Additional Poetry Exercises Help (page 3)
Exaggerate, An Exercise by Poet Susan Rich
Susan Rich shares an exercise she invented for a recent poetry-writing workshop based on the interconnections between poetry and food, for:
There is no love more sincere than the love of food.
—George Bernard Shaw
At a poetry writing workshop at Lower Columbia College in Longview, Washington, I was teaching based on the interconnections between poetry and food. I had people introduce themselves with one sentence that began with their name and then mentioned a food they either loved or loathed. Going around the very large circle provided a diversity of foods and expressions. I was amazed at how passionate and confident people were when they spoke of their own personal preferences. Jeannine loved sauerkraut; Barry loathed chocolate ice cream. We expanded on those first lines with a sense of play, going wild: making chocolate a reason to live, saying we'd rather die than eat chopped liver again to create energetic and entertaining pieces.
One person started with "I'm Karen and I love wild salmon." In her poem of exaggeration, the wild salmon became a very sexy boyfriend waiting for her with a freshly prepared dinner when she came home from work. Of course, once the poem gets going the first line that the poet started out with often becomes obsolete. Although sometimes a first line, like this one, sticks: "There should be a law against a cheese smarter than me."
Enlist Poets Who Came Before You, A Second Exercise from Susan Rich
Rich tells her students:
Why choose a dead mentor? How might this help in your development as a writer? Well, for one thing, it is practical. Your relationship can transcend place and time. Pablo Neruda will not be too busy at Isla Negra to work with you. His poetry, prose, and even his memoir will be available whenever you are. Elizabeth Bishop could be demanding in person, but her poetry, letters, and paintings are smart companions. You can transcend boundaries of ethnicity, race, gender, ideology in order to learn what you need. Most importantly, you will have a poet-guide to keep you company.
To begin your search for the poet you want to be your dead mentor, compose a personal ad. Rich suggests:
In 100 words or less, describe your ideal mentor. It's important to ask for what you want. This process is meant to help you identify who you want to take on as your mentor. It's a decision that merits some reflection. Here are some questions to get you thinking. Should she (or he) be serious or sexy? An avid outdoors person or a bibliophile? What matters to you most? Brilliance or bravado? Is it important that your mentor worked in several genres? Do you envision a poet from Romania or the Pacific Northwest? Do you prefer that they are a genius or a prolific letter writer?
When you have selected the poet, begin a conversation:
Choose one poem from your mentor's work. Double-space out the lines of the poem in your notebook so that you can insert your own lines in-between. See what your own lines might say to the printed ones. Ask questions, further your mentor's thought, make a joke. Another take on this exercise is to merely "borrow" a refrain or a line of the chosen poem and use it as your own starting point.
Next, make imaginative leaps:
Write a monologue from the perspective of your mentor's neighbor, beloved cat, teakettle or spurned lover. What might we learn about Emily Dickinson from her next-door neighbor? How did William Carlos Williams apologize to his wife after a fight? If you are obsessed with your mentor, especially if you feel quite in awe of their work, this exercise will make it easier to spend time together.
Now that you have been mining your experiences for poems in free verse, let's turn to trying out four of poetry's many traditional forms: haiku and tanka, on the short side; the villanelle, which is of medium length and uses repetition; and ekphrastic poetry, which is longer.
Haiku: An Exercise By Margaret D. McGee
Haiku is a brief, three-line form from Japan that typically expresses the essence of the moment. Haiku is often thought of as using five syllables in the first and third lines and seven in the middle line, although English syllables are not quite the same as the sounds they count in Japanese (the word "haiku" is two syllables but counts as three sounds in Japanese, for example). These days, people are often taught the 5-7-5 in school, and then, if they like the form, end up freeing themselves from the tight syllable restrictions. What is important is that using images and senses, a haiku brings feeling to life.
Margaret D. McGee explains where her haiku come from:
It was a gloomy afternoon, and I felt tired and low on the drive from Seattle to my home on the Olympic Peninsula. The sky, water, and highway all reflected back to me in shades of gray. Then in a flash, the clouds broke apart and sunlight washed across the tall mountains ahead. Though weather changes are hardly unusual in our region, still, my spirits lifted in surprise. With gratitude, I began to compose a haiku:
snow peaks brighten
for the long drive home
Today, this little poem can bring that moment of unexpected light back to me. In the midst of a difficult workday, I call it to mind and feel again my spirits lift, just as they did that afternoon at the wheel.
A "haiku moment" is a moment when your mind stops and your heart moves.
Often, a haiku puts two images together, and it is the spark between the images that evokes our feelings.
a turn in the road
from the dusk
This haiku, which I shared in my Skylight Paths book Haiku—The Sacred Art: A Spiritual Practice in Three Lines, brings back a moment when I was walking along a gravel lane near my home. Around a bend, a broad meadow opened up in the twilight. I stopped at the sight of two deer in the meadow. Then, a vague shape that I had thought was a mound of weeds suddenly moved, and a third deer lifted her head and turned to look at me.
For me, this poem evokes a feeling of unexpected possibilities in the world. Writing haiku offers the chance to hold and honor a moment that takes you out of yourself, and it is also a way to share feelings with others. All it takes is a moment of mindfulness—quiet attention to what is happening in the world around you.
Margaret suggests going outside and finding a place where you can be comfortable, but you can, of course, also do this exercise from inside:
Relax, breathe, and look around. At the top of a page, write the current season and general time of day. (For example: "winter morning.") Now simply jot down whatever you notice. What's happening in the sky? What do you hear? Smell? What catches your eye? Write down specific things you see or experience, including images, scents, sounds, and even memories. Do your best to suspend all judgment for the time being, whether aimed outward at the world or inward at your own efforts. (This is not a test!) Instead, simply offer the world your respectful attention, then write down what you see. Keep writing until your page is full. Then look over your images and choose two to put together in a short poem. One of the images might be the season and time of day that you wrote at the top of the page. Or you might feel a spark of energy between two others. Arrange the images in three brief lines.
bare branches tap, tap
against my kitchen window
For me, this haiku evokes both the cold outside and the warmth inside—a warmth connected to food and nourishment. The feeling is one of poignancy mixed with gratitude.
What feelings are evoked by your haiku?
If you are also interested in a traditional look into writing haiku, type "Graceguts" into your browser to find Michael Dylan Welch's site. Another useful link for reading about Haiku is www.dmoz.org/Arts/Literature/Poetry/Forms/Haiku_and_Related_Forms/.
Tanka: Exercise with an Older Japanese Form by Poet Michael Dylan Welch
Michael Dylan Welch is the founder of the Tanka Society of America. He describes the tanka form as supplying:
…a brief touch of poetry, though not quite as brief as haiku. It has a bit more room to explore, and often carries overtly emotional content that haiku only hints at. Over centuries, the tanka form grew out of an older form known as waka, which also spawned linked verse and haiku. Tanka in Japanese are often written in one vertical line, but English uses five horizontal lines, often in a short-longshort-long-long rhythm. Sometimes tanka is taught as being divided into syllabic units of 5-7-5-7-7. However, the majority of literary tanka writers do not follow this pattern in English because 31 English syllables result in a poem much longer than the Japanese pattern of 31 sounds.
Tanka begin, he continues:
…with what you feel in your heart. You write about what caused the emotion rather than the emotion itself and are receptive to feelings, even down to noticing the bodily sensations that go with them—the tightening of the chest, the widening of the eyes, or the slackening of the jaw and report these physical reactions in a poem. The tanka poet tries to catch what caused his or her emotion, such as the name on a return address label that makes a letter unexpected, or the sound of a leaf scratching across the pavement after news of a loved-one's death. Then he or she begins to record these emotive observations in words.
Welch also teaches that readers often presume tanka are written from personal experience and are autobiographical, and offers one of his tanka poems for examination:
- the doctor tells us
- of the baby's heart murmur—
- outside the hospital window
- snow half way
- down the distant mountain
He says of this poem:
It turns out that our daughter's murmur was minor and cleared up in just a day or two. At first, though, my wife and I didn't know what to feel. We didn't know if the snow, half way down the mountain in the distance outside the window, would come further down the mountain or retreat to higher elevations. Would the days ahead be colder or warmer, both metaphorically and literally? It's this sensitivity to natural symbolism that so often helps tanka to carry the weight of one's emotions. My tanka doesn't state an emotion but conveys something of the tension and feeling we had by the leap or "turn" from the first part of the poem to the second.
Reading Welch's poem, we notice a turn it takes in the third line, a turn from hearing the condition of the child to looking through a hospital window and letting the natural world communicate the stunned parents' feelings. Those writing tanka strive for such a turn, often in the third line, marking the transition from the examination of an image to the examination of personal response. This connects, Welch tells us, what the Japanese call kami-no-ku, or upper poem, to the shimo-no-ku, or lower poem.
Here are his instructions:
Take five sheets of paper and draw a line down the middle of each one. On the left side of each sheet, write "Sensations" (for sensory experiences). On the right side, write "Emotion/Assessment" (for how you felt or what you were thinking about at the time).
Spend the next five weekdays, starting on a Monday, paying attention to each of your five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste (the exercise may get harder later in the week as you progress to senses that are typically less dominant). At the end of each day, try writing at least one tanka about your sensory focus for that day. Try to avoid directly saying what you were feeling or thinking about at the time of each sensory impression. Instead, try to imply those feelings or conclusions by writing about what might have caused those feelings. In other words, if seeing a baby spread its fingers makes you feel joyful, don't write about the concept of joy, write about those fingers spreading—trust the image itself to make others joyful too! By carefully leaving out statements of feelings, you empower the poem to imply them.
The Villanelle—Circling Around What Haunts Us
The name for this form comes from villanella and villancico, from the Italian villano, or peasant. The name referred to Italian and Spanish dance songs, believed to be derived from what field workers sang as they worked. Later, when French poets called their poems "villanelle," they did not at first follow schemes, rhymes, or refrains, but addressed pastoral themes. It may not have been until the late nineteenth century that the villanelle was defined as a fixed form when French poet Théodore de Banville used a more rigid scheme.
The form became popular among English speaking poets. Many of us know Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night" (www.poets.org/ viewmedia.php/prmMID/15377) and Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" (www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15212). Although a villanelle can be about any subject and carry any emotion, both of these famous villanelles are about loss. In his book How To Read a Poem and Fall in Love with Poetry, Edward Hirsch describes the villanelle as a form that is particularly useful for "retrieving loss." Others writing about the villanelle talk of the way it helps a writer retrieve the feelings and images that haunt them.
It can seem confusing to read a description of this form, but reading villanelles themselves helps unravel the code. So, visit one of the websites noted above or read my poem reprinted below so you have a villanelle before you as you read this description of the pattern in this form. There are six stanzas—five are made up of three lines each and the last one is made up of four lines. Of those four lines, the last two lines are ones that have alternately ended the preceding stanzas. That is, the first line of the first stanza is repeated as the last line of the second and fourth stanzas and the third line of the first stanza becomes the last line of the third and fourth stanzas. The first and third lines in each stanza rhyme at the end. The middle lines of the first five stanzas usually rhyme with one another, too, as full or half rhymes. In the last stanza, the second line rhymes with the previous middle stanzas' middle lines and the other three lines rhyme with one another and match the rhyme of the previous stanza's first and third lines.
The villanelle I wrote several months after a tragic loss was a way of putting together spiritual information I felt I was receiving in dreams that I couldn't quite say yet. Writing the poem in this form did allow me to find a way to say what I needed to say and to find out what I believed. My first-hand experience tells me that there does seem to be magic in the repetition of the lines in the pattern prescribed. As I wrote, I kept Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" open at my left to refer to the pattern and adjust my lines. The words to fill in the rhymes and pattern did just seem to come and from the words and their rhymes, the music.
Bishop's poem begins:
- The art of losing isn't hard to master;
- so many things seem filled with the intent
- to be lost that their loss is no disaster.
Modeled on the fact that her rhyming lines that repeat would be the first and third from this stanza (the third one being used with some flexibility in phrasing, however), I found my first stanza and then could fairly easily continue filling the form from there:
- A New Theology
- For Seth Bender, 1975–2000
- Who has no likeness of a body and has no body
- is my son, now five months dead
- but in my dreams, my dreams he brings the peace in gardens,
- and I see him in his smile and he is hardy
- in the rolled up sleeves of his new shirt, well-fed
- when he has no likeness of a body and has no body.
- I see him next to me in conversation at a party
- and I believe that he is fine because this is what he said,
- because in my dreams, my dreams I sit with him in gardens.
- The nights he comes, the cats moan long and sorry.
- I believe they see his spirit entering my head,
- he who has no likeness of a body and has no body.
- In my life, accepting death comes slowly,
- but the midwifery of sadness and of shock bleeds
- afterbirth, dreams that bring the peace in gardens.
- I know that he is far and he is here and he is holy.
- Under sun, I feel the energy it takes to come away from God
- who has no likeness of a body and has no body
- who is in my dreams, the dreams that bring me gardens.
Although Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art" is frequently described as a poem that doesn't offer resolution, but instead evokes echoes of compounding loss and the several emotions it elicits, including regret and grief, my experience writing a villanelle is that the repetitions allowed me to circle around the tragedy I'd experienced until I found a kind of resolution—a discovery of a perception that could soothe me. It was something I could find that I did know was born of this loss. I believe I owe the discovery to the villanelle form.
Think of something that bothers you deeply—the way others treat animals, the way people change their beliefs depending on the celebrity politician of the moment, the way people believe what they hear and read without testing the truth of the thoughts, the way a friend is having to deal with illness or the way some things like school funding never seem adequate—and write two lines to describe what you feel. Make sure they rhyme. Next, lay those lines out in the pattern they must fulfill for the villanelle.
Stop to closely read villanelles. You can add "The House on the Hill" by Edwin Arlington Robinson (www.americanpoems.com/poets/robinson/12637), "Mad Girl's Love Song" by Sylvia Plath (www.americanpoems.com/poets/sylviaplath/1411), "Saturday at the Border" by Hayden Carruth (www.poemhunter.com/poem/saturday-at-the-border/), and "If I Could Tell You" by W. H. Auden (www.poemhunter.com/poem/if-i-could-tell-you/) to my poem, Dylan Thomas's "Do Not Go Gentle into That Good Night," and Elizabeth Bishop's "One Art."
Now, under the spell of other villanelles, with a favorite one beside you, return to the lines that you laid out; fill in the rest of the lines to complete the pattern. You will need to do some tweaking here and there, but you will surprise yourself and see a poem with power developing.
Ekphrastic Poetry—Writing Poems from Paintings, An Exercise from Holly Hughes
Holly Hughes writes:
The term ekphrastic comes from the Greek ekphrasis—ek "out of" and phrasis
"speech or expression." Ekphrastic poems have a long, rich history going back to the time of Homer, who described in great detail in The Iliad how Hephaestus, the blacksmith god, forged the Shield of Achilles.
Poets continue to be inspired by paintings, although in more recent times they have focused less on the details of the art and have instead interpreted, spoken to, or even tried to inhabit their subjects. Some examples of wellknown ekphrastic poems are available at Poets.org, PoetryFoundation.org, and other sites.
W. H. Auden: "The Shield of Achilles" and "Musée des Beaux Arts"
Edward Hirsch: "Edward Hopper and the House by the Railroad"
William Carlos Williams: "Landscape with the Fall of Icarus"
X. J. Kennedy: "Nude Descending a Staircase"
Find these poems and read them aloud several times.
My own ekphrastic poem is about a Chagall painting. There are many beautiful paintings in the world, all deserving of poems, but in my poetry classes I like to use the paintings of Marc Chagall, the Russian painter, because his paintings do so well what we want our poems to do: take imaginative leaps. In his world, cows jump over the moon, newlyweds dance across the sky, fiddlers take flight, imagination rules! Thanks to the Internet, you can easily view Chagall's paintings online at several websites, including www.artcylopedia.com and www.masterworksartgallery.com.
Here's a poem I wrote with my students in response to Chagall's painting titled "The Shop in Vitebsk":
- The Shopkeeper, Waiting
- Chagall: The Shop in Vitebsk
- Orange persimmons glisten in a string bag;
- on the table, two plums, a mackerel await weighing.
- In the shadows, the shopkeeper watches, about
- to enter the room where wood planked floors sag
- under the tread of feet, about to re-enter this world
- where jars filled with spices line up in rank,
- this world tidy, measured out, set of scales bearing
- fine precision of fish bone, small heft of plum.
- Here, even beauty can be weighed, measured,
- before it drifts like smoke toward the sky.
- What will he do when he returns? Will he measure
- out a few rubles of sassafras, of comfrey? Or
- will he pull out his violin, fiddle to the cow,
- who will leap beyond the blue moon?
- And what of the mackerel, persimmons, plum?
- Will they too rise, weightless, while below,
- everyone who enters will find what they need.
For more ekphrasis poetry type the following into your Internet browser:
"The Poet Speaks of Art" www.english.emory.edu/classes/paintings&poems/titlepage.html,
"Ekphrasis: Poetry Confronting Art" www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/5918
"Notes on Ekphrasis" by Alfred Corn www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/19939
Find one of Chagall's paintings that especially intrigues you—a painting that you'd like to study closely and then interact with in a poem.
- Study the painting carefully, noting the colors, shapes, images, mood. Note, too, what's happening in the shadows of the painting.
- In a freewrite, describe what you see in the painting, using at least three concrete details and at least one simile and one metaphor.
- Choose a figure in the painting and write from his/her/its point of view (the figure doesn't need to be human). Let your imagination loose here, as Chagall does, so that your words are as free as his images.
- Write several questions that are raised by the painting, but don't try to answer them; just explore them.
- Reread your free write, underlining the strongest lines and images and the most interesting questions.
- From these lines, images, and questions, create a poem. In doing so, think about this as a jazz collaboration—or a dance—with Chagall. Don't worry about making literal sense; rather, try to convey the mood or feeling the painting conveys. Your poem should use enough specific details that readers might recognize the painting. It should also convey the imaginative spirit of Chagall and ask us to look at the world in a new, fresh way.
- Try out several poetic forms—couplets, triplets, single stanza—to see what will work best with the spirit of the poem and painting. Try for an organic form, if you can, in which the content of the painting is somehow mirrored in the poem's form.
- Again, in keeping with the spirit of Chagall, try to avoid clichés or predictable language. Better not to follow a predictable rhyming pattern, but do pay attention to the music of the words, using alliteration, assonance, consonance, or internal rhyme when you can.
- Try using Chagall's paintings as warm-ups for your own writing, choosing an image to respond to each morning before you write to put yourself in an imaginative frame of mind (instead of invoking the muse, invoke Chagall!).
- Choose another painter that you admire and write an ekphrastic poem about that painting, or a series of paintings.
- If you have a friend who is an artist, suggest collaborating on a series of paintings/poems.
More Help Exploring and Writing in Forms
There are many books and online resources for studying poetry in form. Now that you have tried your hand at working within certain parameters, I hope you see that restrictions can help you figure out how to say something extraordinary by finding language you might not have found without the vessel of the form forcing you to do that.
If you want to try your hand at other forms such as sonnets, sestinas, pantoums, ballads, odes, cinquains, ghazels, and heroic couplets, among other forms, good books to consult are the ones I mentioned in Chapter 3 under lyric poems. Poets who write in form believe that the structure of form is not a lock but a key and that the subtlety, elegance, and hunger of the human spirit is "… neither constrained by nor separable from the cadences, rhymes, lines and structures that shelter it."—The Making of a Poem: A Norton Anthology of Poetic Forms, edited by Mark Strand and Eavan Bolan.
Like with all poetry, if you read and read some more, a haunting will begin, and you will work in response to the forms you are taking in. Start now; visit Poets.org (www.poets.org/page.php/prmID/197) from the American Academy of Poets.
Type in the name of the poetic form you want to learn about and instruction will be there, as well as sample poems in the form that you want to learn to use.
Another of my favorite sites for a complete list of poetry forms with links to instruction for writing in those forms is The Wordshop (www.thewordshop.tripod.com/forms.html). And yet another site that lists and defines forms (and terms) is Poetry-Online.org (www.poetry-online.org/poetry-terms.htm). The Poetry Foundation website (www.poetryfoundation.org/search. html?q=poetic+forms&x=0&y=0) also maintains a list of articles about poetry in form.
It won't be long before you are conversant with many poets and many ways to seek beauty and emotion through pattern: renga, terza rima, haibun...
A Word on Tone in Poetry from Poet Jefferson Carter
Jefferson Carter says:
My 91-year-old mother bought five copies of my new poetry book sight unseen. A week later, I received a letter from her saying she wanted to give the books back to my publisher because of the profanity in some of the poems: she wrote, "I don't agree with your using cuss words for emphasis in making a point. It seems there are enough words in the dictionary to get some that will do the trick! Especially for an English major! Your cuss words are an affront to educated, refined people...."
So, for an exercise, I'd use the poem below (or some other "dirty" poem) and ask students to replace the offensive word(s) with something more "refined" and then consider the resulting effect. The exercise should initiate lively and useful thought about appropriate diction, about tone, and about self-censorship.
- The vet opens our dog's mouth
- & shows us the gray mass on his palate,
- the tumor that's grown so big
- his breath whistles through one nostril.
- Our options—$6000 for radiation
- or do nothing. Goddamn anyone
- who denies him a soul. My wife squats
- beside him on the linoleum floor,
- crooning as he whistles into her palm.
Words in our lexicon of "offensive" diction are actually words that express feeling and a poet's stance in the moment. Here the speaker's exclamation "Goddamn" conveys his frustrated anger against those who consider animals' lives less valuable than humans', those who can't feel his sorrow. The two-syllable sound of the term makes us stamp our feet, stand with frustration in the moment. If we substitute "Darn," the moment doesn't become extended in the stamping of the feet. The moment is almost belittled, becoming more like a moment you walk out the door and realize you forgot your keys than a time of being struck by deep feelings of finding and showing the connection that exists between humans and their dog.
Without the "cuss" word, the whole poem would be more like dinner party conversation. True, too many offensive words can obliterate the engaging moment of a poem. But if needed, the kinds of words we may have been taught not to use bring the emotional message home. Be careful, Carter is saying, about why you put words in or substitute other words—poems do make people uncomfortable, but for the right rather than the wrong reasons.
Where to go from here in writing poetry? If you are an avid reader of poems, this form of expression begins to feel natural to you and whether you start with lists, first lines, or prose, you will soon be writing in stanzas, with line endings that enhance the sound and meaning in your work. Peruse the list of resources at the end of this book and read from the resources I've listed as well as from those I've included in this chapter; visit the websites for prompts and poetry discussions, and join ongoing classes and workshops in poetry writing, online or in person.
Consider keeping a special "inspired by poetry" notebook handy. It can be as simple as a fresh spiral notebook. Fill the notebook with your responses to the exercises in this chapter and with responses to poems you discover. Your notebook of passages and poems rich with imagery will be something you can mine for months to come. Put in copies of poems you've read that you love, whether you "understand" them or not. If the sound of what you are reading compels you, you do understand the poem at some level and as the sound resonates in you, it will nudge your own poems into being.
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