POETRY SEMINAR WITH ROBIN RICHARDSON
THE BASIC ELEMENTS AND THEIR FUNCTIONS SEPT 2019 // WEEK 1
Mood and instinctive reaction to a poem: what happens before intellectual interpretation.
A poem is a sound and a feeling before it is a meaningful piece of writing. The same way we know as children that the lullabies our caregivers sing us are meant of be comforting without understanding the words, we know a poem’s intention before we think about the words in their orders and how they add up to something beyond themselves.
A word is an object in and of itself, before it is a signifier. We’re going to read the poems below, beginning with a purely aesthetic and sonic interpretation.
1. Think first about the feeling blueprint of the piece: how do you feel in the beginning, middle, and end? How did these feeling evolve? What is the aftertaste of the poem?
2. Now identify the key sounds: consonance, assonance, chiming, persistent vowels and their frequencies. On what sounds do the lines begin, on what do the end?
3. Take in the aesthetic of the poem – think about its line-lengths, where they are broken, how neat or jagged. Think about how this effects your mood and reading.
4. Which words stand out? Think about their sound and meaning independent of the words around them.
5. Think about rhythm – when does it speed up, slow down, is it smooth or jarring? When and why is there a shift.
Thinking about sound
Write a mood and association profile for each letter of the alphabet – consider its soft and hard versions, how it moves the mouth, how it moves through space – what it evokes. Think about the way combinations of these letters could contribute to creating a specific mood or feeling, or even experience.
A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z
Think about the fact that every single letter and every single sound in a poem can and should have purpose. Read and write poems with this in mind – always utilizing each syllable to its fullest.
Accentual-syllabic meter - Meter is the primary scaffolding of a poem. It is the combination of stressed and unstressed syllables in pairing, generally, of two, called feet. By using feet with stressed and unstressed combinations, you create a kind of music with your works. The primary underlying meter of a poem is generally Iambic (unstressed, stressed _/ ) da-dum, da-dum, da-dum) This is what Shakespeare uses to enable a memorisable, songlike reading of his work. The rhythm of the iamb also speaks to us on a visceral level as it is the constant underlying rhythm of our own hearts. To vary this beat we add other combinations, the trochee (stressed, unstressed) / _ Dum-da, dum-da, dum-da (dragon, highway, window). There is also the Spondee, which consists of two stressed syllables in a row //, the dactyl, stressed, unstressed, unstressed (“change of the” “cross to the”) anapest – two unstressed followed by one stressed (underfoot, overcome)
It is best not to worry too much about the configuration of your meter in the beginning, as I find often students becomes overwhelmed by the exercise of it. Instead try to be intuitively aware of the way stressed and unstressed syllables make up your poem. Tap your fingers on the desk or read out loud while tapping your feet or fingers to gain access to the way in which meter is at work. The more familiar you become with this the more naturally you will find your work slips into solid musical configurations.
BY JOHN ASHBERY
And in a little while we broke under the strain:
suppurations ad nauseam, the wanting to be taller,
though it’s simply about being mysterious, i.e., not taller,
like any tree in any forest.
Mute, the pancake describes you.
It had tiny roman numerals embedded in its rim.
It was a pancake clock. They had ’em in those days,
always getting smaller, which is why they finally became extinct.
It was a hundred years before anyone noticed.
The governor general
called it “sinuous.” But we, we had other names for it,
knew it was going to be around for a long time,
even though extinct. And sure as shillelaghs fall from trees
onto frozen doorsteps, it came round again
when all memory of it had been expunged
from the common brain.
Everybody wants to try one of those new pancake clocks.
A boyfriend in the next town had one
but conveniently forgot to bring it over each time we invited him.
Finally the rumors grew more fabulous than the real thing:
I hear they are encrusted with tangles of briar rose,
not even a prince seeking the Sleeping Beauty could get inside.
What’s more, there are more of them than when they were extinct,
yet the prices keep on rising. They have them in the Hesperides
and in shantytowns on the edge of the known world,
blue with cold. All downtowns used to feature them.
too, were big that year. But why is it that with so many people
who want to know what a shout is about, nobody can find the original recipe?
All too soon, no one cares. We go back to doing little things for each other,
pasting stamps together to form a tiny train track, and other,
less noticeable things. And the past is forgotten till next time.
How to describe the years? Some were like blocks of the palest halvah,
careless of being touched. Some took each others’ trash out,
put each other’s eyes out. So many got thrown out
before anyone noticed, that it was like a chiaroscuro
of collapsing clouds.
How I longed to visit you again in that old house! But you were deaf,
or dead. Our letters crossed. A motorboat was ferrying me out past
the reef, people on shore looked like dolls fingering stuffs.
keeps coming out, about the dogs I mean. Surely a simple embrace
from an itinerant fish would have been spurned at certain periods. Not now.
There is a famine of years in the land, the women are beautiful,
but prematurely old and worn. It doesn’t get better. Rocks half-buried
in bands of sand, and spontaneous execrations.
I yell to the ship’s front door,
wanting to be taller, and somewhere in the middle all this gets lost.
I was a phantom for a day. My friends carried me around with them.
It always turns out that much is salvageable.
haven’t floated away on the flood. Lacemakers are back in business
with a vengeance. All the locksmiths had left town during the night.
It happened to be a beautiful time of season, spring or fall,
the air was digestible, the fish tied in love-knots
on their gurneys. Yes, and journeys
were palpable too: Someone had spoken of saving appearances
and the walls were just a little too blue in mid-morning.
Was there ever such a time? I’d like to handle you,
bruise you with kisses for it, yet something always stops me short:
the knowledge that this isn‘t history,
no matter how many
times we keep mistaking it for the present, that headlines
trumpet each day. But behind the unsightly school building, now a pickle
warehouse, the true nature of things is known, is not overrided:
Yours is a vote like any other. And there is fraud at the ballot boxes,
stuffed with lace valentines and fortunes from automatic scales,
dispensed with a lofty kind of charity, as though this could matter
to us, these tunes
carried by the wind
from a barrel organ several leagues away. No, this is not the time
to reveal your deception to us. Wait till rain and old age
have softened us up a little more.
Then we’ll see how extinct
the various races have become, how the years stand up
to their descriptions, no matter how misleading,
and how long the disbanded armies stay around. I must congratulate you
on your detective work, for I am a connoisseur
of close embroidery, though I don’t have a diploma to show for it.
The trees, the barren trees, have been described more than once.
Always they are taller, it seems, and the river passes them
without noticing. We, too, are taller,
our ceilings higher, our walls more tinctured
with telling frescoes, our dooryards both airier and vaguer,
according as time passes and weaves its minute deceptions in and out,
a secret thread.
Peace is a full stop.
And though we had some chance of slipping past the blockade,
now only time will consent to have anything to do with us,
for what purposes we do not know.
Tender Buttons [Objects]
Gertrude Stein - 1874-1946
A CARAFE, THAT IS A BLIND GLASS.
A kind in glass and a cousin, a spectacle and nothing strange a single hurt color and an arrangement in a system to pointing. All this and not ordinary, not unordered in not resembling. The difference is spreading.
Nickel, what is nickel, it is originally rid of a cover.
The change in that is that red weakens an hour. The change has come. There is no search. But there is, there is that hope and that interpretation and sometime, surely any is unwelcome, sometime there is breath and there will be a sinecure and charming very charming is that clean and cleansing. Certainly glittering is handsome and convincing.
There is no gratitude in mercy and in medicine. There can be breakages in Japanese. That is no programme. That is no color chosen. It was chosen yesterday, that showed spitting and perhaps washing and polishing. It certainly showed no obligation and perhaps if borrowing is not natural there is some use in giving.
Out of kindness comes redness and out of rudeness comes rapid same question, out of an eye comes research, out of selection comes painful cattle. So then the order is that a white way of being round is something suggesting a pin and is it disappointing, it is not, it is so rudimentary to be analysed and see a fine substance strangely, it is so earnest to have a green point not to red but to point again.
Create a profile for each letter of the alphabet above
Create a list of word combinations that are unusual and create a sound profile that suggests a meaning the words themselves can’t ( ie. painful cattle) – write as many as you want – but aim for at least ten.
Write a poem that leads with sounds and mood – go out of your way to avoid direct meaning. Write in the manner of Stein as you do this – choosing an object as your focus and writing always around it and never in a directly meaningful way (though some degree of meaning will be an inevitable by-product)
Choose on the following titles for your poem and go from there:
CONTENT AND INTENTION
SEPT 2019 // WEEK 2
With sound and music in mind, now begin to think about the intention and content of your work. The strongest poems, in my opinion, come from a place of inevitability, in that the content was something the poet couldn’t not explore – it is often something that the poet doesn’t grasp yet, and likely, because of the complex nature of truth, never will. It comes from a place of curiosity and preoccupation, and honest-to-god desire to dig in and dissect. Too often poets write about topics they feel strongly about one way or another, or which they feel would be impressive or revealing in a flattering way. I talk about this in great depth in my essay on the Unsympathetic Voice in Poetry. In short, it is terribly important that we write not for the cultivation of our image or reputation as a poet, but in service to the reader, to curiosity, and the expression of uncertainty in a movement towards truth.
So the question becomes, how do you discern the authentic from inauthentic content?
Workshopping, of course helps. Then there is the reading of great poetry – this begins to create a natural standard within yourself and your own weak spots and moments of inauthenticity become increasingly obvious.
In our Accessing the Unconscious seminar, we explore the contents of the collective and individual unconscious. Understanding the architypes as well as your own internal symbolic language can unlock your access to new, original, and unlimitedly deep material to mine.
Read the following poems with authenticity of content in mind.
What is the poet preoccupied with?
How is the poet using sound and word choice to support the content and
intention of the poem?
Why does this need to be said?
Why does this need to be said in the form of a poem?
SLOW DANCE – Matthew Dickman
More than putting another man on the moon,
more than a New Year’s resolution of yogurt and yoga,
we need the opportunity to dance
with really exquisite strangers. A slow dance
between the couch and dining room table, at the end
of the party, while the person we love has gone
to bring the car around
because it’s begun to rain and would break their heart
if any part of us got wet. A slow dance
to bring the evening home, to knock it out of the park. Two people
rocking back and forth like a buoy. Nothing extravagant.
A little music. An empty bottle of whiskey.
It’s a little like cheating. Your head resting
on his shoulder, your breath moving up his neck.
Your hands along her spine. Her hips
unfolding like a cotton napkin
and you begin to think about how all the stars in the sky
are dead. The my body
is talking to your body slow dance. The Unchained Melody,
Stairway to Heaven, power-cord slow dance. All my life
I’ve made mistakes. Small
and cruel. I made my plans.
I never arrived. I ate my food. I drank my wine.
The slow dance doesn’t care. It’s all kindness like children
before they turn four. Like being held in the arms
of my brother. The slow dance of siblings.
Two men in the middle of the room. When I dance with him,
one of my great loves, he is absolutely human,
and when he turns to dip me
or I step on his foot because we are both leading,
I know that one of us will die first and the other will suffer.
The slow dance of what’s to come
and the slow dance of insomnia
pouring across the floor like bath water.
When the woman I’m sleeping with
stands naked in the bathroom,
brushing her teeth, the slow dance of ritual is being spit
into the sink. There is no one to save us
because there is no need to be saved.
I’ve hurt you. I’ve loved you. I’ve mowed
the front yard. When the stranger wearing a shear white dress
covered in a million beads
comes toward me like an over-sexed chandelier suddenly come to life,
I take her hand in mine. I spin her out
and bring her in. This is the almond grove
in the dark slow dance.
It is what we should be doing right now. Scrapping
for joy. The haiku and honey. The orange and orangutang slow dance.
BY SYLVIA PLATH
Pure? What does it mean?
The tongues of hell
Are dull, dull as the triple
Tongues of dull, fat Cerberus
Who wheezes at the gate. Incapable
Of licking clean
The aguey tendon, the sin, the sin.
The tinder cries.
The indelible smell
Of a snuffed candle!
Love, love, the low smokes roll
From me like Isadora’s scarves, I’m in a fright
One scarf will catch and anchor in the wheel,
Such yellow sullen smokes
Make their own element. They will not rise,
But trundle round the globe
Choking the aged and the meek,
Hothouse baby in its crib,
The ghastly orchid
Hanging its hanging garden in the air,
Radiation turned it white
And killed it in an hour.
Greasing the bodies of adulterers
Like Hiroshima ash and eating in.
The sin. The sin.
Darling, all night
I have been flickering, off, on, off, on.
The sheets grow heavy as a lecher’s kiss.
Three days. Three nights.
Lemon water, chicken
Water, water make me retch.
I am too pure for you or anyone.
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern——
My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.
Does not my heat astound you! And my light!
All by myself I am a huge camellia
Glowing and coming and going, flush on flush.
I think I am going up,
I think I may rise——
The beads of hot metal fly, and I love, I
Am a pure acetylene
Attended by roses,
By kisses, by cherubim,
By whatever these pink things mean!
Not you, nor him
Nor him, nor him
(My selves dissolving, old whore petticoats)——
Song of Myself (1892 version)
BY WALT WHITMAN
I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.
I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.
My tongue, every atom of my blood, form’d from this soil, this air,
Born here of parents born here from parents the same, and their parents the same,
I, now thirty-seven years old in perfect health begin,
Hoping to cease not till death.
Creeds and schools in abeyance,
Retiring back a while sufficed at what they are, but never forgotten,
I harbor for good or bad, I permit to speak at every hazard,
Nature without check with original energy.
Houses and rooms are full of perfumes, the shelves are crowded with perfumes,
I breathe the fragrance myself and know it and like it,
The distillation would intoxicate me also, but I shall not let it.
The atmosphere is not a perfume, it has no taste of the distillation, it is odorless,
It is for my mouth forever, I am in love with it,
I will go to the bank by the wood and become undisguised and naked,
I am mad for it to be in contact with me.
The smoke of my own breath,
Echoes, ripples, buzz’d whispers, love-root, silk-thread, crotch and vine,
My respiration and inspiration, the beating of my heart, the passing of blood and air through my lungs,
The sniff of green leaves and dry leaves, and of the shore and dark-color’d sea-rocks, and of hay in the barn,
The sound of the belch’d words of my voice loos’d to the eddies of the wind,
A few light kisses, a few embraces, a reaching around of arms,
The play of shine and shade on the trees as the supple boughs wag,
The delight alone or in the rush of the streets, or along the fields and hill-sides,
The feeling of health, the full-noon trill, the song of me rising from bed and meeting the sun.
Have you reckon’d a thousand acres much? have you reckon’d the earth much?
Have you practis’d so long to learn to read?
Have you felt so proud to get at the meaning of poems?
Stop this day and night with me and you shall possess the origin of all poems,
You shall possess the good of the earth and sun, (there are millions of suns left,)
You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things from me,
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
I have heard what the talkers were talking, the talk of the beginning and the end,
But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.
There was never any more inception than there is now,
Nor any more youth or age than there is now,
And will never be any more perfection than there is now,
Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.
Urge and urge and urge,
Always the procreant urge of the world.
Out of the dimness opposite equals advance, always substance and increase, always sex,
Always a knit of identity, always distinction, always a breed of life.
To elaborate is no avail, learn’d and unlearn’d feel that it is so.
Sure as the most certain sure, plumb in the uprights, well entretied, braced in the beams,
Stout as a horse, affectionate, haughty, electrical,
I and this mystery here we stand.
Clear and sweet is my soul, and clear and sweet is all that is not my soul.
Lack one lacks both, and the unseen is proved by the seen,
Till that becomes unseen and receives proof in its turn.
Showing the best and dividing it from the worst age vexes age,
Knowing the perfect fitness and equanimity of things, while they discuss I am silent, and go bathe and admire myself.
Welcome is every organ and attribute of me, and of any man hearty and clean,
Not an inch nor a particle of an inch is vile, and none shall be less familiar than the rest.
I am satisfied—I see, dance, laugh, sing;
As the hugging and loving bed-fellow sleeps at my side through the night, and withdraws at the peep of the day with stealthy tread,
Leaving me baskets cover’d with white towels swelling the house with their plenty,
Shall I postpone my acceptation and realization and scream at my eyes,
That they turn from gazing after and down the road,
And forthwith cipher and show me to a cent,
Exactly the value of one and exactly the value of two, and which is ahead?
Write a list of your top three anxieties and preoccupations
Identify key symbols for each of these preoccupations. What colour are they? What shape? What animal? What environment?
Explore these preoccupations in stream of consciousness, writing in rhythm, a list of every association you have the preoccupation or symbol. Pull from dreams, memories, popular culture, friends, etc. Nothing is off bounds.
Here is an example of a poem I created in this manner focusing on the preoccupation of men and violence:
THE MATTER OF THE UNCONSCIOUS
There is an old man playing with the eels he’s about to eat
there is an old man striking his hand against a rod his skin
is coming off his blood is in your eyes his hand will be useless
all bone he is doing this to punish you there is a cliff
no one else is willing to scale halfway to the top there is a hole
and through the hole you see an old man a king a samurai
slaughter his daughter there is an old man who keeps some
thousand fragile brightly colored birds in four-inch cages
wants to take you out to dinner there is an old man wielding an ax
he wants your head there is a man putting a gun in your hand
and telling you to shoot to kill there is a man storming
the restaurant he has a gun he is shooting randomly he finds you
says I need god to pay attention there is a prehistoric lion eating
a regular lion you are at the bottom of the stairs at the top
is a train and on the train you are cut repeatedly on the right arm
with a blade held by a man there is a black panther on top of you
in the largest room you’ve ever seen you sweep the room and once
it’s clean it fills again with bees there are horses with no skin
there is a man who is a slug who is stuck at the bottom
of the stairs there are unicorns in the nightclub who turn to men
when you straddle them who want to fuck you there’s a maggot
in your leg he said you have to kill the elephant using only a straw
full of water he said we had to get matching tattoos he dressed up
as Predator and there were five of him in the theatre at the top
of the stairs you were afraid to see the film he distracted you
from the important little girl he keeps telling you it’s okay
when we know it isn’t he is pushing you around in a shopping cart
he is plucking the hair from your temple he is bending you over
he is feeding you drugs he is obstructing your view of the sky
he left the record on for years you had to stop it
EDITING YOUR WORK
SEPT 19 // WEEK 3
Now that you have a good grasp of both form and content, it’s time to put it all into practice. The trick isn’t to write perfectly from the beginning, but to tap into something deep and worthwhile, pour it out with music in mind AND THEN edit – edit – edit.
The editorial process is the most fun and most important part of writing, in my opinion. It’s when you are able to go in and turn good to great, to refine and kick up a notch, to bring it all together for the best possible outcome.
Key to great editing is approach. You must be able to take your ego-identification out of the picture, step back, and see your work as if it were someone else’s. This is not your poem anymore, and the intentions behind it are unknown except by how the poem reveals them. Think about your work in this way after you write it – look at it as if it was a poem written by your favourite poet. Is it strong by their standards? It’s so important not to compare yourself to your peers, but to the greats.
PRACTICAL APPROACHES TO EDITING
· Put the poem away for a week before editing.
· Approach the poem as though it was in Poetry Magazine or the New Yorker. How does it stack up to your expectations?
· Check for ambiguities. Is there anything you know the poem to be about that the reader may not be able to figure out? Would it be stronger if they could?
· Scan for words that are extraneous and unnecessary. Pronouns and conjunctions are often culprits here.
· Scan for redundancies. Adjectives are often redundant as in if you describe a white wedding dress you’re using an unnecessary adjective as the white is implied in the object. Now a red wedding dress, that would be worth mentioning.
· Think about your meter – does it scan well? Are you using sound and rhythm to assist in the mood and meaning of the poem? The momentum?
· Think about all word choices now. Is each word the best most original and integral word it can be? Is it cliché? The aim should be totally original and totally inevitable at once.
· Identify the strongest line in the poem – ensure all other lines operate at this level
· Think about your title. Does it add a new element to the poem or simply state what we can tell it’s about in the content? Think about your intention with this. Make sure everything you do is intentional and is operating at its highest possible potential.
Rewrite the following poem as a “bad” poem – with everything discussed above in mind
Disillusionment of Ten O'Clock
Wallace Stevens - 1879-1955
The houses are haunted
By white night-gowns.
None are green,
Or purple with green rings,
Or green with yellow rings,
Or yellow with blue rings.
None of them are strange,
With socks of lace
And beaded ceintures.
People are not going
To dream of baboons and periwinkles.
Only, here and there, an old sailor,
Drunk and asleep in his boots,
In red weather.
While this is our last class I’d like you to take everything you’ve learned over the past few weeks and apply it to the writing of a suit of three poems based on your core anxieties and preoccupations from week 2 and taking into consideration everything we discussed about form and music in week 1. While it doesn’t matter what form you choose, you must write each poem in a visually and metrically similar form, letting each build on, but never repeat the content of the previous poem. They should come together to create a cohesive narrative, mood and revelation.
When you have completed these poems, set them aside for a week, then come back and rewrite them entirely in a different visual form. If they previously had short lines, try long. If they were rolling and rambling, try tightening.
Set them aside again – then compare the first and second draft. Write a third draft now that takes the best qualities of the other two – holding each line to the standard of the best you can identify.