Friday, July 23, 2010

The Workshop That Wasn't

In addition to the sabermetrics workshop I taught earlier this summer, I also wrote a curriculum for a poetry workshop that didn't run. Much as I loved teaching sabermetrics, a part of me was even more excited to teach the poetry course. Why? Because I love the idea of reading awful, awkward poetry written by high schoolers.

Actually, I love the thought of introducing high schoolers to great poems, and sparking their own desire to write. Not necessarily poetry, per se, but poetry is as good an entry point into writing as anything. Maybe the best. Why? Because poetry forces you to be conscious of rhythm, forces you to be pithy, and forces you to use precise diction. Even poor poems usually follow some structural and lexiconical (a word I'm inventing because it's the middle of the night) rules. The result is that, even we poor poets of the world (people like me; there's a reason you don't really see my now exceedingly rare poetry on this blog) learn something about writing in the process.

Beyond learning about writing broadly by writing poetry, I think there's also something to be said for reading poetry. Good poetry is, cheesy as it sounds, highly inspirational. Poets like T.S. Eliot or Langston Hughes make you feel like you're getting more out of their words than the words themselves. Indeed, in Eliot's poems sometimes the worlds themselves feel like complete nonsense. But somewhere in those mess of symbolism and metaphor is that grain of magic that makes you smile, stand up, and read aloud. Like the opening of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock:

Let us go then, you and I
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table

Disturbing and surprising? Sure, but awesome too. Eliot rhymes with so much purpose in Prufrock that it's hard not to fall in love with the poem, even though it's so pompous.

I grow old... I grow old...
I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Such lines! That is what separates those precious few great poets from the proverbial masses. Anyone can write a sonnet (or any other form) with enough patience and effort. Anyone, indeed, can even invent their own wild, Anne Sexton-like form. But the inspiration that results in lines so simple, so mundane, yet so effective is a rare gift.

And the afternoon, the evening, sleeps so peacefully!
Smoothed by long fingers,
Asleep... tired... or it malingers

Malingers and fingers! My God, man, where does that come from? We might say that even inspiration is the work of effort and is an acquired ability. Indeed, I am suspicious of the notion of innate talent - pure genius - in the work of the mind. But there is no question that, whether by virtue of some genius or by virtue of the mere acquisition of the mantle of greatness for no particularly good reason, we have such poems as Prufrock and react to them with so much fervor that there must be something there.

The conversation about Prufrock, I promise, would have been more focused than this, because it's too late in the night and the week to get all analytical with poetry. I wouldn't say, however, that analysis and joy are opposed. It's far too easy to say that studying a work of art makes you appreciate it less: makes you lose that innocent, unadulterated love you have for the words by turning you into a cynical, self-righteous, pompous ass (or "connoisseur," you might say). I disagree. Sure, you may become more selective and discerning, and you may abandon some poems and poets (or songs and musicians, or paintings and painters, and so on), but those poems you do love become all the better when you study them closely. I've read Prufrock countless times, and yet I always find something new to love about it, which is a part of why it is great.

The workshop - which this post is about, remember - was not all about Eliot. Indeed, Prufrock was only going to be one day. In addition, we were going to study the following:

Walt Whitman - Song of Myself

We were only going to get to a small part of this one, because it's very long, and it takes a few readings and, I think, a little bit of time to get into those long, rambling lists of images in the middle. The beginning and the end were going to be our focus. Some choice lines:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well, I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

How brilliant. In a vast, large, rambling poem that undoubtedly offended the poetic sensibilities of many of its original readers, could you find a more perfect statement? How many writers have tried to say this and taken pages to do so? For Whitman, it takes fifteen words.

T.S Eliot - The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

We've already got some lines from this one, but in the vein of the Whitman quotation, here's one of my favorite lines:

It is impossible to say just what I mean!

Gabriela Mistral - Los Que No Danzan

I planned on using the wonderful translation of Ursula Le Guin, who I have recently decided is clearly a modern Virginia Woolf in that she's so brilliant at so many different things (best-selling, award-winning science fiction and amazing translations of Chilean poems? What gives?). But for the feeling of the poem, the Spanish is better. Since I'm guessing you don't know Mistral, I'll put in the whole poem.

Una niña que es inválida
dijo: -«¿Cómo danzo yo?»
Le dijimos que pusiera

a danzar su corazón...

Luego dijo la quebrada:
-«¿Cómo cantaría yo?»
Le dijimos que pusiera
a cantar su corazón...

Dijo el pobre cardo muerto:
-«¿Cómo, cómo danzo yo?»
Le dijimos: -«Pon al viento
a volar tu corazón...»

Dijo Dios desde la altura:
-«¿Cómo bajo del azul?»
Le dijimos que bajara
a danzarnos en la luz.

Todo el valle está danzando
en un corro bajo el sol,
A quien falte se le vuelve
de ceniza el

I only discovered Mistral - a Nobel winner - in the course of writing this curriculum. Given that the class didn't run, I think finding her poetry is the hidden meaning. This poem in particular stood out to me because I read it first while reading Carol Shloss's biography of Lucia Joyce, a dancer herself who clearly didn't fit into her world. Dancing was taken away from Lucia, but I like to think that, like the girl from the first stanza, she (as Le Guin has it) "did her dancing in her heart."

Edna St. Vincent Millay - Renascence

There's a chance you know Millay, and the opening lines of this poem may sound familiar to you:

All I could see from where I stood
Was three long mountains and a wood;
I turned and looked another way,
And saw three islands in a bay.

From such admittedly mundane beginnings* this poem takes off. Go read it. Seriously. You'll see what I mean. Millay wrote it as a young woman, entered it into a competition, and finished fourth to the outrage of even the poets who finished ahead of her. The winner called his victory "an embarrassment," and with good reason. Renascence may be the work of a young poet, but for that it has an exuberance - a refusal to admit that, even in a highly restrictive formal structure, it can't do everything. It does do everything.

* Though undoubtedly steeped in symbolism, I'm still calling this mundane. Remember that three anythings is usually a dead give away that something funky is going on.

Here's what I mean by "It does do everything:"

I saw and heard, and knew at last
The How and Why of all things, past,
And present, and forevermore.
The universe, cleft to the core,
Lay open to my probing sense.

And that's before it really gets going.

Freidrich Schiller and Ludwig Van Beethoven - Ode to Joy

Yeah, yeah, I couldn't help myself. Actually, the activity I had designed around this poem and song combination was, I think, a highly under-represented part of the writing process: deleting stuff. The idea is this: the Schiller poem is quite long and unwieldy, and even though the last movement of the 9th Symphony is 20+ minutes long, it simply can't get through the whole poem. Beethoven, however, does not simply take the first two stanzas and throw them in. He judiciously picks the stuff he wants, and mixes around the order to fit his needs. How does he decide? That's the real question.

The lesson, then, is that you have to do that with your own work sometimes, too. It's alright to change the order of your paragraphs around sometimes to make the flow better. It's also alright to excise whole sections of text if they don't meet your needs. It's even good to start over. As one of my middle school English teachers said (and yes, I remember my middle school English classes; I'm just like that): "Sometimes you have to kill your babies." That awesome line you wrote might ruin the poem, so take it out and use it in a different one. Or, more to the point, that awesome line you wrote isn't actually awesome. Kill it.

Langston Hughes - A Dream Deferred

I tried, more or less, to avoid horribly cliche high school poems, but I couldn't dodge this one. For one thing, I'm not convinced people actually read this.* For another, even if they do, it's just so amazing that it's worth reading again and again. In case you don't recall, here it is (after the posterisk).

* Don't they? Isn't this poem like a part of getting a drivers license or something? It's only, like, the most iconic poem in American history.

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Even without the context this poem was written in, it packs a huge punch. Add in the context, and it's even better.

In a typical Paul move, I was going to pair this with reading the "I Have a Dream" speech, partially because there's a certain, obvious thematic link, but also because the course would have been gearing up towards a final poem-reading symposium, and King was a marvelous public speaker. Best to learn from the best.

I also planned on having a student choice day, which I was going to leave pretty wide open. I'd be fascinated to know what poems students came in to the course interested in, or if, on the other hand, they'd want to take a look at pop-song lyrics. Either way, frankly, I think we could have had a fruitful conversation. Alas, the course did not run, so no conversations.

Nevertheless, writing the curriculum was a worthwhile experience, not only for the practice in curriculum construction, but also because I learned about poetry in the process. Millay and Mistral, for example, were vague names without words or meaning attached to them. A Dream Deferred was "that civil rights poem I read in high school." There's something to be said for returning to those works you weren't ready to read in high school for that reason: as an adult they mean so much more - and sometimes so much less - and you can get so much further into them. There's also something to be said, however, about reading those poems in high school, even if you don't get into them, because without that exposure, how do you even know where to begin to look when you really do want to know what happens to a dream deferred?

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