Wednesday, January 27, 2016


I drafted a poem that appeared, first, in the guise of a Chinese-influenced nature lyric. It contained familiar imagery (moon, trees) and a quiet first-person speaker. The pacing was patient but focused; the draft flowed modestly toward its delta.

I reread the draft, sighed, fidgeted, sighed, and noted a rising urge to upset this peaceable project. From the air I snatched a title: "John Doe's Suicide Note." Instantly the gentle lyric transformed itself into a compressed portrait of anxiety and dread.

The power of titles: Browning's "My Last Duchess," Plath's "Death & Co.," Frost's "Too Anxious for Rivers" . . . if I pause too long to pore over my books for examples, I will never finish this note to you.

The point is: I frightened myself when I saw what I had done. And then I spent the rest of the afternoon sharpening the poem so that it would frighten you too. Perhaps that reaction synthesizes the core difference between inspiration and revision.


Carlene said...

You have hit upon one of the lessons I try to impart to my students: titles do immense work, much of the time. As lines selected out of context often do, titles can form and inform the reader in ways that the rest of the poem crucially needs in order for it to surprise, delight, and --yes--frighten. Poems like Heaney's "Midterm Break" for example; the title sets up a pleasant idea, and then the poem gradually, and inexorably, brings us to shock and sadness. Frost's "For Once, Then Something," as a title, makes me ponder the "once" and the poem impels me further into that contemplation.

I wonder if it might be a really good student writing exercise to title/retitle/guess titles? Perhaps. And then...we get the whole using the title as the first line...and the number assigned to the poem instead of a title, and the misdirection of titles (Sonnets from the Portuguese? Really?)


Dawn Potter said...

I don't know how I feel about the retitle exercise. In some ways, I think it's dangerous for students to rewrite other people's poems. Rather than pondering the work as it is, they are prompted to jump quickly to editing. Of course they do need to learn to edit too, but isn't there also the danger of snap judgments, self-satisfactions, lack of patience for other people's choices? I know that these are dangers for teachers as well . . . big dangers. I've been guilty of making such errors many a time.

Carlene said...

I agree about the rewriting of poems. What I (most likely poorly) was suggesting is that it's interesting to play the "what if" game with just titles. If only to show the importance of the title, I guess, would be the aim. Kind of like when we try to ascertain what is the most important word, and be able to explain why we think so, we can also really focus on title. I'm probably still making a mess of this!

At any rate, as long as we--and students--are truly engaged in the "how is this done" part of poetry, we can at least appreciate the choices and decision making that go into creating art that seeks to communicate something eternally human in all of us.

Dawn Potter said...

You're a master teacher, Carlene, and I completely trust your instincts here. My discomfort arose from a recent interaction with a college undergraduate who was clearly itching to tell Robert Frost exactly what was wrong with the poem we were discussing. I love young writers/readers who are adventurous and brash, but the flip side of those characteristics (as every parent of teenagers knows) is a tendency to dismiss older, less dramatic, or more ambiguous approaches. In this case there was also, I think, a certain adversarial gender element in play. As a woman who's spent her life engaging with the works of male writers, I am extremely sympathetic to such urges. Yet even though they are necessary, they risk narrowing our vision. My hope, always, is to lead students into more complicated relationships with literature of the past.