“Off The Shelf: Finding the pieces that turn writing into poetry,” by Matthew Zapruder.
Thanks to Ron Silliman for linking this on his blog. This seems like it would be a great resource for instructors teaching introduction to poetry courses, or anybody else new to poetry. It does a good job filling in crucial history of the formal shift in English language poetry from the old days of rhyme and meter to our more contemporary (in)formal tendencies. I know I had a few students who seemed determined to write like Alexander Pope, Edgar Allen Poe or Emily Dickenson who might benefit from this. Zapruder also connects poets to visual artists–a connection which I think is good to encourage in young writers’ minds–and introduces some helpful ways of thinking about the discursive element of poetry, the level of statement and idea, instead of focusing only on the formal aspects of writing.
Some quotable moments:
For about a year, I carried around a rhyming dictionary, writing terrible sonnets, lousy sestinas, atrocious villanelles, abysmal pantoums. I felt like I was working, which was good, but it was also painful and embarrassing to write so much bad poetry.
I didn’t realize then that I was doing my own clumsy version of what art students do when they learn to paint. Now every time I go to the museum I see at least one of them with a sketchbook, copying the great paintings, and it makes sense to me. I’m glad I did it, even though nothing I wrote was any good.
One thing I do notice about my poems is that, though they might not have overt formal elements, there is always a rhythm that develops, subtly, in the voice of the speaker. Maybe something more like a cadence. Most poetry is “formal” in that way.
And I think, secretly, that my poems actually do rhyme. It’s just that the rhyme is what I would call “conceptual,” that is, not made of sounds, but of ideas that accomplish what the sounds do in formal poetry: to connect elements that one wouldn’t have expected, and to make the reader or listener, even if just for a moment, feel the complexity and disorder of life, and at the same time what Wallace Stevens called the “obscurity of an order, a whole.”
I would only suggest that conceptual rhythm be added to the idea of conceptual rhyme. The most interesting poetry these days, for me at least, must be engaging on this level–of patterns of thought, the play (or disruption, or explosion) of signs, of making words mean elsewise, of making statements or impressions that are surprising to both reader and author–and only after that do I admire its formal, linguistic or aural ingenuity. Alternately, I would also say that I have used formal, linguistic and aural constraints to give my writing a framework within which these “conceptual” elements might better flourish. In either case, the conceptual level of works end up taking precedence over the other (still essential) elements; i.e. I would not consider the work to be good without perfection on that level, though I might tolerate a lack or have more flexibility with the rest.
The education in literature Americans receive through high school is overall totally inadequate at giving young people the necessary foundation to make it an important part of their mental lives (if they are allowed these). Poetry suffers especially, and I have seen it in undergraduates that know nothing of poetry after 1900. Maybe this article will help to make up for this gap in understanding, or at least point them in a more relevant and timely direction. And just maybe, after reading this article, jumps to more experimental “forms” of poetry and works of conceptual poetry might not be so difficult for students to make.