Every day that we’re reading from Runyan, Stallings, Manning, or Gioia you will bring an applied analysis of one of the poems you read that day. I am borrowing this assignment from one of my former poetry teachers. It’s what taught me to read, see, and live as a writer of poetry. Over the course of the semester you will each write 16 of these, and I hope that you find them to improve your poetic eye. So that we can all benefit from your insights, we’ll often discuss these in class. When I start a discussion by asking, “What poems would you like to talk about today?” that’s a cue for you to respond by bringing up the poem about which you wrote an applied analysis. Here’s how my former teacher describes the assignment:
The most important work you will be doing in this class does not consist of a big project or two. Instead, what’s most important is the work you’ll be doing every day. Becoming a good poet is all about what you do with the “every-day-ness” of your life. You may even find that the “every-day-ness” of your life improves as you become a practicing poet. I hope you find that possibility exciting.
But back to the point: There’s just no way around it: to write good poetry, you have to dedicate a chunk of your life to doing the things that good poets do. And good poets (1) read the poetry of their contemporaries, (2) relate that poetry to their own writing (just as musicians glean licks and techniques by watching each other), and (3) write frequently.
To help you achieve that end, which is really more like a means, I’m going to be assigning you blocks of reading from the poets I’ve chosen as models. If you don’t really like poetry all that much but just needed a writing course, this reading will be a pain. But if you’re “into” learning to write poetry, this won’t be work at all—at least in the unpleasant sense.
Some of the poems you read you will not enjoy—your eyes will run over the words and you’ll respond, “Why? Whuh? Duh?” At least that’s my experience. About more poems—maybe 90%—you’ll probably just mutter, “Well, yeah, ok.” But about a very select few you’ll think, “Ah—that breaks my heart”; or, “Ah—now that’s how I want to write”; or, “Oh oh oh, I think that took the top off my head.” Here’s a poem that did that for me, many years ago:
Lying in a Hammock at William Duffy’s Farm in Pine Island, Minnesota
Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.
(from James Wright’s Collected Poems, Wesleyan UP, 1972)
When you get to a poem that does for you what Wright’s poem did for me, I want you to do this exercise (it’s the best poetry writing exercise I know):
First, write a 50-100 word description of what is going on in the poem—how and why the poem works. (Some people might call this a rhetorical analysis.) Make your rhetorical analysis as specific as you can.
Next, write a little paragraph that begins with, “Had I written this poem, I would have. . . ,” then continues to relate an experience or story or image or metaphor that you would have used to create a similar poem. In other words, you should be copying the deep structure of the model poem, but writing the paragraph out of your own life experience and thought-life. If I were to fulfill my own assignment, my two paragraphs on Wright’s poem would have looked like the chunk below. Notice that while the tone is more or less informal, the writing is clear and carefully edited.
In “Lying In A Hammock. . . .” James Wright begins with a detailed set of sensory descriptions—what he sees, hears, feels, etc., while lying in the hammock. Some of his images are surprising—seeing horse manure as “golden stones,” for example, changes the way we perceive things. Several of his images have powerful resonances—as if they’re symbols, but we’re not sure of what. When he ends the poem with a final declaration of having “wasted [his] life”—we are forced to ask ourselves what he means—has he spent too much time in the hammock or too little?
Had I written this poem, I might have written about what I saw in a Greyhound station, noting all the people that seem to be going off somewhere, often in desperate straits. (No one, it seems, rides a bus by choice.) I would describe several of them, trying to find the few details that suggest a bigger story, but leaving that for my reader. Maybe I could have even found a metaphor that seems to fit. Then I would end with a statement that says two things at the same time: it would say “I pity them,” and simultaneously it would say “I wish I was off to do something that might make life change.”
What I’m trying to help you discover, you see, is that this is often where poems come from—from ideas and structures in other poems generously mixed with our own life experience. When a practicing poet reads poetry, s/he’s looking for ideas, and not just some of the time. I learned this piece of brass-tacks knowledge from songwriters. They make no bones about the predatory nature of their observations. Unlike songwriters, poets are often trained as critics, not writers, so they tend to make lots of excellent observations about poetry, but, strangely enough, they don’t tend to read like practitioners. Now you know better. Do predatory reading!
If you actually get to the heart of the structure, this exercise will allow you to make great strides in your knowledge of how contemporary poems are structured. In fact, I’ll go so far as to say this: if you do this exercise whole-heartedly each time, you will become a halfway decent poet in the next three months. If you simply make a little summary, it’s a waste of time. Unfortunately, this is a very easy assignment to fake—that is, you can simply fill some paper and earn your check mark. It’s your choice, and it’s a choice you have to make each day.
Now here’s the third step in the exercise, but you do not need to do it each time: actually write the poem that you have described in your paragraph. Actually, if you always do this third step, you’ll have plenty of poems to choose from when you compile your portfolio.