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.

Friday, September 11, 2009

This is the new online center for our class

Due to problems with blackboard unreliability, this blog will take the place of the "Assignments" sheet. We'll still be dependent on blackboard for posted readings under resources.

This blog will give me a chance to add comments about poetics and literary history of interest to poets, provide some useful links, and summarize some of our class discussions. Check in frequently.