A Close Reading of “Elegy for My Father,” by Annie Finch

Detail of the cover of Spells: New and Selected Poems, by Annie Finch

Annie Finch titled her 2013 volume of selected poems Spells for good reason. A Wiccan as well as a poet, she recognizes the power of incantation in creating an altered consciousness, a state in which a strongly held vision can move from the realm of possibility into reality. Not all of Finch’s poems are visionary or transformative in intention, but they do share a powerfully persuasive incantatory quality.

Finch relies on a number of poetic techniques to create these incantations, most notably repetition of words and phrases and the use of iambs—the thump-THUMP of a heartbeat that calls up instinctive memories of the womb. But her repertory far exceeds the basic iamb, as we see in “Elegy for My Father.” While the poem definitely meets the criteria of an elegy – it recounts the vigil at her father’s deathbed – its complex dactylic meter runs counterpoint to the somber subject matter. Lines alternate between pure dactylic tetrameter and dactylic trimeter with a final, stressed syllable at the end, as in this example:

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Summer 2015 Poetry Workshop Is Off to a Great Start

The first session of the new poetry workshop was even more successful than I’d hoped. Turnout was better than expected: just enough people to fit comfortably in my living room. I start each session with a simple exercise that sets an intention for the evening — that we support one another in the creation of new work. Then we have a grounding exercise followed by a free write. The first free write follows the tradition of Julia Cameron’s morning pages, a sort of throat-clearing, a flushing of the pipes. Achieving that flow state is such an important part of writing, and even more so when it comes to poetry. There’s something about longhand writing that makes this flow state come very naturally. I asked people to pick an object in the room and to use it as a jumping-off point for their writing. When we were finished, we didn’t share the work — we just moved on.

We followed this exercise with a close reading of Julie Ebin’s “Dear Dad,” a poem originally published in Solstice Magazine. In close reading, we go through a poem line by line, word by word, in an effort to see what makes the poem work. I chose Ebin’s poem for its tight wording and surprising turns of phrase — two essential components of good poetry. One of the lovely things about close reading is that other members of the workshop invariably call attention to details I don’t notice myself during my first or second read.

I used a line from Ebin’s poem — “I will try to unlearn dust” — as our second prompt. We wrote for five minutes only, since I find that time limits help me to write without overthinking. At this point I introduced my two basic rules of workshopping new poems:

  • Feedback must be exclusively positive in nature. Focus on what works in the poem rather than on what you didn’t like or what you would change.
  • Refer to the “I” in the poem as “the speaker” or “the narrator.” This creates some emotional distance from the work and allows the writer to see the piece more objectively.

Toni Amato’s workshop also includes two other rules:

  • No apron-wringing, or protestations that your piece is no good. The term comes from the idea of someone who has just baked a pie and is wringing her apron while her family tries it for the first time. I didn’t specifically ban the practice in our first workshop, although I’m considering doing so for future sessions, since it does color the perception of the work.
  • No comparing someone’s work to a published author, as in “This piece reminds me of Herman Miller.” What might be considered a compliment may come across as an insult, depending on how the writer perceives the other author.

The results of the prompt were pretty fantastic. I’m always amazed at how many different poems result from the same prompt.

After a short break, I used my box of postcards for our final prompt. Over the years, I’ve amassed quite a collection of interesting images, many of them sent by a pen pal who found my site more than 20 years ago. I pass these around to members and invite them to write something inspired by the image or words on the postcard. Once again, the results were varied and fantastic.

At the end of the workshop I had that wonderful, expansive feeling of endless possibility that follows a creative act with like-minded people. We meet again on Thursday July 9 from 7pm to 9pm. After that are two more sessions: Thursday July 23 and Thursday August 6. Once the group establishes trust in one another, I plan to have people bring in more finished pieces for constructive criticism. And I’ll be sending out information on how to find calls for submission — poetry isn’t meant to molder in a desk somewhere, and it’s easier to go through the submission process with others.

If you’re interested in attending future sessions, you can fill out the form on this page for more details.