Archive for May, 2013

Last week I announced an “ultraconserved words” poetry contest.  (If you missed it, read here.)  A quick re-cap:  write a poem using 15 of the 23 words that some linguists believe have been around since the end of the last ice age.  The words are: I, we, thou, ye, who, this, that, what, mother, male/man, not, worm, bark, hand, ashes, fireto give, to pull, to spit, to flow, and to hear.  Of course you can use any form of the verbs and singular or plural of the nouns.


I’m amending the contest.  First, I’m re-naming it a challenge, not a contest.  A contest should have a prize, and I don’t have a prize to give.  I’ve only received a handful of entries (all wonderful!), and so I’m able to post them all.  Also, entries only need to use ten of the words.  Fifteen seems a little much, although I’ve been impressed with what people have done so far.


So those are the rules and here’s a deadline:  by the end of the day June 1.  Sometimes a firm deadline is the best muse.


If you’ve never written a poem before, why not try?  Be brave–you’ve got nothing to lose.


Email entries to poemelf@yahoo.com.  And look for pictures of your poems posted next week!

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poem is on iron gate below the handicapped entrance sign

poem is on iron gate below the handicapped entrance sign


Expect Nothing

by Alice Walker


Expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise.

become a stranger

To need of pity

Or, if compassion be freely

Given out

Take only enough

Stop short of urge to plead

Then purge away the need.


Wish for nothing larger

Than your own small heart

Or greater than a star;

Tame wild disappointment

With caress unmoved and cold

Make of it a parka

For your soul.


Discover the reason why

So tiny human midget

Exists at all

So scared unwise

But expect nothing. Live frugally

On surprise.



bon voyage!

bon voyage!


I was planning to write this post about graduation speeches, and I’m still planning to get to that, but right now I’m thinking about my daughter Lizzie, whose graduation was the occasion for this poem-elfing, and whose present whereabouts have me thinking about the poem entirely differently.  Lizzie is in Cameroon, Africa for a month.  I hear from her every couple of days, a few texted phrases about the heat, the rains, the mud, the lush green hills, the beauty of the children she meets, the likelihood of getting diarrhea. She’s tagging along with a crew that includes a dentist and an ophthalmologist, visiting villages to distribute the luxuries of toothbrushes, reading glasses and dental exams.  Later, in a Cameroonian version of Call the Midwife, that wonderful BBC television series, Lizzie will be shadowing midwives who are also nuns, and living in a convent with them.  Like the nuns in the BBC show, these nuns attend to the poor, to mothers who could not imagine creating a birth plan or getting to make the choice between a water delivery in a plastic baby pool and an epidural in a hospital bed.


If I had originally intended “Expect Nothing” to be a counterpoint to the world-is-your-oyster stuff of graduation speeches (you can see where I’m going with this), now I see how the poem operates on the assumption that oysters are readily available for consumption.  Two weeks ago Lizzie filed into a graduation arena among peers for who take only enough is one of many lifestyle choices, and now she’s living among people who truly expect nothing.


So this poem becomes a luxury too. Because being able to make choices about how to live is a luxury of first world countries.


Speaking of choices, and getting back to graduation, a short film about David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College was going viral on blogs and Facebook until it was recently removed by the David Foster Wallace Trust.  Too bad because it was a well-done excerpt from a great speech about the work of choosing.  Post-college life, Wallace says, is full of “boredom, routine, and petty frustration.”  The measure of education is how we choose to look at those tedious moments, how we can transcend frustration if we become more aware and less automatic in our responses, perhaps turning our eye to our “mystical oneness” with people who annoy us. It’s an inspiring speech for graduates (read the full text here, please, it’s great), but it’s heartbreaking too.  As I read along, I kept wishing his own words had inspired him in his darkest hour. The popularity of the speech three years after his death brings me to another poem, his ex-lover Mary Karr’s “Suicide’s Note: An Annual” which has these lines:


I just wanted to say ha-ha, despite

           your best efforts you are every second

alive in a hard-gnawing way for all who breathed you deeply in


The speaker at my daughter’s graduation, Twitter CEO and former comedian Dick Costolo, gave a more conventional speech, and that’s not a criticism. Most graduation speeches satisfy audiences in the same way Thanksgiving dinners do:  by giving a good-enough version of what’s expected.  We expect to hear, and if the speaker is charming and brief, we’re delighted to hear, a few nuggets of our collective cultural wisdom:  follow your dreams, make your own path, give back, be grateful, the future is yours, live in the present, say yes, make mistakes, do work you love, do good work, thank your parents, eat whole foods.


Costolo was better than good enough, he was excellent, really funny with a compelling personal narrative and a solid message about making courageous choices and staying in the moment.


I put Alice Walkers’ “Expect Nothing” on the entrance to the stadium where graduation was held.  Like any good graduation speech (not that Walker intended the poem to be one) the poem opens with an attention grabber.  Expect nothing. If you skim the poem and separate the directives from the modifying phrases, it becomes a depressing if realistic guide for graduates burdened by debt and shrinking job prospects.  Expect nothing, live frugally, take only enough, stop short.  You can almost hear a mother of a certain generation or a certain personality type saying similar things to her children—be tough, don’t get your hopes up—all the while hoping silently in her heart that her children have the best of everything.


Which is the hope offered in the poem.  Through a series of wonderful aphorisms (my favorite:  Wish for nothing/larger than your own small heart), Walker suggests that anyone asking the big question—why are we here?—can have a big, big life, as big as a star.

Alice Walker

Poet Alice Walker was born in 1944 in Georgia, the youngest of eight children.  Her father was a sharecropper, her mother a maid.  When she was eight, her brother accidentally shot her in the eye with a BB gun.  Because the family didn’t own a car, it was a week before she got to the doctor, and she became blind in one eye.  She went to Spelman College on a full scholarship, then transferred to Sarah Lawrence.  She met Martin Luther King, Jr. as a student and was inspired to join the civil rights movement.  She and her ex-husband, civil rights lawyer Melvyn Rosenthal, became the first legally married inter-racial couple in Mississippi.  The harassment they faced makes it easy to understand why she advises, Stop short of the urge to plead.


Her 1982 bestseller The Color Purple was made into a movie and a musical.  She’s written seven novels, several collections of short stories, essays, children’s books, and poetry.  She’s won the Pulitzer Prize, National Book Award, and a Guggenheim fellowship.  She continues her work as a political activist.


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Psst!  Poetry contest, pass it on

Psst! Poetry contest, pass it on


A controversial study just released by a group of historical linguists proposes that twenty-three words still in use today have survived mostly unchanged from the end of the last ice age.  Using statistics, the researchers have tried to prove that these 15,000-year old “ultraconserved” words come from one mother tongue.  That language, which they call proto-Eurasiatic, formed seven language branches which in turn led to the 700 modern languages which all share some variant of the twenty-three words.


True or not, the study engages the imagination.  What words were most important to the earliest civilizations and why do those words have staying power? I’m not a linguist and I’m not a poet, but the list makes me wish I were both.  There’s a poem in these words, and likely additional linguistic discoveries.


Eight of the words are pronouns, colorless words necessary for basic face-to-face communication: I, we, thou, ye, who, this, that, what.  Two refer to people:  mother and male/man.  One is a useful negative: not.  There are only two adjectives: old and black.  The list is rounded out by five nouns, worm, bark, hand, ashes, fire, and five verbs, to give, to pull, to spit, to flow, and to hear.


So here’s my own proposal:  let’s have a little poetry contest using the ultraconserved words. I’ll print the best ones on this blog, and I’ll poem-elf them as well with pictures of the poems in their new settings.


Here’s the rules:

  1. Poem must use at least 15 of the 23 words.
  2. Poems can be no longer than twelve lines.
  3. Poems can also be prose-poems of the same length.


That’s it.  Them’s all the restrictions.


Email your poems to poemelf@yahoo.com.  Deadline is June 1.  I’ll post a reminder/plea for entries each week till then.


Sorry to say there will be no prizes.  The reward is the pleasure of creating a poem within a set of boundaries, and the small recognition that comes from being published on a blog with a sympathetic audience.


Speaking of audience, thanks to all who visited my blog after I was “freshly pressed” a few weeks ago.  I’m delighted to have so many new readers! And amazed at how many creative blogs there are out there.


I’m considerably less delighted to be getting spam followers all the sudden.  Is anyone else having this problem?  I wish I could delete them.  So many spam followers are coming in that I’ve stopped visiting the blogs of new followers because I don’t want to give any satisfaction to the fake ones.


But again, thank you, WordPress, and thank you readers!


Looking forward to reading your ultraconserved poems.


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First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes

First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes


So We’ll Go No More a Roving

By Lord Byron (George Gordon)


So, we’ll go no more a roving

So late into the night,

Though the heart be still as loving,

And the moon be still as bright.


For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself have rest.


Though the night was made for loving,

And the day returns too soon,

Yet we’ll go no more a roving

By the light of the moon.


Image 4



With Rue My Heart is Laden

By A.E. Housman


WITH rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.


By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.




More views:

Image 3   Image 1



A few days after the Boston bombing, the line With rue my heart is laden climbed out of my mental attic and presented itself in the living room.  The phrase needed no introduction—I had memorized it years earlier—but I did question its judgment in showing up at that moment.  With rue my heart is laden is much too sentimental and wistful to address the maiming and killing of innocent people.  Then it occurred to me that the reason I associated this poem with the bombing was not the opening line but the image of lightfoot lads leaping across a brook.  Or rather, not leaping over the brook.


It was the loss of limbs, you see, that brought the poem to mind.


As soon as I made that connection, another line presented itself:  So no more we’ll go a roving. I should explain that for a long time (maybe even right up to the minute I copied the poem to use for this post) I thought Byron’s poem was “So No More We’ll Go a Rowing.”  I pictured the long-armed rowers sitting morose by the banks of a brook that the lightfoot lads couldn’t leap across. In my age-addled brain, I wondered if the two lines were, if not in the same poem, at least written by the same poet.


Easy to see why I conflated the two poems.  Even though they were written eighty years apart, the poems share a diction, structure and tone.  Both are brief, musical, have the same rhyme scheme and a similar meter, or close enough, anyway.


But more to the point, both poems express a longing for a golden past full of  beautiful young people and lighthearted spirits.  Boys rove and leap in a place no longer accessible.  Byron’s randy paradise is lost to age or exhaustion, and even though the words “rest” and “pause” allow for an eventual revival of roving, yet no more we’ll go sounds like Byron’s permanently traded in the Axe for Bengay.  Death has taken Housman’s pastoral dream, and so for both poets, carefree youthful days are irrevocable.


For that reason I couldn’t leave the poems in places frequented by teenagers, not during this season of proms and graduations.  It’s enough that kids have to see the smashed cars displayed on high school lawns, that they have to listen to the valedictorian get all carpe diem because my fellow classmates, it’s all gone in a flash, enough that they have to comfort parents snorfling about what happened to my baby girl.  They don’t need more reminders of lost youth and death that these two elegies would bring. Neither poem, I realized as I was thinking about where to poem-elf them, is a young person’s poem.


So I abandoned my first associations with the poems and decided to lighten the tone. I left the poems on a shelf at T.J. Maxx among the anti-aging products.  Because when it comes to the face, Faulkner’s wrong:  the past is definitely past, despite an 80 billion dollar skincare industry, despite the exclamations of old friends who insist you look as young as ever.  You don’t.  Your youthful skin is across brooks too broad for leaping and it’s decaying by the second in a field where roses fade. And while yoga, Kegel exercises or a salsa dancing class may give you back some of your youthful ju-ju, it’s just not the same ju-ju that sent you out on a Thursday night a-roving till the sun returned too soon.  I sound unsympathetic but I struggle with aging as much as anyone, and I’ll probably head back to T.J. Maxx to buy one of those wrinkle creams.


It all reminds me of a comment an acquaintance made years ago in a do-it-yourself yoga class in a friend’s basement.  We were inverted in downward-facing dog, and after a few minutes, this woman sighed and said, “I used to have the cutest heart-shaped ass.”  With a twist of my head I could see that she employed the past tense appropriately.


Lord Byron (1788-1824) and his longer poems made my life miserable in a college Romantic poetry class.  His life is bigger than I can cover in a paragraph, and anyway nearly everyone knows about his club foot, his sexual exploits, his death from fever in the war for Greek independence.  He wrote “So No More We’ll Go A Roving” when he was 29 in a letter written from Italy where he had gone to escape his scandals in England. Described by one of his former lovers as “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” I don’t think he ever stopped roving in his brief time on earth.


By contrast A.E. Housman (1859-1936) lived a quiet life.  He was born the oldest of seven children in rural England.  He went to Oxford but failed his final exams because he was distracted by his unrequited love for his classmate.  Still he earned  renown as a classics scholar, and after ten years spent in the patent office in London, he became a Latin professor at Cambridge.  He only published two volumes of poetry in his life.  The first, A Shropshire Lad, from which this poem is taken, was a series of 63 poems written after the death of his friend.  The book became popular during WWI.


Both poems found popularity with musicians.  Here’s Joan Baez’s version of Byron’s poem, and here’s one of the many versions of With Rue My Heart is Laden.


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