I suspect Bill Stafford was right when he said, “To do poetry, you have to unlearn a lot of things educated people know.” If he is right, would the measure of your success in this course be how much you have unlearned? And of mine, how much I have untaught? Maybe so. By the end of this course, your poems will show how much you have unlearned of any limited and narrowing notions of poetry and any stultifying habits of language, thought, or imagination you may have started with. Often I find that my students’ best work goes beyond what I have expected. I can explain principles, analyze examples, suggest revisions—in other words, point directions; but ultimately, each writer decides whether or not and how far to go in the direction I have pointed.
Nims, John Frederick, and David Mason. Western Wind: An Introduction to Poetry. 4th ed. New York: McGraw, 1999.
This text is a good one for the unlearning/learning you need if you want to make poems. Its major subdivisions (previously mentioned) consider six dimensions of those kinds of verbally created imaginative experiences we call poems: senses, emotions, words, sounds, rhythms, and mind. The lessons in this course manual follow that structure, taking the chapters of Western Wind in sequence. (However, it wouldn't hurt you to read chapter 14, “Adam’s Curse: Inspiration and Effort,” at the start or anytime during the course; and you ought to browse through the “Anthology” at the rate of about twenty poems per lesson.) Hereafter, I will mainly refer to Western Wind with the acronym WW.
Each lesson has a short list of objectives, followed by a “Reading Assignment” section outlining the steps you must take to complete and submit your assignment for that lesson. For reading assignments in your text, I give chapter numbers (e.g., “chapters 1 and 2” or “chapter 5”), for writing exercises from the text, I give the exercise letter or letter and number(s) (e.g., “A” meaning all of exercise A, or “B.1” meaning only item 1 under exercise B, or “C.1-3” meaning items 1 through 3 under exercise C), followed by the page numbers (in parentheses) where the exercises appear in WW. Note that in the discussion material, I use the acronym WW followed by page numbers to refer you to poems or significant discussions in your text. After each “Reading Assignment” section comes part of a continuing series of “Writing Suggestions Derived from WW” intended to give you ideas for poems to submit; you are free to use any of these suggestions (unless the instructions specify otherwise), or to draw suggestions of your own from the text. (Like mine, your suggestions should reflect the concerns or objectives of the assignment you apply them to.)
Remember to submit your assignments as Microsoft Word .DOC or .DOCX files. Name the file using this style—be sure to use your own name: ENGL319R_JaneSmith_WritingAssignment1.docx.
If you have it in you to write and it won’t go away, write every day, preferably at a regular hour and for a regular length of time. It may help you to keep a writer’s notebook or journal to do at least some daily writing in: jot down lines and phrases and images that come to you, copy lines from poetry or prose that impressed you, and so forth.
I will be dropping a lot of names and titles in this course manual (as I already have) and occasionally using words you don’t know. I don’t explain or annotate heavily because I believe that if you are interested, you’ll take time to look things up and thus possess them more surely anyway. The discussion material I have written to accompany the lessons in the course manual intends to amplify, clarify, and (once or twice) correct what you read in Western Wind. I don’t often try to tell you how to write poems; I don’t know that I can, except to say something like, “Write the first line that comes to mind, then listen to it and see if it will tell you what the next one is, and so on.” It’s that simple and mysterious. What I can do, and have tried to do, is to help you pay attention to those aspects of language and experience that go into whole, well-made poems. And I can tell you a good deal about what to look at and what to do when you rewrite a poem. Everybody has at least the two primary requisites for writing poetry: language and experience. And I know that anybody can choose to become, by discipline, a better maker with words, sounds, images, rhythms, lines, sentences and forms.
The final exam consists of 18 essay and fill-in-the-blank questions and it is closed-book and closed-notes. There is no time limit, but most students finish within two hours. The final exam is worth 15% of your grade. There is also a proctored midcourse exam worth 10% of your final grade. There are 16 essay and short answer questions and it is closed book and closed note (you will need to schedule a proctor for the final and the midcourse exams). The midcourse exam usually takes about an hour and a half to complete.
In determining your final course grade, I will weight your work as follows:
|Assignments (lessons 1–9)||25%|
|Final Portfolio (lesson 10)||50%|
|E (fail)||59 or below|
Initially, something you should unlearn/learn is that “poetry” should not be thought of as some kind of Platonic essence of which particular poems are imperfect embodiments, or of which each poem might luckily contain a precious drop if the Muse kindly shook her dewy nightgown over it. For now, take “poetry” as a handy collective noun referring to all of those artifacts we call “poems,” and then as implying the collection of characteristics most of them have in common. I wouldn’t attempt to define “poetry” here much further than that; Western Wind (your text) explores the traits of language that poems may employ and share in common with one another.
But “a poem” might be somewhat easier to define, using the old method of “genus” and “differentiae” (class + specific characteristics): first of all, a poem is obviously some sort of utterance in language (these days, usually a written one, though usually more fully realized when spoken), sharing its diction and syntax with all the other progeny of the mother tongue. But what separates it from other members of that proliferous brood-newspapers, novels, short stories, legal documents, private letters, detergent ads, etc.? These differences are the subject of this course and its text. Here I want to stress only two. First, a poem (as the Greek root of the word suggests: poiein, to make) is something made, not casual like a greeting on the street, nor a spontaneous outburst like a confession on a couch or a comfortable belch after dinner; second, a poem is something like a song in that its rhythm and its sounds are important in themselves and are to be listened to as elements of its meaning, not ignored or discarded as mere packaging. There is more to be said on these and other points, but the text will take care of most of that.
The poem is something made: this leads to another important introductory point. Many beginners think of poems as “self-expression.” I intend to focus not on expression but on making. If you are making something, don’t think of your expressive self but of your tools and materials. Concentrating on self-expression gets in the way of the attention that anyone, especially beginners, ought to give to the work being done; self-regard all too often softens writing into sentimentality. Cultivating regard for the work, not the ego, may help you take criticism with equanimity. You need a thick, sensitive skin.
I frankly and intentionally use the word “criticism” in this course manual. This doesn’t necessarily mean “fault-finding;” to me, it means a careful scrutiny by the light of the best standards I know. Although this sometimes amounts to fault-finding, its intention isn’t destructive, but surgical, and therefore constructive. When I look at a piece of writing, I don’t ask, “What’s he or she trying to say?” (What is some self expressing?) but rather, “What is this trying to be, and what’s helping/hindering it?” This may sound strange, but in good moments, I have a strong sense of what the center of gravity in a piece is and what its true sources of energy are; once I have found those, I can usually tell what is throwing it off balance or obstructing it. (To shift metaphors, I can discriminate signal from noise and try to tell you how to get less noise.) So attend closely to my criticism, without taking it personally (it’s never meant that way), and let it help you listen to what your own language, in your own drafts, is telling you. You have to learn the language well enough to trust it, and you have to become your own best critic.
Now, a caution: it is possible for your own developing critical sense to impede your writing. What you need is a certain kind of trust, and something to trust in. As Bill Stafford said, you have to trust your own language, since it’s the only one you have, and you have to be humble enough to use it and not wait around until you’re worthy enough to write the great poem that you think you ought to be writing. Be willing to make a few small poems well, and work from that. It may help if you keep in mind Peter Elbow’s idea (in his book Writing Without Teachers ) that inside you, as you write, you are a producer and an editor (I’ll call them Prod and Ed for short): when you’re getting out a first draft, don’t let Ed stick his axe in, or you’ll never get anything done. Let Prod have free rein while there’s a first draft to be written; afterward, turn Ed loose, hardnosed, ruthless, with a killer instinct for bad writing. This way you have a chance to enjoy both halves of the process. If you let the two interfere with each other, you’ll just get stuck—there is almost nothing worse.
It may help if I say a few things about what I look for in imaginative writing, whether fiction or poetry, or in any kind of writing.
The first criterion is skill in using the language for the work at hand. The language should be direct, fresh, exact, and economical; it must be free of cliches, stereotypes, and formulas; it must be concrete and kinetic, strong in the evocation of sensory images; its rhythms must avoid monotony and be sensitive and responsive to feelings evoked by the details, images, or events of the piece; it must not waste energy or space or tell me things I can easily and immediately infer for myself. I could go on, but I would be overdoing it. First of all, a poem must seem to be something spoken by “a real voice in a real body in a real world” (WW 7, 325), even if that world belongs to a fantasy. A poem ought not to preach; that is the function of sermons, and poems do other things much better anyway (unless the poet is Ezra Pound in his famous Cantos against “usura” and “vanity”). Similarly, in a story, the first thing is to get me, the reader, into the character’s mind and world; this is done by being truthful-true to the senses, to the way it feels to be in a concrete, physical world. If the story doesn’t do that, no great idea or magnificent theme will ever save it.
I look forward to reading your work. I know of few enjoyments keener or more lasting than those I get from reading well-written poetry or prose: a good line or sentence can keep me happy for several days. When I teach writing, what matters most to me is the quality of the work. A good piece of writing is worth a good deal of pain and sweat.
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