Category Archives: Formal poets

Discovering a Breathtaking Poet: Alice Oswald

How often do we run across a poet whose work takes our breath away? As it happens, perhaps more often than expected, there being so many poets writing now, there being such an exponential increase in the human population, and in particular the civilized portion thereof. Yet I feel I’ve missed painfully more of them than I should. One of the most glaring “misses” of these is the work of poet Alice Oswald, possibly the greatest living poet, according to Charlotte Runcie.

I suppose one could say her poetry can be described as “formal,” if that word means not shying away from the use of rhyme, even if it occurs on the end of lines. But her poetry is in my view uncategorizable, totally unique, an original voice. Characterized by great intuitive leaps and stunning connections, and I should say a sense of truth being laid bare in startling yet haunting ways, I am entranced, humbled, enlightened, uplifted, flabbergasted, and quietly transported by her work.

This is just a sample:

Full-Length Portrait of the Moon

By Alice Oswald

She could be any woman at all,
caught off-guard on-guard.
With her hands stroking or strangling and maybe
with her intentions half-interred.
But she is as she is. Her gaze is always
filing away at its cord.
And what she’s really after
is you to love her.

She forgets who she is.
She could be so small
she almost has no smell.
She feels like anyone at all.
When you walk up to her,
she keeps quite still,
but what she answers to
is never loud enough to know.

Eaten away by outwardness,
her eyes are empty.
They could be watching you
or not. They work indifferently,
like lit-up glass and if you ask
why she won’t speak, why should she?
When what she really wants
is silence.

You know what women are like:
Kay, Moira, Sandra.
They move through a dark room,
peering round under
the hoods of their names.
Alcestis, Clytemnestra.
She could be either of those.
She scarcely knows.
She goes on thinking something
just over your shoulder.
This could be the last night
before you lose her.
But what’s the use
of saying one thing or another.
When what she’s really after
is you to love her.

And this, which led me to her. Someone coughed, and there she was.


By Alice Oswald

I heard a cough
as if a thief was there
outside my sleep
a sharp intake of air

a fox in her fox-fur
stepping across
the grass in her black gloves
barked at my house

just so abrupt and odd
the way she went
hungrily asking
in the heart’s thick accent

in such serious sleepless
trespass she came
a woman with a man’s voice
but no name

as if to say: it’s midnight
and my life
is laid beneath my children
like gold leaf


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Filed under Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Poetry, Poets, women poets

Naomi Replansky: Amazing at 99 Years

Naomi Replansky, at 99 years old, is on full speed ahead, a poet with an entirely unique and powerful style, as well as political activist and pioneer in so many ways. Read a fascinating article about her here; it speaks of how the poet Philip Levine “rediscovered” her while in his capacity as Poet Laureate in 2013, and by shining a light on her, helped her gain the recognition that had eluded her for much of her life. Despite praise from many critics and poets for her first book, the National Book Award-nominated Ring Song, a bad review by Lawrence Ferlinghetti so upset her that she didn’t write another book until 1994, 42 years later. However she continued to write and to engage with poets and other writers, including Bertolt Brecht, whose work she translated, and her longtime partner, prose writer Eva Kollich. Now she has sadly stated that she will write no more, and to that end has penned the poem below. Also, she reads another poem “Inheritance” on a video link here.

About Not Writing

Tongue-tied, I stand before
Myself as inquisitor.

I loved to mark time
With a beat, with rhyme.

Time marked me with its thumb,
Slowed down the pendulum.

Slowed it down, or stopped:
Words were lopped, words dropped—

No use to devise
Reasons or alibis.

Now, strangely, I draw breath
Well past my ninetieth.

What’s begun is almost done,
Still, I must brood upon

The much that I sought,
The little that I wrought,

Till time brings its own
Lockjaw of stone.

Here is the text of “An Inheritance”:

An Inheritance

“Five dollars, four dollars, three dollars, two,
One, and none, and what do we do?”

This is the worry that never got said
But ran so often in my mother’s head

And showed so plain in my father’s frown
That to us kids it drifted down.

It drifted down like soot, like snow,
In the dream-tossed Bronx, in the long ago.

I shook it off with a shake of the head.
I bounced my ball, I ate warm bread,

I skated down the steepest hill.
But I must have listened, against my will:

When the wind blows wrong, I can hear it today.
Then my mother’s worry stops all play

And, as if in its rightful place,
My father’s frown divides my face.

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My Review of Meriam’s Lillian Trilogy on Trish Hopkinson’s Blog: Check It Out!

Read it here. What a thrill to have a guest blog post on Trish’s fantastic site! Meriam’s book is definitely a must-read.

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Allison Joseph: Taking on Both Racism and Sexism

International Women’s Day this year, galvanized by the misogyny of President Trump, showed the world a powerful presentation of the importance of women and their essential contributions, calling for both recognition and justice in so many ways.

At the same time, just last month, the shortest month of the year, was Black History Month, for which I barely found enough time to do a few posts, despite that even a 31-day month would not be sufficient time to do bring up a tenth of the poets we need to hear about. One important poet being Allison Joseph.

Allison Joseph’s poetry addresses both concerns: that of racism and its insidious dehumanization of people of color, and civil rights, and that of women’s rights and the fight to be respected and given their due. Here are two strong poems demonstrating what a strong voice she is indeed on both issues.


By Allison Joseph

A sundown town was a town, city or neighborhood that was purposely all-white. The term came from signs that were allegedly posted stating that people of color had to leave the town by sundown. They are also sometimes known as “sunset towns” or “gray towns.” The highest proportion of confirmed sundown towns were in the state of Illinois — Wikipedia

Don’t show your face in a sundown town,
or forget your race in a sundown town.

What ancient shame flushes my cheeks?
Reminded of my place in a sundown town.

“How’d you get so good-looking?” said with a wink.
Old white man loves my grace in a sundown town.

Lost in a neighborhood where dogs snap chains,
my body’s a dark space in a sundown town.

Shotguns, gun racks, Dixie stickers, rusted trucks.
Should I stray, armed with mace, in a sundown town?

Crimes thrive in black, white, every grade between.
Are you just another case in a sundown town?

Kink of your hair, curl of your lip,
be careful who you embrace in a sundown town.

State police, city cops, small-town hired hands.
All give chase in a sundown town.

Burned houses, riddled with junk and meth.
Hatred creeps its petty pace in a sundown town.

Black father, white mother, coffee-colored daughter.
What can love erase in a sundown town?

Rivers, tires, bodies—a confluence that cannot hide.
Hard not to leave a trace in a sundown town.

And here, first published on the PBS website:


By Allison Joseph

I remember this as her kitchen,
the one room in our house where no one
questioned my mother’s authority—
her cast iron pots bubbling over
on the stove, cracked tea cups
in the sink. How I hated
the difficult oven always hanging
off its hinges, so loose a clothes hanger
rigged it shut, gas range whose flames
leapt beneath fingers when I turned
its knobs too quickly, floor tile
that never came clean no matter
how much dirt I swept from its
cracks. This was her domain—
kitchen for frying fish
and stewing chicken, for rice
and peas, plantains and yams,
for grease and hot sauce and seasoned salt.
Only she could make that faulty
oven door stay, only she could master
the fickle flames of the rangetop,
only she could make those worn dishes
and chipped plates fill a table
with food so rich and hot
my father could not complain.
And though I am her daughter, this house
no longer hers, her body deep in holy ground,
I know she’d want me to save all this—
decades of platters and saucers, plates,
glasses—every chipped cup, tarnished fork.

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Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Formal poets, Human Rights, Poetry, Poets, women poets, Women's poetry

Review of Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar on ABR

American Book Review has published my review of Quincy Lehr’s recent poetry collection, Dark Lord of the Tiki Bar.

Check out the review link above which is a significant sample, but for the full review you’ll need to get the print version or subscribe.


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New Poem in the August Rotary Dial

The August Rotary Dial is out today with a new poem of mine, “Muse-Charmer,” as well as fantastic poems throughout. Well-worth your time, especially for formal poetry-lovers.

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Filed under Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Poetry, Publications, Siham Karami poems, Siham Karami poetry

My Review of Lady of the Moon in GLR!!

My review of Mary Meriam’s Lady of the Moon has been published in the latest issue of The Gay and Lesbian Review, a sophisticated and well-respected place to be indeed. I’m thrilled to be in it; the issue is also full of fascinating articles. In fact, once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down. Here is the link, bearing in mind the full article can only be viewed by subscribers. Please check it out!

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Remembering Kate Light: Gone too Soon

Kate Light, poet, violinist, and librettist, died unexpectedly of breast cancer. Too young, too talented to die, she had so many plans in the works, so much she was looking forward to. One of the many fine poets with whom I was still unfamiliar despite her having been featured on the Writer’s Almanac with Garrison Keillor. Despite being a poet who wrote in forms, and highly regarded. A brief selection from her many wonderful poems.

There Comes the Strangest Moment

There comes the strangest moment in your life,
when everything you thought before breaks free–
what you relied upon, as ground-rule and as rite
looks upside down from how it used to be.

Skin’s gone pale, your brain is shedding cells;
you question every tenet you set down;
obedient thoughts have turned to infidels
and every verb desires to be a noun.

I want–my want. I love–my love. I’ll stay
with you. I thought transitions were the best,
but I want what’s here to never go away.
I’ll make my peace, my bed, and kiss this breast…

Your heart’s in retrograde. You simply have no choice.
Things people told you turn out to be true.
You have to hold that body, hear that voice.
You’d have sworn no one knew you more than you.

How many people thought you’d never change?
But here you have. It’s beautiful. It’s strange.

The Self-Taught Man

A man schooled to bits bears a son, and the son
says, No way will I walk where you’ve walked,
and be taught in the methods you’ve been taught.
I want to find out everything on my own!
You see the beauty of it: this son’s untamed,
unbitten, unashamed; head-strong and heart-led,
people come to view him: the self-fed
man! He’s in a niche that stays unnamed
because it’s all his own. And you are drawn
to this one like a horse to water — drink drink drink
beside the self-taught man; listen to him think
as only he can. After he is gone
from the spot you linger, licking your wounds and scars,
because the son listens only, only to the stars.


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Three Poems in Think!!




Three of my poems have been published in Think: A Journal of Poetry, Criticism, and Reviews — a truly wonderful print magazine. Including my first published Sestina, “Control.” Now that is indeed a thrill! A few years ago I went through a rather long Sestina-writing phase (possible sign of literary OCD). This was written after I stopped, with this one glorious exception. Thanks to David Rothman, Susan Spear, and all the excellent editors for putting together such a truly fantastic journal. I’m so proud and honored to be among the contributors, with so much amazing work! Subscription and submission info about Think can be found here.

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Filed under Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Poetry, Poetry in forms, Publications, Siham Karami, Siham Karami poems, Siham Karami poetry

Paul Laurence Dunbar 1872-1906

A master of lyric verse, Paul Laurence Dunbar drew on many poetic traditions, writing mainly formal poetry. His famous rondeau, “We Wear the Mask,” below, was my model for learning the rondeau, a powerful form when used well, as Dunbar certainly did. The poet Nikki Giovanni was instrumental in helping bring his work to light as a poetic genius and one of the first African-American great poets to be recognized, even in his own, racially oppressive and segregated time. I also include below his poem, “Sympathy,” which inspired the title of Maya Angelou’s book I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.


By Paul Laurence Dunbar

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!
When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;
When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,
And the river flows like a stream of glass;
When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,
And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—
I know what the caged bird feels!

I know why the caged bird beats his wing
Till its blood is red on the cruel bars;
For he must fly back to his perch and cling
When he fain would be on the bough a-swing;
And a pain still throbs in the old, old scars
And they pulse again with a keener sting—
I know why he beats his wing!

I know why the caged bird sings, ah me,
When his wing is bruised and his bosom sore,—
When he beats his bars and he would be free;
It is not a carol of joy or glee,
But a prayer that he sends from his heart’s deep core,
But a plea, that upward to Heaven he flings—
I know why the caged bird sings!

We Wear the Mask

By Paul Laurence Dunbar

We wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.

Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.

We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!

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Filed under African American poets, Civil Rights, Formal Poetry, Formal poets, Human Rights, Poetry, Poetry in forms, Poets, Remembering Poets