be a poem you admire.  
  1. From this poem, you’re going to extract your “rules” for writing your own poem.  Give your template poem a good read and from this devise several rules regarding form that will give a framework for your poem.  Some examples might be a specific number of lines, line length, stanza length, and the use or non-use of punctuation.  Another way to think about the form the model poem takes is its mode of expression — is it addressed to someone else or a musing to the self?  Is it a rant or an apology, a regret or a litany?  Your poem could take a cue from this, too. 
  1. You can stop there or go further and use the content as a guide for your own poem too, especially if you are feeling low on ideas and the pump needs priming.  What is the main emotion of the poem, how does it leave you feeling?  Your poem can try to evoke that emotion in its own way.  What complicates the poem? — hopefully something, because anything that’s a poem is pushing against something.  Get an inkling of what your model poem is up against, what’s needling it, and you might try getting up against that or being needled by that, too.  Or push against something else entirely, but use a strategy similar to the model poem’s.

It shouldn’t take much more than a few minutes to devise a set of rules based on your chosen poem du jour.  When I use this exercise, I usually set 3 rules or so for writing — nothing too complicated.  Go ahead and write.  Don’t worry that your new poem will be derivative — ultimately, your voice will come through. And don’t forget that as you go back and revise, you can throw out any or all the rules that got you writing. If they got you writing, their job is done.      

Maintaining Poetic Fluency

A poet must develop fluency in poetry through constant reading and practice. A poet must also maintain that fluency. As with any language, if you don’t use it, you lose it. Is poetry really a language unto itself? All I can say is that poetry is a different way of communicating than prose and everyday speech. For example, compression and ellipsis, figurative language, sound patterning, and non-linear movement of time are poetic devices that can distract in prose. And as a language undoubtedly influences the mindset of the speaker, so it is with poetry, which is as much a way of seeing the world as it is a way of talking about it.

Once gained, to maintain poetic fluency is ongoing work. One is neither born with it nor struck with it in lightning-bolt moments of inspiration. Knowing this, I try not to let too many days go by without making at least one poetic decision. Writing a poem is really a series of poetic decisions. But when I am not actively working on a poem, this can be as simple as writing one line or a single image. It can be copying out by hand in my notebook a poem I like written by someone else, and pondering the poetic decisions that poet made. It can be deep readings of poems, during which I ask questions: Where is the high point, the crisis, of the poem? Can I capture it and examine it like a firefly in a jar? How is the poem’s energy generated? Is there action and contrast? Does this poem move me? If I am unmoved, why? Can this poem or something in it become the jumping off point for another?

Image: Leonid Pasternak, The Passion of Creation, 19th c.

The Light and The Dark

“What looks at first like a confrontation turns out to be a connection.”

I like how Nobel Prize-winning poet Tomas Tranströmer talked about his poetry:                 

My poems are meeting places. Their intent is to make sudden connections between aspects of reality that conventional languages ordinarily keep apart. Large and small details of the landscape meet, divided cultures and people flow together in a work of art. Nature meets industry, etc. What looks at first like a confrontation turns out to be a connection. (Quoted by poet and Tranströmer translator Malena Mörling, here: https://uncw.edu/writers/faculty/morling.html)

These frictions and affinities generate energy.

With this in mind, enjoy two poems by Tranströmer: 

“After a Death”: Once there was a shock / that left behind a long, shimmering comet tail. …    

“Outskirts”: Men in overalls the same color of the earth rise from a ditch.

(Photo by Marcin Ryczek)

Translating Emily Dickinson

Last week, the University of Massachusetts Translation Center and the Emily Dickinson Museum hosted an online event featuring two translators who have taken on the difficult but rewarding task of translating Emily Dickinson into their native languages: Adalberto Müller and Marcel Riera i Bou.  Müller, an associate professor of literary theory at the Universidade Federal Fluminense in Rio de Janeiro, has recently finished translating Dickinson’s collected poems into Portuguese (see links, below).  Riera, a poet and editor, has translated a comprehensive anthology of Dickinson’s work into Catalan.  It was a fascinating discussion. Here are some highlights from each speaker’s remarks about translating this unique American voice.       

Adalberto Müller  

It took 7 years to translate Dickinson’s complete work into Portuguese.  Müller got into the habit of translating one to two poems a day.  Now that he’s done, he said he “doesn’t know what to do every morning.”  He was completely drawn into her poetry, joined the Emily Dickinson International Society, and visited Dickinson’s home museum in Amherst, Massachusetts. He found it an extraordinary experience to be in the presence of her everyday objects:  “In the museum, we can feel the proximity of her life in her garden, her clothes, her room… This is so important for a translator.” For Müller, it is crucial for a translator to know not only the text, but the context.  

“Poetry is what happens between sound and meaning.”  Müller emphasized that it was very important to capture the sound as well as the meaning of the original; this is a subtle balancing act.  To not honor Dickinson’s play with sound and rhyme would be “to kill the poem.” 

Dive deep into the work.  To translate a classic, one must become thoroughly familiar with it, including the many translations that have come before.  This familiarity can only enrich a new translation.  As part of his process, Müller read all the great previous translations of Dickinson, not only in the target Portuguese, but in German, Russian, and Spanish.  The translator must ask the question, “how can I do the translation now, considering the translations that came before?”

Dickinson is an important poet for this moment.  Müller reminds us that she “lived in a moment of great divide in America,” and that part of her project was to “break down walls and barriers.”  Despite her circumstances, Dickinson had a cosmopolitan worldview, somewhat unusual for her place and time.  She was aware of issues taking place abroad, and referenced other countries and locales in her work.  Importantly, Dickinson was a founder of modern poetry, and deserves this recognition.  Müller considers this a social justice issue: “It is more important to translate female poets right now.”

Marcel Riera i Bou       

Gaining a deeper understanding.  Riera first encountered Dickinson’s poetry in English as a reader whose interest was piqued.  Wanting to gain a deeper understanding of the poems he was reading, he made copious annotations in the margins, which eventually led to the translation of entire poems.  He called translating Dickinson into Catalan “the most difficult thing I have ever done.”  

Interest grows.  After he had prepared a number of translations of Dickinson’s work, Riera approached an editor to discuss publication.  The editor was dismissive, believing there would be no market for such a volume, miscategorizing Dickinson as “old-fashioned and elitist.”  Eventually, however, Riera convinced the editor to publish a soft-cover collection of about fifty translated poems.  This generated enough interest that the editor agreed to put out another volume, this time of a hundred poems (“but still soft-cover”).  After that, a volume of two hundred poems was authorized —  “and in hard-cover,” Riera chuckled.           

Just look at the difference.  Riera spoke about some specific challenges a Dickinson translator faces. “I can never manage to make things as brief, in a Latinate language, as Dickinson does in English.”  Riera put a Dickinson poem up on the screen (“My life closed twice before its close”), a perfect example of how Dickinson says so much in so few words.  He read his translation aloud, which was displayed beside the original.  The visual difference alone was striking, the lines in Catalan often twice as long.         

About those dashes—.  Other challenges for the translator are Dickinson’s sometimes idiosyncratic syntax, punctuation, and grammar, which include extreme compression and ellipsis.  Indeed, the act of translating lays bare the very bones of a poem’s being.  Riera credits this process with sharpening his own writing skills.  

Dickinson in Translation: Amherst Arts Night Remote, 11/5/20

Presented by the Translation Center of UMass Amherst and The Emily Dickinson Museum

Featured speakers: Adalberto Müller and Marcel Riera i Bou


Event details 

Müller’s volume of translations

Riera’s volume of translations

“My life closed twice before its close” by Emily Dickinson

The Emily Dickinson Museum

The Emily Dickinson International Society

The University of Massachusetts Translation Center

Poetry Reading Review: Tracy K. Smith

Tracy K. Smith via Zoom, sponsored by the Smith College Boutelle-Day Poetry Center on 10/21/20

How wonderful to have Tracy K. Smith read her poems in your living room.  While in-person poetry readings are special — the poet projecting from podium or stage, the feeling of community with fellow audience members, the excitement of shared experience — there was a real intimacy to this online reading which was captivating.  

Smith kept her gaze outward toward the listener as she read, something not always possible when reading pages from a podium at an in-person event.  And despite the digital distance between the poet and audience, she easily established a shared space.  

Smith’s selection focused on recent pieces, several of which are found poems (see links below).  “I make use of what’s around me,” Smith explained, “what startles, illuminates, and consoles me.”  Working with historical texts, the poet had an epiphany “that history, which I felt was behind us and represented closure, suddenly felt undone, in progress, and very, very near.”  A deeper examination of our past, with fresh eyes and insight, can shed light on our present predicament.  Hers is a process of uncovering the text beneath the text, by paying close attention and hearing other, hidden voices.

For example, while she worked with the Declaration of Independence to create the erasure poem “Declaration,” Smith said the historical text “presented facets of itself I hadn’t recognized before.”  The resulting poem, stitched together from phrases several hundred years old, speaks to today’s continuing struggle for Black lives and equal justice under the law.  Smith then read “The Greatest Personal Privation,” a found poem mined from the family papers of Charles Colcock Jones, a mid-19th century slaveowner and minister.  Out of letters composed a century and a half ago that exhibit an acceptance and promotion of enslavement comes something new, spoken in the voice of a slave.  

Smith read several other found poems, the starting points of which were an essay by Woodrow Wilson that celebrated Robert E. Lee and the correspondence of Helen Plain, president of The United Daughters of the Confederacy and Klan sympathizer.  The cumulative effect of the found poems was indeed a startling sense of history’s nearness and all its unfinished business.  

Smith then read “Rapture.”  An after-image of the last lines, which depict a woman lifted up and carried away, stays with me.  In “The Wave After Wave is One Wave Never Tiring,” the poet wonders whether movements for justice ever end, or are instead crucial parts of one long, arduous movement.  

She read a new poem inspired by a recent news article about the mysterious elephant die-off in Botswana, titled “The Elephant in the Poem.” There are silences written into the poem, missed beats that stand in not only for the noun “elephant,” but the elephants’ very vanishing.  

Lastly, Smith read a few selections from her forthcoming volume of translations of Chinese poet Yi Lei, My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree.  A line from the translated poem “Black Hair” stood out: The story of black hair is my story.  Smith explained that the image of black hair in Yi Lei’s poem has to do with youth, sensuality, and aging.  But the translator’s voice is unmistakably there, too, coming from beneath the text, or perhaps even nearer, in chorus with it.  Pay attention to the multitude of voices around you, Tracy K. Smith encourages.  Train your ear to pick up hidden frequencies.  Turn up the volume.

Links to poems and books from this reading:               


“The Greatest Personal Privation” 

“Rapture” & “The Wave After Wave is One Wave Never Tiring”

About the poet Yi Lei, with 3 poems translated by Tracy K. Smith

My Name Will Grow Wide Like a Tree, by Yi Lei & co-translated by Tracy K. Smith (forthcoming 11/2020)

Wade in the Water by Tracy K. Smith 

Eternity: Selected Poems by Tracy K. Smith

Poetry Challenge

All I’s on Me

Are artists expected to paint only self-portraits?  Authors to write just memoir?  Of course not.  It is interesting to ask why we might place such limitations on poets, then.  If confessional has come to be a default mode for contemporary American poetry, what might we be missing out on? Poetry challenge:  Create a poem without the I-word.