Friday, December 4, 2009

More about upcoming assignments

Prepare to discuss these Ashbery poems in class on Monday (Hoover):
Jeannelle, Daisy "Picture of Little J.A. in a Prospect of Flowers" (the title refers to an earlier poem)
Noah, Natalie "Paradoxes and Oxymorons"
Patrick, Caleb, Suzy "The Other Tradition"
Renee, Amanda, Daniel "Farm Implements and Rutebegas"

Read assigned "Language" poems (see assignment below) for Wednesday. Bring a poem to rewrite as a language poem.

for Monday the 14th: Daniel, Antonia, and Jeannelle will workshop, because they all got passed over in our last round of workshops.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Upcoming week

11/30: group three workshops
12/2: group four workshops
make an appointment to meet with me by 12/8. At this meeting you should bring a collection of your poems and the poems you pick for your final project.
12/7: poetry of John Ashbery, Charles Bernstein "Semblance" (anthology)
12/9: poems by Lyn Hejinian, Bruce Andrews, Bernadette Mayer + essays: "The Obfuscated Poem" (Mayer), "Poetry as Explanation" (Andrews) - all in anthology
12/14: workshops - portfolio discussion
12/16: last day - final project due

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

for 11/23

New poem: write a poem inspired by the characteristic style of poetry translated into English.

Reading / response: Wallace Stevens + essay on "Sunday Morning," both on blackboard. Print them out for class, please. Be ready to talk about the language, use of sentences, tone, philosophical content - in class. I will call on the following people to discuss the following poems:

Amanda / Natalie / Daisy - "Sunday Morning"
Patrick / Antonia / Suzy - "13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird"
Noah / Caleb / Jeannelle - "The Snow Man"
Renee / Daniel: "Anecdote of a Jar"

Friday, November 13, 2009

Assignments 11/16-11/18

For 11/16: group 2 + Suzy. Everyone: bring a revised poem - don't exchange it, just hand it in.
For 11/18: Helen Vendler wrote "all poetry is translation." Consider the Celan-Rilke-Prevert poems on blackboard, a handful of poems in both languages, print them out and annotate them, writing your thoughts and questions on every line. No need to hand this in; it is for in-class use.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

for 11/09-11/11

for 11/09: reading: all the readings are posted on Blackboard. Read and bring to class - the article about Louis Zukofsky; and the Objectivist poems by Rakosi, Niedecker, Oppen, Bunting. In your response summarize the objectivist style: how are its goals similar to other styles we've looked at? Be ready to talk about at least three poems in class; you should be able to assess how objectivism affects the experience and meaning of the poem.

for 11/09: poem: for Monday write and exchange a poem in a formal meter, either a "strong stress" system or iambic (not merely counting syllables).

for 11/11: Group One

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Two texts on rhythm in poetry

I have posted these on blackboard - resources: a chart I made describing the various poetic rhythms and an article on the sonnet.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Assignments up to 11/4

1. Poem for Monday 11/2: any poem, but use "deep" or unreal images. Here's an exercise to get to them. Do some automatic writing - writing for five minutes without stopping and without editing or worrying if it makes sense. Then dig through what you've written to find images. Put them in a poem.

2. Tough assignment for Wednesday: start early. Carefully read the "prosody reading" posted under "resources" on blackboard. Expect this to be confusing: write at least two questions about prosody in your response. Read the sonnets posted in resources. Pick two sonnets and do a prosodic analysis of each one. That means: trace all the heavily stressed, lightly stressed, and unstressed syllables. It's most important to look for irregularities in the rhythm and think about how they emphasize or contrast with the words of each line. That's how metrics works - more about breaking the rules than following them.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Assignments for 10/26 and 10/28

10/26 Read interviews with Robert Bly. This is fairly extensive, but I think interviews are a good source, since they reveal a host of attitudes about writing poetry and the point of view of poets. Also, read a short selection of his poems. In addition, on Blackboard under resources, there are some European surrealist poems. Read this as well. In your response, consider Bly's attitudes about the source of poetry and the use of unusual (surrealist) images. What significance or purpose do these images have in art and literature? What do you think of the belief that unusual images come from a hidden, but universal, part of the mind? This, you will notice, is very close to the "mythic" perspective we discussed earlier.

For this day, also, write a projective poem.

10/28: Group three presents poetry.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Mid-term meetings postponed

Until after advising. I don't think we've gathered enough poems to look at revision yet.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Notes on revising poetry

1. Try to find a unifying principle for the poem. Meaning something that makes it feel like it holds together. See the post below on structure for ideas about how poets do this. Many different ways.

2. There are many ways to use the lines and rhythm in relation to the meaning. You can have flat line breaks, and this will work for some poems. However, when you do, there should be a strong sense of suspense or surprise in the words. In most cases, your rhythmic structure will end up to be either regular or a more jagged, deliberate (conscious) structure. It rarely works to have it switch from one to the other.

3. So, about this sense of surprise... When we write a first draft, we are basically using the words that occur to us at the time. However, the language of poetry should always be striking... and every line should hold its own weight in terms of intensity. Increasing this intensity is basically the purpose of revision.

4. How do you do this? I can't tell you, because it's a poem-by-poem thing, but you might try replacing bland language with sensory language. Replace "I walk through a vague forest" with "I swagger into soft-focus trunks, needles, peat..." Dig through the resources of language for striking combinations of words. When you do, you'll lose control of the poem a little; it's meaning will begin to change. That's a good thing.

5. Try to take it to the next level. Poetry is not an art of description of telling little anecdotes. That's why we have Blackberries. Your poem talks about something local as a way of touching on something of universal importance. This is the goal of the revision process: to come up with a focused, continuously intense, poem that digs a deep hole and throws us in it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Assignments 10/19-10/21

Aleatory operations have been used by many poets. They are a way, like many poets' techniques, of trying to short circuit the conscious mind. For your new poem, due Monday the 19th, use the words generated by the random word generator in class on the 14th. (If you weren't there, get them from someone.) Use one of the words per line, use all the words, and do not reuse any words.

On 10/19, group two will present poems. For 10/21, read the assigned poems and essay by Charles Olson - all in the Hoover anthology. This is an important moment in the "controversy," because Olson's style, and the style of the "Black Mountain" poets who followed him, remains uniquely inspiring to younger poets. Feel free to write your response to the poems in a projective style! Even if you don't, be ready to comment on the poetry. We will probably spend the most time on Olson's essay and the poems of Robert Creeley in class.

Monday, October 12, 2009


As an antidote to the heteronormativity of some Greek myths, here is a telling of the story of Ganymede. Of course, Zeus is still not much of a respecter of civil rights.

The Controversy part one

Type of poem: New York Style
Set up: Frank O'Hara talks in a confidential tone as if to a friend
What holds it together? The poem is a chain of associations around a theme or question.

Type of poem: 17th century poem of seduction
Set-up: John Donne argues to an imaginary woman that they should sleep together.
What holds it together? The poem riffs on a central conceit, usually a bizarre image, connecting it to politics, art, religion, and sex.

Type of poem: Postmodern mythic style
Set up: Robert Duncan "receives" a series of images and ideas.
What holds it together? The poem is a chain of associations and allusions relating to a theme.

Type of poem:
1950s-style confessional poem
Set up: Lowell, Plath, or Sexton describe a life emotion, maybe tied up with a recognizable event of life, such as aging or divorce.
What holds it together: Generally the poem is centered around a single image or cluster of related images.

Type of poem: Romantic ode
Set up: The poet recalls a past memory, usually involving nature, thinks of his/her present self, and tries to resolve it with the past.
What holds it together? The poem is centered around a central philosophical question.

Type of poem: Yeatsian reflective poem
Set up: The poet ponders a question, often having to do with an image of eternity juxtaposed against an image of mortal life.
What holds it together? Like an essay, the poem mentions a lot of things, but it is all in the attempt to answer the basic question.

Type of poem: Beat
Set up: The beat poet, writing in the immediate present to a metronome-like beat, says whatever comes to mind, often of a provocative character.
What holds it together? The poem is a stream of associations but is usually built around a topic of sorts: for example, Kenneth Koch's "Underpants," Gregory Corso's "Marriage," Diane di Prima's "I Get My Period."

Type of poem:
High Modernist
Set up: Poets such as Eliot often depict scenes of modern life and juxtapose traditional mythic, folkloric, and literary elements.
What holds it together? Readers of "The Waste Land," a vast collage, may say nothing!, but the modernist poem has a consistent theme of the loss of social structure.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

In which I start a "mythic" poem

Joseph Campbell defined myth as "That which is beyond even the concept of reality, that which transcends all thought. The myth puts you there all the time, gives you a line to connect with that mystery which you are. Shakespeare said that art is a mirror held up to nature. And that’s what it is. The nature is your nature, and all of these wonderful poetic images of mythology are referring to something in you. When your mind is simply trapped by the image out there so that you never make the reference to yourself, you have misread the image."

Flashy, attention-getting imagery, Campbell says, is not mythic. It's those images that give us the "shock of recognition."

1. Mythic images echo something in nature and in our nature.
2. Mythic poetry often takes place in an unspecifiable time and place. You could call it "mythic time." Coleridge was great at doing this:
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.
3. Let's invent a mythic poem:

Carpeted groves of corpulent oranges
Where the sun no longer sets;
The valley is bright the heroes gone.

Children with flowers step into the woods
Each by each, engulfed by the vernal mouth.
Blinding eyes, total darkness, eclipse of their return.

What makes it mythic? Timeless, placeless, and yet a specific place. Unreal imagery that evokes fertility and the loss of fertility. A sense of ritualistic behavior. It twists usual natural cycles, but that doesn't matter. The sense of natural cycles is still there. The sense of a journey is mythic.

4. Mythic poetry is not old-fashioned.

No, actually most politically progressive thought uses mythic ideas. Nearly all political speech uses it. You can't fight the power of the mythic; it's hardwired in us. It gives writing impact. You have to have an instinct for it, though - so that it doesn't sound contrived.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Assignment for 10/12 - 10/14

Please read this article by the poet Robert Duncan by the poet Michael Palmer. It relates Mr. Duncan's poetry to the idea of "fission" or synthesis from Shelley's "Defence." I am assigning two poets who were teachers of mine - Robert Duncan and Robert Kelly. Please read all works by both in the Hoover anthology. Also, I want to add the earlier "imagist" poet, Hilda Doolittle, better known as H.D. I have posted her poems on blackboard under resources. All of these poets use myth. Write some general thoughts about each poet. Then pick out passages you find striking or which give you hints for poetry - from each poet. Comment on the passages in whatever way you like - you can comment by writing prose or a response in verse. Be ready to share at least one passage in class.

For your poem due 10/12 (or 10/14 for group one), please try to incorporate a mythic element. You can do this in numerous ways. It doesn't have to be a specific reference to Hercules or something like that. It can merely be a sense of the order of nature (however you interpret this).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Assignments for 10/5 - 10/7

Poem due 10/5. Group 4 will present; everyone else bring two copies. No special writing assignment.

10/7: Challenging assignment - start early.
During this reading period we will focus on the use of myth in poetry. Poets have used myth in all periods but more self-consciously after 1800 or so. Please carefully read the excerpt from Percy Bysshe Shelley's "Defence of Poetry." It is a magnificent - but somewhat dense to modern readers - piece of prose. Also carefully read the three poems: one by John Milton (early 17th); one by William Butler Yeats (Irish, 19th - 20th C); and one by T.S. Eliot. Write a bit of literary analysis: how do these poets attempt to fulfill Shelley's hopes for poetry? How, in each case, does the poet use myths to achieve the effects of the poem. These poems are challenging, and you might well have to do a bit of research - at least to look up the references. I would encourage you to look for materials on university sites, avoiding online encyclopedias. Please cite anything you use. The readings are on Blackboard, under resources.

How to Write a Beat Poem - take two

1. Most importantly, the Beat poem is written to a rhythm that exists outside the poem. To illustrate, you can read this to a metronome-like beat:
I think I'm going somewhere
mountainous or scaly

that's right
a mountainous or scaly place

that's where I think I'll go.

When I find the time: when I find the time.

But this version contains the beat within the language. It needs no external beat.

I think that I will go
somewhere where there's mountains
roaming the distance and sweeping the land
where time no longer threatens
lost outside revolving hands

You get the idea.

2. Beat poetry has the sense of being spoken in the moment.
3. True to its philosophy of being-in-the-moment, Beat poetry never stops to make sense, explain or think twice - but just speaks in the moment. This speech is seen as action.

It is only one philosophy in the vast controversy of poetic styles.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

How to Start a Poem

Although this class is mostly about the craft of a poem, the formal stuff, writing is essentially a pathless land. All poets have known about the formal stuff and known the history of poetry. But no guru or teacher can really tell you how to write a poem with what one of my ex-students called "the creamy filling." I think she meant the unnameable quality that makes it a poem.

Plus, poems are about the unsayable, as I've said several times. See how this is a Zen problem again?

Here are my thoughts about how to start a poem. For another opinion, ask someone else.

1. Something from the recent past sticks in your mind: an image, a memory. This works if you have no idea why it sticks in your mind. You're a poet. You get in the habit of writing it down. See where it goes. Maybe nowhere.

2. You heard some language that had a strange quality of meaningfulness and yet nonsense. Good entry point to a poem.

3. Poetry is often in repetition or a sense of unreality. You are driving. It's late. You get lost. You pass the corner of Elm and Maple. You get back on the expressway. Then exit again. Unbelievably you find yourself again at the corner of Elm and Maple.

4. Poetry, it will surprise no one, can be cobbled together from a feeling of nature. Cavafy, the modern Greek poem, writes about the blades of grass growing in the cracks in the sidewalk in Alexandria. Reznikoff has a poem about the hole in the ceiling of the Colisseum. See, it's not ordinary "nature," but nature seen anew. An old friend of mine wrote a poem about Matisse's "Open Window," a blue painting with a window that seems to suggest all kinds of possibility. The English pop star Jarvis Cocker wrote a poem about the dirty river that runs through Sheffield, tracing everywhere it goes - past an old "disused factory" and an old amusement park where the merry-go-round used to play an irritating, insistent tune.

5. Poetry, of course, comes from experiences of reading poetry. Sometimes after reading it just pours out.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Watch a Genuine Beat Movie!

This legendary mini-flick, by Robert Frank, who made the controversial Rolling Stones film
"C***S**er Blues," filmed this - "Pull My Daisy." The Beats were all about being there, and this film - although a bit confusing and weird - may give us that being there feeling.

The Beats Meet Jonathan Swift

Here's a page with audio for "Howl" by Ginsberg.

1. Who were the Beats? How are they like (and unlike) the "Augustan" poets of the 17th century?
  • post-WW2: the Beats were dissenters in a time of general good spirits and optimism
  • the 17th C poets were also writing in a time (the Restoration) of general celebrtion; they were the dissenters
  • the Beats celebrate immediacy and the moment; their work was inspired by the Zen Buddhist idea of "presentness" or mindfulness; the NY Beats (Kerouac, Ginsberg) were students at Columbia University; their poems are generally meant to be experienced in the moment - read out loud
  • the 17th C satirists are not so spontaneous, but wrote witty and complex poems; they concealed their rebellion sometimes, where - the Beats put it on the surface
  • the Beats were a small group of friends - the east coast wings and west coast wings
  • the Augustan poets were also a small group who knew each other and initially wrote for each other: Dryden, Pope, Rochester
  • both groups of poets use unacceptable language as a means of expressing their dissatisfaction with everybody else's complacent happiness
  • both groups use humor: Ginsberg is not that funny, but Lawrence Ferlinghetti is and Gregory Corso is
  • both insist on the realities of the physical body, using this as an answer to high ideals or religion
  • both seem to value experience over ideas - although both groups have a philosophical edge
  • a big difference: the 17th C poets are rationalists; the Beats are really neo-Romantics - meaning, they don't care much for rationality: they're interested in madness, chidlike experience, nature etc.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Poetry Assignment; for Tuesday the 29th

Everyone who is not in Group 3: For Tuesday (which takes the place of Monday as the day when your poems are due), bring in 2 copies of a poem with a central conceit - as we discussed in relation to Donne's "Canonization." A conceit is very flexible. This doesn't mean you must write a Donne-like poem. You can do almost anything with it - just so you build the whole poem around it.

Everyone should do every assignment every class day: otherwise you won't get much from the class and will end up below the "B" range. Sure, you can miss a couple responses (not poems), but as it is I get 5-6 per class, which means that more than half the class is just lurking. There's no "catching up" in a workshop - it's a process. If you have trouble with poetry (you're not alone), make an appointment with me. I've studied this stuff for ages and can explain things a lot better one-on-one, and I'm always available to meet: take advantage of the fact that I have no life.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A (Very) Short History of Poetry in English

History, and literary history, is confusing. But what's the point of talking about Romantic or 18th century literature if you have no idea how it fits into a timeline? Okay. So, here's a nice, simple timeline.

1. Anglo Saxon poetry: like Beowulf or "The Dream of the Rood." This is written in the early, Germanic, form of English and is either epic and heroic (like Beowulf) or devotional (religious). There are also folk poems: wedding songs, drinking songs, erotic poetry etc.

2. 14th century poetry: the High Middle Ages. This is written in a transitional form of English, with much influence from the Norman Conquest of England (i.e. words from French). Chaucer's Canterbury Tales are the prime example, and these are probably commonly-told stories: some baudy, some religious, some with a lesson. The 14th century was a somewhat gloomy time, and much of its literature has a dark, theological cast. Other notables: John Gower, William Langland.

3. The Renaissance (15th & 16th Cs). Here are some cliches: beginning of the modern age due to the rise of the middle class; growing technology including the printing press; power of the church and new wealthy class rivals the power of the monarchy. Renaissance writers were backward-looking, obsessed with the classics (meaning ancient Greek and Roman classics). They were also "magpies" - meaning that they borrowed a lot from everywhere. Shakespeare's work is a collage of information from growing fields like science, history, even anthropology. Colonialism was almost beginning. A lot of poetry is theological (Milton, Spencer), but Shakespeare was strangely and determinedly secular. This is the preeminent period for England in world literature; England was undoubtedly the leader at this time.

4. 17th century devotional poetry: The early 1600s were a mix of free-thinking tendencies and a kind of harsh religiosity. It is best known for the witty, compressed work of the "metaphysical" poets of this time: Donne, Herbert, Crashaw, Carew, Vaughn, etc. They used remarkably complex images that mixed secular with religious ideas.

5. The Restoration: In the mid-1600s, England had a revolution, the "Puritan Revolution," which led to the overthrow of the monarchy and the institution of a republican (representative) government. But it didn't last. So, around 1660, king Charles II was restored to the throne, and a period of celebration followed: "the Restoration." Poets of this time were conservative (pro-monarchy, at least on the surface) and satirical (making fun of classic works or of the aristocracy). Examples: Dryden, Pope, Marvell.

6. 18th century literature. So, by now the "modern" world is well-established. The novel, beginning with Defoe (Robinson Crusoe; Moll Flanders) and Richardson (Pamela) became a popular form. Essays were popular. Poetry? There was Samuel Johnson, Jonathan Swift, late Marvell. This was the post-Enlightenment, an extremely rational time in literature & philosophy.

7. Romanticism. (1780s-1830s, approx.). In the wake of the French Revolution (1789-90s), a new political world was opening up. The English and German romantics looked backward to mythic and pagan ideas, resuscitating them. They rejected the rationality of previous writers and embraced dream, myth, mystery, inebriation, instinct... They liked to rework folk tales and heroic tales. They were tree-huggers who thought all wisdom was contained in nature.

8. Victorian era. Somewhat dark and preoccupied with gothic concerns, this was the age of Freud and the polite novelists: Henry James, Edith Wharton (American), George Eliot, Jane Austen, Thackeray. An infinitely more restrained time in reaction to the freethinking Romantics, the Victorian age was not a great flowering of poetic genius. Science was booming. The novel was enjoying probably its best period ever. Who had time for poetry?

9. The Moderns: This is where America comes into its own as American-born figures like T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound brought the poem back to life. They rejected both Romanticism and the 18th century or Restoration rationality, wishing to go back to a time when poetry mixed emotion with braininess. Avant-garde modernism followed.

Due Wed. 9/23 and Tuesday 9/29

REMINDER: bring the Hoover anthology to class on 9/29.

There is no class on the 28th, 'cause it's Yom Kippur. So, we have class at the usual time and place on Tuesday 9/29. This is weird, so I'll remind everyone in class.

Our reading theme for the reading week beginning Wednesday the 23rd is the poetry of resistance or rebellion. Of course, many poets, including Wordsworth, are "rebellious" in some sense - in their form, subject matter, ideas about poetry, social ideas etc. All great poetry is rebellious in a certain way, and I'd even go far as to say that the intensity of poetry, its concentrated intelligence, is the ultimate rebellion in our own time. Poetry requires a lot of the faculty we have less and less of: attentiveness and concentration.

So, how are these poets different? Simply that they foreground their rebellious statement so that it's right on the surface. This kind of poetry is very unusual in the history of poetry in English. What makes it strange is that it has relatively little philosophical content, spiritual stuff, pseudo-religious stuff...

Now, for your writing on (for 9/23) Rochester, Swift, Marvell, and Donne (on blackboard - resources) (all poets of the late 17th - early 18th centuries in England). Pick one poem from each poet on which to focus. Remember that, whether you like the poem or not, it has had generations of admiring readers. In other words, it works... for somebody or for many people. See, what you, as a writer, can take away from these poets: how does their poetry work? Is the poet's "voice" important? Is it humor or irony? Figure it out so you can try it in your own writing. Read the piece on prosody (poetic rhythm) and apply it to your answer. For 9/29. Read Ginsberg, Baraka, Corso, Bukowski (all poems in the anthology). These are all 20th century poets associated with the American "Beat" generation. Mainly, they reached their peak of fame in the '50s and '60s. Focus on Ginsberg's juxtaposition of words; Corso's use of voice; Bukowski's use of story elements; and Baraka's use of the poetic line.Include one question about each poet (i.e. 5 total). Make it about a specific line or passage: technique, imagery, word choice, what the poet intended or what the heck it means - whatever. I'll collect responses in the beginning of class on Tuesday.

Monday, September 14, 2009

British Romantic Poetry

A good definition is here.

A good discussion of romanticism in its historical context is here.

Romanticism rebels against the Enlightenment of the 18th century, which tended to be cold and rational, gathering knowledge in Samuel Johnson's, Voltaire's and Diderot's dictionairies and encyplopedias. Enlightenment philosophers like John Locke had a mechanical way of looking at both human beings and society.

Therefore, romanticism is inherently backward-looking. (Hence the name: it draws from the classical or "Roman" era.) Romanticism is a king of paganism, preoccupied with myths, fairy tales, folklore, superstitions, magic, spirits, nature worship, etc.

Romanticism was much criticized for placing too much importance on the self and for being overly emotional. Romantics elevated beauty over intellectual knowledge, intuition over reason, childhood over adulthood, innocence over sophistication, the individual over society... These very common ideas originate from the first half of the 19th century in Europe and America.

American romanticism, typified by Emerson, Whitman, Thoreau, Melville, and Poe, grows out of transcendentalism. But there are few real philosophical differences between transcendentalism and European romanticism.

A key idea of interest to poets is Keats's concept of "negative capability." It's from one of his letters. Romantics believed in paradox and oppositions. You can find this juxtaposition of oppositions in almost any romantic poem. A typical example is Byron's "She Walks in Beauty," in which darkness and light are constantly likened. True to the idea of negative capability, this poem is full of double meanings. Even the first line can be read three ways: "she is like the night" or "her beauty is like the night" or "she walks as the night walks." Her "aspect" refers to the position of the stars in astrology but also to her demeanor. And on and on. Once liberated from rational meaning, romantic poets were able to create a tapestry of possible meanings.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

4 contemporary poems illustrate choices for poets

The poems are Schuyler's "Dining Out with Doug and Frank," O'Hara's "Why I Am Not a Painter," Sylvia Plath's "Daddy," and Robert Lowell's "The Drunken Fisherman." While they may seem fairly similar in a broad sense, these poems provide a range of options for structuring your work.

Every poem, even the most loose-knit, should have some structure. The first clue to the structure is often the type of speech represented by the poem. That is: is it like a letter to someone? Is it someone thinking? Is it casual conversation?

This is one of the main things that separates "postmodern" poetry from traditional stuff. Very often, traditional poetry (before the 19th century) is an address to the whole world. Poets still do this. But modern & postmodern styles have created a lot of options. And choice is good, right?

O'Hara: "Why I Am Not a Painter" is not a story per se, but a reflection on a question about oneself. This, as well as the tone, marks it as casual conversation. It is the sort of thing we discuss in conversation; we describe ourselves often. However, O'Hara tells a story to illustrate why he is not a painter, and this story makes a point about art. It also comes together at the end in a neat and effortless way. Well done! So, the poem is ultimately not about himself; the putative subject is a bit of a trick he plays on the reader. Options for poets: i) use the confidential tone O'Hara employs in this poem, like he's whispering in your ear - note all the techniques he uses to liven it up and make it engaging; ii) make light use of line breaks - O'Hara doesn't use them to complicate the meaning, just to slightly speed up or slow down the piece; ii) use the "making a point about myself" mode - note that O'Hara rescues this poem from the too-personal-to-matter trap by making a rather Romantic point about art.

Plath: "Daddy" is an address to a partly real, partly fictional person. Where O'Hara uses the personal meditation to make a point about art or love & ambivalence, Plath's focus is expressive. She expresses emotion. Her poetry does not explore the Holocaust or the nature of father-daughter relationships in general. Since emotion is her stock-in-trade, she heightens it with intense, shocking,imagery. She uses public imagery to express private feelings. This undercuts any sense that her poetry may be overly self-concerned. She also evokes a complicated or conflicted emotional landscape. Options for poets: i) use the personal address or "letter" format - bear in mind that poets like Plat lard their letters with "public" material (such as the Holocaust or Freudian references); ii) use Plath's clipped, varied line structure; she uses a lot of alliteration and strong stresses and few flowing lines; iii) the "intense" mode in poetry means that your poem has to build in intensity or reach a climax and descend from there; Plath's "Lady Lazarus" is a better example of pulling this off, I think.

Schuyler: James Schuyler's "Dining Out with Doug and Frank" is a record of the poet's thoughts, with elements of speech. It reads like a transcript of these thoughts during the specific time of the poem's composition. This gives it a musical quality in the sense that the poem must be "played" from beginning to end to be properly experienced. Unlike a traditional poem, you cannot pick out key passages or lines and try to understand the poem from them. You have to take it as a whole process. You could call this a thought process poem. Schuyler, like other successful contemporary poets, uses a variety of techniques to keep the reader's interest: humor, specific references, a brazenly self-obsessed and self-indulgent voice, assorted facts, and anecdotes. Options for poets: i) you can write a "transcript of thought" type poem - it is a compelling mode, because it creates a sense of immediacy: "As I sit/ writing these words/ the rain begins to fall/ and I think of you...." ii) remember, though, that Schuyler works hard to be an engaging presence and decorates his poem with specifics as discussed above. You do not have to do this exactly as he did it, but you would have to find another way. iii) Schuyler's poem is not about himself, ultimately, but about the ways we deal with loss through art. A successful spontaneous poem should have a similar theme.

Lowell: One of the most celebrated of the "Confessional" school of poetry, Lowell is a remarkably traditional poet with ties to Robert Frost. "The Drunken Fisherman" has a regular rhythm that gives it a grounded feel. It has a central image, and sticks with it. The voice is not the voice of "Robert Lowell," but that of a character who has an archetypal feel. This archetypal feel, a classic technique in poetry, makes the piece seem grounded and significant. The poem deals with aging and death. Options for Poets: i) you can use a single, central image to unify your poem, one with a mythic feel to it. This is sure to give your poem a substantial feeling, but can also put you in danger of seeming cliched. ii) you can use regular meter. When you do, it makes the poem feel like an object, not like speech. It grounds the poem and prevents it from feeling loose or trivial. Regular meter gives you a chance to emphasize certain words and passges by letting them break the rules of the meter.

Note that all of these poems are unified through the use of a specific "scenario" for the poem. In other words, they are specific acts of communication (a letter, a transcript of thought, a conversation) - and they stick with this mode. They all have a unified expressive purpose, usually mixing the personal with a universal question. And they all use "public" material of some sort.