In this exercise inspired by Percival Everett’s novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier, and nuanced by Odysseus’s encounter with Polyphemus, my Craft of Prose students created a character with a name that causes confusion, a name that is either a negation or a pun, and then crafted a creation myth about their conception and birth in the character’s point of view. Check out Writing Exercise: “The Immaculate Conception of Nohbdy.”
Purpose: To consider how form changes meaning, emphasis, and tone; to practice imitation
Readings: “Envy of Other People’s Poems” by Robert Hass along with excerpts of poems by Larry Levis, Terrance Hayes, Natalie Diaz, Lynda Hull, George Oppen, and Linda Gregerson
Let’s look at “Envy of Other People’s Poems” by American poet Robert Hass. I’ve removed the lineation so that the poem appears as prose:
“Envy of Other People’s Poems”
In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing. It was only a sailor’s story that they could. So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed by a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of the sea, wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—and the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch, seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever on their rocky waste of island by their imagination of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.
With this poem as our foundation, let’s consider the symbiotic relationship between a poem’s subject matter and language. For the purposes of this class, “form” will be used less to talk about received forms like sonnets or ghazals but more about the format of the poem on the page, including its line length, breaks (enjambments and end-stops), drop lines, stanzas, etc.
Escape in Brilliant Highways: A Form Imitation Exercise
- Read the following excerpts from poems by other poets and reformat the Hass poem using the formal principles apparent in each of the excerpts. Keep in mind you shouldn’t rewrite any language of the poem; only manipulate line and stanza breaks, indentions, and spacing. As you read each excerpt, make notes about unifying formal strategies that you must include in the formal imitation.
Excerpt from “Anastasia & Sandman”
The brow of a horse in that moment when
The horse is drinking water so deeply from a trough
It seems to inhale the water, is holy.
I refuse to explain.
When the horse had gone the water in the trough,
All through the empty summer,
Went on reflecting clouds & stars.
The horse cropping grass in a field,
And the fly buzzing around its eyes, are more real
Than the mist in one corner of the field.
Or the angel hidden in the mist, for that matter.
Excerpt from “At Pegasus”
They are like those crazy women
who tore Orpheus
when he refused to sing,
these men grinding
in the strobe & black lights
of Pegasus. All shadow & sound.
“I’m just here for the music,”
I tell the man who asks me
to the floor.
Excerpt from “Cloud Watching”
Betsy Ross needled hot stars to Mr. Washington’s bedspread—
they weren’t hers to give. So, when the cavalry came,
we ate their horses. Then, unfortunately, our bellies were filled
with bullet holes.
Excerpt from “Tide of Voices”
At the hour the streetlights come on, buildings
turn abstract. The Hudson, for a moment, formal.
We drink bourbon on the terrace and you speak
in the evening voice, weighted deep in the throat.
They plan to harvest oysters, you tell me,
from the harbor by Jersey City, how the waters
will be clean again in twenty years. I imagine nets
burdened with rough shells, the meat dun and sexual.
Excerpt from “Myth of the Blaze”
night – sky bird’s world
to know to know in my life to know
what I have said to myself
the dark to escape in brilliant highways
of the night sky, finally
why had they not
killed me why did they fire that warning
wounding cannon only the one round I hold a
because of this lost to be lost Wyatt’s
lyric and Rezi’s
running thru my mind
in the destroyed (and guilty) Theatre
of the War I’d cried
Excerpt from “Sostenuto”
Night. Or what
they have of it at altitude
like this, and filtered
air, what was
in my lungs just an hour ago is now
there’s only so much air to go
- After creating your formal imitations of “Envy of Other People’s Poems,” reflect on each of these imitations and jot down your thoughts to these questions: How has the new form changed the poem? Has the meaning or tone changed? How so?
- Now, let’s look at the Hass poem formatted as the author intended it.
Envy of Other People’s Poems
In one version of the legend the sirens couldn’t sing.
It was only a sailor’s story that they could.
So Odysseus, lashed to the mast, was harrowed
By a music that he didn’t hear—plungings of the sea,
Wind-sheer, the off-shore hunger of the birds—
And the mute women gathering kelp for garden mulch,
Seeing him strain against the cordage, seeing
the awful longing in his eyes, are changed forever
On their rocky waste of island by their imagination
Of his imagination of the song they didn’t sing.
- Discuss. What are your reactions to the poem? Why did Hass format the poem the way that he did? What might subject matter have to do with the format? How did reformatting the poem reveal the author’s intentions about his form? How does the meaning of the poem change based on its form?