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Why We Shouldn’t Be Afraid of Poetry Tutorials May 8, 2012

“I want to look at a poem I’ve been working on.”  My writer uttered these words at the beginning of a tutorial last week, and the phrase filled me with fear and anxiety immediately.  I am an English student, to be sure, and maybe that’s why she chose to make an appointment with me – but I study English literature!  I don’t write short stories or poems, I don’t workshop, and the whole business of creative writing remains mysterious and somewhat awe-inspiring to me.  I’ve heard of “those that don’t write, teach,” but when you’ve been writing mostly blog posts and the odd formalist analysis of a 19th century novel, it’s hard to know what to say.  I wondered what I could possibly offer this student, but to my surprise, I found plenty to say (as did she).  The appointment was fun, informative, and refreshingly relaxed.  As a writer (and not a poet) I may not have had much to offer, but as an engaged reader, I was able to offer insights to this struggling writer.

The writer assured me that this was an ongoing project; that she had some commentary from her professor and another poem he provided for comparison; that she was unsure where to go next, and just wanted some possible direction.  All of these comments and concerns were familiar to me – what was this?  I thought tutoring a poetry assignment would be full of high-toned discourse about art and beauty, not the worries of a struggling writer that sounded awfully similar to the concerns someone might have with a biology report or a compare/contrast analysis.  She read the poem aloud (again, something familiar for me) and then voiced some concerns that she had with the piece.  Something to keep in mind with poetry, I quickly realized, was the multiplicity of elements in the work that I could address and question with the writer.

First of all, the ideas.  This might seem obvious; when we look at a work, we look at the ideas.  However, a lot of people think of poetry and assume that these are the innermost thoughts of the writer’s soul (or something along those lines) and might shy away from asking.  This writer’s poem had a lot of images and concepts but I couldn’t see the throughline – so I asked.  Turns out, she had a very clear idea of what she wanted the poem to get across to the reader, and the feeling she wanted to communicate.  Her poem had a speaker (despite the lack of first-person language in the piece), a setting, a mood and tone.  So we talked about how she could prioritize and focus all of those images into a couple of different narratives within the poem, and emphasize the concepts she wanted to work with.

This writer’s work was also heavily dependent on sound – assonance, internal rhyme, and just a sort of rhythm that tripped over a multitude of small details.  I loved the rhythm of the piece, and told her so, and we talked about how she could preserve rhythm AND make her ideas more potent.  As with any other appointment, we talked about eliminating the unnecessary and punching up the crucial elements in her piece.  In this case, though, there was an even stronger concern for the language and word choice because each word is essential to the whole.  I wasn’t used to thinking about words on the micro-level in this way, having worked mostly with academic essays in my own career, but we really had to consider each word.  I also questioned contradictory phrases, as I like to do in most tutorials, but here the contradictory was not necessarily bad.  We had an entirely different conversation about how paradox might serve her larger point, rather than where it should be eliminated.

Poetry tutorials, it turns out, were not so scary!  As readers, we sometimes encounter a creative writing piece and find ourselves wondering “why” about different formal elements of a piece.  What does this phrase mean to the writer?  Why did they choose to phrase it in this way?  Here, it turns out, was my opportunity to act on this impulse and get the author’s side of the story.  Following this instinct in a tutorial (especially a poetry tutorial) led to some interesting conversations with the writer, and she felt encouraged to explore her own motives when I pointed out a possible inconsistency or just something that I was unclear about.  Moreover, being able to talk with a writer about ideas and abstraction, rather than theses and citation, was liberating.  Traditional techniques are, of course, still helpful, but the context of the poetry tutorial offered entirely new ways to discuss writing.


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