Text & Context: A Poetry Workshop at the Philadelphia Museum of Art

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Text & Context participants sharing their new poem drafts in the Resnick Rotunda. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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
Room: 177
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.

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“According to What” by Jasper Johns, 1964. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Writing Exercise 2: “Memory Piece (My Heart)”
Artworks(s): “Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara)” (1970) by Jasper Johns
Room: 177
Time: 20+ Minutes

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.

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Poetry Workshop: Text & Context participants writing in gallery 177. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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“Memory Piece (Frank O’Hara)” by Jasper Johns, 1970. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

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.

Read “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound, which emphasizes the image as the crucial and working element of a poem.

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.

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“Sunflowers” by Vincent van Gogh, 1888 or 1889. Philadephia Museum of Art.

 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.

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Poetry Analysis Exercise

Détail de la carte de Montréal de 1859 faisant ressortir Pointe Saint-Charles.


Class: Intro to Creative Writing
Genre: Poetry
Readings: A poetry packet featuring the poems listed below
Time: 30 minutes

Group 1: “Wherever My Dead Go When I’m Not Remembering Them” (Shapiro) and “In the Waiting Room” (Bishop)
Group 2: “Perpetually Attempting to Soar” (Ruefle) and “The Lovers of the Poor” (Brooks)
Group 3: “Your Wild Domesticated Inner Life” (Banias) and “Dorothy’s Trash:” (Johnson)
Group 4: “My Story in a Late Style of Fire” (Levis) and “The Day Lady Died” (O’Hara)
Group 5: “The Mare of Money” (Reeves) and “In Colorado My Father Scoured and Stacked Dishes” (Corral)
Group 6: “Scrabble with Matthews” (Wojahn) and “Ode to Browsing the Web” (Wicker)
Group 7: “The streetlamp above me darkens” (Faizullah) and “A Pornography” (Rekdal)
Group 8: “To a Fig Tree on 9th and Christian” (Gay) and “Animals Are Passing From Our Lives” (Levine)

Read each poem assigned to your group. Answer these questions:

  1. What’s the dramatic situation of the poem? Meaning, what’s going on? What’s the scene or the conflict? (Ex. For Matthew Olzmann’s “Notes Regarding Happiness,” the speaker is attempting to post a happy birthday message on a friend’s Facebook wall.)
  2. How does each poem get from its beginning to its end? Is it narrative (a story) and therefore moves in a linear fashion? Are there associative connections between images? Examine the relationship between images in these poems.
  3. Describe the tone. Is the poet sincere?
  4. Describe the style of this poem. Is the language conversational or esoteric? What does the poem sound like?
  5. Describe the form of this poem. Is it in couplets? A single stanza? Etcetera? How long are the lines? Why do you think the poet chose this form?
  6. Do these two poets have anything in common in terms of their style, strategies, or motivation for writing?
  7. If you were going to write an imitation of one of these poets, who would you pick? How would you begin? Start drafting a few lines using the strategies you described above.