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?
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.
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?
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?