ENG 326 Writing Poetry: Intermediate University of North Carolina at Greensboro
8/17 Writing Exercise: “Ain’t There One Damn Song That Can Make Me Break Down and Cry?”
Re-examine the lyrics of the favorite song you brought into class, and respond to the following questions in your writing journal:
What genre is the song? What are the requirements (instrumentation, performance, subject matter, etc.) of a song in this genre?
Do you recognize in this song any of the key poetic concepts/terms we went over earlier today in class? This might include figurative language, concrete language, cliche, etc. Try to identify at least two.
Beginning in class and continuing over the weekend, write at least one verse and chorus as an imitation of your favorite song.
An imitation borrows one or more features of a work, including but not limited to structure and subject matter.
In writing these lyrics, you must include at least two passages that exemplify the key poetic concepts/terms we went over in class today.
Share these in class next Tuesday. You can read them aloud or, if you’re feeling it, you (or a designated performer) can sing or rap your lyrics.
On Tuesday, we will discuss how listeners of music are often more equipped to read and write poetry than we initially realize, and then we’ll explore the ways in which we can develop these skills so that they are more conducive to the expectations of poetry readers.
I spent last week teaching at Camp ArtWorks, a writing camp through Elizabethtown College and their Bowers Writers House. Each day I taught four sessions, each with 3–4 participants aged 13–17. For the first two days, we focused on sound in poetry; the next two days, we explored the lyric essay; and, finally, the last day we held a wrap-up and Q&A session that allowed the students to share.
Making Poems Sing
How do poems move? How do they flow? In this class, we’ll learn how to make original poems that, through their rhythm and music, sound great read aloud. Throughout the experience, we’ll use our voices as much as our pens to compose. (No singing talent required.)
Writing Exercise: “Possibilities”
Write an imitation of Szymborska’s poem “Possibilities.” In doing so, try to imitate the structure and form of the poem, retaining the anaphoric construction of “I prefer” throughout your poem, but create your own images and actions that are the objects of the “I prefer” statements.
Writing Exercise: “Tuning Fork”
Free write four lines on any subject. Your only parameter is that for every noun you use, you must select one that has at least one sound similar to the previous adjective, verb, or noun. This will create a “chain” of similar sounds that allow your poems to sound good read aloud. Let’s look at some examples together:
“The river flows like a bow and arrow, taut / As a tamed tangle”
From Rosal, a similar technique: “I rolled twenty-two deep, every / one of us lulled by a blade / though few of us knew the steel note / that chimed a full measure if you slid / the edge along a round to make it // keen.”
Share your lines with the group, and let’s talk about the effects of your sound chains in relationship to the subject matter and the reader’s perception of the poem’s emotion and tone.
What Has the Head of an Essay, and the Body of a Poem?
The Lyric Essay, that’s what. In this class, we’ll uncover the riddle of this new genre, and we’ll tell our stories through it, borrowing ideas and techniques from personal essays and story-poems. Bring your best stories, and a sense of humor.
Writing Exercise: “Memory2”
Pick a memory that you don’t quite understand or an experience that bothered you in some way. You could have been embarrassed, or you might have been too young to understand the consequences. Share with the class.
Write a paragraph in prose about the memory, as if you were to write a personal essay.
Re-write the memory in poetry. What details get left out? What language arrives? How is the telling different? Do you use any other strategies?
Writing Exercise: “Finding a Way In”
Re-examine the memory you chose for the “Memory2” exercise, and create a list of 5–7 objects, details, and images from that memory. For instance, my childhood memory of seeing a man hit a boy in the Target and then witnessing my mother chase the man recalls red, my mother’s purse, the toy aisle, fluorescent lights, the rings on the man’s hand, etc.
Start with the object most distant from the action and event, and describe everything about the object, from its appearance to your vantage upon it, in one paragraph.
Write a single paragraph about each object, working your way toward the action at hand. (For example, I would begin with the color red in the store, then maybe talk about the fluorescent lights, then talk about my mother’s purse that she dropped on the floor, and then describe the man’s rings.) At the end, you should have 5–7 paragraphs and the beginnings of a lyric essay that tells the truth but tells it slant, after Dickinson.
(Note: You may use some of your language from your previous exercise, if it works here.)
Your first writing exercise asks you to draw upon the concepts of concrete language, significant details, and mood-inducing setting from Chapters 2: Image and 5: Setting. The exercise is multi-part, so make sure not to miss a step.
Take a pen and paper (or laptop, if you’re more comfortable typing) into a space in which other people (preferably strangers) are interacting with one another or objects. Grocery store, coffee shop, doctor’s office, cemetery, public park—wherever you like. Feel free to do this exercise on a regular errand, if you can squeeze it in. Once you are in the space, I would like for you to set a timer on your phone or watch for a set time between 10–15 minutes. Without pausing to consider or edit, write down in a paragraph or list every detail from this space that you possibly can. This is called automatic writing, and it should allow you to efficiently take in your surroundings as quickly as possibly.
Please select one mood from the a list and one genre from the b list in which you’d like to rewrite your setting:
overjoyed, despondent, apathetic, devious, hopeful, grief-stricken, afraid, or something else
fiction or nonfiction
As we learned from Burroway, a concrete, significant detail means that the specific image appeals to at least one of the five senses and suggests an abstraction, generalization, or judgment. In other words, that detail reveals something more than just that object’s there-ness. It comments on something within the story or reveals something about the point-of-view character. We may also find that what a character selects to tell us about a setting is very revealing of their personality or mental state. Burroway writes: “Our relation to place, time, and weather, like our relation to clothes and other objects, is charged with emotion more or less subtle, more or less profound. It is filled with judgment, mellow or harsh. And it alters according to what happens to us.” As a very simplistic example, imagine that character A and character B walk into the seasonal section at the grocery store. A’s excited about the sale on the industrial-sized, Banana Boat suntan lotion that smells like pina colada, whereas B’s gravitate to the adult-sized arm floaties. These two things, although related and present in the same setting, reveal very different things about the needs, wants, and personalities of the two characters. We might concur that A’s interested in spending a lot of time in the sun and getting a tan, meaning that they are concerned about their looks, how they are seen. B, however, cannot swim (or swim well) and may even be afraid of the water. In this way, each of these objects are significant because they reveal something about the character. With all of this in mind, you will:
rewrite your description of the setting through the twin lenses of the character’s mood and the genre, being sure to only select those details that seem to reveal the character and the mood you want to cast over this place while leaving out incongruous information, but be sure not to tell us what mood you’re trying to portray
and then read your peers’ attempts at the exercise and guess what kind of mood they were trying to portray through the details they chose.
Last night I taught Text & Context, a poetry workshop sponsored by the Philadelphia Poetry Collaboration, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art‘s Final Fridays: Rebel, Rebel night. I prepared a handout with four poetry exercises inspired by pieces in the modern art wing of the museum for registered and drop-in participants. We had a total of twenty-seven participants, with the youngest participant at 7 years old. Although the exercises were meant for adults, they were easily adapted to younger participants, especially the acrostic and self-portrait poems.
I have included the writing exercises below, with photos of the motivating artworks. Because we only had two hours for the workshop, we were unable to get to the fourth and final writing exercise, inspired by Marcel Duchamp, called “Readymades.”
Writing Exercise 1: “Acrostic to What”
Artwork(s): “According to What” (1964) by Jasper Johns
Time: 20+ Minutes
Jasper Johns (1930– ) introduces words into this work by painting them on the canvas and allowing their ghosts to haunt the backdrop. In this writing exercise, I’d like for you to select one word from this piece and free-write an acrostic poem. In A Poet’s Glossary, Edward Hirsch contextualizes and defines acrostic poetry as “From the Greek: ‘at the tip of the verse.’ A poem in which the initial letters of each line have a meaning when read vertically. The acrostic reads down as well as across.” Here is a very quick (and unpolished example):
Just this: the gift-hibiscus Anguished by the cold context of Soil in a slow thaw, spring’s unguent tongue. Poignant is a word that implies the poisoned well Emotion, only it needs a human eye— Raw and farsighted, mirrored to the about-face of desire.
In 1967, Jasper Johns met Frank O’Hara, a poet of the New York School, art critic, and assistant curator at MOMA. Let’s read O’Hara’s poem “My Heart” and locate some visually associative connections between the poem’s images and Johns’s sculpture, “Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara).”
This poem is part self-celebration, part anti-apology, with a finalizing dash of ars poetica, that is, a poem about writing poetry. Ultimately, however, it is a self-portrait, one that fills in the speaker’s personality by degrees. Could we, however, think about Johns’s sculpture as a kind of figurative portrait of O’Hara? If so, what does the artwork imply about its subject?
Free-write a poem titled “Memory Piece (My Heart)” and use the epigraph, “After O’Hara and Johns.” In this poem, I’d like for you to create a self-portrait that is literal, as in O’Hara’s “I wear workshirts to the opera,” but also figurative, as this sculpture of Johns. What images describe you without describing you? Try to move back and forth between literal and figurative statements. Here’s a model of these two alternating moves:
All of my clothes have
at least one missing
button. Lately I’ve been a zipper
broken off its track. I drink
coffee on an empty stomach and peel
a rind on a clementine to find
rind upon rind underneath.
I am bad at self-portraits
because I have trouble looking
the stranger the mirror makes
me in the eye.
Writing Exercise 3: “Impress Me”
Artworks(s): “Sunflowers” (1888 or 1889) by Vincent Van Gogh
Room: 161, Resnick Rotunda
Time: 20+ Minutes
Think of something beautiful, startling, or grotesque you’ve recently seen from which you couldn’t turn away. It could be a flock of white birds rising from a snowy field or a deer skull on the side of the road, a clear vase on a basement shelf in which a spider has built a web or an evening shadow that crossed over a beloved’s face. Take five minutes to jot down every concrete detail you remember from that scene, no matter how small or insignificant.
Hirsch writes that “The poetic image is always delivered to us through words. Poetry engages our capacity to make mental pictures, but it also taps a place in our minds that has little to do with direct physical perceptions.” I would go further and insist that images are those tangible details in a poem that have extra meaning—what we might called “resonance”—than just their thisness, their thereness. They are the glittery surface images on a dark, deep well. That dark deep well contains our memories, the primary source of our meaning-making.
Go back through your draft and interrogate each and every detail: which ones are significant? Which are superfluous? Which details imply other details? Cut all those details that are just facts about that scene, and leave all of those details that ascend to the level of images. Remove all explanation, what we would call exposition, out of the poem. Allow the images to stand alone.
I would like to thank Steven Kleinman and Sarah Blake from the Philadelphia Poetry Collaboration and Jenni Drozdek and Claire Oosterhoudt of the Philadelphia Museum of Art for all their work supporting and organizing this event. Special thanks also to Alexis Apfelbaum of PPC and Justine of the PMA for their on-the-ground assistance, organization, and knowledge.
Select a single line or image from one of Jenny Johnson’s poems in In Full Velvet.
Free write a poem that begins with this line or image co-opted from Johnson. This can be phrased exactly the same way that she phrases it, or you can change it up to best suit your own poem. Remember that this is a starting point, and you should feel free to move away from this inciting image.
Today, before a reading, I will teach a poetry master class at Warren County Community College called I Have Been a Pleasure: On the Self-Elegy and Celebration. With a handout, we will begin by considering and reconsidering the definitions of elegy, praise poems, and ode from Edward Hirsch’s A Poet’s Glossary, making connections between each of these forms and their motivations, and then reading the following poems:
“Song of Myself” by Walt Whitman
“For the Anniversary of My Death” by W.S. Merwin
“On Leaving the Body to Science” by Claudia Emerson
“Mummy of a Lady Named Jemutesonekh” by Thomas James
“Elegy for My Sadness” by Chen Chen
“Beyoncé Prepares a Will” by Morgan Parker
“Someday I’ll Love Roger Reeves” by Roger Reeves
“Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong” by Ocean Vuong
Writing Exercise: “Don’t Be Afraid: Self-Elegy or Self-Celebration”
Title your poem “For the Anniversary of My Death (After Merwin),” “Elegy for My Sadness (After Chen),” “[Your Name] Prepares a Will (After Parker),” or “Someday I’ll Love [Your Name.”
Free-write a poem borrowing the dramatic situation from one of the poems we have read today, using a similar title in homage to that poet. A couple of considerations:
Will you write to yourself as a you or as an I?
Are you lamenting or celebrating yourself?
Is this a poem of greeting or goodbye?
If you are writing a self-elegy, are you elegizing your whole self or only a part? A time period? A sense of self? A place? Another person?
If you are writing a self-celebration, are you performing the act of Narcissus looking into the pool or is there something more potent beneath the surface at which you’re really looking?
Students in my online, 24PearlStreet “Every Phantom // A Story: Erasure and Revision” course explored erasure as a political and social justice act and then completed “Dear ,” an erasive poetry exercise, last week after reading the following assignments: