Posts Tagged ‘writing poetry’

Billy Collins suggests more creative ways to respond to poetry than analyzing it to death

March 18, 2015

The New York Times calls Billy Collins “the most popular poet in America.” In his poem, Introduction to Poetry, the former two-term U.S. Poet Laureate (2001-2003) suggests more creative ways to respond to poetry than analyzing it to death. This blog post also reveals how Collins writes and teaches poetry. It may surprise you.

Introduction to Poetry

I ask them to take a poem
and hold it up to the light
like a color slide

or press an ear against its hive.

I say drop a mouse into a poem
and watch him probe his way out,

or walk inside the poem’s room
and feel the walls for a light switch.

I want them to waterski
across the surface of a poem
waving at the author’s name on the shore.

But all they want to do
is tie the poem to a chair with rope
and torture a confession out of it.

They begin beating it with a hose
to find out what it really means.

The Apple that Astonished Paris © 1988, 1996

Listen to Billy Collins read his poem, Introduction to Poetry.

Billy Collins speaks to English teachers in this poem who look at poetry as something to be analyzed and dissected. They teach their students to try to find out what a poem means instead of emotionally responding to it. To make his point, Collins amusingly suggests ways students might approach and experience a poem, instead of “beating it with a hose to find out what it really means.”

Writing and Teaching Poetry

Collins reveals more about his writing process and how he teaches poetry when answering a question from a middle school English teacher. He acknowledges the search for meaning in a poem, but when he writes a poem, meaning is the furthest thing on his mind. He’s just trying to get to the next line, and the next, to finally arrive at the ending.

Basically when you’re teaching poetry, despite that poem (Introduction to Poetry), you’re talking about meaning. We’re basically extracting meaning from the poem. And I realized at some point, that when I wrote a poem, meaning was the last thing on my mind. I never gave it a thought.

Basically, in a poem, I’m just trying to find the next line. I’m trying to find a way for the poem to go. And I’m trying to get to some destination. I’m not thinking about, ‘What’s the poem about, or meaning?’ Or, I’m not thinking of, ‘How will people write study questions about this poem and make any sense out of it?’

So I try to bring some of that into my teaching. I try to substitute for the question, ‘What does a poem mean?’ the question, ‘How does a poem go?’ ‘How does a poem get where its going?’ (It goes from the beginning to the end, maneuvering through shift points along the way, in search of a destination.) A poem is always searching for its own ending. And that’s what poets are thinking about. It’s not a search for insight, particularly. It’s a search to be over with.

PBS NewsHour’s Jeffrey Brown interviewed Billy Collins on their Poetry Series about his new collection, Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems. “I knew that poets seemed to be miserable,” said Collins about his younger self, yearning to fit in. While he admits he “faked a miserable character” at the start of his career, he’s since embraced his sense of humor. Poet Billy Collins on humor, authenticity and ‘Aimless Love’

William Stafford on Writing Poetry

William Stafford was Poetry consultant for the Library of Congress in 1970, what a Poet Laureate was called before they created the office. He was named Poet Laureate of Oregon from 1975-93. Stafford’s style of writing and teaching was process-oriented. He gave no praise or blame to his students’ writing. He encouraged English teachers and writing students to be innocent when writing poetry, without any preconceived notions of how it should go, and to be open to discovering the unexpected turns a poem could take on the way to its own completion.

Stafford was very open to spontaneity and receptivity when writing poetry. He said most teachers would spell out what a piece of writing should look like, and expected their students to reproduce the same. This product-oriented approach left no room for the imagination. “They want a wilderness with a map.” But, he asks, “how about errors that give a new start?” Errors, he said, “make a music that nobody hears. Your straying feet find the great dance,” and “stumbling always leads home.” That’s how he wrote poems, early every morning. Enjoy reading these William Stafford poems, A Course in Creative Writing, and You and Art.

My Own Experience as a Writer

I agree with Collins and Stafford that the creative process is a mystery, and coming to the end of a poem is a wonderful relief, especially when I see it finishing itself. It also surprises me with what it’s about, sometimes revealing a deeper meaning at the end than imagined. This meaningful sense of completion is why writing poetry can be so fulfilling.

Two early meta-poems describe this process: Writing—a poem on the writing process, and Sometimes Poetry Happens: a poem about the mystery of creativity. Two early poems I’d written that surprised me with their endings are, As Above So Below, and later, Pine Cone Trees.

My son Nathanael Chawkin wrote a poem called INSPIRATION, an outcome from the first homework assignment in his Grade Six Literature class. He felt strongly that you couldn’t force a student to write a poem; it had to come on its own accord. The poem innocently and profoundly expresses the spontaneity of the poetic process. I also added information with links after his poem about the writing process you may find interesting.

WINTER HAIKU written by Ken for Sali his muse

February 11, 2014

Sitting with Sali on a cold winter Sunday afternoon at Parkview Care Center, looking out the window of her room at the powdered snow being blown off the white roofs in swirls. At one point, with the sun shining through in front of us, you could almost see a rainbow; only it was a snowbow! Made that up. We laughed. I had been in a rough mood, but what I saw, and the spontaneous playful art of composing a haiku, transformed me. The second and third lines came out first, and the first line last. I changed wind blows to winds blow to rhyme with snow. The rhythms, rhymes and meanings of the words sort of sound like what we saw. They’re powerful. Say them aloud a few times and see what happens. Sali seemed to like it. I love it! it’s fun! Here’s the poem.

WINTER HAIKU

The winter winds blow
Swirling whirling dervishes
Of powdery snow

© Ken Chawkin
Feb 9, 2014
Fairfield, Iowa

Two spontaneous haiku while talking to Sali

June 17, 2012

These two haiku were composed spontaneously while talking to my friend Sali. She’s also my muse, and keeps me, both of us, amused.

I

Our body’s a purse
containing the universe.
Can you spare some change?

II

The bib testifies
to the lunch that was eaten—
Boy, that was good food!

© Ken Chawkin
Fairfield, Iowa

Phrases come out spontaneously while talking with Sali. I count the syllables and realize they make up the first two lines of a haiku, then come up with the third line. Don’t know where they come from, but the juxtapositions make us laugh. The first haiku was composed mid-morning, and the second while feeding Sali her lunch, on Saturday, June 16, 2012. Posted them today, Fathers Day, Sunday, June 17, 2012.

INSPIRATION, a poem by Nathanael Chawkin

January 25, 2012

“Be patient, listen quietly, the writing will come. The voice of the writing will tell you what to do.” — Donald M. Murray, America’s writing teacher.

I came across a poem my son Nathanael wrote 20 years ago, a month after he turned eleven. A few weeks into the school year, his Grade Six teacher at Maharishi School gave the students a writing assignment. Their homework was to write a poem for class the next day. The pressure was on. I don’t recall much of the details, but I do remember Nathanael saying he had a problem with this. We discussed it. He felt strongly that you couldn’t force a poem into existence; it had to come naturally, from inspiration. I agreed and suggested he express that idea somehow in his poem. He was determined to send his teacher a message. What he wrote blew me away. He was inspired!

INSPIRATION

A poem comes naturally,
Not forced, not assigned, not sought for.
A poem should be inspired,
Not under pressure, surely not, for,
A poem is spontaneous, creative. How?
It is the nature of the poem to slip out.
That’s what you must allow.
So sit back and relax
For you must be patient,
And of course, do not rush.
A poem comes naturally,
Here it comes,
Hush.

© Nathanael Chawkin
September 24, 1991

This idea of allowing, even encouraging writing to come spontaneously reminds me of a poem written by William Stafford—A Course in Creative Writing, in response to educators at a conference expecting writing instructors to clearly spell out how and what their students should write, and by implication, to praise or blame them accordingly. This left no room for students, or their teachers, to express their own creativity, and no guidance to help them find their own voice, something that was not part of their methodology.

Stafford was about process, not necessarily product, and acted more as a facilitator than an instructor. He tried hard to not offer any praise or blame, fearing students would then write to please him and not themselves. He also avoided giving students any grades in his classes. I think they would grade themselves or each other based on their evaluation of their work. You can imagine the frustration this must have caused the administration. He was considered an odd ball, a heretic to the status quo at that time. But that would change. His approach would start a revolution in the teaching of creative writing.

This poem, William Stafford—You and Art, speaks volumes about the writer who is open to “making mistakes” and following his own voice down new paths of expression. It’s a beautiful description of the maturation of an artist and the source of inspiration. You can read more William Stafford poems on my blog.

Another great exponent of teaching writing was Donald M. Murray.  A journalist, Murray was invited to teach journalism at the University of New Hampshire. He admittedly knew nothing about teaching, but was obviously an accomplished writer, having won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing in 1954 at the age of 29. So he looked to his own process as a writer and broke it down into the different stages he would go through to end up with a polished piece of writing.

One of Murray’s earliest books, Learning By Teaching, is a selection of articles on writing and teaching. It’s filled with examples of the steps he would go through as a writer, writing and rewriting to gain clarity; the stages of teaching he evolved through, from lecturer, to modeler, to facilitator, to getting out of the way; and quotes about writing by other writers. We used it as our textbook in a workshop to become writing facilitators. We learned how to conduct writing conferences to help students with their writing. The course taught me a lot about the craft of writing, the different stages, from pre-writing, to draft, to rewriting, editing, to final draft, and the teaching of it.

A comprehensive book on Murray and his work was published October 2009 by Heinemann: The Essential Don Murray: Lessons From America’s Greatest Writing Teacher. I love the opening quote from the book’s press release: New book offers lessons from writing teacher Don Murray. It affirms my son’s sentiment: “Be patient, listen quietly, the writing will come. The voice of the writing will tell you what to do.” — Don Murray.

Murray helped Donald Graves with his writing. Graves started a revolution by watching how young children wrote in school. He brought what he had learned from Murray into the classroom and taught teachers how to become writers themselves, then how to apply this approach with their students. Read this excellent article by Kimberly Swick Slover about Graves called The Write Way. It also mentions how Murray turned him into a writer. Same thing in this excellent video interview with Donald H. Graves and Penny Kittle.

Now creative writing classes are student-centered and process-oriented, with teachers openly modeling their own process as writers, and facilitating students to do the same, allowing and enabling them to become genuine writers, from draft to publication.

Although I never had the opportunity to meet or study with either Murray or Stafford, both were seminal influences. They acted as a guide from the side, not a sage from the stage. They taught about writing as writers and poets in classes, workshops, and through their articles, interviews, books and poems. I thank them for helping me, and thousands of other writers and teachers, to better understand the writing process.

Here is one of my first poems on the subject, Writing—a poem on the writing process. After the poem, I add a short piece about Murray and Stafford. I would share these poems and thoughts with Nathanael. It seemed to have gone deeply into him. Like father, like son.

Other inspiring posts about writing are: Writers on Writing–What Writing Means To Writers, Elizabeth Gilbert—Some Thoughts On Writing, and Words of Wisdom on Writing from Literary Lights. You may also enjoy Burghild Nina Holzer inspires us to write and discover who we are and what we have to say.

Also see A Tanka about my son’s Aikido teacher.


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