Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This Business of Poetry, Part 2: Who and What is a Poet?

Here are some words that have been used to describe the poetry of poets:


There are a lot more adjectives that could be used to describe the work, but do these adjectives tell us anything about the poets, themselves? What kind of person is a poet?

In my last article, we looked at the areas in philosophy that strive to define, categorize and legitimize poetry and poetic form. All such speculation might be interesting, but philosophy has no business being involved in the business (such as there is) of poetry. This may well be an audacious statement to make, but I believe it to be true. The philosophical branches can only strive to create rigid structures and teachings, ideological cults, if you will, that attempt to hold the thing, but are not the thing itself. Poetry does not fit within neat, labeled boxes, for even if it follows form, its function is ruled and owned by the unique mind that imagines and creates it, and by every unique mind that reads and interacts with the work.

Let us take on a thought experiment. We begin with the following question:

What came first, the word or the vocalization?

This is an interesting question because history does not hold the answer for us. Our earliest iteration of written history occurred thousands, perhaps millions, of years after the time that would hold such an answer for us.

I would venture to say, within the bell jar of this thought experiment, that vocalization and word are twins of a sort, born of thought and instinct. Thought is a product of awareness. Words are vocalizations of thoughts that seek, firstly, to identify and to name, secondly, tools of memory. Remembered objects and words become the primary tools of coping and teaching.

When you can name things, you have mastery, of a sort. When you can relate one thing to another by the use of words, and can bridge such relationships to another person, you have communication. When you turn from those things you understand fairly well toward speculation of things you don’t understand at all, you begin a conversation that leads to philosophy, cosmology and/or metaphysics. When you stir together combinations of organic matter over an open fire, you have science—if you can remember the best combinations and repeat them, you have a recipe. When you can repeat the story of something that happened to you, a bad thing that might better be avoided, you have a teaching, and possibly a moral.

Back to the question we started with: What kinds of people are poets? To some extent, this is a silly question with a simple answer. Anyone who has ability with language can be a poet. Poets are musicians, philosophers, instigators, rebels, loners, peasants, rabble, home makers, theologians, soldiers, workers, kings and queens, provocateurs, “gypsies, tramps and thieves”, not to mention crazies and addicts.

Poets are prophets—they see and report on the state of reality, asking us to turn and return away from hubris towards conscious trends of action.

Poets are seers—they experience life to the fullest extent of its triumphs and failures; they are people who arise from oceans of reality to mingle in the clouds of possibility and imagination. They illustrate what might be, what could become, in the world, if certain conditions were extant.

Poets are illusionists and magicians—they show us one perspective, while drawing us to apprehend another. They conjure and transform perspective, stopping or elongating time, recovering, reflecting, reverencing and rejuvenating moments of splendor or simplicity.

Poets are alchemists—from the symbolism of all that has come before, they develop new forms, ideas and words by means of their thought experiments that result in poetry.

Do you resemble any of these remarks?

Next time: Thought, word, deed through the filter of imagination.

And don't forget, I'm saving you $200.00 in fees for a class and materials! HA!

Thursday, February 16, 2012

This Business of Poetry

I was taken aback when I saw an advertisement (on the local parent network listserv) offering poetry classes. I read the ad with interest. $200.00 for six weeks, offered in the home of the teacher… Plus, you must purchase a book of poetry by someone I have never heard of … explore the specific poet’s work, first half the class, then “take cues” from the “unique voice” of the poet under examination as a jumping off point for your own writing, second half the class. Offered by a published poet and former editor of a magazine I’ve never heard of … MFA from a local college… blah, blah, blah.


Got me to thinking… poetry as a cottage industry?


If I had $200.00 to spend, it would be on an evening of music, a book or two, a cup of coffee, a tea cake, and thou…

Why is she offering this out of her home? Why doesn’t she have a classroom and office hours?

Here’s the thing: poetry is not a business. Not a cottage industry. Not some little shoppe on the square (although it could possibly be described as a house of cards) with cute little note cards, a book or two, pens, leather bound notebooks and calligraphed verses and such. More to the point, in this case, you can’t teach anyone how to write anything by using your approximation of someone else’s voice. I think it takes a lot of gall to ask people to pay you for teaching them how to express themselves in writing by using someone else’s voice or technique.

I figure that I might be doing a great service to the community by offering free discussions about poetry and writing right here, on this blog. Not daily, but occasionally, in this month and a half ramping up to National Poetry Month (April).

What Is This Thing Called Poetry?

We get the word from the ancient Greek ποιεω (poieo) and the word means “I create.”  When you look up the word “poetry” in Wikipedia (or, who knows, perhaps you have an antique lying around your house labeled “Dictionary” or another bearing the legend “Encyclopaedia”), you will find a lot of interesting information about what poetry is and of what it can consist. I won’t bother to repeat any of that here—if you can see this blog, you can look that up for yourself.

I would like to define poetry in a less academic sense, couched in a more personal reality. Poetry is an activity of the mind, using the tools of everyday vernacular language, in response to personal experience of life. In essence, poetry is a word game that you play with yourself. This game is, however, grounded in your unique experience of the world, which could be thought of as philosophical, particularly existential or hermeneutical, rather than confined to being literary, in the most basic sense of the word. This may be why Poetics, the study of and theorizing on the nature, principles and elements of artistic composition, is considered a philosophical activity. You will find books on poetics in the Philosophy section of your library and bookstore, but seldom, if never, in the Reference or “How To Do It” sections or even the Poetry section! Moreover, you are more likely to find the earliest Western book on the subject, Aristotle’s Poetics, in the Classics section than any of those other areas I mentioned.

Aesthetics is another branch of philosophy that has a bearing on a broad range of artistic endeavor; it is the study the nature of beauty and sensory values, usually within the context of culture.

Literary Criticism can straddle the divide between philosophy and literature—this is sometimes described, perhaps unkindly, as a method academics use to put their mark on someone else’s work. Literary Criticism tries to establish a philosophical and cultural framework around a work or a body of work, sometimes with the intent of guiding people toward meaning or understanding or validation of the work. Personally, I don’t take much stock in literary criticism, as it has a history of foisting ideologies on readers, rather than allowing the work to stand on its own within the context of the readers’ experience. Some authors have little sense of humor when it comes to a Literary Critic telling the reading public what to think about their work.

So, we have talked a little bit about poetry, poetics and aesthetics and literary criticism, but knowing about these disciplines doesn’t get you anywhere close to writing poetry. The good news is that there are some “How To Do It” guidebooks, called poetry handbooks. These you might well find in the Reference section of your library or bookstore. Such books will talk about diction, tone, voice, rhythm, meter, rhyme schemes, and such. Sometimes they will do this by examining actual poems by well-known poets, poems that may be already familiar to you. I like reading poetry handbooks that are written by well-known poets, as opposed to those written by well-meaning “publish or perish” academics you likely haven’t heard of or read anything about.

The interesting thing about poetry handbooks is that they don’t all say the same thing. Yes, there are set forms and formulations, but poetry is not a science. You can take the forms and formulas and jam a bunch of words into such, but will the end result be a poem? Chances are that if you hand a set of Scrabble tiles each to two people, each person will construct a different piece of writing from among them.

But now we are back to the notion of word game. And that is what poetry is: it is your creative act using words that talk about your experience of life. Poetry differs from prose in that it is laid out line by line in stanzas, whereas prose is organized in paragraphs following grammatical structure and perhaps more regular speech patterns. Poetry differs from prose also by virtue of its music—that is to say, your music.

Poetry is your music, your experience, your truth:

            Poetry is nearer to vital truth than history.
~ PLATO, Ion

--NEXT TIME: What and Who is a Poet?--

Wednesday, February 15, 2012


Softly, they fall;
some into the snow,
some into the soft earth—
they fall, these blossoms fall,
to falter, to fade and to fail,
the evidence
of that transience,
of that impermanence
that divides us,
yet that sings to us,
most especially when we
do not want to hear
the music of passing,
the words of parting,
to feel the emptiness
of longing
for the departed

We long
for the song
of your presence,
in our sight,
in our hearing,
in our arms,
where so soon ago,
you were, every moment,
a thread in the fabric
of our days and our being.

Our tears are shed
in private silence
for being left behind;
indeed, we might gladly
have gone abroad with you,
oh, Beloved One.

We whisper a prayer to you,
oh, Vibrant Lovely,
hidden from us.

We sing a silent song for you,
because we know
that it is but illusion
that separates us
from one another.

Our tears,
they wash away
the sorrow of our loss;
for it is a sad truth:
though we can no longer
hold you in our arms,
we can still feel your kisses,
and know your presence,
and hear the sound
of your voice,
on our hearts.

You will not rest,
where you are,
and neither will we rest,
until the wheel of time
places us, once again,
in intimate proximity.

Oh, Beloved One,
Love to You;
Dearest One,
Good Night.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

--This was written about the loss of a dear friend in 2009, brought to mind
by the passing of a colleague this week. Sing on, Todd, in the heavenly choir!
And may the winds carry your tune straight to our hearts. --

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Lotus Dreams

Rising to the occasion
of dewy, rose-hued dawn,
blue lotus emerges
from one world,
breaking middle-place tension,
to meet another.

Greetings, Friend!
In the rosy Dawn,
a thousand petals
open like arms to bless you
with their touch, so like silk
upon windblown reeds.

Nestled on water,
as if in the palm of a hand,
loving arms reach
across any imagined void
to perceive relationships
through a central lens,

And when dusk comes,
these thousand arms will
close to embrace you,
oh, You, who will retire,
under gaze of moon,
to vivifying lotus dreams,
wrapped safely against chilly damp.

But, morning will find us all
rising together in beauty,
returning you to sunshine-life,
where, once again,
you can walk on water.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Surpassing Fair

A final measure
of music for your pleasure,
fading and receding,
for even sound needs
equivalent rest.

A quiet followed the
cascading dome of
waning tone,
a quiet so deep and engaged
that we froze,
with awe and with reverence,
marveling at the beauty
of our own vital participation
in the mystery of silence.

you invited yourself here today
to realize and to celebrate
the truth and beauty,
the possibility
of life without subjugation,
without mongering, hate
or destruction.

you are here,
and you are hearing
sun and moon and stars
merged with your souls
in harmoniousness
and peace.

this is real
and you can feel it;
there is but One,
and That is called Being.

this moment is forever
and is yours to keep;
it is the gift you bring
—the gift we all bring to
the beauty of Being.

This is the peace
that has eluded
in part because
you did not remember
it was yours to be,
yours to bring and share,
yours, surpassing fair.

A next heartbeat,
a newer breath,
and the room shimmered,
setting us back into our seats,
then raising us to our feet,
returning us
from the well of souls
our silent music had made
to appreciate the musical offering
that took us there.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen

Sunday, February 5, 2012

All Our Musical Offerings

Last evening’s Sanford Dole Ensemble concert of “All New – All Local” music was a wonderful experience, on many levels. Obviously, it was the culmination of a few weeks of intense individual music-learning, punctuated by a few rehearsals, not to mention life—the coming together of all the vital ingredients and the fruition of them as a live musical offering.

I cannot completely speak for composer Michael Kaulkin, but I do know that he was very pleased with the first outing of his piece, “Waiting…”

For myself, I can say that it was a much more emotional experience than I imagined it would be. The poetry that was set in “Waiting…” had been given birth long ago. Now, in the hands of someone else, the texts have taken on a new, and perhaps, more fascinating life beyond the page—a life, in fact, that I could never have imagined for them. They now occupy a sonic landscape that is to some extent beyond even the composer’s control. Being one of many performers in this premier was a very precious and beautiful experience for me.

Before the presentation of the piece, both Michael and I were asked to say a little something about how it came to be. I cannot remember everything I said—I confess to feeling extremely awkward when asked to speak extemporaneously—but here are the few things I do remember saying:

This was a collaboration done almost entirely by email—an interesting and unexpected (for me) way to collaborate. Michael had certain ideas for mood and color that I tried to match with material culled from my poetic diary. The pieces he selected were from a time period spanning twelve to thirteen years, and there were a lot of words to set! The challenge was to find a piece that had driving momentum. My work, being as it is a diary, frequently contains snapshots of static moments or moments whose time I attempt to stretch beyond a moment. Michael did find the piece that had the driving momentum he wanted, and around that, he framed the other texts.

Michael and I agreed that “meaning” would not be part of any “collaborative discussion.” As I said to the assemblage of audience and performers last night, “Yes, this piece may mean something specific to me, it may mean something specific to Michael, and to each of us on the stage—but once we put it together as a package and offer it to you, it’s yours!” What it might mean to us doesn’t matter, at that point; all that matters is what it means to you.

The enthusiastic audience response to Michael’s piece was thrilling behold.

Kudos to you, Michael, for creating this beautiful piece of music.

Thank you, Sanford Dole, for introducing me to Michael, and for programming “Waiting…” And thank you to all my colleagues in this lovely adventure: Pamela Sebastian, Ann Moss, Heidi Moss, Helene Zindarsian, Linda Liebschutz, Sally Mouzon, Heidi Waterman, Alan Cochran, Kevin Baum, John Davey-Hatcher, David Meissner, Dale Engle, Paul Thompson, Steven Rogino, Gregory Whitfield, Steven Bailey, Richard Riccardi, Mckenzie Camp, Matt Dodson, Michell Maruyama, Emanuela Nikiforova, Jason Pyszhkowski and Rachel Turner Houk. Thanks to composers Michael Kaulkin, David Conte, Peter Scott Lewis and Sanford Dole for creating new, beautiful and challenging works for us to perform.

And our deepest appreciation goes to you, the concert-goers!

All our musical offerings are for you!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Concert of Bay Area Premiers Tonight!

Sanford Dole Ensemble presents:
"All New - All Local"
Saturday, February 4, 2012 at 8:00pm
San Francisco Conservatory Recital Hall
50 Oak St., San Francisco

Featuring four new works by Bay Area composers, receiving their local premieres:
David Conte: The Nine Muses with text by John Sterling Walker
Peter Scott Lewis: The Changing Light sets three poems by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
Sanford Dole: Gertrude and Alice songs from a work in progress about the lives of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas with text by Brad Erickson
Michael Kaulkin: Waiting... sets various poetry by Elisabeth Eliassen

All of the works on this program employ various combinations of voice, strings, piano and percussion.

Tickets available at the the door.

This is a wonderful opportunity to hear a varied program of new chamber music for voices and instruments. There are some truly exquisite moments on this varied program of works by Bay Area composers.

Music is a powerful communal event, one intended to draw an audience into a singular experience, where we might well be entrained, whether by the rhythms or by tonal elegance, to join our minds and bodies in a similar emotive idea. Aristotle said it in this way:

Music directly imitates the passions or states of the soul...when one listens to music that imitates a certain passion, he becomes imbued with the same passion; and if over a long time he habitually listens to music that rouses ignoble passions, his whole character will be shaped to an ignoble form.

Socrates expressed this about the power of music:

Musical training is a more potent instrument than any other, because rhythm and harmony find their way into the inward places of the soul, on which they mightily fasten, imparting grace, and making the soul of him who is rightly educated graceful, or of him who is ill-educated ungraceful.

Plato knew music to be powerful and even dangerous:

Any musical innovation is full of danger to the whole state, and ought to be prohibited. When modes of music change, the fundamental laws of the state always change with them.

Even though Plato knew that music has the potential to spark revolution, he admitted that:

Music is a moral law. It gives soul to the universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination, and charm and gaiety to life and to everything.

So, I ask: How will you respond to the hearing of these new works? What will you take away with you, as you depart into the night after this concert? What will you share with your fellow concert-goers or talk about in the coming days?

How will you be changed?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Head in the Clouds

Soft clouds walk the skies,
while I walk the beach
—we, in our own worlds,
walk together.

Sprinkles of rain,
tears of sorrow and joy,
sprays from salty waves,
these all commingle,
like thoughts.

The sun also joins
this conversation,
warming hands,
warming sands,
circulating all moist thoughts,
dropped to the thirsty earth,
back into the passing clouds.

Do I find my thoughts
among the clouds,
or in the spindrift?

Do ideas drift in and out
with the traveling mist,
in the passing storm cloud,
by way of fog and dew?

A complex conversation—
quiet, but more full of life
than my imaginings
can fathom.

© 2012 by Elisabeth T. Eliassen