A poet I always return to the way I might return to a baseball field in spring to watch a good high school outfielder is Robert Francis. Francis is a poet of small triumphs, which is to say, beauty. He notices the thing before him and renders it without his own ego getting in the way. Nothing in the natural world is fodder for his "significant" ideas. At the same time, unlike Haiku junkies who affirm the elephant shadow of their egos by always making sure they are not "there," Francis is not about to abdicate his intelligence, his ability to manipulate, to judge, to express reasoned apraisal. If there is a greater ontology to the outfielder (the brevity of his youth), or to the Lilac bush (its proximity to ruin) he trusts that this ontology will be brought out best by attending to the surfaces. I tell my students: surface becomes intereior. If you have to look for an ontology or meaning below the surfaces, then I suggest you are treating the world around you the way certain guys in my neighborhood treated others who could not pay the vig: you are beating the bushes for "meaning" the bushes might not contain. You are treating the details as wage slaves, and since you don't care for those details except that they "convey"your "truths," they will not have the accuracy to do the work you want them to do.
Francis remains a "minor" poet in the best sense: not lesser, but minor, a poet of small triumphs, a poet whose work at its best makes Robert Frost sound a little over-the-top, who makes Galway and Donald seem just a bit fat and sloppy by comparison.
All great poets are galaxies of minor poets with the addition of gravitas. Their poems are neccessasry. A great minor poem never traffics in the neccessary. No one asks of beauty that it be significant. Beauty humbles significance. At worst, this can lead to shallowness. At best, it can lead to the remarkable play of light and dapple and shade that shallowness confers: the mountain stream, the dazzle of quick light on rocks.
I bring out Francis whenever students think they have original ideas. I tell them "original ideas" is always an oxymoron. Poets write as much from their stupidity as from their intelligence, but I must define stupidity here: all that can halt the smugness of an idea, suspend the smug certainty of the idea, and plot for the fluidity of thought. A person who already "knows" has lost the scholarship of his stupidity. To study what we already know is to review at best. At worst, it is vain redundancy. What is it in the thing we know that still ceases our imagination, that makes us "stupid" with pleasure? Francis is a poet who makes me stupid with pleasure, so I am going to place one of his small gems here, and then see if I can come up with a prompt that goes with it:
Time and the Sergeant
To take us in, bully and bawl us
Out was his official
And he was beautifully built for it,
That buffed brass hair, that
And those magnificent legs on which
He rocked he rocked. He never
bent a knee.
How is the anal oriented humor now?
Fresh and exuberant
Or has Old Bastard Time touched
Even you, Sergeant,
First, unlike free verse writers who use tercets merely to make a poem look neat and pleasant, Francis' tercets are justified. The word pleasure isolated on its own line in the first tercet tips us off that Francis knows English still carries a charge of durational as well as accentual sound. Pleasure is drawn out enough to be on its own line, and it is the plosive of the B sounds realized (P's and B's are plosives). Notice what he is doing with the B sounds. They get less emphatic, weaker as the poem goes on. The sound aids and abets the meaning because time has done the same thing to the vibrant sergeant. There are three plosives in the first stanza, all on the first syllable of the words. There are six in the second, all except one in the initial syllable. In the third tercet, there is only one---"bent." In the fourth tercet, the plosive has faded to tertiary placement in the third syllable (exuberant). In the final tercet, only the word bastard aptly carries the charge of the plosive. This might not have been conscius, but craft, practiced over the years, becomes muscle memory. He knows what he is doing even if he is not fully conscious of it. The T sounds are also doing great service to the poem. Its theme is an old war horse: how time diminishes, the same theme of transience as in "A Shropshire Athlete Dying Young." So what? The execution of this old trope is magnificent, and the sergeant has been brought to life by the B and T sounds as much as by anything else. So here's the prompt:
Take a common trope of poetry: how time diminishes, or sieze the day (Carpe Diem) or how we don't know what we got till it's gone, and yoke it to a single figure who represents it. Make a portrait of some vivid character, and aid and abet that portrait by sound threads. Francis uses the B sounds. Think what consonant sound you can thread through the poem to do the work for you. Justify the stanzaic structures, which is more than just a spatial neatness, so that it aids the meaning of the poem. Try tercets or couplets, or whatever will suffice, but don't let it be what Paul Fussel called "false form." Let the consonant sounds you have picked diminish or increase through out the poem, depending on how it aids the sense. Look how Francis creates the effect of incredulity: "Even you?" Try something like that in the poem. Good luck.