Craft of Poetry Discussion Exercise: “What Is a Poem? What Is Poetry?”

Note: In this in-class discussion exercise, my ENG 2030 students were able to interrogate the questions “what is poetry?” and “what is a poem?” by looking at different texts, some poetic and some religious and some musical, in order to answer the question. The links to the texts are below the directions.

screen-shot-2017-01-27-at-1-49-05-pm

 

  • A traditional Irish blessing.

May the road rise up to meet you.

May the wind always be at your back.

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

and rains fall soft upon your fields.

  • These passages of religious texts (Qu’ran and Bible).

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the palm of His hand.

Have you considered him who turned away?

And gave a little, and held back?

Does he possess knowledge of the unseen, and can therefore foresee?

Or was he not informed of what is in the Scrolls of Moses?

And of Abraham, who fulfilled?

That no soul bears the burdens of another soul.

And that the human being attains only what he strives for.

And that his efforts will be witnessed.

Then he will be rewarded for it the fullest reward.

And that to your Lord is the finality.

And that it is He who causes laughter and weeping.

And that it is He who gives death and life.

 

Return, O LORD, deliver my soul: oh save me for thy mercies’ sake.

For in death there is no remembrance of thee: in the grave who shall give thee thanks?

I am weary with my groaning; all the night make I my bed to swim; I water my couch with my tears.

Mine eye is consumed because of grief; it waxeth old because of all mine enemies.

Depart from me, all ye workers of iniquity; for the LORD hath heard the voice of my weeping.

The LORD hath heard my supplication; the LORD will receive my prayer.

Let all mine enemies be ashamed and sore vexed: let them return and be ashamed suddenly.

 

 

 

  • Benjamin Bagby performing excerpts from Beowulf with harp accompaniment:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iago’s Wife & Borges’s Babel

I keep returning again & again to these underlined lines in “The Library of Babel” by Borges: “If honor and wisdom and happiness are not for me, let them be for others. Let heaven exist, though my place be in hell.”

And they make me think of my namesake Emilia’s lines in Othello: “Let heaven and men and devils cry, let them all / All, all cry shame against me, yet I’ll speak,” which I have tattooed on my back. My ars poetica, my body magic.

Fantastic Creature Telephone Exercise

Portrait of a man-bat (Vespertilio-homo), from an edition of the moon series published in Naples. (Courtesy of the New York Public Library.) (1836)
Portrait of a man-bat from The Sun and the Moon: The Remarkable True Account of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, and Lunar Man-Bats (1836), published in the US before 1923 and public domain in the US.

To jumpstart my Writing Out of the Ordinary students thinking about the weird and wild, I created the following exercise for the first day of class.

1. The class breaks up into groups of at least five. Each group designates a leader and forms a line.
2. Each leader reads an entry in Borges’s Book of Imaginary Beings for two minutes. (I used “The Bird That Makes the Rain,” “A Crossbreed by Kafka,” and the “Hare in the Moon” as they’re among the shortest entries in the book.)
3. The leader then returns to the group and whispers details about the creature to the next group member; each member then whispers it to the next until everyone has heard about the creature.
4. The last group member must write, from memory, a summary of the creature as it was last described.
5. Each group then hands the summary to the leader of an adjacent group.
6. The groups then brainstorm and write a narrative (daily routine, an encounter, origin story, etc.) for the new creature.

There’s several “translations” here that I asked my students to consider:

1. text to memory,
2. speech to hearing (multiplied by however many students are in a group),
3. intention of the writer (the last group member) to readers (the next group),
4. and information (transcription) to imagination (the narrative).

This exercise introduces students to a practice of imaginative thinking, asks them to consider readers’ relationship to text, locates significant and memorable details, and provides them with a chance to interact and thus establish a good rapport with one another—a boon to future workshops!