Why Poetry

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I read poetry

Because of lines like Stein’s

All this and not ordinary

A line just distinguishes it. And

Frank’s Hum-colored Cabs

That bring me elsewhere

Only to gasp from knowing

I have been here before.

Poetry is slow

-writing that asks for

Slow reading.

For meaning not easily teased

For brevity that strikes its heart-mark

For the now and now, this,

That you and I share

That was nothing before this.

Poetry by Scribblerbean©

As a former writer for hire, I would discharge words like cheap bullets that more or less hit their marks.  My brain ran on a loop, a Dickinsonian groove, stuck with language as habit rather than craft. Over time, dissatisfaction over crappy writing jobs morphed into illumination, as I tired of the language in my possession and my cavalier use of it. I decided it was time to relearn English, but set my bar as high as I could. Poetry, I knew, was the highest form of language. So I pursued it by going back to university, but that wasn’t enough.  Image

From September through to mid November this year, I shared a virtual classroom with about 35,000 poetry learners around the world, who ranged from teachers with advanced degrees to eager and nervous novices. Devoting myself to a fast-paced syllabus, the study of poetry shaped my mornings, infused my afternoon half-naps, kept me up until my entire household was fast asleep. But this was a class unlike any I had ever signed up for.

Offered through Coursera, Modern & Contemporary American Poetry (ModPo, lovingly) boasts of both passion and bold, cutting-edge pedagogy. Meticulously designed and taught by University of Pennsylvania’s Al Filreis, ModPo is an intimate, no-lectures-given, community-driven, tech-enabled village of multitudes brought together by a love of language. Given my unconventional academic path and my physical distance from institutions offering the rigorous training I craved, I have been thankful for the accessibility of MOOCs and online learning. But ModPo is an experience as extraordinary as Al himself, sprung from an ecosystem of webcasts, readings, and live events open to all lovers of poetry. And quite unlike my online classes with their forums and uploading of course content, one is present “in ModPo” truly and holistically. Al and his brilliant, captivating TAs are, safe to say, ever-present both on- and offline, through weekly webcasts, in near-synchronous online exchanges, and on campus, real-life/real-time meet-ups at the Kelly Writers House. Al and the ModPo team offer presence, accessibility, and enthusiasm, and immense generosity with both material and insight. ModPo gives its students more than a deep engagement with poetic texts and ideas; it cultivates an uncommon community that jumps borders. Image

Nearly two weeks after its official end, ModPo’s forums are still abuzz with students-turned-online friends. The poetry talk rages on, hearts and minds urged wide open anew to receive and make meaning of Whitman, Dickinson, O’Hara, Stein, Kerouac, Ashbery, Goldsmith.

It was the right decision to pursue poetry because there is much fulfillment in it. Whether I evolve towards poetic practice that involves writing and publishing remains to be seen, but I am hopeful with this, my renewed relationship with language. Today I am more than content chatting with newfound poetry friends around the world, and unraveling newfound favorites, like Whitman and Stein, and O’Hara, Ashbery, and Silliman. Thank you, Al; and thank you, ModPo community.

Quickened by Dickens

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I feel like I’m a better person than I was two weeks ago. I’ve finished reading Great Expectations and to my surprise, I really enjoyed it. Understand: I have never had to read Charles Dickens. This unfortunate reality is likely due to skipping two years of high school (long story) and all the reading that went with it. In the years since my academic career played out its spotty history, the thought of reading Dickens has been intimidating. English majors read Dickens. Oh wait, I am an English major.

Notes from the margin:

social class, “great expectations” = ambition

human nature, identity

Also a question: does the nature of the giver, especially if he’s an escaped convict, detract from the value of a gift?

I think Magwitch is a really good name for a cat.

Watercolour of Abel Magwitch from Great Expect...

Watercolour of Abel Magwitch from Great Expectations by Charles Dickens (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“You’re so smart. You’ve always been smarter than me,” said my sister with a little bit of awe when I told her I laughed out loud in parts. “I tried Dickens. I didn’t get it.” She was sad when she said this.

“Try him again,” I said. “He describes people as furniture, compares them to plants. Think of him as a 19th century Eddie Izzard.”

“I don’t know about that,” my sister said. “Would you like some cake?” We are Skyping and doing imitations from Game of Thrones.

My sister is modest. She has read Austen, I have not. (“You’ll like her, I promise!”) She’s next on my list. As with Dickens, I’m a little scared but hope to be surprised.

If this line isn’t so wonderfully English, I don’t know what is.

What Jack Said

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English: Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palu...

English: Jack Kerouac by photographer Tom Palumbo, circa 1956 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Jack Kerouac once said that things we feel find their own form. In my very early years as a writer-for-hire, I worked with clients and form was decided for me. There was no room for feeling. But writing thirty-second ad copy demanded economy of expression, bang for buck delivered in three different versions designed to win client approval. Not a bad method for reining in over-writing and killing the author.

I enjoyed writing ad copy not at all, although The Client always seemed happy.  Maybe all those years writing with restraints on has made it easier for me to attempt to write in poetic form.

What a delight to find so many poetic forms to play with. I’m still looking for the right form for what needs saying. Poetry has demands similar to ad copy – to say in a short space a version of the truth. I have yet to test the theory out, but it feels like a fun thing to try.

Disconnecting Hamlet

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Growing as an artist and creative thinker in a highly industrialized city can be a real challenge. Where I live, there is a tendency for art to be packaged; and thinking follows set patterns. So it helps that I work in solitude. My life is an experiment that is slightly Darwin-esque, and I wonder how ideas might form and develop without the influence of the mainstream.

The influence I am more interested in is accessible through creative communities online and the websites of writers I admire. The digital, online space is an intellectual playground, and anyone can play. The wonderful thing is that I can disconnect anytime, usually once an idea or inspirational nudge has come my way. And off I go to play by myself, toying with what I’ve learned, watching an idea (hopefully) grow into something unexpected.

The need to disconnect can be misunderstood by those who aren’t creative types. I have missed opportunities to gather and mingle “on the ground” (as opposed to “online”). Friends have fallen by the wayside. It makes me sad sometimes.

This review, of Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, caught my eye. Actually, the title of the book did. The writer, a journalist with a Harvard degree in literature and history, explores the past for tips on disconnecting and reclaiming privacy. Plato had to contend with technological breakthroughs in the ancient world, as one reviewer says, as did the people of Gutenberg’s day.

Cover of "Hamlet's BlackBerry: A Practica...

Cover via Amazon

We don’t need to go too far back in history when we think about disconnecting, and getting away in order to create. Was it any easier for people of our grandparents’ generation to break away when they needed to, without alienating those around them? My grandmother did that once, when I was very little; she went to Georgetown to study law for a while. I take it back: it couldn’t have been easy for her, but that’s a story for another time.

In the metro, short and quick

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A drawing of Ezra Pound by Henri Gaudier-Brzes...

A drawing of Ezra Pound by Henri Gaudier-Brzeska (1891-1915) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There’s a conversation that took place one winter in Rome between the poet Ezra Pound and interviewer Donald Hall. Published in the Summer/Fall 1962 issue of The Paris Review, the interview revealed Pound’s ideas about where literature was headed:

And now one has got with the camera an enormous correlation of particulars. That capacity for making contact is a tremendous challenge to literature. It throws up the question of what needs to be done and what is superfluous.

I have just started to read Ezra Pound. Consider the power of what must be one of the shortest poems in history for example: his stark and direct style, sharp as a sushi knife, was the hallmark of the modern poets. Far from tiny, this 14-word poem crackles with heat, energy, and longing. I had stumbled onto this poem after reading Dante‘s Inferno, and the meaning just exploded for me, along with every nerve in my body.

Pound also commented on the interplay of form and experience. I am both frightened and fascinated with poetic form and structure, and what they have to offer despite (or maybe because of) strict parameters.

It’s exciting to read about the changes and movement in the writing world as they were happening, and as Pound saw them. What does his comment about photography mean? I don’t have the answer, but I’ve been trying to figure this out for myself. This is the challenge of the contemporary writer faced with a gazillion ways to make meaning: writing that is precise; tells a story with depth of emotion and color; and captures truth (or what’s true for the writer) and authenticity, as faithfully as any photograph.