Moulted snake skin

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The poet John R. Keene was tweeting about sestinas on Saturday under the Poetry Foundation’s @harriet_poetry moniker and I sent him one that I tried back in 1994.  It started from an actual scene I witnessed at the time in my garden in Garrison, NY.

According to The Academy of American Poets, “The sestina follows a strict pattern of the repetition of the initial six end-words of the first stanza through the remaining five six-line stanzas, culminating in a three-line envoi. The lines may be of any length, though in its initial incarnation, the sestina followed a syllabic restriction.”

The Academy description lists some tour de force sestinas, including Ezra Pound’s “Sestina: Altaforte” and John Ashbery’s “Farm Implements and Rutabagas in a Landscape,” along with “Sestina” and “A Miracle for Breakfast” by Elizabeth Bishop, and “Paysage Moralise” by W.H. Auden.

Here is my sestina, which pales in comparison like the flaking sloughed-off skin of the snake it describes:

Second Skin


In the yard by the barn was a snake

resting on a leaf-pile in the garden,

nearby his old shod skin

limp and lifeless under a noon-day sun.

Abandoned on the blades of grass,

like an untangled filament of memory.


The sight of him fired my memory,

which cast a shadow on the snake

(who now slithered away in the grass).

He lent a curious aspect to the garden–

aspect being its relation to the sun

–not unlike his relation to the skin.


He seemed to remember the skin.

(Do snakes have that much memory?)

Or was it a trick of the sun

that he mistook for a female snake?

When he made his way out of the garden,

I crept along quietly in the grass.


As I followed him there in the grass,

he stretched ever closer to the skin;

his path leading out of the garden,

as if tracing the line of a memory.

How strange, I thought, this snake,

disregarding the late summer sun.


Later, over-heated in afternoon sun,

I lay down to rest on the grass.

I watched again as the snake

tried to resuscitate his discarded skin,

perhaps to revive its dead memory

and lure it back home to the garden.


Cutting the lawn by the garden,

I must have been dizzy with sun,

or dozing in the haze of a memory.

Translucent flakes feathered the grass:

it was then I remembered the skin;

it was then I remembered the snake.


I sat by the garden dropping fresh-cut grass

onto my arm and its sun-baked skin,

clippings of memory snaking through my mind.


–Scott Edward Anderson


Black Angus, Cooperstown by Paul Niemiec, Jr. (used by permission of the artist)

Caroline Mary Crew, writing about ekphrastic poetry in her always engaging blog, Flotsam, asks,  “Can the poem stand apart from the painting?”

She cites some worthy examples of various approaches and “types” of ekphrastic poems, including famous examples by Auden, Keats, and O’Hara, as well as a poem that was completely unknown to me, Monica Youn’s “Stealing The Scream.”

I was intrigued by Caroline’s question and sent her an example of my own, “Fallow Field,” which was not quite an ekphrastic poem by strictest definition — that is, a poem that comments upon another artwork, because Joshua Sheldon’s photograph and my poem were created at the same moment.

It occurred to me that another of my poems, “Black Angus, Winter,” was also a kind of ekphrastic poem, of the type Caroline categorizes as narrative/monologue.

This poem, which was part of a group that won The Nebraska Review Award, was inspired in part by the landscape of central New York State, where I spent summers in the mid-1980s.  There was much to inspire: rolling hills, dairy and cattle farms, cornfields, and old, often dilapidated farm buildings.

The poem also found inspiration and a launching-off point in a painting by a friend, Paul Niemiec, to whom the poem is dedicated.  (Reproduced above.)

Here is my poem


“Black Angus, Winter”




The angus rap their noses

on the ice–

fat, gentle fists

rooting water

from the trough.

They kick up clods of dirt

as a madrigal of shudders

ripples their hides.





The barn needs painting,

it’s chipped like ice

from an ice-cutter’s axe.

The fence also needs work,

posts leaning, wire slack.

The Angus keep still–

they’re smarter than we think,

know all about electricity.





I cross the barnyard

on my way back from the pond,

ice skates keeping time

against the small of my back.

The sting of the air

is tempered by the heat of manure.

Through the barn door:

Veal calf jabbing at her mother’s udder.


(For Paul Niemiec)

–Scott Edward Anderson


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Rimbaud Carjat

Arthur Rimbaud

Poet William Stafford was a quiet and gentle force in poetry. He liked it that way; at least that’s what he told The Paris Review in 1989.  (I think it was published in 1993, the year he died.)

As William Young, the interviewer, wrote in his introduction,

The intimacy of William Stafford’s poetry would seem to belie the enormous popularity the poet’s work has enjoyed, but in fact it is a product of Stafford’s keen ability to discern poetic language in everyday speech and appropriate it for his own work.

Stafford, whose first volume of poetry was not published until 1960 when he was forty-six, was born in the small town of Hutchinson, Kansas, on January 17, 1914 and died in Portland, Oregon, on August 28, 1993 at the age of seventy-nine.

He came to my high school when I was a freshman and read poetry to us.  I had been reading the French poet Arthur Rimbaud, in the Louise Varese translation published by New Directions, and was all hopped up about the poet as visionary and seer, about the power of poetic vision on the soul.

So, when it came to the Q&A, I raised my hand and asked, “Mr. Stafford, do you agree with Rimbaud that the the poet must be a visionary?”

It was a brilliant question.  I stood there while the entire audience turned around to admire my brilliance.

Then I saw their faces.  One classmate in particular, one of the drama students, looked at me incredulously and mouthed something that appeared to be “Rim-bod?!”

Then I realized what I had done.  Despite being in my fourth year of French lessons, I had badly butchered Rimbaud’s name, and rather than sounding like “Rambo,” I had made it sound like “Rim-bod.”

My face went red.  I sank down into my seat.  Humiliated.

Stafford, for his part, very calmly looked at me and answered, “No. I think the poet needs to be able to see the world he or she lives in, but not necessarily be visionary. Paying attention goes a lot longer than vision.”

You can read many of William Stafford’s poems at Selected William Stafford Poetry.

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Have you ever felt a deep longing for something or someone?  Someone from your past, perhaps, or a place or time for which you feel an intense, nostalgic yearning.

There’s a wonderful word in Portuguese that describes this feeling: “Saudade,” which some define as a “feeling of incompleteness…due to the absence of someone or something…or the absence of a set of particular and desirable experiences and pleasures once lived.”

It can be very intense and somewhat hard to decipher.  You know when you feel it, however — and when you got it bad. I’ve tried to describe it in two poems over the years; although one could argue it is a consistent theme in much of my poetry.  (Perhaps it’s my Portuguese heritage?)

The first poem is called “Saudade,” and it was published in the literary journal Kimera in 2001:


I feel beliefs that I do not hold.
I am ravished by passions I repudiate.
–Fernando Pessoa

We’re surrounded by people
who sentimentalize collegiate life,
swoon over first marriages,
would kill to return to Rome, or
wish for the restitution of days
gone by, or worse, days
they’ve never known.
(The Portuguese have a word for it,
saudade, a longing for lost things.)

For myself, I have fond memories
of houses in New England
(where my childhood
blossomed, disappeared);
of a life of the mind,
of places for a brief time mine.
But the only thing I long for
is the old cherry tree,
in front of our home
— we were newly wed —
how it dashed its branches
against our roof.


The second poem, “Longing,” is from my poetic sequence called “Dwelling,” which a poet friend of mine has described as “a phenomenology of how we live on the Earth.”  This is the first time it has appeared anywhere (not for lack of trying!):


“Love is the distance

between you and what you love

what you love is your fate”

–Frank Bidart

Desire is a city street flush with longing;
losing is the darkness inhabiting that street.

Say that losing becomes a way of knowing,
words failing to capture its music–

Desire is to longing as longing is to losing.
If this is so, losing strengthens longing

as longing makes mystery of desire.
Concave mirrors cascading light in common focus

each reflecting and magnifying the other,
unformed or uninformed, but nevertheless–

Life’s little endings: the big unresolved, unrequited
unfolding of the world into what longing desires.


I’m not sure which poem is more successful at capturing that intensity of feeling and persistent yearning or desire.  (Well, obviously, someone thought “Saudade” caught it better, for it found its way into print.)

Frankly, I’m not sure the word saudade can ever really be described in English; we just have to feel it to understand it.

What do you feel saudades about?

–Scott Edward Anderson

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Years ago, I had an idea for a “Poetry Channel”: an all-poetry cable network featuring poets and celebrities reading poems, poets being interviewed, and films about poets or based on poetry.

I didn’t pursue the idea because, well, because my idea for the “Disaster Channel” got shelved and that was how I was going to back my poetry idea.

But I recently stumbled upon Mary Karr’s “Poetry Fix,” which brings to life the kind of programming I had in mind.

Here’s Mary Karr and co-host Christopher Robinson reading and talking about Robert Hass’s “Old Dominion”:

You can check out more on Mary Karr’s YouTube channel.  It’s a great series that’s just started and worth following as it develops.

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Thanks to Peter Semmelhack, who asked for poetry recommendations via Twitter, I made a list of the 5 books of “contemporary” US poetry I can’t live without:

Elizabeth Bishop, Geography III

Robert Lowell, Life Studies

Gary Snyder, Turtle Island

Donald Hall, Kicking the Leaves

Robert Hass, Praise

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What are the 5 books of poetry you can’t live without?

How to read poetry

May 26, 2009

Want to know how to read poetry? Treat it like you’re sampling perfume, says my friend Molly Cantrell-Kraig:

“It’s like an expensive fragrance: the high notes are what registers first, but as the fragrance adapts to the person’s chemistry and with time, the fragrance develops dimension and a fuller sense of itself.”

In other words, try first letting the poem envelope you with its sounds and its images. Sit with it. Come back to the poem and read it again, this time paying attention to how the poem makes you feel. Pay attention to the nuances in your reading, the patterns that emerge, the sense that emerges. And, finally, how does the poem change the way you look at the world?

In How to Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Edward Hirsch writes, “We activate the poem inside us by engaging it as deeply as possible, by bringing our lives to it, our associational memories, our past histories, our vocabularies, by letting its verbal music infiltrate our bodies, its ideas seep into our minds, by discovering its pattern emerging, by entering the echo chamber which is the history of poetry, and most of all, by listening and paying attention. Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.”

C.S. Lewis suggested that “the true reader reads every work seriously, in the sense that he reads it wholeheartedly, makes himself as receptive as he can.”

A poet dreams of such readers.

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Gulf poets compete in Millions' Poet competition

Gulf poets compete in Millions' Poet competition

A couple of decades ago I had an idea for an all-poetry cable channel.  We would have talk shows hosted by and featuring famous poets, films about poets, live readings and workshops, and possibly even feature length movies, dramas, and comedies.  (Stephen Dobyns’ Saratoga Hexameter, would have made a good source for a mini-series.)

I shelved the idea after realizing the only way I could afford to develop The Poetry Channel was to develop my other idea — The Disaster Channel. “All disaster, all the time,” was the tag line; 24/7 of disaster coverage, disaster movies, and disaster reporting.  My wife said she would divorce me if I went ahead with that idea.  (The Weather Channel has since taken the best parts of the format to the bank and is planning to launch a separate channel this spring.)

I now see what my idea was missing: I needed a poetry contest reality show!  In the most unlikely of places, Dubai television personality Nashwa Al Ruwaini has launched Millions’ Poet, sort of a Gulf version of American Idol, in which Arab poets battle it out for 5 million United Arab Emirates dirhams (more than $1.3 million).  70 million viewers tuned in to see the finale, according to news sources. Amazing.

Here is what Nashwa Al Ruwaini says about it in an editorial that appeared in today’s Philadelphia Inquirer:

Three years ago, when I devised the format of Millions’ Poet, it was with little more in mind than creating an entertaining, original, and youth-oriented television show. Now in its third season, with more than 15 million viewers each week, the show has become the Gulf countries’ most prestigious poetry competition and a platform for young male and female poets to voice their thoughts before a broad audience. Most unexpectedly, it has also helped spur some progress in the region’s attitudes toward women.

Read the full editorial here: Millions’ Poet

Here is an article about Saudi poetess Ayda Al-Jahani, who is featured in the editorial and who made it to the final four in this usually male-dominated competition: Ayda Al-Jahani

And a link to an NPR Morning Edition story on her: NPR

If anyone has links to English translations of Ayda Al-Jahani’s work, will you please comment below?  Thanks.

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MANCHESTER, ENGLAND - MAY 01:  Carol Ann Duffy...
Image by Getty Images via Daylife

Poet Carol Ann Duffy was nominated for UK Poet Laureate yesterday. Here’s what she had to say about the position, which she had previously poo-poohed:

The appointment of a poet laureate can be seen, quite simply, as a spotlight on the vocation of poetry. I feel privileged to be part of a generation of poets in Britain who serve the vocation of poetry; writers who – in glad company with their readers – regard poetry as the place in language where everything that can be praised is praised, and where what needs to be called into question is so. Perhaps a better word than generation, for our community of poets, readers and listeners, would be family – or, as Ted Hughes had it, tribe. Doris Lessing, too, once described herself as a member of the honourable tribe of storytellers.

Read her remarks in full here.

Here is her poem, “Valentine”:

Not a red rose or a satin heart.
I give you an onion.
It is a moon wrapped in brown paper.
It promises light
like the careful undressing of love.

It will blind you with tears
like a lover.
It will make your reflection
a wobbling photo of grief.

I am trying to be truthful.

Not a cute card or a kissogram.

I give you an onion.
Its fierce kiss will stay on your lips,
possessive and faithful
as we are,
for as long as we are.

Take it.
Its platinum loops shrink to a wedding-ring,
if you like.

Its scent will cling to your fingers,
cling to your knife.

–Carol Ann Duffy
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