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January 2012

You know those poems known as ars poetica ? Latin for "the art of poetry" or "on the nature of poetry," they are poems about poetry. There are examples of them by Aristotle and Horace and many poets have written ars poetica since.

Some are titled "Ars Poetica" but many more are just on the nature and art of poetry. My own personal theory is that almost every poem has some ars poetica in it.

Of the moderns, the best known is probably "Ars Poetica" by Archibald MacLeish from his Collected Poems which is our model for this prompt. Rereading the lines "Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves / Memory by memory the mind—" this time, I connected with an article I clipped some time ago about scientists trying to erase/edit memories. It says, ""Suppose scientists could erase certain memories by tinkering with a single substance in the brain.

Editing and erasing memories - Isn't that what we all do every day? Perhaps not with total success. Of course, writers work at this and poets are the masters of editing.

On our blog post for this prompt, we also look at an excerpt from "Work" by Mary Oliverimg, where the speaker, in the realm of ars poetica, works memory into poetry.  She is able to conjure her dog to her side by throwing a "handful of words...into the air." This is the world  that we create in our poems and it exists beyond what we touch, see and hear.

For this prompt, try to write a poem about how you as a poet edit memories to create the world of the poem. It is an ars poetica on how we edit with a focus on the memory. It's more than just throwing a handful of words into the air, but when it works, it is that easy.

For more on this prompt and others, visit the Poets Online blog.


My first best friend
was Charlie Lumly
when I was four
and he was four
I can still see his face
it was always dirty
or maybe it was only
freckled in which case
it was always freckled
in the house next door
where he lived until
he moved away
to another country
or maybe it was only
in which case it was a state
with a name like another country
and I never saw him again
though for a long time
I dreamed about him
because I think I loved him
or maybe it was only
a backyard sort of
dirty-kneed lust
that revives as soon
as someone else
named Clayton or
Cleveland moves
in next door

Paul Hostovsky


The boy scout rules prevail
When tracking in unknown lands,
Each poem shall start with four
Not two as in Doppelganger.

The I and me ahead
The you and they behind
To secure the knots
Subject to loosening.

There is a creeper vine
Under whose great leaves
A tent of filtered light
Exists as an epiphany.

No matter how wide the path
There comes a time to narrow down
The branches are pushed away
For life is without shape.

I wrote about a memory
That comes back as a dream
Those faint pencil lines about
To be pricked into something more.

So split in quarters
The two bites of thought
Are one if there is injury
One left to bind pained memory.

The other half returns
To say it is a slight flaw
But you are aware of its distance
And can bind it all together.

Edward N Halperin


should be
what it wants
to be

it does
have a life
of its own

no matter how hard
I try to fit it, to squeeze it,
to mold it, to be it...

it does
have a life of its own

it will say
what it wants
it will be
who it is

it will draw from
the depths of itself

I only go along for the ride
I hold the pen
I find the paper
and then
I drown
in piles
and piles
of unedited

Linda Harpe


Poetry bottles
the scents of life
not memories of lilac
but good times and strife

Its essence are oils
from destinies we share
not patchouli or bergamot
but mirth and despair

All poems are infused
with life's undertone
not sandalwood or chocolate
but from feeling alone

So breathe the faint vapors
that poets have designed
that reminisce of your life
and others now entwined

Steve Castro


Writing a poem is breathing.
Roll an idea to the back of my brain, and wait.
Distractions of the day arise.
Turn off the tv.
Hear the night street noises outside my window.
See still, lace curtains covering the venetian blinds.
Hear murmurings of neighbors through thin walls.
Worry, again and again am I strong enough to
Leave the security of my second-guessing known
To travel?
Write poetry?

Ellen Kaplan


the tin mug you left
in the old house doesn’t grow rust
round the lip, granny -
I float jasmine flowers on ink
moving them round like words

Stella Pierides


It will come to me in a tide
slowly crawling up my ankles
back and forth,
higher and higher,
'till the fish nibble at my toes.

I will focus on those memory fish
darting back and forth
staying still long enough only
to catch a glimpse
and sink lower and lower.

I may not get their colour right,
and they get bigger with each retelling
but I remember the feel of its teeth,
the brush of its scales
well enough for inspiration.

And maybe there are fewer clouds
in my rendition,
smelling more like salt than rotting kelp,
but I will catch my wonderment
just right.

It's not quite the truth,
but it's close enough.

Christine Dingley


Memories edit the poet;
fluid samples of old thoughts
turn up and paint themselves,
example: sunrise, martyr, kitten.
Wishful or wistful
pen-stroke surgery
fabricates, repairs,
Debt, death, ego…
all can be saved or lost
in one synonym.
So what of continuity-
when poets fall asleep
they fill the holes
with dream.
They’re right
in the middle of our subject:
that catchy little song about singing.

Tracy Pace


After many years letting the words
Flow again like a dam broken,

A log-jam loosened and the pain
Oozing from many old wounds,

The hurt seeping slowly like bark
Gashed open drips clear sap

That catches the light, sticky and
Rough before being processed

Whole lives excised though the pain
Lingers, the jagged scars barely

Grown over, images still too sore
To touch except indirectly—

But a start, a kind of deep
Sobbing and pulling together

A wrenching agony of trying
To find the path backwards

Turning and erasing the foot-
Prints, the depressions still seen

Faintly, the echoes fading slowly
New words silently forming

The end of a notebook arrives
With more to come, spring thaw

Leads to torrents and dead trees
Eventually pour onto the flatlands

Where meaning can be picked
From among the branches and drift-

Wood lying in the sun drying
To white skeletal pieces.

You collect the bits that fit
Piece together the picture,

A mosaic of dead sticks
Flotsam of the past, time

Enough to write it, measure
The collected sediments layered

In a dark fissure in the rocks
Your own history turned to stone.

Emily Strauss


Strange how memories dance, light and fragile,
across the page to the soft seductive scratching
of your poet's pen. How gracefully they move, on
lines as taut as tightropes, shining bright and clear
as crystal until the music's last inevitable crescendo.
And for a time this dance, this cotillion, seems to

shimmer as bright as party lights strung across
a scented garden. But do not put pen to paper
too quickly lest recollection begins to waver
and your hand slips. Suddenly memories darken,
dislodged by a single word from their time-honored
place, toppling and tumbling in dangerous freefall
to be shattered against stone-cold reality.

The music ends. Memories once so full of life
now hide like coy mademoiselles behind their fans;
their beaus having long ago deserted them.
But before they fade and are gone forever,
you gather them quickly together, setting each one,
word by deliberate word, polished and gleaming again,
like jewels in the crown of your sonnet's lyrical lines.

Maddison Ross

This was almost a love song,
but the words didn't come out quite right,
and the rhythm was a heartbeat off.
For months it lay face down on the desk, ashamed.
Allowed the pen to scribble all over its dull white back.

It considered changing itself into a paragraph
or the kind of poem where words don't have to rhyme.

It almost won a three-legged race once
but near the finish line got tripped up in the rope.

Almost, found the confidence to speak in front of a group
but fell a bit shy.

I had children. It was truly happy then,
built a life around its children and all the details:
cooking and sewing, washing and ironing,
ABC's and 123's . . .
It worked hard all day and slept well at night.

Its dark hair, streaked with gray.
Its children grew up and moved away.

Too much quiet. Too much time in this
too big house.

It thought for a while and decided what to do.
It found a first grader and volunteered in his school.

Bobbie Townsend


In the poem he isn't real -
how could he be? In poetry, everyone's
imaginary, just like the world
portrayed. Not even the poet is real.
Think of it as metaphor.
But back to the little boy -
the one who got lost in the woods -
he's a composite of, let's say,
17 little boys who, in the real world,
met their fate. And yet
they're still present; they visit
in dreams. The poem tries to bring them
to the daylight of words.
In the poem the boy wears a blue
T-shirt. Who knows what
he was wearing when he disappeared
as if into thin air? Maybe
the poet was looking out the window
as a blue-jay flew by,
and it caused him to remember
or imagine a lost boy.
So he made the T-shirt blue. Deep
drowning blue. Sky blue.

Taylor Graham

"I would never put myself in a poem." - another poet.

Not ashamed exactly,
but puzzled and curious
about how I would not
put my self in my poem.

Or should I just watch,
describe, using my best words,
make you see as I see,
or is that just colouring-in?

Truth is, I cannot unravel
my self from my poems,
however distant, however cool,
however imperfect, it's always me

counting out the dance of verse,
weighing the images, it's my mind
that shakes the sieve, finds the only
possible words that I would write .

Vivien Jones


Hint of story
Slice of life

Sometimes juicy
Sometimes bland

Memory lies dormant
Encapsulated in my brain

Blank sheet of paper
Waiting for the pen

I catch a phrase
I begin to write

Pen and paper fuse
Poem evolves

Time capsule for the future.

Cee Lewars


I've been way too coherent lately,
Too literal.
Some of my more artistic friends
At my naive,

I actually use the words
And "heart,"
Even "God," for "Pete's sake."

I "dream"
And sometimes I am "sad,"
Sometimes full of "hope" and "joy."

I apologize to my more sophisticated friends
For my unadorned simple-mindedness
And would darken coherence with obfuscation
But alas,
I am "too far gone."

Russ Allison Loar


As you know when you’re finished shaving,
Or done showering,
Or even wiping yourself,
You feel when the work is done.

And how should you present your works?
Only those you can recite from memory should be included.
If you can’t remember them,
Why should anyone else?

And the best way to do that,
For every ten poems you write,
Keep one.
Really, do you brag about every woman you loved?

Remember to say profound things,
Like God is in the rhyme,
In the relation between things.
You can describe yourself that way too.

Those nights you feel so black
That you could shine shoes with your feelings.
Just remember that you haven’t earned that image.
So try again.

If you feel that art must do
Something to help others,
Then deceive yourself.
It will save them the trouble

In your mind,
You were capable of writing Wikipedia.
The few mistakes found there,
Just bespeak your humanity.

Most writers are really just underliners.
The best of them.

Ron Yazinski