Writing a Poem by Not Writing a Poem

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In the introductory creative writing course I teach, we spend the first half of the semester reading and writing fiction, and turn to poetry for the second half. This transition often provokes some anxiety. Many of my students have never written poetry before, and some have read very little—they come to the course with the assumption that poetry is highbrow and intimidating, and are cowed by the expectation that they will soon be writing their own.

I do several things to demystify poetry—insofar as it can and should be demystified!—early on. We read lots of contemporary poems, so that students can hear voices that echo their own with regard to syntax and diction. We talk about the lessons covered in the fiction unit that carry over into poetry, and into all creative writing, things they already know to do, and do well—striving for detail, imagery, and nuance, avoiding the heavy-handed ending, establishing a compelling voice, etc.  And we do daily writing exercises to keep the writing brain limber and to alleviate that initial fear that can come with staring at a blank page and knowing you’ve got to, somehow, put a poem on it. If we do small bits of writing every day, then that blank page becomes familiar—a friend, or at least an only-moderately-irritating acquaintance.

I kick off the poetry unit with one of my favorite exercises—it’s simple, but its simplicity is its key. I tell students that they’re going to be going outside for the next ten minutes. (I do this regardless of weather; some classes luck out with a 75 degree sun-filled day, but this fall found my students grumbling out into a chilly, heavy mist. I told them that great poems have been written about hardship.) While out there, they’re to do two tasks. First, I ask them to make note of three things they think no one else will notice—a line of ants streaming from a trashcan, a mismatched hubcap on a Honda in the nearby lot. And I ask them to write down the following beginnings of sentences:

The sky looks like:

The air feels like:

The day smells like:

Your task, I tell them, is to complete these sentences with something utterly true. Do not worry about being “poetic.” You’re not writing a poem; you’re just observing. Maybe the sky looks like a bag of dirty cotton balls. Not pretty, but accurate, and accuracy is your goal. Pay close attention and report back. Don’t be afraid to get a little weird—often the truest things are a little weird.

When the students come back in, I ask everyone to share what they’ve observed, and to read what they’ve written. The results are wonderfully specific and intriguing: I saw where a dog had left a paw print in wet cement. I saw a girl roll her eyes while talking on her phone. The air feels like a wet fur coat. The day smells like cigarettes and gingko berries. By being consciously observant, and by removing the pressure to Write a Poem, students hook into sharp details that are original and evocative. The exercise also helps students to let go of the urge to explain or editorialize their observations. Because the assignment is simply to notice and report, not to write a poem, no one is tempted to dilute a great image with commentary.

This exercise then leads us into a discussion of what subjects and words are suitable for poetry, how a strong image can usually stand on its own, and how cigarettes and asphalt and the leaf-clogged gutter—these specific, sensory, evocative, wonderfully common things—can be the most compelling parts of the world. The lesson I want them to take from the exercise and subsequent discussion is this: Don’t let the idea of writing a poem get in the way of writing a poem.

[[This post originally appeared on LitBits on 11/22/11.]]

About the Author
Catherine Pierce is the author of two books of poetry, The Girls of Peculiar (Saturnalia 2012) and Famous Last Words (Saturnalia 2008), as well as of a chapbook, Animals of Habit (Kent State 2004). Her poems have appeared in The Best American Poetry, Slate, Boston Review, Ploughshares, FIELD, and elsewhere. She co-directs the creative writing program at Mississippi State University.