Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Dear Students...

Dear Students,

By class-time on Wednesday I’d like you to write three paragraphs:  one paragraph each about three poems that you choose from the “sheaf of short poems” handed out on the first day of class.  If you weren’t in class, you can find them at the end of the syllabus, which I’ve uploaded to our D2L site.  The poems you choose should be at least three lines long; I suggest that you stick with poems of 3-12 lines for this first assignment.   Each paragraph should talk about how you can make this particular poem interesting by using one or more of the tools laid out in class and summarized later in this email.  You don’t need to give an exhaustive reading of the poem!  One or two tools per poem is fine, and three to five sentences is plenty for each paragraph. Upload your paragraphs--as a single document, preferably--to the appropriate dropbox folder on D2L.  

Your goals for this assignment are to practice some habits of attention, and to give me a taste of your writing.  I’d love to see you try using each of the four approaches spelled out below at least once; as you’ll discover, they overlap in what they discover, although they’re slightly different in primary focus and emphasis.  

In class we picked some two-line poems and considered how to make them interesting (or, if you prefer, how to find something interesting about them) using analytical tools I’d talked about and put on the board.  As a quick refresher, in case you didn’t write those down, here’s more or less what I put there:

There were three broad categories of inquiry—although in practice they will overlap somewhat:  the poem as contraption (a “machine made out of words”); the poem as a character (a script for you to say); and the poem as responding to or inhabiting in some particular context (a form, a genre, a particular historical moment, a particular publishing venue, like the wall of a men’s room stall, etc.)
There were also four specific things that sophisticated-sounding readers of poetry often say they spot a poem doing:

  1. Playing with language (wordplay, puns, musicality, formal patterns, attention to etymology [the roots of words in Latin or Greek or Anglo-Saxon, etc.] in order to make a thing rather than simply express an idea.
  2. Acting out / What it’s about:  that is, having the language of the poem somehow mimetically “act out” something that the poem talks about:  for example, through a change in form or rhythm or pacing, or through a change in the visual layout of the text (including, as we saw in Reznikoff, from the “stiff lines” of letters l and i to the “blurred” lines of b and d), or in any other way.
  3. Dividing into sections, with the emotional / idea drama of the poem (that is, the changes in mood or idea) playing out as linguistic drama (that is, changes in language or style).  This is different from move #2 in that the change doesn’t have to be acting out something that the poem is about; it’s more a matter of a change at one level of the poem, the mood or idea, triggering or showing up as a change at another level of the poem, that of style.* 
  4. Finally, I talked about how poems can be made interesting by dividing them into sections and spotting repetition and variation between the sections, as well as contrast and change between the sections.  Repetition and variation helps hold poems together, giving them the effect “complete centripetal coherence.”  Another way to think about this is that there are many systems at work in any given poem, with many threads of connection, potentially, between any one part of the poem or any one word in the poem and many others.  (There can be sound threads, meaning threads, word-root threads, level-of-diction threads, tone threads, etc.—lots of them, all at once!)  Tug on any one part of a poem, and another part will probably twitch.  Point out those connections, and you’ve made the poem more interesting, and given yourself some tools to talk about the poem as a contraption, as a character, and even perhaps as a response to some context, too!

*PLEASE NOTE:  I didn’t mention this in class, but as you’ll see in future class discussions, you can often use these “linguistic drama” changes as evidence of some kind of change in the mood or idea or psychological state of the character saying the poem.  Repeated sounds, for example, might be used as evidence that the character is hearkening back to or refusing to let go of some idea that was expressed the first time those sounds came into the poem.  These kinds of claims are very dependent on the specific contexts of individual poems, so we’ll spend some time learning how to make plausible ones and to avoid ones that sound forced or unlikely.   


Helena said...

Thank you for sharing this, which I found very interesting. Such useful tools for considering poems!

E. M. Selinger said...

Thanks! It's nice to know that someone is reading and finding things useful. I'll try to continue posting about what I do in class and how (or whether) it works.

Mike Hopkins said...

Great stuff. I retired in 2012, but teachers still call me to sub and urge me to inject poetry into my day with their students. This will add another item to my poetry cart. I have always regarded the NEH Say Something Wonderful seminar as a highlight in my education and teacher prep. Since 2007 my classroom took on a new and refreshing tone because I enjoyed connecting kids with poetry. Hope all is well with you.
Mike Hopkins