I’ve been re-reading the essay on Metaphors in Steven Dobyns’ great collection Best Words, Best Order.
It’s really helping me as I read and comment on my students’ work.
I’m teaching a 300 level course called Poetry Workshop this semester, though before the semester started I decided to have the “workshop” part done online, in a discussion board that Moodle provides. It reminds me of the 30/30 one from Inside the Writers’ Studio which I loved, and miss. ( It is still in existence, but I haven’t used it for a long time and neither have most of my poet friends from that time)
Anyway… the online workshop is going pretty well, though I have two or three students who are not posting poems for comment. They are not very secure about their poems, though I know no one in the class is going to say anything really critical about their poems. It’s all a matter of development.
Why did I decide to put the workshop online instead of devoting each class to it? Because I read Tom Hunley’s book Teaching Poetry Writing – A Five-Canon Approach. He said that the workshops work for MFA or other graduate classes, but the undergrads don’t know enough about the craft of poetry to give really constructive suggestions during a workshop. Since I did have the experience of teaching a 200 level creative writing class last year, where we did have in-class workshopping, I agree with him.
So in class we have been writing, and for homework they have been writing. So the class before Spring Break, each member of the class had to turn in 12 poems to me. I’m reading them over break, and will meet with each of them in a one-on-one conference the Thursday we come back.
My twelve students run the gamut as far as talent/skill go. They all need work… as I did when I was 20 years of age , and as I still do now. So I know I am going to use some of what Dobyns says when I meet with each of them next week.
For example, he says:
“…”Obscurity must be a tool. It works to force the reader to ask questions that will direct him or her to an understanding of the poem. Any question that does not increase our understanding detracts from it. It hurts to be obscure about the intellectual, physical and/or emotional contexts of the poem in the same way that it hurts to be obscure about the object of the metaphor.
… Often, when one of more of these contexts in unclear, a poem will be criticized as being too private which usually means that the writer is withholding too much information. The result is the reader isn’t able to examine the relationship between one or more of the three contexts and the narrative, which limits his or her access to the poem.
…when the intellectual context is exaggerated, the poem tends to become emotionally barren, and when the emotional is exaggerated, the poem becomes sentimental. The overly discursive, the decorative and the sentimental all attempt to function independently of the whole and to affect the argument of the poem in a way that is basically rhetorical. (31)
“Suggestion won’t work until the reader has enough information to brood about. The poem works when the reader can contemplate the relationship between its parts. Ideally, the more he or she thinks about that relationship, the more it ramifies and the more the poem gives back. (34)
I also love his examples. He gives these what he calls Asian figures; I believe they come from a book by Merwin. I’m going to separate them with some evocative photos:
The hissing starts
In the free seats
Close to death
See how tender
The grass is
Who looks at a mirror
To see a mirror
Wind coming (18)