Note: My MFA students are discussing “On the Line” by Kazim Ali and “Line and Syntax” by James Longenbach in today’s class. Between this discussion and their workshop of Poem 1, they will do this short exercise that gives them an opportunity to think about the line as a unit that has expressive and impressionistic powers. You can download a PDF version of this exercise, with attached scans of Sappho’s fragments, by clicking on the link above.
Writing Exercise: One Line
On pg. 36 of “On the Line” Kazim Ali writes:
The poetic line ought not be buckled to conventional syntax, it ought to demonstrate the actual powers of poetry to move the mind beyond the mundane, as in Jorie Graham’s truncated Wyatt quote that opens The Errancy— “Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.”
The poetic line ought not be buckled to conventional syntax, it ought to demonstrate the actual powers of poetry to move the mind beyond the mundane, as in Jorie Graham’s truncated Wyatt quote that opens The Errancy—”Since in a net I seek to hold the wind.”
It [the poetic line] ought to be able to do more, be more, transcend the pedantic definition of language as a carrier of discursive meaning and by its motion enable the mind to follow and have an understanding that is past intellectual and enters conceptual.
Ali later quotes a few of Anne Shaw’s one-line poems posted to Twitter:
“help to winter me a small belief”
“you bereft believer say you will return”
“begin again in whether”
We might also be reminded of some of the fragments of Sappho, which are attached here. Let’s read them together and discuss what holds these “poems” together, how our brains react when “meaning” is more diffuse and phrasing/musicality/impression are more apparent.
In this exercise, you will write a single-line poem.
In order to do so, you will reject traditional syntax, maybe even working only in fragments. Write the single-line poem several times, with several different syntactical orders.
How many ways can you write this line and it still make sense?
Note: My Grad Poetry Workshop, which is made up of five first-year and five second-year students, wrapped discussion on Felicia Rose Chavez’s The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop yesterday. The following exercise allows students to practice moderating their own workshops (#2); to attempt an iteration exercise, which I assigned on the advice of Chen Chen (#4–6); to negotiate line breaks (#5); and to connect their bodies to the writing process (#7–9). As it was our second meeting of the semester, it was also a fabulous opportunity for the students to get to know one another and build trust prior to their first workshop next week. The exercise likewise prepares them to read Kazim Ali’s “On the Line,” which I assigned as homework. Ali writes, “we should talk about the line separate from [what] came before it or after it.” The outcomes: insight into sound and lineation, as well as lots of laughter.
“To be alive, you must exercise mobility, engage the senses, and laugh every now and then….For so much of our lives we’re schooled into stillness”
—Felicia Rose Chavez, The Anti-Racist Writing Workshop (pg. 75)
Split into pairs. (A first year with a second year.)
Take turns reading aloud your poems to one another. After doing so, share with your partner what you hoped (or are hoping) to do with the poem; your partner must engage in deep listening (not talking) as you tell them about the poem, answering some or all of the following questions:
Where did you get the idea of this poem? From an image, a phrase, a concept? Something else?
When did you write the poem? Under what conditions did you write the poem?
Did the poem go where you expected it to go or not? Do you think this is a good thing for the poem? Why or why not?
What are things you really like about this poem? (Be as specific as possible here and really go in for celebrating yourself and your craft!)
How would you like to change the poem in its next draft?
Now, you’re going to read aloud your poems to one another for a second time. After doing so, you and your partner will locate approximately six words in a row that are the most musical, that have the best “flow.” The passage doesn’t have to be a full sentence and it doesn’t have to make “sense.” Circle them.
Copy out the passage in your daily writing journal at least five times as it appears in the poem (with original line breaks).
Now, write the passage another five times; this time, add in line breaks in five new ways. (You can use virgules, i.e. “ / ”, to indicate line breaks if you’re having a hard time formatting it as you would in a word processor.)
Return to your partner. Read aloud the original version of the lines and all five new versions, emphasizing the line breaks through pauses or changes in your vocal intonation. Discuss:
How do the lines change when they are broken in new ways? Does the meaning change? The tone? The rhythm?
What sounds really catch your attention?
Outside of the context of your original poem, what is your favorite version of the passage? Which one engages your body the most? Its sense of dance and rhythm?
Create a series of movements that “act out” the passage, its rhythm, and its line breaks. These movements can be as literal or abstract to the text as you like—just make sure to be as creative and silly as possible!
Practice the movements, speaking aloud the words as you do them until you have them memorized.
Perform them for the class, which will cheer you enthusiastically!
Writing journal, with plenty of paper and/or your laptop
A previous draft of one of your poems
Six “stations” will be set up at even intervals around the room, each with its own set of instructions. They will be identified by the following names:
Lack of Punctuation
There will be six rounds of writing, each lasting 10 minutes. For the first round, Group 1 will be at Station 1: “Anaphora,” Group 2 at Station 2: “Heavy Enjambment,” etc. For subsequent rounds, the groups will rotate to new stations in numerical order. Students should have their previous poem draft and writing notebook at each station. Upon arriving at a station, each group member should read and follow the instructions on the card. After completing the assignment, you should have revised your previous draft into a whole new poem. If there’s time, each student should share their new, revised poem.
Station 1: Anaphora
Read your poem draft, and circle a phrase that is the most charged, most crucial to your poem. Re-write the poem and introduce a repetition of this phrase or syntactical unit. Read Joy Harjo’s “She Had Some Horses” for an example.
Station 2: Heavy Enjambment
Locate all of the end-stopped lines in your poem and circle them. Remove half of those end-stopped lines by breaking the line elsewhere in the sentence and thereby introducing enjambment. Take a look at Ross Gay’s “Love, I’m Done With You” for an example; pay special attention to incidence of enjambment in the first seven lines.
Station 3: Sentence Fragment
Turn at least two complete sentences in your poem into sentence fragments. See Chen Chen’s “Self-Portrait as So Much Potential” for an example of a poem that employs many sentence fragments.
Station 4: Lack of Punctuation
Remove the punctuation in all or half your poem, like Morgan Parker in “Take a Walk on the Wild Side” or “If You Are Over Staying Woke” respectively.
Station 5: Cut
The poet Jean Valentine tapes her poems up on her door after she initially drafts them. Every time she passes the poem, she cuts one word. In the next ten minutes, cut at least five words from your poem. Read her poem “God of Rooms” for inspiration.
I visited Rachael Stewart’s creative writing class at Elgin Community College today, where I asked students to pay intuitive attention to where lines are broken. I wrote the first stanza of “Inverstaid” by Gerard Manley Hopkins without lineation on the board. I asked them to put line breaks where they think he broke them, and then I asked them to break the lines so that the end rhymes would be subverted. We then discussed how lines have meaning and sentences have meaning, how they can complement one another or come into conflict. We then read Ellen Bryant Voigt’s “The Bear” to talk line break and punctuation, and then Lynda Hull’s “Ornithology” to chart the musicality of free verse.
Tomorrow, I’m teaching a one-day course called “Walk the Line: The Tension Between Line & Syntax” at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York. We will consider the relationship between poetry’s vehicles of meaning: the line and the sentence. In doing so, we’ll investigate the ways in which these structures support, nuance, and deny one another to achieve resonance, depth, and subtext within a poem. This course will be generative, with exercises that rely on close reading and formal manipulation of texts, as well as the drafting of new pieces. Whether you want to learn more about what your favorite poets are doing with their poems or discover how to break lines in your own, this course will insist that poetry is a craft, honed by exercises and study.
I taught a class titled “No River, No Bridge: Writing Poetry, Writing Nonfiction” at Appomattox Regional Governor’s School’s Writers’ Fest yesterday. We discussed hybridity of poetry and nonfiction, as well as the ways in which poetry can take on and explore “truth” using essayistic strategies without the requirement of “fact.” Several students came up afterward to show me their exercises, and one told me that she felt like it was one of the best things she’s written. The class ranged from high school students to adults.
In this course we will examine works of poetry and creative nonfiction in order to open up these genres to hybrid works. We will discuss features that are shared by the genres, how to bend the rules, and look at some examples before doing an exercise.
With over forty students in a one-hour class, we had these objectives:
Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein.
Think about the function and aims of each genre.
Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.
Write some assays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.
Examine definitions of genre and the elements therein. We looked at definitions of essays and lyric essays and Edward Hirsch’s definitions of line, lineation, lyric, prose poem, and stanza from A Poet’s Glossary. We looked at these definitions because they seek to define and, therefore, draw boundaries. We needed to know these definitions in order to explode these boundaries. In particular, we looked at Hirsch’s definition of line, in which he quotes Longenbach:
“Poetry is the sound of language organized in lines,” James Longenbach asserts in The Art of the Poetic Line (2008). “More than meter, more than rhyme, more than images or alliteration or figurative language, line is what distinguishes our experience of poetry as poetry, rather than some other kind of writing.”
And compared it to the prose poem definition:
A composition printed as prose that names itself poetry. The prose poem takes advantage of its hybrid nature—it avails itself of the elements of prose (what Dryden called “the other harmony of prose”) while foregrounding the devices of poetry. . . . Baudelaire used prose poems to rebel against the straitjacket of classical French versification. He dreamed of creating “a poetic prose, musical without rhyme or rhythm, supple and jerky enough to adapt to the lyric movements of the soul, to the undulations of reverie, to the somersaults of conscience.” Baudelaire’s prose poems—along with Rimbaud’s Les Illuminations (1886) and Malarmé’s Divagations (1897)—created a mixed musical form (part social, part transcendental) that has been widely and internationally practiced in the twentieth century. “There is no such thing as prose,” Malarmé insisted in 1891. “There is the alphabet, and then there are verses which are more or less closely knit, more or less diffused. So long as there is a straining toward style, there is versification.”
We thought about these paradoxes, discussed why lineation makes a poem a poem, as well as considered some alternative definitions. We then examined Hirsch’s definition of “lyric”—
The lyric poem immerses us in the original waters of consciousness, in the awareness, the aboriginal nature, of being itself. . . . The lyric, which offers us a supposed speaker, a person to whom we often assign the name of the author, shades off into the dramatic utterance
—in juxtaposition with a discussion of point of view in essay. Think about the function and aims of each genre. When I think about the intersections and differences of poetry and nonfiction, it’s helpful for me to illustrate the two genres with metaphors.
Poem as a river. With all of their musical elements, I think of poems as a river—something fluid, flowing, that rushes and eddies, deltas, and empties out to sea. Poems are one of our oldest forms of literature and therefore seem natural to our landscape of language.
Essay as a bridge. The essay, an analytical form, builds upon its subject piece by piece, element by element, fact by fact, experience by experience. We might think about this strategy as similar to building pillars with blocks, hammering planks together, supporting and trussing.
We might use these metaphors to understand hybrid works—nonfiction prose poems, lyric essays—better. Sometimes a poem is a river we want to cross; we see and hear the rushing water, but we want to examine it from a sturdy vantage point where we stay safe and dry. Some music comes into the poem, but we rely on the exposition that essays provide. Adversely, we could be in the water, prone to the rapids, splashed in the face, paddling fiercely. Just trying to stay afloat in the overflow of language, of experience. There are times, however, where we might pass under the shadow of a bridge, have insights into reason, into conquering this flow, bridging one experience to another. Read excerpts of texts that bridge the gap between poetry and nonfiction.
“Say It, Say It Anyway You Can” by Vievee Francis (two versions—the prose poem version from Rattle and the lineated version that appeared in her collection Horse in the Dark). Let’s take a look at this poem, which started off as a prose poem and then became a lineated poem. Discuss the poet’s possible reasoning for lineating the poem. What are the effects of the two forms?
An excerpt from Citizen by Claudia Rankine and an excerpt from Bluets by Maggie Nelson. Talk to me a little bit about what these prose forms borrow from poetry. Are they poetry? (How were they marketed? How were they identified?) Is it enough to say something is poetry? Nonfiction? Are these true hybrids? How would you categorize it? Does it need to be categorized?
Write someassays—yes, some attempts—that use both poetry and essay strategies.
“No River, No Bridge” Exercise
Select an everyday object that’s in your house. Ex. a television, a pair of jeans, a can of kidney beans. (1 min.)
Now describe the object using all of your senses, with only concrete details. Do not use any metaphors or other figurative language. (2 min.)
Imagine how the object was made. Write a step-by-step description of its fabrication. (3 min.)
Imagine the harvesting, mining, or creation of the raw materials that went into making this object. (i.e. the shearing of sheep for your wool sweater or the mining of silicone to make your iPhone). Describe. (2 min.)
Now talk a little bit about how you came to own this object (and talk about not remembering how you got it, if that’s true.) Tell us the backstory. Or, what connotations does the object have? Do you have specific memories associated with it? (2 min.)
Now describe the object using only metaphors. (“My pair of jeans is muddy water reflecting sky, a bird with clipped wings . . . ”) (2 min.)
Share and discuss: How has the object changed in each iteration (concrete description, origin story, deconstruction, entrance, emotional connection, metaphorical naming)? Which form (poetry or essay) better conveys these approaches? Why? How can we combine these strategies?