Tag Archives: National Poetry Month

Failed Passes With Flying Colors

If you’ve never heard of the Paterson Silk Strike (1913), you’re not alone. The strikers died mostly forgotten, overshadowed by other actions from the eight-hour workday movement (most notably the Haymarket Affair). Martin Espada’s new poetry collection kicks off with a sonnet cycle that brings this tiny moment in labor history back to life, praising the men and women who put their lives on the line for workers’ rights.Vivas to Those Who Have Failed–the title of both the cycle and the book–is taken from Whitman‘s Song of Myself. Like their namesake, the sonnets ask that we praise the unsung heroes and common people who, though not widely remembered, and perhaps loved by only a few, did their best to make the world a better place.

One example:

Hannah left the courthouse to picket the mill. She chased
a strikebreaker down the street, yelling in Yiddish the word
for shame. Back in court she hissed at the judge’s sentence
of another striker. Hannah got twenty days in jail for hissing.
She sang all the way to jail (“IV: The Little Agitator,” 22).

Espada could have stopped there and this would have been a great chapbook. We’re very fortunate, however, that he continued on in the same thematic vein and delivered a full collection. The other poems also tell tales of everyday heroism, and most of the people honored are Espada’s family, friends, and professional colleagues. A great deal of the work is dedicated to his father, Frank, who died in 2014. Reading about Frank’s life and adventures will make you envy Espada more than a little for having such an outrageous, courageous dad:

He spat obscenities like sunflower seeds at the driver
who told him to sit at the back of the bus in Mississippi, then
slipped his cap over his eyes and fell asleep. He spent a week in jail,
called it the best week of his life, strode through the jailhouse door
and sat behind the driver of the bus on the way out of town,
his Air Force uniform all that kept the noose from his neck (“El Morivivi,” 85).

Martin Espada, during a visit to Pittsburgh's City of Asylum in 2015. Click through for source page and interview with Sampsonia Way.

Martin Espada, during a visit to Pittsburgh’s City of Asylum in 2015. Click through for source page and interview with Sampsonia Way.

Reading about Frank Espada is like sitting around the kitchen table listening to the grownups tell “back in the day” stories. Bold and yet at the same time restrained, Espada’s tone conveys the true nature of paternal loss: a virus that ebbs and flows through various emotions, restrained by the codes of manhood. The overall mood is somber, but defiant.

Other standouts in Vivas include “Hard-Handed Men of Athens” (wryly funny), “On the Hovering of Souls and Balloon Animals” (not funny, but true), and “Chalkboard on the Wall of a Diner in Providence, Rhode Island the Morning After George Zimmerman Was Acquitted in the Shooting Death of Trayvon Martin, an Unarmed Black Teenager” (which makes its point like an arrow hitting the bullseye). Vivas to Those Who Have Failed is a solid poetry collection that will resonate most strongly with anyone who has grieved a loved one, but will also strike a chord with readers who like their poetry socially conscious and defiant.

Click here to reserve a copy of Espada’s book. Who are your unsung heroes? What brave deeds should everybody know about? Tell us all in the comments below.

–Leigh Anne

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The Communion of Reading: William Stafford

The poet William Stafford and my father were born in the same year, 1914, one hundred years ago. I’m having trouble reconciling that, for some reason.

My father fought in World War II; Stafford was a conscientious objector. Stafford was a poet and a teacher. My father loaded trucks for a living.

As far as I can intuit, there is one thing that they shared: there was a depth of feeling, tinged with sorrow, that framed their lives. One found an outlet; the other did not.

In this one hundredth anniversary year of his birth, a wonderful new collection of William Stafford’s work has been assembled, Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems, compiled by his son, Kim Stafford.

stafford ask me

Perhaps the two most complex relationships in (human) life are between mothers and daughters and fathers and sons. Kim Stafford’s collection of his father’s work testifies to a depth of understanding and emotion in life, including the father/son relationship, that is rare, indeed, even amongst the finest of poets.

My father was an avid reader though, like most of us, not often of poetry. Still, one of the greatest gifts he ever gave me was a penchant for the works of Thomas Hardy. For an aging, exhausted shipping clerk to catalyze this kind of connection, classic author to father to son, was no mean feat. It was a way to express emotion, something far more difficult than even the grueling, mind numbing job which helped shorten his life.

Oddly enough, looking at what I’ve written so far, it is readily apparent that, during this National Poetry Month, this wonderful retrospective selection of William Stafford’s work has, in memory, given me back my father in a moving, important way.

That is what the communion of reading can do.

Here is a poem by William Stafford from Ask Me that speaks directly to the feelings I’ve been grappling with, in a manner I feel no prose account might do:


My father could hear a little animal step,
or a moth in the dark against the screen,
and every far sound called the listening out
into places where the rest of us have never been.

More spoke to him in the soft wild night
than came to our porch for us on the wind;
we would watch him look up and his face go keen
till the walls of the world flared, widened.

My father heard so much that we still stand
inviting the quiet by turning the face,
waiting for a time when something in the night
will touch us too from that far place.

– William Stafford

~ Don

PS:  Thanks,  David Mahler, for the gift of William Stafford.


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Poetry, A to Z

To abet your observance
of National Poetry Month,
I offer an alphabet of poets
and an armful of anthologies.

Appleman, Philip
Bilgere, George
Carruth, Hayden
Digges, Deborah
Erdrich, Louise
Fargnoli, Patricia
Gilbert, Jack
Harrison, Jim
Ignatow, David
Jenkins, Louis
Kirby, David
Longchamps, Guy W.
Merwin, W.S.
Nemerov, Howard
Ostriker, Alicia
Padgett, Ron
Roethke, Theodore
Schneider, Pat
Tate, James
Updike, John
Violi, Paul
Wagoner, David
Yeats, William Butler
Ziegler, Alan

American Poetry Now: Pitt Poetry Series Anthology




An Anthology of Modern Irish Poetry




Bright Wings: An Illustrated Anthology of Poems about Birds




Essential Pleasures: A New Anthology of Poems to Read Aloud




The Rattle Bag




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National Poetry Month and the Writer’s Almanac

For most folks, there is little discernable irony in the fact that April is National Poetry Month and that the second most famous quotation regarding April is: “April is the cruelest month,” by T. S. Eliot. In fact, if there is any irony, one might describe it with the delightful, if cliche-ish, modifier “delicious.”

Why, oh why, is poetry perceived as so very difficult? Perhaps, to start out with, consider how it is taught. Or, to be a tad more precise, how it is not taught. A poem is treated as an artifact, a piece of history, a vessel laden with symbology, an elite conundrum solvable only in the aerie realms of academe, instead of a method of communicating from one human being (the poet) to another (the listener/reader).

Yes, poetry is mysterious, but not in and of itself; life, too, is mysterious and that is what the best poetry reflects. Though there are many folks who claim to know the meaning of life, for most of the rest of us it is an unsolvable riddle. In this sense, a poem is not an answer; a poem is a rephrasing of the question. In fact, for my money, the bottom line for all good poetry is the constant rephrasing of this very question. If this is truly the case, then what is it that makes poetry so different from prose?

One essential difference is language and I would describe the language of poetry as a more visceral, more emotional language than prose. Poetry is less literal, more figurative in its construction and execution. And, for me, poetry is most important precisely because it addresses the mystery of life in an intuitive, “non-rational” way. In a very real sense, what it means is beside the point.

As I’m sure you’re sensing, this particular entry could go on and on; suffice it to say that there are two very good books, both with the same title, that examine this idea in depth and I highly recommend them both: one is by Molly Peacock, the other by Edward Hirsch.

The very best poems speak with both clarity and resonance about life’s big issues: love, faith, death, and the ever elusive meaning of it all. One of the single best points of entry into poetry is the website The Writer’s Almanac. Part of National Public Radio, The Writer’s Almanac is a daily compendium of important literary and historical facts and anniversaries, hosted by Garrison Keillor. Each day, at the end of a short podcast (5 minutes), a single poem is featured that is at once accessible and resonant. It is a delightful, inquisitive way to be introduced to great poetry, both contemporary and classic, via reading, radio, or podcast. Poems by Naomi Shihab Nye, Gary Snyder, Jane Kenyon, Billy Collins, Barbara Hamby, Louis McKee, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti have all been featured in recent weeks. Listening for just a week is intriguing; it also can be addictive.

It most certainly is a fine way to commemorate National Poetry Month.


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