Physical & Poetic Spaces

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.

Poetry in the Classroom: As Students & As Poets?

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?


The next in the sequence

This blog will be collectively authored. It’s collective authors are an open series: unpredictable in number or name.

It will, we hope, be of interest to the SUNY Geneseo community, to the SUNY system, to poets, and to those curious about poetry. To achieve this, though, it needs both to listen and to inform.

How, then, might we do both things? Let the posts that follow invent those ways, sometimes reporting from the field, sometimes seeking others’ opinions, and always seeking a horizon that isn’t the circular discourse of poetry worlds that orbit one another but only one another. Post as fizzing comet, at least from time to time.

Ending up in Form?

In his introduction to A Broken Thing: Poets on the Line, Anton Vander Zee reminds us of an argument made by Stephen Cushman, among others, that (perhaps) “American poets since Whitman have tended to “overvalue the
formal aspects of their art, investing those aspects with tremendous significance” (6).

Vander Zee’s introduction is a worthy read in its own right, and I’m being reductive in not mentioning his nuanced discussion of how form must be engaged with “the world around the poem” (21); he does, after all, take James Longenbach to task for not attending to that world in The Art of the Poetic Line.

Mentoring Ph.D. students teaching composition, I was once accused of focussing too much on technique (on form), and not enough on the ethics and politics of the writing classroom. It might be fair to level the same accusation against the poetry classes I help shape. And yet I can’t see form as being separate from the social groups and environments it reveals. It seems to me that unless we are talking about form, we can’t be meaningfully talking about politics, ethics, or social responsibility. William Carlos Williams’ refusal to write with someone else’s mouth (in his case, refusing, then, to write sonnets) and Countee Cullen‘s insistence on a subversive need to write sonnets are both markers of the fact that when we investigate the form of our engagements with the world, we are investigating the purpose and flaws in our engagements with the world. It’s like the above picture: the politics of a dam cannot be disconnected from the artificial incursion into geological space, which is itself a series of incursions.

What am I missing? Where am I overvaluing form without knowing it?

Poetic Line as Zipline?

I’m scared of heights and speed, or of hitting the ground at speed from a height.


But I’m wondering if the poetic line might need to act, at times, as zipline: as a trajectory and velocity from A to B which carries with it the possibility of calamitous descent?

(Zip)lines pulled from Stephen Motika’s ‘Delusion’s Enclosure: on Harry Partch (1901-1974)’

                                            good news of lights, curtains


suffering in homeless sea, thunder, lightning, lost to

and from Lyn Melnick’s ‘Casino’

that whirl around the masts. Here we are adapting, greenhouse,

Perhaps it’s not the line in isolation that feels, precarious, like a zipline, perhaps it’s something about the termini, the lines that have led us here and we hope will lead us forward, but these lines teeter for me, are written precisely yet with risk: Motika’s accumulation of commas that roil us towards our own disorientation; Melnick’s heavy caesura on the period and the fraughtwork of ‘adapting’ that follows, with its breakable image of the greenhouse.

What might it mean to write the zipline?