Friday, February 26, 2010

February Poetry Challenge Winners

Two poems were chosen as winners of the February Poetry Challenge. Although both poems are free verse, they are quite different, because the chosen personas are different. In “Final Stage,” Peggy Trojan speaks for Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. Ross studied the psychological process of preparing for death. She concluded that it was normal to go through “stages” of denial, anger, bargaining and depression before coming to acceptance. Trojan focuses on Kubler-Ross’s biography, especially in relationship to her father.

Final Stage

It’s Elisabeth, Father.
Yes, work is good.
I feel I am helping many.
There is fear, much sadness.
I have started work on a book.

Three sisters could not live
in the same womb after birth.
I had to go my way. Not your office.
You were fierce. A child cannot
be bent to a parent’s choosing.

Oh, I forgave you long ago.
It was cruel to kill my pet hare.
I could never again eat hasenpfeffer.
It only strengthened my resolve.
Everything happens to teach our purpose.

I still have the doll you bought me
when I was five and ill.
I remember often your songs, our walks.
I share your need for forest quiet.
I have kept our Kubler name.

Life on this earth is only one stage.
We will meet again in brighter light.
I love you too, Father.
Hush now. I will stay with you.
The butterfly will come.

-- Peggy Trojan

A different vocabulary and style of speech is used by Anna Yin, as she voices Sylvia Plath’s thoughts in the night. Yin began with “Lament” as the title, in part, because Plath has a poem by that name. Plath also titled a poem, “Insomniac,” from which Yin drew the title, “Insomnia.”


I cut an echoless love
in pale moonlight.

Ashes of stars slip
from my face.

You remain in a secret garden.
My shadow clings to the splitting wall.

The taste of blood edges
up my bleeding fingers.

Water rises on a lake
and the moon drowns.

--Anna Yin

Thanks to the others who entered this month. I enjoyed reading all the poems. Thank you to the consulting judge, Judith Infante, author of Love: a Suspect Form — Heloise and Abelard(Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2008), p. 35.

Monday, February 1, 2010

February 2010 Poetry Challenge

A number of contemporary poets have been writing persona poems from the perspective of individuals from the past. These poems are written in the first person, as if they were written by the historical character him- or herself. The poet gives voice to the character, usually someone who is no longer living. In order to be effective, poets have to do research the biography of the person they select and the time period in which that person lived.

One poet who has been successful in writing persona poems is Jennifer Clement. She has written in the voice of Albert Einstein, as well as Marie Curie. Marie Curie and her husband Pierre pioneered research on radiation. In a series of seven poems, written as letters from Marie to Pierre Curie after his death, Clement express Madame Curie’s grief, and also Marie’s deteriorating condition.

Seven Letters Written to Marie Curie
to Pierre Curie After His Death

Letter I

Kindled by uranium
the great room glowed.
Even from two streets away,
as we walked to the laboratory,
we could see the matter
through the window’s seams.
Inside, your chair and lab coat
grew sheer, green, phosphorescent,
pencils were luminous.
Albino rays appeared
in the decimals of our cells
as we quietly became radioactive.
You said, “polonium, radium,”
and your tongue and teeth were yolk opalescent
as if your speech were lit.
I wrote, “I extracted from the mineral
the radium-bearing barium and this,
in the state of chloride,
I submitted to fractional crystallization,”
and the paper warmed
to 98.9 degrees Fahrenheit.
In that room,
black and white
had left the world.

--Jennifer Clement
New and Selected Poems (Exeter: Shearsman, 2008), pp. 71-72).

Judith Infante’s book, Love: A Suspect Form, has been called a novel in verse form. Infante follows events in the lives of the 12th century philosopher Peter Abelard and his student, Heloise, a story which has fascinated people for centuries. The love that developed between them was forbidden by culture and church (and more specifically, the Pope). After the birth of their son, Astralabe, they were secretly married, but did not live together. Abelard sent Heloise back to the convent where she had grown up. In revenge, Heloise's uncle had Abelard drugged and castrated. Many of Infante’s poems are persona poems, told in the voices of Abelard, Heloise, Astralabe and others. Infante weaves elements of the myth of Atalanta into the story.

Here is an early poem in the sequence, when Heloise has just become Abelard's student. The setting for this poem is Canon Fulbert’s residence, Close of Notre Dame, Paris.

Heloise: Lesson

vellum from a goat’s skin
bound into books

quills and ink on a table
first lesson

at midnight listen
my master climbs the stair

a mother might have taught me
the signs of a snare

who can tutor me now
in the art of breaking free

--Judith Infante
Love: a Suspect Form — Heloise and Abelard (Exeter: Shearsman Books, 2008), p. 35.

In his book, Tongue of War: from Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki, winner of the 2009 John Ciardi Prize for Poetry, Tony Barnstone's poems represent the viewpoints of people involved in or impacted by World War II, in particular, the Pacific theater. The original impetus for the book was a dinner with Brigadier General Paul Tibbets, pilot of the Enola Gay, the plane which dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima. One of the poems is from his perspective:

The Pilot’s Tale

In the plane’s glass nose the whole sky
lit up the beautifulest blue
you ever seen, bright blue, but I
did not react when the bomb blew.
Not right away. Then I turned round
and saw the cloud of boiling dust
bubbling upwards from the ground
where I guess Hiroshima must
have been, and felt the silver fillings
electrify my teeth. They sent
the chills all through me, boots to hair.
We wiped ‘em out. And as for killing
the ones they say were innocent—
that’s their tough luck for being there.

--Tony Barnstone
Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki (Winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry; Kansas City MO: BkMk Press, 2009), p. 80.

Barnstone was not content to view the war only from the viewpoint of U.S. officers. For fifteen years, he read transcripts of oral histories, letters, and books about World War II, and conducted interviews, in order to gather experiences and opinions of soldiers and civilians from both sides. A piece of him wanted to abandon the project – it was painful to read and write about the impact of the atomic bomb on the survivors, the Bataan Death March, cannibalism, and other aspects of the war. But, he says in the introduction to the book,“the voices continued to clamor about what they had seen.”

Here is one of the poems voicing a Japanese perspective, based largely on an oral history with a naval officer, who (after the war) recorded his feelings at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor:

They Could Have Given It to Us

but they kept every drop of oil.
That’s why the need to kill flared up
like hot gas in our blood and boiled
all Buddhist conscience out of us.
Today I am a priest, and still
I use the discipline I learned
at the Academy. To kill
is wrong. I know. But then I burned
for it. Pearl Harbor made me burst
with joy. We needed oil, just that.
We had no choice but to strike first.
A cornered mouse will bite a cat.

--Tony Barnstone

Tongue of War: From Pearl Harbor to Nagasaki (Winner of the John Ciardi Prize for Poetry; Kansas City MO: BkMk Press, 2009), p. 27.

Here are some additional books of persona poems which you might find interesting (If you click on the title of a book on this blog, it will take you to, where the book can be purchased).

* Six by Eve Wood Persona poems from the perspectives of the six wives of Henry VIII.

* Buffalo Dance: The Journey of York (Kentucky Voices) by Eve Wood. Poems from the perspective of York, who played an important role in the Lewis and Clark Expedition. Enslaved, York asked Clark for his freedom after the expedition.

* Commonwealth of Wings: An Ornithological Biography Based on the Life of John James Audubon (Wesleyan Poetry) by Pamela Alexander. Persona poems fromt he perspective of the most famous of all North American Ornithologists.

* They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems by Quraysh ali Lansana. Persona poems telling the story of Harriet Tubman, who led so many slaves to freedom. Some are in her voice and others are from other perspectives.

The February 2010 Poetry Challenge

The challenge for February is to write a persona poem from the perspective of someone in history. You can pick a pharaoh or slave from ancient Egypt, a monk from the Middle Ages faced with the impact of the plague, an ancient emperor of China or India, a former president or First Lady of the U.S., or . . . . well, you decide!

You may use (or bend) a form (label it as a sonnet, triolet, or whatever), or write in free verse. Poems of 40 or fewer lines have a better chance of being selected. I still have not figured out how to post shaped poems or poems with indents, so it is best to submit a poem with every line starting on the left margin. The winning poem or poems will be posted before the end of February. Sign your poem with your name as you would like it to appear on the blog if you are a winner. Winners retain rights to their own poems. Send your poem to wildamorris [at] Ameritech[dot] net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and . for [dot], and don’t leave any spaces. Or you can access my Facebook page and send the poem in a message. Be sure to give me your e-mail address so I can respond.

Challenge Deadline: February 15, 2010.

© 2010 Wilda Morris