Form’s Relationship to Subject Matter + “Escape in Brilliant Highways: A Form Imitation Exercise”

The_Sirens_imploring_Ulysses_to_stay_(1886)

Genre: Poetry
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:

ROBERT HASS
“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

  1. 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.

a.

LARRY LEVIS
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.

b.

TERRANCE HAYES
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.

c.

NATALIE DIAZ
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.

d.

LYNDA HULL
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.

e.

GEORGE OPPEN
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
superstition

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

f.

LINDA GREGERSON
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
              in yours,
                     there’s only so much air to go

       around.

  1. 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?
  1. Discuss.
  1. Now, let’s look at the Hass poem formatted as the author intended it.

ROBERT HASS
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.

  1. 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?
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Conversing Across the Chasm Exercise

An altercation concerning wives (1814)

An altercation concerning wives (1814)

Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Genre: Poetry
Readings: Each others’ poems
Time: 30 minutes

  1. Each class member should respond to a poem written by the person seated on their right. They can argue or interrogate an idea, provide an anecdotal narrative that relates to the first person, or work associatively away from the original kernel to access something new. Participants should remember their addressee’s personality, concerns, and
  2. The next step has two variations. Students should then write a response to:
    • the response to their own poem so as to create a dialogue between the two poets, or
    • the response written by their original addressee so as to create a chain of communication.
  3. Share.

Imitation, Imitation Exercise

Minerva by Elihu Vedder (1897)

Frontispiece of The Colours of Animals by Edward Bagnall Poulton, showing Mimicry in South African Butterflies (1890)

Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
Genre: Poetry
Readings: Their selection
Time: 50+ minutes

Ask that the students bring in one of their favorite poems. (My students brought in “Meditation at Lagunitas” by Robert Hass, “Fever 103°” by Sylvia Plath, and “[Carrion Comfort]” by Gerard Manley Hopkins.) Have each student read the selection to the class and lead a discussion on the poem’s features, movement, and form.

Consider some of the ways one can write imitations:
  1. Imitate all or many of the strategies of that specific poem.
  2. Imitate general features of the poet’s style.
  3. Write a poem in the persona of the poet. (His/her general voice, not just the voice on the page.)
  4. Do a loose imitation using one element of the original poem. This could even include response poems, poems with lines of that poet, etcetera.
Then have them do the following exercise:
  1. Write an imitation of the poem you brought in. (15 min.)
  2. Write an imitation of one of the other poems. (15 min.)
  3. Discuss. What imitation strategy did you choose? Why? Did you find yourself more able to imitate your selection or another’s? Why? Which imitation was hardest? Can you more easily discern some of your own fundamental orientation to language, ticks, go-to strategies, etcetera through the imitation process?