Poetry Class

I’ve signed up for a poetry class at the community class down the street. Our first class meeting was today. Mostly, it was intensely uncomfortable, but I suspect that’s because poetry in general makes me uncomfortable, and this is amplified by the expectation that I might write a rough sort of poem like thing in ten minutes that I’d be willing to read. We tried this twice, and the result is that I don’t necessarily know how to make a poem sketch, and that has nothing in particular to do with time — having to do it fast just makes it more obvious that I don’t know how to do it. This is why beginning essayists rely so heavily on the tried and true five paragraph expository essay. If you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s reassuring to have some specific instructions that will probably produce a pretty dull essay, but you’ll be quite sure it’s an essay that’s produced. I don’t know if I’ll learn to write poetry, but at least I’m working up a greater sympathy for people who are are shy and confused about their drawing or prose.

Today we had two ten minute exercises. First, we pulled five words out of a box at random (the same for the whole class), and wrote about them.

Cumulus • Wasp • Laugh • Gravel • Ebony

We weren’t told that we had to write anything like a poem (I asked before), so I wrote something like pre-writing for an essay, and everyone else wrote something like a poem. Mine was about pool parties when I was a teen.

In the other writing exercise we each write down a secret, or what might be a secret, and then swap and use that secret as the first line of something poem-like. Mine was about being a mermaid. That resulted of five minutes writing stiltedly about being a secret mermaid, and five minutes complaining to my notebook about how I didn’t want to do this exercise any more. I suspect this is how my middle schoolers felt when, on holidays, I gave them a “do-now” like “draw a picture about workers for Memorial Day.” Which is mostly bewildered confusion, and a few anime characters that had been tweaked for the occasion. Which is well enough, I suppose, for a ten minute exercise, if only to instill humility and assess how comfortable people are with what they’re doing, but, just as setting a teenage girl loose upon a piece of paper way well result in a cartoon, setting me loose on said paper with the instructions “write something using these words” will probably result in something not unlike… this.

In visual art, we often subject students to exercises like blind contour drawing (where you can’t look at your paper or pick up your pencil) negative space drawing (where you can only draw the space around the thing, and leave the thing itself blank), gesture sketches, and so on. The main goal of most of these exercises is at least as much about what one oughtn’t be doing (automatically reducing trees to lollipops, eyes to balls or almonds, etc), as about what *is* going on. You force the person to look at the lines on their fingers and not at the paper, because otherwise they’ll probably draw the outline of a glove instead of an actual hand. Poetry appears to face a similar uphill battle, and I suspect that for poetry resistant sorts like myself, a more appropriate exercise might be to focus on something as familiar and obvious as a hand, or a sunset, flower garden, bird, or whatever else comes easily to mind, and then to make it fit in a certain number of phrases with a certain range of syllables. Because, to the extend that there’s resistance and doubt, it isn’t about finding a handful of details a la Mad Libs. It’s about doing something with them that isn’t prose. Which isn’t to say that the teacher is wrong. I get the impression that most of the rest of the class is more familiar and comfortable with poetry as a form, and even if they write poor (or at least incomplete) poems, they are, at least, poem-like, rather than essay-like.

There are occasions when flailing about some can be useful,especially when there aren’t any repercussions for doing poorly. Partly for realizing one’s own limitations — I don’t realize how literal and analytical I am by default until I’m confronted with written projects of a different sort and become instantly shy and awkward. These come up at work a fair bit, and I tend to hide from them if I can.


3 thoughts on “Poetry Class

  1. I love your analogy to the visual arts–a thing which you are good at. You said something along this line, which I find true for me when I write a poem–I need to have a THING in mind about which to write, and then render it in a form that isn’t prose. I presume that you do something like that when painting (or sculpting).

    The worst thing about poetry classes is the tendency to rip everything into analytic parts, and turn poetry into to some de-coding cryptography exercise. Puke! Basically, if it aint beautiful, skip it. For beginners, find beautiful poems, love them, and then try to imitate. At that point the nuts & bolts of procedure have relevance.

    • Thanks for responding!
      We haven’t been analytic yet — I don’t know if we will be. It’s more of a “try out these exercises, and see if anything worth writing comes out of it” sort of class, I think.

  2. I took a creative writing class as an undergraduate – half short story and half poetry – and I was pretty unfamiliar with poetry going in, as I think most of the class was. I really appreciated the prof’s approach which was similar to what you describe as the approach for beginning essayists. He had us begin each class with reading some poetry (for example two poems on trees, one which was good and one not so good) and noting structure in the poem that “worked”. And then taking a stab at imitating that structure. He drew an analogy to teaching how to play basketball – you have to learn how to dribble, how to run, how to block, how to shoot – one piece at a time. I think his point was to de-mystify what can appear pretty mystical. Like the dull expository five-paragraph essay, our poems were probably not what anyone would voluntarily read to begin with, but they were poems of a sort.

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