Saturday, July 31, 2010

August Poetry Challenge

There is a long tradition dating back at least as early as the Song of Solomon (6:2-3) of using flowers in love poetry. A favorite song from 17th century Scotland begins “O my Luve's like a red, red rose/That’s newly sprung in June.” Robert Burns was concerned to save the folk music of Scotland. According to one account, he heard a country girl sing these words, and recorded them for posterity.

One of the best known poems about flowers is by William Wordsworth, written after he and his sister took a walk in the Lake District of England.


I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced, but they
Out-did the sparkling leaves in glee;
A poet could not be but gay,
In such a jocund company!
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

-- William Wordsworth
The Collected Poems of William Wordsworth (Wordsworth Collection)

During her lifetime, Emily Dickinson was probably better known as a gardener than as a poet. It is said that she sometimes worked in her garden at night. Many of her poems include flowers. Dickinson’s poems, including those with roses, daisies, lilies and other flowers, are not “simple nature poems.” They tend to be cryptic. More often than not, the flowers are symbolic as in this sample:

The Dandelion's pallid tube
Astonishes the Grass,
And Winter instantly becomes
An infinite Alas --
The tube uplifts a signal Bud
And then a shouting Flower, --
The Proclamation of the Suns
That sepulture is o'er.

-- Emily Dickinson

Flowers appear in so many of Dickinson’s poems that the New York Botanical Garden developed a show entitled “Emily Dickinson’s Garden: A Poetry of Flowers” last spring. Thirty-five of Dickinson’s poems were printed on placards and placed next to the plants and flowers they mentioned. Two major books discuss her interest in gardening: The Gardens of Emily Dickinson and The Gardens of Emily Dickinson

Contemporary Poets

It is easy to become sentimental when writing about flowers, or to fall into the use of clich├ęs. Here are three contemporary poems which avoid these temptations:


overnight hundreds came
found a crevice
a tuft of green
an obvious spot on the grass

and settled in, unpacked
nuzzled in
comfortable now
yellow joy content

squatters all
these bright strewn puffs
scattering like golden pearls
singing the praises of spring

then leaving overnight
just like they came
floating off to new territory
forgetting to pack up
and throw away their trash

where it still sits
on the lawn
trying hard to blend in

-- Susan B. Auld


Note that Auld is neither sentimental about the beauty of dandelions, nor cranky about their presence on her lawn. The tone of the poem is, on the one hand, matter of fact: the dandelions come, stay for a while and leave as suddenly as they had arrived. Within this staid framework, however, Auld uses imagistic and metaphoric language to make us see the dandelions in a new way. They are “squatters” who “unpack” and “nuzzle in.” The “strewn puffs” are “golden pearls.” And when they float off, they leave their “trash” behind.

CX Dillhunt writes about prairie flowers. There is deep feeling underneath the words: The prairie “takes me in,” the poet says. It tells him to stay, and he stays. There is an element of the list poem here, as he names various kinds of flowers and, later, varieties of Asters. He uses both scientific names and casual descriptions, such as “stars” and “little white bread ones.” The ending is a surprise, as he addresses the flowers, asking what name—if any—they would like to be called.


The prairie

takes me in this morning gets me wet with turkey feet
little bluestem cord grass switchgrass Indian grass in this fall
Indian summer and I am

showy goldenrod field goldenrod stiff goldenrod more
goldenrod and yellow
cone flowers almost gone and clover

some asters and always-forget-your-first-name gentian
other plants of prairie and parts of prairie
prairie pleasing prairie and prairie singing prairie


says the prairie
surely you are some sort of aster

and your composite heart belongs to us

I stay.

I pray to see Aster azureus

I think I see two or three varieties
asters I call New England (pink-to-purple)

and a couple of white kinds


blue ones bright ones little white bread ones

what name I say do you prefer—your Latin name?
a common name? any name at all?

-- CX Dillhunt

The poem appears in the box above to show the lay-out Dillhunt chose for his poem. Unfortunately I am unable to retain that layout in this blog. Does the layout remind you of a stretch of wild prairie?

"Aster" is from Girl Saints (Madison WI: Fireweed Press, 2003), p. 19.

Judy Roy’s poem “White Lilacs” can be called a love poem. It is also, however, ekphrastic poetry. Roy is responding not to lilacs in the garden or in a vase on the piano, but to lilacs (and burgundy roses) in a painting by Marc Chagall.

White Lilacs

after a painting by Marc Chagall

I am white lilacs
You are burgundy roses
I float on the newness of spring
held aloft by the dark beauty
of your essence
Eternal in our embrace
we soar from earth to sky
arch across the lingering river
dissolve petal by petal
into the soft womb of time

-- Judy Roy

Two Off Q: A Conversation in Poetry by June Nirschl and Judy Roy (Marshfield, Wisconsin: Marsh River Editions), p. 50.

The August Poetry Challenge:

The challenge for August is to write a poem about a flower or flowers without being sentimental or trite. Will your poem be a formal poem or free verse? Will you use scientific or every-day terms or both? Metaphor or simile? Alliteration or assonance? Will the flower or flowers be symbolic? What new thoughts will the reader have about flowers after reading your poem? Poems published in books or on the Internet are not eligible. If you poem has been published in a periodical, please include publication data.

Send your poem to wildamorris [at] ameritech [dot] net (substitute the @ sign for “at” and a . for [dot], and don’t leave any spaces). Or you may send your poem in a message. Be sure provide your e-mail address. Submission of a poem gives permission for the poem to be posted on the blog, if it is a winner. The deadline is August 15.

Dorn Septet Challenge:

The Dorn Septet Challenge is open until September 15. The septet must reflect all the qualities of a Dorn septet as described in the June Challenge, and must have a minimum of three stanzas.

© 2010 Wilda Morris