Friday Prompt: Ars Poetica

Self-Portrait in Afternoon Shadow
Self-Portrait in Afternoon Shadow

Last week, while reconnecting over pizza with someone with whom I’d gone to high school, I found myself suddenly enmeshed in a debate about the utility of teaching poetry in the classroom.  We had been talking about what we hope to do with our careers in the future, and my friend, who was blissfully unaware of what he was getting himself into at the time—began to ask me about my writing.  Why had I decided that I like it so much?  What made me so sure that I want to center my life around it?  Why do I want to teach poetry someday?

I began to explain to him how much the idea of building opportunities for people to encounter poetry on an everyday basis—in the bus terminal, on the subway, in a store window, on the radio, in their Facebook newsfeed, tucked away between the salt and pepper shakers on a cafeteria table, or of course, in the classroom (whether Composition or Creative Writing)—excites me.  Ideas about ways to get people to “bump into” and experience more poetry literally keep me up at night.  They make me fidget in meetings and cause me to take too long in the shower.  They make me zone out during sermons in church and distract me while I’m grading.  I shake when I talk about them.

“It troubles me,” I explained, rattling the ice around in my glass, “that we don’t see more poetry in the real world, or even in the English classroom, where most people encounter literature for the first time.  Teachers are often a little afraid of it, and so students become very afraid of it.”

My lunch companion was nonplussed.  “But prose is a more practical model for student writing,” he objected, “so why should there be more poetry in the classroom?”

Well, in that case, why should we teach Mark Twain (parts of which are written in dialect)?  Or Shakespeare (with its slippery Elizabethan speech)?  Or even Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams (both of whom wrote for the stage), for that matter?  If the place of the English classroom is only to provide “practical” models for student writing, then the idea of teaching literature at all becomes questionable.  And yet, most people would agree that including literature in the high school classroom is important.  Literature provides a compass for us, a “window” (as one of my own high school English teachers used to say) by which we can practice empathy and imagination. It is a beacon, a stepping stone, a map, a boat, an interview, a mask, a portrait, a question, a shovel, a vision, a road, a challenge to ourselves as human beings.  Young people need literature—because literature gives us words and paradigms by which to conceive of ourselves and of others; because literature helps us to grow.

So why teach poetry?  Because poetry is literature—and poetry is necessary.

A poem, in its smallness, can do what a short story or play simply cannot: it can give us an appreciation for the singularity of a particular moment, a specific image.  It can draw our attention closer to earth and to ourselves with its closely-cropped frame.

A poem, furthermore, is not bound by the same rules of sentences and paragraphs that prose (and even stage writing, to an extent) must follow.  A poem is visual—a more intensely physical, page-bound object than a novel, in that the placement of words across the space of the white page is of immense importance.  A poem is also aural—but unlike a play,  it is infinitely more portable; it is not reliant on props, a cast, or a stage.  A poem can teach us to pay attention to how language affects (and at times, assaults) our senses.  It can make us sensitive to the flux and flow of our own breath.  It can expose us to radical creative and linguistic possibilities. It can fill us with image and sound and strip us bare.  It can flay us and challenge us without lecturing.

Why poetry? Because the poetry I know and love is crisp, and luminous, and unflinching, and real.  And we need sharpness; we need illumination; we need courage; we need bare-faced honesty as a matter of survival in this world.  We simply do.

In developing today’s prompt, I was inspired by the model of the Ars Poetica—or poem about poetry—and in particular, by two such poems that explore the utility and necessity of their art through image and lyric rather than through overt exposition.  In Traci Brimhall’s “Ars Poetica,” the poet experiences being called away from one narrative and into the sharp terror of another, while in Jon Pineda’s “My Sister, Who Died Young, Takes Up the Task,” the poet reflects on the notion that the writer’s impulse to eulogize and document the experience of grief may at times not be what is right, or best, or even possible.  In both poems, the poets acknowledge that they themselves are participants, rather than masterminds; pilgrims, rather than prophets.  What remains is spare, but powerful: Brimhall’s speaker finds herself caught up by the poem’s summons, rather than summoning it (“You feel fingers on your neck / and say, Take me to the snow, and it takes you.”).  Pineda’s speaker asks his sister,  “What can I do?” and is told, heartbreakingly (but tenderly), “Nothing, /. . . let me finish this one thing alone.”

Prompt: Write a poem that explores the role or utility of poetry through image and lyric.  Challenge yourself by trying to limit your use of exposition.

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