A Book Review of A Thousand Mornings: Poems by Mary Oliver
Reviewed by Linda Frances Lein

A Thousand Mornings As we have come to expect from Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Mary Oliver, observations of small, pristine moments in the natural world spring up in her newest collection of poems A Thousand Mornings.

A redbird, black snake, fox, fish, a mockingbird, bats, a white heron, and her dog Percy who “listened to poems” are a few of the critters that readers encounter (74). She makes the meeting of the wild critters feel like a routine occurrence as if they are not instinctively afraid of her as they might be of other human intruders in their world.

White flowers, daffodils, black oaks, leaves, pond lilies, pale dunes, high grass, “blue gray green lavender” tides are the terrain that we linger in when reading Oliver’s work (57). Many of these poetic natural images are from her home and community Provincetown, Massachusetts, where townspeople might catch a glimpse of her walking, stopping, looking or listening, and writing in her notebook, a regular ritual of hers.

Amidst Oliver’s earthy images, readers find spiritual journeys and connections as well (5). This is not new in her poems but rather is an ongoing pilgrimage for her. For example, in “On Traveling to Beautiful Places” she writes:

Every day I’m still looking for God
and I’m still finding him everywhere,
in the dust, in the flowerbeds.
Certainly in the oceans,
in the islands that lay in the distance
continents of ice, countries of sand.” (67)

And Oliver also makes comparisons between the natural world and human nature, an opportunity to find a sense of self and belongingness. For instance, in “The Poet Compares Human Nature to the Ocean from Which We Came” she writes:

…it can rise, ebb, froth
like an incoming frenzy of fountains, or it can
sweet-talk entirely. As I can too,
and so, no doubt, can you, and you.

What may surprise the reader are the poetic references to Oliver’s writing process—her walks, notebooks, pens, and words of past poets. For example, in “I Happened to be Standing” she writes:

While I was thinking this I happened to be standing
just outside my door, with my notebook open,
which is the way I begin every morning. (3)

In “Foolish? No, It’s Not” she writes:

Sometimes I spend all day trying to count
the leaves on a single tree. To do this I
have to climb branch by branch and
write down the numbers in a little book. (5)

And in “Hum, Hum” she writes:

Also the words of poets
a hundred or hundreds of years dead—
their words that would not be held back. (42)

Oliver’s poems—this collection and others—will live long among those words of poets as well.  Her work has been, and will continue to be, anthologized for today’s readers and generations to come. Her words will not be held back. They will sing “full of earth-praise” (5).

Mary Oliver’s book A Thousand Mornings will resonate with readers.  They will walk the beach, climb trees, listen to the birds’ songs, and touch the delicate, soft petals of flowers.  This and so much more will cause readers to read, ponder, and re-read the 36-poem collection.

Reprinted with permission from Englewood Review of Books (November 2012)

Since I sat in Miss Eckman’s 7th Grade English classroom, I’ve been fascinated with the imagists and one-sentence poems.

The imagists were American and British writers in the 20th Century who advocated free verse, common use of language, and concrete images in their writing. Their poems are like snapshots – photographs of a scene. Among my favorite imagists is William Carlos Williams, a medical doctor and poet. Probably his most famous one-sentence poem is “The Red Wheelbarrow.”

The Red Wheelbarrow
by William Carlos Williams

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

Another leader in the imagist movement is Ezra Pound. One of his well-known, one-sentence poems is “In a Station of the Metro.”

In a Station of the Metro
by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

It’s even possible to write a one-sentence poem that has multiple stanzas. Linda Pastan did that in her poem “The New Dog.”

The New Dog
by Linda Pastan

Into the gravity of my life,
the serious ceremonies
of polish and paper
and pen, has come

this manic animal
whose innocent disruptions
make nonsense
of my old simplicities—

as if I needed him
to prove again that after
all the careful planning,
anything can happen.

Learning to write a one-sentence poem with a strong pictorial images teaches the writer to make every word count, to be selective about the words that are included, and to tighten the language to the bare minimum.

Do you have a favorite one-sentence poem? Have you thought about writing one-sentence poems?

Works Cited

Pastan, Linda. “The New Dog.” The Cortland Review. 1999. Web. 4 Aug. 2013.

Pound, Ezra. “In a Station of the Metro.” Poetry Foundation. 2013. Web. 4. Aug. 2013.

Williams, William Carlos. “Red Wheelbarrow.” Poetry Foundation. 2013. Web. 4 Aug. 2013.

A Review of Paul Mariani’s Book Epitaphs for the Journey

In Epitaphs for the Journey, Paul Mariani, a well-established American poet and biographer of poets, revisits his life journey and faith—two things that are not separate but intertwined like lock and key. Mariani is a skilled storyteller who unravels the tangled strands of his childhood and openly explores the mystery of God in eight cantos, each with twelve poems that are new, selected, and revised from his previous work.

He unflinchingly examines his life experiences that, no doubt, tested his faith. In “Duet,” he reveals his mother who unsuccessfully “tried to salvage” and “kept coaxing” his father to sing “in harmony” with her (29). In “Crossing Cocytus,” he explores “…the boy under the great-limbed / purple beech that fronts” his home “his scrawny arms / locked about his knees, as he keeps sobbing to himself” (73). However, Mariani does not leave the broken boy under the large tree crying; he consoles, “I would comfort him for his having fathered me. / It has come out well” (73).

Although life cam out well for Mariani, a Boston College professor, it’s at the end of the second canto that Mariani admits his flaws. In “Light Streaming Into the Head” he writes, “I tried to make myself into a priest and failed” (64), and it’s in “Betty: September 1957” that readers learn of the exact moment he broke his vow. He discloses, “…I came off my earnest, stringent year-long fast / & kissed her lips & dear God tasted woman once again” (54).

Because Mariani informs readers of his faults, they are perhaps more willing to explore his views of God. In “Soldiers of Christ,” Mariani revisits the place where his Catholic school once stood. He writes, “The school is gone now, the chapel too, / and the playing fields: all gone. Even / the mountain over which the sun rose / and where God would often greet me / has turned to ice and stone” (51). It’s not in the school, nor his failed call that Mariani only finds God, but it’s in the loss of his first child that he “first began to understand the cost of loving” (“Beginnings” 80). After his wife’s miscarriage, his friend challenges Mariani by asking him what he thought “now of God’s ways toward men” (81). Mariani does not give up on God, though. In “Nine One One,” a response to the 2001 terrorist attacks, he concludes with God affirming, “I will not leave you orphans? Not / One of you. Not one, not a single precious one.” And other poems near the book’s end, (e.g.: “The Gift”) reveal that Mariani discovers that God is in the small things of his family life as well.

Epitaphs for the Journey is a poetic, spiritual journey, which is also evident in the front and back cover engravings by Barry Moser. The front cover is of a small boy who seems to be searching for a way out of a large, dark structure; the back cover is a hunched-over, cane-walking grandfather in a cathedral “bound for home” (“Fish Ladder, Damariscotta” 204). The engravings fittingly bookend the life journey of Mariani.

Mariani’s book Epitaphs for the Journey will resonate with readers. They will see their own life struggles through Mariani’s poems. They will ask their own difficult questions about God like Mariani has done. And perhaps, they will come to the same conclusions or similar answers that God is in each of life’s moments—big or small.

Reprinted with permission from Englewood Review of Books (Fall 2012)

This summer I participated in LouAnn Muhm’s online class Writing About Art. Eight of us wrote poems based on or prompted by artwork: photographs, paintings, sculptures, music, other writing, and environmental art. We wrote one poem per week, and some of us wrote two poems on some of the weeks.

LouAnn Muhm, a poet and teacher from northern Minnesota, has published work in several literary journals: Dust & Fire, The Talking Stick, North Coast Review, Alba, Red River Review, Eclectica, Poems Niederngasse, and CALYX. Her full-length poetry collection Breaking the Glass (published in 2008 by Loonfeather Press) is among my favorite books.

Besides having great credentials and depth of experience in writing poetry, LouAnn is an outstanding instructor. She encourages writers by identifying specific words, phrases, and lines that work well, and she gently points out other parts to revise to make their poems even better. Her feedback is insightful and spot on.

I liked the Writing about Art class and the experience of writing with other poets, so much that I’m registered for LouAnn’s next online class Writing the Short Poem. It starts on September 16th. Maybe you’d like to join the class as well. Here’s the course description:

Have you been told that your poems read like prose, or that “maybe that poem would work better as a short story”? Do you have trouble deciding what to cut from your rough drafts? One of the characteristics that makes poetry poetic is the compression of language. In this class, we will read and discuss a variety of short poems, practice cutting extraneous language from poems (by others and by you), and think about what kinds of language can (should?) almost always be cut. We will work with your drafts, old and new, and generate new poems with an emphasis on compression and concision. We will explore a variety of short forms as well as concise free verse.

If you want to register for the class, go to The Loft Literary Center website: https://www.loft.org/classes/detail/?loft_product_id=36009. And if you’re not interested in writing poetry, The Loft has several other online classes for fiction, creative nonfiction, plays, etc.

In my previous blog post, I wrote a book review of Wolverton Road, a collection of cinquains by Ryan Christiansen.

Cinquian (pronounced sing-cane) originates from the French word cinque and the Latin word quinque, both of which mean five. Cinquains have five lines, but several pattern options.

In the first pattern—sometimes referred to as the Didactic Cinquain—the writer builds the poem by counting words for each line:

Line 1: One word
Line 2: Two words
Line 3: Three words
Line 4: Four words
Line 5: One word

In the second pattern, the writer selects specific types of words for each line:

Line 1: A noun
Line 2: Two adjectives
Line 3: Three ing words
Line 4: A phrase
Line 5: Another word for the noun

In the third pattern—sometimes referred to as the American cinquain—the writer counts syllables for each line:

Line 1: Two syllables
Line 2: Four syllables
Line 3: Six syllables
Line 4: Eight syllables
Line 5: Two syllables

Ryan Christiansen used this third form to write 54 cinquain for his book Wolverton Road.

There are additional more complex variations of the cinquain as well:

  • Reverse Cinquain reverses the order of the lines:  two, eight, six, four, two.
  • Mirror Cinquain has two stanzas, the second is a reverse cinquain of the first stanza.
  • Butterfly Cinquain is a nine-line poem: two, four, six, eight, two, eight, six, four, two; centered it should look like a butterfly.
  • Crown Cinquain has five stanzas to construct one long poem.
  • Garland Cinquain is a series of six cinquains, the last stanza formed of lines by preceding five— typically Line 1 from the first stanza, Line 2 from the second stanza, Line 3 from the third, and so on.

If you’d like to read more about cinquains or about the poet who is well known for the American cinquain, check out the work of Adelaide Crapsey. Her biography is available at Poetry Foundation: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/adelaide-crapsey#poet. And here’s an example of one of her American Cinquain:


Keep thou
Thy tearless watch
All night but when blue-dawn
Breaths on the silver moon, then weep!
Then weep!

Now select a topic and try writing one of these short, fun poems.

Work Cited

Adventure with Cinquain. Google Docs. n.d. Web. 10 Aug. 2013.

Last winter, Christiansen, a writing instructor at North Dakota State College of Science, drove U.S. Highway 75 from Moorhead to Breckenridge and then to Wahpeton, a 60-minute commute to teach freshmen how to write.

In those dark, bleak mornings of barren, frozen flatland, he challenged himself and crafted 54 poems: cinquains – a five-line poem that follows the pattern of 2 / 4 / 6 / 8 / 2-syllables. Those poems are now available in an eBook titled Wolverton Road.

Although these are short poems in a particular form, Christiansen crafted them with prairie images and poetic language. With each word picture, he transports the reader with him on this road that snakes parallel to the Red River. Some of the poems even imply multiple layers of meaning such as his opening poem:

Trees felled
like pencils dropped
across the river ice.
Inkwell currents flow beneath in

Many items along the rural landscape do not escape Christiansen’s poetic eye: farmsteads, yes, but also headlights, an abandoned minivan, twin silos, gravediggers, railroad crossings, yellow traffic signs, and even power lines and hay bales, another favorite of mine:

piled up, sleeping
beneath the quilted snow.
Power lines pop, hum lullabies

Christiansen doesn’t leave the Midwest farmer or reader in the gripping, freezing cold of winter. Spring is evident in a few hints in the poems like in this one:

in John Deere green
straddles the painted line,
kicks up shoulder dust and springtime

If you are a commuter on rural roads, you’ll love this book. If you’ve lived on a farm, you’ll smile and want more. If you are a writer, you’ll find yourself nodding in affirmation, re-reading, and re-living each snapshot.  There’s something for every reader in this eBook Wolverton Road,  available at Amazon.com: http://www.amazon.com/Wolverton-Road-ebook/dp/B00CQAEPAS/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1375621845&sr=8-1&keywords=Wolverton+Road

Wolverton Road

Much like aspiring painters, who study and sometimes copy the work of painters in order to learn artistic technique, writers who study the work of well-known authors will learn about the craft of writing. With that in mind, let’s examine Emily Dickinson’s poem “Hope Is the Thing with Feathers.”

Hope Is the Thing with Feathers
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul—
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops—at all—

And sweetest—in the Gale—is heard—
And sore must be the storm—
That could abash the little Bird
That kept so many warm—

I’ve heard it in the chillest land—
And on the strangest Sea—
Yet—never—in Extremity,
It asked a crumb—of me.

Dickinson starts with an abstract word—hope. Abstract nouns identify ideas and feelings. They are things that cannot be touched. To give hope an image, Dickinson uses a metaphor—the thing with feathers. A metaphor is a figure of speech where something is said to be something else. In this case, hope is a bird. A poem can be an extended metaphor, meaning the writer uses the metaphor through several stanzas in a poem, and Dickinson does that in this poem.

In the next three lines of Stanza 1, Dickinson uses verbs that are characteristic of birds:  perches and sings. Then she identifies places where hope can be found: in the soul and without words.

A shift occurs in Stanza 2. The question could be asked: When do you most need your abstract word? Answer: When things are going well? No. Rather when things are going bad, right? Hope is most tested when there is a storm. Notice even though Dickinson is writing about hope, in Stanza 2 she continues to use images related to the bird.

Another shift occurs in Stanza 3. Dickinson lists two places she has heard the abstract word: in the chilliest land and strangest Sea. Then she defines where she has not seen it: Extrimity. Extrimity? What’s that? At the end, limit, farthest point. Hope is not there.

Finally, the last line. What did the abstract word never ask for: a crumb—of me.  Notice the word crumb is appropriate to what the bird needs for nourishment as well as the persona of the poem.

Now that we understand this poem, let’s try to master the craft of writing a poem just like it—only different—one that is your own. Follow these steps:

  • Select a positive abstract word.
  • Brainstorm a list of possible metaphors that could be used with your abstract word. Select the one that is the strongest metaphor to create an image.
  • Make a list of verbs that can be used with your metaphor.
  • Make a list of places your abstract word can be found.
  • Combine the verb list with the place list to finish Stanza 1.
  • Make a list of things that can test your abstract word. Determine which thing causes the reader to need the abstract word most. Using that image, write Stanza 2. Remember that you need to extend the metaphor image in that situation as well as keeping the language connected to the abstract word.
  • Return to the list of places where your abstract word can be found. Write the first two lines of Stanza 3. Start it with the word “I.”
  • Make a list of places where your abstract word cannot be found. Select the place that is the most remote. Add the third line of Stanza 3. Start the line with “Yet” or another conjunction like it.
  • Make a list of nourishment words for the metaphor. Select one of the nourishment words and write the last line.

Sounds simple, right? No, it’s not. However, struggling to follow the form of another writer’s poem, especially an established poet like Emily Dickinson, will teach a writer about poetic elements: imagery, line breaks, word choice, etc.

In the comment section below, identify a poet and poem title that would work well for this exercise.

Work Cited

Dickinson, Emily. “Hope Is the Thing With Feathers.” Poetry Foundation.  2013. Web 14 March 2013.