James Weldon Johnson’s Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing and Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus

Time, on the poetry blog, to reflect on the close and loving relationship between song and poetry.

This song, which is not really an Easter song, still always fills my mind’s ear on Easter. James Weldon Johnson wrote the poem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing” on the occasion of Abraham Lincoln’s birthday in 1900. It was set to music composed by his brother, and became immensely popular in the black community, with some calling it the black national anthem. As an influential writer and thinker, and “with his talent for persuading people of differing ideologies to work together for a common goal, Johnson became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920.”


Luckily for us, PBS highlights the poem and song on their Black Culture Connection page. On this page, you can listen to a great video describing the conception of the poem, the development of the song, and then a sweet and delicate version of the song, performed by the Isaac Sisters with The Relatives. (There’s also a very trippy hip-hop version in another video,by Doughboy the Midwest Maestro and DJ Kool Rod over a video montage).

Because I am a hopeless poetry researcher, I also found a very interesting lesson on this poem and song created by ARTSEDGE, from the Kennedy Center. Maybe I’ll teach with this the next time I’ve got 5-8th graders.

All that being said, I think my memories of this song stem from singing it in high school, probably in a version that sounded very much like this. (Of course, we sang it not nearly as well, nor with an organ — but with as much gusto as we could muster. And then there’s the whole thing about white middle class kids singing this in the 1970s — but that’s for another to comment on — in fact, read the comments on YouTube. I just love the song and hope you enjoy it.)

And, in case you were hoping for the Hallelujah chorus, here you go! (Mom, this one’s for you!) Happy Easter everyone!

With his talent for persuading people of differing ideologies to work together for a common goal, Johnson became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/72#sthash.P8oiG99M.dpuf

With his talent for persuading people of differing ideologies to work together for a common goal, Johnson became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/72#sthash.P8oiG99M.dpuf
With his talent for persuading people of differing ideologies to work together for a common goal, Johnson became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/72#sthash.P8oiG99M.dpuf

With his talent for persuading people of differing ideologies to work together for a common goal, Johnson became the national organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1920. – See more at: http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/72#sthash.P8oiG99M.dpuf

A Poem from Nothing but Words : The Column Poem (PAD Prompt #27)

In honor of my daughter’s anthropology qualifying exams, which you can read more about in this Cupertino Poetry Exchange post, I wanted to write her a poem that celebrated anthropology. But, not being an anthropologist, I wasn’t really sure how to go about this. So, of course, I went to Wikipedia. I always start either there or at Stanford’s Green Library. General consumption of information that might be accurate or the deep deep scholarship of the ages. Sometimes you need one, sometimes the other.

So, Wikipedia defines anthropology nicely enough but didn’t give me much inspiration for writing a poem. Then I remembered a prompt/tactic/exercise I’ve taught and that I’ve also been taught by others (probably in the other order). Take a piece of prose (or write your own piece of prose) about a topic. Then circle 5, 7, 15, 31 of the best or most interesting words in the prose. Always an odd number. Don’t ask me why. Then put those words in a line down the center of the page in a single column and write whatever comes to you on both sides of those words. Voila, your poem. Like a column with wings.

I took Wikipedia’s definition of anthropology, picked the words that spoke to me, and came up with this funky, silly, sexy, and rather delightful poem. I doesn’t have much to do with my daughter, except perhaps the last two lines. And it’s got 14 lines, so I didn’t even follow my own advice.

Here’s what the prose looked like and then the messy wing-y column first draft. Finally, the poem (at the top of the post).

Your challenge, if you want to write today, is to write prose, pick your favorite words, and then make your own “column poem.”

Baseball Poetry: May Swenson, Marianne Moore and the SF Giants

Happy Giants Home Opener!

I’m an ardent San Francisco Giants fan. I learned to love baseball as a parent of a Cupertino National Little League player — and now that my son doesn’t play Little League anymore, I’ve transferred that passion to the Giants.

“It’s about
the ball,
the bat,
the mitt,
the bases
and the fans.
It’s done
on a diamond,
and for fun.
It’s about
home, and it’s
about run.”

The first poem I am sharing today is by May Swenson. She’s a favorite poet of mine, because her language is so simple and direct. Nothing too tricky about her poems, yet they still have beauty, depth, and even mystery in them. This poem is called “An Analysis of Baseball” — which, as my smart Monta Vista High School student poets would say, is a a pretty ironic point of view. Be sure to click through the link to see the whole poem in its proper layout.

A longer, more elaborate and especially delightful poem by a famous American woman is “Baseball and Writing” by Marriane Moore. Miss Moore takes much of the language for her poem from sportscasters of her generation. Here’s the second stanza. (The poem reads better on the Poets.org site. Don’t ask me why I can’t get it to reproduce here correctly.) Make sure you read this one out loud.

It's a pitcher's battle all the way--a duel--
a catcher's, as, with cruel
   puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly
      back to plate.  (His spring 
      de-winged a bat swing.)
   They have that killer instinct;
   yet Elston--whose catching
   arm has hurt them all with the bat--
	when questioned, says, unenviously,
   "I'm very satisfied.  We won."
	Shorn of the batting crown, says, "We";
	robbed by a technicality.
Fanaticism?  No.  Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
   You can never tell with either
      how it will go
      or what you will do;
   generating excitement--
   a fever in the victim--
   pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
	Victim in what category?
Owlman watching from the press box?
	To whom does it apply?
	Who is excited?  Might it be I?

– See more at: http://www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15658#sthash.AL4Vl3yT.dpuf

The photo at the top of this post is of Miss Moore throwing out the first pitch in Yankee Stadium in 1968.

There are a lot of baseball poems. A lot. I’m not sure what it is about poets, but baseball seems to be their sport. I wrote a poem for my daughter’s softball team which was published in a local journal, The Sand Hill Review, and one for my son’s baseball team which was included in the 2008 California Poets in the Schools statewide anthology.

I also noticed this poem — “Poem for Giants,” by Matthew Zapruder — on SFGate’s website, a few days ago.  It takes you on a bit of a journey, but a good poem will do that.


Go Giants!

“Tonight” by Agha Shahid Ali (with hyperlinks and audio)

What a find! A phenomenal poem, in a traditional and beautiful form, with both hyperlinks to comfort those used to interactive web play and an audio of the poet reading. Read, understand, inquire, listen, enjoy! One of the Poetry Foundation’s “Annotated Poems” — there are even lessons plans and teaching tips.

Agha Shahid Ali is superbly active politically and lyrically, and one of the most interesting poets to read currently writing. IMHO. His poem, “Tonight” is a ghazal, but rather than tell you all about it, I invite you to explore for yourself. Whether you’re searching for poets from India, Muslim poets, poetic forms, Emily Dickinson, the Bible, or Mughal architecture, you’ll find something to love here.

Photo courtesy of Flickr.


Lucille Clifton Reads “homage to my hips”

I’ve recently been teaching about poetry (stewarding young poets to write their own poems) in Fremont California at Gomes Elementary School. This experience was brought to me and all the kids at Gomes courtesy of their PTA and California Poets in the Schools. For my part, I had 120 fourth graders. It was grueling, but every minute I would do again.

One lesson we do I call “Simile and Your Body.” I start with “A Birthday” by Christina Rossetti, which I shared earlier this week, discussing how a body part can have feelings. Then we talk about all the parts of our bodies we can write about (brains, fingers, bones, feet, faces, elbows). Then we read “homage to my hips” by Lucille Clifton. This poem makes it safe to start a discussion abut the parts of our bodies that sometimes get laughed at, that we might be embarrassed about: our too big teeth or noses, our “fat” stomachs, our ears that stick out, our skin that’s not a color we see on T.V. very often. Our eyes that need glasses. Our legs that need wheelchairs. Pride in our bodies can go hand in hand with confusion, anger, joy. It’s also useful to give kids an example of a “real” poem that doesn’t conform orthographically to what they’re learning in school.

There is so much on Facebook and in my email Inbox right now about poetry. I wish it were always this way (except I would probably fall over from exhaustion). This video appeared like a lucky charm in my News Feed today. Enjoy Ms. Clifton performing it, and read it for yourself at this link.

homage to my hips
By Lucille Clifton

these hips are big hips
they need space to
move around in.
they don’t fit into little
petty places. these hips
are free hips.
they don’t like to be held back.
these hips have never been enslaved,
they go where they want to go
they do what they want to do.
these hips are mighty hips.
these hips are magic hips.
i have known them
to put a spell on a man and
spin him like a top!

Christina Rossetti “A Birthday”

For the second day of National Poetry Month, I offer one of my all time favorite poems, “A Birthday” by English poet, Christina Rossetti.

A Birthday
By Christina Rossetti

My heart is like a singing bird
Whose nest is in a water’d shoot;
My heart is like an apple-tree
Whose boughs are bent with thickset fruit;
My heart is like a rainbow shell
That paddles in a halcyon sea;
My heart is gladder than all these
Because my love is come to me.

Raise me a dais of silk and down;
Hang it with vair and purple dyes;
Carve it in doves and pomegranates,
And peacocks with a hundred eyes;
Work it in gold and silver grapes,
In leaves and silver fleurs-de-lys;
Because the birthday of my life
Is come, my love is come to me.

I often teach with this poem, because I know it by heart and love to look at the faces of young students when I’m reciting it for them. Nothing commands their attention better than a poem read from memory, a true performance. There are also so many visual images, and some strange and bizarre words that make us laugh (click through “vair” to see what I mean, poor Sciurus vulgaris).  The poem lends itself to fruitful discussions of simile and metaphor, and is a convenient opening for a lesson about how our bodies have feelings that our minds sometimes are afraid to articulate.

Drop me a comment about this poem, or share one of your own.

314px-Geoffrey_of_Anjou_Monument with vair lined mantle

Enamel effigy of Geoffrey Plantagenet, Count of Anjou on his tomb at Le Mans Cathedral, wearing a vair-lined mantel.


Prompt #20 Introduction to Poetry

Today I was fortunate to teach a poetry class to about 50 cardiovascular nurses, gathered at a local hospital for continuing education. Balancing self-care and caring for others is a continual pursuit for nurses. Because I’m a nurse as well as a poet, I appreciate the reciprocity between the disciplines of practicing art and caring for others. I wasn’t sure how the group would respond to the lesson I had prepared, essentially an expansion of a warm up I use with young students. But they were amazing. I shouldn’t have wasted a moment in worry. We laughed and cried. They wrote and shared. I felt very happy, humbled, exhilarated, blessed. And so grateful.

I started the lesson with this poem, “Introduction to Poetry,” by past U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins. I use this poem to reassure novice writers that poetry is not all about academic code-breaking. Analyzing great works of literature is all well and good, don’t get me wrong. I could do it all day long. But most people who want to explore poetry want to read a little, understand what they read, or, if they are mystified, they want that experience to be pleasurable. Even if reading poetry elicits emotions of grief, anger, compassion, the experience should essentially be one of inclusion and communion — not of confusion.

Anyone who is tempted to write poetry wants to feel confident that she has a place at the table. Your poetry can be whatever you want it to be — it’s completely possible to be a good amateur part-time poet. And Billy Collins’ poem suggests a few ways to approach a poem: like an object found in nature — a bee hive; or a fun experience — water skiing; or something beautiful to look at — a color slide of somewhere you traveled; or a game — a maze. Poetry is good. It shouldn’t put us off or frighten us. There are depths and complexities to great poetry, just like there are to great music (jazz or classical), to great art (Rembrandt or Pollack), to great wine. But who can afford to go to the opera or a museum every day, or drink the most expensive wine with every meal? Don’t you like to sing in the shower? Don’t you want a picnic with a cold beer once in a while? I hope more people will start with poems they like, reading alone or in groups, listening, and maybe some day take the plunge and write a little. You don’t have to be a prima ballerina to enjoy dancing at a wedding. You don’t have to understand John Ashbery to have a memorable experience writing a poem.

Your prompt for today is to look around you and find five objects in your every day life — one that you can appreciate with each of your senses. Did you notice how Billy Collins engages a poem with his eyes, his ears, the feeling of water splashing against his skin, the touch of a sensitive nose? Then, simply, write “poetry is…..” with each of those objects. We are used to talking about a beautiful dancer or figure skater as poetry in motion. We are used to calling a rich chocolate dessert poetry on the plate; the master chef can be called a poet in the kitchen. See if you can do it. Let yourself notice that there is poetry all around you at home, at work, in town, on a hike, with your family, in your dreams. Maybe a little mystery will find its way into your poem. Let it in. Maybe a little rhyme or repetition will emerge. That’s fine. Feel the poem in your body, say it out loud, what does that suggest for the poem?

Here’s my example:

Poetry is the rhythmic licking of the cat washing her face. Her spotted paw polishing her pink nose.
Poetry is the dog, in the February sunshine, turning around turning around turning around.
Poetry undulates with the clean sheets, my husband helps me make the bed.
Poetry settles on the windows as darkness settles on Saturday.
Poetry is the clattering fork whisking eggs in a bowl, the smell of my son making his supper, his little hums and yummy murmurs.
Poetry is strong fingers on the keys, typing typing typing, thinking about my mother with every word.
Poetry, a weekend family feeling.

Prompt # 19 Ode For An Odball Winter

Hello poetry friends! Today’s prompt will serve double duty: I want to tempt you to write in one of my favorite forms, the ode, but also I want to create a sample poem on one of the themes for the Silicon Valley Reads Poetry Contest, sponsored by the Cupertino Library. Here goes!

An ode is one of the oldest poetic forms in Western culture. As my friends at the Academy of American Poets describe:

“‘Ode’ comes from the Greek aeidein, meaning to sing or chant, and belongs to the long and varied tradition of lyric poetry. Originally accompanied by music and dance, and later reserved by the Romantic poets to convey their strongest sentiments, the ode can be generalized as a formal address to an event, a person, or a thing not present.”
I love to teach odes, because kids get the idea quickly. We talk about Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” which many of them have learned to play on their recorders if they are lucky enough to have music in school, and they readily understand praising and celebrating something or somebody. Read a couple of student odes at the CPitS website, in the Youth Poetry section.
Pablo Neruda, one of my favorite poets, wrote many odes (collected in translation and the original Spanish) in Odes to Common Things, common things like onions and chairs. He’s great to teach, too, especially if you have kids in class whose first language is Spanish. Neruda’s odes help dispel the silly idea some of us picked up in English Lit class that odes have to be about urns and dead athletes and other things we don’t care much about anymore. This one, “Ode to a Large Tuna in the Market” will give you a flavor.
Today I wrote an ode to the oddball winter that is 2013-2014. The idea started when I read a news story about kids at Reed College who crashed a huge snowball (800 lbs) into a dorm wall, damaging it and setting of a viral news story. I didn’t really mean to write a poem with rhyming metered stanzas, but it happened, so I went with it.  (Use a web-based site like RhymeZone if you don’t have a rhyming dictionary.)
My poem (which I’ll publish in a separate post) is also an example of how you can hyperlink images, music, and other information to your poem, if you want to experiment. One of the prompts for the Silicon Valley Reads poetry contest is to “write a poem using technology as part of the process. Use hyperlinks, video, photos or music as part of the poem’s form.” This poem of mine, “Ode to An Oddball Winter” is just such a conglomerate mishmash kind of poem.

Prompt # 15 : Poems for Rain

Zuni Prayer

Cover my earth mother four times with many flowers.
Let the heavens be covered with the banked-up clouds.
Let the earth be covered with fog; cover the earth with rains.
Great waters, rains, cover the earth.  Lighting cover the earth.
Let thunder be heard over the earth; let thunder be heard;
Let thunder be heard over the six regions of the earth.
Zuni Prayer for Rain

This week the governor of California declared an emergency in our state. “California faces water shortfalls in the driest year in recorded state history.” Jerry Brown said, “We can’t make it rain, but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens, including dramatically less water for our farms and communities and increased fires in both urban and rural areas.”

This urgent news started me thinking about things I can do: take shorter showers, reprogram the irrigation system so that the lawn is watered less. Reuse water from the kitchen for house plants and the veggie garden, as much as possible. (I already drive around in a dirty car, so I can’t save water by washing it less!)

I was a high school student in Cupertino in 1977, and I remember collecting water with buckets in the shower for my mom’s azaleas.  You can see more photos like the one here in SF Gate’s interesting article about drought years 1997 and 1991.

1977 Water Rationing

As the governor says, we can’t make rain. But what if we could? Some people pray for rain; there have been rain dances and prayers and ceremonies throughout the history of humankind on the planet. Water is more precious than gold or salt — the ultimate in life-giving elements.

Today’s prompt is to write a rain prayer poem. A rain dance song. A poem in which you celebrate rain and ask for rain to fall. There are many poems on this topic to be found in books and on the internet if you like to read to get ready to write.

Mueller’s poem is a classic sonnet form, with strict rhyme and meter, qualities is shares to some extent with the less formal Zuni prayer. The Zuni prayer also uses repetition to suggest a ceremonial style. Many rain poems have a rhythm or beat that suggests a dance or chant. Several of the poems for kids have language that imitates* the noises rain makes:

Dot a dot dot dot a dot dot
Spotting the windowpane.
Spack a spack speck flick a flack fleck
Freckling the windowpane.

(From “Rain Weather Poem” by Eve Merriam).

So! Write about rain, about its sound and feel, about its value and promise. Praise rain, dance and sing for rain. Maybe it will work.

(Rainy palm trees photo credit here.)

* Bonus prize for anyone who comments with the name of this poetic technique!