Earl Gray

Earl Gray
"You can argue with me but, in the end, you'll have to face that fact that you're arguing with a squirrel." - Earl Gray

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Practical Poetry: Introductions


     One of the complaints we hear from English literature and Creative Writing teachers involves attendance, especially at the college level.  Horror stories abound of 50% or higher dropout rates and individual classes attracting 10% of the original enrollees.  The solution is no secret:  find a way to relate to the students and their common interests.  In regards to poetry, "common interests" translates to "song lyrics".

     This course could be anything from a one day seminar to a full semester.  Its instructor will benefit from a laptop, some speakers, an overhead projector, a screening surface and an internet connection.


Earl the Squirrel's Rule #25
     "What would a Creative Writing course look like if it were geared toward producing poetry that people might actually want to hear?"

     Like any course, it would start with the teacher and students introducing themselves.  Similarities with existing literature courses would end there.  As the word "producing" suggests, the emphasis is on writing, not interpreting, poetry.  "People" refers to everyone, not just other poets or editors.  "Want" suggests a pleasure-driven desire for, in this case, entertainment.  Finally, "hear" implies venues beyond text.

     A definition of poetry needs to be established.  That's easy.  Poetry is verbatim.  Knowing our destination, it is a relatively simple, if tedious, process of eliminating fatuous Convenient Poetics and Content Regency arguments along the way.  In this regard, what students have learned in English Lit classes can become a liability;  much of it will have to be unlearned.

     At this juncture, attendees will likely need to be prepared for what comes next.  As a whole, the lessons will be light and fun.  Not so the ensuing hour or so.  Duly warned, the group will then be introduced to poetry's blood (i.e. scansion) and language.  As you can see, most of the work has been done by onliners.  In the case of terminology, the teacher need only select the logical, grammatical, structural and poetic terms deemed vital.

     Once the students understand the jargon and the basics of meter they can be congratulated.  They now know more about the workings of verse than most MFA graduates.  This will be invaluable.  Among many other benefits, it enables critiquing/critical skills.  This means that workshopping will amount to more than "the blind leading the blind".

     The 5 Ws of Poetry:  "If you know where and why poetry will work you might be able to predict when, whose and what poetry will work."

     To end on a lighter note, students will be asked to contribute the titles and lyrics of their favorite songs.  Having them recite the lyrics as best they can will illustrate how sonics (i.e. alliteration, consonance, assonance, rhymes) and meter (i.e. accentual versus accentual-syllabic) help us remember some sections as we forget others within the same song.

     As an example, these newfound technical/critical skills might be tested by playing Paul Simon's "Hearts and Bones":

     Why do we remember that phrase "Sangre de Cristo, Blood of Christ Mountain" but lose so many of the other lyrics?

     Poetry doesn't sell.  So how can we say that one poem is better, more practical or more commercial than another?  In short, as a teaser for the subsequent installment (on "Markets"). we ask:

    "How can we know what people like when they don't like anything?"

     Consider this experiment:  Find two mediocre contest-winning and/or published poems that have been blurbed.  Add this poem and this verse into the mix.  Ask your students which two of these four poems are the better than the other two.  Record your results but do not discuss them yet.  Repeat this survey during each of the last three lessons of this series to see if opinions change after we add production, performance and an understanding of technique into the mix.

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