"I can’t write a poem to manipulate you; it will not succeed."
- Adrienne Rich,
From her essay on poetic theory: " Someone is Writing a Poem"
Whenever I read Adrienne Rich, I wish I had time to read more.
Today, I asked my juniors to write a poem that is a conversation with either Thoreau or Emerson; the seniors, Frost or Emerson. The assignment is simple address the famous poet in free verse - 14 lines. The tone - conversational - or even critical. They can quote, but not excessively: they can question, but they must ultimately argue a point. A high-fiving homage has it's limitations in creativity, too. It need not be inspirational; perhaps, ironic - and hopefully not cynical - which would be, thus, ironic given the optimism of Emerson.
Yet these three poets, were not always so, optimistic. They certainly had their days and their fair share of loss and tragedy in their lives. Yet they survived and endured. They railed against conformity and imitation. They found their voice through taking note of their lives - they wrote, they talked, they observed, they listened.
Now, for my students, these assignments are daunting, frustrating, intimidating, and yes, scary. Since I am not assessing whether they know the answers or how well they can memorize, parroting quotes or poems. Emerson would not be happy if I did. I am asking them to connect within - and transform his didactic essays (much in the way Whitman aspired to be the Emerson's "Poet) into their own words - beautiful words arranged in 14 simple verses.
And as I tried to explain a conversation with a poet, I thought of an example: Allen Ginsburg's "A Supermarket in California" where he sees Whitman down the aisle and questions him.
No cartoon light bulb over their head, my students seemed more confused with this example; their eyes rather blank - and hungry before a late lunch on a Friday afternoon. After class, I googled poems to poets, and found poems about poems - a wonderful list with links. Yet meta-texts and Ars Poeticas...may only cloud the issue further.
A simple assignment: Write a poem. Perhaps a letter - to these poets, and set it to verse - with consideration to enjambment and stanza breaks.
Punctuation matters - no imitation of E.E. Cummings.
For further inspiration, I share more Adrienne Rich (if you're still reading this post) - She is tough to truncate: click here for the full essay:
I can’t write a poem to manipulate you; it will not succeed. Perhaps you have read such poems and decided you don’t care for poetry; something turned you away. I can’t write a poem from dishonest motives; it will betray its shoddy provenance, like an ill-made tool, a scissors, a drill, it will not serve its purpose, it will come apart in your hands at the point of stress. I can’t write a poem simply from good intentions, wanting to set things right, make it all better; the energy will leak out of it, it will end by meaning less than it says.
I can’t write a poem that transcends my own limits, though poetry has often pushed me beyond old horizons, and writing a poem has shown me how far out a part of me was walking beyond the rest. I can expect a reader to feel my limits as I cannot, in terms of her or his own landscape, to ask: But what has this to do with me? Do I exist in this poem? And this is not a simple or naive question. We go to poetry because we believe it has something to do with us. We also go to poetry to receive the experience of the not me, enter a field of vision we could not otherwise apprehend.
Someone writing a poem believes in a reader, in readers, of that poem. The “who” of that reader quivers like a jellyfish. Self-reference is always possible: that my “I” is a universal “we,” that the reader is my clone. That sending letters to myself is enough for attention to be paid. That my chip of mirror contains the world.
But most often someone writing a poem believes in, depends on, a delicate, vibrating range of difference, that an “I” can become a “we” without extinguishing others, that a partly common language exists to which strangers can bring their own heartbeat, memories, images. A language that itself has learned from the heartbeat, memories, images of strangers.