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So I’m reading, and very much enjoying Ray Hammond’s Poetic Amusement, his masters thesis on the influence of po’biz amid writing programs on American poetry. When I read, I interact with a text, start scribbling my own argument for or against, maybe write a didactic sonnet, or trounce about my house looking for other books that seem pertinent. In chapter 4, Hammond writes about the muse, how the muses have been put on the shelf and replaced by workhop craft. I’m enjoying it because no one speaks about the primal condition of poetry being the ability to “receive” from outside one’s ego, and even one’s consciousness–to be stupid. Stupidity, in its old sense “stupere” means to be stupefied, stunned, left with your mouth agape, and, lo and behold, Hammond quotes Levertov on the original definition of Muse:

To contemplate comes from ‘templum, temple, a place, a space for observation marked by an augur.’ It means not simply to observe, to regard, but to do these things in the presence of a god. And to meditate is ‘to keep the mind in a state of contemplation.’ Its synonym is ‘to muse’ and to muse means ‘to stand with open mouth’–not so comical if we think of inspiration–to breathe in.

Being stunned out of one’s normal thought, to enter a state of ecstasy, to be made “stupid” (stupere–gape mouthed), awed by that which inspirits you is not so uncommon. Watch a child totally absorbed in drawing or coloring, his or her tongue hanging out, oblivious to his surroundings,and you’ll get a more precise sense of the alpha wave state the mind enters upon being truly engaged with any task or action calling for a forgetting of one’s self in a moment of concentration/contemplation. This takes place in “ground set apart”–in privacy, in solitude, in the midst of noise one has learned to tune out. The “god” is present in both the ground set apart (templum) and in the act being performed there. This is what I mean by presence, and so, for me, each genuine poem is a templum, a ground set apart, and we must enter it in a state of unknowing, of “stupidity” in its most ancient sense so that the “muse” may enter us.

All this might sound like spiritual mumbo-jumbo, but it is not outside what scientists have recently come to know, especially in neuroscience. Creativity does not come from our usual cognitive faculties (though our cognitive faculties help shape it as it comes forth). Its initial neural twitch takes place in what Robert Bly called the “lizard” brain, and what neurologists call the “affective brain”–the brain functions we share with other animals, especially primates: playing, seeking, caring, etc. It comes from a much more primal, animal sense of the spirit–a shaman’s flight over the houses, a forgetting of one’s own cleverness and benevolent fascism over the text at hand. We need time to waste, time to be outside our usual heads. Plato, who is still at the center of Western thought, agreed poets “received” their poems from gods (demons). This was exactly why he didn’t want them in the republic: because their thoughts, their compositions, though often more wise and profound than philosophy, had no systematic ground of order. If Plato came back today and saw the workshop, craft obsessed nature of poetics, he’d give his approval, but not for reasons poets might like: Plato would approve because the stupidity of inspiration has been removed from the writing of poems. We do not enter a temple and enter contemplation (mind free mindfulness) in the presence of a god, and, if this should happen, we revise the god out of the poem by work shopping it to death. Revision has its place, but it does not have pride of place. I submit that all poets should strive for bringing forth a presence. Anyway:

I never write from an idea unless the idea has started writing me. This morning, reading Hammond, I decided to write a sonnet playing with the concept of musing, of luring the muse through an act of contemplation. In the sonnet, the narrator of the poem stares into a ditch where a frog is sticking out his tongue to catch a fly. He loses himself in contemplating the ditch, forgets the social order, and makes a didactic plea for “staring” as a form of inspiration–just staring. I chose to write this in sonnet form because I was not trying to write a poem–contemporary or otherwise. I was trying to create a space (the sonnet form is the space) in which to versify everything I just said above. Form for me is a room to muse in–not a prison. I do not consider this a poem, but a piece of didactic verse. I had fun seeing if I could suspend the pay off of the sentence until the volta. What a way to have fun! You know I’m getting old. Anyway, consider it my coloring book while my tongue was hanging out:

Muse (Didactic Sonnet Number One)

To muse for a long hour on this ditch
in which a frog unfurls his froggy tongue
to haul the fly in, and the poor, the rich
the good, the bad, are, by the church bells, rung
(ding-dong! Goodbye!) into sweet disaray
so that you soon forget the social strain,
and press your eye against the pickerel weed
beyond all thought, though sunlight yields to rain:
this be the workshop then, of gods and time.
This be the meter–rhythms slow or quick
that stare and stare, till ditch and stare commune,
until the eye becomes a frog that flicks,
this ancient tongue which lures what it has sought:
the muse–this fly of musing–beyond thought.

The best art school I ever attended was my childhood friend, Marco Munoz’ studio above a Florist shop on Elizabeth Avenue, Elizabeth, New Jersey, circa 1977 to 1980. We were kids, the sons of factory workers, and immigrants/exiles from Cuba and Peru and, by all the usual expectations and social indicators, we were not supposed to exist. I was the token white American Irish Catholic guy. Marco had known me from grade school at St. Mary’s, but had left to attend what was then Jefferson High school. I didn’t see him from 8th grade until the end of my senior year. By then, he had taken classes with a charismatic high school art teacher called “Tags” (an Italian name shortened with affection). Tags hipped his students into Jazz as well as Jasper Johns, Pollack, Mondrian, Braque, etc. So Marco had this crew of artsy kids who smoked pipes, talked poetry, music, and painting non-stop, and occasionally wore fedoras. The main hang was Fernando Gonzalez, Arthur George, and this guy from Cuba, Alejandro Anreus, a self proclaimed Catholic leftist and hypochondriac. Marco told them about me, so they walked down Dewey Place one June evening, with the intention of ringing my door bell. At the same time they were coming down my street to meet me, I was being carried by a group of friends from a party at which I had downed a bottle of Vodka, a bottle of Gin, and a pint of Jack Daniels. They had me on their shoulders–more or less comatose. This was only a few months after my mother died, and I was in love with a girl named Mary Ientile, and I drank in order to obliterate all boundaries standing between me and my grief which was epic, extroverted, and a great trial to my friends.

According to Marco, they reached my front stoop just as I was being deposited there by my pall bearers. Marco turned to Alejandro and Fernando and Arthur and said: “that’s Joe Weil.” Somehow, I woke from my stupor and replied: “yes it is.”

So began my tenure in the greatest art school I ever attended. What happened there? We hung out. This is the one thing art schools do not teach. It is not constructive. It wastes a lot of time. Inappropriate behavior is likely to transpire. This is how a typical hang would go: we’d get into Marco’s black pick up truck, and drive around Elizabeth, playing Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and Monk, or Wagner–at top volume, the way street kids play hip-hop now-a-days. We’d buy a whole bunch of cheap cigars and put them in the mouths of stone lions–any stone lion we saw. We once covered fifty miles, looking for stone lions. We’d go back to Marco’s studio which had been given to him by a florist shop owner named Ted, who also taught art, and we’d scat, argue about Nietzsche, and Alejandro would complain about both his various stomach ailments, and the latest existential crisis with his girlfriend. Mostly, we’d scat and look at Mondrian, Johns, Pollack, Braque. I had never heard of these guys in school. I learned quick and faked what I didn’t know. The studio was full of stolen or discarded art books and reproductions of great paintings as well as the group’s paintings which were flung everywhere. We used the head of Socrates as an ash tray (we drilled a hole in his skull). The conversations, and scatting would go on for hours, accompanied by cheap wine–gallons of Gallo. We’d paint and my new friends would laugh at my paintings, but I could scat way better than them so I got even. We were pretentious, and arrogant, and naive, and that’s good because, before you are significant, you must be stupid enough to believe you are already significant. I am treating this lightly, but some of the conversations on art were the best, most extensive symposiums I ever attended. Alejandro is now the chair of the art department at William Paterson University. Marco continues to exhibit his work. Aurthur George actually makes a living in commercial art. Fernando married the beautiful daughter of a Spanish general and has a steady gig as a history professor at some college in the Berkshires. I went to work in a factory for twenty years, but I came out a lecturer at Binghamton University somehow. Go figure. This is all miraculous because Elizabeth is not an artsy town. The mayor at the time tried to ban Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” from local cable TV. He said no one could speak Spanish at city hall in a city that was already 40 percent Hispanic. He was an old machine Democrat. He’d say something dumb like that to please his bigoted cronies, then wink at the leaders of the Cuban community and get their kids jobs. Mayor Dunn had heeded the call to take in Cuban exiles after the Bay of Pigs invasion and had received major money from the government for doing so. He was also no doubt heeding the request of DeCalvacante family members (their head quarters were in Elizabeth, and they are the rather loose model for The Sopranos). A lot of former chums of the mob down in Cuba were given refuge, and with them, a lot of Cuban intellectuals who had fallen foul of the system (I met Herberto Padilla later and he published my first poem–in Linden Lane magazine).

It was through Fernando that I became familiar with philosophy. Alejandro introduced me to the Spanish poets, Hernandez, Machado, Paz, Otero, Neruda, and Vallejo. Marco was the one with the great collection of Jazz. So I learned far more than I bargained for. I had to drop out of college because of my family disasters. I lost my parents, the house I grew up in, all within a couple years, then spent 20 years in a mold making plant, but I survived just as these Cuban exiles and immigrants survived: because I had the rope memory of something greater, and this made all those years in the factory not only bearable, but useful. I was an emotional train wreck, and these guys gave me some sense of sanity and a political/philosophical context for what I suffered–albeit in a way any “normal” American consumer would consider crazy. They gave me the notion that it didn’t matter if you were in college, or worked in a factory–that all this culture belonged to me as well as the elite, and without me having to betray my neighborhood and become a snob. If I had gone to grad school, I would have had to abandon my own mixed registers of speech. I would have had to embrace “professionalism”–that merciless neighborhood in which, all too often and all too sadly, only the semiotics of excellence seem to matter–not excellence itself.

I guess this brings me to my point: my pedagogical approach to creative writing is digress, digress, follow the nose of your longing. Be 100 percent present to all possibility. Learn to hang out and waste time with anyone of like mind or of unlike mind who intrigues. Don’t be too picky. Read lots of books, see lots of pictures, listen to music, and be suspicious of all “official” channels of knowledge. More is learned by being among artists than by attending their craft talks. I hate well-structured craft talks. I didn’t attend a single work shop until I was near forty. I now see there is some merit in it. It seems to me the best thing about work shops is the opportunity to be among other writers, which leads me to this idea:

A young artist needs to hang out and be a little arrogant and cocky, and re-invent the wheel. Most of my best students know they will learn far more from me by hanging out than by official structures. When I taught at arts high, I brought Arthur and Fernando, and Marco, and Alejandro with me. I took the energy of that brief three year period and incited its return among my own students. I worry about an art world given over to seminars, and work shops, and official lessons from the “masters,” but I don’t worry too much because I am smart enough to know that most of the valuable stuff students learn has nothing to do with me. A good teacher does what Tags did: he or she exposes and points out, incites and shares his or her passion, and then gets out of the way. As much as possible, the teacher plants the explosives in just the right place, then watches things blow up. Professionalism is a lie. I am often taking some former students with me on a Dodge gig. I don’t need to, but I want to. We will be going to Newark, and we’ll be winging most of what we do. They will learn more about the art scene and about poetry by actually performing with me than they ever will through my classes. These are former undergrads. Grad students are too busy and they are forced to be professionals. They are underpaid, and they have been taught not to show too much enthusiasm because, I guess, enthusiasm might be deemed the way of the bumpkin, and no one wants to be seen as an bumpkin.They probably think me a fool. They’re absolutely right, but I like being a bumpkin.

When I go to Newark, I will keep the late night scats, and joy of hanging out in mind, and I will try to present some small sense of that–of communion. An artist must show up and be present in every sense of the word. All else is secondary. A teacher must know that what he or she thinks he or she is teaching may not be the real lesson at all. I have no idea what my real lesson is. I am in the back of a black pickup truck, with tears in my eyes because I’ve just heard Beethoven’s Last Quartets for the first time, or I am laughing and scatting to Salt Peanuts. This is my being. It would be nice if I could convey some of that to my students–if a little of me could travel with them in years to come. That might suffice. The rest is official lesson plans. Those things scare the shit out of me.

Photo by Marco Munoz

An aspect of poetry which tends to make me peevish is that it demands for a poet to develop a “style,” or to adhere to a particular school without deviation, simply to make their flair emblematic, or to place their stamp on it. You’ll only come across poets who traverse the landscapes of a variety of styles and schools when they attend flexible classes or workshops and are introduced to flexible teachers who provide assignments which require them not to delimit themselves or their work. One might relegate this sort of teaching philosophy to something which lacks specificity or focus, but in actuality, these experiments are necessary so as not to confine the poet to something which might prove to be limiting, inauthentic, and egregiously mimetic.

All poetry is a mimesis of sorts, according to Aristotle, but this concept should not be misconstrued as imitation of another poet’s “shtick.” Shtick can’t be imitated, especially if what a poet is imitating (or borrowing from) is the other poet’s original interpretation of nature, event, political perspective, and more especially that poet’s experience with love and romance. Aristotle meant that poetry was mimetic of all of things, independent of another poet’s unique perspective. It is not necessary that poets imitate other poets, but that they imitate life.

And I don’t mean “experiment” in terms of what is widely understood in literary circles as “experimental poetry.” The truth is that ALL poetry is experimental. Poetry, in effect, demands a “gymnastics” of language, and the poet should always “refresh” their approach to what they want to say with each new poem. Each poem should be likened to the first poem the poet has ever written.

This is not to say that poets shouldn’t study the variety of approaches, forms, and styles that they have at their disposal. And this is not to say that poets shouldn’t take from each style and include them as ingredients, so to speak, for what they might aim to be an unprecedented “recipe” for a sort of poem that no reader can categorize, claim, or relegate to a particular type, or particular package, simply for the fashion of it. Authentic poetry arises from a sort of selectivity of tropes, forms, and approaches. Otherwise, the poet can claim these, or dispose of them. What peeves me the most is that there is presently a poetry scene which necessitates that there must be an adherence to a fashion or trend, must be a reflection of a particular aesthetic, and anything which defeats or transcends this is not meant to be understood or considered with seriousness.

I long and grieve for Neruda. He was a poet of great integrity, and his poems demonstrate a complexity which few poets attempt in the current poetry scene. While most poets in all schools of poetry laud him, few actually play with what might be an approximated conflation of what we now refer to as language poetry, romantic poetry, lyrical poetry, and a very acute rendering of speculative poetry, in addition to types of poetry which are impossible to classify. Why even classify poetry to begin with? True, poets must be taught to read and attempt to understand other poets. But why subsume their poetry into something that actually spills out around that subsuming into other classifications which even remain indefinite or discontinuous? Some poetry we cannot subsume. If you are poet, and you are following a template, or writing in a stanzaic form which does not coincide with the content of the poem, then consider an alternate approach.

The approach, as I have learned, is in observation and the application of language by way of that observation. I’m often accused of appearing dissociative. The truth is, I have often entered the world that isn’t immediate to the matter at hand, or what is often understood and recognized as the matter at hand. I’m on the moon, the snow is the tears falling from the face of an angel, my husband is a superhero, and when we make love whole cities collapse from the intensity.

When I picked up Neruda, I was impressed, but only because his sentiment seemed familiar to me. When I first began writing poetry, I wrote it blindly, having read the poetry belonging to a variety of “classifications,” but intuited all of these styles and concocted an almost subliminal recipe which somehow defined my poems. I wouldn’t classify my poetry as anything, and perhaps that is my outcry and silent war. Poetry arises and from what the soul demands of the poet, not from some contrived prescription of what poetry SHOULD be.

Poetry is translation–translation of observation into any language that suffices for the experience. It is not word layered onto template, unless you are required to follow a traditional poetic form, and even then, there is room for latitude, or for adapting to something which requires innovation within the limits of syllable, ordering, or poetic rhythm. So let’s now look at Neruda’s poem, “Phantom:”

How you rise up from yesteryear, arriving,
dazzled, pale student,
as whose voice the dilated and fixed months
still beg for consolation.

Their eyes struggled like rowers
in the dead infinity
with hope of sleep and substance
of beings emerging from the sea.

From the distance where
the smell of earth is different
and the twilight comes weeping
in the shape of dark poppies.

At the height of motionless days
the insensible diurnal youth
was falling asleep in your ray of light
as if fixed upon a sword.

Meanwhile there grows in the shadow
of the long passage through oblivion
the flower of solitude, moist, extensive,
like the earth in a long winter.

Here, Neruda managed to capture the winter as something from which something is slyly moving amongst all of this fixedness. Things are lightless, unmoving, frozen, and the “pale student” is the only entity which lends herself to the momentum of winter, under all that stillness. Infinity is “dead.” And in the end, the pale student essentially becomes “the flower of solitude,” the only hope of spring, still enduring what is cold and motionless.

His poem is romantic in a sense, and plays gymnastically with language—language as vehicle for idea and image. The sentiment of Neruda’s poem cannot be imitated, simply because of its authenticity. I am abashed, for I have at once attempted to imitate Neruda’s harnessing of image through language, not by imitation of sentiment or experience with love, but by taking language and twisting it to make music. I am not Neruda, by any means, and would never claim to be.

If you are inspired by a poem or a particular poet, take what you need, and discard the rest. Let your soul fuel the gymnastic play of language in your mind. It might wind up heavy with philosophy, like Neruda’s, or it might wind a narrative love poem, or it might wind up a lyrical ballad. But remain true to something which exists outside the limitations of category, school, or attentiveness to the aspects of the poem which might render it a template, or fill in the blank form, without considering the direction in which your poem demands that you go.

Here is my poem (as you might see, it was impossible to imitate his quatrains, since the poem demanded both four line and five line stanzas, and I was required to speak for the poem without a strictness of structure. I caught my own experience, and probably wound up not sounding like Neruda in the slightest. Yet, the concept still sort of wound up echoing his, if you might be discerning enough to notice this. So mimesis, at times, is subliminal and subconscious, and we often do it unintentionally. The trick is to imitate things completely without intention. We recognize these things afterward–after the seizure of the poem is over):

Shadow of Nightingale

Caught in the delicate epilepsy of love’s casual glance,
the body captivated by imagined tremolos
sings through us, fleshy as humans, cherubic
as products of some God’s insurgency of blackbirds
in a sudden departure from the roof of a church.

Say this and claim the night, let no nightingale haunt you
or steal the bread from the work of your hands,
make me a fleeting thing of peripheral excess,
or leave you cold in its enlarged shadow,
enslaved in itself by a pooling of moonlight.

There was new snow this morning,
undisturbed by footprint or mysterious trail,
silenced by the ministry of sleep’s desertions
from the bustle and exchange of yesterday.

Make me something so holy as girl unhandled,
pulsing the bright blood of desire,
and then ravish me, ravish me, release each of my spirits
from the machinery of my bones, the drudgery
of the mind’s labored language.

Render me woman, inhabitant of the body’s swelling fire,
the womb echoing like a drum,
calling forth an unknowing
of a beginning that never stops beginning.

For beginning writers, rules of thumb are important. My goals are simple:

1. Get them to avoid cliches–not of thought (almost all thoughts are cliche), but of language and image.
2. Get them to play with cliche so that they master them rather than being mastered by them.
3. Teach them to vary sentence length against the line.
4. Teach them to be aware of word choice.
5. Teach them to know the difference between the concrete and the abstract, and all the hues and shades in between (a big mistake we make is teaching them to show, not tell without letting them know that the showing must tell–that an image must work for the poem.
6. Re-orient their sense of the “poetic” to include ordinary experience rendered in an extraordinary way, rather than extraordinary experience rendered in a typical, and hackneyed “poetic” way.

Specifically, let’s take the first two goals here. I noticed that many of my students, when in the throes of an injured heart would have to mention “piercing blue eyes, “cold blue eyes,” etc, etc. Those blue eyed boys were down right evil. I explained that the Russian novelists had exhausted just about every shade of eye in the 19th century, and song writers of pop were just about the only people who could still get away with making a big deal out of eyes. Take blue eyes crying in the rain. Or “I’ll never get over those blue eyes.” Green eyes hardly ever got mentioned. Why were blue eyes so important? I explained that, according to evolutionary biologists, blue eyes made the pupil look dilated, and a dilated pupil is a sign of enthusiasm, interest, and atavistic sexual fitness. Thus, according to biologists, blue eyes, especially when they are looking directly at you, seem to “pierce” you. It’s an optical allusion, but obviously effective. I said the next time you got into heavy eye contact with a set of baby blues, imagine an annoying scientist narrating the moment.

Hook Up Olympics
Carol Schmitt

“Ladies and gentlemen, our subject is now
making significant visual contact
with the highly symmetrical, V shaped
mesomorph with the piercing blue eyes.
Jim, what’s happening here?

Well, Frank, I believe he’s about to perform
the cut off the crowd and shelter her
in the canopy of his well proportioned arms
maneuver that won him the gold at Edinburgh…
No… Look At that Frank! She’s
peering up shyly and rounding her shoulders, while
fully exposing her neck, pushing a
fetchingly wayward strand of hair from her ear,
and bringing her secondary sexual characteristics
together in a subtle, but definitely effective
display of cleavage. Good move!

Will he look, Jim?
Frank, Swen knows his strengths.
He’s keeping his baby blues, his dazzling
azures fixed on her sad and limpid browns.
Alright, here comes the moment of crisis.
He’s not looking. Will she laugh and show her
pearly whites, lick her lips, bend one knee
slightly towards his crotch?
Ah… she’s broken eye contact! The subject is
shyly fingering her necklace.
Swen looks down. He’s got a bead on her
breasts. She looks up again. Here comes the cock
block Frank! Ulga’s one of the best in the business–

a whiny, co-dependent room mate
who knows exactly when to ruin any seduction
with her unbridled neediness.
This is not Swen’s forte. At Sidney, he blew it,
insulted the cock block directly. Not good.
Even a turn here to block the block’s
access will cost him points. He’ll have to hope
his piercing blue eyes have done the trick.

And there it is Frank! The subject has
blocked the cock block, herself. Perfectly legal.
She’s turned her back three quarters and is now
melting in his large yet oddly gentle hands.
In this particular contest, Ulga is not
allowed to puke up her Southern Comfort.
And now she taps the subject’s shoulder.
I think it’s too little, too late. Yes!
No response. We have a winner here Frank.
Swen and his piercing blue eyes have done it again.

The point of this comic exercise is to blaspheme against the cliche, to expose it, to play with it, to come at things from an odd angle. In effect, to be imaginative. But student’s pieties run deep, and they often don’t want their sad and lonely lyrical thoughts on the boy (or girl) with the blue eyes to be trampled upon. I make them work for it. One of my students wrote:

His cold blue eyes melted my heart
until I was frozen by his cruel indifferent gaze.

Well, I asked her how cold could melt, and melt could freeze? I made her read John Donne. I gave her a pep talk on oxymoron. I said: “make an analogy between his cold blue eyes and global warming. She wrote:

The arctic ice melts off the coast of Alaska.
Bears and Walruses drown, lost in a three year thaw,
but I remain frozen, melted
in your cold blue eyes.
For my heart, there is no global warming,
no rising sea in which to drown my pain…

Now this isn’t good, but it’s a big improvement over what she had, and it teaches her to play with an image, to make leaps between disparate things to form a bridge of meaning.

Here’s a prompt (and example) to help beginning writers deal with the first two rules.

PROMPT: take a cliche and exaggerate it to the point of absurdity.

“Majestic mountains”

One day the mountain grew bored
with being majestic,
and tumbled down its slopes to sit at the Lodge’s bar.
It wanted to be convivial. It wanted company.
Most called this avalanche. I tell you
it was boredom–the way things
tumble, the way things fall,
only to be themselves again.

That’s one way to work at the first two goals. There are many other possible ways to being working with the first two rules.

How do you help beginning writers avoid cliches?

Musicians, jazz musicians, keep fake books–at least they used to–with all the chord changes as well as written-down alternatives they may want to try. Why don’t poets keep fake books? I know Thomas Lux has his own personal anthology of poems he likes or is interested in. It’s a great idea.

To make a good fake book,
1. Leave plenty of room in the margins to write notes.
2. Leave doodle space.
3. Keep the backs of the paper blank so you can write the poem out in your own hand, or write an answer to it, or a variation on it. When you write someone else’s poem out by hand, you get an entirely different relationship to the language–the line, word choice, etc.

Here’s another strange practice, but one that appeals to me as a sort of loopy scientist: Read a poem once silently. Close the book, take a pen or pencil and jot down the exact lines in your fake book (or what you think are the exact lines you remember). Even if it’s only an image, jot it down. Do this with every poem you encounter. Five months from now, see what it is you remembered: study it by mood, by words, by sound relationships. This is how your neural self stores immediate acts of language. It is a hand print of your own immediate memory. It will also show you how alliteration, repetition, and strong language are all mimetic devices. Look for a pattern to your memory. You will then have some idea what makes language immediately memorable to you, and you can use this knowledge for your work. Keep this in a note book. Don’t revisit the previous memory jottings until the five months are up. Read a poem a day, and do this. See what your mind misremembered or added to the text. I know a girl who remembered a line by Emily Dickinson: “I like a look of agony because I know it’s true.” She mis-remembered it as: “I like a look of agony because I know its you.” I loved it.

Once, in a kingdom called Catholic grammar school, I was made to memorize “The Raven” and The Song of Hiawatha.” I got up there and lost it. This is what I said (I spell Longfellow’s Indian place name wrongly on purpose):

By the shores of gitchee goomy,
Stood the noble Hiawatha
quoting from the other shore:
Only this and nothing more.

I spliced them, diced them, and mangled them. What I remembered flawlessly was the meter which is trochaic tetrameter. I screwed up. The kids laughed. The nun tried not to laugh, and then did. Later, when we were briefly alone, I said:

“Sister… did Poe steal from Longfellow.? They got the same sound.”
“Joseph, I wish your memory and your work ethic were on par with your perception. Poe did indeed imitate some of the effects of trochaic meter found in Longfellow. Mr. Poe could be somewhat of a thief.”

We remember rhythms and sounds because they are the verbal mold sets for imagery and words. Free verse has irregular molds and so it often relies on the imagery for its effects. Modern, written prose uses mimetic devices sparingly, unless it is trying to sell something. You will know when something is being sold because the sisters of repetition, and alliteration, and rhyme, and short sentences, and chiasmus, and rhetorical oration will come into play:

Buy bonds!
Where’s the beef?
If the glove don’t fit, you must acquit.
Play it again, Sam!

The last line was never actually said in the movie. The whole culture misremembered it. We do not remember words or even language. We remember effect, usually rhythmic effects. This is why jingles, sound bytes, slogans, and commercials are so memorable (and so dangerous). By keeping a record of what you remember immediately, or misremember, you are keeping an “effect diary.” I like that. I think I am going to do it myself!

Many poets obsessed with the page turn against a poem the moment they are too aware of its effects. They do not recognize this as snobbery, as a prejudice. They don’t get on Gerard Manley Hopkins for it because they have been trained to think he is a great poet and would not dare to accuse him of overdoing the alliteration.

I always wanted a t shirt that said, “Rose, thou art sick!” I can’t imagine a more jolting, a more provocative start to a poem. It would be nice to advertise Blake.

So in class, I’d like to have a slogan-bot. A little machine that would spit out catch phrases, received ideas, slogans, and cliches, on a fairly constant basis, in the voice of that English lady in cars that have a GPS device–only with no priority of order. I would turn it on for five minutes every day and just let the students listen. It would seem comic. It would train the mind of a student to associate the sounds of sound bytes with incongruity and to be suspicious. Eventually, the student would be conditioned to have a sound byte detector, and to test language that nut shelled things. He or she would be trained to know the effects of slogans–not necessarily the slogans. That would be better. That would be training the ear. This would both teach cliche, and train the student to use effective sounds, but without simplistic thoughts.

PHOTO CREDIT: See some more amazing jazz-themed photos.

Break up into groups, something they love to do now-a-days, and assign the following roles among yourselves: Line and space coach, image and word choice coach, rhythm and syntax coach, and meaning/subtext coach. This last coach will look at the poem in terms of its meaning, try to figure out what the poet’s intentions are for this and that, and edit wherever those intentions seem to be going off.

Now I will model how I might look at a poem when I first receive it and give a brief primer for each of my other coaches.

Line and Space Coach

1. Long Line Poems
Usually, these do not leave much white space, and are either narratives, contain catalogues, lists, enumerations, effect a voice of import (or mock import) and sometimes imitate the gravitas of scripture, but not always. C.K. Williams is known for long lines.

Suffice it to say, these are some of the reasons long lined poems are long lined poems. The free verse of long line poems is usually cadenced, rhapsodic, psalm-like, or prosaic-narrative or epic/mock epic. In free verse terms, its ancestor is the blank verse of Milton, or the rhapsodic, sacred text style of Whitman. Ginsberg’s Howl is written in long lines. Long line poems can be either breathless–a cascade of words and rhythms, or stately.

2. Short Line Poems (Skinny Poems)
In metered verse, these will be poems that employ no more than a couple metrical feet per line (see John Skelton), and in free verse, they usually focus on a single image, or incident, or action. Robert Creeley became famous for the skinny poem. Quickness is one of the purposes of short lines. Another is containment, as if the words–even “is” and “was”–were all precious pearls being squeezed out of a tube.

In a short line poem, each word gains an importance it may not have in longer lines. The poem may appear almost over whelmed by the white space. If the poem goes on too long, it may almost disappear into that white space. Imagine Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last By The Door Yard Bloomed” written out as a Creeley poem (Yikes). Short line poems draw more attention to everything: the line, the space around the line, the words, the syntactical strategy, and so forth. Here’s an example by William Carlos Williams. It is not as thin as his “Locust Tree In Flower,” but it will do for now:

To Waken An Old Lady

Old age is
a flight of small
cheeping birds
skimming
bare trees
above a snow glaze.
Gaining and failing
they are buffeted
by a dark wind–
But what?
On harsh weed stalks
the flock has rested,
the snow
is covered with broken
seedhusks
and the wind tempered
by a shrill
piping of plenty.

This poem is little more than an extended metaphor, actually a Homeric metaphor on old age, but it is tricky: why is it called “To Waken an Old lady?” The birds get to function both as an extended metaphor for old age, and as an actual flock whose shrill piping wakes her up. No line is above five syllables. It does most of what skinny line poems do: draws attention to each word, focuses on a single action or incident, or unit of images. It does not go on for too long. This is a perfect use of the short line. The short line poem has its ancestry in epigrams, fragments, epitaphs, ancient forms of graffiti, and proverbs.

3. Medium Line Poems
Medium line poems are not common in early free verse, but gain in frequency once free verse becomes the normative form of writing poems. Why? We tend toward the happy medium in normative structures. The suburbs are neat, and clean, and sensible, and free verse has become neat and clean, and sensible. The language of such medial length free verse is usually measured, understated, nuanced. One of the best poets in this mode is Stephen Dunn. If you study Dunn’s line, you will find, especially in his middle career poems, that he seldom goes over eleven syllables, and that he is a poet of wit, of reason, of a measured and sometimes mildly ironic stance. In his best poems, you get the feeling this is a ruse so as not to ruin the expression of overwhelming feeling by letting it get, well, overwhelming. The medium line poem is saying: “I am measured, I am not flighty, I don’t want to draw the wrong sort of attention to myself.”

The Medium line poem is often a creature of both narrative (long lined) and wisdom (proverbial short line), and its direct ancestor is the sonnet. Dunn does not augment this measured line with false form (putting a poem in tercets, or sextets, or quatrains only because the boxes please someone’s sense of symmetry). You will find this sort of poem proliferating in certain highly thought of literary magazines, but not all.

4. Staggered Line Poems
Those poems that are in Fence or magazines more oriented toward language poetry will use staggered lines, lines that go with Olson’s “Projection By Field” theories. Jorie Graham uses this sort of lineation at times. It tends to announce itself as speculative, experimental, disjointed by desire, Poems that use a varied line–some long, some short, what I will call “undulating” lineation are of two orders: 1. A poet with purpose. 2. A new poet who doesn’t know why his or her lines are long, short, or medium.

So those are the basics. Line coaches, take all this into consideration when you venture towards a class mate’s work.

Image Coach

Imagist poems use image exclusively, or nearly exclusively to either render an object, or to imply a greater meaning (ontology) behind rendering that object, image, etc. You must ask if the poem before you has any images that may not serve the poem. Very often, poets fall in love with an image without considering how it will effect the rest of the poem. If an image sticks out in such a way that the rest of the poem is either dwarfed by it, or out of sync with it note this. We often refuse to kill an image even though it may be killing the poem. Also, be aware of imagery that, if thought about deeply enough, is not really an image:

Black tears of rage pour like rivers
down from her ice blue eyes.

Say these lines ended “To Wake An Old Lady.” It would throw the poem off. It would be out of place. Suddenly this old lady would be a bad actress in a third rate version of media.

Look for cliches. If a personification shows up, ask if it is functional to the poem. If hyperbole rears its head, and the rest of the poem is free of hyperbole, ask if it comes at a critical moment, or is just an alien force within the body of the poem. Word choice is also something to be thought of along these lines. Does the poem suddenly indulge in ten dollar, latinate words when the rest of it uses a simple vocabulary? Is it heavy on adjectives that, rather than modifying and enforcing the power of a noun, are being used as a crutch for nouns that don’t hold up. Think of the sounds of the words.

To that end, here’s a primer on vowel sounds. The highest sound in the English language is the double EE. This is why many depressed writers hate adverbs. Here are the sounds in order of pitch:
- Long E, as in wee
- Long A, as in glade
- Long I as in bide
- Long U as in pew or boo
- Long O as in bone
- Short i as in bit
- short e as in bet
- short A as in bad.

Sounds that are either dipthongs or close:
- oi in boing
- aw as in saw
- ow as in how
- short O as in ah/body
- Om, and short U as in of, butt, luck, mud, muck.

English is not tonal, but it is–just not enough for tones to change meanings (but moods? Definitely!). Here’s a way to see how high and low sounds might function at a primitive level. Baby talk is often more about the sound than the meaning. It is very tonal:

Wee! We say, Wee! yay!
Make fly, sweety pie!
oodles, ooh! my poodle
oh, so soothing!, sit, pet, laugh!
loins burn? Aww!
Ow! How odd!
Uh, Ugly ugums. What muck!

Low u sounds often go with the hardest consonant sounds such as muck. This is not accident. We are tonal creatures. Word coaches, if you see a couple high sounds in a row, or a series of low sounds, or if the uh sound is appearing in places it shouldn’t, or if too many high e sounds are making the poem sound like a ditzy and shallow-pep-rally, note it. If the word choices seem wrong or off, if a simpler word would do, note it.

Note too many passive verbs (is, was, are, were). Note too many verbs made into gerunds. If there is alliteration, is it excessive? If there is an unintentional rhyme, does it hurt the poem?

Syntax and Rhythm Coach

Grammar and syntax control the speed, pacing, and temper of utterance. Grammar, if used with mastery, can create rhythm and timing. So your job is to ask the following: does the poem use complete sentences, and does its punctuation or lack of punctuation add or distract from the poem? If it uses fragments, and run-ons, why? Is the flow confusing? Does the syntax support the rhythm, and is the rhythm organic to the writer’s intentions? If the sentences are paratactic, why? If they are long and go beyond the line, or, if they are full of subsidiary clauses, and added on phrases, does it work, or does it get in the way?

Finally, meaning, and ontology. Here, the coach will determine if the poem is going off its original intentions and why. What is the poet trying to say? This will be the last coach to weigh in, and from this, the discussion of the poem will branch out. I am hoping that the coaches learn something about their own line, word choices, imagery, syntax, rhythm, and meanings while acting as coaches. We shall see. This is division of labor.

Poets are limited if they read nothing but their own poetry and spend the rest of their time reading novels or thrillers. Most of my beginning students have never purchased a book of poems. They wish to write poetry, but they do not wish to read it. They read fantasy fiction mostly. So the first thing I do is give them books, a couple hundred or so, none of which are fantasy, and then I tell them to send me an e mail, quote an excerpt from the book, and riff off of it. I then riff back, and, very often, my prompt for them arises from the e-mail they’ve written or the excerpt they’ve quoted. This accomplishes five goals:

1. They are now in a relationship to a book, adding a sort of ongoing marginalia to it.
2. Their reading life and their writing life are being connected, in however arbitrary a way (in point of fact, the more arbitrary the better).
3. I am revitalizing the epistolary tradition and taking e-mail out of its fearful function as a less-easy-than-text form of sending sound bytes of information.
4. I am making myself respond to a student in a class of 20 as if it were an independent study, keeping myself sharp, and, very often, I write poems back or discover a new way into a text. So it is a great way to help me remain an artist as well as a teacher.
5. I am defeating snobbery. I am treating the student as a peer who is entering into a relationship with me in terms of the text.

I do not trust tabula rasa learning, but students have often known little else. Many tend to resist any process they are not familiar with. No one is more conservative than a student, and I have found graduate students to be the worst of all in this respect, because they are already turning into teachers, and, I’m sorry, but people attracted to teaching tend to like structure way too much. I also do not trust the current fad for group learning since I believe it does not promote relational give and take but further distances the students from his or her own mind by fitting his or her personality to a group dynamic that may not do anything except allow that student to be the same old introvert/extrovert, follower/director he or she has always been. It is further proof of Durkheim’s contention that the main purpose of education is to make students “conform to a norm.”

To me, all group learning is dangerously close to corporatism. I am not against group dynamics, but I find that they reward certain students unfairly, and punish others who may be talented, but who lack certain social skills. A group dynamic is a given. Four of the 20 students are going to be doing sixty percent of their class participation and there will be a group dynamic whether you want one or not. When you put them in groups, someone will assert his or her authority, and someone will feel like a pariah, and someone will be the chief minion of the assertive group member and form this weird, almost erotic worship thing I hate to see happen. They’ll act like a couple. I have no time for couples in my class. In short, typical ape behavior 101.

I want to create an oasis for students who have never been on the good side of any power structure, and I want to create a challenge for those who use groups to maintain their power or sense of comfort. Some group dynamics just work and others, no matter how good the prompts or how inspiring the teacher, fall flat. I prefer not to let my class ride on “group dynamics.” Here’s the truth: some students will hide. Others will want to draw attention to themselves. Still others will be contrary because they like being contrary. A lot of energy is wasted and for what? So we can find out what we already know? So and so is anti-social, and this one never shuts up, and that one needs everything to be structured to the nth-degree. Well I think we have gone too far in this direction, so I create an air of informality in my class. But I’ll be damned if I preside over three or four groups that are everything I despise about human primate behavior. You might say I am against the present love of groups. Fuck the Borg. Anyway, I digress….

Suffice it to say, I don’t use a common text book. I give each student a book of poems—at random. They write in to me two or three times a week, quoting a poem or excerpt, telling me what they liked, hated, or learned from the poem. Very often I have never read the book I gave them or have only read a few poems from it—so I am likely to be responding, not from knowledge of the book, but from past experience of poetry which allows me to make leaps between texts, to suggest other poets in the same style, to come at the material in a fresh, conversational way. I am not the expert teacher here, but the experienced learner, the one who has a love for poetry and gets excited by weird things like grammatical ambiguity, or how the poet used the weather to suggest a mood. A student might give me an excerpt in which a poet is brooding and the landscape is brooding with him. I call this pastoral narcissism. I send them Thomas Hardy’s “To A Darkling Thrush.” I gush about my love for this poem. I ask a question: Did you ever get annoyed at a beautiful day because you were in a horrible mood, sad and depressed, and the sun light, the happy faces of couples strolling through a park, the blue of the sky seemed to mock your mood? I ask, how hard is it to make a beautiful sunny day the back drop for a despairing consciousness? Can it be pulled off?

So they are each reading an actual book of poems—almost always by contemporary poets—and, meanwhile, I am bringing in poems. I might use Whitman’s “When Lilacs Last by the Dooryard Bloomed” as a way to talk about how to create image patterns in a longer poem. Whitman keeps bringing back the lilacs, the mockingbird, and the drooping star in the west, and he exploits every possibility of these three figures—symbolic, metaphorical, concrete—the way composers might use motifs in a sonata. I may bring in a sonata by Beethoven and show how recapitulation is used in longer works.

This is in a work shop! Yes, I hate, hate going around and around commenting on student’s poems. I have features instead, and I do not give the class the work ahead of time. I want them to be responsive in the here and now. I give half the class a written copy of the poem, and the other half listens. You can catch things about rhythm and overall mood from listening much better than having only the physical poem before you. You can also catch things by having the text you can’t get from merely listening. I want both.

Very often, if a student likes a poem, he or she will ask the writer for a copy. This is high praise indeed, and builds artistic affinity based on something other than forced group dynamics. I will sometimes have a copy of the poem before me, and sometimes, I, too, will be only listening. I will have the student read the poem once through. Then on a second read, I will stop him or her at certain points, make a comment, then let the reader continue. If the student is a poor reader of his or her work, I will read it aloud a third time. You’d be amazed what a student learns about his or her own poem by hearing it read by someone else, by actually hearing their poems come back at them. I will tell them to write down the spoken comments on their text. As for the written comments in class, these are handed in to the student at the end of class. I tell the class to listen to how I edit a poem, because it may relate to their work as well. Every student will have two or three features before the semester is over which amounts to the same thing as a normal work shop. In the meantime, they will have read a book of poems all the way through, lived with it intimately, learned something about their own aesthetics, and the amount of writing they will have done—both poetry and prose—will be four or five times the usual amount for a class.

These are the goals I have for a beginning poet.

1. To find out if they truly like poetry, or only write it to “express” themselves.
2. Find out what their aesthetics are, the limits of their aesthetics, and how these may be expanded.
3. Learn to be responsive to language both as written and performed text.
4. Gain exposure to major poems without having to take a lecture class.
5. Have a learning experience with their own minds and with the teacher far more concentrated than is usually possible in a class that consists of lecture, papers, exam.
6. Learn to write daily, rather than waiting for the last minute. This means they are not feeling they are doing a lot of work, but are, in fact, doing far more—minus bibliography, and all that formal stuff.

A writing work shop should also return literature to the study of the text as art since so many literary courses now use the text as pretext for theories on gender, identity, and so forth. Unlike Bloom, I have no problem with that, but once in a while, it is nice to look at the artistry. My job is to teach the students to read like writers: What can I take from this poem? How can I surpass what this writer is doing?

My most mundane goal: that they will know more about poetry than they did when they entered the class, and, just as importantly, that they will have learned something about themselves as conscious artists.

NOTE: Top photo used with permission of artist. For more, see this website.