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.

Cut & Paste

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I’ve spent the past few weeks immersed in silent dialogue with a few modernist and post-modernist poems. I tell myself it’s for fun (which it is, for the most part) but this is so I remain calm and collected in the few weeks before finals. The fun arises from stumbling on ordinary things with unexpected poetic value: fragments cobbled together with the softest of glues, found texts, other people’s status updates, song lyrics ripped out of context.

When exams are over I hope to swim in the most forgiving and warm waters of Free Time, to put aside grownup talk so I can exercise my other voice. In the meantime, as a complement to the first paragraph, here’s a bit of cut-and-paste cheekery.

bing is a Poet (and Didn’t Know It)

Morning sun ahead of holiday

Skies falling rain.

Corner of the wind up, naughty, blow hair.

It does not affect the Friday caper.

Rain on umbrella shades, tick-tock

Interweaving into notes.

Drops of rain on the ground

Moments into one small flower

Tick rain the beat

Spa system generative. Forces clouds,

Float like a cloud

That is the best suited to drain

When it rains.

 

- adapted from an advertisement in Mandarin, as translated by Bing

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.

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.