Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Getting Started with Poetry

Recently we hosted a Barbara Helfgott-Hyett as poet-in-residence for a week at Punahou. She worked with several of our writing classes and did a series of afterschool workshops with teachers.

If I were to try to summarize the basic message that comes through when you work with Barbara—or when you try to use Barbara’s techniques with students—it is that knowing too much about what you are doing is dangerous to your poetic health. One fairly straightforward commonplace notion about poetry that students seem to endorse reflexively is that if you know what you want to say and you say it well in a poem, you’ve got a good poem. Barbara, along with a large proportion of other working poets, would disagree. (I often share with students Robert Frost’s famous formulation: “Nor surprise for the writer; no surprise for the reader.”) Barbara encourages her students to put away the prefabricated ideas and start from scratch: “You have to start somewhere. The place to start is not with something in your own head. Try to write something you do not already know. Poetry isn’t about what you know. If you know it, you’re not writing a poem.”

So how then, if one does not start with ideas, does one get started? “A good thing to do, when you’re starting to write is just mess around with words.The disembodied language is the tool of the poet.”

Barbara often begins her workshops by simply asking questions (“What’s the first thing you saw when you woke up this morning?”) and having her students jot down words. Then she might read a poem about a memory or an object and ask the students to write down a few words or a phrase from the poem that they like. Then she might lead the students through a series of questions about the memory, or the object, with the goal again being just to get some words down onto the paper. She encourages her students to “explore the way words can work when meaning is not the first act... Step off the linear language and enter the words in a different way.”

Once you have a page full of words, you can go through and circle the words or groups of words that seem to have something to do with one another, or bounce off of one another in interesting ways. You can then decide on a sequence and put those words into a series of lines, something that may be the start of a poem.

But, she cautions her students, it’s not a poem yet. “We’re not writing poetry. We’re just messing around with words.” To emphasize this, she asks her students to perform various kinds of experiments with revision. She might ask them to do some, or all, of the following:

Add a line or a phrase from a poem you like.
Write your poem upside down, from back to front.
Cross out every other line, then fill in the gaps.
Take out every third (fourth, sixth) word.
Put an adjective in front of every noun that has nothing to do with the noun.
Underline your two favorite words or phrases or lines. Cut them.

The point of these revision experiments is threefold: First, in doing them you may surprise yourself by writing something completely unexpected and therefore delightful. Second, you learn not to become attached to your words, which is the first step toward really effective revision. Thirdly, you begin to enter the world of words in a way that shortcuts intentionality and opens the door to felicitous accident. Or, as Barbara tells us, “Whatever you do, don’t think. Poetry has nothing to do with thought. The trick is to write, accidentally, what you don’t know.”

Here's one of Barbara's poems:

The Inlet

Here again, the rough-cut jetty, the ridge
worn flat by men trolling bass and bluefish
and boys with plastic buckets full of porgies.
The hooks are taut in their mouths.
I comb the crevices for mussels, find
a baby flounder, stiff and gray, a shell.
Right side down a huge crab bakes on a rock.

Behind me, vacant, boarded up, the tenements
where I was born. Beige bricks, three or four stories
crammed with families, fathers who delivered milk
or sold potato chips from tall tin cans -
I scooped them into brown bags, watched the oil seep through.

In summer, mothers gave up unemployment
to work in tourist places hawking beach chairs,
vegematics, tickets to Ripley's Believe It or Not.
Mothers didn't swim. They sent us to stay
at the lifeguard stand with a quarter for lunch.
We'd swim past the jetty to the rotted pilings, then back
to the shallows and the puckered seaweed. I'd open my eyes
underwater, watch the silversides skimming my cheek.
When my towel underneath the boardwalk was all in shadow
and the sand had turned quartz cold, I went home.

At Zwiebacks, after dinner, I'd read comic books
or else I'd buy one used. Later, at Altman Field
the boys from Philly who stayed at the guest house
would start to shoot some baskets.
Sometimes I'd just sit on the bleachers
licking salt from the back of my hand.
Everything was like that then: crisp, expectable,
a silent movie, the ocean and the hoop disappearing
gradually from the end of the playground
until I couldn't see the ball anymore.

In my bed, I'd watch the sway of the clotheslines
on the rooftop outside my window and listen
to the men playing pinochle at the dining-room table,
the stogie smoke gray and small-winged down the hall.
The women swept the floors, laid roach traps,
ate chocolate at the mahjongg game downstairs.
They'd laugh, and clack the bone faced tiles,
a sound of summer when summer wasn't time
but place, ordinary as the low cry of a loon
diving at night, the voice of a beach block,
its muggy rhythm, the click of the tide
just before it turns.


Ally said...

I guess I don't understand.

She says "write what you don't know" and "step off the linear language"- - but isn't this poem exactly both these things?

I am truly trying to understand, being new at this.

Bruce Schauble said...

Well, yes, it's true that poems are, with rare exceptions, linear constructs. They proceed, as language itself proceeds, word by word, line by line, thought by thought. What Barbara is arguing, I think, is that there are some trains of thought that are more or less predictable, more or less automatic, and that that kind of thought and language is not really poetry as she conceives of poetry. Robert Frost has a famous line which goes something like "No surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader." I tell my students that if you start out with an idea for a poem and you write it all down and it comes out just the way you wanted it to, the way you expected it to, you've probably got a mediocre poem.

Barbara believes, and my own reading and writing experience confirms, that there is a moment in the best poems when something unexpected, something wild, makes its appearance. Often, once it appears, it looks to a reader as if it were pre-planned or inevitable, but it's not. So when she suggests that we step off the linear language, she's making a suggestion about process, the sense of it being that if you want to write well, as opposed to merely competently, you have to find a way to surprise yourself, to play with juxtapositions so as to come up with fresh combinations.

There are several moments in "The Inlet" that have that quality of surprise to them. One of them is when she says "I'd open my eyes underwater, (the predictable part) watch the silversides skimming my cheek (the surprise). The second half of that line is one that heightens my interest and engagement in the poem precisely because it is an image I would not have expected, would not have thought to write myself. There's a mysteriousness about that moment in the writing which is the analogue of the mysteriousness of opening your eyes in an underwater alternate universe. There's also a texture in the language, a musicality, which is un-usual (that is, not like ordinary language) and feels arrived at rather than calculated.

Likewise, the final sequence of aural images, the listing of three precisely articulated sounds surprises me: "the low cry of a loon diving at night, the voice of a beach block, it's muggy rhythm, the click of the tide just before it turns." That last sound is in fact not a real sound at all, but an imagined one, an invented one, a sound that for all I know has never existed anywhere in the universe except in the context of this particular poem. I can't imagine how she arrived at it. But having arrived at it, she felt, as I feel, its rightness. The poem starts out as a memory poem, but winds up, in that closing literal and metaphorical line, being about the moment just before the direction of the narrator's life shifted suddenly and unexpectedly: the click of the tide just before it turns.

So yes, in one respect she was writing about what she knows: growing up in Atlantic City. But she's been at some pains to work from that into what she didn't know when she was growing up, what didn't know when she began writing, what she has in fact learned in the writing of the poem. My guess was she was just as surprised by those last few lines as I was.