Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Tie a Poem to a Chair

(April is national poetry month--this post celebrates that event.)

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.


Mary said...

Good Mornin' Donna,
Givin' ya a holla,
Thanks for the lessin',
Glad there ain't no testin'!

SORRY - please don't hate me. I am silly this morning.

I take your lesson seriously and I'm also in awe of your talent, as I've said before. You must grimace when you read my posts.

Cathy said...

Oh! The Kenyon poem! Oh! and Oh! again. I'd not read this before. And your photos - perfect - lovely.

Forgive me, Donna, if I've already whispered to you that I was the lucky recipient of the third place award in last year's Robert Frost Poetry Contest. I would have loved to travel to Florida this month to participate in the doings, but my darling's surgery has buffeted us a bit. It was shear luck that my poem was acknowledged, but, oh my - for an under-achiever it was such a joy.

Pam said...

Thanks! you gave me something to think about. I am no poet but write "poetry" anyway. The words and emotions come and if I like how they express my feelings, I keep them. And sometimes post them.

The poem you posted is lovely, it drew me in and filled my mind with images...moments in time found in my memory.

KGMom said...

Mary--not to fear being silly, all is forgiven & forgivable. You capture the experience of poetry perfectly when you play with words and create a poem.

Cathy--I don't recall you saying you are 3rd place Robert Frost winner. Cool. Frost is a consummate poet whose simple words belie an intricate structure and LOTS of work on his part.

Pam--glad to "take you on a trip." If I get ambitious and post future poems, I hope they will lift you as well.

Climenheise said...

I remember some of those classes at your alma mater (and mine). I was a mathematics major for two years because of you: didn't want to have my sister for a prof. My reward was to fail math, switch to English, and have you five semesters in a row -- nothing higher than a B+ and nothing lower than a B-. My memory is that I had one advantage: I could guess sometimes where your mind was going, when others in the class were still struggling. The reward of long years of association.

I don't think I studied poetry with you. I have always thought of myself as an essayist (in so far as I think of myself as any kind of writer). Poetry is a high calling: something that lands in one's lap or is embedded in one's soul. (Are journalists embedded with the military metaphors for poetry?)

But the poetic turn is there often enough in my writing, I think, and in much that I read on other people's blogs. So simple a phrase as "long years of association" has the feel of poetry about it.

I'm struggling a bit with "prose says; poetry is": I suppose that prose sometimes partakes of poetry even without becoming a poem.

Thanks for the brief lesson, sandwiched between other lessons on the floor where I teach.

KGMom said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
KGMom said...

Just deleted my own comment above--I made a mistake--I try very hard not to do that.
Good grief, brother dear. Five semesters of me--how did you stand it? But then you had no choice--downside of a small school.
I do apologize for the B+ to B- range. I should have been more generous. You suffered because I thought I knew your capabilities. You have far surpassed anything I taught you. Well done.
As for prose being poetic, I quite agree. For example, I am just now reading LIFE OF PI--it has wonderfully poetic passages. When I encounter such in prose, I just savor them, roll them around on my tongue!
You can ask my students now: I am still stingy with As. One student asked what it takes--I said, you have to write papers that sparkle!

dmmgmfm said...

My cousin Dale says that if you have to underline a word, you need a different word. What does that have to do with this post? Probably not much, but I'm lightheaded from giving blood and platelets, so hopefully you'll give me a break.

Remind me to come back and re-read your lesson when I'm a bit more clear-headed, okay? :-)

Anonymous said...

I just love poetry and only wish I could write some! instead, I will just read others!

Ruth said...

To me, poetry is art in words. I cannot draw, but that doesn't stop me from doodling, drawing stick people and daisies. I admire good poetry and once in a while will "doodle" at it as well...meaningful to me, but not good poetry. (How I hated poetry composition at school!)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the refresher course. I don't read that much poetry, but maybe I'll try again - you make it sound more interesting.

Anonymous said...

What a fun lesson today!!! I love love poetry and used to write it very badly I am afraid. I did win our college's creative writing award one year and got a free dinner!!! I would have loved to be in your class - but hey -- I am- I am here in your blog!!! Happy Easter to kgmom Blog and readers too!! Oh I liked the poem and will check out the links.

Molly said...

Thank you SO much for providing the link to this post! Billy Collins came to speak last year at the campus I was attending. Listening to him read his own poetry selections helped to de-mystery poetry for me (I don't think I have ever been "taught" poetry, and I sure struggle to teach it). I used the Introduction to Poetry poem in class for the first time this year, and I think it helped put my students' minds at ease.

I have never heard the phrase: prose soeaks about something but poetry makes something. There is a lot of meat in that statement and something that I should ponder this summer.

I vascillated between taking a pedagogy Shakespeare class or poetry class as a summer school course (the other course is one on creative writing. I opted for Shakespeare, but my roommate is taking the poetry class. I am hoping that we can share notes and insights throughout the summer.