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writing poetry

After writing a poem (never during or before the poem), ask yourself these questions:

1. Why is my lineation the way it is and is that the right shape for the poem?

2. Are my images predictable? Do shadows fall? Do I express myself in idioms and cliches rather than in a true voice. Most often the idioms we employ without thinking are old metaphors/personification/figurative parts of speech we have forgotten are metaphors, personification and figures: shadows fall, winds moan, daylight breaks, thoughts leap, ideas “turn” in the mind. How do I edit these from my poem and either leave them out or find a less familiar or predictable way of saying them? If I am aware of them as idioms, how do I have fun with them and let the reader know I am aware of them as such?

3. Am I over-determining the reader’s experience of the poem through
A. Overt insistence upon its meanings?
B. Lack of balance between image and rhythm (or absolutely no relation between them)?
C. Tagging the poem as belonging too fully to one school of poetry or another?

4. Does my poem veer off it’s track and head in directions I did not intend, and are these directions something I should follow or edit?

5. Are my end stopped and enjambed lines purposeful? Do I tend not to vary them enough, and are the terminal words of my lines often muffled or without strength?

6. What is my poem saying at the sub-meaning level: through syllables, through sonics, through word choice, through the neutral, laudatory, or dyslogistic registers of speech that might either contradict, undermine, or confuse the overall effect?

7. Do I force a line to stay because I like it–even if it does not match up with the other lines and is destroying the overall effect of the poem?

These are questions I tell my students to ask during the revision process. I also advise “retakes” in addition to revisions. A retake works as follows:

1. If the poem was written in a skinny line, you try it in a long line.

2. If the poem is written in verse paragraphs or irregular (Aleostrophic) stanzas, try restructuring it in tercets or couplets, or some other regular and consistent stanza pattern–just for the hell of it.

3. If the poem uses imagery congruent with mood (grey sky and dead leaves for grief), change that aspect completely and re-write it so that the loss is incongruent with the weather. “My husband is dead. Outside, relentlessly sunny L.A. bleats on.” Play with expectation. Write the poem in second person. Take out all but two lines and rewrite it with those lines being the only parts left. And on and on.

It is good to let students know why poets use skinny, or medium sized, or long lines. For example, the skinny line is used when

A. The poet does not like sentences that are end stopped or wishes to play sentence off against incremental fragments to create grammatical ambiguity (amipholy) so that a whole poem might be only one or two sentences, or only sentence fragments.

B. When the poet wants a single effect, and does not want any one line to draw attention to itself (Donald Justice in “Bus Stop,” Williams in “Locust Tree in Flower,” etc. etc).

C. When a poet wishes to be pithy, aphoristic, economical (Jabez book of questions, mottos, epitaphs, epigrams)

D. When a poet has read other poets who write skinny poems and is imitating them without knowing why exactly.

E. To make each word or a few words isolated by the white space and create a certain feeling for the poem as an object.

F. To slow down the reader by making him or her consider each isolated word, or to make the poem read like a quick antidote:

It’s a strange courage
you give me
Ancient star.

Shine alone
in the sunrise
towards which
you lend no part.

This could be expressed in prose as:

it’s a strange courage you give me ancient star; shine alone in the sunrise towards which you lend no part.

But, being expressed this way, it loses its effect of ceremony and becomes mere statement.

G. All of the above.

As for the medium line,

A. The poet might be writing a free verse line that contains a rhythmic ghost of blank verse and stays between eight and fourteen syllables (most of Jane Kenyon).

B. The poet wishes to practice aesthetic modesty, and not draw attention to his or her line, but to take a middle road, and let other aspects of the poem matter.

C. The poet wishes to give the effect of being sane, and steady, and somewhat measured.

D. The poet likes symmetry and does not wish to be out of balance.

E. The enjambments exist but are kept in control by being more or less of even length–not too long or too short.

F. Line is not one of the chief considerations of the poet at that moment.

G. All of the above.

Reasons for a long line:

A. To convey a sense of speechifying, oratorical address, or majesty. Often found heavy with anaphora, listing, enumerating (as in Whitman, Ginsberg)

B. Poet wishes to be mock-epic, and to tweak or make comedic use out of the epic length of the line– to speak of small insignificant things in “monumental” ways.

C. The poet wishes to give the reader a sense of expansiveness.

D. All of the above, depending on the situation.

Reasons for a line of varying length (undulating lineation):

A. The poet is a novice and does not know the importance of line length.

B. The poet is moving with his thoughts which vary in length and the shape of thought, its pattern is varied.

C. The poet is playing with line against sentence structure.

D. The poet wishes not to enjamb and so end stops each line no matter how much the line lengths vary.

E. All of the above.

I give examples of each, and then I discuss how a poet might get trapped by being known for a certain type of line (skinny equals Creeley, Long equals Whitman or CK Williams, medium equals many poets out of MFA programs, and on and on). In this case, the formal requirements of line are imposed and may or may not fit the needs of the poem at hand. They may also determine what sort of poem that poet writes and lead him to live only in his comfort zones. I suggest that the student take a measured poem by Jane Kenyon and write it out in different ways to see if it changes the effect. This is a way of making the student more conscious of his or her own aesthetics. I tell them some teachers just impose line length or type of line without being open to exception. They are not teachers; they are propagandists, and most poetry programs have a shared or implied poetic vision that narrows what can or can’t be done there. Thank God poetry is not as narrow as its experts.

Neutral, dyslogistic, and laudatory registers of speech:

Using Bentham’s tri-partite registers, we can look at a poem as inhabiting different registers of speech. For example, someone who is above average in looks might be described in laudatory (a knockout) neutral (attractive) or dyslogistic (bimbo) terms, depending on the intentions and attitude of the speaker. Some registers will not even permit certain subject matter to exist (blazons are not too popular in circles where the objectification of the body is considered a sin, though the bible contains the most famous blazon of all). Others seal the poem in an attitude of disdain or gushing praise. Still others registers of speech, take on the white middle class voice of objective observation and cool detachment. This is when they are consistent, but often, new poems have lines that ring false to the rest of the poem, that contradict the overall tone. Mixed registers can be amazing if the writer knows what he or she is doing. Otherwise, they come off as mistakes, as a sudden slip in tone, or voice. I encourage students to become aware of their tone, their borrowed tones as well as those natural to their own train of thought (a train too often derailed by a student poet assuming a tone that is not organic to his or her own mentality and which they cannot properly parrot). I often have students learn idiomatic, overly familiar phrases and have fun with them:

Shadows Fell (Jennifer Townsend)

Shadows fell.
For the last three hours
they had been sucking down the bucolic scenery
like there was no tomorrow,
(and, for them, of course, there wasn’t).
Now they were stumbling,
tipping over the lawn furniture
making idiots of themselves,
touching the asses of men’s trophy wives,
and the wives’ trophy men,
fondling the party favors, kissing
until one lay down with the dog
and did not rise.

When night came, I found a sticky
substance on my hand.
I knew then that I was getting old
and must remodel my kitchen.
But how?
It’s the big questions that undo us.
The question took off my shirt
kissed my nipples
rubbed my crotch. Avocado, or Mauve?
Under the soft pressure of the question’s hand
I caved. Surrendered unto the shadows
who were still frolicking about,
running their tongues over
the wrought iron fence
and beyond.

To experiment more with these ideas, here are a few questions and prompts:
- What is the tone of this poem: mock serious, arch, whimsical?
- Which of the types of line does it match and why: short, long, medium, or undulating?
- Write a poem that uses overly familiar idioms in a literal or personified way. Have fun.
- Go over your poems and apply the questions I asked to your revision process.

One of the hardest things to do is to get students to notice the world beyond feelings and abstractions. Feelings and abstractions seem significant. A dolphin balancing a ball on its nose is novel, but so what? Dolphins are of the moment, and although our annoying culture drones on that we should live in the moment, we are mostly lying.

Many ardent “poets” don’t like the world of details all that much because a.) they think it’s no big deal (they never know how boring it might be to read the 100th my lover is an asshole, but I’m her slave poem), or b.) for all intents and purposes, their neurotic parents have cheated them of what is really of value in this world beyond grades, careers, and belief systems (dry stuff, all that).

We say God is in the details and then we spend most of our time avoiding both details and God. Tonight, after a reading, I was parked at a Hess station and I noticed this bush at its edge. Brown leaves were shivering at its center, and a sparrow, who had no business being visible this late at night, sat hunkered down, away from the wind, not very different than a vagrant with a bottle of Hurricane. He would have been lost in the camouflage of his brown and grey and dirty buff had there not been the rather lurid light of the station reaching casually into his kingdom. The fretwork of dried out stems was intricate, the way it is in certain sketches of by Hans Holbein. But I wasn’t thinking of Hans. I was thinking this was beautiful, and all the more beautiful for coming at me in the middle of a gas stop. Either because I am urban and nature must ambush me or because I am contrary, I have never liked “officially” beautiful scenery. I was bowled over and pointed the scene out to my wife who grew up in a pretty rural town and is accustomed to nature looking well, appropriately scenic–not awing her in the middle of a Hess parking lot. I didn’t belabor the point, knowing through years of experience, that my weird bouts of transport are not truly exportable.

I wondered what the hell the bird was doing there–so late, so visible, and without his flock. Birds huddle together for warmth. Perhaps they were migrating, and this particular sparrow went off course, but I know Eurasian tree sparrows stick it out in winter. Was he an outcast? Was he having a midlife crisis? Was he sick, and wanting the privacy of dying alone? Or best of all, did fate place him there so that, in the middle of my normal doings, I could be reminded of just how amazing the seen world is?

Perhaps I am old and stupid and am not that far removed from a senile nun with the world’s largest collection of Plaid stamps. Perhaps I am too easily delighted by what I consider awe-inspiring. I know only that I was grateful for this vision and went away from the Hess station the way other, more sensible mortals drive out of national parks. If I was in a national park and saw an Elk, I’d be happy, but no more happy than I was to see this out-of-place sparrow hunkering down in the center of a bush beside the green and white Hess station.

I am echoing Williams, who, among other things, is the great poet of sparrows seen in bushes outside gas stations. We do not take him seriously because, being snobs, we want our nature to be appropriately set (as per Mary Oliver). We really don’t care for nature. We care for what it might give us in all the expected ways–but Williams was the wiser poet. In his poem, “January Suite,” he says it’s the strange hours we keep, the sudden joy of noticing a thing on the fly that makes it beautiful. He claims the dome of The Paulist Fathers outside Paterson was as thrilling to him as St. Peter’s Basilica after years of anticipation. I believe him.

Detail, especially the unexpected and perfect detail at the unexpected moment, is the neglected mother of us all, the mother who does all the drudge work and who is never noticed until, perhaps, in the poverty of our lives, we see her crossing the street at dusk, see the brown bag clutched in her hand, and remember she is our mother. No parent says to a child, “I want you to be ready at all times to be stunned out of your intelligence and brought halt and stupefied before the covenant of your own eyes. I want you to notice how traffic lights are so much more vivid before it snows. I want you to remember, for the rest of your life, the sound of my voice in a yard when I called out your name through the dusk. Please. I want you to be truly human. With all my heart. I want your consciousness to win over everything that attempts to murder you.”

These things will not make the child successful. They are, as the utilitarians say, a waste of time. Yet all that we do, all the machinations of our finest plans are so we might “waste” time instead of being wasted by it.

I will give you a little story about a teaching experience I had that pleased me as much as that Hess station Sparrow.

I had a sweet student, in my early years of teaching, who had a great love of books and poetry and hardly any talent. I taught her what a cliché was. I taught, and I admonished. I tried so hard, and so did she, painfully hard, so hard that she reminded me of the tormented student ripping his paper in Joyce, and it broke my heart because I had always wanted to be a great baseball player and I sucked. She was writing lines like:

I know he doesn’t love me. Dying,
pretending not to care, throbbing with hurt fear.
Yet his ashen cruelty takes my breath away.
and I succumb to his worst intentions.

She was not being flip or dadaist. She was being heartbroken, untalented and sixteen.

At first, I forbade her writing about love, and she obeyed me, but it was for naught. Finally, I sat down with her, and spoke of this “cruel” boy. He was a lanky, athletic, inarticulate kid with a pierced ear, and a gloomy countenance, a sure bet to make such a sweet girl an idiot. I asked her to remember one thing he did she thought was cute. She said, when he first courted her, he would hide shyly under cover of his hoody and run his long slender index finger over the bridge of his nose like playing a violin. I said: that’s it! Connect that image to your feelings of being forgotten and bring it to me on Monday. On Monday she came in all excited. She had written:

You no longer draw your finger like a bow
across the hard and freckled bridge of your nose,
no longer play the shyness of your face,
that awkward tune I loved.
Now you look me straight in the eye,
without bow, without fear, without love
and you lie.

Ladies and gentlemen, I danced. If I could have purchased a golden laurel wreath and placed it on her head, I would have done so gladly. She didn’t understand my excitement. She instinctively knew she had written something beyond her usual powers. To see that sort of moment is better than seeing a sparrow or an elk. For me, it was like the first time Helen Keller spelled out the word “water.” I went home and tried to explain this joy to my then lover who said “so what?” My wife never says so what. She is a good poet. She teaches. When someone has done something beyond their powers she comes home and tells me, and I love her all the more because I understand she has just seen her own sparrow at the Hess station.

To be a teacher is to be a midwife. You bring the child to bear. You stay up all night. If things go wrong, you question yourself. You want to have an open sesame for every soul you encounter. You want something to open in them and for them, and when you are at your best, you don’t care if they ever say thank you. This girl continued to be only fair to middling compared to my other gifted students, but years later, she still reads poetry. She has two children and a dog, and she can’t remember why that lanky boy broke her heart, or, if she remembers, she laughs. The gifted students are the elk in the park and I am grateful to them, but I am, perhaps, partial to the sparrows. I don’t know what they are doing there, without a flock, and huddled alone.

We say “show, don’t tell,” but this is a lie. We should say, “All true showing will tell, and all true telling will contain a sparrow, and, in the middle of doing what you need to do, you will waste time, and you will notice what makes you human beyond all the lies we tell.”