Introduction to POETRY
So, ok. What is this stuff?
From http://www.interviews-with-poets.com “Poetry goes back so far into human history that it is hard to see its clear beginnings. Poetry is sometimes even argued to be a fundamental aspect of language itself….” That is, poetry came into existence at the very instant when language did. It is something at the very heart of language. —And— “Poetry may predate literacy itself…The oldest poem that we know about is the ‘Epic of Gilgamesh’ –created in Sumer in the 3rd millennium BC.” Poetry goes back as far as humanity itself.
At the same time… Poetry is completely new. It is the cutting-edge of language art, always testing what language is and what language can do. Young poets right now are inventing poetry—inventing how we define and read it. So it’s incredibly, incredibly OLD…and absolutely NEW, ongoing, being born right under our feet.
Theorists are always predicting that poetry and even the written word are dying out. But isn’t it interesting that thousands of students flock to graduate creative writing programs every year, that poetry journals, conferences, and festivals are thriving, and of course there’s the advent of the Poetry Slam! We’ll talk more about poetry slams later.
Poems About Poems, Poems about Writing Poems, and Poems about Being a Poet What do these poems tell you about reading and writing poetry?
Introduction to Poetry--Billy Collins I ask them to take a poem and hold it up to the light like a color slide or press an ear against its hive. I say drop a mouse into a poem and watch him probe his way out, or walk inside the poem’s room and feel the walls for a light switch. I want them to waterski across the surface of a poem waving at the author’s name on the shore. But all they want to do is tie the poem to a chair with rope and torture a confession out of it.
An Introduction to Some Poems --William Stafford The authentic is a line from one thingalong to the next; it interests us.Strangely, it relates to what works,but is not quite the same. It neverswerves for revenge,or profit, or fame: it holdstogether something more than the world,this line. And we are your waveryefforts at following it. Are you coming?Good: now it is time. Look: no one ever promised for surethat we would sing. We have decidedto moan. In a strange dance thatwe don't understand till we do it, wehave to carry on.Just as in sleep you have to dreamthe exact dream to round out your life,so we have to live that dream into storiesand hold them close at you, close at theedge we share, to be right.We find it an awful thing to meet people,serious or not, who have turned into vacanteffective people, so far lost that theywon't believe their own feelingsenough to follow them out.
As for Poets--Gary Snyder There’s no one way to classify this stuff! There are many possible taxonomies. Different classifications yield different ways of seeing, different kinds of appreciation. We don’t make classifications for their own sake, and no taxonomy is carved in rock. You will encounter a VARIETY of schemes in different classes, different handbooks, and different scholarly traditions. *With the Sun and the MoonIn his belly,The Space PoetSleeps.No end to the sky --but his poems,like wild geese,fly off the edge.*A Mind PoetStays in the house.The house is emptyand it has no walls.The poem is seen from all sides,everywhereat once. As for poetsThe Earth Poetswho write small poemsneed help from no man.*The Air Poetsplay out the swiftest galesand sometimes loll in the eddiespoem after poem,curling back on the same thrust.*At fifty belowFuel oil won't flowand propane stays in the tank.Fire PoetsBurn at Absolute ZeroFossil love pumped back up.*The firstWater Poetstayed down six years.He was covered with seaweed.The life in his poemleft millions of tinydifferent trackscriss-crossing through the mud. Interesting—a poem that defines types of poets!
Ooooooh! Oooh! Look! A poem! This one’s really teensy! It’s a Jungle Out There! teensy Oh ick, a skeeter. OMG, still ANOTHER kind! Holy sh*t, MORE! And yet another kind!
Let’s make some poems because that’s what we’re here to do because creative writing workshops are about writing Sure, we’re going to read, and blab, and do exercises, and read some more, and go to public readings, and perform public readings, and of course blab and read and blab some more. . . Well, and making stories and scripts, and plays and creative nonfiction and memoirs and anything else you want to do. but it’s all for the purpose of making poems
You’re going to write at least three poems for your Governor’s School experience. Here’s an exercise which may help give you a jump-start on Poetry Project #1.
2. Now write a few paragraphs in which you describe the raisin and/or your experience of the raisin. Be VERY… specific, concrete, sensory. 1. Your instructor will give you a raisin. Follow her instructions. NO abstractions NO abstractions NO abstractions NO abstractions NO abstractions NO generalities NO generalities NO generalities NO generalities NO generalities
Hey Dummy! What are you doing? I said NO abstractions or generalities!!!!! Look at what you’ve written. Can you SEE, FEEL, TASTE, SMELL the frapping raisin????? I mean REALLY see, feel, taste and smell it? Is your description SPECIFIC? Give your raisin some LOVE, baby!
Ok, how do you describe a SMELL? Really describe it? It’s kind of hard, isn’t it? There’s no way to avoid… FIGURATIVE LANGUAGE The smell is like… something else. The smell IS… something else. This is just a peculiar feature of language. To describe one thing you have to compare it to another thing. But making figurative language is A BLAST.
So what, again, is figurative language? Some theorists believe that language is inherently metaphorical. You can’t utter a sentence without in some way using figurative language. How do you say that someone is drunk? How many animal metaphors do we use everyday? Where did most worn-out metaphors come from, and how do we keep the language alive? Look at these samples again from Annie Proulx and Lorrie More (recall that we looked at these in our fiction unit)…
1. Her face was a perfect oval, like a circle that had its two sides gently compressed by a Thigh Master. 2. His thoughts tumbled in his head, making and breaking alliances like underpants in a dryer without Cling Free. 3. He spoke with the wisdom that can only come from experience, like a guy who went blind because he looked at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it and now goes around the country speaking at high schools about the dangers of looking at a solar eclipse without one of those boxes with a pinhole in it. 4. She grew on him like she was a colony of E. Coli, and he was room-temperature Canadian beef. 5. She had a deep, throaty, genuine laugh, like that sound a dog makes just before it throws up. 6. Her vocabulary was as bad as, like, whatever.
7. He was as tall as a six-foot, three-inch tree. 8. The revelation that his marriage of 30 years had disintegrated because of his wife’s infidelity came as a rude shock, like a surcharge at a formerly surcharge-free ATM machine. 9. The little boat gently drifted across the pond exactly the way a bowling ball wouldn’t. 10. McBride fell 12 stories, hitting the pavement like a Hefty bag filled with vegetable soup. 11. From the attic came an unearthly howl. The whole scene had an eerie, surreal quality, like when you’re on vacation in another city and Jeopardy comes on at 7:00 p.m. Instead of 7:30. 12. Her hair glistened in the rain like a nose hair after a sneeze.
13. The hailstones leaped from the pavement, just like maggots when you fry them in hot grease. 14. Long separated by cruel fate, the star-crossed lovers raced across the grassy field toward each other like two freight trains, one having left Cleveland at 6:36 p.m. Traveling at 55 mph, the other from Topeka at 4:19 p.m. At a speed of 35 mph. 15. They lived in a typical suburban neighborhood with picket fences that resembled Nancy Kerrigan’s teeth. 16. John and Mary had never met. They were like two hummingbirds who had also never met. 17. He fell for her like his heart was a mob informant, and she was the East River. 18. Even in his last years, Granddad had a mind like a steel trap, only one that had been left out so long, it had rusted shut. 19. Shots rang out, as shots are want to do.
20. The plan was simple, like my brother-in-law Phil. But unlike Phil, this plan just might work. 21. The young fighter had a hungry look, the kind you get from not eating for a while. 22. He was as lame as a duck. Not the metaphorical lame duck, either, but a real duck that was actually lame, maybe from stepping on a land mine or something. 23. The ballerina rose gracefully en Pointe and extended one slender leg behind her, like a dog at a fire hydrant. 24. It was an American tradition, like fathers chasing kids around with power tools. 25. He was deeply in love. When she spoke, he thought he heard bells, as if she were a garbage truck backing up.
from Annie Proulx’s, Wyoming Stories
What he wanted to know now, tires spanking the tar-filled road cracks and potholes, funeral homburg sliding on the back-seat, was if Rollo had got the girlfriend away from the old man, thrown a saddle on her and ridden off into the sunset?...His thoughts clogged as if a comb working through his mind had stuck against a snarl. They climbed through the stony landscape, limestone beds eroded by wind into fantastic furniture, stale gnawed breadcrusts, tumbled bones, stacks of dirty folded blankets, bleached crab claws and dog teeth. […] The roots of his mind felt withered and punky. Looking at her, not just her face, but up and down, eyes moving over her like an iron over a shirt and the old man in his mailman’s sweater and lopsided hat tasting his Everclear and not noticing or not caring, getting up every now and then to lurch onto the porch and water the weeds. He traveled against curdled sky. In the last sixty miles the snow began again. He climbed out of Buffalo. Pallid flakes as distant from each other as galaxies flew past, then more and in ten minutes he was crawling at twenty miles an hour, the windshield wipers thumping like a stick dragged down the stairs. The light was falling out of the day when he reached the pass, the blunt mountains lost in snow, the greasy hairpin turns ahead. He drove slowly and steadily in a low gear; he had not forgotten how to drive a winter mountain. But the wind was up again, rocking and slapping the car, blotting out all but whipping snow and he was sweating with the anxiety of keeping to the road, dizzy with altitude. Twelve more miles, sliding and buffeted, before he reached Ten Sleep where streetlights glowed in revolving circles like Van Gogh's sun.
Once in a while take evening trips past the old unsold house you grew up in, that haunted rural crossroads two hours from where you now live. It is like Halloween: the raked, moon-lit lawn, the mammoth, tumid trees, arms and fingers raised into the starless wipe of sky like burns, cracks, map rivers. . .Look up through the windshield. In the November sky a wedge of wrens moves south, the lines of their formation, the very sides and vertices mysteriously choreographed, shifting, flowing, crossing like a skater's legs... Walk through wooded areas; there is a life there you have forgotten. The smells and sounds seem sudden, unchanged, exact, the paper crunch of the leaves, the mouldering sachet of the mud. The trees are crooked as backs, the fence posts splintered, trusting and precarious in their solid grasp of arms, the asters splindly, dry, white, havishammed (Havishammed!) by frost.
"Her eyebrows will lift like theater curtains." • "Your roommate looks at you, her face blank as a large Kleenex." • "Work up a vibrato you could drive a truck though." • "Try to figure out what has made your life go wrong. It is like trying to figure out what is stinking up the refrigerator. " • "You are a zoo of insecurities." • "The clink of the silverware inside the drawer, piled like bones in a mass grave." • "You see a ghost, something like a spinning statue by a shrub." • "She ages, rocks in your rocker, noiseless as wind." • "On public transportation mothers with soft, soapy, corduroyed seraphs glance at you, their faces dominoes of compassion.“
Ok. Let’s look at a few well-known and highly regarded poets and see what they do with SEEING. That is, what do they do with description and metaphor? Links to these writers appear in our Word Press Creative Writing page.
2. Now write a few paragraphs in which you describe the raisin and/or your experience of the raisin. Be VERY… specific, concrete, sensory. 1. Your instructor will give you a raisin. Follow her instructions. 3. Now write a poem about your raisin. NO abstractions NO abstractions NO abstractions NO abstractions NO abstractions NO generalities NO generalities NO generalities NO generalities NO generalities
Possibilities • Include yourself in the poem. • Don’t include yourself in the poem. No “I.” Just the raisin. • Focus on just one aspect of the raisin. • Focus on the entire raisin; raisin-as-world. • Be the raisin. • Talk to the raisin. • Look at the raisin from the point of view of an extra-terrestrial who has never been to earth before. • Include your classmates and teacher in the poem as well as the room. • Write the poem from the point of view/in the voice of…. a grape! • Use interesting kinds of language.
Sometimes it helps to take a really unusual perspective…say, that of an animal. Once a student wrote a piece from the point of view of a deer. It described a hunter’s gun as “a branch that barks.” Look at Elizabeth Bishop’s “Giant Toad” and “Giant Snail” poems. Click here for Bishop’s poems: www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~cinichol/GS2014/Bishop.docx
Poetry Project #1 www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~cinichol/GS2014/PoetryProject1.htm This assignment is all about description, concreteness, grittiness, vividness, thingness, and sensuality.
…The gooey, chewy, rich and pulpy scratchy drippy undulating avuncular and underwearish ooh-la-la of lavender-tinged-with-groaning-and-usually quite-embarrassing REAL LIFE. I.e., you want to get a lot of the SPECIFIC, REAL, CONCRETE, TOUCHABLE, STRANGE PARTICULARITY OF YOUR MOMENT-BY-MOMENT lifeinto your poem. --lots of really vivid, breath-stopping descriptive details…
Because here’s the thing. Young writers are often very, very bad at using detail. I.e., they DON’T. Use detail. At all.
Beginning writers often rely on large, general, abstract language which attempts to explain feeling and experience. This almost never works. You can’t explain away your feelings and experiences. They are too complex, too mysterious, too difficult. You have to ENACT OR DEMONSTRATE rather than EXPLAIN your experience. You have to SHOW rather than TELL how you feel. You have to enter or re-enter a scene and dramatically recall or live it right there on the page, in real-time. This is why poetry can be such a gas for the writer (as well as for the reader): you have an experience on the page which can’t happen any other way. It’s addictive. And fun. And scary. So: just describe your experience—scenes from the past, the moment right in front of you, whatever—concretely and honestly. You’d be surprised how much feeling and complexity can be conveyed this way. Layers of feeling. Layers of complexity.
Remembering Fear. Excitement. Parents. Anger. Father Fear. Excitement. Kitchen. Booze. Mother. Here are some sample poems. They all suck. The language is boring. The language is abstract and nonspecific. The experience being described is generic and the people are generic. There’s no poetry here!
This one does not suck. My Papa's Waltz --Theodore Roethke The whiskey on your breath Could make a small boy dizzy; But I hung on like death: Such waltzing was not easy. We romped until the pans Slid from the kitchen shelf; My mother's countenance Could not unfrown itself. The hand that held my wrist Was battered on one knuckle; At every step you missed My right ear scraped a buckle. You beat time on my head With a palm caked hard by dirt, Then waltzed me off to bed Still clinging to your shirt. Notice that the speaker never explainshow the child or the father or the mother feels. All he does is re-enact the memory in vivid details, precisely as he recalls it. The details say more about how everyone feels than any explanation could. The details evoke a whole range of feelings, even contradictory ones. That’s good. That’s how human experience and feeling really are. Wackwackthunkthunk CRASH we are right here with the kid, ear against his dad’s belt buckle, feeling sick, scared, thrilled, enamored.
Poetry Project #2 www.ndsu.edu/pubweb/~cinichol/GS2014/PoetryProject2.htm This project is all about exploring particular modes and genres (recall the “It’s a Jungle Out There” slide above). We’ll look at several: • The Personal or Confessional Poem • The Formalist or “Gold-Enameled” Poem • The Visionary Poem You may select any one of the above options.
One way of “coming at” poetry is to consider the several distinct types of poets that have evolved over millennia. These types are not always mutually exclusive (one poet may write in several modes and be both a “moaner” and a “mad seer,” for instance), but it’s useful to break them down this way in order to understand the many distinctimpulses which give rise to poetry.
The Moaner: the inward, suffering lyricist; poems may be private, even confessional, sometimes cryptic, non-linear, musical, emotional The Maker: the crafter of beautiful, skilled objects made of words; formalist The Community Bard: the village singer and story-teller; oral poet; wandering troubadour The Mad Seer: the crazed visionary, one who sees what ordinary people cannot; poems may be dark, prophetic, surrealist, even zany
Poetic categories are broken down in different ways and with different terminology, depending on what handbook or scholarly tradition you consult. The above terms represent some of the most important types of poets and are convenient terms we will use for the sake of this course.
Let’s take a peak at The Moaner Tradition Gregg Orr Lisa Lewis Sylvia Plath Etc. • The expressive impulse • The personal & intimate, sometimes confessional impulse • “I”-centered
This mode of poetry goes by different names. The Moaner … writes in the personal or expressivist mode. The focal point is the “I” and the feelings and experiences of the “I.” A sub-set of the personal mode is the confessional mode. The “confessional poem” was inaugurated by such poets as Sylvia Plath, Ann Sexton, and Robert Lowell in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This type of poem can broach some very private subjects and may reveal taboo secrets about the self or society which are not normally discussed out loud. Young poets writing in this mode today are sometimes referred to as the “post-confessional poets.”
The Confessional Mode This kind of poem, with roots in the Romantic period of English literature as well as (to some extent) in antiquity, tends to do the following: • Reveals something normally hidden or unspoken. • Explores subject matter that isn’t usually discussed openly; challenges the line between acceptable and not acceptable, private and public. • Focuses on personal life: family, personal relationships, childhood. • Focuses on personal neuroses, personal “issues,” illness, fears, conflicts, loneliness. Writing a confessional poem is one of your options for Poetry Project #2
What are the dangers of this sort of art? Thatwas more information than we really needed, Billy Bob! • Self-absorption • Solipsism • Narrow interest • Alienation of reader • Embarrassment. You know, the feeling that makes you want to say….
It’s fine to write about very personal experiences, but it’s important to also plant a deep taproot; that is, the writer must also find the universal in the particular; the small isolated self and its wee experiences connected to something larger. Otherwise, it just becomes diary writing.
Poems by Greg Orr Accidentally shot and killed his own brother when he was 12 years old. Wrote about this event almost exclusively in his first book or two. Is now something of a spokesman for the “post-confessional” movement. How does a poet write about such horrific material?? Should he write about it at all? How does this poet avoid the hazards of the confessional mode? What are his strategies for handling deeply “I”-centered poems? How does he encounter and shape the expressive impulse?
Litany In this poem his strategy is to simply describe, simply and with great clarity and concreteness, one of the central and most horrific events of his life. He doesn’t explain his feelings, he doesn’t reflect on the experience; he simply describes it, exactly as he remembers it. I remember him falling beside me, the dark stain already seeping across his parka hood. I remember screaming and running the half mile to our house. I remember hiding in my room. I remember that it was hard to breathe and that I kept the door shut in terror that someone would enter. I remember pressing my knuckles into my eyes. I remember looking out the window once at where an ambulance had backed up over the lawn to the front door. I remember someone hung from a tree near the barn the deer we'd killed just before I shot my brother. I remember toward evening someone came with soup. I slurped it down, unable to look up. In the bowl, among the vegetable chunks, pale shapes of the alphabet bobbed at random or lay in the shallow spoon.