Hi. It’s Tuesday as you read this but I’m writing on Monday. I’ve eaten 1.5 English muffins and drank countless cups of ginger tea. Rusty water sputtered out of my kitchen tap on Thursday and then I spent most of the weekend dehydrated, avoiding the scary orange water, Sochi Olympics style. Boiling it for tea somehow seemed like a compromise today. Since it’s President’s Day I’ve been curled on my couch, prepping for my English 101 classes this week while glancing out the window, watching the snow blot out the buildings.
I’ve been writing a sample introductory paragraph and body paragraph for my students to identify the structural elements and model them in their own essays. I spend a lot of time conveying to them that I’m never looking for correct answers, that interpretation is various, and that I hope to learn from them in each class. But then I also have to make sure they can organize their paragraphs to coherently convey their arguments. Which means I don’t make it mandatory that they use templates, but I strongly encourage it for their first few papers. And my hope in making these sample paragraphs—which relate to a recent article they read but not the one they’re currently writing about—is that we can walk through them together and discuss what each sentence contributes and how the order affects the reader. And they can start to build more fluidity and connective tissue in their paragraphs. To substantiate the ideas I hope they genuinely care about.
So much of teaching poetry seems to be about enabling students to break down and reconfigure language in new ways. To dissolve templates and restrictive formulas that expectations of language can trap us in. How to embrace ambiguity. In teaching English 101, I’ve struggled philosophically with how to encourage specific structures and not feel like I’m facilitating the architecture of those very traps. Through this struggle, I think I’ve actually become less angry at language’s potential to silence. I work with these students to understand for the first time the difference between a thesis statement and a personal opinion; why a specific example is more persuasive than a list of hypothetical generalizations. My students tend to come to English 101 not yet feeling like intellectual citizens. And when they pass English 101, I think it’s important that they not only feel more connected to the critical process of reading and the potential to clearly express themselves, but that they can continue to question these articulations. In a sense, that revision is a mode of being in the world. And perpetually questioning and revising one’s thoughts is not a sign of weakness (of being “incorrect”), but of openness.
This might be a good example for my students of digression. Let’s get to it:
Day 2 Journal: inter|rupture
inter|rupture: publishes poetry 3 times a year. The current issue features 1-2 poems per contributor. On the one hand, it leaves you wanting more. On the other, it’s a good sampling and bios can direct you to more of their work if you like what you read. The format is crisp and easy to navigate and the poems seem short, though eclectic. Just from quickly clicking from poem to poem, you can see the varied line lengths and stanza formations, not to mention content. Go explore.
Day 2 Poetry Spotlight: Tina Brown Celona
Celona has one poem titled “He Had Never Had a Fine Time of Anything.” Here it is:
He Had Never Had a Fine Time of Anything
I have space around me
but inside it is a screaming wind tunnel
of bluish babies
and zinc counters
with candied squash seeds
in small square dishes
I try not to notice
that my hair is growing white
before I have learned to walk
the allure of the nineteenth century
of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries
of the early twentieth century
the appeal of the 1920s
the objective method in the novel
all these are relevant
I haven’t got a theory
structure imposed on a medium
a chalkboard and the periodic table
the Musee des Beaux-Arts
the Victorian couple on holiday
the architect slipping
away through the fog
under carriage wheels
and horses hooves trampled
Day 2 Brief Thoughts
Celona’s poems work through the history of literature and theory via her own body and her personal history of anxiety and love. Her books, The Real Moon of Poetry and Other Poems and Snip! Snip! heave with the very acts of these knowledge acquisitions. Her poems generate meta-didactic meditations that reveal a level of vulnerability and candidness I admire, that I can hardly attain in my daily life. And these reveals are coupled with an incessant questioning that never allows us to rest. She asks, “Where is the lie? in the poem / or in behavior.” So now on to her new poem:
The first two lines create boundaries that immediately seem confused. The speaker claims there is space—but what kind? Space for what? This external room is interrupted: “but inside it is a screaming wind tunnel.” Inside what? The speaker’s house? Brain? Whatever this inside is, it’s loud and cluttered. Haunting images of bluish babies spin around with typical domestic items that could be found on a kitchen or coffee table. This stanza unnerves me because it captures how easily we misperceive a calmness in the cleanliness or ordered objects when we enter someone else’s house. Or the misperception of stability we assume when we see someone who presents as put together. Delicately placed offerings like candied squash seeds rocked by emotional tremors. That screaming wind tunnel, that is the internal monologue that envelopes us, which we can never fully share. The messages we send ourselves that turn our hair white or the ways in which we distract and obsess ourselves to circumvent the “notice.” A metaphor for subjectivity.
The verb tense of the second stanza also jars me, “before I have learned to walk.” I expect the “have” to be “had,” in that I assumed the speaker can currently walk. The “have” throws the poem into perpetual learning, which juxtaposes the following list of quarantined literary eras: “the allure of the nineteenth century /of the eighteenth and seventeenth centuries / of the early twentieth century / the appeal of the 1920s / the objective method in the novel.” These are sectioned off, contained for easy reference in school and in criticism. Arbitrary historical designations superimposed on the messiness of life. And the suggestion of the overwhelmingness and weight of all that history and tradition making it challenging to confidently “walk.”
In this poem, though, nothing can be sectioned off for long— categorization and hierarchy are replaced by a feeling without a theory, “all these are relevant / I haven’t got a theory.” With the “got,” the last line is candid, colloquial. Yet, there is always something slightly detached or unknowable even when the “I” manifests. For instance, while the I opens up, we’re still left to wonder how or why these literary periods are “relevant.” And since relevance changes person to person (or lyric I to lyric I), maybe the theory shouldn’t be static. Instead, these eras can be felt, they can be got, without a theory.
Temporal organization of literature segues into the physical. The third stanza begins with “structure imposed on a medium” and the drops us into “a chalkboard and the periodic table.” Slate and a tabular arrangement of chemical elements remind us of the convenient yet often arbitrarily organization of that the way we see and use things. Like this poem’s structure is an chance 8-line stanza repeated; the form determines the way the content will be apprehended, and—to some degree—what the content will be; like subjectivity determines the experience and thus, the poem.
At the same time, through Celona’s poem, which references John Galsworthy’s novel titled The Man of Property (1906), the structure of the novel is itself collapsed and re-appropriated in another medium. In this last stanza, the very constitution of a man implodes along with expected syntax as the architect (someone who typically imposes structure on a medium) slips into the fog (a medium blotting out everything) is mangled under a carriage, “and horses hooves trampled.” The syntax allows us to read it as the horse hooves, too, are being trampled along with the man. In a way, this mash of bodies and movements becomes the frenetic wind tunnel and the follicle of white hair. Nothing is calm. And why should it be?
Day 2 Poetry Exercise:
1) Find the oldest non-poetry book on your shelf. Open to a random page and select a line. This will be the title of your poem.
2) Select 5 items in your house that interest you. Write them down. Then, translate them into loose metaphors. For instance, I could select a black bobby pin as my item and then translate it into “a lost mustache” or “a black matchstick.” Cross off the original items and keep the metaphors/new images.
3) Make a list of 5 things you “try not to notice” or think about.
4) Re-open the book. Open to a random page and select 5 words from that page of your choosing.
5) Weave these metaphors/images, lists, and words into a poem. Think about how you it relates to the title. You are welcome to add whatever additional phrases you want in order or this poem to feel complete. Share it with me!