October 20:  Adopt a Literary Character Day

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On this day in 1833, the poet Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809-1892) completed his great dramatic monologue Ulysses.

The voice of the poem, or its persona, is Ulysses, the Latin name of the Greek hero Odysseus.  In writing this poem, Tennyson adopts the character Ulysses from Homer, the author of the Greek poems The Iliad and the Odyssey.  The Odyssey is the epic narrative that follows Ulysses’ 10-year struggle to return home after the Trojan War.  Once home on Ithaca, Ulysses faces another challenge: to outwit the suitors vying to win the hand of his wife Penelope.  Displaying brawn but also brains, Ulysses defeats the suitors in a contest, slaughters them, reunites with his wife, and once again becomes king of Ithaca.

The poem Ulysses imagines the hero years after he has returned to the throne.  In the tradition of the dramatic monologue, we hear only the voice of the old king as he reflects on his past, on his relative idleness as King of Ithaca, and on his desire to once again set out on a bold adventure.  The understood audience of the poem is the crew of his ship, the men who will join him on his new journey.

In the poem’s opening lines, we hear the voice of a king, weary of his kingly duties on Ithaca and restless to return again to sea:

It little profits that an idle king,
By this still hearth, among these barren crags,
Matched with an aged wife, I mete and dole
Unequal laws unto a savage race,
That hoard, and sleep, and feed, and know not me.
I cannot rest from travel; I will drink
Life to the lees. All times I have enjoyed
Greatly, have suffered greatly, both with those
That loved me, and alone; on shore, and when
Through scudding drifts the rainy Hyades
Vext the dim sea. I am become a name; (1)

Willing to give up his throne to his son Telemachus and to leave his wife, Ulysses looks forward once more to bold adventures and seeing “a newer world.”  Rather than staying put and rusting, Ulysses wants “to shine in use!”  It is appropriate then that the poem ends with a string of parallel action verbs:

To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

Like much of the verse of William Shakespeare, Ulysses is written in blank verse, unrhymed iambic pentameter.

Today’s Challenge:  Stay In Character

What fictional character from literature or film would you adopt for a dramatic monologue?  Brainstorm some interesting characters from either books or films.  Like Tennyson did for Ulysses, imagine the life of the character after the work you know them for is over.  What would the character be thinking about and what would the character be saying — and to whom would he/she be saying it.  Write a dramatic monologue considering the speaker, the situation, the audience, and the tone.  Try to capture the distinctiveness of your character, impersonating his/her voice so that it can be understood by your reader. (Common Core Writing 3 – Narrative)

1-Tennyson, Alfred Lord. Ulysses. The Poetry Foundation. 1833. Public Domain. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45392/ulysses.

 

October 15:  National Poetry Day

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Today is National Poetry Day founded in 1994 by British philanthropist and publisher William Sieghart.  Although this “National” day is celebrated primarily in Britain, there is a definite case for making it a global celebration:  It’s the birthday in 70 B.C. of the Roman poet Virgil, author of Rome’s national epic, the Aeneid.  Virgil influenced the great Latin poet Ovid, as well as Dante, the major Italian poet of the Middle Ages.  In Dante’s epic poem the Divine Comedy, Dante employs Virgil as his guide on his travels through Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven.

Depiction of VirgilIn his own epic, the Aeneid, Virgil traces the travels of the mythical hero Aeneas, a Trojan prince, who becomes Rome’s great hero and father.  Before his death in 19 B.C., Virgil supposedly left instructions for the Aeneid to be burned. Emperor Augustus, however, wouldn’t allow it to be destroyed; instead, he ordered two of Virgil’s friends to edit it, and two years later it was published (1).

The purpose of National Poetry Day is the reading, writing, publishing, listening, and teaching of poetry; it’s also a nice day to plan ahead for spring when Poetry Month is celebrated. Each year organizers select a theme to kick off inspiration.  The theme is not meant to be prescriptive, but it can help spark one’s memory of poems from the past as well as ignite imagination for creating new poems.

Here is a list of some of the themes from past years:

Song Lyrics, Fresh Voices, Journeys, Celebration, Britain, Food, The Future, Identity, Dreams, Work, Heroes and Heroines, Home, Games, Stars, Water, Remember, Light, Change (2)

One excellent way to celebrate National Poetry Day is by putting together a thematic anthology of poetry or poetic prose.  The word anthology in the original Greek meant to gather flowers:  anthos “a flower” + logia “collecting.”  Today we use the word metaphorically, the flowers being samples of the best verse by various writers gathered into one beautiful bouquet of a book.

Today’s Challenge:  Beautiful Words Bound

What are some themes that you might select if you were putting together an anthology of prose or poetry?  Brainstorm a list of possible themes.  Then, select the one theme you like the best. Using word association on your theme, generate a list of words and phrases you associate with your theme.  Use this list to identify some titles of published works you might include in an anthology or to generate some ideas for new works you might create for your anthology.  Finally, write an introduction to your anthology, explaining why you picked your theme, why your theme is relevant and important, and what kinds of works you plan to put in your anthology. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Williams, Robert Deryck. Virgil. Encyclopedia Britannica.com. http://www.britannica.com/biography/Virgil.

2- National Poetry Day. What is National Poetry Day? https://nationalpoetryday.co.uk/about-npd/.

 

October 8: Rebuttal Day

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On this day in 1917, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), an English soldier recovering from shell shock, composed the first draft of the poem “Dulce et Decorum Est.”  The poem is one of the most vivid, realistic depictions of the horrific trench warfare of World War I and is one of most powerful rebuttals every made to the argument that it is valorous to die for one’s country.

A plate from his 1920 Poems by Wilfred Owen, depicting him.Owen joined the army in 1915, and after he was wounded in combat in France in 1917, he was evacuated to a military hospital in Edinburgh, Scotland.  It is there that he penned the first draft of his poem and sent it to his mother with a note: “Here is a gas poem done yesterday, (which is not private, but not final)” (1).

The poem begins with an image of the exhausting drudgery of life on the front lines:

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Drudgery and exhaustion turn to nightmare as Owen describes a gas attack and the horror of watching one of his comrades in arms die before his eyes:

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.  
(2)
 

The words that end the poem, as well as the words in the poem’s title, are Latin, written by the Roman poet Horace.  The first four words, which also serve as the poem’s title, translate: “It is sweet and glorious.”  The final three words of the poem that complete the exhortation translate: “to die for one’s country.”

The words from Horace that Owen calls “The old Lie” would have been familiar to Owen’s readers since they were often quoted during the frenzy of recruiting at the beginning of World War I.  These Latin words are also inscribed on the wall of the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in Berkshire, England.  In the United States, the words are etched in stone above the rear entrance to the Memorial Amphitheater, near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, at Arlington National Cemetery.

After his recovery, Owen rejoined his regiment and returned to the trenches of France.  He was killed in battle on November 4, 1918, one week before the war ended on November 11, Armistice Day.

Owen’s poem is a rebuttal — the presentation of contradictory evidence — to an ancient expression of conventional wisdom, as seen in Horace’s Latin exhortation (here translated into English):  How sweet and honorable it is to die for one’s country.

To make his rebuttal, Owen structures his poem inductively, with details that move from the specific to the general.  Instead of stating his point at the beginning of the poem in a deductive structure, he, instead, begins with detailed imagery to show rather than tell.  Owen’s use of such powerful figurative language and sensory imagery create such a horrific picture that Owen hardly needs to state his point. The vivid details allow readers to infer the point for themselves; even a reader who does not know Latin would be able to make a logical inference regarding the “old Lie.”

Today’s Challenge:  Rebut With Reality

The practice of questioning conventional wisdom is a tradition that dates back to Socrates.  It’s an excellent way to discover ways in which common sense is not always perfectly logical and to explore counterintuitive insights.  It’s also an excellent way to avoid poor decisions.  In 1962, for example, executives at the Decca Recording Company rejected the Beatles because conventional wisdom led them to conclude that guitar music was on the way out. What are some examples of conventional wisdom (widely accepted truisms) that you have encountered, and how might you challenge conventional wisdom with a detailed, evidence-based rebuttal?  Write a rebuttal in either prose or poetry of a single statement of conventional wisdom, such as, “If you work hard, you will succeed” or “Pride goeth before the fall.”  Organize your writing inductively, using specific imagery and figurative language to show your point rather than tell it.  If you are successful, you may not even need to state the central claim of your rebuttal at the end. (Common Core Writing 1 – Argument)

1-Poets.org. Wilfred Owen. http://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poet/wilfred-owen.

2- Owen, Wilfred. Dulce et Decorum Est. 1921. Poetry Foundation.org. Public Domain. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46560/dulce-et-decorum-est.

October 2:  Thirteen Ways Day

Today is the birthday of American poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955).  Wallace won the Pulitzer Prize in 1955 even though he never worked as a full-time poet.  His day-job was as an executive for an insurance company in Hartford, Connecticut.

Wallace Stevens.jpgOne of Stevens’ best known poems is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.”  The poem captures the essence of poetry, a form of writing that challenges both the writer and the reader to “look” at the world from different perspectives and to see it in new ways.  In the tradition of Imagism, a poetic movement that emphasizes precise imagery and clear, concrete diction, Stevens presents thirteen numbered stanzas, each featuring a different way of seeing the ordinary blackbird (1).

As you can see in stanzas 1 and 5 below, Stevens’ language in influenced by the haiku form, combining concrete descriptions of nature with philosophical contemplation:

I

Among twenty snowy mountains,   

The only moving thing   

Was the eye of the blackbird.   

V

I do not know which to prefer,   

The beauty of inflections   

Or the beauty of innuendoes,   

The blackbird whistling   

Or just after.  

Today’s Challenge:  Ways of Looking – the Seven “Sees”
What are ways you can see the world in a new way and from different perspectives even on an ordinary day in an ordinary place?  Writing itself, in its various forms, is an excellent way of looking at the world from different perspectives.  The different modes of writing described below mirror the various ways our brain organizes and processes information.  Select one topic — a person, place, object, or idea — to examine; then, explore that one idea in at least 7 of the 13 ways listed below:

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Writing Topic

  1. Description:  Create a picture in words of what it looks like, sounds like, feels like, smells like, and/or tastes like.
  2. Comparison and Contrast:  Explain what is it like and what it is not like.
  3. Cause and Effect:  Explain where it came from and how it impacts the world.
  4. Definition:  Explain exactly what is it called, what it means, and what makes it distinctive from other things.
  5. Narrative:  Tell as story related to it that involves real people in conflict.
  6. Exemplification:  Make a generalization about it; then, support the generalization by giving specific examples that illustrate and explain it.
  7. Argumentation:  State a claim related to it, and provide your reasoning and evidence to prove your claim is valid.
  8. Problem and Solution:  Explain conflicts that arise because of it, and how those conflicts can or might be resolved.
  9. Process:  Explain how something happens related to it by giving a step by step sequence.
  10. Division and Classification: Identify its different parts and its different types.
  11. Poetry: Explore ideas related to it in verse, imagery, and/or figurative language.
  12. Fiction:  Create a story about it that has a narrative point of view, characters, conflict, climax, resolution, and themes.
  13. Drama:  Create a dramatic situation around it, with characters, conflict, and dialogue. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  It is not every day that the world arranges itself in a poem.  -Wallace Stevens

1-http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/wallace-stevens

September 20: Recitation Day

Today is the birthday of Donald Hall, American poet and the 14th U.S. Poet Laureate. He was born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1928, and when he was only sixteen, he attended the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. In his 50-year career as a writer, Hall has published poems, essays, letters, children’s books, and literary criticism (1).

In 1985 Hall wrote a short essay for Newsweek‘s “My Turn” column entitled “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture,” where he challenged readers to return to reading and reciting aloud.  Hall looked back to a time before television and mass media when print was frequently read aloud and everyone learned something by reciting or listening to recitations (2).

Today’s Challenge: Out-Loud Renaissance

What is a passage of prose or a poem that you feel is worth reading out loud and is worth committing to memory?  What makes it so exemplary and so worth remembering? Challenge yourself this week to commit a favorite poem or passage to memory. See if it helps you pay more attention to the written word.  Sponsor a “Recitation Day” in your class, school, or community, challenging people to share their poems or passages out loud. (Common Core Speaking and Listening 4 – Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas)

1 – Poets.org. Donald Hall. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/264.

2 – Hall, Donald. “Bring Back the Out-Loud Culture.” Newsweek 15 April 1985: 12.

September 5:  Two Voices Day

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Today is the birthday of children’s author and poet Paul Fleishman. Born in 1952, Fleishman grew up in Santa Monica, California.  His father, Sid Fleishman, was also an award-winning author of children’s books.

Fleishman graduated from the University of New Mexico in 1977, and before he became a full-time writer, he worked as a bookstore clerk, library shelver, and proofreader.  His work as a proofreader led to the founding of two grammar watchdog groups:  ColonWatch and The Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to English (1).

Fleischman in 2014.Fleishman won the most prestigious award in children’s literature in 1989, the Newbery Medal, for his book Joyful Noise:  Poems for Two Voices. In Joyful Noise, Fleishman popularized a new poetic genre, the poem for two voices. Written to be read aloud by two people, each poem is written in two columns.  Each reader is assigned a single column, and the two readers alternate, reading the lines in turn from the top to the bottom of the page.  Reader’s join their voices whenever words are written on the same line in both columns.

How to Read a Poem for Two Voices

I’m the first reader. I’m reading

only the lines in the left column.      

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       I’m the second reader.

                                                                      As you can see, I waited my

                                                                       turn to read.

If words appear on the same

Line in both columns,

Both readers read them aloud,             Both readers read them aloud,

Simultaneously.                                        Simultaneously.                                                            

One voice on the left,                            

                                                                    Plus another on the right,

Makes two voices.                                    Makes two voices.                                                                             

Today’s Challenge:  Compose, Collaborate, and Contrast

Given poetic license, what two people, places, things, or ideas would you like to see hold a conversation?  Write your own poem for two voices.  Begin by brainstorming some contrasting ideas:  people, places, ideas, or things.  You have poetic license to give voices to anyone or anything.  Here are some ideas to get you started:  father and son, dog and cat, protagonist and antagonist, summer and winter, success and failure, noun and verb, football and baseball.  Craft your poem in the two-column format, and when you have a solid draft, work with a partner to bring the poem to life by reading it aloud.  Revise and practice until you have a poem that’s ready to be shared with a larger group. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1- Paul Fleishchman.net. Biography.

September 3:  Postcard Poem Day

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On this day William Wordsworth (1770-1850) wrote his sonnet Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802. Instead of taking a photo or painting a picture, he crafted an image made of words, vividly describing the city of London and the Thames River.  Like a postcard, his poem is permanently postmarked by its title, providing both the time and place it was composed.

The original manuscript of the poem bears a note that provides more details on the circumstances surrounding its composition:  “Composed on the roof of a coach, on my way to France” (1).

Unlike the typical bucolic scenes of his romantic verse, in this poem Wordsworth describes an urban scene:

This City now doth, like a garment, wear
The beauty of the morning; silent, bare,
Ships, towers, domes, theatres, and temples lie
Open unto the fields, and to the sky;
All bright and glittering in the smokeless air.
Never did sun more beautifully steep
In his first splendour, valley, rock, or hill;  (lines 4-10)

Today’s Challenge:  Vivid Views in Verse

Follow Wordsworth’s model by painting your own picture in words.  What are the most unforgettable scenes that you can remember witnessing?  What made them worth capturing in descriptive words?  Select your single most vivid, memorable scene to immortalize.  Then, craft your description of the scene in a postcard poem. Select from your rhetorical palette the best devices to paint your scene:  metaphors, similes, sensory imagery, and concrete diction.  Strive to show rather than tell. Try to evoke the scene in your reader’s imagination, and postmark it with your title:  the place and time of composition. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-The British Library. Manuscript of ‘Composed Upon Westminster Bridge, September 3, 1802 by William Wordsworth. Public Domain.

 

January 25: Burns Day

Today is the birthday of the Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796).  Born in Alloway, Scotland, on a tenant farm, Burns began writing poems at an early age.  Although he had little formal education, suffered much poverty and hardship, and died at just 37 years of age, his poetry and songs have made him one of the great poets, especially to the people of Scotland who recognize him as their national poet.

Even though he wrote his poetry in the Scottish dialect, today Burns’ poetry is read, remembered, and loved by people around the world.  One prime example is his song Auld Lang Syne, which is sung around the world each New Year’s Eve (1).

The philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson is just one of many Americans who recognized Burns’ genius.  On the centennial of Burns’ death in 1859, Emerson commemorated Burns at a gathering of admirers in Boston:

He grew up in a rural district, speaking a patois unintelligible to all but natives, and he has made the Lowland Scotch a Doric dialect of fame. It is the only example in history of a language made classic by the genius of a single man. But more than this. He had that secret of genius to draw from the bottom of society the strength of its speech, and astonish the ears of the polite with these artless words, better than art, and filtered of all offence through his beauty. It seemed odious to Luther that the devil should have all the best tunes; he would bring them into the churches; and Burns knew how to take from fairs and gypsies, blacksmiths and drovers, the speech of the market and street, and clothe it with melody. (2)

Beginning in 1801, five years after Burns’ death, his friends gathered at a dinner in Alloway to honor the Scottish Bard. Ever since, Burns’ admirers around the world have gathered on his birthday at Burns Suppers.  More than just a meal, the Burns Supper has evolved into an elaborate, scripted event involving the playing of bagpipes, the presentation of formal speeches and toasts, and the recitation and singing of Burns’ poetry and songs.

One vital menu item for every Burns Supper is haggis, Scotland’s national dish: a pudding made of sheep offal (the liver, heart, lungs), oatmeal, minced onion, all encased in a sheep’s stomach.  Pipes play as the haggis is presented to the dinner guests, and before anyone digs in, Burns’ poem Address to the Haggis is recited.

The highlight of the evening, however, is the keynote address called the “Immortal Memory,” presented by one of the attendees.  The purpose of this speech is revive the memory of Burns’ life and to express appreciation for his work.

Today’s Challenge:  Immortal Memory, Memorable Meal

What person, who is no longer living, was so important and influential that he or she should be immortalized with an annual birthday supper?  What would be the menu, and what would be the agenda of activities for honoring the person and symbolizing the person’s life and achievements?  Brainstorm some individuals that you would recognize as having made a significant contribution to the world.  Select one individual and write an explanation of why this person should be honored. Also, give a preview of the meal’s menu and festivities. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

Quotation of the Day:  I pick my favourite quotations and store them in my mind as ready armour, offensive or defensive, amid the struggle of this turbulent existence. -Robert Burns

1-The Poetry Foundation.  Robert Burns. https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/robert-burns.

2-Bartleby.  Ralph Waldo Emerson.  The Complete Works. https://www.bartleby.com/90/1122.html.

December 9: Narrative Poem Day

On this day in 1854, Britain’s Poet Laureate Alfred Lord Tennyson published his poem “The Charge of the Light Brigade.”  The poem recounts a horrific episode at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.  On October 25, 1854, the British Light Brigade rode into battle against Russian forces. Following an ambiguous order to attack, the soldiers of the British cavalry were mowed down by Russian field artillery as they charged across a treeless valley.  Of the 673 British horsemen who made the charge that day only 198 survived (See October 25:  History Into Verse Day)(1).

Tennyson is said to have written his famous narrative poem in just a few minutes after reading an account of the battle in the newspaper.  The six-stanza poem immediately became popular, and even today its famous lines capture the plight of common soldiers, nobly and courageously following the orders of their superior:

Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

   Rode the six hundred.

Narrative poetry is probably the oldest form of poetry there is. A narrative poem is a poem with a plot, a plot which centers around characters, conflict, and setting.  

The most common forms of narrative poems are the short form known as a ballad and a long form known as an epic. Accordingto Edward Hirsch in his book A Poet’s Glossary, these poems are some ofour oldest forms of storytelling. Many ballads and epics began as spoken formsof poetry, long before we had an alphabet that allowed people to write theirwords (2).

Today’s Challenge:  Muse Meets the News

What event from today’s news is worthy of immortalizing in verse? read Tennyson’s poem carefully, noticing how he tells the story of The Charge of the Light Brigade (3).  Then, like Tennyson, read a story in today’s newspaper, and write a short narrative poem that captures the key elements of the story. (Common Core 3 – Narrative)

1- March, W.B. and Bruce Carrick.  366: A Leap Year of Great Stories. Cambridge, UK:  Icon Books, 2007: 342.

2-Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014: 397.

3-Tennyson, Alfred Lord. The Charge of the Light Brigade. 1854 Public Domain. Poetry Foundation.org. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems-and-poets/poems/detail/45319.

November 28:  Haiku Day

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On this day in 1694, Japanese Haiku master Basho died.  Born Matsuo Kinsaku in Kyoto, Japan, the poet began to write under the pseudonym Basho in 1680 after one of his students presented him with a gift of basho (banana) trees.  Clearly this was an appropriate gift for a writer known for his close observation of the natural world.

Basho adapted the haiku from a longer form called haikai no renga, which opened with a hokku, or “startling verse,” made up of three unrhymed lines of five, seven, and five syllables.

 

In the cicada’s cry

There’s no sign that can foretell

How soon it must die.

 

Temple bells die out.

The fragrant blossoms remain.

A perfect evening!

Today’s Challenge:  Seventeen Syllables of Insight

What are the key elements of writing a haiku?

-The focus of haiku is sensory imagery that describes your observation of nature

-You don’t have to name a specific season, but you should use a “season word” (In Japanese it’s called a kigo) that gives a clue to the season you are writing about.

-Also, since you are trying to capture a moment in time — the now — write in present tense and don’t worry about writing a title. (Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)

1-Poetry Foundation. Basho. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/basho.