I don’t have much experience writing poetry (or any, really), so when I signed up for this class one of my biggest questions was, well, what am I going to write about? A few weeks ago, I stumbled across a wikipedia article about Turritopsis Dohrnii, a jellyfish that has the ability to revert itself back to sexual immaturity after it progresses in age–basically, the freaking thing is immortal. I wrote a really rough draft of a poem about this jellyfish for our second poetry exercise, and that’s when I realized: weird, random facts can be a good source of inspiration for poetry. Continue reading “Poetry Inspiration”
It was cloudy around 8pm on Friday, so instead of watching a brilliant Geneseo Sunset™ my friends and I were watching a sort of negative sunset. As a poet I naturally began to think about how our experiences of art, nature, life in general, etc. can be informed by absence. While huddling together for warmth (because this was a Geneseo anti-sunset, after all) my friend Dave began talking about a website called Garfield minus Garfield which, as you’ve probably guessed, erases Garfield from the comics, exposing Jon as a character full of anxiety and existential dread.
Jon’s heavy lidded looks of malaise and final breakdown are now directed at nothing, instead of at a cat. The cat who gives this comic its name. How the meaning of this particular strip is changed by the deletion of such a crucial element gives a great example of how absence can magnify instead of morph. Without a direct object of his gaze and his breakdown we imagine Jon’s feelings are more intense, deep seated and directed at something more abstract, like the sense of doom he feels when thinking of his dead end job at OfficeMax. It may seem like a complete morphing, but it’s only a jump. Smaller moments of aggravation like getting fed up with a lazy cat sometimes create a nice little door into larger, more existentially charged feelings of frustration.
This doesn’t work for all of these strips, some of the meanings are changed or disappear entirely along with the cat. As poets these are the sort of changes we want to avoid when revising. As much as I may want to, I obviously can’t make Garfield into a direct analog of the line, but in terms of how deletion can magnify an already functioning meaning we can aspire to the example given in the strip above: delete a cat (or a line) and turn a moment of petty aggravation into a nervous breakdown.
Charlie Sheen published a poetry memoir titled “A Peace of My Mind” in 1991. I think it’s interesting to read poetry written by celebrities because although most everything is made public, poetry is still very personal, and is usually created when the author is alone. I think this gives a special insight into the poet as a person. It is kind of hard to think of celebrities as fellow people because of how high the pedestal we put them on is. No one treats celebrities like normal people, and no one really gives them the respect that would be granted to any other individual. People feel perfectly comfortable tearing these people apart verbally, and bombarding them regardless of what they are doing; based off of an incredibly impersonal opinion. Sheen talks about this in his poem “I-media-etly.” It’s normal to call a celebrity crazy, although the general public doesn’t really know them; at all. Through poetry you kind of learn about how the poets mind works based on the words they choose, the way they compose these words, the ideas they convey, and the images they include. You kind of get a realer feel of their innards.
Sheen’s poetry is really dark, sexually twisted, and the tone is full of so much anger. Although I must admit, I only read what was available online, so this is referring to those poems and not his entire body of work. In “I-media-etly” it seems like Sheen talks about how soulless and fake the paparazzi is, and how they kind of run his life. “The Gavel of Truth” seems to be about Sheen’s struggle with himself. His choice in rhyming is interesting in that it gives these angry, dark, poems a playful sound. Rhyming always reminds me of childhood poems; or poems that are meant to be lighthearted. I don’t think light hearted is the theme of any of these poems though. Sheen uses a lot of abstractions and clichés. He refers to the paparazzi as ticks and eyes as lifeless in “I-media-etly,” and depicts death in a black coat with a scythe in “The Gavel of truth.” There aren’t that many creative images that aren’t disgusting or sexually twisted. Perhaps this could be fixed with structure, but Sheen really does not play around with lines at all. There are no surprises in regard to line or structure, which takes away a lot of reader interest. Sheen also has every line capitalized, but because his work isn’t particularly well written, it’s kind of hard to tell if this was a poetic choice, or if he just didn’t care that this is what happens when you type on Microsoft Word.
The titles are both kind of lame in my opinion, and don’t really add insight or interest into the poems. The ending of “I-media-etly” links back to the title which seems kind of childish and too full circle. “The Gavel of Truth” offers nothing new to the poem. Before I wrap this up, the last stanza of “I-media-etly” must be discussed. Did I just read what I thought I read? About stroking flaccid meat-ew- and cum filled eye sockets? Yes.. Yes I did. This stanza is out of place, like it was composed for shock value. I think it is meant to shame the paparazzi by saying that they follow Sheen around so much that they must want to sleep with him, but I am really not quite sure. Maybe that’s just how his mind works, and the images he forms. Only Sheen knows. I would also like to comment on how Sheen signed his poems, but I’m not sure if that’s how they appear in his book, so I won’t. How anti-climactic. I think what bothers me the most about these poems is the complete lack of tact. I guess it’s cool to be unapologetic but this was just not enjoyable to read. That’s ok though. His poetry doesn’t have to be for me. I think poetry should be for the writer, and hopefully these poems helped Sheen come to peace with his mind.
Earlier this week I took a few older poems I had and wasn’t fond of, and created a “Franken-poem” out of them. It turned into an amazing piece about a very long and personal journey. Because of the nature of the poem I wasn’t sure if I wanted to show it to anyone else or keep it to myself, and this led me to thinking about what we owe our peers, our poems, and ourselves, respectively.
It’s my belief that poems are inherently personal because a writer can’t write without infusing some of their own emotions and thoughts into their work (and feel free to disagree with me on this in the comments). I know the poems that get caught in my head are those that were written from personal experience. The reason that I want to be a writer in the first place is to be able to give someone what others’ words have given me, and therefore I felt I owed it to my community to share this poem (not that I think it is revolutionary or earth shaking, but I like to think that every poem has the potential to matter to its readers the same way it does to the writer).
Then I began thinking about what the poem itself deserved: do poems only become what their readers think of them? Can a poem mean as much if it only means so much to one person? This is all pretty silly and hypothetical considering the answer doesn’t matter–poetry would still exist even if there were no readers because sometimes words have a way of blooming out onto paper despite whether there’s an audience for them or not. But still perhaps poems deserve the opportunity to be seen by a new pair of eyes.
Lastly, I thought of what we owe to ourselves when we write poems. Assuming that all poetry is personal, is it more or less of a catharsis to write it if we are sharing our work? I suppose this is, ironically enough, a fairly personal question, considering it probably changes from person to person, but I think through writing this post I’ve helped decide the answer for myself.
Poetry – and through it, the thoughts that we simply can’t shake and decide to impose on the universe – is a part of its writer, and maybe, deep down, we like to share even the really personal poems for the same reason we like to share anything else: to know we’re not alone.
One thing that always made me wonder about poetry is why we were never taught modern poetry in school. My only real exposure to poetry throughout both elementary and high school was much older. Shakespeare, Dickinson, Poe, Frost, and Whitman were the only poets I ever really learned about in English class. I often think that’s why so many people I went to school with dislike poetry – these structured poems bored many of my classmates and must have turned them off from the whole poetry experience. If there were more modern styled poems taught in classes, maybe it would help students find a style of poetry they like.
I tried to figure out why some people don’t like poetry by asking my sister (two years younger than me) what she thought.
“What do you think about poetry?” I texted her.
“I think it’s dumb.” She responded, two hours later. No further explanation was given.
So, my experiment failed. I guess what I’m trying to say is that maybe, if schools taught more varied styles of poetry, more people would find a style that they like. Modern poetry seems lost in classes before college levels, and I really think that’s a shame. Sure, plenty of the people I know do like poetry, but I feel like more people would enjoy it if they found a style they really liked.
(I apologize if there are any major typos in this post. My ‘m’ key and my spacebar are both breaking down on me.)
I’ve been trying to visualize poetry, specifically writing poetry, in order to make it accessible for non-poets or those who are afraid of poetry. What is the right (or at least a decent) metaphor that is simple but contains enough complexity and nuance to explain the genre? I want my family and friends to be able to enjoy poetry without feeling intimidated. My solution is Legos. Continue reading “Is Poetry a Puzzle? (Or is it Legos?)”
I’ve conducted a kind of casual social experiment. I decided to do so in order to get the public’s perspective on what they think poetry is (there are no wrong answers, necessarily: some are academic, some are introspective, some spiritual, some lighthearted jokes). The reason I wanted to ask others, specifically those who don’t study poetry or literature on a higher educational level, is because I feel like the more I immerse myself in poetry, the more I am perplexed by it. So, I was wondering if those who don’t spend as much time thinking about, reading or writing poetry felt similarly as I did or not.
At first, I posted a Facebook status bluntly asking, “What is poetry?” I proceeded to attach the link to our blog, The Contemporary Poem. I posted the status rather early in the day, so I waited until the evening to read the responses. But there was nothing there. Now, perhaps no one saw my status and it got lost in everyone’s BuzzFeed-polluted news feeds, but it could also suggest other possibilities.
Perhaps no one wanted to comment on my status because they were not confident to start conversation on something they didn’t know much about for all of Facebook to see. Or maybe those who did read the status knew I was a writing major and felt intimidated or judged by what I might think. Or perhaps no one cared. Nevertheless, I think this bump in the experiment is a noteworthy one.
So, in order to actually get responses, I tried again. But this time, on my boyfriend’s Facebook. He posted a status reading similarly, but apparently came off more welcoming: “here’s a thinker for you: what is poetry? (input encouraged)”
And, maybe you guessed it already, but he got responses! They are rather interesting:
“Poetry is writing that cuts out meaningless filler. Poetry is difficult to describe because emotions are difficult to describe and it is essentially a way to describe emotions. When you have thoughts and emotions they are better reflected with striking words and imagery rather than story telling and linear forms of writing; not that poetry can’t tell a story.
Ideas always seem so clear in your head and I think poetry is an attempt to capture that mental clarity without all of the clutter and fluff that floods everyday speech and thought. Almost like meditation with words. But then again thats my interpretation, there are lots of different styles of poetry and lots of different people that think and express in different ways.
Try some Japanese Death Poems. The use of language is simple, and brings a sense of tiredness.” -male, age 22
“Poetry is an aesthetic communication of thoughts/feelings… poetry conveys what gets lost in translation. words sometimes aren’t enough.i think poetry is a lot like empathy… i think we can FEEL what poetry conveys even if the string of words doesn’t particularly make sense to us” -female, age 20
“Poetry is painting with words.” -male, age 24
“Poetry is lyrics without the music.” -female, age 55
“When I write poetry,..rhyming always, I do it to memorialize something or someone that I’ve observed doing/being something that moved my heart and spirit” -female, age 77
Disregarding the cliches, we can find a common theme here. People write when they want to express an emotion, scholarly or not. So, maybe the next time I cannot understand what a poet is trying to say, I’ll instead try to experience what they are feeling. Not all aspects of poetry demand reading comprehension or even logic. But it should always demand one of our most human abilities, to feel.
This semester I’ve stocked my schedule with classes I may never need, yet have nonetheless ended up loving. Two of my favorites so far are Human Geography and Intro to Urban and Regional Planning. Like Erin mentioned in her post about her perception of a physical space based on what method of transportation she is using, the way we approach the space of a poem is more deeply rooted in crazy spatial ideas of human preference, information construction, and even territoriality. While these classes may seem entirely irrelevant to the creation of a poem, I’ve actually found a lot of correlation between these three topics (proceed to blather on about geography of poems).
In Human Geography we’ve spent a lot of time taking spatial perceptions and preference. For instance, there are places in America none of us ever want to go, just based on our rather biased perceptions of what we think those places are like. Similarly, people are more likely to prefer their home area, just because it’s home. As people, we construct the world around us, based not in fact, but in a strange conglomeration of increasingly unreliable sources. This construction of our world made me think of the way we create our poems. For many of us, there are places in poems that we’re just unwilling to go. I have no desire to write a villanella, but then again, I’ve never actually tried it or bothered to search for an example of one that I’ve really enjoyed. There are probably topics we’re afraid to approach, but feel like we need to at some point within our poems. If we never visit these places within our body of poetics, we’ll continue to perpetuate this strange spatial preference that can often leave us oblivious to some aspect of poetry–a topic or style, etc.– that we could actually really enjoy, or perhaps even be successful with. Another aspect of this spatial preference is spatial territoriality, something I’d never considered on a small scale before. Human territoriality is often personal and habitual–we might use the same bathroom stall every time or sit in the same chair in the library. This territoriality comes across in our poems. We go back to certain sounds, images, and ideas again and again without really thinking about why we do that. We construct spaces that we feel at home inside of–we get too comfortable in them and make them our own, when we should really be branching out to South Dakota or the next bathroom stall to figure out how far we can push ourselves as poets.
I’ve also found that urban planning is incredibly similar to structuring a poem. I hadn’t really considered how much effort goes into creating a functional city. The majority of urban planning remains unseen, whether it’s the sewers that run under every road, or subtle changes in the route of a train that can impact the traffic patterns of an entire neighborhood. There are so many small yet vital aspects of urban planning that allow cities to function at the surface level. The inclusion of green space allows a city breathing room, and contributes to the health of it’s residents. It offers a break from the hustle and bustle, just as a poem might need something a little softer or more abstract to balance out a concrete jungle of images and action. This urban planning is incredibly similar to understanding the way different parts of speech, word choice, line breaks, etc. can all impact the flow, function, and effectiveness of a poem. Poems need you to be their urban planners–if you aren’t there making subtle functional choices, the whole thing could easily devolve into traffic jams or dead zones. Minute changes in word choice or line breaks may seem like insignificant things, but they can change the way a poem functions–where it takes you, what it passes, and what you see, just as a tiny shift in a road can change so much that we might not be conscious of.
Essentially, poems are tiny cities–we are territorial about them, we construct different ideas of our own poems in our heads than our readers will. We have different spatial preferences, and we’re consistently building their infrastructure, whether or not we realize it. We seem to be ending on questions, which I like, so I’ll ask a couple here. What perceptions do you have about poetry that may be different from the reality? What things have you put off trying, and what things do you try too much? Are you including all of the infrastructure of your poem? What’s its traffic flow, how does it function?
Since the first Poetic Whirlwind several class poems have stayed with me, but I’ve been especially thinking about and envying Romy’s poem “Uncles.” I’ve never written a poem that short, and certainly not one capable of packing as much of punch in such a tight space. And that got me thinking about space in general—poetic space, but also the spaces that we inhabit everyday.
While I was going for a bike ride this morning I was reminded how Geneseo always feels bigger and more complex when I’m on my bicycle, as opposed to driving in a car. When I’m biking I notice more about it—let myself see the character of the little farms and long hilly roads. I was struck with the realization that the space I inhabit here as a student tends to be repetitive: walk/bike to campus where I sit in the same rooms, then walk/bike back home. I often forget to leave the space of my routine to explore new places, and I think that’s important to remember as poets too.
The world we inhabit is a sensory one, and consists of physical space. I’m a very image grounded poet—I understand poetry better through image, and I tend to write poems from one image or a series of images. But I was reminded to look at poetry structurally, as a type of architecture, remembering that poetry has a physicality to it, and it’s the poet’s job to make sense of the space that the poem wants or needs to exist in.
My German professor decided to start our literature class off with a whimper, not a bang this semester. By this I mean we opened with poems. In German. I’ve noticed that in many of my [English] literature classes, when discussing poetry, the room goes silent. The professor skims the room, looking for volunteers, and everyone studies their text with increased fervor, praying they won’t get called on. So imagine that scenario, but add the fun of a foreign language to it. You could almost see the shoulders rise in defensiveness. Predictably, a friend who knows me kicked me under the table and hissed, “You write poetry, say something.” Heads turned my direction. And for the rest of the class period, I was the Poet [designated class speaker] who suddenly had authority and was expected to provide interpretations for the poems we read. This got me thinking about why students often hate poetry units in creative writing and are stymied by poetry in literature classes when discussing Dickinson, Wordsworth, Whitman, etc.
Perhaps it is because our poetic ancestors are precisely that: ancestors. Older. From a different time. Reading Shakespeare is quite different from sitting down and reading a work of contemporary poetry. References that audiences in the 19th century might have understood escape us. The cultural values and literary movements that informed our ancestors’ poetry are different than today’s. I remember groaning about one having to read one more Romantic poem in Brit Lit (“If I see one more pastoral scene, I swear to God…” I think part of the problem is the accessibility factor. Because we don’t identify to the poetry taught in literature classes (no matter how important reading our ancestors is), we tune it out. We say we don’t (and can’t) understand it. As poet Andrea Springer (class of ’14) mentions in an interview done with Gandy Dancer: ” there’s still this pervasive belief that poetry is this secret code and without the exact key you won’t be able to decipher it to arrive at any kind of meaningful reading. Teaching poetry is important to me because I want to tell as many people as I can that poets aren’t trying to trick us” (interview found here).
I’ve been on the student side of it, as I’m sure we all have. However, as a poet who also gets to work with fabulous contemporary poets in the classroom, who is required to read modern collections for class, and who is actively engaged in our own small poetry community here in Geneseo, I wish every student was required to pick up a collection of poetry published in the last five years. The issues and thoughts that take up much of our collective consciousness today are reflected in today’s poetry: there are feminism poems, sex poems, poems that deal with homosexuality and bullying, poems that are pushing form and language and poems that thrill with being alive today. I wonder if students would still feel as alienated from poetry (which to the average person seems to evoke images grim-faced black & white portraits, counting syllables, being forced to memorize lines, etc.) if they read a modern collection like Anna Journey’s If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting. (Interestingly enough: two of my peers mentioned that while they hated reading poetry in high school, they loved Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss, which may be two of the more modern poets mentioned in high school.)
Why do you think students tend to shy away from poetry? How can we break out of our small poet nucleus to share with the larger world? What are things done in classrooms (both in secondary schooling and college) that could change the attitude toward poetry? Is making poetry “accessible” something positive that contemporary poets should strive for?