Poetry Challenge 19: Post Thy Poems!

The challenge this time around was to write a poem based upon another author’s fiction. This theme happens to coincide with the AJIL’s current theme (although I now have pretty much all the material needed) which is Life of Books.


I had difficulty in settling on a book. However, the idea for the poem eventually occurred to me – some chance phrase in conversation – and I searched for a book and character to fit the idea. Once chosen, the book and character modified the idea. I find that in a poem, this back and forth, this interplay of elements that continually modify one another as they are added in, is the necessary flexibility that allows a poet to work in form. It’s impossible, really, to write formal (or musical) poetry rigidly or at all passively.

However, the way this poem came into being is not entirely satisfactory to me. One of the primary reasons I began these challenges is to experiment in the experience of inspiration. Presumably the other author has had inspiration in writing the initial work. Can we somehow “borrow” that inspiration by starting with a line or other element of theirs? Our first line challenges have especially seemed to answer yes to that question. However as you can see, I didn’t get the full experience this time around since I failed to generate a poem from the germ of the book I chose.

And so, because these challenges remain open forever, I do hope to return to this challenge and try again.

Do post your own poems as you are able and be prepared for robust (but hopefully compassionate) conversation regarding the work and, no less, the writerly condition. These poems may appear, with your subsequent permission and opportunity to edit, of course, in a book or literary journal.

One last note: I do think that this is an excellent opportunity to write less formal poems since the narrative poem is essentially a hybrid. (Or rather, the original from which lyric poetry and fiction once descended.)

Post away!

11 thoughts on “Poetry Challenge 19: Post Thy Poems!

  1. Margaret March

    Industrious I’ve always been. Alive.
    It was, I thought, my nature every day to strive.

    I strove to mend my temper; strove to bend;
    To be a wife on whom my husband could depend.

    And to this day, in grief I solace find
    In loving work that fills with purpose firm my mind.

    I do recall one day – and Robert there –
    A day of rain and cheery fires and leisure rare.

    Well, honestly, a hard-earned rest. Meg and Jo
    Sat idle-handed by my bed. Elizabeth –

    Her chin a point; translucent was her skin
    Her suck a little feeble; Fingers, long and thin;

    Her form – I had forgot how small.
    In twenty years, had I no time to pause; recall?

    Within the circle of my arms she lay.
    Warm she curled within the circle, all that day.

    And something in her face made me calm.
    And somehow in my heart grew I still. “A Balm

    In Gilead”, I heard our Hannah sing
    While Beth’s hair my breathing fanned into a wing.

    I ceased to seek a transcendental star;
    An hour I ceased; I saw and blessed the things that are.

    Robert slumbered in his fireside chair.
    My daughters stole out quietly, I scarce aware.

    Awake, asleep, awake again, afloat;
    Adrift in dreams; in Universal Light a mote;

    A babe I was, a baby cradling;
    I lay within eternal arms encircling.

    And there at length she lies this day of rest.
    So cruelly my baby fell, yet lies so blest.

    My daughter she was born; my sister grew,
    That I can hold no more; no more her heart construe;

    No more can ease her painful cries;
    I cannot look behind the veil that shrouds her eyes;

    I cannot make her safe, yet safe she’ll ever be.
    She’s lost – but arms that circle her encircle me.


    • “If a mother is mourning not for what she has lost but for what her dead child has lost, it is a comfort to believe that the child has not lost the end for which it was created. And it is a comfort to believe that she herself, in losing her chief or only natural happiness, has not lost a greater thing, that she may still hope to “glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. A comfort to the God-aimed, eternal spirit within her. But not to her motherhood. The specifically maternal happiness must be written off. Never, in any place or time, will she have her son on her knees, or bathe him, or tell him a story, or plan for his future, or see her grandchild.”

      C. S. Lewis,
      A Grief Observed


    • I keep rereading this. It is good to read, it is touching, sad, but a sadness anchored in faith. There is nothing that jars. The musing, reflective, tender, and soliloquizing qualities rescue it from any danger of seeming smug (ie, in the confession of industriousness, “hard-earned” rest, serenity of faith and other more implicit virtues. I doubt I could have successfully maintained that balance through a similar poem).

      I see the heart and focus of the poem as these lines:

      I ceased to seek a transcendental star;
      An hour I ceased; I saw and blessed the things that are.

      I suppose those moments– of clarity of perception of blessedness– embrace us all from time to time, more or less vividly and remarked upon. Perhaps they are among the most pivotal, permanently altering our inner structures in an unseen, gratuitous way. I like the idea of Marmee experiencing such, and the idea of it being in some sense evoked from Beth, and of this in turn mysteriously preparing her for their eventual parting.

      I think this succeeds also, in being in keeping with the felt sense of the book and the characters.

      Thanks for writing for us. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. “Ethan Frome”

    Oh, Ethan.
    The cold speaks of you–
    the blank, the dazzle, the chill,
    the startle of carnelian flashes against white.
    A cardinal flutters. A pickle dish shatters.
    Wood splinters and a snow hill captures
    the vivid lives of flying ones
    tossed from a wreck.

    Liked by 1 person

    • “Oh, Ethan./The cold speaks of you…” The feeling I get from this is an unspoken, “I know you.” I think that is a very specific emotional response to a story. It’s good; bookish people recognize it. I also think it’s important because what you’ve done here, basically, is to retell the story. So the fact that the poem is about your response is very important in order to add something new.

      And I think it is all wonderfully concrete right through “A cardinal flutters.” I like your choice of “carnelian” rather than any other kind of red.

      I know it’s a pickle dish in a story, but I was very attuned to your color scheme and then the word “pickle” splashed some sour green in. The whole statement feels like a nonsequiter. As I analyze that, it’s the point at which we move beyond just seeing Ethan’s character, and start seeing his story. So I think if you keep it in, you need to restate it: “fragile china” or something like that. And then, a transition there. Perhaps a statement mirroring the opening one. Since it’s a poem about the speaker’s response, you could bring the speaker in again, delicately but explicitly, the way you did at the beginning. However as I’ll note below, I suggest simply deleting that sentence and avoiding the whole difficulty.

      “Wood splinters” is concrete again, though not as specific as it might be.

      I’m not sure what it means to “capture…lives” – I imagine you could come up with more specific words. The last two lines lack the concreteness needed to have the emotional impact they are seeking.

      I recognize that the “wreck” isn’t just literal – not merely the bodily soundness, but the lifetimes and circumstances of the characters are wrecked. I think that you are providing an interpretation of the whole book in that one word. And I think it’s good: good literary criticism, and good poesying. It recognizes that the book treats the triangle more as a tragedy than a morality tale. So I encourage you to flesh it out a little more. Bring a little more of your thought to the surface.

      As I said, I think your unspoken “I see you” really does add something to the story. In the book, Ethan’s wife is the only really vivid character – a modern-day New England witch. I felt that Ethan and Maddie behave helplessly throughout. So to bring them to life like that, to memorialize not just their tragedies but the beauty of their lives even as they are shattered and wrecked… I think that a fine thing to do in a poem.

      As I say, I really just want the poem to be a little more than it is.

      My recommendations:

      Lose the pickle dish; the importance of it is that it isn’t important. It isn’t about Ethan and Mattie.
      Switch out “vivid” (redundant because you used ‘lives’) to something concrete that speaks of blood and brings in red again.
      “Flying ones” is a bit awkward so try a different phrase. If the speaker wants to picture them forever in flight, then that needs to be explicit. Otherwise, I recommend using a phrase that means “people who briefly flew.”

      These three changes alone would pull together the poem as it is, just beautifully. However, you could go a step further and…

      Try to draw out and make more plain the interpretive elements of the poem. Flesh them out more and guide the reader in his response a bit more firmly.

      Thanks for participating as always! We are close to our goal.


  3. Hi Alana! This is a good critique. I will try to fix the poem, using your suggestions, by the end of this week.

    I didn’t quite realize I had been away so long! But you are right, we are close to our goal. Exciting!!


    • Phew! Apologies for the delay, it’s been a little more than a week! But here is my rewrite, following your suggestions. 🙂

      Oh, Ethan.
      The cold speaks of you–
      the blank, the dazzle, the chill,
      the startle of carnelian flashes against white.
      A cardinal flutters;
      a red cut glass bowl falls
      and shatters.
      Wood splinters as snow gathers
      mass from boughs that break and crack
      under weight too cold- damp- vast.

      Ethan, your faint profile from a book so spare
      impresses itself on everything.
      I walk outside and it’s all your emblem,

      in certain weathers, at any rate.
      I know today is wondrous,
      as cold-to-the-marrow speaks of you,
      as I, mere reader, remain
      and duly note the wonder,

      then pause, glance back from the wreck
      to a slow smile, shy eyed twinkle–
      catch my breath, and love this world
      a little more, somehow, for you.


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