“On Poetry’s Relevancy” and a Reading Poetry Exercise

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Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)

Genre: Poetry

Purpose: To encourage students to be generous, curious, and discerning readers of poetry and to consider poetry’s impact on culture.

Readings: Poetry‘s July/August 2014 issue that includes poems by Dean Young, Philip Fried, D.A. Powell, Traci Brimhall, Devin Johnston, Rosanna Warren, Amanda Calderon, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Rickey Laurentiis, Timothy Donnelly, and Alice Fulton

Sharing “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” Assignment
Several volunteers will share their “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” assignment (500 words, completed outside of class) in order to start a discussion on the topic. Students should feel free to debate this question, supporting and/or countering one another’s arguments. Some students may take a more person approach, answering the question “Why is poetry relevant to me, my life?,” whereas other students might consider macro reasons as in, “Why is poetry relevant to society? Our culture? Politics?”

ON POETRY’S RELEVANCY
In a class in which the term “relatable” is banned, it may be difficult to understand why the “relevancy” of poetry is, well, relevant to our discussion. Aren’t these two concepts synonymous? Don’t they both suggest poetry’s ability to appeal to our emotional, cultural, or intellectual needs? Let’s break it down. “Relatability” as a concept, used in comments like “The poem’s subject matter of a child’s dog being run over by a car is so relatable because we’ve all lost something or someone that’s close to us,” has the expectation that, as Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker, “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” “Relevancy,” however, suggests that the work has social or practical pertinence or applications, meaning you can use the poem as a means to access other points of view and to understand your own role in society. “Relatability” is a connection between what you’ve already done and what’s happening in the poem. “Relevancy” is a movement between who you are now and how you can understand what’s going on in the world. “Relatability” is predicated on the past, whereas “relevancy” is predicated on the present and, for some, what’s to come. One looks backward, one looks forward. “Relatability” is passive, and “relevancy” is active.

Patricia Smith’s poem “Skinhead” is in the persona of a white supremacist who says things like:

I’m just a white boy who loves his race,
fighting for a pure country.
Sometimes it’s just me. Sometimes three. Sometimes 30.
AIDS will take care of the faggots,
then it’s gon’ be white on black in the streets.

Scary, right? It may be helpful to know that Patricia Smith is a poet of African descent. So, ask yourselves, why has she chosen to write in the voice of a violent white supremacist? Perhaps it’s an act of empathy, of trying to understand this person, but I imagine it would be incredibly hard to have any sort of tenderness toward such a person. Or: she has chosen to draw our attention to this kind of voice in our country so that we can know about this sort of threat. Or: she has situated herself in direct with white supremacists and saying, “See, I know what you’re thinking.” In that way, it may make her appear stronger for having gone through the writing of this poem, and in some ways, she may have triumphed over this point of view by bearing witness to it. Whatever the reason, this poem is certainly not “relatable” to Patricia Smith or, I hope, to you. But is it relevant? Discuss.

In-Class Assignment
Break up into groups of two or three. I will assign each group one poem from the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry that you read over the weekend. Read the poem, and then compare your “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” essays. Now, do the following:

  • Write down how this poems moves. Is it narrative (it tells a story)? Associative, meaning it jumps around a lot? If it’s associative, consider how the poet jumps between each line? For instance, in “Romanticism 101” by Dean Young, what’s the train of thought that has “Then I realized I hadn’t secured the boat. / Then I realized my friend had lied to me. / Then I realized my dog was gone” all on the same tracks? (How do the boat/friend/dog relate?) Is it literal, meaning it sticks to “Just the facts” or does it employ figurative language like simile and metaphor (as Rosanna Warren does: “still she offered each song, / she said, like an Appalachian artifact.”)
  • Now compare your “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” essays. Does this poem exemplify any of the points in your essays? Why or why not? Be sure to address points made in each essay.
  • If you didn’t think the poem exemplified some of your points, think of why other readers might find the poem valuable. If the poem did appeal to your points, think about why other readers might not think the poem is valuable? Consider multiple points of view. Write this down and type it up later as an addendum to your essays. Post it to Blackboard before Thursday, August 28th.
  • “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” Flash Essay Assignment

    Salvador Dali illustrates Montaigne’s “Of Vanity” (1947)

    Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)

    Genre: Poetry

    Purpose: To encourage students to look for the relevancy of their studies to culture; to consider the effects that poetry has on readers; and to explore their own motivations for seeking out poetry instruction.

    Readings: Poetry‘s July/August 2014 issue that includes poems by Dean Young, Philip Fried, D.A. Powell, Traci Brimhall, Devin Johnston, Rosanna Warren, Amanda Calderon, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Rickey Laurentiis, Timothy Donnelly, and Alice Fulton

    I’ve asked my students to write at least 500 words on “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” after they read Poetry‘s July/August 2014 issue this weekend. On Thursday, we talked a little bit about our expectations for what poetry is, can be—that many people believe that poetry was something impenetrable and written a century or more ago. My hope is that they will investigate this question on their own and arrive at a diverse conclusions on why poetry is relevant. With that, I’ll point you back to the opening of my Writing Poetry course description as a clue for this assignment’s motivations:

    American poet C.D. Wright once wrote: “If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance . . . I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words.” In this course, we will hold poetry to this noble standard, as an amplifier for the voices in our culture and an invocatory rendering of our world.

    On Writing Poems, Workshop, and Reading Like a Writer

    ON WRITING POEMS, WORKSHOP, AND READING LIKE A WRITER

    Reduction of the Flesh from Health and Beauty for Women (1923)

    Reduction of the Flesh from Health and Beauty for Women (1923)

    Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)
    Genre: Poetry
    Purpose: To introduce my students to the expectations of the course while providing them with some insight into the process of reading, writing, and workshopping poems.

    On Writing Poems

    In this course, I will not assign topics or subject matter for your poems. This is meant to give you the greatest freedom on the page to discover your obsessions and “fundamental orientation toward language,” as psychologist D.W. Winnicott calls it. (Poet Tom Sleigh eloquently talks about this concept in relationship to poetry.) If you want to spend all semester writing poems about abandoned amusement parks around the world with lots of white space and dashes to indicate absence and something severed or cut off from the world, go for it. As long as you turn in at least twelve lines on time for each of your seven poem assignments, I have no qualms about the subject matter or style. Some of you may find that your natural orientation toward language is one of concision and twelve lines is all you can muster; others will write voluminously. Some with short lines, some with long. That said, don’t worry about “finding your voice” in this course. In fact, I hope that many poets don’t ever “find their voice” but rather chase the echo of the voice they have in their heads. That way they don’t get too comfortable with the way they write, and they are free to keep challenging themselves to create something new every time they sit down to the page. So every time you write about an abandoned amusement park, challenge yourself to make that poem as unique as that locale.

    Some General Rules About Writing Poems

    • Always put your name on your poems. We’re going to have a lot of paper floating around every workshop week, and we want to be sure we know who belongs to the poems.
    • Do not write with end rhymes. Only the truly skilled will be able to handle full end rhymes with any kind of zest and originality. For the rest of us, we’ll be forever shackled to “moon” and “soon.” For the purposes of our class, we’ll write primarily in free verse so that you can get into the habit of writing regularly and freely. That said, if you want to continue studying poetry, I encourage you to investigate form, prosody, and rhyme on your own or in a Form and Theory of Poetry class.
    • Please only use standard fonts. That means Times New Roman, Garamond, Arial, and maybe Cambria, Baskerville, Caslon, or Book Antiqua. If you turn in a poem in Comic Sans, Papyrus, Chiller, or similar fonts, I will return it to you until it’s in an appropriate typeface.
    • Never, ever, ever, ever put your poems in different colors or accent them with clip-art. This isn’t fun. This is distracting and irritating.
    • Eschew abstractions. Yes, some of the very best poets do engage with abstractions, but they do it in ways that engage the tangible. “Love” in Sylvia Plath “set [her] going like a fat gold watch.” It didn’t “descend from the cerulean blue heavens on the wings of temptation.” Fat gold watch = good writing. “The cerulean blue heavens” and “the wings of temptation” = terrible, terrible. For the purposes of this course, I want you to use clear, specific, and significant details. Fat gold watch = clear, specific, and significant detail. Love = abstraction. “The cerulean blue heavens” and “the wings of temptation” = flowery, overblown, cliché, abstract, highly coded, unrealistic, and uninteresting language. We will talk about this throughout the semester.
    • Slam poetry and spoken word are compelling art forms, but they are not a part of this course. Think about it this way: You wouldn’t expect to make sculpture in a painting class, so why would slam poetry—a form of performance art—fulfill requirements in a class about poetry on the page? If you want to talk about slam or spoken word, please make an appointment with me, and I’ll be happy to talk about these topics.
    • Always read your poems aloud when you write, edit, or revise. You’ll be surprised how much your poems will begin to engage the part of you that’s geared toward rhythm and sound. You’ll hear internal rhyme and hear where the poem slows down or speeds up. You might even find where there’s some grammatical hiccups, and it allows you to distance yourself from your head. When you read aloud your poems, you become audience to your own poem. This distance will make it easier for you to recognize what’s working and not working, too.
    • Sometimes you have to kill your darlings. This phrase has been in almost every writing workshop in the last one hundred years, but it still remains true. Say you love one section of your poem and you’ve crafted a compelling narrative around that section, but the section you love so dearly derails the narrative by waxing poetic. You may have to remove it to save the poem. But hold onto it. You never know when a new poem might come out of it.
    • Sometimes the best revision is to start a new poem. Regardless of whether or not a poem makes the cut, you should learn something from the process of writing it and sharing it with others. What we learn from one poem we take with us into the next, and the next, and the next. We’ll talk more about revision as the first one’s due, but keep this in mind throughout the semester.
    • Your poems don’t have to be perfect. Isn’t that a great feeling? This is a workshop after all, and everything should be in progress. Don’t turn a poem in that you feel is finished, because you’ll likely find that it’s not. This only leads to disappointment. Besides, when your peers are asked to comment on something, they will. Even the most famous poems would be taken to task in a workshop setting. But that’s okay. This is a place to receive constructive criticism. Not praise.

    On Writer’s Block

    I don’t believe in writer’s block as a phenomenon. I believe that what we call “writer’s block” is simply second guessing oneself before getting anything on the page. Sometimes the best way to start writing is to start writing. Sound like a paradox? It’s like feeling sluggish about going on a run because you haven’t gone on a run. If you don’t know what to write about, go out on the Compass and people watch. Start writing about someone there. Read the newspaper and write in the persona of the Congressman arrested for a DUI. Describe the condiments on the table at The Village. Start somewhere, and you’ll get somewhere. Often what’s troubling us or what excites us most will come out in whatever we’re writing about, overtly or subtly. The roller coaster has to climb the hill before it can achieve its speed.

    On Finding Subject Matter and A Poet’s Life (On Writer’s Block II)

    A student in a class once asked, “My parents never divorced. I don’t know a single person who’s died, and I’m happy. How can I write a poem?” How can you not? Flannery O’Connor wrote: “Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.” That means both good and bad things. And being a poet doesn’t mean you have to slug fifths, chain smoke, listen to jazz, and say, “Yeah, man.” That’s a stereotype, a hold over from the 50s. (And one that’s brilliantly parodied in Roger Corman’s 1959 B-movie, A Bucket of Blood.) Yes, it’s harder to write a joyful poem than a dark poem, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And, surely, you’re capable of great feats of imagination and empathy. Remember Mark Doty wrote: “Literature makes other people more real to us.” I say: Writing poetry makes other people more real to us.

    Why Workshop?

    Workshop allows you to receive comments from peers about the effects your poem—what’s working and not working—has on a reader. In the same way that Hollywood tests films before releasing them to theaters, you have a “test audience” for your work. As you are all submitting and responding to poems in this workshop, the class should establish a trust that will allow you to be receptive to and comfortable providing feedback. The format should also encourage you to do things on the page you wouldn’t normally try. Additionally, and just as importantly, you will become more adept at talking about poetic craft. In my own undergraduate and graduate workshops, I often learned just as much by reading, thinking about, and responding to my peers’ poems as I did in my own workshops. Therefore, writing your own poems and reading others’ poems are equally valued in this course. Here you will not only become better writers, you will become better readers of others’ work—and your own.

    8-Minute Workshop Procedure

    • Poet reads poem aloud for workshop so that it’s fresh in all of our minds. Note: After reading aloud the poem, the poet cannot speak until prompted by the instructor at the end of the workshop.
    • A workshop participant should provide a brief synopsis of the subject matter, narrative (if there is one), and/or the major associative leaps. If anyone else disagrees with the synopsis, that opinion should be voiced as well. Contradictory understandings of what the poem is about will let the poet know that some more work needs to be done to set up the poem.
    • The class should locate and analyze what’s working well in the poem.
    • The class should locate and analyze what’s not working well in the poem. (Hint: Sometimes, asking questions about what the author intends is the best way to reveal a poem’s inadequacies.)
    • The instructor will open up the floor to the poet to ask or answer questions.

    What Are Helpful Comments?

    • “The couplets [two-line stanzas] reinforce our attention on the two characters that are present in the poem.” This demonstrates that you’re thinking about how poetic form can support subject matter.
    • “The metaphors here don’t seem to be in the same wheelhouse as the subject matter.” This demonstrates your attention to significant details.
    • “I’m not sure exactly what’s happening in this stanza. I can see two possibilities, which are…” This demonstrates your willingness to engage in speculation and your desire to really understand how the poem works.

    What Are Unhelpful Comments?

    • “You need a comma here.” At this stage, nitpicking small grammatical features isn’t useful to the workshop. It will take up time that we could use talking about more important issues that will help the poet in revision and new work. Even if you fix all the commas, it doesn’t matter if the poet has to take apart the poem and start from scratch. But if you must direct the poet’s attention to this sort of thing, write it on your copy of the poem. Don’t be Captain Obvious and point out something that, in all likelihood, the rest of the class has noticed.
    • “We all love our mothers, so we can really see this happening.” See the “On ‘(Un)Relatability’” section of this document. It’s essentially the same thing.
    • “I just don’t like the speaker.” Perhaps the author intended you not to like the speaker. Demonstrate your ability to discuss the poet’s intentionality and speculate as to how the speaker’s “unlikeability” works within the poem.

    Some General Rules

    • Always refer to the “speaker”/”character” of the poem. We never assume that Suzie Q. the author is the same as the Suzie Q. of the poem. (Even if we were workshopping Dante, we’d always say “the speaker” or “the character of Dante” in the Divine Comedy.) This helps us focus on the craft of the poem and not the circumstances behind it and therefore protects confidentiality and makes your peers more willing to share their work with you.
    • Focus on how language is working (or not working) in a poem. This takes practice and a lot of experience with reading poetry, but now’s the time for you to start to think about language
    • Workshop is not therapy. None of us are licensed professionals and, besides, we’re more interested in how you put together that poem than what motivated it.
    • Workshop is also not the place for you to exercise your personal beliefs on politics, religion, sexuality, etcetera. When we talk about poems, we talk about how they are crafted, regardless of whether or not you agree with the subject matter. Should I see or hear any response to a poem that attacks the poet’s personal beliefs, I will address this matter, at the very least, with a deduction to your participation grade.
    • On that note, the class should never—never, never—workshop the poet and/or the poet’s beliefs/actions. We will be reading a lot of poets who represent many different aesthetics, beliefs, and lifestyles in this course. If you can’t get past the subject matter or the context, you will never be able to appreciate good poems.

    On “(Un)Relatability”

    For the purposes of this course, the term “relatable” and all of its derivatives (“I can/can’t relate to this”) is prohibited. The poet Chad Davidson has summed up my concerns about “relatability”:

    Here’s the rub: whether or not someone in a workshop relates to someone else’s poem is of very little consequence to me or to the poem. It’s the reader’s job to go in there and get some of that relation. A failure to relate, in my book, is a failure of the reader, not the poem. There may be all sorts of other problems with the poem, but relatability is never one of them.

    Example: I am not a Danish prince with an existential (if quite eloquent) crisis. Hence, I cannot relate to Hamlet. Neither am I a whiny, self-important, late-medieval Tuscan on a journey through hell. Hence—mi dispiace, Dante—sorry, buddy, but can’t relate. I’m not even Catholic.

    . . . Put another way, the idea of relating to a poem is absolutely the lowest common denominator of judgment. More so, it’s just a cover for what we really mean: I don’t understand the poem or I am uncomfortable with the poem or, perhaps most disturbingly, I just don’t care about the poem. All of those questions we can handle in a workshop. That’s in fact what the workshop is for.

    (To see the rest of his essay “Can You Relate?,” go to: http://www.32poems.com/blog/7048/prose-feature-isnt-life-enough-three-takes-workshop-part-1)

    Reading Like a Writer

    Francine Prose, in Reading Like a Writer, reminds us that “language is the medium [writer’s] use in much the same way a composer uses notes, the way a painter uses paint. I realize it may seem obvious, but it’s surprising how easily we lose sight of the fact that words are the raw material out of which literature is crafted.” So, in reading like a writer, we’ll look at language as a set of raw materials in much the same way that any craftsman would look at raw materials. A boatmaker might say, “This wood has a fine grain, except for this spot here, this knot, that’s a weak spot.” What words stick out in the fine grain of the sentence? A cook might say, “Cinnamon and fish don’t go together.” We might say, “This long line that takes forever to read doesn’t go well with your subject matter of a piano falling fast from an open window.” See how that works?

    Readings Lists and Course Descriptions for Fall 2014 Semester

    With the fall semester starting at Virginia Commonwealth University this week, I have started to think about some new writing and reading exercises for my students. As these exercises will relate with our course goals and readings, I thought I would share my course descriptions and reading lists for my two classes, English 215: Textual Analysis and English 305: Writing Poetry.

    ENGL 215: Textual Analysis

    Course Description
    “The Captive Body, The Body Captivating”—In order to investigate the means by which writers have control over textual bodies, we will examine a century’s worth of narratives about individuals’ control, or lack thereof, over their physical bodies. Beginning with Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis (1915) and working our way toward Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams: Essays (2014), we will explore through class discussion and written assignments the relationships between identity, form, and point of view. In doing so, students will hone their abilities as close readers and critical thinkers, analyzing the writers’ choices in presenting these narratives and their effects on the reader, as well as the historical significance of each text and its consequence in today’s debates about individuals’ rights over their own bodies. In addition to the following primary texts, we will also read criticism that reflects a diverse approach to these issues, including new criticism, feminist and queer theory.

    Required Texts

    • Atwood, Margaret. The Handmaid’s Tale. Knopf Doubleday, 1998. ISBN: 978-0385490818.
    • Carson, Anne. Autobiography of Red. Vintage, 1999. ISBN: 978-0375701290.
    • Huxley, Aldous. Brave New World. HarperCollins, 2006. ISBN: 978-0060850524.
    • Jamison, Leslie. The Empathy Exams: Exams. Graywolf, 2014. ISBN: 978-1555976712.
    • Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis, In The Penal Colony, and Other Stories. Touchstone, 2000. ISBN: 978-0684800707.
    • Morrison, Toni. Beloved. Vintage, 2004. ISBN: 978-1400033416.
    • Nabokov, Vladimir. The Annotated Lolita: Revised and Updated. Vintage, 1991. ISBN: 978-0679727293.
    • Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. Bloomsbury, 2012. ISBN: 978-1608196265.

     

    ENGL 305 Writing Poetry

    Course Description

    American poet C.D. Wright once wrote: “If I wanted to understand a culture, my own for instance . . . I would turn to poetry first. For it is my confirmed bias that the poets remain the most ‘stunned by existence,’ the most determined to redeem the world in words.” In this course, we will hold poetry to this noble standard, as an amplifier for the voices in our culture and an invocatory rendering of our world. In doing so, I’ll ask you to not only read and write poetry but begin to look at your surroundings as a poet would. This requires close examination of images, scrutiny of your thoughts and feelings about subject matter, and consideration for other points of view. Additionally, you will be asked to think deeply about language, in terms of its meanings, its sounds, and its rhythms. You should bring to this class a hard work ethic supported by curiosity and generosity. As a means of introduction to the craft of poetry, students will submit original poems for workshop, a collaborative discussion about writing techniques and their effects on readers. In addition to workshop, you will be asked to engage with the writing of contemporary poets, to read like a writer would. I’ve chosen seven contemporary poetry collections and Poetry magazine so that you will have a lens through which to examine the current landscape of American poetry and to see that even today poets are still trying to “redeem the world in words.”

    Required Texts

    • Bendorf, Oliver. The Spectral Wilderness. Kent State University Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-1606352113.
    • Diaz, Natalie. When My Brother Was an Aztec. Copper Canyon Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-1556593833.
    • Emerson, Claudia. Secure the Shadow. Louisiana State University Press, 2012. ISBN: 978-0807143032.
    • Faizullah, Tarfia. Seam. Southern Illinois University Press, 2014. ISBN: 978-0809333257.
    • Reeves, Roger. King Me. Copper Canyon Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-1556594489.
    • Smith, Carmen Giménez. Milk and Filth. University of Arizona Press, 2013. ISBN: 978-0816521166.
    • Trethewey, Natasha. Native Guard. Mariner Books, 2007. ISBN: 978-0618872657.