When I am out of town on November 30th, my colleague will be discussing the poems from the “Befriend Me: Poems of Social Media & Technological Engagement” packet and then leading the Poetry Workshop in the “Befriend Me” writing exercise. I hope to do this again with my spring Craft of Poetry course, and go more in depth with the exercise and the class’s engagement. Thanks to all of those on social media who suggested additional poems for inclusion in this reading packet.
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?
Class: Introduction to Creative Writing (The College of William & Mary)
Purpose: To consider how language is the raw material with which all writers work and to consider the unique challenges that poetry in translation offers
Readings: A packet of poetry in translation
A native speaker of a foreign language that you do not speak has given you a literal translation (that is, a word-for-word rendering) of a poem written by a poet who writes in her language. The native speaker has asked you to further translate the poem so that it makes sense and is a good poem.
The poem’s original language is from a unique language family and shares no roots with English. Because of this, there are some words that are almost untranslatable in English; the native speaker has done her best to provide you with some sense of those words, sometimes substituting phrases or even metaphors for individual objects. Additionally, because the grammar of the original language is so unique, the sentence structure often doesn’t work in English. Not only will you have to find translations for individual words, you’ll have to make sense of those words in foreign syntax.
You read the translation*…
Think Lagunitas business
Loss innovation. It seems that the old way of thinking. The idea, for example, eliminates the sense that the general idea of light. The resurrection of the dead birch, black, the face of the first month, or any other theory of the world tribal carved sad because the skills to deal with the clown Beck, anything associated with Blackberry Blackberry word complaint if it does in this world, it is. We talked last night, my friend, marina trouble hearing sound thin. After that, I knew it from the start, and judges, and chin, hair, and the woman, and you, and I am his wife, and I remember that I love you still, it was several times small shoulders in his hands, and was surprised to see the face of violence, such as the drought and salt and the river of my childhood and Willow Iceland, sad songs levels, such as mud fish, we have a little money should pumpkin orange. It is difficult to deal with. It is necessary if we want to get an external desire eternal. And did the same to him. Reminds me a lot, and his hands and the length of the bread and said that his father hated him because he was asleep. Time was the word supernatural, flesh and body. Love, lunch and dinner, and BlackBerry.
*In order to produce this text, I ran Robert Hass’s “Meditation at Lagunitas” through several different languages (Maori, Chinese Traditional, German, French, Arabic, Finnish, Irish, and Icelandic) in Google Translate before translating it back into English.
The native speaker has also noted that the original poem was in one stanza and contained thirty-one lines. The literal translation, however, is in prose. She has converted the original poem into prose in order to preserve some semblance of the original syntax, and she hints that most of the lines contained between seven and ten words, except the last line, which only contained four.
You get to work and set about your translation systematically:
- You assess the overall tone of the poem, considering if it’s joyful, melancholic, bittersweet, or meditative.
- You then summarize the poem, identifying its:
- addressee (if there is one) and/or audience;
- primary themes;
- and motivations and/or stakes.
- You now notate those places in the poem in which there seems to be some kind of shift in setting, direction, and/or tone. (This could also include an associative leap between images or thoughts. If you notice one of these leaps, briefly summarize the connection.)
- You then start the hard work of translating the poem, sentence-by-sentence, for clarity. At this point, you might begin to take some liberties with the text. As you’re revising the sentence, decide if you want to:
- change any words or phrases so that the poem will seem more accessible to North American readers (i.e. an American might write “truck” when an English translator would write “lorry”)
- or change any language that doesn’t seem essential to the overall meaning of the poem but that might make the poem sound more musical.
- Now begin to format the poem for line length, breaks, and stanza structure. Decide whether or not you want to try to mimic the poem’s original format. (If not, make a case for it.)
- Share your translation.
Class: Beginning Poetry (Tinker Mountain Writers’ Workshop)
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.
- Imitate all or many of the strategies of that specific poem.
- Imitate general features of the poet’s style.
- Write a poem in the persona of the poet. (His/her general voice, not just the voice on the page.)
- Do a loose imitation using one element of the original poem. This could even include response poems, poems with lines of that poet, etcetera.
- Write an imitation of the poem you brought in. (15 min.)
- Write an imitation of one of the other poems. (15 min.)
- 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?