December 13th, 2010 / 4:02 pm
Craft Notes & Random

Today in Class: School’s Out Edition

School’s out, and now it’s grading time. The students in my Deeper Poetics class turned in final portfolios last week, which include 5-7 page prefaces outlining their poetics in terms of what we studied (poetry and prose about poetry) throughout the semester. In true procrastinator form, I’ve only read five of the portfolios, but what I’m struck by is how each student took something distinct, and distinctly her/his own, from the class.

Against the backdrop of essays by James Tate and Heather McHugh, one student, Kejt, writes about her Quaker roots, and how during Sunday service, “I sit in the pews with everyone else in stillness, and we wait.” She goes on:

In poetry, the silence is just as important as the words chosen. To wrestle with and engage poetry fully we have to come to grips with our terror of silence, of emptiness, of lack. There are a lot of reasons for this societal fear of not speaking, and my Quaker beliefs compel me sometimes to spend time considering why we’ve built a culture without much room or gratitude for silence. Poetry has to contend with wordlessness, though, has to touch it, caress it, and circumnavigate it.

Wow. Beautiful, huh?

And on revision, Andrew writes:

Much of my stylistic growth, I feel, is attained through increasing the volume of my output, that is to say, by writing more poems. I’ve adapted the revision process to suit my needs according to that acquired knowledge. Thus, revision has become to me not the process of modifying an existing draft of a poem to more clearly articulate its project, but reemploying the elements of a single image or idea in order to produce as many variations of one concept as a I possibly can. The result is a method of revision that reproduces a poem so many different ways they hardly resemble a single source.

Thankfully, Andrew goes on to say that he makes use of other methods of revision, too, but his idea is a sound one–particularly for a young writer. Write your way into your voice; don’t stop to worry about the commas just yet.

Invoking Charles Olson, Zach wrote a manifesto with this in his introduction: “THE THING AS IT HAPPENS IS THE METHOD–the thing being, in this case, the fragment itself, the depiction of it upon the page, and the mood (here I mean “mood” as the source of passion, less as a notion of emotion) from which the author speaks.”

Of her first workshop experience, Sophia writes, “Workshop has helped unveil my writing process for me because, as time has passed, I’ve noticed that my classmates repeatedly make the same comments about my poetry. The most consistent is, ‘It sounds great but I’m not sure what it’s trying to say.’ I have become painfully aware that I work predominantly with sound and not much else.” Funny thing is, Sophia is doing exactly what she should be. If she starts with a message, she’s going to be screwed. The meaning will find its way into the poetry if she keeps exploring the language of it.

Finally, Analeah wrote a section about making poetry more public. Analeah got into reading haiku about midway through the semester when she was assigned haiku for our forms section. She writes,

In Japan, haiku is practiced by everyone, and is mostly read to family members or friends. However, you do not see the same flooding effect (described by Gioia as too many institutional poets/not enough readers) that occurs in the U.S. At the same time, respect and value is given to those poets who are talented. I believe because the culture at large takes the time to practice the art, the difficulties with the medium endow them with the ability to recognize true talent.

I won’t be teaching at this institution again for a while. The politics of crossing over too blatantly from staff member to adjunct faculty finally bit me in the ass. It’s too bad because I love teaching. I love the students–they are way more interesting/interested, smart, talented, and ballsy than most of the grownups around here.

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  1. deadgod

      Andrew’s revision remarks and Zach’s ‘invocation’ of Olson reminded me of an excellent essay by Marjorie Perloff on Dickinson:

      Perloff talks of “the ‘differential’ poetics of our own time-‘differential’ in that there is not one correct or even preferred text[, ]but a variorum set that allows the reader to consider alternatives. As such, Dickinson’s is a poetics of process that allows for much more reader involvement than does the Modernist aesthetic of the mot juste.”

      I’d only amend “allows the reader” to ‘compels the reader’ – when one is reading Dickinson’s poems with the variants on the page with Dickinson’s final version (or whatever the criterion/a for printing one version whole with ‘footnoted’ variants), it’s not possible to ignore the variants and still say ‘I read the poem’, right?

  2. James

      Great post. I always find it fun to see what young poets have to say about the process. I have on question, though. I’ve taught young poets at the undergraduate level and I’ve found that sometimes when they begin with the language and try to write their way into meaning their work can become kind of… charmingly ambiguous, but ultimately empty. Of course, when they, or anyone, goes too far in the other direction, it can come off as preachy or plain. Would you mind saying more about language vs. meaning with regards to beginning poets? Any thoughts/exercises/experiences would be interesting to hear.

  3. alexisorgera

      Ooh, this is an essay I’d like to read. To my mind, there is no final product, really. I mean, aesthetics are always morphing, ideas, personalities. I rewrite the same poem I wrote in my twenties in completely new ways in my thirties…

      Just bookmarked the essay. Looking forward to reading it after all this grading is over :)

  4. alexisorgera

      Hi James. Thanks! I think you’re right that there’s a balancing act. I think that rather than having a message, young poets would do well to start with a nugget: a childhood memory, a dream, a specific image etc., and let the language guide from there. We did a lot of that in class. It’s really hard to “let the language guide you” when you’re starting out–because you don’t yet have a handle on craft. So, we’re sort of always doing a balancing act. In workshop, nobody takes well to a poem that doesn’t have some sort of emotional narrative, at least. Students tend to get angry when they’re confronted with pretty, un-meaning language. I think this sort of peer pressure is good: it forces you to confront what your poem is saying, to find what it’s saying. I commented on Sophia’s paper that the first draft, the initial spill, should be whatever it needed to be, but that sometimes you’ll write several drafts uncovering meaning before even workshopping it…

  5. Justin Hamm

      These are excellent bits by your students! Sounds like you do a great job with them.

      I think the idea of letting the language guide you and writing your way into the meaning is really, really valuable if the poet understands that you can construct a poem the way you take it apart. This is one of the great lessons I learned in fiction workshop and it has been the most profound single piece of wisdom for me as a poet. Once you learn to see where connections and meaning might exist in your poem as you do when reading someone else’s poem, then you can adjust to bring that meaning out.

      Yes, you improvise and improvise until you “discover” the meaning, but that discovery–accidental as it may seem–is going to a product of a certain method and way of looking at your poem, of seeing–or else maybe “feeling”–where to dodge and burn.

  6. Anonymous

      Justin–there, you’ve said it way better than I’ve said it. “You improvise and you improvise until you ‘discover’ the meaning…” love it. Totally what happens w/ me, too.

  7. alexisorgera

      Justin–there, you’ve said it way better than I’ve said it. “You improvise and you improvise until you ‘discover’ the meaning…” love it. Totally what happens w/ me, too.