I started a poetry writing workshop last June at a Queens community center for seniors; it’s intended for those with little poetry writing experience; and, as you may imagine, perspectives are often naively provincial. For some, a poem is not a poem unless they hear rhyming, especially emphatic end rhymes. It hasn’t been easy to explain otherwise: difficult when the group member with the longest history of writing poems arrived a rhyming disciple and swayed others early on. His favorite poet is Ogden Nash, who is known explicitly for his droll humor and rhyming. When someone with a stand-up comedy and songwriter background joined the group, the room began to fill with clever (and not so clever, sometimes sad) attempts at little end-rhyming poems. What to do?
If you, like me, find that one of the reasons you construct poems is to discover what you are thinking and feeling, then, how can old forms and rhyme schemes be of any help? My writing process is usually an entry point into the world around and in me. It’s a vehicle for exploration. In the process of writing a poem, I struggle to put my abstractions and reality into the most appropriate, meaningful, sensual, vivid words I can find (mostly failing). I want to examine and try to understand what is happening in my body and the world outside of my body as it is and the way I wish it were. How can I do this if I am straight-jacketed by archaic forms and the need to rhyme? Cognition, emotions, consciousness are all immeasurable and not subject to forms and rhyme, yes? I still remember Allen Ginsberg (yes, I’m a name dropper) telling me, his MFA student, over a cup of tea, that when it came to form, every poem is a unique invention. I took that to mean, as he wanted me to understand, that content should determine form; not vise-versa. Rhyming is simply an option. I think many are mistaken when they finish off a string of thoughts with end rhyme and call it a poem. I see a lot of this in and outside of my group of seniors. Many beginner spoken-word and hip hop poets also make the same mistake, since they rely so heavily on rhyme.
I’m not saying anything new and don’t want to get into a Formalism vs Dada debate here: they both have their place. My first poetry workshop instructor at Queens College, Marie Ponsot, who I love, had us write in nothing but forms until the end of the year. She knows her Shakespeare; loves her Donne; publishes award-winning books. She is a true master poet; a master teacher; and her strategy for teaching the rudiments of poetry writing is highly effective. I could see back then all the good results all around me. I can recommend her methods. So what am I saying? There are many paths to the top of Mt. Fuji.
You should decide which path(s) to try. Beside academe’s favored Norton Anthology of Poetry steeped in a British lineage that goes back to Beowulf, I would place the Outlaw Bible of Poetry and both fat volumes of Poems for the Millennium filled with modern and postmodern poetry. This is something that I actually did early in my seniors’ workshop.
Marie put me on a certain circumscribed path and I knew of no other until later; it’s a good and valuable path that I return to willingly (how could I leave it if I wanted to?). This leaves me wondering: what if I were not exposed to other paths, other methods, other ways of learning how to write and teach others to write poetry? The research based workshop model that I’ve been developing, to be presented in future posts, begins with an exploration of what’s best for each individual and a collective. What if beginners were given the chance to see several options side-by-side? What if they had the curiosity to look into different ways for learning poetry on their own? What would they choose? Is there really a way to escape tradition? Why, when, where, how would you do it? For what ends? I’m asking, in essence, that group members decide upon and set-up their own poetry writing curriculum and establish their own practice; I’m also asking that they go out into the world as poetry explorers and bring back artifacts and share their process with their respective groups.
I think some will tell me that if I present beginners in my workshops with options outside of expected norms that they’ll get confused and chaos would ensue; better to take charge and deliver lectures and assignments that ground them in a tradition—the British to American tradition. I say: what’s wrong with a little chaos and confusion? The world is full of chaos and confusion; and most of us manage to not only to get through it all: we learn along the way. We figure out what works for us given our particular circumstances. I trust that when you gather ten minds in a room for the main purpose of figuring out what’s needed to write a good poem, they’ll figure it out. You don’t even have to add the pressure of thinking poetry is a matter of survival; though, it would be interesting if you did. How would you respond if your life depended on poetry?
I’m ending this post with a poem, “Sonnet Game.” I wrote it after suggesting to my group of seniors that if they needed to rhyme, why not try Marie’s early assignments. First, simply write a couple of ten line poems with approximately 10 syllables in each line (rhyme or not); after that, write a few Shakespearean sonnets. This notion didn’t get much of a response: no one, that I know of, tried this approach. I remain hopeful; like I said: it works. Had I assigned these poems as homework (they’ve stopped asking me for assignments; I don’t give them) some would have tried; I would once again be firmly positioned as the authority in the room; and they, once again, would not have owned their learning and practice.
Taking responsibility for your own learning and practice doesn’t mean you have to learn or practice anything; it also doesn’t mean that you have to share what you learn and practice with any one else. I hope for the best.
If we twist veracity with end rhyme,
fill in schemes to simply help sonnets run,
will a hung canary turn to wind chime
instead of home for fruit flies in the sun?
If we shovel fluff in cute poetry,
label neighbor lifting real stuff a stone,
will we ever hear the mock rhapsody
of growing old in a form that’s a loan?
Breathe…If it’s too hard to tell the truth
using jagged words embodied long inside
like shards of glass, like shrapnel, like proof
we bleed internally in thin sweet hide…
Breathe… If the truth will not set us free…
take form, rhyme, dream…beneath the Banyan Tree.