A Couple of Do’s: Twenty Major Poetry Projects
by David J. Rothman
by David J. Rothman
David J. Rothman
Here is something that looks like a kind of poem:
The rocks were true,
In the way it is impossible to count
The atoms in a sparrow.
I could smell the rough edges of your sandlot,
Although a round filibuster spoke of tomorrow.
Certainly, it said, no vote ever decided
The contest between memory and nostalgia,
So what is it about “no”
That you don’t understand? Where there’s smoke
There’s fire, cosi fan tutti, in the sense that everything
Will be decided to have been what it was.
Did Jefferson say that? Does it matter?
Perhaps in France, somewhere pleasant,
As Roto spun his sweet alpine trajectories
And fired a machine gun at waltzing flowers.
And if the rocks were not true, which they are not,
And there were no machine gun, not even a pistol,
It’s like, whatever, or the flimsy mittens of abstraction.
Then, in the end, perhaps sorrow can only walk
The sandlot, remembering nothing at all.
I wrote it as a pedagogical exercise, or rather to prove a pedagogical point about how many people, including many strong writers, think poetry should be taught now, and why I think we should take a different approach. And it is not very interesting, except as a parody, and a sad one at that.
In 1992, William Morrow published a book that participated in what was then, and what continues to be, the dominant mode of teaching poetry in America. The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises From Poets Who Teach, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, announces its pedagogical agenda in its title. It includes scores of poets with major reputations, such as Thom Lux, Rita Dove, Anne Waldman, Sydney Lea, Maxine Kumin, Carol Muske, David St. John, Maura Stanton, and many, many more. I have known a number of these people and count several as friends, but I disagree deeply with most of what they present in the book. Some of them are quite strong writers, but, taken together, their confused ideas embody what remains the dominant emphasis of creative writing pedagogy in higher education, and therefore, by extension and influence, in K12 as well.
The problem with most of the exercises offered in The Practice of Poetry is that they have little to do with the complex basics of verse and they therefore miss the mark, especially for introductory instruction. Following a long and unfortunately more and more dominant trend over the last 75 years, the authors essentially present poetry as a subspecies of prose. The pedagogy implied in almost every exercise assumes that verse is not a mode of explicitly linguistic composition with specific rules, conventions and histories, but rather a mode of psychological process, or of semantics, or of critical thinking, or of tactics for the generation and manipulation of content, or of idiosyncratic sub-genres and nonce forms, or of particular non-linguistic cultural components. Almost nowhere does one find any discussion of the great tradition of versecraft as it has developed not only in English, but in other languages—probably every other language, western, eastern and in between—since people began to write verse, or even compose it for memory and speech.
Aspiring poets should be free to write whatever they wish. Teachers, however, who purvey misguided notions of curriculum should be challenged. Consider Jim Simmerman’s now well-known entry in The Practice of Poetry, “Twenty Little Poetry Projects,” which directly inspired my exercise above:
Give each project at least one line. You should open the poem with the first project, and close it with the last, but otherwise use the projects in whatever order you like. Do all twenty. Let different ones be in different voices. Don’t take things too seriously.
While Simmerman’s list has its whimsical charm, and I certainly had fun writing my exercise, these projects and their product are misleading about what strong poets really do or try to do. The problem is not that Simmerman is “wrong,” but rather at best misguided, and at worst deceptive. This process does not produce verse, let alone poetry. It produces prose. My own composition above, which follows Simmerman’s model, is just a series of lineated prose statements.
Why the harsh criticism of a fun little game? Because of the claim that it constitutes an appropriate pedagogy to convey to students who might really want to learn how to write verse. The problem is that all of Simmerman’s projects are far too obviously meaningful. All involve various ways to approach (and disrupt) sense, e.g. “Use an example of false cause-effect logic,” “Change direction or digress from the last thing you said,” “Modify a noun with an unlikely adjective.” While such rhetorical moves can certainly occur in poetry, they can also occur in prose. In verse, they are only part of what is happening, and perhaps not the most important part. Rimbaud’s derangement of the senses is not in and of itself remotely enough to create even simple or sturdy verse, let alone poetry. Trying to make poems entirely and only from such essentially critical tactics has little if anything to do with how to make verses and makes about as much sense as pretending that air guitar is an instrument. It may have the appropriate shape, but the materials are not sound. Returning to language itself, the distinction to make is that poems not only say things that can be said in prose; they also do things, things that can only be done in verse, and that doing is much more important than it may at first appear. In fact, the verse techniques that strong poets have developed over time to organize language non-semantically, viz. rhyme, are far more disciplined and systematic ways to promote lateral thinking, both associative and dissociative, than the mere manipulation of cognitive, rhetorical, logical, or critical categories, semantics, and style that we find in both prose and verse language.
So here is an antidote. The following major verse projects, like Simmerman’s, echo Pound’s famous “A Few Don’ts by an Imagiste,” which originally appeared in the March 1913 issue of Poetry, but I hope they hew closer to what Pound sought, though without his tendentious (though historically understandable) insistence on the image. They address not only what words say, but also and crucially for learning how to write verse, what words can do in verse. And these things are not easy to learn how to do. Specifically, most are based on learning how to work with language in verse, both structurally and historically, which are quite different from those that emerge from the practice of various modes of prose:
If this list seems daunting, that is as it should be. Writing a poem—even writing serviceable verse—is not merely a function of playing with meanings. It requires hard work and years of practice in specific compositional techniques that are explicitly linguistic. As Pound wrote in 1913:
Let the candidate fill his mind with the finest cadences he can discover, preferably in a foreign language so that the meaning of the words may be less likely to divert his attention from the movement…
In short, behave as a musician, a good musician, when dealing with that phase of your art which has exact parallels in music. The same laws govern and you are bound by no others.
As Pound understood (at his best), a writer cannot merely transfer understandings of how to make sentences and construe content from other modes of discourse into lines to suddenly craft verses. Verses have their own linguistic modality, and no amount of manipulation of the categories of sense, no matter how cunning, sophisticated, disruptive, whimsical, playful or fun can help a student to arrive at the techniques of verse per se.
Perhaps the suggestion that art is long and life is short makes some readers squirm. After all, everyone uses language, so why shouldn’t everyone be able to make serviceable verses, which are, after all, just a composition in words? But this is like suggesting that anyone who can walk can dance, or that everyone who has a voice can sing. Why would writing poetry be any easier or more obvious and natural than these other arts? It is not.
When we do our best to follow the rules suggested above, the standards become higher—far, far higher—and the game changes. Then we are far more likely to get something like this sonnet by Julie Kane:
What luck—an open bookstore up ahead
as rain lashed awnings over Royal Street,
and then to find the books were secondhand,
with one whole wall assigned to poetry;
and then, as if that wasn’t luck enough,
to find, between Jarrell and Weldon Kees,
the blue-on-cream, familiar backbone of
my chapbook, out of print since ’83—
its cover very slightly coffee-stained,
but aging (all in all) no worse than flesh
through all those cycles of the seasons since
its publication by a London press.
Then, out of luck, I read the name inside:
The man I thought would love me till I died.
Good luck forgetting that one. Kane’s narrative is completely convincing and as tight as it gets, speaking volumes about what cannot be said. The meter is supple and precise, yet the diction and syntax feel utterly colloquial, an effect cunningly advanced with enjambments and off-rhymes. Note that there is no traditional volta or turn at line nine, all of that power being reserved for the last line, which strikes like a python.
Considering just contemporary sonnets, here is another, by Ernest Hilbert:
Crooks run the whole world, and the Dow just fell.
Crap rules the airwaves. All your best plans stall.
The air is dirty, and you don’t feel well.
Your wife won’t listen. Friends no longer call.
Sad songs from youth no longer cast a spell.
Cancer research has run into a wall.
Some inflated hack just won the Nobel.
You witness clear signs of decline and fall.
The neighbors are cold, and your house won’t sell.
Your cat has bad teeth. Your paychecks feel small.
Maybe you’re really sick. It’s hard to tell.
Up ahead, traffic has slowed to a crawl.
The world didn’t just start going to hell.
You just noticed for the first time, that’s all.
Again, there is no turn, the punch coming at the end, but notice Hilbert’s inventiveness, creating seven perfectly rhymed couplets, with every single line end-stopped. Like Kane, his language is colloquial, yet his meter is far craggier, weaving like a cunning boxer.
The poems by Kane and Hilbert are not outliers, though they would be judged so by the poets whose pedagogical exercises appear in the Practice of Poetry. Yet many contemporary poets pursue major poetry projects, in which verse not only says things but also does things quite gracefully. Foregrounded craft is not an anachronism in their work. Consider this perfect triolet by A. E. Stallings:
Triolet on a Line Apocryphally Attributed to Martin Luther
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night,
The swaying in darkness, the lovers like spoons?
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes?
Does he hum them to while away sad afternoons
And the long, lonesome Sundays? Or sing them for spite?
Why should the Devil get all the good tunes,
The booze and the neon and Saturday night?
Grace of this kind is almost inexplicable. Stallings’ ability to combine the lightest of touches with the implication of the forceful observation Shelley made about Milton’s Satan (that he is the hero of Paradise Lost) is a delight. Any reader can feel that this poem achieves its power not only by what it says, but also by what it does, and that doing, effortless as it may seem, takes practice. If anything, one has to wind up asking if Stallings’ poem is itself one of those tunes? And then, we are ourselves perhaps surprised by sin and the trap is sprung. As any teacher or accomplished artist understands, such apparent effortlessness is the result of practice.
Just one more, the best-known lyrical poem by Dana Gioia:
Money is a kind of poetry.
Money, the long green,
cash, stash, rhino, jack
or just plain dough.
Chock it up, fork it over,
shell it out. Watch it
burn holes through pockets.
To be made of it! To have it
to burn! Greenbacks, double eagles,
megabucks and Ginnie Maes.
It greases the palm, feathers a nest,
holds heads above water,
makes both ends meet.
Money breeds money.
Gathering interest, compounding daily.
Always in circulation.
Money. You don’t know where it’s been,
but you put it where your mouth is.
And it talks.
Gioia’s poem is not obviously metrical in any traditional sense—not accentual-syllabic—yet feels highly ordered. This is because Gioia understands that there is no escape from meter, only mastery. The ghost of meter haunts his poem in ways that bear scrutiny—it is exactly what enables him to make such a witty and sturdy piece from phrases that would otherwise be clichés. His ability to turn so many of them to his own devices is not merely rhetorical, but instead depends on craft.
How do poets come to write such strong work? The crucial thing to note in terms of pedagogy is that no one can come to appreciate (that much maligned word), let alone imitate poems such as those by Kane, Hilbert, Stallings and Gioia simply by considering what they say or how they say it. One could diagram sentences all day long, or discuss critical concepts, and never get to the heart of the matter. If anything, that would only obscure what the poems are. Of course sense is crucial, but one could convey the same notions, however one chooses to construe them, in prose: “I once found a book I’d inscribed to an old lover in a second-hand book store, which made me sad.” “Sometimes I feel as though the whole world is going to hell.” “Why is misbehaving so attractive?” “Money is so powerful we find it everywhere in our language and culture.” No such gloss, however sophisticated, can fully explain what is happening in such strong poems, because poems are made out of words, but also more than words; they also depend on what the words are doing. Merely to ask what they mean is to ask the wrong question, or to frame the question incorrectly, or not to ask enough questions.
Poetry, to coin a phrase, is easier said than done. It is impossible to understand, let alone enjoy poems by merely discussing what they say and what they mean. What matters more, both for teachers and students, if we are to become the readers these poems deserve, is not only understanding what they say, or even how they say it, but what they do. Do I repeat myself? Very well—I repeat myself. But to a purpose, because this notion requires a fundamental, purposeful, blunt redirection of curriculum if it is to come into practice. Prosody and versification are not ancillary to the study of poetry, a unit to be tacked on somewhere in a course or unit. They are central concerns and should be ubiquitous, woven into the fabric of discussion at all points.
Helping students to become stronger readers and writers of poetry by helping them to understand not only what poems say, but also what they do is not the work of a few simple exercises or reading a few essays. It requires a curriculum that is carefully constructed across many years, in a carefully sequenced, progressive manner. There are several introductory books that can help teachers (especially those working with high school students and above) who want to pursue this path. A few I’d recommend:
Stephen Fry. The Ode Less Travelled: Unlocking the Poet Within. New York, NY: Gotham Books, 2006.
John Hollander. Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse. 1981. New, Enlarged Edition. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989.
Timothy Steele. All the Fun’s in How You Say a Thing: An Explanation of Meter and Versification. Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 1999.
Lewis Turco. The Book of Forms. 1968. Third Edition. Hanover, NH: University Press of New England, 2000.
Each of these books is accessible, well-organized, well-written, and places appropriate weight on how to do things with words, as opposed to merely saying things. Notably as well, three of the four are by well-known poets, and the fourth author, Fry, is a gifted actor and quite a good writer of verse himself (along with being the wittiest prose writer of the bunch). They know whereof they speak (and they know what they’re doing).
Sometimes what may appear to be small adjustments in outlook can utterly transform curriculum and pedagogy. Insisting on finding engaging, dynamic, creative ways to teach students at all levels the techniques of verse will eventually percolate through their education to make them stronger readers and writers. And by “stronger,” I do not mean they will do better on the AP test, though that will probably be one outcome. Rather, they will be more likely to understand how and why poetry can matter in their lives and in larger contexts (their nation; their spiritual life), because they will forge a connection to how it creates delight. To suggest an important distinction, they will come to understand not only the meanings of poems, but also their meaningfulness. The question of what constitutes that meaningfulness, which goes beyond what words can merely say: now that is the right question to ask.
 Those who are interested in a longer discussion and fairly thorough overview of prosody manuals and handbooks in English can take a look at an essay and bibliography on the subject I published with Contemporary Poetry Review, which includes hundreds of entries: https://www.cprw.com/the-craft-of-poetry-a-bibliography-of-resources-in-english-introduction and https://www.cprw.com/the-craft-of-poetry-a-bibliography-of-resources-in-english.
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