Writing a Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 05 2012

Though in my intro to poetry writing class I typically do not focus on the turn until the second half of the semester (there is so much to cover prior to this: creative process, artistic recklessness, the poetic leap, the many means to create surprise, etc), I recently have taken to providing students with an exercise focused on the turn in the first day of class.

After performing the rituals of the beginning of the semester (taking roll, handing out and discussing the syllabus, etc), I introduce my students to the metaphor-to-meaning structure.  We examine a couple of key examples (often Whitman’s clear “A noiseless, patient spider” and Rod Smith’s wild “Ted’s Head”)—I describe the metaphor-to-meaning structure, and I ask students to locate and explain the turn, which they can, and do.  We then examine a handful of metaphor-to-meaning poems in which the turn reveals that the metaphor was meant to stand for or say something about poetry, or the poem, or that poet.  Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Hen” work very well for this.  We take some time, explore and appreciate these poems, and then I give my students their assignment: write a poem like these—write a poem that opens with a metaphor and closes by revealing that the metaphor (somehow) relates to poetry, poems, or the figure of the poet.  The main bit of advice I give my students is to try to come up with a description of something very different from poetry to serve as the metaphor—much of the fun of reading a metaphor-to-meaning poem about poetry is the surprise that comes with finding out that, in fact, it is in some way about poetry.

This, of course, seems like a lot to give students, especially on the first day.  However, perhaps because it’s the beginning of the semester and everyone is excited to get underway, and/or because students want to begin to describe their orientation to poetry, and/or because, in fact, I keep this a low-stakes assignment (due the next class meeting, in which it is read but not workshopped—if students want to workshop it, they can later in the semester), and/or because no one has yet given such demanding assignments, my students typically have taken this assignment and run with it, and they’ve made some very nice poems as a result.

Here are two student poems that ended up fitting the metaphor-to-meaning structure perfectly.  Yet, even though these poems closely engage the structure, they do so in very different ways.  With the metaphoric status of the blister(-as-poem) remaining a mystery until the end, Anjelica Rodriguez’s “Blister” makes a beautiful kind of surprising sense.  However, the turn in Stephen Whitfield’s “Maturity” is more sudden, more shocking—it resonates with what Rachel Zucker calls the epiphanic structure.

 

Blister

by Anjelica Rodriguez

 

You think only of the pain,

When there is only healing.

 

And now you know how it feels

To write a poem.

 

***

 

Maturity

by Stephen Whitfield

 

Shining vaguely under the water,

She is like the ghost I claimed to see in the attic

Swimming in circles she will never understand

 

She cannot sit still

She cannot close her eyes

She is looking for something anonymous and vital

 

Something absurd and perfect

It catches her eye and she ascends like a raptured priest

Gasping, fighting an inconceivable pull

 

She is alive again only when released

Already semi-desperate to fight it again

 

I miss the urgency of my first poems.

 

***

Some students used the metaphor-to-meaning structure as more of a launching pad.  They ended up creating strong poems, but poems that, in the end, are not actually metaphor-to-meaning poems.  Brittany Gonio’s “My Kind of Poetry” ended up as more of a cliché-and-critique poem.  And I’m frankly not sure what to call Colleen O’Connor’s “Where We Sleep.”  While it clearly is in dialogue with the metaphor-to-meaning structure, it is not, strictly speaking, a metaphor-to-meaning poem.  But, of course, in the end this does not matter—what matters is that it, like the other poems gathered here, is a thrilling, engaging poem.

 

My Kind of Poetry

by Brittany Gonio

 

My kind of poetry

is not an ornate object

on display in an upper class suburban home.

It is not the family jewels

hidden away in a safety deposit box,

for which the children

have only a false appreciation.

My poetry will never cradle me

like goose feathered bedspreads

and waterbed mattresses,

nor will it be the pillow talk

my lover whispers to me

(whether his intention be from his heart

or his groin).

It is not a hospital recovery room

with extended visiting hours

and the promise of being

“just like brand new”

in a couple of days.

 

My poetry is a boxing match

where I never have to look

to the jumbotron to channel

the intensity in my chaotically

coordinated opponent.

Every punch that grazes only air

depletes my resolve and loses support

of my knees.

Every jab met with hard muscle

sends a surge of endorphins

through my knuckles and veins.

I flit through the entirety

of the human spectrum of emotion

in the rounds between bell chimes,

and leave the ring

swallowing tears,

grinning through migraines.

 

My poetry breaks me

repeatedly,

and I,

like a teenage lover,

consistently return to it,

because I am married to it

in a way that has nothing to do

with religion

or income laws,

but in that

“bigger than yourself”

tidal wave revelation.

My poetry has made me

an adrenaline junkie;

I dread building up tolerance,

fear calluses that will hinder sharp stings,

loathe the body’s natural instinct

to protect itself.

For I yearn to sustain

and possess

the awe of aftershocks

each morning as

my fingers glide over

word-shaped bruises,

and chart muscles and flesh

I didn’t know

could feel.

 

***

 

Where We Sleep

by Colleen O’Connor

 

In the field behind his childhood home,

He buried two dogs,

A baby bird,

A stray cat,

The fish he wouldn’t flush,

A few chewed up toys,

And the rabbit

He never got to name.

 

It’s been thirty years.

In a different house,

A different dog skitters on the wood floors.

It growls at the rumbling washing machine,

Sleeps between him and the woman

Who reminds him of his mother.

 

He comes back to the field sometimes,

When the woman is at work and the dog has been fed

And the new backyard feels too small.

 

In the silence, the prairie grass mumbles,

Shifts in the wind,

Soft as the belly of a sleeping bear.

 

In the desk beside his end table,

He buried his poems.

 

He pulls them out sometimes, years later,

Once the woman is asleep and the dogs have been dead for years

And the bed feels too big.

 

In the silence, she mumbles,

Shifts in her sleep,

A shape in the shadows.

 

Under the light of his end table,

He flips the pages,

Unearths six girls,

One man,

A year in Amsterdam,

A tour with the coast guard,

Four bouts of depression,

And the daughter

He never got to name.

 

He holds the poems gently,

Like baby birds.

 

Tiny coffins, they are strangely light

For how much they hold.

 

***

If you like the poems you see here, I hope you’ll give this assignment a try.

For a variant of this assignment, see “Extended Metaphor as Ars Poetica” in Tom C. Hunley’s The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse (30-33).  In this assignment, Hunley suggests simply creating an extended metaphor (using anything that’s not poetry) and then calling the poem “Poetry” or “Ars Poetica.”  A kind of meaning-to-metaphor poem, which can have great result, as well.

***

My thanks to Anjelica, Stephen, Brittany, and Colleen for granting me permission to use their poems.

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Writing a Metaphor-to-Meaning Poem

8 05 2012

Though in my intro to poetry writing class I typically do not focus on the turn until the second half of the semester (there is so much to cover prior to this: creative process, artistic recklessness, the poetic leap, the many means to create surprise, etc), I recently have taken to providing students with an exercise focused on the turn in the first day of class.

After performing the rituals of the beginning of the semester (taking roll, handing out and discussing the syllabus, etc), I introduce my students to the metaphor-to-meaning structure.  We examine a couple of key examples (often Whitman’s clear “A noiseless, patient spider” and Rod Smith’s wild “Ted’s Head”)—I describe the metaphor-to-meaning structure, and I ask students to locate and explain the turn, which they can, and do.  We then examine a handful of metaphor-to-meaning poems in which the turn reveals that the metaphor was meant to stand for or say something about poetry, or the poem, or that poet.  Baudelaire’s “The Albatross” and Zbigniew Herbert’s “The Hen” work very well for this.  We take some time, explore and appreciate these poems, and then I give my students their assignment: write a poem like these—write a poem that opens with a metaphor and closes by revealing that the metaphor (somehow) relates to poetry, poems, or the figure of the poet.  The main bit of advice I give my students is to try to come up with a description of something very different from poetry to serve as the metaphor—much of the fun of reading a metaphor-to-meaning poem about poetry is the surprise that comes with finding out that, in fact, it is in some way about poetry.

This, of course, seems like a lot to give students, especially on the first day.  However, perhaps because it’s the beginning of the semester and everyone is excited to get underway, and/or because students want to begin to describe their orientation to poetry, and/or because, in fact, I keep this a low-stakes assignment (due the next class meeting, in which it is read but not workshopped—if students want to workshop it, they can later in the semester), and/or because no one has yet given such demanding assignments, my students typically have taken this assignment and run with it, and they’ve made some very nice poems as a result.

Here are two student poems that ended up fitting the metaphor-to-meaning structure perfectly.  Yet, even though these poems closely engage the structure, they do so in very different ways.  With the metaphoric status of the blister(-as-poem) remaining a mystery until the end, Anjelica Rodriguez’s “Blister” makes a beautiful kind of surprising sense.  However, the turn in Stephen Whitfield’s “Maturity” is more sudden, more shocking—it resonates with what Rachel Zucker calls the epiphanic structure.

 

Blister

by Anjelica Rodriguez

 

You think only of the pain,

When there is only healing.

 

And now you know how it feels

To write a poem.

 

***

 

Maturity

by Stephen Whitfield

 

Shining vaguely under the water,

She is like the ghost I claimed to see in the attic

Swimming in circles she will never understand

 

She cannot sit still

She cannot close her eyes

She is looking for something anonymous and vital

 

Something absurd and perfect

It catches her eye and she ascends like a raptured priest

Gasping, fighting an inconceivable pull

 

She is alive again only when released

Already semi-desperate to fight it again

 

I miss the urgency of my first poems.

 

***

Some students used the metaphor-to-meaning structure as more of a launching pad.  They ended up creating strong poems, but poems that, in the end, are not actually metaphor-to-meaning poems.  Brittany Gonio’s “My Kind of Poetry” ended up as more of a cliché-and-critique poem.  And I’m frankly not sure what to call Colleen O’Connor’s “Where We Sleep.”  While it clearly is in dialogue with the metaphor-to-meaning structure, it is not, strictly speaking, a metaphor-to-meaning poem.  But, of course, in the end this does not matter—what matters is that it, like the other poems gathered here, is a thrilling, engaging poem.

 

My Kind of Poetry

by Brittany Gonio

 

My kind of poetry

is not an ornate object

on display in an upper class suburban home.

It is not the family jewels

hidden away in a safety deposit box,

for which the children

have only a false appreciation.

My poetry will never cradle me

like goose feathered bedspreads

and waterbed mattresses,

nor will it be the pillow talk

my lover whispers to me

(whether his intention be from his heart

or his groin).

It is not a hospital recovery room

with extended visiting hours

and the promise of being

“just like brand new”

in a couple of days.

 

My poetry is a boxing match

where I never have to look

to the jumbotron to channel

the intensity in my chaotically

coordinated opponent.

Every punch that grazes only air

depletes my resolve and loses support

of my knees.

Every jab met with hard muscle

sends a surge of endorphins

through my knuckles and veins.

I flit through the entirety

of the human spectrum of emotion

in the rounds between bell chimes,

and leave the ring

swallowing tears,

grinning through migraines.

 

My poetry breaks me

repeatedly,

and I,

like a teenage lover,

consistently return to it,

because I am married to it

in a way that has nothing to do

with religion

or income laws,

but in that

“bigger than yourself”

tidal wave revelation.

My poetry has made me

an adrenaline junkie;

I dread building up tolerance,

fear calluses that will hinder sharp stings,

loathe the body’s natural instinct

to protect itself.

For I yearn to sustain

and possess

the awe of aftershocks

each morning as

my fingers glide over

word-shaped bruises,

and chart muscles and flesh

I didn’t know

could feel.

 

***

 

Where We Sleep

by Colleen O’Connor

 

In the field behind his childhood home,

He buried two dogs,

A baby bird,

A stray cat,

The fish he wouldn’t flush,

A few chewed up toys,

And the rabbit

He never got to name.

 

It’s been thirty years.

In a different house,

A different dog skitters on the wood floors.

It growls at the rumbling washing machine,

Sleeps between him and the woman

Who reminds him of his mother.

 

He comes back to the field sometimes,

When the woman is at work and the dog has been fed

And the new backyard feels too small.

 

In the silence, the prairie grass mumbles,

Shifts in the wind,

Soft as the belly of a sleeping bear.

 

In the desk beside his end table,

He buried his poems.

 

He pulls them out sometimes, years later,

Once the woman is asleep and the dogs have been dead for years

And the bed feels too big.

 

In the silence, she mumbles,

Shifts in her sleep,

A shape in the shadows.

 

Under the light of his end table,

He flips the pages,

Unearths six girls,

One man,

A year in Amsterdam,

A tour with the coast guard,

Four bouts of depression,

And the daughter

He never got to name.

 

He holds the poems gently,

Like baby birds.

 

Tiny coffins, they are strangely light

For how much they hold.

 

***

If you like the poems you see here, I hope you’ll give this assignment a try.

For a variant of this assignment, see “Extended Metaphor as Ars Poetica” in Tom C. Hunley’s The Poetry Gymnasium: 94 Proven Exercises to Shape Your Best Verse (30-33).  In this assignment, Hunley suggests simply creating an extended metaphor (using anything that’s not poetry) and then calling the poem “Poetry” or “Ars Poetica.”  A kind of meaning-to-metaphor poem, which can have great result, as well.

***

My thanks to Anjelica, Stephen, Brittany, and Colleen for granting me permission to use their poems.





Turn, Turn, Turn

10 03 2012

The turn stars in three of my recent print publications.  Here they are…

“Raising the Net” appears in Spoon River Poetry Review 36.2 (Summer/Fall 2011).  “Raising the Net” is a review-essay that uses Christina Pugh’s ideas about “sonnet thought” to consider the fate of the turn in some contemporary books of sonnets, including The Reality Street Book of Sonnets (a glorious mixed bag), Iteration Nets (in terms of turns: there are none), Nick Demske (interesting, and problematic), and Severance Songs (pretty great).

I state in “Raising the Net” that “I revise Robert Frost’s idea that writing free verse is like ‘playing tennis with the net down.’  Writing formal sonnets, it turns out, is not too difficult; it’s the writing of sonnets without great turns that’s akin to a netless game.  In contrast, crafting sonnets with an eye toward their turns as well as a critical approach that can account for them not only raises the net but also raises the bar on what we expect from sonnets.”

The Shadow of Sirius: A Critical Conversation” appears in Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin, edited by Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer (Seattle, WA: WordFarm, 2012).  “The Shadow of Sirius: A Critical Conversation” is an essay I co-authored with poet-critic Mark Halliday in which Mark and I debate the merit of Merwin’s latest book of poems–Mark: generally against; me, strongly for.

As I prepared to write my portion of the essay, it became clear to me that Merwin was a great poet of the surprising turn.  Though, of course, I make my case for this claim more fully in the published essay, a preview of my argument can be found here.

“Other Arrangements: The Vital Turn in Poetry Writing Pedagogy” appears in Beyond the Workshop.  “Other Arrangements” is, in large part, a friendly amendment to Tom C. Hunley’s excellent Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach.  In his book, Hunley argues 1) that we need to get beyond the workshop as a core pedagogical method for teaching poetry writing, and 2) that one way to do this is to orient teaching toward the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

I contribute to Hunley’s argument by arguing that strong consideration of the turn should be a key part of the discussion of the second canon, arrangement.  I wrote a little on this here, though, again, the published essay is much more complete.

It feels good to get more thought about the vital turn out into the world.  My thanks to my insightful and generous editors–Kirstin Hotelling Zona, Jonathan Weinert, Kevin Prufer, and Paul Perry–for allowing me the opportunity share my ideas, and for helping to make my writing and thinking on behalf of these ideas as strong as possible.





(Re:)Arranging Poetry Writing Classes

12 05 2009

I’ve recently read, with great interest, Tom C. Hunley’s Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach (Multilingual Matters Ltd., 2007).  My interest in this book is twofold: 1) I’m personally attracted to the alternative pedagogical system the book espouses, and 2) I think Hunley’s ideas in this book jibe nicely with an effort to incorporate greater focus on poetic structure and turns into poetry writing classes.

The big idea of Teaching Poetry Writing (TPW) is simple: we need to replace a largely ineffective workshop model in our poetry writing classes with what Hunley calls the “five-canon model.”  TPW’s first chapter (the title of which, “It Doesn’t Work for Me: A Critique of the Workshop Approach to Teaching Poetry Writing and a Suggestion for Revision,” says it all) largely is a critique of the workshop model, arguing, “The workshop model was not designed with undergraduates or the ruck of graduate students in mind.  It was designed for gifted, elite writers who needed very little instruction, though they may have benefited from criticism on their manuscripts.”  Knowing that it is not enough to simply critique the workshop model without offering another model which might replace it, Hunley suggests organizing a poetry writing class around the five canons of rhetoric: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.  That is, according to Hunley, poetry writing classes need to devote much more time to in-class prewriting activities, collaborations, formal play and stylistic imitations, and to the memorization and performing of poems.  (Workshopping and the offering of detailed, specific critiques, according to Hunley, can best be handled in conferences and online, employing instructional technologies such as Blackboard.)

I agree wholeheartedly with Hunley’s take on the need to replace the workshop model.  And I agree very largely with Hunley’s pointing teachers in the direction of an alternative method like the five-canon model.  My own experiences teaching undergraduate poetry writing have confirmed how ineffective the workshop model tends to be, and so I have taken steps in my own teaching to try something new.  Interestingly, my own choices largely have coincided with much of what Hunley suggests.  For example, I now do a LOT in terms of sharing invention strategies with students, and allowing students to practice some of those strategies in class.  And very often I match text-generating invention strategies with a poetic form to help students consider the methods with and by which they might craft their poems.  In fact, one of the big goals of my pedagogy is to get students to see that one very fruitful way to conceive of the task of the poet is to conceive of the poet as someone who gives her/himself creative assignments and then works to complete those assignments.  The pay-off for this kind of approach is immediate: students bring better work and thinking to the drafts of their poems, so, when we actually do discuss them, the drafts generally already are working in some big, vital ways.  (So far, I have not done much with memorization and delivery in the poetry writing class; however, I do teach a literature class called “Poetry through Performance,” and through the experience of teaching that course I know what a powerful pedagogical technique the performance of poetry can be—encouraged by Hunley’s writing, I will certainly consider employing this methodology in my poetry writing classes.)

TPW strikes me as offering something vital for poetry writing pedagogy now—anyone starting to teach poetry writing or beginning to re-think their own poetry writing pedagogy should carefully attend to it.  TPW does the massive work of suggesting the need for a paradigm shift in poetry writing pedagogy, and it does the vital detail work of offering a lot of specific guidance in terms of how to pull off such a shift: specific exercises, specific technologies, specific texts.

Although not mentioned in TPW (perhaps because the books were published in the same year), I think Structure & Surprise, along with many of the other poetry writing books cited and referenced by Hunley, offers many insights applicable to teaching using the five-canon approach.

S&S is most applicable to the second canon, arrangement.  Citing Covino and Jolliffe’s Rhetoric: Concepts, Definitions, Boundaries (Allyn & Bacon, 1995), Hunley notes, “Arrangement occurs in rhetoric when ‘the arguments devised through invention are placed in the most effective order.’  It is ‘the art of ordering the material in a text so that it is most appropriate for the needs of the audience and the purpose the text is designed to accomplish.’”  According to Hunley (who cites the Encyclopedia of Rhetoric and Composition), “Rhetoric’s second canon, arrangement…is ‘the art of dividing a discourse into its parts and the inclusion, omission, or ordering of those parts according to the rhetor’s needs and situation and constraints of the chosen genre.’  The least written about of the five canons, arrangement has always been a sort of neglected middle child, rarely stealing the spotlight away from invention and style, its attention-grabbing siblings on either side.”

Although structure is touched on in a section of TPW called “Arrangement in the Rhetorical Tradition” (in which it is noted, “In classical rhetoric, orators traditionally arranged their speeches into five parts: exordium, narratio, confirmatio, refutatio, peroratio”) and in some of the “Practical Classroom Applications” that grow out of this section, the methods for arranging the content of a poem offered in TPW focus mainly on poetic form, as is indicated by the section title “Arranging Poetry in the Verse Mode: Traditional Forms.”  Additionally, the section called “Arranging Poetry in the Prose Mode: Free Verse” also is largely about form, focusing on kinds of poetic lines and line breaks.  This is, of course, fitting: for a long time now, form has seemed generally to be the way to arrange poems, and form of course offers powerful tools for such arrangement.  However, I’d simply add that poetic structure, attention to the patterns of turns in poems, offers a significant additional way to think about the arrangement of poems, its own practical pedagogical applications (see this blog’s “Pedagogy” page for links to this developing conversation), and a reminder: non-formal arrangement is not only a concern primarily for rhetors but also for poets, who for a long time (Eliot calls the turn “one of the most important means of poetic effect since Homer”) have arranged poems—both formal and free—around turns.

With Teaching Poetry Writing, Tom Hunley has given me a name for what I do (or am trying to do) in my poetry writing classes, and he has given me lots of new information and methods for my teaching.  Perhaps, for others interested in Hunley’s approach to teaching poetry writing, Structure & Surprise (and this blog) can serve as a kind of supplement to the pedagogical model presented in Teaching Poetry Writing, offering helpful ways to think about and to teach another key means of arranging poems: poetic structure, the pattern of turning in poems.





Retrospective-Prospective Structure

9 02 2009

The retrospective-prospective structure is a two-part structure that begins with a consideration of past events and then turns to look ahead to the future or else look a present situation differently.  Mark Yakich discusses the retrospective-prospective structure more fully in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns.  Below are supplemental poems and discussion.

Although it might also be considered a poem employing the dejection-elation structure, the following pretty clearly also employs the retrospective-prospective pattern:

“Daffodils,” by William Wordsworth

Although it clearly involves some aspects of the concessional structure, the following also (and predominantly) employs the retrospective-prospective structure:

“America,” by Claude McKay

Here’s a poem I wrote, called “Apology.”  The title is derived from the term “apologia pro vita sua,” or a defense of one’s life.

For some other examples of poems employing this structure, check out:

“The Blade,” by William Aberg (in The Listening Chamber (Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1997), 3.)

“I Was Minor,” by Olena Kalytiak Davis

“The Realm of Spirit,” by Michael Fried (in The Next Bend in the Road, p. 16).

“To Earthward,” by Robert Frost

“Nature,” by Tony Hoagland

“Visitation,” by Tony Hoagland (in Unincorporated Persons in the Late Honda Dynasty (Saint Paul, MN: Graywolf, 2010), 52).

Note how in “Visitation” the memory is offered in the present.

“In My Thirty-Eighth Year, Remembering My Nineteenth,” by Tom C. Hunley (in Octopus (Winside, Nebraska: Logan House, 2008).

“Something I’ve Not Done,” by W. S. Merwin

“Wendung,” by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated as “Turning-Point” in The Selected Poems of Rainer Maria Rilke, edited and translated by Stephen Mitchell (NY: Vintage, 1989).

Additionally, if you’re interested in an example of a use of the retrospective-prospective structure outside of poetry, check out Barack Obama’s speech accepting the nomination to be the Democratic candidate for President here.  In this speech, after employing the life circumstances of 106-year-old Anne Nixon Cooper to survey the history of the past century, Obama then turns to ask what we will make of the next century.  A gorgeous use of this retrospective-prospective’s structural maneuver.