Essays on Poetry


Essays on Understanding and Appreciating Poetry

This section of the website hopes to do what we in the Poetry in Progress group set out in the "Who we are" section of this website, namely to "Learn how to understand poetry better and discuss the writing process." In our meetings we usually have a Poetry Discussion in which we try to extend our awareness of different forms of poetry, and to stimulate our own growth as poets.

The essays below are written by our members and we hope you enjoy them and learn something from them. Please contact the webmaster via our Contact Form with your comments or suggestons or if you have an essay you would like to submit for consideration.

"10 What Ifs:" Expanding Mind and Imagination

The several “what if” questions that follow may seem to be the product of a warped mind.  If so, so be it.  The purpose here is to experience something beyond “the box” – beyond our generally accepted beliefs, values, and practices.  Why is this important?

I believe that by pondering the “what ifs” we can come to embrace a larger part of the world, one that lies beyond the ordinary and generally accepted ways of thought and belief.  This is of special importance to those who are into the arts (especially writing poetry), for it can expand the imagination, sharpen artistic skills, and generally deepen appreciation for and participation in the creative process by helping to develop a greater facility in moving back and forth between the objective and subjective worlds of meaning.  (That was a pen full!)

Simply read each “what if” and let it take you where it will physically, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually.  Perhaps you’ll return with a poem, a song, or a new idea.

Note:  After experiencing these “what ifs” be sure to orient and ground yourself in the here and now world.  An easy way to do this is to make several statements that begin, “Right now I am aware…”  Examples: “Right now I am aware of the pressure of my rear on the seat of the chair,” “Right now I am aware of the sound of a distant car engine,” etc.

  1. What if you woke up in the morning and it was yesterday?
  2. What if werewolves and other “monsters” really exist?
  3. What if you came home and found someone you knew had died sitting in your living room reading the newspaper?
  4. What if suddenly you told the absolute truth as you knew it and couldn’t stop?
  5. What if one day an animal spoke to you?
  6. What if one day you woke up and nobody recognized you?
  7. What if it was proven that all your cherished beliefs and values were wrong?
  8. What if your deepest, darkest secret went “viral” on the internet?
  9. What if you had never read this list of “what ifs”?
  10. What if you really enjoyed the experience and wrote some “what ifs” of your own?

Now you might want to write a poem based on your experiences with one of these –

Peace and Poetry,

["How to Build a Fire"]
In 2013 I wrote the following poem. Today, in 2015, I finally became aware that I had written an essay in poetry. So I'm going to let it stand alone as essay #17. Happy de-metaphorizing!

How to Build a Fire

First you need a spark – perhaps steel against flint.
Where the sparks fall, place some kind of tinder –
perhaps charred cloth or tree bark or steel wool.

When a spark hits the tinder and it begins to glow,
gently nurture the glow into a tiny flame
by softly breathing on it.

Slowly add some twigs, then sticks, then branches, then logs.
And let there be spaces between them, that the flame
may stretch and grow.

As the flame grows, the fire breathes for itself.
Feasting on air,
kindling smoke by day
and flickering shadows by night,
it becomes a living being.

And that's how to build a fire.
And that's also how to write a poem.

"How to Build a Fire," Copyright© 2013 by John D. Call

Peace & Poetry

Breathing In - Breathing Out
By John D. Call
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Breathing In – Breathing Out: A Short essay on Breathing and the Writing Process

Morning, 3:30 A.M. I sit here unable to sleep. Suddenly I become aware of it – my breathing – I am breathing in and breathing out. I believe that when we become aware of our breathing, we shift into another mode of consciousness, one that allows us more depth of experience and heightened awareness, which are so important to the writing experience.

There seems to me to be a basic correlation between the breath and the writing of poetry. It's as if this basic act of breathing is a metaphor for the writing process itself.

To complete a breath one must inhale and exhale. That is, that which is outside must be brought inside (inhalation) and that which is within us let out (exhalation). The same is true when composing verse. The "outside world" must be drawn in and the inner world let out. The first is called mindfulness; the second is called
imagination. The first is more objective, the second more subjective. When mindfulness and imagination meet and coalesce, there is a "living being" created.

In breathing, if either part is left undone, we die. In composing, if either part is undone, we have either a catalogue of collective "facts" (no imagination), unformed and unanimated by imagination or a piece that is ungrounded and irrelevant to the world we know (no mindfulness).

So…catch wind of your breath, and see where it takes you and your poetry!

Peace & Poetry,
John D. Call

"Breathing In – Breathing Out: A Short essay on Breathing and the Writing Process,"
Copyright© 2015 by John D. Call

Stoking the Fires
By John D. Call
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Have you ever found that the "fire" of your enthusiasm and passion for writing poetry is down to the smallest flame or dying ember? I submit that these feelings are shared by most poets. So, welcome to the club of those with artistic temperament! But, how can we "stoke" these fires within us when only embers remain?

My wife and two sons and I used to camp in the Colorado mountains almost every summer. One of our favorite things to do was to cook our meals over an open fire, and later, after dark, sit in its warmth and glow. Eventually the flames would die down, and only red glowing embers remained. So, in order to return the embers into leaping flames again, we would "stoke" the fire, and soon new flames climbed up into the air.

I believe that the essence of the things we did to stoke the campfire also work for stoking the fires of enthusiasm and passion within us. Here are three examples:

  1. Gently blow into the bottom of the fire/embers. The air we exhale still contains about 14-16% oxygen, enough to feed the glowing embers or small flames. Likewise, we can feed our lagging passions by reading some of our favorite poems or something brand new from another poet or ourselves. Sometimes it works for me to write a few paragraphs in prose. You might just find yourself lapsing into poetry with renewed intent and energy.
  2. Add a log to the fire and/or rearrange the logs. This will create new space for air to circulate around the logs. When passion's fire is flagging, we can create some space between ourselves and our passion. Space, as well as absence, can make the heart grow fonder. I find walks to be helpful in creating such space. It can also be helpful to "translate" a few stanzas of a poem into prose. The "muse" within might take exception and try even harder to inspire you!
  3. Be patient, and trust the process. It takes a while for a spark to become a flame and a flame a blazing fire. The periods of low passion and enthusiasm are often like a field left fallow for a time, so that the soil can rest and rejuvenate. Often I experience, at the end of one of these times, a spate of new poems that seem to spring up from the fertile emptiness of the furrows.

Finally, when passion's blaze burns low, it's well to remember the old man's reply when asked what his favorite Bible verse was. His response was as confident as it was immediate: he said, "And it came to pass…" "Why is that your favorite?" the questioner continued. "Because in all life situations I know that no matter what happens, it has come to pass and not to stay!" Soon this, too, shall pass, and the fire will again burn brightly in your passion and in your poems!

Peace and Poetry,

"Stoking the Fires," Copyright© 2015 by John D. Call

The Silence of the Poems
By John D. Call
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As I was reading today (at Starbucks), the idea came to me that the most important aspect of a poem is the silence contained in it and the silence in which the poem itself is contained.  I think we make the mistake sometimes of believing that silence is an absence of sound, but silence, as I use it here, is an active and powerful presence.

The book of Genesis in the Bible tells a religious story of how everything came to be.  It was into a dark, empty, silent void that the Creator spoke the first words – “Let there be light!”  It is out of silence that the “muse” speak – “Let there be a poem!” or a novel, etc.  The poem emerges out of silence and returns to silence.  Silence is the womb in which all art begins its life and from which it is birthed into the world.

Within the body of the poem, silence is found between words, phrases, lines, and stanzas.  It is how the poet and readers/listeners handle these pieces of silence that determines the poem’s parsimonious or generous style and its syntactical character, that is, how words, phrases, lines, stanzas cohere and interact with each other to create meaning.

For instance, while reading to others, one can pause to separate, join, or to emphasize ideas and images, etc.  The silence of a pause can be particularly useful for subtly exposing the rhyming pattern, and before the final line or two, especially if they carry in them a surprise, a paradox, a conclusion, or an answer to a question raised in the poem.

As I suggested above, there is also that silence into which the poet utters “his” first words, out of which the whole poem arises and into which, in the end, it returns. When we speak our poem into the silence, I believe we share the creative character of the Creator and initiate a creative process.

It is said that “silence is golden.”  If so, then surely the poems emerging from it are “golden” as well (or at least silver). Once you hear the silence of the poems, it speaks louder than any words!

Peace & Poetry,

"The Silence of the Poems," Copyright © 2015 by John D. Call
April, 2015

Coming Back to Self
By John D. Call
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A few days ago I heard a knocking at my kitchen window. About every ten seconds it would sound again. Actually it was more like a thud. I looked out the window. A beautiful male cardinal was repeatedly thrusting himself headlong against the windowpane. Then he would fly away but soon return with renewed resolve to get to something he saw through the window. As I watched I became aware of his reflection in the window! Did he think that "other" bird was a long lost brother or a rival suitor for his mate? Little did he know he was trying to "come back to himself"!

Not a bad plan, especially for those who imbibe in the arts. But what does it mean, "coming back to self," especially with respect to writing poetry? For me, it means becoming aware of my experiences in the present moment.

In our lives today, our attention is divided and subdivided by a chaotic world and by choices we make. To "come back to self" is to be firmly grounded in the present moment and in our own current experience. From this position we can be sensitive to the "singing of the muse," for they sing in present tense and in the language of imagination (figures of speech, etc.), for this is the language of poetry. It is in coming back to self that we are enabled to most fully hear, interpret, and use our
poetic "native tongue."

I offer these thoughts for your reflections.

And I must give credit to the cardinal at the window for his determination and persistence, but watching him gives me a headache!

Peace and poetry,

How Do You Do It?
By John D. Call

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If you've been writing poetry for very long and have read for some appreciative audiences (of one or more), you've likely had the experience of someone saying to you something like, "How do you do it?" (translation – "I wish I could write like that!") It's easy enough to respond with a simple, "Thank you," for the implied compliment. But I believe there is more to it than this. I think that many people ask such a question out of a genuine desire to learn, coupled with a frustration of not being able to express their deepest selves as well as they would like.

So, I decided I'd take the question seriously and at "face value" – "How do you do it?" To at least begin addressing the question, I will point to several characteristics that I believe most poets, and others in the arts, seem to have in common and, in so doing, hopefully begin building a "profile" of a poet that can perhaps shed some light on the subject (or confuse it more, which would also be progress).

First, most poets have in their personalities a high tendency to be introspective and are as comfortable, if not more so, in their inner worlds as in their outer worlds. They tend to search within for answers and guidance. They tend to live more from their inside-out than from the outside-in.

Second, most poets seem to have a strong need for self-expression, perhaps as a counterbalance to the time spent within.

Third, most poets seem to have a lot of "yin" energy. It takes the "yang" energy to do the business of publishing, etc., but much of the composition and relating to the muse, as well as intuition, comes out of "yin" energy. "Yin" is the dark, inner world, feminine (not about sexual identity), right brain energy, while "yang" is the aggressive, outward, brightness, left brain, masculine energy (not about sexual identity), according to certain eastern thought.

Fourth, poets seem to be able to see or intuit the connection between all things. This is where our similes and metaphors come from and all the richness of other figures of speech, which are the poet's stock and trade.

Fifth, and a corollary of the fourth, poets have the capacity to hold dualities in their hands and work with them together rather than having to chose between them – examples: good and evil, light and dark, truth and falsehood, etc. The poet can allow each part to express its own truth and from this synthesis give voice to the novel and new.

Sixth, most poets seem to possess a sense of spirituality (not necessarily religious), in which they experience something larger than themselves, of which they are a part and within which they find meaning for their lives. For many, their poetry is an experience of this spirituality and an expression of it, which renders them a sense of wholeness.

Seventh, and a closely related aspect of spirituality, the poet can not only tolerate mystery but embrace it as well. This quality seems especially important in today's fast-paced, information-oriented world in which we want and expect answers and solutions now! For most people, mystery is to be solved and resolved. For poets it's to be embraced, first to accept and celebrate human limitations, then to allow mystery to reveal itself, partly or fully, if at all.

Finally, eighth, poets seem to have an innate ability to "trust the process," to find the "flow" and go with it. This is an active, not a passive, process, one in which the poet's creative energies join with those of the moment in order to fulfill that moment.

This short list of characteristics common to most poets and people in the arts in general, is my list based on my understanding and my experience. I could expand this list, and so could you.

But does this answer the "How do you do it?" question? Absolutely not! But I think these shared characteristics give us some "talking points" to include in future dialogues.

What makes a poet a poet? Certainly these eight characteristics beg the question of "nature and nurture." (The use of "and" rather than "or" pretty well sums up my own position.)

Perhaps I've mainly confused the issue. Well, if so, good! Is not confusion like a cloud through which we must walk, which leads us to the next patch of clear blue sky?

So, the next time (if I'm so fortunate) someone asks of me, "How do you do it?" I guess I'll continue to say, "Thank you," but in the back of my mind I'll be asking, "Just how do you do it?" and maybe I'll say, "I don't know yet, but I am working on it!" Or should we just accept it all as mystery?

Peace and Poetry,

In a Nutshell
By John D. Call
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We all know what "in a nutshell" means. It means concise, terse, and parsimonious. It
means to tell as much as you can as briefly as you can. In a nutshell it means a summary, a
few words that stand for many.

I would like, in a nutshell, to lift up three characteristics of poetry – song, praise, and
astonishment, represented by three of my favorite poets – Robert Frost, Rainer Maria Rilke,
and Mary Oliver, respectively.

The author of a biography of Robert Frost, Jean Gould, chose to entitle her book Robert
Frost: The Aim Was Song. Just read a few of his poems and note his effective use of rhythm
and rhyme to produce a melodic sense and a pleasing musicality that one could call "song."
I need to say, I don't know if this is what Ms. Gould meant by using "song" in her title, I just
think it fits and that this is the way I make sense of it.

In his book, Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Bly says, "…he had always
believed that the greatest art includes praise, amounts to praise." (p. 186) In his seventh
sonnet to Orpheus, Rilke says in the first line, "To praise is the whole thing!" (p. 207)

For me, to praise means to recognize that the Creative Force that fashioned the earth and
the universe is present in the most mundane of things. I recall another poem in which Rilke
declares, "…praise the water jug…" as one of several common objects he would bring praise
to. In this sense, praise is an affirmation, celebration, and thanksgiving.

The last characteristic of poetry that I want to mention is really a characteristic of the poet.
In her collection of poems titled, Thirst, the poet, Mary Oliver, in the poem "Messenger,"
says, "Let me keep my mind on what matters, which is my work, which is mostly standing
still and learning to be astonished." (p. 1) Astonishment, to me, is a combination of
surprise and delight. It means allowing oneself to be captured by mystery and being open
to discovery. In a nutshell, it means one must become as a child if one is to become a poet.

The characteristics of "song," "praise," and "astonishment" are important to our work and
can greatly enrich our poetry. Paying attention to what the great poets pay attention to is a
good plan!

And that, in a nutshell, is that!

Peace and Poetry,

"In a Nutshell," Copyright© 2014 by John D. Call

Mindfulness and the Writing of Poetry
By John D. Call

Before we can begin writing a poem, we need some kind of inspiration – something
in the internal or external environment that grabs us and will not let us go until we
"give it a blessing" (a poem).

So often we walk through our lives as if wearing blinders and earplugs, distracting
ourselves from experiencing the present moment. We are a "multitasking
generation" whose awareness is often spread thin.

This is where the Buddhist practice of "mindfulness" can be helpful. In his book,
Introducing Buddhism, Vadanya (Chris Pauling) describes mindfulness with these
words: "This is a calm, lucid, appreciative attention to what is going on here and
now. It means actually being present in the moment-to-moment business of living
our lives." (Introducing Buddhism, Vadanya (Chris Pauling), p. 31)

This means bringing our usually scattered attention into a single point of focus in
the here and now, so as to experience that point more intensely, clearly, and deeply.
I think of a laser beam and how powerful it is in its concentrated focus, as compared
to a broad and diffuse light.

The relationship of mindfulness to poetry is, I believe, clear. The more intensely and
clearly and deeply we experience something in the here and now moment, like
eating an apple, the more it opens itself to us so that we may, as it were, enter into it
and write from the "inside out." This specific, conscious, and intentional use of the
more general discipline of mindfulness, we might call "focused mindfulness."

An excellent example of writing from the "inside out" is Rainer Maria Rilke's poem
"The Panther." (Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, Translation and Commentary
by Robert Bly, p. 139) The second stanza reads:

The lithe swinging of that rhythmical easy stride
which circles down to the tiniest hub
is like a dance of energy around a point
in which a great will stands stunned and numb.

Such powerful poems come largely from attending to what is happening in the here
and now, then writing out of that centered place where the vision is clearer. It
seems to me that the Muse speaks mostly in the present tense.

Paradoxically, as we attend to a single experience (the mail truck coming down the
street), its enhanced clarity makes its relationship with all else more recognizable
and more accessible to the poet.

One exercise, called the "awareness continuum" can help in the development and
growth of mindfulness within us:

Simply close your eyes and take one or two cleansing breaths. Now make a
series of statements, each one beginning with, "Right now I am aware . . ."
Start with some internal awareness, such as, "Right now I am aware of my
stomach slightly aching," "Right now I am aware that I am thinking about
tomorrow's game." Then move to outside awareness, such as, "Right now I am
aware of the soft sounds of the cat swishing her tail across the newspaper." Do
several of each and try to use all your senses, and then return to your normal state
of awareness. If you are like many, you feel more centered and relaxed than before.

I believe that regular practice of this exercise can also increase the capacity and
facility of a sense of mindfulness.

Be sure you do this exercise in a safe place where you won't be likely to be
disturbed. And, since this is also a good relaxation exercise, you just may go to
sleep. Of course, don't do it when your full attention is required elsewhere – such as
behind the wheel, tending children, etc.

Finally, in Chris Pauling's book cited above, he describes mindfulness as " . . . a calm,
lucid, appreciative attention . . ." (Pauling, p. 31) Appreciation is a key factor, for it
suggests that for the spiritually inclined, mindfulness can be a form of thanksgiving
and praise. Rilke believed praise was a part of all great art. Perhaps the goal of the
art is praise. He has said, "To praise is the whole thing!" (Bly, p. 186)

And so, the general discipline of mindfulness invites us to slow down and pay
attention and become aware in all our life experience. For the poet, what I call
"focused mindfulness," is a powerful resource for sensing, interpreting, and
translating into language the urgings of the Muse. I guess the old sage was right
when "he" said, "Stop and smell the roses!"

Peace and poetry,

"Mindfulness and the Writing of Poetry," Copyright © 2014 by John D. Call

Toward a Definition/Description of Poetry
By John D. Call

Something within me resists trying to define "poetry." It seems to me that definition's enclosure and confinement go against poetry's elusive and expansive nature.

About halfway through the first draft of this essay, I discovered that it wasn't really definition so much as description that I was seeking. Whereas definition tries to sum it up and wrap it up, description takes a more nuanced approach and always has room for more. Definition limits and closes in, and that's okay, because that's part of definition's work. Description is open and invites thought and exploration. I retained the original title word, "definition," to keep before us the constant tension between definition and description.

The late eighteenth century writer, philosopher, poet, and metaphysician, Novalis (pen name for Georg Friedrich Phillip von Hardenberg),came to believe that the locus of the soul is where the outer world and inner world meet and overlap and here participate in each other – enriching both. The inner world provides meaning and transcendence to the "stuff" of the outer world, and the outer world provides the inner world a place to "anchor" itself and "incarnate," allowing us to deepen and enrich our experience of the mundane world. Some understand this place of the soul as a place of spirituality and encounter with the "divine."

And so it seems to me that poetry, being a collaborative effort of both worlds, can be described thus:

     Poetry can be understood
     as the effort of the soul
     to speak or express itself.

Of course the same could be said of any other art form – dance, music, painting, sculpture, theater, etc. From their genesis in the soul of the artist to their revelation in the outer world, all forms of artistic expression can be said to arise from the matrix of the soul and thereby can be the occasion for transcendent experience. For me, of course, this seems especially true of poetry.

Peace and Poetry –

John D. Call
April 2014

"Touching Me, Touching You" *: The Necessity of Resonance
By John D. Call

On this "Poetry in Progress" website this statement appears: "A poem is a relational being and is incomplete without finding resonance within another person." I find this perspective of great importance in my understanding of the poetic process.

First the muse (deep inner creative self) "touches" the poet with "grist for the mill" that, in time, becomes a poem – "touching me." Then the poet in turn touches the reader/listener with the poem – "touching you."

If the poem finds completion by resonating within the reader/listener, that resonance can take many forms: an emotional resonance (joy, sorrow, anger, fear, etc.), a cognitive resonance (a memory, an awareness, an understanding, etc.), a physical resonance (restlessness, peace, relaxation, pain, tension, warmth, etc.), and a spiritual resonance (a sense of belonging to or trusting in that which is greater than ourselves, a sense of wholeness or of being somewhere along the way to wholeness, a sense of closeness or of unity/oneness with the divine as the reader/listener understands the divine).

Any resonance might be bold or subtle. A poem has the power to change a life or induce boredom and sleep. The reader/listener may or may not "get" what the poet is wanting to say. Still, if the poem finds an authentic resonance, I believe that the poem has done its job and has generated a completion, perhaps one of many completions in its lifetime.**

For example, the poet might use the image of a deep chasm in reference to his own sense of sadness or joy. The same image may resonate with the reader/listener as a memory of the family's last vacation to the Grand Canyon accompanied by an emotional resonance of bittersweet nostalgia that quickly gives way to a deep appreciation of his family and a cognitive resonance of a semi-conscious resolve to spend more "deep time" with his loved ones.

If the reader/listener "gets" the meaning the poet intends, then the resonance might include a sense of closeness with the poet. This process of the "meeting of meanings," which is how Ruel Howe describes successful communication in his book The Miracle of Dialogue, often results in a sense of connection between persons.

A poem can leave us glad or leave us mad, but it will not leave us alone. If you are a poet, then, having been touched by your muse, reach out and touch another, or if you are a lover of reading and listening to poetry, be aware of its power to touch and its power to heal.

Peace and Poetry,
John D. Call

* "Touching Me, Touching You" is a line from the song, "Sweet Caroline," by Neil Diamond.

** Emphasis is editor's.

" 'Touching Me, Touching You': The Necessity of Resonance," Copyright © 2014
by John D. Call

Essay on becoming a poet...
By James Brown

Today I scanned the want ads twice
For gainful full employment
Were full of Sales and Medical,
And some of them...Deployment.

To my dismay I found no jobs
Not one there listed Poet
And learned too late it helped to mate
With wealth...but then not show it.

Posted February 3, 2014

Mustering the Muse
By John D. Call

After a sustained period of time writing poems, I begin itching to write something about the poetry writing process. So, this brief essay is my scratch for that itch.

The only thing that is more intimidating to a writer than facing a blank page with no direction is facing a whole legal pad full of blank pages. Recently I finished the pad I was writing on and reached for another. In noticing its emptiness, it struck me that my job is to fill it with words and phrases and sentences and thoughts that are somehow approachable, and with images and rhythm and sometimes rhyme that find a resonance with another human being.

The empty page reminds me of the seemingly empty abyss within myself that, although it appears empty, is actually teeming with life. That life (the muse*) must sometimes be coaxed from the abyss much like a snake charmer coaxes the snake from the basket with the music of a flute. Most of the time, however, a basket and flute are not too effective in coaxing or calling together or mustering the muse.

In my approximately 35 years of writing poems, the following has proven helpful in mustering the muse. The primary skill needed is the skill of waiting. Contrary to our usual meaning, this waiting is far from passive. In fact, we might call it, "active waiting." I believe that this active waiting for the muse must be saturated in the following
four attitudes:

  1. The attitude of openness says, "I am here, ready and available to be inspired and guided. This openness can be seen in body language as well as mental and emotional focus.
  2. The attitude of expectation that something will happen is vital. You may express this attitude by having a comfortable chair and pen and paper at the ready: anything that signals the muse that you are making a serious effort to tap their wisdom.
  3. The attitude of welcome says, in essence, "I will consider all things you send my way – all contributions are appreciated and will be given serious consideration."
  4. The attitude of trust is of two types. First is trust in the whole process that inspiration and guidance can be imparted and received within an artist. The second type of trust is that which is committed to follow the lead that the muse may offer. The poet Robert Bly, while being interviewed by Bill Moyers, quotes William Blake's quatrain that I think speaks poignantly to this following of the muse:

    I give you the end of a golden string,
       Only wind it into a ball.
    It will lead you in at heaven's gate
       Built in Jerusalem's wall. **

This active waiting skill cannot press the muse into service. It can, I believe, set the stage in such a way that they are more likely to come out from behind the curtain and play their parts. I share it with you in the hope it might be of some use in our common journey and that you will in time share with the rest of us what is working for you.

I think I'll go muster the muse ----

Yours in the journey,
John D. Call

*  When I use the word "muse," I am speaking of deep inner parts of ourselves, mostly unconscious, that when accessed can become a source of inspiration and guidance in the prosaic or poetic process. They are characterized by being intuitive, clear thinking, and having access to the unconscious where the memory of the race is archived.

**  Quoted by Robert Bly in an interview with Bill Moyers in the book entitled,
The Language of Life, A Festival of Poets, Bill Moyers

For a PDF version of this essay, "Mustering the Muse," please click here.

The Third Ear and the Mind's Eye: Another Word on the Nature and Purpose of Poetry
By John D. Call

On a recent trip to the Canadian Rockies, I chanced to meet an old seminary professor of mine whom I had not seen for over forty years. Having heard some of my poems about the mountains, he observed, "The poet's eye sees more than our prosaic observations." This rings true to me, because poetry can see beneath rocks, around corners, inside mountains, and within the human heart.

The power of poetry comes largely, I think, from its ability to speak effectively to the "third ear" – that part of ourselves that can sense nuances of meaning and can pick the sweet meat from the shells of metaphors and similes and other figures of speech. It also aims at the peripheral vision of the "mind's eye" where glimpses of images are more suggestive than the long stare at them. Glimpses invite the imagination to rush in and fill the gaps and link up with a myriad of associations, while the stare tends to focus upon the object itself, to comprehend it – a worthy thing certainly.

This doesn't mean that poetry is somehow superior to or more important than the "prosaic observations" of prose. They are simply two different ways to use the same language to address different parts of ourselves for different purposes. Both are needed to experience the greatest balance. They are yang and yin – they complete one another.

A final thought – anything we can do to enhance the range of sound that the "third ear" can hear and sharpen the sight of the peripheral vision of the "mind's eye" will help us become more effective poets and more satisfied listeners/readers.

"The Third Ear and the Mind's Eye: Another Word on the Nature and Purpose of Poetry," Copyrigh t© 2013 by John D. Call

A Single Sentence Musing about the Nature of Poetry
By John D. Call

I think of poetry, indeed all forms of art,
as a means through which we attempt to interpret
life events and processes for ourselves,
the goal of which (conscious or unconscious)
is to arrive at a fuller understanding, a deeper sense of meaning,
and a clearer and expanded sense of purpose for this life we live.

"A Single Sentence Musings about the Nature of Poetry," Copyright © 2013 by John D. Call
Posted January 14, 2013

Author's Note: See John D. Call's essay "A Word about the Work of Poetry" on below and above for more information and a sense of my progression or regression, as the case may be, from that one to this.

Getting Stuck and Unstuck While Writing Poetry
By John D. Call

If you're like me, sometimes in writing a poem, you feel like you're on a runaway horse
with lines coming faster than you can write them down. But more often we experience
another frustration – getting stuck!

For me, getting stuck mostly means not knowing what comes next in a poem in progress.
It's losing a sense of flow and a sense of the direction and orientation of the poem. This
malady feels like getting caught on a giant piece of flypaper; you can't move! Hopefully
each of us has developed some way to get unstuck and move on. Here are few that work
for me most of the time. The first two are attitudes that are helpful to maintain when
stuck, and the last five are specific techniques for getting beyond stuck.

  1. Remember that getting stuck is a natural occurrence and an essential part of the
    creative process in all the arts. It is to be embraced as a positive, not resisted. It's like
    fighting the water and going down or relaxing and floating.
  2. Realize that something is telling you something from a deep consciousness within. It
    may be questioning the direction you have taken in the poem and saying, "Stop, look.
    There's a better way."
  3. Sometimes taking a "time out" from the poem can help. Focus on something else and
    allow your deeper consciousness to work on it awhile. It allows your mind a chance
    to "reset," so as to come back to the poem with fresh eyes and mind. This can help
    with what I call "writer's fatigue" in which your body gets tired and your mind turns
    to Jello, and it's hard to focus.
  4. Consider the possibility that the poem is finished. We've all heard talks and readings
    of prose and poems when the speaker passes up many a great place to stop!
  5. Try rewriting the poem from the start. When I try this, often I happen upon a better
    direction before getting to the "stuck place," so that when I get there the changes
    have eliminated the stuckness. Then sometimes you can write through the stuckness
    with the momentum of the rewriting.
  6. Write about being stuck. Several times my poems written about being stuck turn out
    to be better poems than the ones in which I am stuck. At other times writing about
    being stuck loosens its hold. Coming back to first person, present tense allows for
    getting a firm footing in the present from which movement forward is possible.
  7. Finally, the most effective technique for me for getting unstuck is imaging. Relax and
    in your mind's eye create images representing where you are stuck in the poem.
    Then simply watch to see what happens. Say, for example, you are stuck on the
    following line and are trying to get beyond it: "…evening shadows stretching across
    the yard…" You can image the shadows in your mind, and in the imaging you notice
    the picket fence and how the light is still splashed between the shadows of the
    pickets, so the next line might become, "the fading sun still dances between the fence
    pickets lengthening on the ground."

I hope at least one of these techniques for getting unstuck will work for you when you
need it. Again, getting stuck is part of the creative process, and to get stuck means that
you are involved in this process. May every stuck place in your writing be an opportunity
for creating an even better poem.

"Getting Stuck and Unstuck While Writing Poetry," Copyright © 2012 by John D. Call

Link to PDF version of "Getting Stuck and Unstuck While Writing Poetry"

Revision, Revision, Revision in Writing Poetry
By John D. Call

It's hard to get it all right or even alright the first time! Thus was revision created. An
understanding of revision is found (as it so often is) within the word itself. A revision is
a re-visioning of the poem – a seeing it again with the suggestion that this second or third
or fourth revision is more insightful than the one preceding it.

Revision is the process of seeing the poem again with the advantage of experiencing it as
a whole. Like the face of the full moon shows its topography even to the naked eye, so
the poem when "completed" shows its geography more clearly, and you can determine if
it holds together – if the "mountains and craters" together make strong, coherent images
giving life to the poem.

Sometimes revision involves rewriting the whole poem, sometimes a change of words or a
comma, added or removed. And there is no statute of limitations on revision. Because
all things are always changing, it is fair to say that we never bring the same self to a poem
twice, so we can see in revision number two things we couldn't see in number one, and so
on. I often have five or six, and sometimes more, draft revisions. In her book, A Poetry
Handbook: A Prose Guide to Understanding and Writing Poetry, the poet Mary Oliver
says she herself will "…revise through forty or fifty drafts of a poem…" (Oliver, p. 111).

Often it's helpful to set the "completed" poem aside for a day or two, then return to it
with eyes that have taken in a few other things beside the poem since you last looked at
it. The brain "reset" from the numbing familiarity of the poem seems more objective and
more sensitive to weak spots in punctuation, syntax, images, figures of speech, etc.

Ted Kooser, former Poet Laureate of the United States, in his book entitled The Poetry
Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets
, says that "Revision, and I
mean extensive revision, is the key to transforming a mediocre poem into a work that can
touch and even alter a reader's heart. It's the biggest part of the poet's job description,"
(Kooser p. 16). Kooser also states, "It's been my preference to revise toward clarity and
freshness…" (Kooser, p. 16). To this I would only add, revision also toward simplicity
and brevity.

Finally, Kooser suggests something I've found extremely helpful in revision work. Ask
someone to read your poem to you aloud "cold turkey" and be aware of "trouble spots"
which are candidates for revision. Trouble spots may be in rhythm, use of unfamiliar
vocabulary, faulty punctuation, rhymes not holding up, etc. (Kooser, p. 150).

I'll end with a metaphor that helps me understand the revision process. Picture a potter at
the wheel. Beneath the potter's sensitive hands upon the wheel the clay waits. The pot
she is making goes through many an addition and many a taking away, a changing of
form here and a formation of a new part there. A poet is a potter altering again and again
that which lies before her – adding to, taking from, as the poem beneath her hands slowly
takes shape, becoming a vessel in which will be carried the poet's gift to the world.

Now, go revise something!

Link to PDF version of "Revisions, Rervisions, Revisions in Writing Poetry"

A word about the Work of Poetry
By John D. Call

By the "work of poetry" I mean that which a poem is to accomplish. As with all works of
art, a poem is meant to impact something beyond itself. I believe that in large part the
work of a poem is to create and sustain within a deepened sense of awareness,
expectancy, and wonder in both the reader/listener and the poet. It does this with certain
tools of the poetic craft — images, juxtaposition of ideas, metaphor and other figures of
speech, rhythm, rhyme, the muse, etc.

In Ranier Maria Rilke's poem "Archaic Torso of Apollo," the poet speaks of his
experience of viewing Rodin's masterpiece sculpture entitled "Torso of a Youth from
Miletus." His response to this piece of art was so intense and deep that he was moved to
say in the final line, "You must change your life." Perhaps this is ultimately the work of
all the arts – to invite and enable some kind of growthful change. We've all heard
someone say that such and such book, music, poem had changed his/her life. This, then,
is the work of poetry, to be a midwife to change, be it large, small, or in between.

So, poets, keep on writing and sharing your work!

Copyright© 2012 by John D. Call

On Writing Haiku and Senryu
(musings by John D. Call)

Over some thirty years of writing poetry my poems have tended to be brief.  I guess this
is part of the reason I was drawn to haiku.  Also I have for a long time been interested in
Eastern thought, and haiku has its roots in Chinese and Japanese sensibilities, especially
Zen Buddhism.

I spent about two years or so writing haiku and its near twin, senryu, almost exclusively
and have had a few published in a haiku journal.  Both haiku and senryu use the same
variety of line configurations.  The lines can be arranged in many ways, some of which are
illustrated below.  For the most part lower case letters are used and usually no
punctuation or title.

The haiku expresses a sudden experience of the natural world and at its best hints at or
suggests some insight about life, often with an element of surprise.  The senryu
accomplishes the same thing except that its subject matter is human nature and its
interaction with the natural world or with itself. I think of a haiku/senryu as a “splash in
the stream of consciousness,” because like a splash it is sudden and surprising and has the
power to draw one’s attention to itself and for the moment demands one’s full focus.

Below I have given some examples from my own poems to illustrate some different
configurations haiku/senryu can take (not exhaustive) and the difference in haiku and

It should also be said that these examples represent the more “westernized” form of
haiku/senryu (which might be called “free haiku”).  It maintains the spirit of haiku while
not demanding a strict adherence to the criteria regarding form and length (seventeen
syllables in three lines of 5-7-5 syllables), and content that the traditional haiku poets
continue to observe.

Examples of haiku - by John Call

   the wheeling
of nights and days
   caught in a moving shadow

in the autumn wood
    a drizzle
        of leaves

at night – soft light of the snow

            sun setting –
          in the east
      a tower of clouds
   won’t let it go

Examples of senryu - by John Call

traveling through infinite space
I reach
for your hand

with my country friend –
    which side of my heart
shall I pour out

in the eye of a dead fish
     people throwing their Frisbee



All of the above haiku and senryu - Copyright© 2012 by John D. Call

Getting Started
Finally, a good way to get started with haiku/senryu is to read about the process and to
read many poems to begin to take in the sensibilities needed to do it well.  Then write,
write, and write!

Recommended Resources about Haiku

  1. The Haiku Handbook: How to Write, Share, and Teach Haiku, by William J. Higginson
  2. The Haiku Anthology (3rd edition) (Expanded edition) Ed. Cor van den Heuvel
  3. Haiku:  Eastern Culture by: Reginald Horace.H. Blythe
  4. Modern Haiku:  An Independent Journal of Haiku and Haiku Studies Ed. Charles Trumbull  

Why to not write poetry... a list of excuses
See this article (click above) by Glenn Currier about the "self talk" that keeps us from writing poetry. See suggestions for combatting the resistence within.

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