From last Wednesday till this Tuesday, I was conducting a poetry workshop for a class called “Advanced Research and Composition.” It’s an AP course (and mostly juniors and seniors), and the kids are sharp, attentive, eager — and accustomed to working hard. There were two sections back to back; the first with about 14 students, the second 24 or 25.
The workshop I conducted was a modified version of the one I’ve given before; other times it was a four day workshop, but this time I added a fifth day.
The main point of the workshop was to give students a chance to see writing poetry from the writer’s point of view rather than the reader’s. Why do poets use metaphors, rhymes, metrical counts, etc? How do writers think of things to write about?
I introduce the idea of a writer’s toolbox, that all writers have tools and tricks that help them make choices, and get to the end of a line, or fill a page. I try to dispel the notion that writing is about “freedom” and “expression” and instead show the students that constraints and limitations can actually liberate a writer much more effectively and fruitfully than any perceived “freedom” to “express” oneself.
- You choose five words from this list: cliff, needle, voice, whir, blackberry, cloud, mother, loose, track. (I later added more words, as many as possible of which can serve as nouns or verbs.)
- Then you choose an adage or cliché or “folk saying” (such as, don’t count your chickens before they hatch; a stitch in time saves nine; one foot in the grave; if life gives you lemons, make lemonade; and so on).
- Write a ten line poem using each of your chosen words once, and using your chosen adage.
- You have ten minutes.
Something interesting always happens.
But I make sure they understand that I’m not expecting anything “good.” In fact, I assure them that their 10-minute spill will almost certainly be garbage. First drafts are not about quality; they are about getting something — anything — onto the page. Better ten lines of junk than a blank page.
In preparation for Day 2, I assign a number of poems for them to read, looking for instances of simile, metaphor, and personification.
We start this day looking over the poems I assigned. All but one have obvious metaphors and similes. We spend some time on “The Cloud Chamber” by Arthur Sze, since it seems to be simply three unrelated sentences. They aren’t unrelated, of course, and the poem shows how we can use language to circle around difficult, and possibly indescribable, ideas.
Then I do an improv, where I spontaneously create a simile without any planning. I ask the students to help me describe something in the room. The wall clock, a chair. Then I choose an abstract idea, such as love, or fear, and I pair the idea with the description of the object.
“Fear is like a silent black box reflecting my face” (which is how we described the television).
Then the students try it. After a few minutes describing some objects, I randomly assign them each an abstract-idea word (fear, love, faith, hate, paranoia, and so on; running through the seven deadly sins is fun, too). They are to match their word to one of their descriptions, then spend a few minutes writing a defence of this comparison; why, for instance, is joy like a bright silver snake?
These awkward combinations are never too hard to justify because we are pattern-seeking animals. We are surprisingly and breathtakingly good at explaining how and why we think various things are related to other things.
In the next batch of readings, they need to try to figure out what sort of method each poet is using to determine the line lengths in their poems.
Some of the poems in today’s packet use syllable count, and the writing exercise for today is to try writing a few lines with a straight syllable count.
Then I prepare them for the next group of poems, which were more difficult. I wanted tehm to read the poems looking for examples of alliteration, assonance, rhyme.
This day’s exercise involves writing a few lines of verse following Old English’s rules of alliteration, which differs from our modern version. Since we are so deeply visual, we consider words to alliterate if they begin with the same letter, such that not even “know nothing” is as strong an alliteration as, say, “silly sign.”
But consider this line from Gawain and the Green Knight (as translated into modern English by JRR Tolkien):
When the seige and the assault had ceased at Troy.
Note that seige, assault, and ceased are meant to alliterate. Students hear this immediately when I read it aloud, but rarely notice it on their own.
I warn the students that the last group of poems was quite experimental, unusual, “way out.” The poets use some sort of constraint or other, but I tell them little else, since even a hint would give it away.
The poems for today are by poets using extremely unusual constraints. Some of the poems are funny, some are intriguing, some are nonsense. This all freaks the kids out.
Paul Metcalf, in his ZIP Odes, uses only the names of towns and cities as listed in the US Postal Service ZIP Code Directory to compose a poem for each state and the District of Columbia.
Harryette Mullen plays some variations on N-7 with source texts. (You start with a noun; you look it up in a dictionary, then count seven noun entries forward. Replace the old noun with the new one. Repeat; replace verbs, adjectives, and adverbs to taste.)
Christian Bok follows strict lipogrammatic rules. In his book-length work, Eunoia, he composes whole chapters that employ words that only use one vowel. One chapter for each vowel.
The exercise for today is to play N-7 with the opening lines of a Shakespeare sonnet.
Through all of this, I try to make a few major points:
- Simile, sound, line, meter, etc, are tools writers use to make choices
- a page full of bizarre similes and goofy N-7 nonsense is easier to edit and revise than a blank page full of nothing;
- limitations liberate, not imprison;
- there are no rules in poetry — except those you choose to obey;
- Meaning-with-a-capital-M will take care of itself: we can’t escape from our preoccupations, obsessions, loves, hatreds. So why worry about “what I’m going to write”? Don’t choke on trying to “express yourself.” Use writing as a way to discover what you think, how you feel. But not just what you think and feel — writing isn’t therapy, of course — but also about the world, the vast ordered and chaotic panoply that envelopes us. Art as a sort of science.