April 12, 2016

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Source Poems, This Is Just to Say: National Poetry Month 2014

Forget April Fool’s Day. My favorite thing about April 1 is this: it’s the first day of National Poetry Month.

2014 Poster, designed by Chip Kidd
NPM posters are available at

Each year, poets and bloggers around the web host series in honor of NPM. This is Author Amok’s fifth year celebrating NPM.

We all have favorite poems. But I've been thinking about something a little deeper: Source poems. Poems that we draw like water from a well, again and again, to quench some thirst.

Source poems can be a well of inspiration, comfort,
and emotional connection for the reader.

For National Poetry Month 2014, I’ve invited 17 authors and poets to guest post about their own source poems. These might be:

1. The poem that made you realize you wanted to be a writer.

2. A poem that shifted your thinking about what poetry is.
3. A poem that changed how you view yourself and your place in the world.
4. A poem that you have memorized and internalized. Its cadence is a part of you.

source poem is also:

1. A poem that you read again and again and again.

2. A poem that you love to discuss and share with others.
3. A poem that carries special meaning in your life as a writer or as a human being.
4. A poem that has a back-story for you.

Here is the schedule for my 
National Poetry Month: Source Poems series:

4/1: Series intro -- Laura Shovan on Williams Carlos Williams' "This Is Just to Say"
4/7: Diane Mayr on a haiku by Basho
4/22: Irene Latham's Progressive Poem Project is at Author Amok
4/23: Shirley Brewer on "The Singers" by Eavan Boland
4/24: Renee LaTulippe on "Daddy" by Sylvia Plath
4/28: Margaret Simon on "Wild Geese" by Mary Oliver
4/29: Tim Ward
4/30: Toby Speed and series wrap-up

I promised to tell the story of one of my own source poems, and how it almost got me into a brawl when I was a freshman at NYU.

Backstory: It’s 1987. I am a Dramatic Writing major at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. For the most part, my classes are in screenwriting, Shakespeare, acting, and video production. Tisch students like me only have to take a few classes with the general NYU public.

One of these required classes is freshman Comp. Composition? But I’m a writer! I had to submit my writing to get into this dang program. I should NOT have to take freshman Comp with the masses. It is beneath me. (At 18, I am wise beyond my years.)

There’s no getting out of it. And the class isn’t so bad. One of the assignments is to analyze a poem. I was editor of my high school literary magazine. I am all over this assignment.

I go for a poem that appears simple, but is meaty enough to make a good paper. It’s by one of my favorite poets, (fellow New Jerseyan) William Carlos Williams.

This Is Just To Say

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

I must have first come across “This Is Just to Say” in high school. Every time I read it, this poem is a source of wonder. How did Williams manage to communicate so much emotion in what appears to be a simple note, left on a kitchen counter?

My paper examined the characters in the poem – the speaker, the suggested “you.” I explored the imagery: icebox, plums; the implication that the speaker rose early and left the “you” asleep in bed; the sensuality of the last two lines; the significance of the title. These elements work in conjunction to sketch a romantic relationship, but Williams’ touch is so light, so natural, that the poem still reads like a simple keeping-house note. Amazing. I could read it again and again.

I saunter into class, knowing I will wow the professor with my literary insight.

I am not prepared for Student X.

Student X also has a favorite poem to share. It is called, “Papa Don’t Preach,” by Brian Elliott, with additional lyrics by Madonna.

Student X is offended that “This Is Just to Say” should be considered alongside the literary greatness of “Papa Don’t Preach.” He (she? –I was in a state of shock at the time, so details are blurry) argues, with increasing anger, that song lyrics make just as good, if not better, use of literary techniques than so-called poems … like that note-thing. You call that a poem?! How can that be a poem? It’s a joke!

My face may have gone from a shade of overheated red to full-on plum at this point. I think I may have blacked out – the memory is vague -- but not before defending WCW to the hilt.

Although I am older, wiser, and less snarky than I was at 18, this poem still has the power to communicate emotion and sensuality. Williams’ use of every day words and a simple narrative makes “This Is Just to Say” even more masterful. It is a model for my own poetry and continues to be one of my source poems.

Now let us watch, once again (because I can’t help myself!) “This Is Just to Say” performed by British actor Mathew MacFadyen. Pure poetry.


Diane Mayr said...

I never expected "Papa Don't Preach." Great story! Love the plum poem. Madonna, not so much.

Just Mary said...

Danny Aeillo in "Papa Don't Preach"? Who knew?

Thank you for sharing the reading of "This is Just to Say."

Interesting piece on literary criticism.

Renee LaTulippe said...

I LOVE that poetry video! Fabulous. And not at all what I would have expected. And the image of wild poetry Laura fending off a Madonna fan, armed only with plums, will keep me happy for several days.

Great post! I'm so excited to be a part of this project. When you described it, I knew immediately which poem I would write about. :)

Author Amok said...

Diane -- neither did I. Though poetic song lyrics do exist, I wouldn't count "Papa Don't Preach" among them.

Author Amok said...

Renee -- now I am seeing myself with a bag of plums, ready to launch at my long-ago adversary. Can't wait to read your post.

Michelle Heidenrich Barnes said...

Wonderful story, Laura. I'm sure, had he known, WCW would have been deeply indebted. I also imagine the teacher enjoyed watching the fireworks that took place that day! Looking forward to your plum source poem series this month!

Margaret Simon said...

Are you kidding me? Papa, don't preach! Must be an April Fool's joke. William Carlos Williams is the master of the simple, profound, and beautiful.

Linda B said...

I never mind arguments, but there are those who find ways to make a debate that is not necessary. Love the story, perhaps the first time you discovered that not every one appreciated things (the arts) as you did. It's a story that will stay, won't it? Thanks for the introduction, Laura. This is going to be quite a group's journey, isn't it?

Tabatha said...

Great story! "Papa Don't Preach," eh? Too bad that debate wasn't videotaped for posterity. ("Hers doesn't even rhyme!")
I love Matthew Macfadyen's poetry videos!

Mary Jo said...

My favorite poet (I grew up in Williams' Rutherford, near his home), my favorite poem of his, and now my favorite story about that poem (I have others...I'm a teacher!) Thanks!

skanny17 said...

THe video is deee-licious. So sweet. One thing I note when I hear various reads of poems (for instance a Gwyneth Paltrow version of "Stopping by Woods" and "How Do I Love Thee?") is the tone, emphasis, timing, lilt, etc. in their voices and interpretations. When done well, they add so much to me and how I might change my inflection or pacing when I say a poem I have learned (on purpose) by heart. I say them quite frequently, actually, for all sorts of reasons. They are my music. I don't sing along to songs much any more. With a poem I don't have to worry about specific melody or pitch (I'm sadly not a good singer). And "Forgive Me" does bundle up so much in so little. Essence. The song needs to go on for longer than a poem. Imagine a 30 second song.....just getting started and wham it's over. That's what I love about poetry it can be all sorts of ways. And I love knowing many by heart now and wish I had started learning them much sooner. But ONLY joyfully and with no pressure. Thanks, Laura for your backstory. Wish I could have been there.
Janet F.

Liz Steinglass said...

This is a great story and a great way to celebrate National Poetry Month. You have me thinking, thinking about my source poem/s. I think one might be Wordsworth's "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud." I'm afraid I didn't read much poetry as a child.

Author Amok said...

Janet -- great analysis of the poem. Williams' makes great use of rhythm here and in such poems as "So much depends upon."

Liz -- "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud" is another important poem from my childhood. It is my mother's favorite. She would recite it to us. At least, as much as she knew. She'd usually trail off after the first or second stanza! My father's was the opening of "The Song of Hiawatha."