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Friday, June 4, 2010

Another Visit from the Ghost of Kenneth Koch

One thing that helped me to be clear about poetry was a remark by Paul Valery that poetry is a separate language that exists inside the larger language. What if one took this seriously? Linguistically speaking, if "poetry" is a language unto itself, how would it differ from the larger language? The sound of words, which is useful only for identification in the ordinary language, is terribly important in poetry, as important as the meaning. If you say "two and two are rather blue", it means more in poetry than "two and two are quite green.

He was visiting again. I clicked on his Naropa Institute lecture from June 1979, where he spends 10 minutes telling students what he's not going to teach them that night, and also how he thinks writing exercises are worthless. He sounds like a nice guy, a well-meaning and kind guy, but not someone who has all that much confidence in poetry being taught.

Am I wrong? I've read Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? There he seems utterly firm that if we raise our expectations, ask school children to read Blake and write like him, our nation's children can all be Blake . . . but with these Naropa students he seems less assured.

He is talking and talking, sometimes brilliantly, and sometimes, as in dismissing poetry exercises, not so brilliantly.

Maybe it has more to do with it being 1979. In 1979 it probably wasn't acceptable to ask students to imitate a famous poet, or to follow a set of instructions for writing a poem. It was supposed to be all about free to be you and me. (What a terrible burden! How did anyone write anything of any merit, having to be so free and original all the time?)

Maybe it was that he would only meet with those students a few times, not for an entire semester, in which case, how unfortunate that we have to listen to this lecture where he feels put off by the brevity of his interactions.

Though even in a semester-length class, not every student improves in a way that is perceptible.

If an instructor enters a classroom with a pinch of pessimism up her sleeve, that pinch may very well poison the entire 11 weeks.

Therefore in place of pessimism, a teaspoon of cinnamon.

Therefore, provide specific examples of the type of poem you want them to write, plus a lecture with historical context and tips. If you want them to write prose poems, bring on the Edson and the Tate and the Simic. Have them invent and share/swap absurd premises. Or, if writing sonnets, have them read a bunch, very strictly formal ones, as well as the way-nonce. Have them practice writing iambic pentameter by converting journal entry jottings:

It was an overcast day. For a few hours it rained. We heated up the leftover corn chowder for lunch, ate it with slices of crusty Italian bread.


While it RAINED we DINED on CHowder, CRUSty bread.

Expect that they will write poetry--words that pay close attention to their music--in the same way you'd expect the analytic method and MLA-formatted citations from your composition students.

Do not be afraid to forbid cliches.

Enthuse when they show even a momentary glimmer of brilliance. Even if it is only one clause of brilliance. Fill the barn with applause for that one luminous clause.

Till it was clear that a text like Koch's Making Your Own Days should be required:

Repetition and variation of sounds, among other things . . . keep the words afloat. The nature of prose, Valery said, is to perish. Poetry lasts because it gives the ambiguous and ever-changing pleasure of being both a statement and a song.

Till it was clear the instructor must be exuberant, infectiously exuberant, for without this exuberance there can be no contagious joy, and therefore no trips across the savannah, to the moon, or into the imagination.


Joannie said...


Kristin said...

Brilliant. I love your fierce championing of enthusiastic teachers.

This bit was my favorite: "Expect that they will write poetry--words that pay close attention to their music--in the same way you'd expect the analytic method and MLA-formatted citations from your composition students."

When I think about this passage of yours and the earlier bit about how much pressure there is when we expect originality all the time, I realize that the most successful writing exercises I have students do comes after many models, lots of poems to read, and then the attempt to do the same.

Thanks for your inspiriations in this piece.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks, Kristin, for your kind words. I have been teaching poetry writing for over ten years, yet I am still trying to figure out what increases the odds of student success. Being a hard ass seems to, apparently, be one of them. Case in point: David Wagoner.