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The Begin: Publishing Your Own Poem

jul 18, 2016 03:15 pm
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Here is a poem neither your students nor mine have ever seen before. I wrote it yesterday evening, so it’s about as contemporary as you will get, short of sitting down today and writing your own. In my experience it’s a living, breathing organism—not emerge stone; tomorrow I could change it. An organism manufactured from words, that each and every reader provides alive in her very own way. Emily Dickinson says, “A word is dead / When it is said, / Some say. / I say it just / Begins to live / That day.” (1)

Whatever my poem methods to me, I couldn’t possibly reduce this meaning to a prose paragraph. I don’t want to state, “It’s about making pot holders when I was young and homesick at summer camp,” or “It is about my loss of my mother,” or “Actually, it’s about applied art versus fine art.” Or “It’s about the type of home and separation.” I didn’t put down, at the least consciously, to create a poem about any of this; I needed to learn why seeing the pot holder when I opened a compartment gave me a sudden, inexplicable urge to write. Now that the poem’s written, and I’ve discovered some answers, I suppose I can say it’s about these things.

But I’m much more enthusiastic about asking, “What does it say for your requirements?”—you that are reading it, remember, as though your daily life depended onto it, letting in your beliefs, your dream life, your physical sensations—and, I’d enhance Adrienne Rich’s list, your memories and the mood you happen to stay just now…?

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We don’t have to begin with a discussion of what poetry is, or with a list of figures of speech, or an argument about whether this is a great poem or a lesser poem. I offer it, you bring it or leave it. A very important factor I try to remember to inform students when the first poem of the year surfaces is that they’ll like some poems much better than others, aside from alleged “greatness.” I tell them I’m really eager to see which poems every person chooses to share during the entire year ahead—or chooses to learn aloud, copy into a journal, go find more poems by mcdougal of, write a poem back to, or steal words from.

They’re all fine responses to a poem, just as effective as writing a three-page critical analysis of it. Of course, many college professors won’t feel this way, but carpe diem. At this time it’s high school. Or junior high. And surely there is life after college—some sixty years of it.

You can find certain advantages to starting off with a modern poem. Fewer footnotes, almost certainly, meaning fewer opportunities for all of us to display our expertise: “In Shakespeare’s day the term ‘die’also known the moment of sexual consummation. So that’s a pun right there. And there’s an allusion—an indirect mention of the religiomythicopastoralhistorical.”

Fewer preliminaries, too. Before I hand out Shakespeare’s sonnet about envying this man’s art and that man’s scope, I could want to do some free-writing with my class on which they most envy in their friends and enemies, perhaps how envy feels, and what they themselves possess that others might envy. This helps create a common context for the poem, so the unfamiliar language and inverted word order won’t bring fifteen-year-olds to a grinding halt. Then I’d read it aloud—again, before they notice it on the page in every its footnoted and eternal greatness. I may even memorize the poem so I possibly could present it with the conviction and urgency that eye contact can give.

Another reason to start off with some current poems is that the contemporary poet is less prone to view a poem as a way to do some overt teaching: “They also serve who only stand and wait.” “The correct study of mankind is man.” Teenagers get enough of that from their parents and from us, so it’s not surprising if they prefer poems that give them a little more leeway—that let them burrow (or skim) to see what the poem needs to offer them, not Mankind.


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