Billy Collins Teaches Poetry in a New Online Course

In its latest release, Masterclass has launched a new course, "Billy Collins Teaches Reading and Writing Poetry," which they describe in the trailer above and the text below. You can sign up here. The cost is $90. Or pay $180 and get an annual pass to their entire catalogue of courses covering a wide range of subjects--everything from filmmaking (Werner Herzog, David Lynch, Martin Scorsese), to acting (Helen Mirren) and creative writing (Margaret Atwood), to taking photographs (Annie Leibovitz) and writing plays (David Mamet). Each course is taught by an eminent figure in their field.

Known for his wit, humor, and profound insight, Billy is one of the best-selling and most beloved contemporary poets in the United States. He regularly sells out poetry readings, frequently charms listeners on NPR’s A Prairie Home Companion, and his work has appeared in anthologies, textbooks, and periodicals around the world.

Called “America’s Favorite Poet” by the Wall Street Journal, Billy served two terms as U.S. Poet Laureate and is also a former New York State Poet Laureate. He’s been honored with the Mark Twain Prize for Humor in Poetry and a number of prestigious fellowships. He’s taught at Columbia University, Sarah Lawrence, and Lehman College, and he’s also a distinguished professor at the City University of New York. Now he’s teaching his first-ever MasterClass.

In his MasterClass on Reading and Writing Poetry, Billy teaches you the building blocks of poems and their unique power to connect reader and writer. From subject and form to rhyme and meter, learn to appreciate the pleasures of a well-turned poem. Discover Billy’s philosophy on the craft of poetry and learn how he creates a poet’s persona, incorporates humor, and lets imagination lead the way. By breaking down his own approach to composing poetry and enjoying the work of others, Billy invites students to explore the gifts poetry has to offer.

In this online poetry class, you’ll learn about:
• Using humor as a serious strategy
• The fundamental elements of poetry
• Billy’s writing process
• Turning a poem
• Exploring subjects
• Rhyme and meter
• Sound pleasures
• Finding your voice
• Using form to engage readers
• The visual distinctions of poetry

FYI: If you sign up for a MasterClass course by clicking on the affiliate links in this post, Open Culture will receive a small fee that helps support our operation.

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700 Years of Persian Manuscripts Now Digitized and Available Online

Too often those in power lump thousands of years of Middle Eastern religion and culture into monolithic entities to be feared or persecuted. But at least one government institution is doing exactly the opposite. For Nowruz, the Persian New Year, the Library of Congress has released a digital collection of its rare Persian-language manuscripts, an archive spanning 700 years. This free resource opens windows on diverse religious, national, linguistic, and cultural traditions, most, but not all, Islamic, yet all different from each other in complex and striking ways.

“We nowadays are programmed to think Persia equates with Iran, but when you look at this it is a multiregional collection,” says a Library specialist in its African and Middle Eastern Division, Hirad Dinavari. “Many contributed to it. Some were Indian, some were Turkic, Central Asian.” The “deep, cosmopolitan archive,” as Atlas Obscura’s Jonathan Carey writes, consists of a relatively small number of manuscripts—only 155. That may not seem particularly significant given the enormity of some other online collections.

But its quality and variety mark it as especially valuable, representative of much larger bodies of work in the arts, sciences, religion, and philosophy, dating back to the 13th century and spanning regions from India to Central Asia and the Caucuses, “in addition to the native Persian speaking lands of Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan,” the LoC notes.

Prominently represented are works like the epic poem of pre-Islamic Persia, the Shahnamah, “likened to the Iliad or the Odyssey,” writes Carey, as well as “written accounts of the life of Shah Jahan, the 17th-century Mughal emperor who oversaw construction of the Taj Mahal.”

The Library points out the archive includes the “most beloved poems of the Persian poets Saadi, Hafez, Rumi and Jami, along with the works of the poet Nizami Ganjavi.” Some readers might be surprised at the pictorial opulence of so many Islamic texts, with their colorful, stylized battle scenes and groupings of human figures.

Islamic art is typically thought of as iconoclastic, but as in Christian Europe and North America, certain sects have fought others over this interpretation (including over depictions of the Prophet Mohammad). This is not to say that the iconoclasts deserve less attention. Much medieval and early modern Islamic art uses intricate patterns, designs, and calligraphy while scrupulously avoiding likenesses of humans and animals. It is deeply moving in its own way, rigorously detailed and passionately executed, full of mathematical and aesthetic ideas about shape, proportion, color, and line that have inspired artists around the world for centuries.

The page from a lavishly illuminated Qurʼān, above, circa 1708, offers such an example, written in Arabic with an interlinear Persian translation. There are religious texts from other faiths, like the Psalms in Hebrew with Persian translation, there are scientific texts and maps: the Rare Persian-Language Manuscript Collection covers a lot of historical ground, as has Persian language and culture “from the 10th century to the present,” the Library writes. Such a rich tradition deserves careful study and appreciation. Begin an education in Persian manuscript history here.

via Atlas Obscura

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Lawrence Ferlinghetti Turns 100: Hear the Great San Francisco Poet Read “Trump’s Trojan Horse,” “Pity the Nation” & Many Other Poems

It has been a season of mourning for literature: first the death of Mary Oliver and now W.S. Merwin, two writers who left a considerable imprint on over half a century of American poetry. Considering the fact that founding father of the Beats and proprietor of world-renowned City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, turns 100 on March 24th, maybe a few more people have glanced over to check on him. How’s he doing?

He's grown "frail and nearly blind," writes Chloe Veltman at The Guardian in an interview with the poet this month, "but his mind is still on fire." Ferlinghetti “has not mellowed,” says Washington Post book critic Ron Charles, "at all." If you’re looking for him at any of the events planned in his honor, City Lights announces, he will not be in attendance, but he has been busy promoting his latest book, a thinly-veiled autobiographical novel about his early life called Little Boy.

In the book Ferlinghetti describes his childhood in images right out of Edward Gorey. He was a “Little Lord Fauntleroy” in a Bronxville mansion 20 miles outside New York, an orphan taken in and raised by descendants of the founders of Sarah Lawrence. “His new guardians spoke to one another in courtly tones and dressed in Victorian garb,” notes Charles. “They sent him to private school, and, more important, they possessed a fine library, which he was encouraged to use.”

The poet would later write he was a “social climber climbing downward,” an ironic reference to how some people might have seen the trajectory of his career. After serving in the Navy during World War II, earning a master’s at Columbia, and a Ph.D. at the Sorbonne, Ferlinghetti decamped to San Francisco, and founded the small magazine City Lights with Peter D. Martin. Then he opened a bookstore on the edge of Chinatown to fund the publishing venture.

The shop became a haunt for writers and poets. Ferlinghetti started publishing them, starting with himself in 1955. The following year he gained international infamy for publishing Allen Ginsberg’s Howl (hear Ginsberg read the poem at City Lights in '56). The book was banned, and Ferlinghetti put on trial for obscenity. If anyone thought this would be the end of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, they were mistaken.

He has published somewhere around forty books of poetry and criticism, novels and plays, been a prolific painter for sixty years, as well as a publisher, bookseller, and activist. He does not consider himself a Beat poet, but from his influential first two books—Pictures of the Gone World and 1958’s A Coney Island of the Mindonward, Ferlinghetti’s philosophical outlook has more or less breathed the same air as Ginsberg et al.’s.

Quoting from Coney Island, Andrew Shapiro writes, “he counseled us to ‘confound the system,’ ‘to empty out our pockets… missing our appointments’ and to leave ‘our neckties behind’ and ‘take up the full beard of walking anarchy.’” He is still doing this, every way that he can, in public readings, media appearances, and a canny use of YouTube. His is not a call to flower power but to full immersion in the chaos of life, or, as he writes in “Coney Island of the Mind 1” in the “veritable rage / of adversity / Heaped up / groaning with babies and bayonets / under cement skies / in an abstract landscape of blasted trees.”

Ferlinghetti urged poets and writers to “create works capable of answering the challenge of apocalyptic times, even if this meaning sounds apocalyptic… you can conquer the conquerors with words.” Despite this stridency, he has never taken himself too seriously. Ferlinghetti is as relaxed as they come—he hasn’t mellowed, but he also hasn’t needed to. He’s a loose, natural storyteller and comedian and he’s still delivering sober, prophetic pronouncements with gravitas.

See and hear Ferlinghetti take on conquerors, bullies, and xenophobes, underwear, and other subjects in the readings here from his throughout his career, including a full, 40-minute reading in 2005 at UC Berkeley, below, an album of Ferlinghetti and Kenneth Rexroth, above, and at the top, a video made last year of the 99-year-old poet, in Lady Liberty mask, reading “Trump’s Trojan Horse” under a grinning, gray-bearded self-portrait of his younger self. Happy 100th to him. "I figure that with another 100 birthdays," he says, "that'll be about enough!"

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Should We Read Sylvia Plath? An Animated Video Makes the Case

In “Morning Song,” from Sylvia Plath’s posthumous 1965 collection Ariel, published two years after her suicide, a newborn infant is a “fat gold watch.” Among the incessant lists of adjectives in both her work, “fat” is one that stands out, appearing often, in several synonyms, as a celebration of abundance and real anxiety over weight gain and a general too-muchness. In the same poem, the baby is a work of art, a “new statue.” Its mother, on the other hand, is in one stanza a cloud effaced by the wind in a mirror, and a clumsy animal, “cow-heavy and floral / In my Victorian nightgown. / Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s.”

Plath’s images are bracing and unexpected, awed and stricken, usually at once. She deploys them so quickly and adroitly that even when one fails to land, the others immediately take up the slack, making even her less-great poems impressive for a line or stanza that takes hold in the mind for days. This ability was not the result of either divine inspiration or mental illness, but talent honed through hard work and commitment. Plath “chose the artist’s way. Poetry was her calling,” the animated TED-Ed video by Iseult Gillespie tells us above. As such, she persevered even through severe bouts with depression and many suicide attempts before she finally succumbed at age 30.

Plath's semi-autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar, which dramatizes these themes, as well as a handful of her darkest poems, have come to popularly symbolize her legacy. You've heard of them even if you've never read them. Yet she composed a “large bulk of poetry,” her husband, poet Ted Hughes, wrote in the introduction to her Collected Works, published and unpublished, never throwing anything out. “She brought every piece she worked on to some final form acceptable to her, rejecting at most the odd verse…. Her attitude to her verse was artisan-like: if she couldn’t get a table out of the material, she was quite happy to get a chair, or even a toy.”

His characterization may not sound like the most charitable, and as her literary executor, Hughes was accused of refusing to publish some of her work. But he was also a fellow poet who watched her tirelessly write and revise. Quoting from her journals, Hughes shows how her first collection, 1960’s The Colossus and Other Poems, came together over a period of many years, its title changing every few months, new poems appearing and old ones falling away. The result is a debut whose “breathtaking perspectives on emotion, nature, and art continue to captivate and resonate,” notes the video's narrator.

Despite her major presence in the literary magazines and the respect she won especially in the UK, The Colossus and Other Poems would be Plath’s only published collection in her lifetime. It made her a well-respected poet, but did not make her the celebrity she became after the publication of The Bell Jar three years later and her suicide the following month. “Within a week of her death,” writes Time magazine in its review of Ariel in 1966, “intellectual London was hunched over copies of a strange and terrible poem she had written during her last sick slide toward suicide. ‘Daddy’ was its title.”

After the publication of Ariel, readers fixed on “Daddy” and “Lady Lazarus,” sensational poems in which “fear, hate, love, death and the poet’s own identity become fused at bleak heat with the figure of her father, and through him, with the guilt of the German exterminators and the suffering of their Jewish victims.” These are poems, wrote Robert Lowell in his preface, that “play Russian roulette with six cartridges in the cylinder.” As feminist scholars embraced her work in the 1970s, a morbid fascination with her image only grew. This is the Plath many people know by word of mouth. But those who haven’t read more of her will miss out.

Plath doesn’t shy away from staring at suicide, abuse, and mass murder. She helped to “break the silence surrounding issues of trauma, frustration, and sexuality.” Ariel and her dozens of uncollected poems are also “filled with moving meditations on heartbreak and creativity," including the heartbreak and creativity of motherhood, a theme always fraught with fears of love and death. Plath’s work can be dark, and it can be at once luminous in its imaginative candor. In writing about life with depression and the domestic misery visited on her in her marriage to Hughes, she celebrates life’s sublime pleasures and mourns its depths of suffering, in poem ofter poem, with near-constant ingenuity, wit, and courage.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Hear Neil Gaiman Read a Beautiful, Profound Poem by Ursula K. Le Guin to His Cousin on Her 100th Birthday

It’s quite profound, isn’t it? - Helen Fagin, aged 100

Every time I open my laptop to discover a friend posting a vintage photo of their parent as a beaming bride or saucy sailor boy in lush black and white or gold-tinged Kodachrome, I know the deal.

Another elder has left the building.

With luck, I’ll have at least two or three decades before my kids start sniffing around in my shoe boxes of old snapshots.

In the meantime, I’ll wonder how much of the emotion that’s packed into those memorial postings gets expressed to the subject in the days leading up to their final exit.

Seems like most of us pussyfoot around the obvious until it’s too late.

There are, of course, medical situations that force us to acknowledge in a loved one's presence the abyss in their immediate future, but otherwise, Western tradition has positioned us to shy away from those sorts of discussions.

Perhaps our loved ones prefer it that way.

Perhaps we do too.

It’s clear that author Neil Gaiman enjoys a special relationship with his 100-year-old cousin, Helen Fagin, a Holocaust survivor and professor of literature.

He has shared memories of her with those attending his public appearances and in honor of World Refugee Day.

His wife, musician Amanda Palmer, included a verse about Helen’s 98th birthday in her song "A Mother’s Confession," below, fleshing out the lyrics with footnotes on her blog.

In celebration of Helen’s centenary, Palmer asked Brain Picking’s Maria Popova to recommend a poem that Gaiman could read aloud during another in-person birthday visit.

Popova settled on "How It Seems To Me," a late-in-life poem by science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin, a close friend of Gaiman’s who died in January of 2018, 12 years shy of her own centenary:

HOW IT SEEMS TO ME

In the vast abyss before time, self

is not, and soul commingles

with mist, and rock, and light. In time,

soul brings the misty self to be.

Then slow time hardens self to stone

while ever lightening the soul,

till soul can loose its hold of self

and both are free and can return

to vastness and dissolve in light,

the long light after time.

It’s a hell of a hundredth birthday gift, though far from a one-size-fits all proposition.

Perhaps when you are a nonagenarian, you’d rather the young people err on the side of tradition with a comfy new robe.

There are octogenarian birthday boys and girls who’d pick an African violet over the misty self, tricky to keep alive though they may be.

As filmed by Palmer, Helen seemed to receive the gift in the spirit it was intended. Life equipped her for it.

via Brain Pickings

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  See her onstage in New York City in February as host of  Theater of the Apes book-based variety show, Necromancers of the Public Domain. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Hear Mary Oliver (RIP) Read Five of Her Poems: “The Summer Day,” “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” “Many Miles” and “Night and the River”

Poets get to have strong opinions about what poetry should be and do, especially poets as well-loved as Mary Oliver, who passed away yesterday at the age of 83. “Poetry, to be understood, must be clear,” she told NPR in an interview, “It mustn’t be fancy…. I always feel that whatever isn’t necessary should not be in the poem.” Oliver’s Zen approach to her art cut right to the heart of things and honored natural, unpretentious expression. “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is,” she writes in “The Summer Day,” “I do know how to pay attention.”

For Oliver that meant giving careful heed to the natural world, shearing away abstraction and obfuscation. She grew up in Ohio, and during a painful childhood walked through the woods for solace, where she began writing her first poems.

She became an “indefatigable guide to the natural world,” as Maxine Kumin wrote, and at the same time, to the spiritual. She has been compared to Emerson and wrote “about old-fashioned subjects—nature, beauty, and worst of all, God,” Ruth Franklin remarks with irony in a New Yorker review of the poet’s last, 2017 book, Devotions. But, like Emerson, Oliver was not a writer of any orthodoxy or creed.

Oliver’s approach to the spiritual is always rooted firmly in the natural. Spirit, she writes, “needs the body’s world… to be more than pure light / that burns / where no one is.” She was beloved by millions, by teachers, writers, and celebrities. (She was once interviewed by Maria Shriver in an issue of magazine; Gwyneth Paltrow is a big fan). Oliver was long the country’s best-selling poet, as Dwight Garner blithely writes at The New York Times. But “she has not been taken seriously by most poetry critics,” Franklin points out. This despite the fact that she won a Pulitzer Prize in 1984 for her fifth book, American Primitiveand a National Book Award in 1992 for New and Selected Poems.

The word “earnest” comes up often as faint praise in reviews of Oliver’s poetry (Garner tidily sums up her work as “earnest poems about nature”). The implication is that her poems are slight, simple, unrefined. This perhaps inevitably happens to accessible poets who become famous in life, but it is also a serious misreading. Oliver's work is full of paradoxes, ambiguities, and the hard wisdom of a mature moral vision. She is “among the few American poets,” critic Alicia Ostriker writes, “who can describe and transmit ecstasy, while retaining a practical awareness of the world as one of predators and prey.” In her work, she faces suffering with “cold, sharp eyes,” confronting “steadily,” Ostriker goes on, “what she cannot change.”

Her poems have included “historical and personal suffering,” but more often she engages the life and death going on all around us, which we rarely take notice of at all. She peers into the darkness of hermit crab shells, she feeds a grasshopper sugar from the palm of her hand, watching the creature’s “jaws back and forth instead of up and down.” Oliver often wrote about the constant reminders of death in life in poems like “Death at a Great Distance” and “When Death Comes.” She wrote just as often about how astonishing it is to be alive when we make deep connections with the natural world.

“When it’s over,” Oliver writes in "When Death Comes," ” I want to say all my life / I was a bride married to amazement.” The cost of not paying attention, she suggests, is to be a tourist in one’s own life and to never be at home. “I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world." In the videos here, see and hear Oliver read “The Summer Day,” “Wild Geese,” “Little Dog’s Rhapsody in the Night,” “Night and the River” (above) and "Many Miles."

Oliver was an artist, says Franklin, “interested in following her own path, both spiritually and poetically,” and in her work she will continue to inspire her readers to do the same. These readings will be added to our collection, 1,000 Free Audio Books: Download Great Books for Free.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Why Is English So Hard to Learn?: The Ingenious Poem, “The Chaos,” Documents 800 Irregularities in English Spelling and Pronunciation

In 1920, Dutch writer and traveler Gerard Nolst Trenité, also known as Charivarius, published a textbook called Drop Your Foreign Accent: engelsche uitspraakoefeningen. In the appendix, he included a poem titled “The Chaos,” a virtuoso, tongue-twisting demonstration of somewhere around 800 irregularities in English spelling and pronunciation. No one now remembers the textbook, and the poem might have disappeared too were it not for efforts of the Simplified Spelling Society, which tracked fragments of it through “France, Canada, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Turkey.”

The poem's history, as told in the Journal of the Simplified Spelling Society (JSSS) in 1994, shows how it traveled around Europe, in pieces, confounding and bedeviling aspiring English speakers. Full of homonyms, loan words, and words which—at one time—actually sounded the way they’re spelled, the poem’s fifty-eight stanzas may be the most clever and comprehensive “concordance of cacographic chaos,” as the JSSS puts it. Admired by linguists and historians of English, it has, since its 1994 republication, become something of a cult hit for enthusiasts of language everywhere.

You can read it here, hear it read above by YouTube’s Lindybeige, and see a transcription into IPA, the international phonetic alphabet. Though it's popularly represented as a kind of sorting mechanism for “the English-Speaking Elite,” that’s hardly accurate. English once sounded like this and this, then like this, and now sounds completely different according to hundreds of regional dialects and accents around the world. The society gestures toward this in their introduction, writing, “the selection of examples now appears somewhat dated, as do a few of their pronunciations. Indeed a few words may even be unknown to today’s readers.”

“How many will know what a ‘studding-sail’ is, or that its nautical pronunciation is ‘stunsail’?,” asks the JSSS. It seems reasonable to wonder how many people ever did. In any case, English, Lindybeige writes, “is a rapidly-changing language,” and one that has not made much phonetic sense for several centuries. This is exactly what has made it such a bear to learn to spell and pronounce—for both English language learners and native speakers. Try your hand at reading every word in “The Chaos,” preferably in front of an audience, and see how you do.

via Mental Floss/The Poke

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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