Monday, November 07, 2005

Lines and endings

Thanks for the comments on my last post -- I'm glad I'm okay, too. :) Evansville isn't that close to Bloomington, but given the weather that was moving through, we could easily have been in a similar situation. The local news is full of devastation footage, looking like a giant stomped through various neighborhoods and squashed big sections flat. Really awful.

On a much more pleasant note: Thinking back now on my "tutoring" session (really, the "personal trainer" concept is a lot closer to what we're doing) last week. My plan was to talk about the line first, and try to work on thinking of the line as a living entity rather than talking about line breaks. I thought I'd bring in someone who uses very short lines successfully (W.C. Williams) and someone who uses very long lines successfully (D.A. Powell), so we talked about several poems by each of them. We talked about lines a bit, but we ended up talking more about endings. We talked about how Williams' short lines slow down the poem, give a greater weight to each line and each image. Then we went on to talk about how Williams could sometimes have gone on for another stanza or two but that would have ruined the poem (he gives us that wheelbarrow and those chickens, and just leaves the image to stand alone without going on to explain why he's writing about it; he takes the plums and apologizes and mentions their sweetness and coldness but doesn't go on to elaborate about what it means to have taken the plums) -- of course, explaining what the poem is about is such a common "beginner" mistake, and seeing how much stronger Williams' poems are without doing that was, I think, instructive. Then Powell -- we talked about how he often puts a full stop or a colon in the middle of a line, letting it serve as a pivot or a fulcrum of sorts, but he never ends a line (even the last line of a poem) with a full stop; he doesn't feel the need to create or tack on a polished ending that wraps up the loose ends (something I tend to do too often).

Then M. got out a poem of her own that she'd like to work on revising, and read it aloud, and I could see her recognizing the places where she'd overexplained, the places where she went on past the point where the poem (or line, or image) lost its energy. It was really cool, seeing that little light go on for her. I didn't give her a line-by-line critique of the poem and we didn't talk about how she might edit the poem, but in the interest of revision, I suggested that she might try rewriting the poem with several different focal points -- there were four different people in the poem, and I suggested she might try rewriting it focused on each individual character, or on the physical room in which the poem was set. I think if she tries looking at the poem from several different angles, the real poem will make itself known to her. It was a different sort of critique than anything I've done with my writing groups, which have usually gone for a more line-by-line thing. That works great for editing, but for revision, maybe not so much. I found myself coming back quite a bit to stuff that we talked about in D.A. Powell's workshop this past summer, and maybe understanding it a little better through trying to explain it & apply it to someone else's work. I guess everyone quotes their own teachers when they start teaching, eh?

Anyway, I think she got something out of it, and I got to look at my ideas about revision from a little different distance, so it was a good session. Now to decide what to bring in for her next. I'd thought we'd move on to look at different forms, but I think first we should talk about the narrative vs. the lyric, what each of them is, why you might choose to work in one mode vs. the other, how to (and whether to) move between the two. I've loaned her Ilya Kaminsky's book, and also Adrienne Rich's "Twenty-One Love Poems" (which I was shocked to find that she wasn't familiar with), both of which may give us some starting places for discussion. The poem she brought in last week, I think, could successfully be reworked as either narrative or lyric -- and maybe writing it both ways would be an interesting exercise to give her. (And, hmmm, maybe an interesting exercise to give myself with one of my own poems.) There was a nice bit in the interview with Stuart Dybek in the current AWP Chronicle, a definition/contrast of the two. Let me dig that out and post it. Meanwhile, if anyone has thoughts on this, or excellent examples, I'm all ears.

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