I have many favorite dead poets, but one of my favorite living poets is Billy Collins. Billy Collins has a wonderful poem called Introduction to Poetry, in which he uses the line “tie a poem to a chair with a rope/and torture a confession out of it.” I love that line. While it really applies to the interpretation of poetry, arguing that you can just appreciate poetry without always explicating all its meaning, I would also apply it to the process of creating poetry.
As a young woman, fresh out of graduate school (which I attended immediately after college), I had the great good fortune to teach at my alma mater. I ended up teaching literature and writing there for 8 years. Since, at that time, the college was relatively small, I got to teach a whole array of literature and writing courses, including creative writing. Oh, what fun!
When we came to the poetry portion of the course, I had a most difficult time with students. It seems that when someone has a deep emotional experience, and puts that experience down on paper, the writer believes she (or he) has become a poet. I had the sad task of telling many an eager student that “just because you have felt deeply and have put those feelings on paper does not mean you have written a poem.” I also had the unhappy task of then looking into many a sad face.
So, what does make a poem? When I teach creative writing, or literature, I begin with prose. It is the most approachable form, in my opinion, because humans are born story tellers. If we were to be able to transport ourselves back in time, to the dawn of humanity, we would likely find a camp fire somewhere with a group of humans sitting around it at night wiling away the long hours by telling stories. If you think of some of the earliest great works of literature—the Odyssey, for example—what you really have there is a marvelous story, or really a series of events strung together into a story.
From prose, I move to poetry. I begin by asking students what the difference is between prose and poetry. And, inevitably, someone eventually says—they look different. And usually they do. Occasionally, you find a poem that is purposefully put into prose form just to challenge the reader and see it you can tell what makes a poem a poem. But usually you can tell it’s a poem just by looking at it.
Understandably, because of the kind of poetry students have been exposed to, I usually have someone say poetry rhymes. And I say, some poetry does, but not all. A particularly astute student might say, poetry has rhythm and meter. This is truer than poetry rhyming, in part because words have rhythm and meter. Some poetry arranges words purposefully so the rhythm is accented and repeated. The most common rhythm and meter—iambic pentameter (code for unstressed, stressed, repeated 5 times= da DA, da DA, da DA, da Da, da DA). That is the meter Shakespeare preferred.
Does an iamb confuse you? Think “Whose woods these are I think I know.” That is four iambs long. Oh well, getting too too technical.
After students have exhausted themselves trying to figure out what I might be asking them, here’s what I point out about prose and poetry:
o Prose speaks ABOUT something through the words; poetry MAKES something through words.
o Poetry IS what it creates.
Of course, the class goes on longer than that! But to achieve those two attributes what poetry does is select every word as though it were a gem. The word has to be just right, sparkling and packed with meaning. A poet can’t afford to waste words. You will find no (or maybe hardly any) modern poet who goes on and on the way Dickens does in one of his novels. Since he is writing prose, he can be profligate with his words.
Poets have to be parsimonious, sparing of words.
So, let’s find a poem to tie to a chair. How about Jane Kenyon’s “Let Evening Come.”
Let the light of late afternoon shine
through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.
Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.
Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.
Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.
To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.
Let it come, as it will, and don't
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.
Isn’t that wonderful? Look at some of the words and phrases that just sparkle: “chinks in the barn”; “cricket. . .chafing” compared to a woman with her knitting—but she doesn’t say knitting; she say “takes up her needles and her yarn.”
Or “moon disclose her silver horn.” And “fox go back to its sandy den”—not just “den” but “sandy den.”
And of course the repeated refrain of “let evening come” which holds the poem all together.
Well, untie the poem, let it shake itself loose from our temporary bonds. Now, just read it for pleasure.
Here endeth the lesson. Maybe another some day.