September 29th, 2010 / 5:39 pm
Craft Notes

Today in Class

Today class happened amidst the bumble and burst of plumbers and electricians, anxious dogs, and un-showered, tired, frenzied me. But it happened nonetheless. We workshopped a lot today. First, in whole-group fashion (there are 16 of us) to finish up where we left off last week with our reckless poetry. At the end of class, concentrating on sound and how sound moves through the air and into our ears and around in our noggins, students got into groups of three in which one person read while the other group members listened. After the poem, each group member wrote down what stuck the hardest in their memories, and then we talked about how the poems [we’ve been thinking about rhythm and chant] accomplished their sonic goals, or didn’t. That was fun. I bounced around the groups, interjected here and there, but mostly I let them do the talking. They’re all pretty smart readers, and I trust them.

Another of my favorite games is to annotate Philip Levine’s They Feed They Lion together with a class. I’m trying to teach students about writing annotation papers as writers versus as academic critics. It involves a helluva lot more looking at how craft informs our understanding of a poem versus simply what the poem means. Students get super frustrated, usually, about the phrase, “they feed they lion,” and they want me to tell them what it means. I tell them I don’t know what it means, but maybe by looking at how the poem is written we’ll start to get our heads around it. Chaos ensues. I write things on the chalk board. People start seeing biblical allusions and apocalypse. It’s great. Then I say something teacherly like, “well, how does all this anaphora and accreted repetition inform the poem?” Today I got some really astute answers that I’m too exhausted to expound on.

I showed students this excerpt from a Levine interview in which he explains the nascence of the poem [here] [I like the stories Mr. Levine tells]:

“The first thing that came into my mind? I had the title, which derived entirely from a statement that was made to me. I was working alongside a guy in Detroit — a black guy named Eugene — when I was probably about twenty-four. He was a somewhat older guy, and we were sorting universal joints, which are part of the drive-shaft of a car. The guy who owned the place had bought used ones, and we were supposed to sort the ones that could be rebuilt and made into usable replacement parts from the ones that were too badly damaged. So we spread them out on the concrete floor, and we were looking at them carefully, because we were the guys who’d then do the job of rebuilding them. We had two sacks that we were putting them in — burlap sacks — and at one point Eugene held up a sack, and on it were the words ‘Detroit Municipal Zoo. And he laughed, and said, ‘They feed they lion they meal in they sacks.’ That’s exactly what he said! And I thought, This guy’s a genius with language. He laughed when he said it, because he knew that he was speaking an English that I didn’t speak, but that I would understand, of course. He was almost parodying it, even though he appreciated the loveliness of it. It stuck in my mind, and then one night just after the riots in Detroit — I’d gone back to the city to see what had happened — somehow I thought of that line. ‘There’s a poem there,’ I said. ‘But I don’t know what it is. And I’m just going to walk around for a couple of days and see what accumulates.’

I waited two days, got a good night’s sleep, and got up in the morning and wrote the damn thing. It struck me that it was a long line, and that it would be out of the poet Christopher Smart. Do you know his work? He’s an eighteenth-century mystical poet, a great poet, and his greatest poem was written in a madhouse. We only have a fragment of it. It’s a sort of call-and-response poem — very incantatory. I said, ‘That’s the rhythm I’m going to try and use.’ It’s the only time I’ve ever tried to utilize that rhythm.”

Funny thing about Christopher Smart: an entire 74-line section of his Jubilate Agno was written as an ode to his cat Jeoffry. Here’s a stanza from that:

For I will consider my Cat Jeoffry.
For he is the servant of the Living God duly and daily serving him.
For at the first glance of the glory of God in the East he worships in his Way.
For this is done by wreathing his body seven times round with elegant quickness.
For then he leaps up to catch the musk, which is the blessing of God upon his prayer…

Oh dear. I forgot to talk about Smart, though.

I forget many things in class. Students laugh. We laugh.

Next week we’re looking at alternate surfaces alĂ  Paul Violi’s Index, among many other examples that I have yet to compile. During research for said unit, I stumbled upon a site called Public Assemblage, which randomly takes lines from around 40 different news and media venues (you click on each one you want to use) and creates an assemblage collage of language.

I’m excited about next week because my students’ reviews of contemporary poetry collections or lit mags are due. Yee haw!

PS: My water’s back on, my sink is fixed, and I am clean.

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  1. Anonymous

      I don’t actually know how that happened, but I like it!

  2. Ken Baumann

      This quote line pyramid at the end is pretty.

  3. alexisorgera

      I don’t actually know how that happened, but I like it!

  4. deadgod

      “Alternate surfaces” is an intriguing phrase: do the surfaces themselves alternate? or is which surface one contacts a matter of interior-transforming choice? or does the phrase mean ‘some other possibility “comes up”‘?

      Clicking on Paul Violi’s Index took me to a Harper’s paywall – is that an “alternate surface”?

      (I think your class will enable most of your students to become more – or to remain equally – attentive readers: no Bad Thing.)

  5. alexisorgera

      I’m being fairly metaphorical w/ alternate surfaces–looking at ways to make poems that involve using other scripts. For instance, Violi’s “Index” looks like a page out of an actual book index. I’m thinking poems that look like recipes, grocery lists, ethno-botanies, museum catalogs, etc. We’ll also be looking at cut-ups and erasures, things that are made from something else.

      I don’t know why it took you to the paywall. It takes me right to the archive. I’ll see about maybe putting it in as a pdf or something.

      And, thanks. I’d like for them to be attentive readers, but honestly most of what they’re doing is writing. I’m hoping they’re learning how to read each other’s writing with empathy as well as a critical eye.

  6. alexisorgera
  7. letters

      You should subscribe to Harper’s. It’s a cheap subscription and totally worth it.

  8. Trey

      did you give your students specific books or magazines or journals to review, or did you just say “go find one!” or did you do some of both?

  9. alexisorgera

      Some of both, Trey. I gave them the option of finding their own and some links to online mags. About half of them asked me for suggestions, and I found books on my shelves. Small press poetry is virtually impossible around here, so it really limits options.

  10. Trey

      yeah, I know how that is. looking forward to what you have to say about their reviews (if anything)!

  11. deadgod

      Thanks, Alexis. Going from Violi’s site to “Index”, I got the same Harper’s paywall – ha ha.

      I get six relevant click-on-able images: a picture of page 28 (“28.”), “July 1984”, “Hudney, Sutej: An index”, “Paul Violi”, and icons for PDF and IMAGES. All six take me, in one or two steps, to “July 1984, page 28 […] Sorry – that full-sized image of the page is only available to Harper’s Magazine subscribers. [etc.]”.

      Maybe it’s my computer (doubtful), or inability to find the ‘intuitively’ logical click-route (more likely), but probably this ecmurment is due to my not having a subscription.

  12. deadgod

      I see: “surface” meaning ‘discursive pathway’.

      Classical palimpsests and other ‘debris writing’ are an excellent source of this kind of poemvention. Psappho is a useful example: all of her corpus – she having been excluded out over the centuries by this canon-formation and that – is either written on torn, re-used papyrus sheets (used, for example, to stuff crocodile mummies) or quoted (mostly in grammar books and as illustrations in poetry manuals). Good questions: what did her poems ‘look like’ to her if she ever wrote them/saw them written? what did they look like to, say, Plato (whose Socrates calls her, I think: not ironically, “the tenth muse”)?

      Does/should one know something is a poem by ‘looking’ at it? or hearing it?

      I think a writer’s first, most important (with respect to the writing that ‘escapes’), reader is herself or himself. That, to me, is why it’s helpful for writers to be attentive readers. That they be compassionate as well as close – well, I guess the world will take what it can get!

  13. alexisorgera

      Oh, pooh. I don’t know what’s wrong. Sorry.

  14. jereme

      the link in the blogicle goes to a harpers error message stating you must be a subscriber.

      the link in the comment works fine.

  15. deadgod

      Which “link in the comment”, jereme? If you mean the one to Violi’s site, I go there alright, and there are several poems that I clicked and got to from there – interesting poems – , but the link to the poem titled “Index” sends me to that pesky Harper’s paywall.

  16. deadgod

      It’s cool, Alexis – I think I understand the category Index is meant to exemplify (or at least to indicate). As you know, Harper’s has a semi-famous monthly feature called “Harper’s Index” which has been parodied n times – some of which features and parodies are as much like ‘poems’ as some poems are.

  17. jereme

      yeah you are right deadgod. i am a stupid douche.

      i misunderstood.

      fuck harpers. let words be free.

  18. deadgod

      I wonder, given the ‘torrent’ of easy thievery/liberation of text, music, and film on the internet, why there aren’t more paywall – what – parapet scalings available. They wouldn’t be as destructive to corporate revenue streams or business plans as torrentiality has been, but getting past paywalls would have the same kind of effect on the spread of content, right? – and a similar effect on the practice of and resistance to restricting access to information.