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Poetry Workshop: 014

Categories: How to Improve Writing Skills, How to Write Poetry, Writing Poetry, Poetry Workshop, Poets, Poets Helping Poets, Revision Tips Tags: Revision Tips.

Okay, I haven’t tackled one of these poetry workshops in a while, so let’s look at a poem from Khara House. Here the original draft:

Our daily bread, by Khara E. House

Pull one thread to unravel a sweater–
one thing leads to another.

Hansel and Gretel scatter breadcrumb path–
come the birds, eat the crumbs,
lead the children to house of bread.

Crumbs devoured by greedy birds–
Swallowing safe passage home?
Providential path to bread and pearls?
Are these birds St. Peter or Judas?

Two disciples reclining against ten,
both devouring the flesh and blood–
Upon whose flesh may the birds descend?

Hansel locked in a birdcage,
leave Gretel to cry tears of blood.

Bread, crumb, bird, cage–
one thing leads to another.

Bread of life hangs from a tree–
Traitor hangs from a tree–
Water of life spills from his side–
Water falls from Peter’s eyes–

Blood and prayer,
oven hot for baking bread–
leading children home on backs of birds.

*****

Okay, there are elements of this poem I truly adore, including the opening stanza. But then, I get kind of lost on the references to Hansel and Gretel, traitor hanging from a tree, the involvement of the birds, and Peter’s eyes. I don’t think poems should have to spell things out, but I start to get the feeling that this poem is written for people who already understand and can connect with the allusions in this poem. While this can be fine, it should be noted that poems that rely solely on allusions run the risk of having a severely limited audience.

For instance, I know the basics of the Hansel and Gretel story (as do most), but this poem seems to dive to a level of which I’m not familiar. So while I love the opening stanza and even liked seeing Hansel and Gretel cited in the second stanza, I left the poem feeling like I needed to do extensive research if I wanted to appreciate this poem. This will probably cause debate, but I feel poems should offer some sort of self-contained surface value with the ability to dive deeper if a reader wishes.

Here are a few suggestions:

  • Get more specific. Re-tell the story of Hansel and Gretel with specific plot points. This poem alludes to things happening, but it doesn’t share specifics, which would go a long way in clarifying for the reader.
  • Play with sound in this poem. I think one of the things I loved about the first stanza was the sounds in it. The meaning wasn’t even my primary concern. Maybe this is a way to make allusions while still providing an appealing “first read” poem.

*****

A few quick notes, because I’m sure there will be debate:

  • I do love layering in a poem. However, I think the “first read” has to be appealing or readers aren’t likely going to come back for the deeper research. After all, there are too many great poems out there already.
  • Alluding to other sources in poetry is fine too. Here again, though, a poet should realize that using this technique will do two things: 1. It will probably limit your audience to people who already “get your reference,” and 2. it will likely create an obstacle for readers who don’t “get your reference.” Plus, your poem may become a target for people who do “get your reference.” (Think comic and book fanatics who tear down movie adaptations that are not TRUE enough to the original.)

*****

All of this said, I love the writing from Khara House. She writes great poetry, and I’m so happy that she shared her writing in the Poetic Asides poetry workshop. I encourage others to throw in their two cents in the Comments below, especially if you disagree with my comments above or have something additional to add.

*****

If you’re interested in the possibility of having a poem of yours workshopped, click here to find out how to submit a poem for consideration.

*****

Follow me on Twitter @robertleebrewer

Join the Poetic Asides group on LinkedIn (click here)

*****

If you’d like to take an actual poetry workshop, check out these courses offered by WritersDigestUniversity.com:

 

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About Robert Lee Brewer

Senior Content Editor, Writer's Digest Community.

33 Responses to Poetry Workshop: 014

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  7. Sam Nielson says:

    Khara,
    Your second draft is a completely different poem. In some ways things are much clearer. The Judas image is fabulous. Like others though, I don’t get the ‘wall’ images.

    For me the first draft, though much less clear, was more interesting, or had more potential, but it may simply be closer to the way I think, and not reflective on you.

    I had a professor tell me once, that you drafted something, if necessary pick a POV or a theme, and revise it that way. Also if you couldn’t title a poem precisely (many poets have trouble giving a title to a poem), then you yourself hadn’t finished the poem in your brain or on paper. Then it became a time of sitting on it until you aren’t so close to it and can critically revise, clarify, etc. I noted that you had changed the title some, and wondered if it tasted that way to you.

    Good luck with the poem.

  8. Dennis Wright says:

    I liked that propellent "p" sound in the other version ;>) ! This version is clearer as comments to children. I sense the direction has changed. Maybe you are finding your way through this poem. A comment in general about relationships? That’s a direction this might go in.

  9. Dear Khara… The poem and message are now much more accessible…having said this I’m not sure, as Robert pointed out that everyone might "want" to hear the message..I count myself I suppose among these..perhaps that’s why I prefer the first version…I like my Rapture and the such comings and goings as they were softened by fairytale innocents such as Hansel and Gretel… Still and all…your passion and message were clear in both versions the first is more abstract and the second more straight-forward…if there was difficulty with the first version perhaps it was because there was difficulty in hearing the message. (The Judas betrayal as part of the salvation… hmmm…not always a great message unless taken as less literal and more metaphoric) Nevertheless wonderful talent and use of language and wonderful confidence to put a poem (any poem) into workshop. Congratulations :)

  10. Dear Khara… The poem and message are now much more accessible…having said this I’m not sure, as Robert pointed out that everyone might "want" to hear the message..I count myself I suppose among these..perhaps that’s why I prefer the first version…I like my Rapture and the such comings and goings as they were softened by fairytale innocents such as Hansel and Gretel… Still and all…your passion and message was clear in both versions the first is more abstract and the second more straight-forward…if there was difficulty with the first version perhaps it was because there was difficulty in hearing the message. (The Judas betrayal as part of the salvation… hmmm…not always a great message unless taken as less literal and more metaphoric) Nevertheless wonderful talent and use of language and wonderful confidence to put a poem (any poem) into workshop. Congratulations :)

  11. Khara, love this version, which I find much more accessible than the previous one …

    A minor point, but consider ending the first line of the final couplet with a PERIOD, omitting the "and" on the next line.

    Also consider removing some of the other "and"s where you have a sequence, such as the one in the middle of the final line of stanza tree .. as the "and" at the beginning of the first line of stanza five ..

    Just my opinion, but I find a succession of "and"s to be distracting ..

  12. rob e says:

    I read the second version better in most ways. Tho now the ‘wall’ bothers me. I have no idea of that word choice. But I think the meaning is more consistent throughout.

  13. Marie Elena says:

    I have to be honest here, I’m not always good at "getting" rather abstract poetry. But I’ll tell you this … "… and remember every Judas plays his part in salvation" is one of the most powerful messages I’ve ever heard.

  14. You all are fantastic! These critiques are all so helpful. Pearl, there’s no need to call anything you said harsh; I think I started losing interest in the momentum of the poem at around the same time you lost interest in the content, so that’s great feedback. I’m glad people are pointing out specific moments where they "lost" the poem– as a poet I don’t often get to hear that kind of feedback, so again, it’s very helpful.

    I thought in the interest of a sort of "response" to some of the critiques I’d post the second draft I mentioned earlier, so you all can see where the poem is going! I think with all this commentary and critique I’ll be writing a 3rd draft as well, but here’s where it is right now!

    Memento mica crustum

    The birds will come and eat your breadcrumbs, children,
    so scatter your pebbles well.

    Taste the bread wall but be wary of bread ovens,
    hold your hands over your hearts, never your mouths,

    and keep your eyes peeled for pearls. Glide on swan backs
    into the arms of your docile father, and hunt your own daily bread,

    and remember some mothers are worse than witches.
    Judge for yourselves if these starlings are sinners or saints,

    and remember some priests are named for your red birds,
    and hold them in reverence. Cry your tears of blood,

    and taste the freedom wall. Devour your pastries
    with traces of ashes and remember

    every Judas plays his part in salvation. Under moonlight
    white pebbles shimmer like lost teeth,

    and the winged ones will let them be,
    and remember all things burn under the sun.

  15. Dear Janet,

    Succinct and interesting commentary on the poem Khara permitted for "workshopping." Very much agree with your comments of yin and yang of symbols … perhaps the delicate balance that one thread can unravel?
    Thought provoking.

  16. Janet Rice Carnahan says:

    Just as commentary, I see the symbols of captivity and freedom in Khara’s poem. When she focuses on bread, crumb, bird, cage, it is as if she is showing us how one thing can lead to another in the style of a creative poet. She is creatively using different angles to reflect on enduring a sustaining captivity and maintaining an endearing freedom. I see captivity/blood/traitor in contrast to freedom/tears/children. Birds can be both free and held captive. More facts could make the poem more easily understood, perhaps, and solid. Yet the image of taking one thread to unravel something, given both stories, is powerful all by itself.

  17. Marissa Coon says:

    I like the way you’ve grouped your stanzas. It lets the reader center on the image, reflect, and then move on, which gives the piece a really nice flow.

    I do have to admit that I had to read the critiques to understand more deeply what the poem was about, since I’m unfamiliar with the Bible. But otherwise, a good start! Keep it up.

  18. Pkp says:

    Apologies to commentators whose comments I completely missed!
    Robert…completely agree with our editor s comments that allusions may be to an audience who already understands…Sam brilliant clear comments that would insure any poet and Brian offering a muse in a lighter path….sheryl ..obviously your deeper knowledge is of tremendous assistance here……Again apologies for having missed these comments first and-almost second time as well!
    KH you certainly have inspired some lively thinking and debate….

  19. Pkp says:

    Whoops writing on New IPAD…..so sorry for stupidity of double posting! Not at all sure such rambling was worthy of posting at all!

  20. Pkp says:

    Mhmmmm ….. Just a thought and an unsavory one at that! Speaking of now seeing from one s perspective……children in a hot oven… Children looking to go home and the way home through an oven?…. The Rapture?…..the ovens and Jews connected in both the ancient sense of judas as betrayer ( I know " we " ) were absolved! Nevertheless the Jews the original lost children…hansel and gretel… Seeking "home " and getting sidetracked…. Of course in the fairytale the children escape the oven…in the Rapture if unsAved will not be so lucky…. Okay…will stop here as psychoanalysis has converged with the holocaust..and all has now blended into a vague sense of unease blood and unredeemed tears…not a way for a happy morning….nevertheless…stand by earlier critique and do hope that Khara e House…..the very brave confident Khara E House continues with a poem that has now begin to intrigue me as these children..,all of us despite faith origin lost children without absolute answers struggle for a glimpse of the way "home "…… Need to check symbolism for birds which I do believe has me flying off …pun intended….
    Enjoy the day…..got a smile from Margaret and agree with Dennis on the raisi g of questions…KH. Thank you again..and now return your poem to you…..

  21. Marie Elena says:

    I wish I had something of worth to add, but I humbly admit that I am simply reading with great interest.

  22. Dennis Wright says:

    Several very good interpretations here. I like what Pearl had to say, yet Margaret makes a good point that we can see in a poem what we know,not necessarily what is there. The poet says she is closer to sound than sense and this is a strength to begin with.

    The "p" in Provident gives an propellant sense with alliteration. We go forward only to hang there in a question. Relief does not arrive in the next line as we ask again, this time about identity. As we were brought to be propelled into unknown space by an earlier statement and question, the hanging in question seems to last an eternity.

    Then the next stanza takes us to yet another question, this time in contrast. The two devour the flesh (here is my body)and perhaps the material world. The other ten stand beside, their only enterance into the poem. Again the question is of identity, whose body is this the birds eat? I think this is the strongest part of the poem.

    Then the poem turns to descriptive action. Hansel is no longer free. Gretel cries tears of passion and somehow is abandoned. Jesus hangs from a tree. A traitor hangs from a tree – Judas committed suicide, Barbaras was a thief – blood and water are the same and Peter cries. Here it seems the picture is almost too large and perhaps the poets own passion has taken over the direction of her voice.

    We come to the end where blood (water) and prayer (communion) and a hot oven lead children home to safety. Bread is largely flour and water (blood and flesh), and yeast (a connection with someone who is not present). A hot oven takes these ingredients and makes bread. Heat leads children safely home. This last section could be a bit longer, bring us along the path to the conclusion of the poem.

  23. Dennis Wright says:

    Several very good interpretations here. I like what Pearl had to say, yet Margaret makes a good point that we can see in a poem what we know,not necessarily what is there. The poet says she is closer to sound than sense and this is a strength to begin with.

    The "p" in Provident gives an propellant sense with alliteration. We go forward only to hang there in a question. Relief does not arrive in the next line as we ask again, this time about identity. As we were brought to be propelled into unknown space by an earlier statement and question, the hanging in question seems to last an eternity.

    Then the next stanza takes us to yet another question, this time in contrast. The two devour the flesh (here is my body)and perhaps the material world. The other ten stand beside, their only enterance into the poem. Again the question is of identity, whose body is this the birds eat? I think this is the strongest part of the poem.

    Then the poem turns to descriptive action. Hansel is no longer free. Gretel cries tears of passion and somehow is abandoned. Jesus hangs from a tree. A traitor hangs from a tree – Judas committed suicide, Barbaras was a thief – blood and water are the same and Peter cries. Here it seems the picture is almost too large and perhaps the poets own passion has taken over the direction of her voice.

    We come to the end where blood (water) and prayer (communion) and a hot oven lead children home to safety. Bread is largely flour and water (blood and flesh), and yeast (a connection with someone who is not present). A hot oven takes these ingredients and makes bread. Heat leads children safely home. This last section could be a bit longer, bring us along the path to the conclusion of the poem.

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  25. Dear Khara E. House

    My first critique here…. I read your poem several times, scanned some of the critques and then re-read and gave my feedback without going back…
    Hope some of this helpful.

    All my best,
    PKP ……… Here goes…….

    OUR DAILY BREAD BY KHARA E. HOUSE

    PULL ONE THREAD TO UNRAVEL A SWEATER–
    ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER.

    Okay we begin here with a sense of universal connectedness … a oneness… wholeness… unity of purpose … a tapestry or perhaps in this poem a ‘sweater” which can be unraveled and understood (?) by pulling a single thread as all roads lead ultimately to the same place.

    HANSEL AND GRETEL SCATTER BREADCRUMB PATH–
    COME THE BIRDS, EAT THE CRUMBS,
    LEAD THE CHILDREN TO HOUSE OF BREAD.

    Seems like in the stanza there is a suggestion of free will here… Hansel and Gretel do after all scatter their bread crumbs assuming that they will be able to return home … only to have the the birds (ah the birds..) eat the crumbs and lead the children elsewhere to a house of bread… this is the first point that the imagery flows with the language but for me leads me a bit astray… and so I’ll read on…

    CRUMBS DEVOURED BY GREEDY BIRDS–
    SWALLOWING SAFE PASSAGE HOME?
    PROVIDENTIAL PATH TO BREAD AND PEARLS?
    ARE THESE BIRDS ST. PETER OR JUDAS?

    Okay, seems here that the poem is a little off the path along with me as there are now questions about just what is going on…. Has the safe passage home been swallowd? Is this a Providential (an therefore a path resilient to the whims of free will) path that will lead to bread and pearls? (again bread and pearls nice juxtaposition of words but the why is a bit too blurry for a powerful image. )
    Finally are these birds (friendly guides) St. Peter? Or (betrayers) Judas?
    Here I’m getting a bit antsy because the questions do not seem rhetoric because of the lack of strong solid metaphor and imagery with which I can relate … I feel that the questions are actually being asked and I do not have enough substance with which to answer.

    TWO DISCIPLES RECLINING AGAINST TEN,
    BOTH DEVOURING THE FLESH AND BLOOD–
    UPON WHOSE FLESH MAY THE BIRDS DESCEND?

    I’ve read a few of the other critiques and the possible parallels between disciples and Hansel and Gretel… if so.. needs to be a great deal more powerful and clear…than up to this point… Bottom line is that the line (whoops no pun intended) “two disciples reclining against ten” IS a powerful line but a little to vague for all readers… especially followed by another powerful line of flesh and blood being devoured. I’d agree with another critique here… if this is a comparison of the mythologies of both religion and Hansel and Gretel and both stories that have uncertain endings and applications for the
    Outcomes of free will … I would advise taking the risk and drawing the metaphors closer and more strongly.

    HANSEL LOCKED IN A BIRDCAGE,
    LEAVE GRETEL TO CRY TEARS OF BLOOD.

    Here I feel that the comparisons are being made.. with Hansel the Judas betrayer of Gretel… but unfortunately for a poem that has promise I’m beginning to (hold on this is harsh) not care.. I want to care.

    BREAD, CRUMB, BIRD, CAGE–
    ONE THING LEADS TO ANOTHER.

    This refrain here would be wonderful and need to stay ..if the foregoing had led me to this climax but just at the point where I’m feeling (unfortunately!!! that I’m not caring as much as I’d like….. everything is connected again…)

    BREAD OF LIFE HANGS FROM A TREE–
    TRAITOR HANGS FROM A TREE–
    WATER OF LIFE SPILLS FROM HIS SIDE–
    WATER FALLS FROM PETER’S EYES–

    Again as the crescendo builds I feel I’m being carried to someplace operatic but with myself blindfolded and the opera in a language I do not understand.

    BLOOD AND PRAYER,
    OVEN HOT FOR BAKING BREAD–
    LEADING CHILDREN HOME ON BACKS OF BIRDS.

    At the poems conclusion I begin to feel all sorts of religious imagery and a sense of the connection that began and concludes the poem and yet I feel a bit bewildered.

    Overall, there is I do believe a great deal of promise here… again may be my ignorance about certain images but… my belief (and my sense here in this poem) is that poetic language supercedes any particular knowledge base… I do think that if the mentioned stanzas were expanded or clarified the poem would be a stunner.

  26. I’ve enjoyed reading all the thoughtful responses to this –

    I do, however, want to say a word about the biblical references — my background is Jewish, and my knowledge of the new testament is slim, so gospel references pretty much pass me by.

    I came across an interesting example of this many years back in college. I minored in French, and in one class the teacher gave us an assigmnent to write a Christmas story. I borrowed a friend’s (King James) bible (in English), read John’s, I think, account of the Christmas story and wrote it up as a story in French.

    So I got to class, turned it in and the teacher was reading them .. she gets to mine, and says (in French) that this is from bible, the familiar Christmas story, which, of course, everybody knows.

    Which of course, I hadn’t — and no, I didn’t say anything.

  27. Dennis Wright says:

    Hansel and Gretel were lost in the forest and found a Gingerbread House. Later they found a witch who turned the sweet children into sweet candy. In this sense everything does lead to another.

    Here they leave a trail so the birds will follow as they walk a Providential path. A Providential path lead by God followed by Hansel, Gretel, bread, pearls, and the birds. Are the birds the foundation or the betrayal?

    I study alot of American Colonial History. Many early settlers, John Davenport of New Haven in particular, believed they came to the New World with Gods’ Providence. This belief saw them through a change that took many from well to do homes in England to the rigours of early American life. Very early pioneers did not build the log cabins children see in their history books. Very early settlers lived in caves on a hill. The word church comes from the word cave and this too may have sustained them.

    So perhaps the poem questions where we have arrived here in America. In the colonies the belief they shared in Gods’ Providence was so high when they faced almost continous war with Natives, starvation due to inability to plant well in the soil of the colonies, and fairly constant intrique with the Crown of England, they could not allow themselves to doubt. But doubt had to be there. There were many reasons of the Salem Witch Trials, but the inability to square the belief in Gods’ Providence with the loss of good English life played a role.

    Again in the 1950′s we faced a similar crisis. We were the land of freedom and hope yet we possessed a weapon that could destroy the world. We had gone as far as using this weapon, not once, but twice. We had an adversary that sprang initially from similar ideals yet had gotten drastically lost along the way. We saw ourselves as the land of the brave and free, yet while we took on the challenge of our adversary, it became more apparent not all were free in this country.

    Are we facing a similar challenge today? Is our moral fiber being challenged today? Is our self perception threatened?

    I don’t know if these are the thoughts of the poet, but they are mine as I read it.

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  29. Brian Slusher says:

    Great comments so far. The poem does have strengths, but the the combining of the fairy tale and the Biblical tail does make a muddle thematically. It seems to me the Hansel story is about keeping your head in a difficult situation. The children trick the witch and escape through their cleverness. The disciple story is about betrayal and redemption. Peter denies, but becomes a rock of faith. Judas betrays and suffers the consequences. While the children in the fairy tale are betrayed, that isn’t a strong connector to the disciples, and the bread image is too tenuous to hold so much weight connecting the two different tales.

    The fairy tale is definitely the more exciting thread to me. So what is the poem about? Fate? Luck? Consider bringing the speaker into the poem, showing us how this tale connects to him/her. Also look at altering the "Tarzan" talk lines, like "Hansel and Gretel scatter breadcrumb path"–why not "Hansel and Gretel scatter a breadcrumb path"? In other parts of the poem you maintain grammatical structure, so why the departures? What do you gain by the odd sound? I suggest all or nothing, and proper structure will communicate without making the reader stop in confusion.

    Lots of potential! Happy writing to you.

  30. Sam Nielson says:

    My comments probably are helpful to me mostly, but here goes. It appears that the biblical allusions and the Hansel and Gretel stories are trying to be compared. Or elements of each are being pulled out for a third story line. That fact alone is confusing. Comparisons in general can be powerful, particularly in odd circumstances (Hansel and Gretel compared to Jesus and the disciples?) but they have to precise and specific for the impact and someone else to understand.

    (You have to also understand that biblical-ness is a special case. People tend to get a little protective or perhaps rabid about it. So right off the bat you probably will offend a number of readers by comparing a fairy tale to the Bible. Just be aware of the potential outcome. If that is the intent in a mocking or near-mocking tone, continue on doing it. But you may become a target for it.)

    If the intent of the poem is a stringing along elements of the two compared stories for a third or new purpose, then it has to be clear which details come from which story, and that the details build towards the purpose.

    The first stanza to me seems to indicate the pointing to a third purpose using the details, but the rest of the poem leans towards a disconnectedness that may leave readers out.

    I do like the potential of the bread crumbs image be a leading into the ‘bread of life’ image but be careful of the tone.

    The last stanza gives nice parallels of the tree and water in different purposes/uses. The poems has allusions to sacraments, to perhaps retribution/justice. The bread images also can be strong leading to the baking/testing/firing.

    Perhaps the best approach would be to simplify the imagery choosing among the various and rewriting with that in mind. In fact a fascinating thing might be to rewrite several times focusing on the different lines and compare to see which gets the message across the best, and a further outcome might be revelation of a way to combine them in a more efficient, understandable way.

    I think there is a very strong potential here. Without direct knowledge of the intent, it is hard to recommend specific remedies, though. Religious imagery can be powerful. Hansel and Gretel story, was it chosen specifically, or simply a convenient stream of consciousness?

    Thanks Khara for this. Good luck on it.

  31. I liked the poem, although two disciples leaning together got a bit confusing to me. Wasn’t it Jesus and John who reclined next to each other? If that is what you were refering to, Jesus could not be considered His own disciple. If you choose to use only the Hansel and Gretel references in this poem, you might create another poem using the Last Supper references here.

    Unfortunately, nowadays there is much Biblical ignorance, so Robert could be correct about the Biblical references being too vague for most people.

  32. Thank you so much, Robert, for workshopping this poem! It gave me a lot of trouble when I first wrote it, because it was one of the first poems I’ve ever written where I actually had a definitive "message" I wanted to convey; apparently my "strength" in poetry is more on the side of sound, not sense! I actually got so frustrated with this first draft that I rewrote it (and changed the title, to "memento mica crustum"); I do concentrate more on sound than sense in the second draft, but now I wonder what would happen if, as you suggest, I engage specific plot points in a third draft (or second poem). Though you call it a vague critique, you have no idea how helpful it is to me! Thanks again!

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