An introduction to a poetry-writing course for advanced undergraduates

I've always said to writers, even beginners, that if you want to be poets-in the full sense of the word, i.e., poets publishing books of your own poetry-you can. All you need to do is persist. So, in a course like this one, the best way I know to teach it is to presume that you are already serious, committed poets. You may not be quite there, which is fine, but things will go best if you and I presume you are. That is to say, we will presume you have written and read poetry long enough to want to become poets. Or, if you're already poets, to become better poets. How long you have written and read poetry makes no difference. What matters is that you have passed through the phase of thinking about it or dabbling in it. Writing poetry has come to be important to you, very high on your list of needs, right up there with breathing and taking long walks.

Once you have declared your interest, the best thing you can do is write and read daily. No experience is required to write poetry because life has already given you enough. As Flannery O'Connor once said, at the age of twenty everyone has enough material for a lifetime of writing. The "wanting to be" a poet, though, no matter how much frustration it gives you, must never go away. If you're to be a poet, that is. It's certainly all right for you to change your mind, to decide it isn't for you, to find that you want something else more. But, if you're to be a poet, your life will be shaped and changed by that need. Poetry is not a way of life, but it will more than likely become the lens through which you know and manage your life. Not your finances; your life.

So, what can we do in the short span of a few weeks?

1) Expand your repertoire, which means you must know what that repertoire might contain, what it should contain, what parts of it you have a good grasp of, what parts you don't. My feeling is that though everyone's repertoire is their own, it contains some things that should be part of everyone's. First of all, the management or control of rhythm and sound. This includes metrics but is not limited to metrics. If the sound of your poem is, in Pope's phrase, to "seem an echo of the sense" of your poem, you must know how to produce a variety of effects in language like speed, slowness, harshness (cacophony), smoothness (euphony), etc. As the critic, Harvey Gross, once said, "Rhythm speaks." Secondly, you need to know that not only does rhythm "speak," but so does the well-chosen and well-framed image. Learning to let images do the telling or to tell by showing is a vital skill in poetry. A third skill has to do with the basic perception and understanding of language. Because language is, first of all, our medium for transmitting information and accomplishing simple and practical tasks, it is important to relearn it as a plastic medium, not unlike clay, which we then mold to achieve much less practical ends than asking directions to the nearest gas station.

2) Read. Poets should never stop reading and rereading. Why? Because the best teachers will always be the best poems and the poets who wrote them. Most of the latter are dead. Poems are certainly attached to experience, but the main source of poems is other poems. You are the one who decides what "best" means and who lives up to that standard, but you can only reach reliable definitions of value by broad, continuous reading and by writing in the shadow of that reading. Your sense of what "best" means will probably change a few times over your lifetime. That's natural. Remember, though, the education of the poet is always in the poet's hands, and it never ends. Being a poet allows you to grow every day of your life. Emily Dickinson's last letter was written to a dear friend who lived in the same tiny village she did. She had come out of a coma that lasted several days. She knew she was dying. The letter was only two words long, but, packed with her life-long drama of belief and unbelief, it was as powerful an utterance as she ever made: "Called back."

3) Develop your writing practice. Natalie Goldberg in Writing Down the Bones has wise words to say about this. Every writer develops his or her own writing practice, which involves the seemingly most trivial things: where you write, what time of day, what implement you use, what kind of paper, in silence, in a coffee shop, to Beethoven's Ninth, in blue jeans and a bow tie, etc. It's a matter of knowing your own rhythms and what makes you comfortable. It is just as important to know what writing includes. As I've said, you have to be demanding of yourself and write every day, but writing involves, not just putting words on a page, but the thinking and doodling that precede those first sudden movements of the truth. A whole morning can go by in nothing but thinking and doodling, but that's writing, too. You have to have an understanding of what writing is that requires you to be demanding but also allows you to be realistic and lenient with yourself. If you have gone to your writing place and only stared at the wall for an hour, honestly searching for a way in, you have done that day's writing. Yes, of course, you wanted to write a whole sonnet that morning, but you can (and should) congratulate yourself for having done what you could that day as a writer. The sonnet will come tomorrow or the next day.

I could go on defining the writing life, but let me say one more thing and then desist. To a poet, writing is, with few exceptions, a part-time occupation. Only a handful of poets have been able to support themselves writing poetry, and most of them did it in truth by giving readings, translating poetry, editing anthologies, or some other related task that was not, strictly speaking, writing poetry. Giving readings, however pleasurable, even necessary to a poet, is just as much a job as teaching, raising children or selling insurance. It is not writing. So, while you insist to yourself that you are a poet, a serious poet, a poet for life, it is understood that you will be a citizen of the world as well, working in some way to feed yourself or further the human experiment. Do not despair. This will increase the force and value of your writing. Poetry, as I said, is not a way of life, but without it, there is no life.