Category Archives: Poetry Month 2010

And the Winner Is…

Joan Peronto


Joan is a resident of Pittsfield, Massachusetts, where she worked as a reference librarian for 34 years. Her poetry has appeared in Crossing Paths, an anthology of Western New England poets, The Rockford Review, The Berkshire Review and Hummingbird. Her children’s poems have appeared in Spider and Ladybug.
Joan grew up in central Illinois. She and her husband graduated from the University of Wisconsin and made their home in Massachusetts, where they raised seven children.


We are not sure whether Joan Peronto even knows about this, as her son entered her poem in the contest, but she will soon, when an enormous basket (of which we’ll share pictures next week,) arrives at  her doorstep in Pittsfield, Massachusetts.


Thank you, every single one of you, for sharing your poetry with us. We were honored and grateful for the occasion.

Now, without further ado, here is the winner of Portrait of a Bookstore’s Poetry Contest, 2010:

Widow’s Walk
by Joan Peronto
The street’s sedate
and oddly calm,
every other house
a woman’s house.
The widow in the Cape
left her plastic Santa out.
It’s March. He’s fallen
on his face, beside the sleigh.
In the 50’s this street
could fill a school bus.
Children poured
up the hill in rivers,
dropped their books,
climbed the willows,
roamed the woods.
Then the piper came.
The women fade
like photographs,
brittle as last year’s
oak leaves.
They dance alone
inside their houses
until the music ends
Congratulations, Joan!

Your poem touched and quieted us. Its sense of place and tone, its gentleness, its wisdom, the aching heart of it– thank you.


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Xanadu Blues

We’re ending Poetry Month with a bang.

“A Bang”= A 7,936 word post about the nature of poetry and the mind of the poet.



(Now we are here in) Xanadu!

Before the birth of the Romantic Era, the creative unconscious was an ignored territory.  Art and literature had grown stagnant, frequently pigeonholed into firm categories based on their relevant social, political, or scholarly merits. Ideas that expressed any degree of ambiguity, irrationality or paradox were rejected. The Enlightenment, it seems, had done its job too well and looked to be about to reject art as an extraneous gear in its precise clockwork schematic.  Coming along to change all this were the Romantics, who seemed to be the first people in a long time to dare to assert that there might be an untapped source of creative inspiration within the individual. By rejecting convention and rationality they looked deeply within themselves and embraced all that was raw, emotional and incongruous. This idea caught on, and over the course of the 19th Century a new era of art, and perhaps of human consciousness, had begun to blossom.  To illustrate the role of the creative unconscious in Romantic poetry and art, let’s take a look Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kublai Khan’, which, I believe, is one of the most telling poems yet written to explore the interplay between raw imagination and the finished work—in some circles referred to as “the gap.”

First, a bit of back story. Samuel Taylor Coleridge lived one of those difficult, unhappy lives creative types seem to favor, (or are allotted, depending your perspective.) Besides having the misfortune of being born in George the Third’s England, Coleridge suffered from the perpetual vicissitudes of his own nature. Probably bipolar, he experienced crippling anxiety and depression throughout his life, as well as the deprivations of poverty and a habit of cultivating bad relationships. By 1797 he had lived more than a lifetime’s worth of failed plans, nervous breakdowns, unhappiness and squalor. Thanks to the support of his friend William Wordsworth though, he had entered a productive phase of his career, penning such masterworks of the Romantic sensibility as ‘Christabel’ and ‘Rime of the Ancient Mariner’. Of course, during this time he also had a monkey on his back in the form of an opium addiction.  Having been prescribed laudanum to alleviate pain, he took to the stuff rather enthusiastically and suffered further diminishing health as a result.

As the well-worn story goes, one night in the autumn of 1797 he retired to bed with a pinch of laudanum and a book on the travels of Marco Polo. Falling into a dream, he saw a strange and exotic vision of Xanadu, pleasure dome of the Chinese Emperor Kublai Khan.Upon awakening, he set to work transcribing the vision into a poem.  Entranced, Coleridge wrote furiously, and, without reflection or revision, the poem ‘Kublai Khan‘ sprang forth complete. Or it would have, had there not been a knock on the door. A man from the neighboring town of Porlock had come for Coleridge that morning and, before he could record all of his dream, the man took Coleridge down the road to conduct what we can only assume to be a tedious and mind-numbing bit of business. Three hours later Coleridge returned, and upon sitting down to finish his poem he discovered his vision had been forgotten. He added what vague bits of the dream he could still remember and put the poem away. It stayed where he’d left it until the year 1816, when Lord Byron encouraged him to release it and guaranteed publication.

So, on to the poem itself. The majority of the poem is devoted to descriptions of the edifice of Kublai Khan’s pleasure palace. The first stanza describes the structure and general layout of the palace, with ‘walls and towers girded round,’ ‘gardens bright with sinuous rills,’ and ‘many an incense-bearing tree.’ Further on, there are ancient, unspoiled forests and bright spots of sunlit greenery. Somewhere in this picture there is a ‘Romantic Chasm,’ a place described as being both ‘savage’ and ‘holy’. Depending on how you choose to read it, the chasm may or may not be inhabited by a ‘woman wailing for her demon lover’. This Romantic Chasm, it seems, treats Coleridge to quite a show as it begins to belch up stone and rock, throwing them into the air as if they were ‘chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail’.  Then all hell breaks loose as the torrents of rock fling up the sacred river Alph, flooding the Pleasure Dome before sinking down in to ‘a sunless sea’.  Amidst all this Kublai Khan hears his ancestors prophesizing war and Coleridge is becomes witness to the sight of the palace floating upon the water, as incongruous images and noise meld all around into a sort of dissonant harmony. Then, without even breaking the stanza, Coleridge shifts gears and begins to reflect upon another vision he had seen of a maiden playing the dulcimer. He considers her music, and states that if he could bring such beauty and music as she has produced to his vision of the Pleasure Dome, then he too will be savage and holy, and all will know that he has ‘drunk the milk of paradise’.

To my mind, Coleridge has laid out quite clearly a blueprint of the creative mindset, what the artist must witness and experience in order to produce a work that may be considered inspired. To put it another way, ‘Kublai Khan’ is a poem about writing a poem. First, consider the Dome. Khan’s pleasure palace is a well-manicured, bucolic place made attractive by its attention to form and regularity. Among possible interpretations this could be considered to be the rational, organized part of the mind, the part that is above the surface and clearly visible. It is also closed, static, and, considering its surroundings, a little dull. Further on are the ancient forests of the natural mind, and the romantic chasm which leads to caves and oceans untouched by sunlight, pretty clearly meant to represent the untrodden parts of the mind where deeper forms of creativity dwell. Considering all this to be true, we may also consider the tumult issuing forth from the caves to be the tapped force of that creativity, wreaking havoc upon the staid scene of the Pleasure Dome. Only when the waters have flooded the palace, bringing the destructive and uncontrollable forces of the creative unconscious full center into the abode of the ordered, rational mind, do we have a sight worth beholding. The final part of the poem, seemingly unrelated, actually enforces this point, as Coleridge describes all the elements of his vision intermingling and stresses the desire on the part of the poet to bring them together and harmonize them. Of course, for this image to harmonize a great deal of chaos must play out, and one can assume the Pleasure Dome will be thoroughly ruined in the process (or at least the resale value will diminish). Coleridge hardly construes this destruction as a bad thing, instead seeing only the awe-inspiring and terrible beauty before him.

Some questions regarding the poem’s true nature remain, and they affect the range of possible interpretations. Many scholars believe Coleridge’s story about an opium binge and a sinister Man from Porlock was invented to explain the poem’s fragmentary nature and to give the work some mystique. Such an event would not have been without precedent, since in Coleridge’s ‘Biographica Literaria’ he claims a letter from a friend had interrupted his train of thought by way of explanation for a promised but never delivered hundred-page exposition on the nature of imagination. The friend in question was Coleridge himself.  Although the Man from Porlock’s existence is, I admit, questionable, I suspect he truly did darken Coleridge’s door. The way I see it, Coleridge would have had no reason to lie about the poem’s provenance as that artifice would accomplish nothing. In the environment of late 18th Century England such a poem would be highly outre, and the fact that it was reported to come from a dream would only lead critics to dismiss it as meaningless garbage (which is why it did not see publication for another quarter century). As for Mr. Porlock, we can only look at the text. It seems complete enough, but the way Coleridge changes the subject at the end addresses a desire unfulfilled.  Had he been able to recall and transcribe the dream completely he (probably) would not have needed to editorialize and consider how to write a better poem. The last eighteen lines express frustration and a missed chance at transcendence— I, for one, try to let the work do the talking and tend to believe what it tells me. If Kublai Khan did not spring from a dream then it is an artifice, and we can accept that the message of the poem is that our imagination is at its most inspired when it is filtered through our conscious faculties, as the River Alph flows gently through the grounds of the Pleasure Dome. Since this is expressly not the nature of the poem (as only when all chaos breaks loose is the sublimity of the vision realized,) I think we have to trust Coleridge on the matter.

All this raises a few questions, of course. In the unconscious mind, are we capable of realizing cogent metaphors for our own journey to realization? Is the dreaming mind full of raw materials the rational mind must build upon to create something useful, or is it, rather, a matter of dexterity to capture the visions that spring from us fully-formed?  Is imagination the root of dreaming, or do dreams give us the ability to imagine? I of course have the answer to these questions, but I will give them as soon as I finish a bit of business I have one town over. Until then, good day to you.

[Read and hear the poem here.]



Posted by Kevin


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One Poem at a Time -30-


We at Portrait have loved this poem-posting-project, and we hope it’s helped us all stop reaching for the hose when presented with verse.



Introduction to Poetry
by Billy Collins
from Sailing Around the Room: New and Selected Poems

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.


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One Poem at a Time -29-

With two days left in Poetry Month, no poem is good enough because there are just so many that we love, and to have to choose one of them to be the last one is simply too nerve-wracking. So, with your permission, we’re extending this daily ritual indefinitely. This way, we can keep sharing with you poems we love, untethered by anything. Tomorrow’s poem will be the last for Poetry Month 2010 and the possibilities for after that are, as they should be, endless.


The book which includes this poem was recently featured here.  You can hear the author read it here. I love this poem because it comes very close to desrcibing what it actually feels like to be the one left behind, with all of the senses in tact, the possessor of a mind with the capacity for memory.




Redemption Song
by Kevin Young
from The Art of Losing: Poems of Grief and Healing

Finally fall.
At last the mist,
heat’s haze, we woke
these past weeks with

has lifted. We find
ourselves chill, a briskness
we hug ourselves in.
Frost greying the ground.

Grief might be easy
if there wasn’t still
such beauty — would be far
simpler if the silver

maple didn’t thrust
it’s leaves into flame,
trusting that spring
will find it again.

All this might be easier if
there wasn’t a song
still lifting us above it,
if wind didn’t trouble

my mind like water.
I half expect to see you
fill the autumn air
like breath —

At night I sleep
on clenched fists.
Days I’m like the child
who on the playground

falls, crying
not so much from pain
as surprise.
I’m tired of tide

taking you away,
then back again —
what’s worse, the forgetting
or the thing

you can’t forget.
Neither yet —
last summer’s
choir of crickets

grown quiet.


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One Poem at a Time -28-

They always make you read “The Fish” in school. Yes, it’s a great poem. But when your heart is just beginning to set on fire, this is the Elizabeth Bishop poem that I think resonates a little more than that old, wrinkly fish.


The Shampoo
by Elizabeth Bishop
from The Complete Poems, 1927-1979

The still explosions on the rocks,
the lichens, grow
by spreading, gray, concentric shocks.
They have arranged
to meet the rings around the moon, although
within our memories they have not changed.

And since the heavens will attend
as long on us,
you’ve been, dear friend,
precipitate and pragmatical;
and look what happens.  For Time is
nothing if not amenable.

The shooting stars in your black hair
in bright formation
are flocking where,
so straight, so soon?
— Come, let me wash it in this big tin basin,
battered and shiny like the moon.

[Listen to an audio clip of Louise Bogan reading “The Mark”.]

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One Poem at a Time -27-


Because it is so wonderfully lyrical, one is unprepared for the powerful statements, both cultural and political, that each line delivers. You expect a nursery rhyme and, instead, receive a gut punch.

[The wounded wilderness of Morris Graves…]
by Lawrence Ferlinghetti
from A Coney Island of the Mind

The wounded wilderness of Morris Graves
is not the same wild west
the white man found
It is a land that Buddha came upon
from a different direction
It is a wild white nest
in the true mad north
of introspection
where ‘falcons of the inner eye’
dive and die
glimpsing in their dying fall
all life’s memory
of existence
and with grave chalk wing
draw upon the leaded sky
a thousand threaded images
of flight

It is the night that is their ‘native habitat’
these ‘spirit birds’ with bled white wings
these droves of plover
bearded eagles
blind birds singing
in glass fields
these moonmad swans and ecstatic ganders
trapped egrets
charcoal owls
trotting turtle symbols
these pink fish among mountains
shrikes seeking to nest
whitebone drones
mating in air
among hallucinary moons

And a masked bird fishing
in a golden stream and an ibis feeding
~on its own breast’
and a stray Connemara Pooka’
(life size)
And then those blown mute birds
bearing fish and paper messages
between two streams
which are the twin streams
of oblivion
wherein the imagination
turning upon itself
with white electric vision
refinds itself still mad
and unfed
among the hebrides

(formatting not retained)

[Listen to an audio clip of Larry Levis reading “The Map”.]

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One Poem at a Time -26-

Mothers, children, lanyard receivers and makers everywhere, this must be watched:

The Lanyard, by Billy Collins.






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One Poem at a Time -25-

I am fascinated by owls. Always have been. When I discovered this poem I was stunned by Oliver’s powers of observation, her use of language. Meet Mary Oliver, nature’s Poet Laureate. Field reporter of life’s intangibles. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize for American Primitive (1983).



Little Owl Who Lives in the Orchard


His beak could open a bottle,
and his eyes – when he lifts their soft lids –
go on reading something
just beyond your shoulder –
Blake, maybe,
or the Book of Revelation.

Never mind that he eats only
the black-smocked crickets,
and the dragonflies if they happen
to be out late over the ponds, and of course
the occasional festal mouse.
Never mind that he is only a memo
from the offices of fear –

it’s not size but surge that tells us
when we’re in touch with something real,
and when I hear him in the orchard
down the little aliminum
ladder of his scream –
when I see his wings open, like two black ferns,

a flurry of palpitations
as cold as sleet
rackets across the marshlands
of my heart
like a wild spring day.

Somewhere in the universe,
in the gallery of important things,
the babyish owl, ruffled and rakish,
sits on its pedestal.
Dear, dark dapple of plush!
A message, reads the label,
from that mysterious conglomerate:
Oblivion and Co.
The hooked head stares
from its house of dark, feathery lace.
It could be a valentine.



[Listen to an audio clip of Margaret Atwood reading “From An Italian Postcard Factory”.]

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Seven Days to Shower Us With Poems

Are you a poet?

 Do you write poetry, secretly call yourself a poet, but refuse to do so out-loud because you think only people who’ve been published have the right to the title? Are astronomers the only ones able to look up and wonder about the universe? Are doctors the only people qualified to diagnose a cold?

Well, that’s not much of a case, we realize, but we want to read your poetry regardless. Why? Because at some point you were compelled to set pen to paper and such moments are divine.

Every single one of you will receive a response. The winner’s poem will be posted on this blog, along with others’ if they’re so good we can’t help ourselves. The winner will receive a basket filled to the brim with the best books our Poetry Section has to offer, along with a POAB Gift Card to be used any way you fancy. We will either arrange to have it delivered to you if you live far away, or invite you in for a cup of tea, a tour of all 5 square feet of the bookstore and present you with your prize in person.    

One poem per person, please. Send it to mail(at)portraitofabookstore(dot)com, with “Poetry Contest” in the subject line. No length, style or content restrictions.

Deadline: April 30, 2010 at Midnight

Hurry, we don’t have much time!


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One Poem at a Time -24-

It was the height of summer. My five year old self and my younger sister were both wearing what was called “baby doll” p.j.’s, back when these things were made of 100% cotton. We lay together, head touching head, as our mother read from Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses. I was very annoyed that we were being put to bed when it was not yet dark out, not yet night time. Amused, but not swayed by my protests, the final poem my mother read us that night was “Bed In Summer”. So there you have it. I dedicate this poem to all the little kids who have to go to bed when the light beyond the window shade glows in a perfect straight-edged frame around it.
  In winter I get up at night
  And dress by yellow candle-light.
  In summer quite the other way,
  I have to go to bed by day.

  I have to go to bed and see
  The birds still hopping on the tree,
  Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
  Still going past me in the street.

  And does it not seem hard to you,
  When all the sky is clear and blue,
  And I should like so much to play,
  To have to go to bed by day?

[Listen to an audio clip of Paul Muldoon reading “A Polar Explorer”.]

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