Tag Archives: sappho

Who Are Your Top 10 Favorite Writers?

Today is a fun blogging day — a couple of “10 Favorite” lists.

I make these lists about once every, well, 10 years. They not only show who influences us most deeply as readers and/or writers, but also who grabs our hearts, minds and souls. The 10-year period between lists also shows how we’ve evolved as people. Several on my lists have remained the same over the years, but one or two invariably switch out each decade.

That said, who are your 10 favorite writers? Also, since it is National Poetry Month, who are your 10 favorite poets and/or essayists? Mine are listed below, with a quick bit about each.

Please use the comment feature on this blog to let us know who your favorites are, and why (at least for a few of them). We’ll post a composite of the responses at the end of April.

Bob’s 10 Favorite Writers, in no particular order (except for number one):


T.C. Boyle

Jack Kerouac — My all-time favorite. ‘On the Road’, and ‘Dharma Bums’ are classics of his tireless stream of consciousness writing. Did you know he wrote ‘The Subterraneans’ in 72 hours — and included a 1,200-word sentence in there?

T.C. Boyle — a mastermind of fiction and short story. He’s carried the mantle among American short-story giants since Raymond Carver died.

Anne Rice — I’m not so hot on her books (except for ‘The Vampire Lestat’ and book one of her ‘Christ the Lord’ series), but her writing is amazing. Who else can keep readers up for two nights with more chilling scenes?

Anne Rice, bewitching at a book signing

Anne Rice, bewitching at a book signing

Thich Nhat Hanh — This Vietnamese Buddhist monk has written some of the most beautiful, applicable books of the past 50 years, his style succinct and full of love.

Laura Hillenbrand — Journalistic narrative gets no better than ‘Seabiscuit’ or ‘Unbroken’, does it? She’s awesome.

Elmore Leonard — My man Elmore, a master of realistic dialogue and snappy, fast-paced storytelling. I read a Leonard novel every time I want to improve my pacing, or simply when it’s time for a great story and some laughs.

John Gardner — 90% of my fiction knowledge comes from the late, great novelist and author of the best book on the craft, ‘The Art of Fiction.’

Anais Nin

Anais Nin

Hunter S. Thompson — Forget how bizarre he was as a person; he greatly influenced me through ‘New Journalism’ (the grandparent of narrative non-fiction), his writing for Rolling Stone, and his two gems, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ and ‘The Great Shark Hunt’.

Anais Nin — Classy, erotic, cultured, full of irresistible imagery and beautiful writing. Unless your religious beliefs preclude you from doing so, every man should read a Nin book if they care about the innermost worlds of their women.

Joyce Carol Oates — She’s written hundreds of short stories and more than 40 novels. She plunges us into her characters’ worlds within two pages; I feel like I’ve lost my skin and identity when reading her. And her storytelling? The best. In her classic book ‘Blonde’, she admitted she felt like she was Marilyn Monroe while writing it. Priceless.


Gary Snyder, in his element

Gary Snyder, in his element

Gary Snyder — My idol as a poet and steward of the land since I was 16. In my opinion, he’s the greatest poet/essayist alive (and a pre-eminent translator of classical Chinese poetry). He won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. In recent years, I’ve had the honor of befriending and being mentored by him. Love the man.

Paramhansa Yogananda — As beautiful soul poetry goes, this Indian yoga master has the touch. ‘Songs of the Soul’ is a classic.

Wislawa Szymborska — She recently passed, but in 2012, Gary Snyder called her ‘the best poet in the world.’ Her winning the Nobel Prize backs his claim.

Wislawa Syzmborska, the Polish wordsmith extraordinaire

Wislawa Syzmborska, the Polish wordsmith extraordinaire

Mary Oliver — How can you not love Mary? Her incisive images and attention to rhythm and detail are beautiful and exact.

David Whyte — He brings the spiritual, natural and inner human worlds together seamlessly; I get goose bumps every time I read Whyte aloud.

Billy Collins — Roll up your sleeves, pour coffee, and survey the little quirks and bits of magic in the everyday world. Billy engages us in the most accessible poetry of the last 50 years. (His protégé, Taylor Mali, could easily fill this slot – but with more obvious humor.)

Mary Oliver, bringing her words to life

Mary Oliver, bringing her words to life

Percy Bysshe Shelley — Let’s dial back the clock. Shelley only lived to be 29, but he defined the 18th-19th century Romantic poetry period. Such beautiful poems, and he mastered the difficult combination of storytelling and lyrical verse.

Rumi — There were more than 100 great Persian, Arabian and other Middle Eastern poets from the 8th through 15th centuries; Rumi has lived on. Who doesn’t feel better and deeper after reading one or two of his poems? Honey for the soul.

Li-Po — Like Rumi, he stands tallest among China’s wandering poets in the 7th through 10th centuries. Want to be a Chinese landscape? Read him aloud.

Sappho — She brought written form to lyric and spoken verse 2,700 years ago, creating Western poetry as we know it (though she wasn’t the first; Sumerian Enheduanna penned her poems on cuneiform tablets 4,500 years ago). Sadly, only about 2% of Sappho’s work survives; she was as prolific as Shakespeare.

There are my lists. Looking forward to seeing yours!

ON SALE THROUGHOUT NATIONAL POETRY MONTH: Backroad Melodies, by Robert Yehling. $9.95 print, $1.99 Kindle, .99 Matchbook. Through April 30. http://amzn.to/1Hb62Ei

Low Res Cover Backroads

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When Music and Writing Mix

(In honor of National Poetry Month – and the Muse)

The other day, while putting together the Spring/Summer issue of The Hummingbird Review, I was discussing lyrics and poesy (composing poetic verse) with publisher Charlie Redner (whose poetic spirit and enthusiasm inspires the heck out of me). It is always impossible for me to distinguish between the two, because I feel they are the identical core expression. The only discernible difference is that one is accompanied by vocal or instrumental music and the other is spoken. Maybe I’m crazy about this, a reincarnated Ancient Greek or something…

Which provides a good departure point to discuss the music of writing. So many of us seem to create separation between lyrics/music and our writing. All you have to do is walk into the nearest middle school or high school classroom or hallway to see what I mean: many kids will stick in their ear buds and listen to hip-hop or their favorite singers or bands all day long, but will fall flat on their bored faces when asked to write an essay, book report, paper or story. As for poetry? That’s dead man’s stuff to many of them. Not happening.

Yet, what are they listening to? Poetry! Writing! They cruise through school corridors reciting hip-hop or singing their favorite songs, completely in rhythm, their vocal cadence (while often hilariously out of tune) hugging the meter that the words and beat provide. They sing or lip synch the lyrics with hearts, minds and bodies engaged, feeling the rhythm, embracing the words (for good or bad), diving deeply into the experiences, images or messages being conveyed. They do the exact same thing as spoken word artists, only it’s someone else’s words and it’s accompanied by instrumental sound.

And yet, from classrooms to societal conventions to our own writing desks, we separate the two. We put music in one corner, and writing in the other, as though they were opposing boxers. We keep them apart, to the point of distinguishing between good lyrics and good poetry. (Though Homer Hogan sure didn’t: his two-book The Poetry of Relevance remains, nearly 40 years later, an incomparable counterpoint anthology of poetry/lyrics by 1960s musicians and classic poets). I’ve even had writers at conferences, book expos and workshops, people who have been writing fiction, non-fiction or journalism for years, tell me that music and writing belong apart because writing is more noble, more learned, the thinking man’s art. Seriously.


I’m here to tell you: that’s a mistake. That’s part of the problem plaguing our society, making it less and less literary by the day. Writing was always intended to remind us of how connected we are to universal source, from where original music, thought and expression come. When the ancient poets and writers started laying down symbols and words on cuneiform tablets and papyrus, what do you think was moving through them? Music. They heard the music of words, saw images within melodies, and brought us the earliest verse and prose that became lyric, poetry, drama, story. Musicians and writers even use the same term to describe that inner prompting voice that visits and inspires us:

The Muse.

To me, the best writing – fiction or non-fiction – is deeply musical. I hear and feel the music in each sentence, in the rhythm of the author’s (or character’s) experience, in the flow of the narrative. As a writer and poet, I can’t roll any other way. As an editor, I can always tell when a writer is fully connected to their innermost heart and mind, to the original source of the words that I read on the page. That’s what connects readers as well, whether or not they realize it. I want to pick up your story, essay, poem or book, join the mellifluous cadence of words, hear the way phrases and images come together, and become part of the experience. I want to become part of your narrative music, your verbal symphony playing out on the page. You do that, and I am hooked. Your readers will be, too. My clients and workshop students are very familiar with how I compare Chapter One of a novel or memoir to the overture of a symphony. There’s a reason for that: it is the overture of your story. When we are in tune with the present moment (which we are, when we read something we like), we respond musically to life, to the word, to the experience as it presents itself on paper.

Why? Because that is how homo sapiens has been hard-wired as a species since Day One. We’re musical beings. The ancient shamans sure knew that, which is why they drummed and expressed the callings of spirit in rhythm and chant. I’m the last person to consider myself authority on this one, but when in the beginning there was The Word, and The Word was with God, I’m betting it was felt and heard musically. Or sung. When Enheduanna carved her tributes to the goddess Inanna on cuneiform tablets in Ancient Sumeria 5,500 years ago, becoming the world’s first written poet (yes, a woman was the first known poet-in-writing, since the even older Vedas of Ancient India were transmitted orally until Alexander the Great’s charges began recording them), she conveyed the songs of her soul. And, almost 3,000 years later, the Greek lyrical genius Sappho danced so deftly with music and words that she created a body of work comparable in size to Shakespeare’s or Goethe’s until 98% of it was destroyed by library burnings, time and the hands of men who misunderstood her and her work. (Can you imagine how enriched we would be today if all of Sappho’s works, or even half of them, had survived?)

This, for me, is the secret of great writing: to merge the musician, poet and creator within ourselves. When we bring these aspects together, we touch our greatness and our potential. We touch divinity. Our work resonates; it sings; it moves; it speaks truth; it touches others, deeply. We become one with what we write. Every paragraph, sentence and word of every page conveys the energy we feel when we type or handwrite it.

How do we get there? It’s very simple, but takes some practice and time: read everything aloud, whether it’s fiction, non-fiction, poetry, essay, novel-sized or bite-sized. Read every sentence. If the words flow and resonate, if they convey what we’re trying to say with pace and rhythm, then they will likely do the same for our readers. If they feel choppy or sound rough in any way, then we’re not attaining the music beneath the words, probably not connecting to the innermost point of the writing – calling for a little revision.

Who knows? You might find yourself singing the written lines. And your readers will be singing the song of your creation as they flip the pages.

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Exhibiting Poetry

Just finished writing the content for an exciting new project, “Poetry Through The Ages,” which will be launched early next year on WebExhibits.org. The project brings together the power of Internet technology to revitalize education in powerful, interactive ways with something I have always loved to write, read and hear — the spoken word.

The exhibit will feature 20 different poetry forms, examples of which are in parentheses — old (ode), new (Fibonacci verse), ancient (Anacreontic verse), popular (ballad) and obscure (triolet). Each form treatment begins with an historical background that talks about the movements, cultural scene, influences and writers who first worked with the form. It then discusses the lifespan of the form, whether it was introduced to other peoples and cultures, and how the form contributed to poetry as a whole. Next came examples, old and recent, followed by a how-to on writing the forms yourselves.

The number of poetry forms in literary history numbers in the low thousands — far more than we’re ever taught in school. Many of these forms went the way of dinosaurs, conquered civilizations, city razings and book pillagings (such as an estimated 95 percent of the works of Sappho, the great Ancient Greek poetess), but many survived. Picking 20 was extremely difficult, but there will be another time and day to bring all of these fabulous forms out in their glory.

One of the most challenging and exciting parts of writing this exhibit was to write in some of these forms. In a few cases, finding examples was highly difficult; thus, I had to write examples. It was a wonderful process that speaks to the organic nature of writing a poem — feel the rhythm and movement of the experience. Write it out. Shape it to match the form. What I learned was that, in working with ancient forms, it is virtually impossible to write about a 21st century subject, such as wireless technology or material objects. The rhythm, line, syllable and rhyme schemes match the times and their energies, as much as they do the words.

It goes to what I believe is the greatest value of poetry: Each poem is a window into true, uncensored history. We can learn the cultural history of the literate world by reading poems, whether or not we ever look into a history book. The emotions, fears, joys, landscapes, loves, losses, triumphs, tragedies, disciplines, excesses, crusades, myths, legends, leaders, followers, conquerors and conquered all carry voices in poetry. They inform us about the human condition through the ages, and also titillate our senses with the oft-intimate presentation of a single moment. Women and men alike have used the poem to communicate truth of the soul and heart, the truth that created, informed and changed worlds.

I believe that looking at the poem from this perspective will help to re-popularize poetry in our society, which so desperately needs to be reminded of the deeper relationships between human beings of all ethnic backgrounds and religious persuasions. I also believe that, using modern technological tools like the Internet and more immediate delivery vehicles (iPhone, iPod), we can again make poetry cool among younger people — as happened during the ’60s.

I’ll post previews of “Poetry Through the Ages” intermittently between now and launch date. Meantime, next time you’re online or in the book store, check out a poem or two. They’re great for insight, reflection and the study of depth of feeling and observation. Most of all, in reading poets through the ages, you’re looking into the people who really lived and worked outside the box — trailblazers with indomitable hearts and courage.

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