Writing poems isn’t easy. Writing poems on demand is even harder. Writing a poem that employs the dialectical argument structure is a true task!
And yet, it’s important at some point (in an advanced undergraduate workshop, perhaps) to familiarize poetry writing students with the dialectical argument structure–after all, in “Levels and Opposites: Structure in Poetry,” Randall Jarrell notes that, while “making a great many structural analyses of poems,” he “was astonished (and rather embarrassed) to find so many of the best-organized poems dialectically organized.”
Here’s one way to introduce students to the dialectical argument structure.
First, acquaint yourself with the structure. Read John Beer’s essay “The Dialectical Argument Structure” in Structure & Surprise: Engaging Poetic Turns. Then read the material supplemental to Beer’s essay on this blog, available here.
Heady stuff, right? Choose of it what you want to show to your students 1) to show them that poems in fact often are dialectically organized, and 2) to prepare them to write their own (well, a collaborative) dialectical argument poem.
If you can get a copy of it, show your students Courtney Queeney’s poem, “Back to the Body” (from Filibuster to Delay a Kiss: And Other Poems (New York: Random House, 2007): 77). Notice how “Back to the Body” handles its thesis and antithesis: with just a variation or two, the thesis is, essentially, “If I…”; and the antithesis is, essentially, “then you…” (“If I’m arch, you’re thrust. If I’m pocket, / you’re muscle, kneecap, and skid.”) The synthesis is the poem’s final declaration: “Here I am, / animal.”
And check out Nick Laird’s “Epithalamium,” another great example of the kind of dialectical argument one may be able to get from working to create a collaborative, dialectical argument. Like “Back to the Body,” “Epithalamium”‘s thesis and antithesis shuttle back and forth between descriptions of “you” and “I.” The synthesis comes at the end, when the speaker realizes, however, that the poem’s descriptions could have been reversed–thus, clearly, these two where made for each other, and should be united.
You may choose at this point (if you think it will be inspiring and helpful) to also show your students the poems on this page, poems written by employing the methods I’m about to describe.
Pair up your students. Have them write pairs of I-You theses and antitheses. For example, to cite Theresa Peters’ “Hero Worship,” one student might state (and write), “If I am a static radio,” and the other might state (and write), “Then I am the slap of stiletto heals on a hardwood floor.” Have students go back and forth like this for a while–perhaps 20 thesis-antithesis pairings. Encourage variety: encourage some long “I am”s, and some short; some detailed, some abstract; etc.
Then have the students select from among what they’ve created (perhaps 6-9 thesis-antithesis pairings) to organize these statements into a back-and-forth exchange that has some arc or trajectory or tension in it.
Finally, have your students come up with either a declaration (perhaps even an exclamation) or a question to conclude their poem. This ending may in fact be a synthesis, or it may not be–it might reveal why the I and the You are not in fact synthesized. What’s important is that the final line be surprising even while feeling in some way connected with the lines that lead up to it.
As the poems on the “I-You Poems” page reveal, really interesting work can come from this exercise, an exercise that allows poetry writing students to work with, to really engage, the creativity of a fellow poet, and that offers poetry writing students the opportunity to try out–and even succeed right away at!–writing a kind of poem with a structure that is at the heart of so many great poems.