The fall quarter begins on Sept. 21 at Northwestern, and I’m teaching–as I do almost every year–a section of our beginning poetry writing course for undergraduates. It’s a prerequisite for students who want to take the beginning-level courses in fiction or creative nonfiction, so for some of the students in the poetry course, their enrolling is not what they would move have wanted to do. But I always emphasize to them as we go through the quarter how useful the poetry writing course will be for all their future writing. And there *are* some who really do want to write poems.
I have been revising my syllabus yet again, as I have done every year I have taught the course. In my experience, nothing has been more tedious, frustrating, impossible to perfect, and important, than getting the syllabus right. But I never have gotten one completely right. What do I do each year? I change some of the specifics of writing assignments and also can’t help seeing how to say thing better in a short introductory essay with which my syllabus begins, and also in my detailed explanation of the kinds of writing assignments they’ll do.
Among other things on this blog, I’ll post some comments on the course as we go–as I did once before, a few years ago–and I’ll also provide the major documentation, which may be of interest to other poets and to some of those who teach poetry writing. To readers of poetry, too, because first of all, this is a course which by design begins with reading. The title in fact is Reading and Writing Poetry. Each of my fellow instructors on the faculty in the English Department creates his or her own syllabus and focus; what we have in common is that we all want to teach the students how to read for everything that good poems do, in their multifarious modes of meaning-making, how to heighten their awareness of the language they use, how to revise their poems, and how to begin to master the reading of the historical trove of poetry in English.
To show them how to read pentameter–which I think most of the textbooks, essays, and poets’ guides over-complicate in the way they present it–I teach how to listen first of all for speech stresses, and then how to hear the interplay between these and a metrical scheme, since it’s that interplay that makes metrical verse interesting and powerful, not meter in and of itself.
I have created my own short anthology, typing out the poems, correcting the typos in them each year as I continue to discover them, pulling some poems out and putting others in each year, and adding notes here and there, or clarifying the ones I had already put in place. And I have written my own short glossary of poetic/literary terms, which I put at the end of the anthology.
For today, I’ll use this post to provide the introduction to the course that I put at the head of my syllabus. Soon I’ll post the table of contents of the whole anthology. And I’ll post a number of the prose comments by poets and scholars that I have fitted into white space on pages not occupied entirely by a poem or the end of a poem. One collects such things and finds them useful. Or better, challenging. Taken together, all these comments are a wonderfully, perhaps hopelessly, heterodox view of poetry. But I’m for heterodoxy.
It has taken me weeks off and on to produce this revision. The result may not show the value of my efforts. And I’m sure that if I look at it on screen again, I’ll see more to revise….
ENGLISH 206: Reading and Writing Poetry
(Introductory paragraphs of the syllabus:)
As you read and reread poems, pay close attention to the sounds and rhythms of words and the shapes of sentences and sentence fragments and of lines. The shape of a sentence (or fragment) is created by its length, rhythm, order of clauses, word choice, and anything else about the syntax that catches our attention; the shape of a line is created by its length, its rhythm, and its relation to the sentence—whether it ends a sentence (or fragment) at line’s end or within the line, whether it completely contains a sentence (or fragment) or constitutes only part of it (see “enjambment” in the Core Glossary at the end of our anthology.)
As you work, listen to your own lines carefully, attentively. Think of yourself sometimes as a composer. You arrange words, not pitches, but words have a great variety of sound, and like a composer you too will repeat sounds and also vary them. You too will create rhythms, but with words, not musical notes.
Notice how a poet may use stanzas (and white space) to achieve some of the effects of the poem on us, as we absorb the poem’s pace, its sound, its sense, and especially its movement from idea to idea, image to image, feeling to feeling.
What excites you (passages, whole poems)—can become an artistic model for a poem of your own. Can you yourself use something from that model?—qualities of language, shapes and rhythms of lines and sentences, tone of voice, even word by word, line by line, stanza by stanza, as aspects of structure?
As you write and rewrite poems, enjoy discovering how your draft of your poem moves, from beginning to end. Then work with the arrangement and sequencing of sections and lines to make the poem move in a more exploratory way. (In part, writing is exploring.) When you are revising, you will find a more decisive structure (i.e. movement).
Writing a poem, you bring particular realities (personal, social, historical; reasoned, speculative, emotional, spiritual, imaginative) into a highly deliberate choice of words and a vividness of language which in turn evoke for and in the reader (as for and in you) a lively imagining.
In fact, those realities are discoveries that you bring more fully to light by drafting and revising the poem. This is because what we have written is not likely to be what we think we have written, or what we thought (consciously) we wanted to write. The intuition from which we may start has to be helped on its way to articulation. The poem has to be real-ized. As the Roman poet Horace wrote, “The string does not always return the sound that the hand and mind desire” (neque chorda sonum reddit quem volt manus et mens—Ars Poetica 348)
Of course, different poets work in different ways. Those who have read deeply and listened closely to poems will have a better technique and sense of structure. Some who have the unusual gift of rich and even cohesive spontaneity may work for a while by only making notes for a poem, and in their minds collecting materials for it (the “materials” of a poem are everything that’s in it—particular words, events and places, ideas and feelings, people, experience, research, and sometimes most important: other poems). Some may do research—to inform themselves and retain key information in notes, while they begin to find their way toward what the poem will be. Some may formulate phrases before they write; some may get a sense of how to structure a poem before they write. Some have described composing in their minds, drafting and revising in memory; then they write down the poem in finished, or nearly finished, state. Many poets in our day prize inventiveness and surprise and quick movement over all other poetic values, but the aura of spontaneity that they give a poem will often have been achieved in fact by revising.
You offer your reader an inner experience that will arise out of your poem, not an explanation of your experience or of where it came from. You offer the reader the aptness and memorability (and perhaps wit) of your language. You offer the freshness of your perception and imagination, and the specific qualities of your feeling.
You also write to discover what language itself can do, and you may have the sense that it wants to make some of your decisions, some choices of its own, when you write a word that perhaps you did not consciously intend to write. If that word (or phrase) is ready-made, then language is not in play in a creative way but is instead enforcing conformity. It’s not easy to listen to language keenly enough to hear what’s ready-made, but a good poet practices such listening, and puts awareness of ready-made language into practice.
You write poetry not only because you wish to put words into especially meaningful sequences of sound and movement, of thought and feeling, and not only because you want to express or depict something deeply important to you, but also—and without this you can do very little—because you have read poetry.
~ ~ ~
You must try to write with as little ready-made language (of perception, feeling and thought) as possible.
Different social groups have somewhat different senses of what’s “ready-made” in the language we use, and thus in our attitudes, ideas, opinions, beliefs, and responses to nearly everything. No one is exempt from this aspect of our formation as language-using beings.
We need and we feel deeply and unconsciously our allegiances to social groups. Aristotle wrote that “by nature man is a political animal”—meaning a creature whose life is lived with others in a town or city (Greek polis—i.e., a community). Since he did not live in modern America, he could never have foreseen how each of us as an individual must guard against being principally identified by our American social identities, which are so often treated as “demographic” segments of “the market.” (In Aristotle’s time, “media” meant almost entirely … speech.)
As a poet you aren’t describing or opining on a large topic—such as religion, race, gender relations, women’s pay and rights, failed systems of education, American attitudes toward sports. Yet any of these topics or others may be the “background reality” of a poem. After all, we are inescapably inside our attitudes when we notice and ponder and write about a person, an event, a memory, an experience, an idea, an allegiance, a painting, a horse, a tree, a feeling. We have big topics on our minds, but in a way these concerns and realities hold us within them, since we adopt most of our attitudes from others. So it’s no surprise that there’s ready-made language available for all of this. It comes into our own words very “naturally.” We are susceptible to its appeal because it is consensual—after all, we do want to communicate with others. But ready-made language, by definition, has already been shaped—not only by everyday speech, but also by the goals and effectiveness of the media that we have been unable to escape and that we have internalized; we have spent thousands upon thousands of hours (unwittingly) practicing that language, which means practicing a way of thinking that is at least partly determined by that language—even though we never thought of what we were doing as “practicing” (as if to perform better). But we’re social, “political” animals.
In our responses to experience (including our experience of reading), we are caught somewhere between volunteering our social and linguistic conformity (or rebelling against one kind of conformity only in order to join another) and finding words that will convey something of individuality. After all, “it is the fate—the genetic and neural fate—of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own path, to die his own death” (Oliver Sacks). Making art involves individual choices about where to locate oneself between one’s uniqueness and one’s shared formation, experience, values, and language. What each of us enacts in the language, what each of us uses when writing is partly who each of us is, both in intimately individual ways and willingly social ones.
Yet while genetically and biologically each of us is indeed a unique being, and in us that genetic and biological identity does not change, nevertheless our identity as whole beings also includes many aspects that do change. Some of that change we create in ourselves. Making art is one of the ways we do that, although we don’t necessarily make art with that as our primary goal. William Butler Yeats wrote a famous quatrain: “The friends that have it I do wrong / Whenever I remake a song / Should know what issue is at stake: / It is myself that I remake.” (American culture is now thoroughly saturated with the idea of self-remaking—but not in the sense Yeats meant.)
In writing a poem, the language we use is ideally what we come to with the most freedom of choice, and yet also with the most knowledge of poetry. And there’s one more important thing: in a poem, we may want to create a space that includes what we (almost?) cannot say because of the nature of language itself—or at least a space for what we do not say in conversation, because of social constraints.
Please go back during this quarter and refresh your thinking about these instructions. They should look much more recognizable to you by the end of the quarter than they do at the beginning. And so the same with the paragraphs below!
Reading, discussing, writing and revising
Our study will be primarily on poetic technique. But poetry is not only a technique; it’s a particular stance toward language, and it’s an art. So your existential task is to get a feel for what it’s like to take a stance of your own toward language itself, as well as toward poetry and all creative writing.
I’ve created a small anthology—about 140 poems which together exemplify many elements of poetic technique and poetic purposes. We won’t have time to discuss even half of these remarkable poems together, but the full range of our anthology can equip you to write better, and in fact to get a sense of what writing well really means, in poetry and in prose. In class, we’re going to read poems together to see and hear everything we can in each of the ones we discuss.
It will always be very helpful during classroom discussion for you to mention specific poems that are relevant to whatever our topic may be.
Learning how to read a poem means listening to the rhythms in the lines, the sounds of the words, repetitions of various kinds (from a mere phoneme to much larger chunks of language or formal shapes). Repetitions are a form of emphasis and an aspect of how a poem creates artistic justification for what it says and where it goes. Repetitions are also simply a way of marking the language as poetic. Pay attention also to patterns of various kinds that may be either expected, because they are related to traditional structures (like a stanza or a rhyme scheme), or ad hoc, if the poem, while its whole shape may be unique, creates its own internal patterns. And reading a poem means getting a sense of the shape of the poem as a whole—of how the steps it takes as it moves forward in time create meanings beyond definitions of the words (their function of “representation,” their “semantic” value). Simply put, a poem does this by giving language the opportunity to be more fully meaningful. (See “Language Functions” at the end of the Core Glossary.)
One analogy for rapid poetic thinking is montage: the way film creates meaning by jumping from one shot or scene to another. The effect is created by what film shows but also by what we imagine between the shots, or rather, by jumping from one to the next without transition. That is, what we “fill in” with tremendous speed in our own minds. (Montage as mere “jump-cut” has been enormously speeded up in all visual media over the last 30 years. Presumably, different speeds of montage create different kinds of imagining, and we can assume that the faster the cuts come, the more our brains have to process. Think about a Hollywood movie from the 1950s or earlier versus a music video. The acceleration of “jump-cuts” has happened in poetry, too. But there’s a substantive and imaginative difference between the montage in T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, a small portion of which is in our anthology, and the jump-cuts of a TV ad. Eliot’s not trying to sell us anything, literally.) Our minds can move very fast; some poetry, even in antiquity, has taken advantage of this speed of mind to create a sense of simultaneous different meanings in even short passages of a poem. We’ll learn some ways in which this is done.
We have to learn how to see and hear as much as we can of what we have actually, really, put into the poem—not what we think we have written there, not what we were thinking and feeling while we wrote the draft of the poem or the first revision or the second, not what we wish were there.
We revise in order to make a poem more meaningful, poetically eloquent, and powerful and in order to think with poetic technique rather than in a conversational or straightforward prose way; but ust as important—perhaps more!—is that we revise also to discover what we ourselves have written in our drafts, so that we won’t leave important elements of it hidden from ourselves and unused in the poem.
Likewise, a musician must be able to hear what s/he actually plays or sings, not an idea or assumption or belief about it—s/he must be able to hear it, to recognize it, technically (oh!—I’m not playing those bars clearly; oh!—I’m not phrasing those words properly as I sing) and also must be able to hear (and recognize) it emotionally.
In terms of poetic technique, you’ll learn to recognize the shape and variety of sentences and sentence fragments (syntax); the shape of the rhythm of a line; imagery (especially visual imagery, but also imagery related to other bodily senses); the differences between concrete language and abstract or discursive language. Just as composers use the different qualities of instruments and voices, and visual and sculptural artists use different qualities of their media and their materials, poets often use the different qualities of words. For example, we’ll learn to perceive the contrast in qualities between the two major etymological families of words in English: those with Old English roots (i.e., Germanic words) and those which derive ultimately from Latin (mostly through French, in England, and then through Spanish, in America). (There’s a third category of words in English: all the rest! These have been gobbled up by English and have helped fill the biggest linguistic belly in the history of human beings, with words derived from Greek, Arabic, every language that the British Empire so aggressively confronted, and other languages, too, as well as new technological terms and other neologisms.)
The two most important figures of speech, or tropes, are metaphor and metonym. These we use abstractly for thought (when, as in Shakespeare’s sonnets, words are often more symbolically than concretely evocative) but we also use them very concretely to convey a keenly perceived physical world (as in many poems in our anthology). Does your choice of words (diction) bring the reader to see the physical world in its concreteness? (This is a capacity that is tremendously strong in the English language, not only because of the qualities of English but also because of the social and cultural and even technological history of speakers of English, from the Renaissance to the present day.)
You’ll write with increasing understanding of poetic technique, and you’ll also achieve a degree of freedom of thought and feeling for yourself. You’ll choose your own words (aided by what other poets have chosen—that’s how art-making works). You’ll write with independent-minded noticing of language and the world.