Saturday, February 7, 2009

A clarification for the poetry you (maybe) read on this blog.

Yesterday the 8th graders had a poetry slam to celebrate the collections they published and all the life changing reading experiences they had (ha. I wish) during our unit. It really was one of my favorite moments of this year so far, though. 14 year olds willing to share their writing in front of 90 other students, and 90 other students willing to listen.

Teaching poetry is my metaphorical spring. I love finding ways to reveal just how life giving and refreshing reading it can be, and all of the opportunities for creative expression and freedom in writing it. One of my teaching goals for the year has been to write along with my students, which is hilarious because my students are precious enough to think that everything I write is amazing. I am obsessed with revision. I try to arm students with strategies and encourage experimentation. As I was trying to model what experimentation looks like, I ended up learning a lot about myself as a poet.

One, I like powerfully descriptive language in prose, but I don't like to overdo it in poetry. I've found that the poetry I am most excited about writing is when I try to capture a single moment in words and simultaneously give the reader a picture of what was happening while conveying its emotional weight. I tend to do this mostly through steam of conscious-style writing paired with meaningful line breaks. I love how one single image can speak volumes beyond itself.

So as I was experimenting with my own work in front of my class, I found I didn't like a lot of the revisions I was making when I was intentionally trying to include poetic devices. Granted, my rewrites were way better than the deliberately bad poems I started with, but they did not seem to have my voice and identity in them. For this reason, I didn't "publish" a collection with them, because despite my best efforts and seeming "good" revisions, I felt like a fraud.

This caused me to take a look at the poetry that I have written, and then feel compelled to explain it. Two of the most influential poets in my life are Pablo Neruda and Jack Kerouac. Neruda's use of language--even in translation--is musical without music, deeply beautiful at once transcendent and cascading and I always imagine someone who is talking with such deep passion that he forgets to breathe. (please read for an example. or google Sonnet 17.) Kerouac's western haikus are the pared down version: "Above all a Haiku must be very simple and free of all poetic trickery and make a little picture and yet be as airy and graceful as a Vivaldi Pastorella." He was able to get "the rendering of a subject's essence, and the shimmering, ephemeral nature of its fleeting existence," (Weinreich):

in a birdbath,
a leaf.

My hope in my own poetry is to work toward combining these two styles; to try to convey the weight of a nuanced image and the way my heart can just drop to the ground, but in the good kind of heartbreak. I'm not sure that I felt I had to write this to justify my writing style to you, but more as a means to process through who I am hoping to become as a writer?

To close in another's words, an excerpt from anArs Poetica that I found recently. It seems to almost perfectly describe the art of capturing of a fleeting moment that becomes timeless and heavy:

Ars Poetica by Archibald MacLeish

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds.


A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs,

Leaving, as the moon releases
Twig by twig the night-entangled trees,

Leaving, as the moon behind the winter leaves,
Memory by memory the mind—

A poem should be motionless in time
As the moon climbs.


A poem should be equal to:
Not true.

For all the history of grief
An empty doorway and a maple leaf.

For love
The leaning grasses and two lights above the sea—

A poem should not mean
But be.


Katia Shtefan said...

It is good to hear that Neruda's words continue to inspire people around the world. As an aspiring poet myself, I always wonder how Neruda could come up with such beautiful, unusual images. If you really like him, check out Red Poppy at It's a non-profit set up to create a documentary biographical film about Neruda and to translate his works into English.

Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

Thank you for turning me on to Neruda. Powerful!