Poems for the People

How can we serve poetry–raise its profile in society, give it love from more people, and spread its joy to more people? Poets and poetry lovers have grappled with this question in various ways over the years. From government and cultural leaders, to poet laureates and poets, to professors and teachers, to reviews and periodicals, to students and everyday citizens–everyone stands to benefit from the effort.

Poetry serves us in diverse and unique ways; so, too, can we reciprocate. How do we love it? Let us count the ways.

What is a poet laureate? What is the role of the laureate in the community served?

Originally, poet laureate was a title designated to an esteemed poet in the official service of the British monarch and royal household. Ben Jonson was the first poet laureate in 1616. The poet laureate would entertain the royals and nobility with their work and perform related services. The definition has evolved over centuries and oceans, but governments have tended to remain responsible–for designating a laureate, that is. The poetry is all on the poet. (source: http://www.dictionary.com/browse/poet-laureate?s=t)

Are U. S. poet laureates effective in their efforts? Judge for yourself. For example, among the Past Poet Laureate Projects on file at the U. S. Library of Congress that serve as gateways to and promoters of poetry, I’ve highlighted a few I found interesting.

Poetry 180. A project of former U. S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins providing a poem a day for the school year in American high schools. See the page listing 180 poems.

Favorite Poem Project. Twenty years ago, 18,000 Americans shared their favorite poems with U. S. Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky and the nation through video recitations, online resources, and this archive of favorite poems. http://www.favoritepoem.org/

La Casa de Colores. Juan Felipe Herrera, U. S. Poet Laureate 2015-2017, established two main projects for what he called “a house for all voices”: a massive crowdsourced poem, La Familia, and a monthly series, El Jardin, of the poet laureate’s experiences interacting with the Library of Congress’ bountiful archives.

Current and reappointed U. S. Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith brought the poetry conversation and readings to the rural South and continues her work by connecting poetry to small-town America.

But you don’t have to be the top poet in the country to further the cause of poetry. Note the Academy of American Poets’ suggestions for 30 ways to celebrate the poem.

Along with attending local live poetry performances like this and competitive events like this, one of my favorite ways to spread the love is through Poem-in-Your-Pocket Day, coming this Thursday, April 26th. It’s so simple. Share a poem you love in any way imaginable at school, in your community, or at work. Most obvious: Bring printed copies everywhere you go, and hand them out or anonymously deposit them in random or strategic locations where someone will find them and be inspired, dazzled, cheered up, soothed, or intrigued. Check out the Academy’s official 2018 Poem-in-Your-Pocket-Day guide to more ways to share, along with the text of 15 poems ready to distribute from contemporary American poets, 15 from Canadian poets, and 15 from the public domain. 

Another method I like comes from Tweetspeak Poetry: Take Your Poet to School Week. But again, it need not be school; take them anywhere! See their article “Bring in the Cupcakes!” to learn how this works and locate the full list available here, with four new poets for 2018. Although the designated week (first of April) has passed, I’ll soon bring out my favorite poets–so happy to see them included!–to keep me company and assist the Muse. From the link to the full collection of poets, which includes a front and back for each poet’s likeness, I’m starting with Judith Wright, Edgar Allan Poe (especially fun with the raven!), Wislawa Szymborska, Rumi, and Walt Whitman.

Scrap the official, eschew the formal, and free poetry in the spirit of equal access. L. L. Barkat describes in this Huffington Post article how to liberate verse from traditional constraints that keep us from accessing and enjoying it.

How will you celebrate poetry or poets? Serve it up.

More opportunities abound on this blog–my 10 top-viewed posts in poetry:

  1. Adapted Bawdy Lyrics: Outlander TV Series, Episode 114, “The Search”
  2. Scotland’s Burns and Outlander rival Shakespeare’s bawdy
  3. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets
  4. Wild Verses, 5 of 10 / Writing 201: Poetry, Day 1 (Haiku, Water, Simile)
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 3: Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  6. Call of the Wild Poetry
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 2: Elizabeth Bishop
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry, 1a: “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  9. On Process: Verse Writing. Introduction and Part I: Motivation (involves writing an elegy for the late, great Leonard Nimoy/Spock)
  10. Writing 201: Poetry, Day 2 (Limerick, Journey, Alliteration)

Cheshire Cat’s Message: An Original Poem

The following is a sample of my work during NaNoWriMo 2017 on a novel begun during Camp NaNoWriMo, July 2016. I originally shared the poem along with (1) my list of excuses for not having written much in fall 2017, (2) explanation and promotion of NaNoWriMo, (3) commentary on my novel-writing process, and (4) an excerpt, a scene from the same novel. These parts together comprise the post “Noveling in November.”

So here it is, from early November 2017, a fanciful rhyme belying, until the final stanza, the general unease of all in Looking-Glass Land under the White King’s regime.

To the Ray Harvesters from Cheshire Cat’s Pub

Let me sell you some sunshine
from the broad eastern plain
so you won’t have to reach so high up that tree
to catch the sun’s rays, blocked by dense
branches and lofty foliage from harvesting.

They have plenty of sun back east
where drought is too long creating
mirages in a soon-to-be-desert
and the drunkards stumble to the tavern’s threshold
only to find invisible smiling cats.

The sun is not useful there
where they block it with blinds
of thick wool and old wood planks
in the one building where infamy lives,
but barely, while liquor flows and cats nap.

The ground there is golden
with burnt grass and bright dirt, mocking
the yellow of sun beams wished
for growing green things, which you have
in abundance in your abundant shade.

Could we make a trade, perhaps,
a bargain of sorts? Rain for sun,
damp for dry, and a stoop of rum
or a sprig of thyme, for good measure
and good faith, or if you’d prefer,
some visions ground from your own toadstools?

It won’t be long now before you’ll
pale in the dearth of light on your western earth
and we’ll shrivel in the hot white searing
of sod and sand and roof on this edge of things.
We must take care of each other, or what are we?

© copyright C. L. Tangenberg

Somehow, I rattled that one off in about 25 minutes after drafting a scene that takes place at the Cheshire Cat’s pub, a place I invented. It probably helped that I came fresh from studying poetry and contemplating the craft of verse writing as part of my responses to a friend’s questionnaire for profiling me as an artist on her blog, in two parts: here and here. Thanks again, HL Gibson!

It also helps to be writing regularly, I must remember. The more often one practices. . . .

Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath

The third post in this series shared an earnest celebration of nature’s boundless beauty. Now we shift from Wordsworth in early nineteenth-century England to America’s Plath in the mid-twentieth century. As summer ends and the harvest season looms, my fourth feature in this series of nature verse by famous poets examines a far from Romantic attitude toward nature’s evident abundance.


The Poet: Sylvia Plath’s confessional poetry operates with turbulent incisiveness that often deftly exposes the true nature of life, poetry, relationships, and death, consistently with an intense gaze through the lens and at the subject of self. This biographical article at the Poetry Foundation website draws upon many literary voices observant of her life, work and legacy to demonstrate poet-human Plath as an invigorating, tragic, and ultimately fascinating figure.

Style and Subject: Although written in the midst of her struggles with mental health like most of her poems, “Blackberrying” is one of her more docile ventures into nature both experienced and hoped for. Plath selects details that speak to a clash, or perhaps a dance, between the not-so-charming wild and an even more dulling civilization. In the process, she shares her half-hearted, reluctant, and doubtful anticipation of encountering a grand natural scene.

Story: The narrative arc of the poem reveals a perspective teetering on the fence–or blackberry alley–between hope and despair, in which the speaker tries to shield herself from imminent disappointment by lowering her gaze and her expectations.

Form: The poem’s free verse with irregular but predominantly long lines conveys the speaker’s vacillating emotional journey as she describes her forward movement among the blackberries.

The Poem: Excerpts of the 27-line poem “Blackberrying” by Sylvia Plath (1961):

Lines 1-7:
Nobody in the lane, and nothing, nothing but blackberries,   
Blackberries on either side, though on the right mainly,
A blackberry alley, going down in hooks, and a sea
Somewhere at the end of it, heaving. Blackberries
Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes
Ebon in the hedges, fat
With blue-red juices. These they squander on my fingers. 

Lines 14-16:
The high, green meadows are glowing, as if lit from within.
I come to one bush of berries so ripe it is a bush of flies,
Hanging their bluegreen bellies and their wing panes in a Chinese screen.

Lines 20-22:
From between two hills a sudden wind funnels at me,   
Slapping its phantom laundry in my face.
These hills are too green and sweet to have tasted salt. . . .

To read the entire poem, go here.

Theme: Whatever the subject or setting (this one is probably the English coast), common threads in Plath’s work are the circumlocutions of the mind and the meanderings of the heart. But the lines in “Blackberrying” are no less charming for the contradictions and ambivalence they portray. In fact, in Plath’s and other writers’ works, such tensions often add a kind of freshness that further engages the reader.

Figurative Devices: She personifies the blackberries, the flies (lines not shown), the wind, and the hills, a choice which at once signifies her human loneliness and suggests the power and value she sees in natural elements. On the flip side, Plath points out the absurdity of nature’s abundance in her description of the blackberries’ attributes–“big,” “dumb,” “fat” things that “squander” their resources.

Language and Sound: The poem’s simple diction delivers a direct but subdued tone, creating a sad mood. Alliterative phrasing (“bush of berries,” “bluegreen bellies”) and internal rhyme (“thumb” and “dumb”; “green,” “screen,” “between,” and back to “green”) then elevate the spirit by infusing the poem with wry humor and mild amusement, which I envision as the speaker’s half-smile.

Plath’s use of echoing repetition builds reader suspense (repeated words like “nothing,” “blackberries,” “bush,” and “hills”) and conveys both an insistent plea and its futility. Like a fist loudly banging on the door of a locked and empty house, she will not be let in.

Plath’s plural nouns communicate abundance, but their repeated final “z” sound also calls attention to the buzzing of flies (which also suggests death) and the hum of the speaker’s anticipation of something more.

Your turn. After reading the above excerpts or the whole poem, consider:

What else do you notice about the poem? Are there: Surprising images? Sensory details? Subtle hints of things? Stark revelations? Simile? Metaphor? Oxymoron? Other devices?

What feelings does this poem seem to express or stir in you?

Which lines or phrases make you smile or gasp or wonder?

Does the poem show its age, or is it timeless?

Since poetry is usually best read aloud, here is a series of audio recordings of Sylvia Plath reading her own poems. Although these do not include “Blackberrying,” you may still be able to hear her intense mind and emotions coming across. Listen and see!

Do you have a favorite Sylvia Plath poem? Which one?

Comments are welcome.


ICYMI: See the starting point of this series on nature poetry by famous poets here.

The entire Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry series

  1. Nature Poetry by Famous Poets excerpting Thomas Hardy’s “The Darkling Thrush”
  2. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (1a): “The Sunlight on the Garden”
  3. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (2): Elizabeth Bishop
  4. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (3): Wordsworth’s Daffodils
  5. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (4): Promise of a Fruitful Plath
  6. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (5): Of Mice, Men and Rabbie Burns
  7. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6): Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  8. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (6)–Oh, NOW I Get It!: Hugh MacDiarmid in Scots
  9. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (7): Black Legacies
  10. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (8): “Corsons Inlet” by A. R. Ammons
  11. Famous Poets’ Nature Poetry (9): “The Lake Isle of Innisfree”

Would you like to recommend a sample of nature poetry for future posts? Let me know about it. I’m considering poems by W. B. Yeats, Percy Shelley, Mary Oliver, Emily Dickinson, and others, but you can help me choose!

I’ve noticed a trend of all-white, western European-descendent people in my series, so I’m also looking for nature poems by American and global Blacks (Rita Dove? Derek Walcott?), Hispanics, eastern Europeans, Middle Eastern ethnic groups (Rumi anyone?), and Asians (Indian, Chinese, Japanese–haiku is all about nature–etc.), and surely I should be able to find some Native American nature poetry, perhaps in the form of songs. Many cultures have wildlife-based creation myths.

Help dispel my ignorance!

Note: Poets writing in English or poems translated into English only, please. Thanks.