From there begins the task of asking why it rhymes, why it rhymes the way it rhymes, why there is a particular meter, what is the name of that meter, what is another poem that uses that meter, what period of writing does it belong to and the gradual, slow parsing of the poem. It's not even surgery at this point--it's an autopsy. The poem died about two questions in, as did the students' attention.
And then, perhaps, if the unit is ending the day before Thanksgiving break or there is a big sports trip and a large portion of the class is missing, then we get to that day when the teacher says, "Let's write some poems." The response would usually be more enthusiastic if the teacher had said, "Let's slice our own toes off using the plastic knives from the cafeteria." Everyone writes something in Dr. Seuss meter because the sing-song rhythm is the easiest to hear as you're composing, and they pick the words that rhyme fastest, instead of thinking about what the best word is that might occupy that space. The room fills with verse like, "The cat has shat upon my hat." One or two students who have figured out the way to impress the teacher is to write something that makes no sense at all will write something like, "Grass grows the down river of soul kissed sky stars. I star the line of forced concept, your lips make my war rage on." Everyone smiles and nods and agrees that's some really good poetry. They say it the same way that most Americans smile and nod and say, "Mmmmmm, that's some good blood pudding."
I'm not writing this to bag on formalism. Formalism is fine. It is at the very root of traditionalist poetry (though the history of free verse is almost as long and rich, though often ignored). Instead, I want to focus on what the over reliance on formalism in the poetry curriculum does to hurt the creation of poetry. Last week I mentioned that the way we teach poetry does it the disservice of portraying it as a dead art form. Now I’d like to talk about how the focus on formalism defeats the concept of poetry having something to say and furthermore hurts the overall writing curriculum in general.
When we set out from the start to fit poetry into fixed verse, regardless of the rules we choose to incorporate, we take the focus away from conveying a message in favor of creating a form. We kill the concept of poetic license, but we also kill the concept of the power that poetry has to dive into the cave of human experience and help us develop a deeper understanding. If the student, in their writing, is most concerned with finding the word that will rhyme with “father” (or the ever elusive “orange”), they have backseated any message. Forget what the poem means—it means they can apply rules. Beyond that, it doesn’t mean much. In a poetry writing curriculum, we should focus, first and foremost, on what the poetry says. Why are we writing it?
This doesn’t preclude students writing in formal styles. In fact, if anything, it serves a larger goal in the writing curriculum, which is the concept of revision. If the student wants to work in a formalist style, but first focuses on getting the message across, it is unlikely that the first draft is going to meet the requisites of form. It may, in fact, only sketch out content, and form may come across only in a few choice lines—those places where it begins to hint at the ultimate structure of the poem. If we teach that the primary concern of the poem is to convey the message, the feeling, the details, the sensory points that communicate what the poet wants the reader to understand (or, even better, simply what the poet wants to say with no regard, at this point, for the reader, who may find their own meaning in the lines and stanzas, in much the same way that we try to stress in collegiate literature settings), then we convey not just the point of poetry, but the point of writing in general. Writing, whether creative, expository, technical, or the basic level of composition, is meant as a means of communication. If there is nothing to communicate, then why are we writing?
Composition teachers are most likely to be able to relate to this situation—the student who can compose flowery, intelligent prose that is completely devoid of any actual meaning. The sentences are long, complex, grammatically correct, and the vocabulary is expansive, impressive, even. Occasionally, the reach exceeds the grasp, but the writing is more than simply literate. But it doesn’t mean anything that approaches the level of the presentation. It is five paragraphs that in essence simply say, “Drugs are bad, m’kay?”
Teachers of fiction writing run into a similar situation—the student who at some point learned that description is important and describes everything, from hair color and length to what every single character is wearing. Sometimes two consecutive pages are dedicated to what seems like a literary fashion show ("Jenny flipped her blond hair over her left shoulder as she walke dinto the expensive coffee shop, wearing her red sequined blouse with the gold belt that hung just over her hips. Her green skirt swished back and forth, just a bit too loose to be sexy, but fitting enough to not be dowdy. She scanned the hipster-opulent room and saw John, who was wearing a blue cotton button-down shirt under his grey sweater vest...."). You know the heroine’s blouse has pearl buttons. It turns out this doesn’t matter in any context. She could be wearing a Wal-Mart jumper or an outfit sewn completely from banana leaves, because it has nothing to do with what happens. Once again, a concept of the tools of writing has been learned, but not understood.
In both of these circumstances, we work as educators to refine the skills they have and direct them toward serving a purpose. The composition teacher attempts to channel the impressive language set into the defense of a thesis and the creation of solid rhetoric. The fiction writing teacher stresses the selectivity that needs to accompany the detail and the importance of forward motion—less is more, show don’t tell—the standard concepts of the intro to fiction writing curriculum. “Let’s stop pretending we’re James Joyce and actually write a story where something happens.”
Think about the ability of poetry to help reinforce this concept of revision and focus within a writing curriculum. Poetry can work exceptionally well in a short form. It doesn’t need length to accomplish depth. What if we could use poetry as the foundation where we move from meaning to structure instead of the model we use now which attempts to teach structure and then append meaning to it later? We could get students in the mindset of having something to say first, then working on the way to say it after—reinforcing the recursive/revision process, which is applicable to any writing discipline.
In my own workshops, as I learned from my mentor in hers, I focus on drafts being written in 20-25 minutes. Some students may try to incorporate form even in that format, but most will see the futility of trying to measure syllables, stresses, and rhyme schemes. I provide prompts that are meant to draw on personal experience, and they don’t aim for high-concept metaphor. I don’t say, “Write about a rose bush but make it be about the French Revolution.” I give prompts such as, “Write about a first memory of disappointment,” “The dangers of falling,” and “My mother’s best advice.” These appeal to an inner voice that wants to tell a story. That voice is less interested about putting it into iambics or ABABCDCD rhyme schemes. It wants, instead, to tell a story. 20-25 minutes is enough time to commit that story to paper, but not enough time to begin second-guessing it, revising it on-the-fly, or over-thinking it and trying to make it “poetic.” In the process, the poetry emerges naturally in the language. Students are often surprised at the ways in which their minds express their ideas when they get out of their own way and allow the process to simply flow.
From there, when that draft is complete, then they can think about the direction they want to take it in. Should it stay free verse? Should it move into formalism? What purpose do these decisions serve, and how do they affect the poem itself? Repeatedly, I stress that form should always serve content. Content should not be a slave to form. The point at which the rules you begin imposing on yourself as a writer begin to erode the message you are conveying is the point where the poem stops working. It’s the equivalent of the abandoned thesis, the unresolved plot point. Form is not the enemy of the poet, but it should not be the poet’s master either.
Many workshop leaders, literature professors, and poetry teachers who are more enamored of the formalist tradition will dismiss free verse as an easy out for a writer. If there are no rules to follow, then it simply becomes a journal entry with line breaks, they may argue. This loses sight of the fact that free verse is rarely ever without rules. It’s just that the rules of free verse are self-imposed. They are reflective of the poet. Style is as much a type of form as strictly regimented verse. If you begin to compare poets that work in primarily free verse, you will begin to see that each has their own particular rules. These rules dictate line breaks, structures, propensity for enjambment, repetition of language, stanza length, and more. Yes, this can be written off as just the hallmarks of a writer, but in a writing curriculum, isn’t our ultimate goal to produce unique writers who have developed their own voices? Furthermore, the tenets of formal verse are not so rigid that they can be as easily defined as a state curriculum would often like to portray them. Even a mode like the sonnet has multiple variations and forms. There are major differences from the Petrarchan to the Shakespearean sonnet, but even that is a myopic view as there are more variations on the form than just those two major branches. Add in the ability to exercise poetic license, and you get sonnets such as Sherman Alexi’s “Tattooed Tears,” which runs for 14 prose-poem stanzas rather than 14 lines.
So the ultimate goal of the revision process shouldn’t necessarily hold the formalist style up as the canonic standard to be aspired to. The process of even revising a draft that stays in free verse into something that conveys a meaning in the best and strongest method possible is still a major undertaking, and, once again, one that is at the very core of any writing curriculum. With this in mind, maybe it’s time to rethink the place of poetry writing in the process of teaching writing, and to stop asking what the poem means. Dissections, while effective for telling us what parts are inside the frog we have pinned to the tray, have still never taught us what ultimately makes the frog live. It’s not anymore of an effective method for finding the life inside poetry either.