Posts Tagged ‘Poetry’

Talking about Meter

Meter has to be one of the hardest subjects to tackle in Creative Writing, and how you handle it can make or break your students’ experience of writing poetry. Some teachers probably ignore it altogether, which seems a shame, yet others quickly get into the weeds and make poetry seem complicated and impossible to write, which is another kind of shame that’s easy to do. In my textbook, A Writer’s Craft, I try to take a middle path by introducing concepts of meter and feet, but not stressing them too much. I also try to explain why it’s so complicated, which I’d like to get into in a little more detail here.

When working on the proofs for A Writer’s Craft, the editors wondered why I didn’t give a one-word example for pyrrhic, like I had for all the other feet. About the only example I could come up with is “uh-uh”, but even that could be pronounced differently, depending on the context. A pyrrhic foot has two unstressed syllables. But it’s impossible not to stress a syllable at all, so I like to say it has two less stressed syllables. Less than what? Less stressed than the other syllables that surround it.

In performance, I might pronounce “uh-uh”  with the accent on the first “uh” or the second “uh,” or I might pronounce them the same relative to the other stressed syllables around them. Any examples I find for the pyrrhic foot (or dibrach) can be viewed the same way, and most examples of the spondee (with two stressed syllables) are suspect: viewed in isolation, we probably stress one syllable of a pair more than the other, but in a sentence when surrounded by other unstressed syllables, the spondee stands out. (The word is a pretty good example of the foot, but whether you say SPONdee or sponDEE or SPONDEE may depend on your preference and the words in the sentence around it.) With no words around it, our example, “uh-uh,” might sound like a spondee (“UH-UH”), an iamb (“uh-UH”), a trochee (“UH-uh”), or a pyrrhic foot (“uh-uh”). The way you pronounce it may also affect the meaning. So I chose to leave the example blank.

Disclaimer: all of my examples of metrical feet in the textbook are a little misleading because they are words. Typically, when scanning a line of poetry, the feet in the line and the words in the line don’t match up. A word may have parts of a couple of feet in it, or a foot may be made up of more than one word. Often the foot starts in one word and ends in the next, and the next foot starts in that same word. Some polysyllabic words may even have parts of more than two feet in them.

Looking words up in the dictionary is only a partial help. The dictionary usually marks the strongest stress in the word, but when scanning poetry, relative stress is also taken into account, and sometimes there is a syllable in a polysyllabic word that has more stress than most syllables, even if it isn’t the most-stressed syllable in the word. “Polysyllabic” is a good example, since I would stress the first and the fourth syllables, though I would probably stress the fourth slightly more than the first. Syllables two, three, and five definitely have the least stress.

When looking for examples of metrical feet, I came across an example of a scanned poem by James Merrill that illustrates my point of how difficult and subjective it can be to  scan a poem. The example is at the OWL at Purdue, which I respect, so I don’t raise it to criticize them but to consider the challenges of scansion. For now, I’ll ignore the fact that the example poem, “A Downward Look,” is in free verse, so scanning it may be anathema. Their attempt, though often good, raises some issues. For instance, in the third line of the poem, they scan the word “luxurious” as having 4 syllables, which is true, but in performance it often sounds like 3 with the accent on the middle syllable. In the scanned line, OWL seems to end the line with an anapest (they don’t mark the divisions between feet, so it’s a little hard to tell). I’d probably call it an iamb with “ious” sounding more like “yus” than “ee-ous” and ending on the stressed syllable “bath.” The full line, scans well either way: “Foam on a long, luxurious bath” with one trochee and then 3 iambs or 2 iambs and an anapest, depending on your pronunciation. Both the trochee and the anapest would be acceptable variant feet in a mostly iambic line.

Another bothersome line is the first line of the third couplet, “Over the protuberances fault,” which OWL scans as having only 3 stresses: “OVer the proTUBerances FAULT.” The dictionary would agree that the most stressed syllable in “protuberance” is the second, yet it also notes a secondary stress on the last syllable. Scanning, “erances” as three unstressed syllables is problematic, since that’s rare. You could say this line contains a dactyl “OVer the” followed by an amphibrach “proTUBer” followed by an anapest “-ances FAULT.” But that would be a very muddy rhythm indeed, with no clear pattern and completely different from the rest of the poem. More likely is that the line falls into iambs after an initial dactyl “OVer the | proTUB | erANC| es FAULT.” The stresses aren’t all even, but they are all more stressed than the surrounding syllables. And if you wanted to scan it as a trochee followed by an anapest and then two iambs, there wouldn’t be much difference other than where you divide foot one from foot two.

There aren’t always hard and fast rules for scansion, in other words. You need to listen to the pattern of stress in the line, not only think about the stress in the words. And ideally, you begin to recognize a pattern of stress in the lines and stanzas of the poem, which will help you decide how hear the dominant rhythms and variant feet.

In this example, I would also hear two stresses in the word “radiates” of the fifth stanza, which makes that line a regular iambic line. And in the last line of the example “Happens upon the plug,” I would scan it as a trochee followed by two iambs, stressing the second syllable of “upon,” rather than the first as OWL does it. The dominate rhythm of the poem seems to be iambic, and there are a few alternate feet for variety or for effect. Usually there is only one alternate foot in a line or the difference isn’t very noticeable, such as an anapest in a mostly iambic line (which only adds an unstressed syllable).

What makes it a free verse poem, rather than a metrical poem, is that the line lengths vary  from three to five feet (trimeter, tetrameter, and pentameter lines) and there isn’t a consistent pattern. The fourth stanza is even one line, whereas the rest are couplets.

It may not make sense to scan a free verse poem, but doing so can illustrate that rhythm is important, even if there isn’t a meter. Free verse has patterns of rhythm, though they can be looser and less regular.

Introducing meter as something to listen for and learn about is worthwhile in the introductory classroom, but it’s important to stress that rhythm often varies by performance and virtually no poem in meter holds slavishly to the dominant foot. Most will include variant feet for variety or to better show the emotion in the line. This is one reason I introduce rhythm in an early chapter on language, and then look at meter again later when talking about poetry.

Scanning poetry is complicated and frustrating, but it can also be a good group activity where everyone can laugh at their own attempts to figure it out. I’ve had students clap, tap their desks, or even bring in percussion instruments to break the ice and help them recognize the more stressed syllables in a line. Make it a game, and acknowledge that there’s rarely one perfectly right answer. Even the experts can get it wrong, and poets rarely scan their poems — they listen. Develop an ear for meter, and you can ignore all the Greek terms and diacritical marks, and just enjoy the rhythms of language.

How I teach 4 Genres in 1 Semester, Part I

When I was at AWP talking about my new textbook, A Writer’s Craft, several people reacted with a question which usually amounted to the following: how can you possibly teach 4 genres in one semester? This usually came from someone who was used to teaching a 1- or 2-genre course, and I can relate to that initial shock. As I mentioned in my previous post, “Why 4 Genres?,” I started out teaching poetry and fiction together, and gradually added creative nonfiction and drama. In the beginning, I gave less time to those two step-children, but in recent years, I’ve tried to be more even-handed.

There is no one right approach to teaching creative writing for everyone, so what I do may not be perfect for you, but I thought I would try to lay out how I have learned to go about teaching 4 genres in one semester in case that will help. I figure it will take more than one blog post to do that justice, so this is Part I.

This part will be primarily about how A Writer’s Craft is structured, and how that helps me cover the material more efficiently. Part II will be about some alternative workshop strategies that help me handle larger class sizes (when I’ve had them) and get through the material more quickly while still giving students time to talk about their writing. Part III, if there is one, will be about anything I haven’t covered in the first two parts. So let’s see how it goes.

Cross-Genre Teaching

One of the main things that makes teaching creative writing in 4 genres interesting, fun, and more efficient than teaching the genres individually, is that you can see how each genre relates to and informs the others. In teaching multiple genres at the intro level, there is greater efficiency. Certain early chapters automatically relate to any genre. When we talk about the writing process, the process of finding inspiration, finding form, and revising until you have a final product, it doesn’t matter whether we are writing story (fiction or nonfiction), essay, poem, or drama. When we talk about image or the way creative writers use language differently than they do when writing essays, letters, or grocery lists, the genre of creative writing doesn’t matter. In fact, talking about the way poets do this helps fiction writers, and thinking of dramatists or novelists helps poets.

It’s not just that we don’t have to repeat those opening chapters in each successive course (Introduction to Fiction, Introduction to Poetry, etc.), but that seeing how different writers approach the same issues helps me cover all the genres in greater depth.

I didn’t come up with this approach on my own, of course. It was one of the qualities I most admired about The Creative Process by Carol Burke and Molly Best Tinsley, the first textbook I used, and it was a quality I looked for in every textbook I used or considered thereafter, though I never found one that was quite as even-handed and truly cross-genre as theirs (though it didn’t include drama).

In A Writer’s Craft, I’ve tried to make it more cross-genre, not less. The opening chapters on the writing process and working with language, image, memory, and the imagination are all very open to cross-genre work. At that point, I stress that writers often don’t know what form the final product will take, and maybe they shouldn’t try to decide too early, since a predetermined form can get in the way of an idea, especially when we’re not fully comfortable with that form. With practice, form can actually lead to new ideas, but that usually works better when we know the form inside and out and can use it as a generative device, not when we’re learning the form and trying to come up with an idea at the same time.

This approach carries over into the first chapters on finding form. When discussing character and point of view, I try to apply the concepts to all genres, not just fiction. Poetry has a dramatic moment and a speaker of the poem. A creative essay has a character, even if that is only the narrator’s voice. Drama considers point of view in how it’s presented, though it doesn’t usually have a narrator. Considering point of view from these angles, for instance, helps students make sense of an abstract concept and apply it to fiction better, too. I try not to leave any of the genres out of the discussion in the opening chapters, in other words, and this helps me to find new ways to think about and explain these issues of form.

Because I am concentrating on a cross-genre approach, this also helps me introduce some topics specific to one genre in the early chapters. For instance, in the chapter about language, I introduce the concept of rhyme and rhythm. I say we’ll bring this up again when we get to poetry, so I don’t talk in terms of rhyme schemes or meter, only in terms of how writers pay attention to the sounds and rhythms of their language. This helps me when I get to poetry because I don’t have to fight as many battles about end-rhyme. We can talk about what it is and compare it to internal rhyme, but it isn’t the thing that defines poetry. Meter is easier to discuss if writers have started to notice the rhythms of stress in their sentences before they have to memorize technical terms.

Similarly, talking  about dialogue in general terms when discussing character and voice, helps me when I get to the chapters on fiction and drama, where we cover some of the more technical ways of dealing with it, like how to print it on the page. Discussing the persona of a poem, helps when talking about the narrative voice in a personal essay later.

Even in the chapters on specific genres, I always include a section on what the genre can teach writers of other genres. What do fiction writers learn from poets or playwrights, what do poets or fiction writers learn from memoir or essay? In this way, these chapters build on one another, reinforce lessons learned in a previous chapter, and challenge writers to try new techniques learned from another genre.

Rather than viewing the four genres as separate beasts or even the only options for creative writers, I try to see how they are interrelated, and how they can be remixed and reconfigured in new, hybrid forms like the prose poem, flash fiction, kinetic poetry, or hypertext fiction, the mapped essay, creative gaming, etc. Genres are choices, and as you begin to make those choices, it affects the final form of what you write, but there are great advantages to knowing and learning from the forms of other genres, even if they aren’t the forms you gravitate to. Studying them together makes for a richer and more efficient discussion of them all, and that’s one way I’m able to teach all four in one semester.

Why 4 Genres?

In A Writer’s Craft, my textbook for introduction to creative writing

Talking to people at AWP about my forthcoming textbook, one question I get is why I teach an intro class with 4 genres. The other question is how I do it, which is a more involved answer, and something I hope to write about soon. “Why?” is a little easier to answer. It is something that has developed for me over time.

When I first started teaching at The W, there was one creative writing class, EN 312 Creative Writing. We still have this as our intro class today. There was also a rarely taught Seminar for Playwrights in theatre and a course with the lovely title Advanced Prose. I was happy to keep Creative Writing as a mixed genre course, and soon developed advanced workshops in poetry and fiction. This allowed me to justify teaching just poetry and fiction in the intro class. i felt nonfiction and playwriting could be handled elsewhere, even if the situation wasn’t ideal.

My textbook at the time, The Creative Process by Carole Burke and a Molly Best Tinsley, covered 3 genres. But I left out Creative Nonfiction and told students to take Advanced Prose, which we soon renamed Nonfiction Writing. Still, it began to bother me that I wasn’t covering one chapter in the book, and eventually I found ways to incorporate some Nonfiction as well. When I finally moved on to a new textbook, I had the same transition with drama, initially ignoring it because we had another class, and eventually experimenting with including some playwriting in my class. Now, though the emphasis isn’t exactly equal, I try to spend about as much time on all four genres, and I’ve found that it really helps my students.

Everyone in my class writes at least a short, early draft in each genre, and then develops finished pieces in the genres they choose. I do require some lyric and some story forms. Fiction writers learn from playwriting, as much as I always thought they would from poetry. Poets learn from drama and nonfiction, too. Having to think about how a scene or poem might be staged or spoken aloud affects how you see it in revision, even if the final product is poetry or fiction. Writing from life in creative nonfiction, or exploring the personal essay informs the fictional story or suggests structures and imagery for a poem.

And students have the opportunity to explore modes of writing that they never considered before. I’ve had very good, albeit beginning, playscripts, and I’ve had drama scenes that turn into a story or memoir or dramatic poem. Some fiction writers or poets have been turned on to memoir or essay. We now are revitalizing our playwriting class, in part because we have someone who can teach it more regularly, and in part because there is more interest. We can treat Nonfiction as more of a workshop class and less of an intro class. And each of the genres feed off each other more when they are introduced together. I’m happy that when we focus on poetry or Nonfiction, my fiction writers don’t feel left out because I treat it as part of a study of all genres that helps us learn from each the tools that can help us with our chosen genre, and I want students to not limit themselves to one.
I don’t feel that we have less time for fiction or poetry now that we include two more genres, in other words. I try to think in cross-genre ways and have more time for all the genres because we don’t study them as isolated things. When we do this, there are a lot of topics we can cover together about the writing process and even basic issues like character, voice, or point of víew. This is much more efficient than separate intro classes by genre, and it helps students find the genres they are actually good at instead of the ones they think they are good at (and I hope they add genres they like, not replace one with another).

Why 4 genres? Because it is challenging, rewarding, and fun to teach them together and learn things from each that can be applied to any genre.

20 Reasons to Write or Read a Poem (besides commemorating a life event or making a buck)

This is a follow-up to my last post, “Indeed, Why Poetry?” which was a response to Daniel Halpern’s essay, “A Few Questions for Poetry,” that began with the mother of all questions: “Why poetry?” I don’t mean to start an argument, but I thought I ought to offer a few more answers to that question and give a few examples. So here goes:

  1. Just for fun: consider the ludic forms like the limerick or light verse
  2. To poke fun at all the serious poets who worry that poetry is becoming extinct: read some Dada
  3. To get laid: if you can’t make a buck, write a sonnet
  4. To rant: sometimes poets just need to complain
  5. To struggle with your soul: try Dante, Petrarch, Milton to name a few
  6. To complain about not getting laid and then struggle with your soul: definitely Petrarch, maybe John Berryman, and about a million others
  7. To focus your mind: any meditative poetry (any poetry)
  8. To focus attention on something that usually goes unnoticed: haiku
  9. To explore language in new combinations and push meaning: L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poets, Surrealists, among many others.
  10. To make a political point: see e. e. cummings, Amiri Baraka, Poets Against the Vietnam War, etc.
  11. To praise a person, idea, or object: odes or elegies
  12. To save the planet: eco-poetry
  13. To come to terms with a work of art: ekphrastic poetry
  14. To celebrate being alive
  15. To contemplate death
  16. To celebrate and explore your culture or identity
  17. For the challenge of saying exactly what you meant to say in as few words as possible
  18. For the discovery of saying what you never expected to say
  19. Because you’re tired of inane tweets
  20. Because you have a typewriter, fresh ribbon, paper, and time on your hands

Thanks for that last one to the guy in the coffee shop in Orange City, Iowa, who wrote me an impromptu poem one morning a couple of summers ago. I’m cheating a little with that, since he did make a buck or two tip out of that deal, but I suspect he did it less for the money than to while away the time and to rise to the challenge of composing a decent poem on the spur of the moment. He also ran a poetry series, though we couldn’t stay in town for that, and if I remember right, he was involved with a small literary magazine or two. Once poets get the bug, the main answer to the question “Why poetry?” often seems to be “Because poetry.”

The list above is hardly exhaustive, and I suspect there are many more reasons to write or read a poem: as many as there are moments in a day, days in a life, and different experiences that fill those moments. There’s nothing wrong with using a poem to commemorate an important life event or even with trying to earn a few dollars writing poems. My point has been that to describe poetry only in those terms is to limit it, and that commercial success is the wrong criterion to use to judge its worth. Poetry is like eating or breathing. Most people don’t earn a living doing either activity, yet we could not live without them.

Poetry is serious and poetry is frivolous. It can be both simultaneously, and it can be so many other things. It can be written for any of the reasons listed above and more, or for any combination of reasons. So I will end with Halpern’s question: “Why poetry?”

I’ve given twenty answers — what are yours?

Indeed, Why Poetry?

A Response to Daniel Halpern’s “A Few Questions for Poetry”

On Dec. 30, 2016, Halpern published a defense of poetry in the New York Times. As often seems to be the case with these kinds of defenses, he raises some valid points while making a few troubling claims, not the smallest of which is the stance that poetry needs defending.

Halpern’s evidence for this is that poetry books don’t sell, though of course they do, just not enough to make most collections commercially viable. That’s not to say that every book of poems loses money, just that the profits in publishing poetry are extremely modest. Breaking even on a book of poems is an accomplishment. I should know. 2016 is the first year in a very long time that I will have earned a royalty check on a book—both my 3rd and my 2nd collections earned enough to warrant a small check this year.

Yet writing poetry is about much more than turning a profit, and it might be argued the absence of commercial success is part of what makes poetry so valuable. It’s hard to accuse a poet of selling out to make a buck, after all. Poets write because they love the form or because they have something to say, not because they can make a living at it. In fact, there are many poets from all walks of life who write in a myriad of styles. There may be more poetry produced today than ever before. So far from being near extinction, poetry may be thriving now more than ever.

This fact was driven home to me this year, when I took over editorship (along with my MFA students) of Poetry South. We were amazed, not only by the number, but the quality of the submissions, and by the experience of the poets who sent to our small rag. Many were poets with multiple books, and most were previously unknown to us. Because of this, one goal for the magazine in 2017 is to publish a list of recent and notable books, mostly by Southern poets. We’ve started a bookshelf at LibraryThing that also shows up on our site.

Halpern is at his best when he argues that poetry is still important because it fights against extinction, though the danger is not that poetry itself will become extinct, but rather that careful, precise, musical, ludic, thoughtful use of language might go the way of the dodo without poetry to keep it alive. The act of writing or reading a poem exercises the mind in ways even the best prose can only approximate (which is not to say there is less value in prose, only that it’s different). Poems are made of patterns of sound and sense. They focus our attention or confound our senses. They can be profound or ludicrous, yet they always challenge.

So I beg to differ when Halpern appears to relegate poetry to the task of commemoration at a funeral, wedding, or other important moment in our lives. To be fair, he does acknowledge other roles for poetry, but keeps coming back to commemoration as his touchstone. The existence of sites like Poetry Daily is evidence that poetry is for more than commemorating the important moments. It is also for the everyday moments.

One of my students has started a poetry open mic series in our small Southern town that has proven quite popular and spilled over into the neighboring town as well. I remember the early days of the Poetry Slam in Chicago when there was a similar energy for poetry (and still is). Poetry is not only published in books, but it is found in coffee shops, bars, magazines, on buses, bulletin boards, or online. So book sales should not be the primary evidence of poetry’s current state of health. Look at who’s writing and reading and listening to poetry, and you’ll find that it’s doing all right.

But certainly there’s nothing wrong with a good defense of poetry such as Halpern’s. I would agree that poetry could use even more readers and listeners. However, if in defending it, you box poetry into a corner and relegate it to a limited role like commemoration, then there might be something wrong with the defense. Or if you make it out to be near extinction, that could become a self-fulfilling prophecy.  I doubt either was Halpern’s intent, yet reading the defense made me wonder whether it is better to defend poetry or to celebrate it, to decry the lack of sales or to acknowledge the sheer number of practicing poets and readers of poetry, who clearly aren’t in it for the money.

Free Books!

To celebrate the launch of Barrier Island Suite, I’m trying the giveaway feature on Goodreads. 5 lucky winners will each receive a copy free — but it will take you longer to get yours, so why not buy one today! Books have started shipping from Texas A&M University Press Consortium.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Barrier Island Suite by Kendall Dunkelberg

Barrier Island Suite

by Kendall Dunkelberg

Giveaway ends May 04, 2016.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway


Barrier Island Suite Arrives

imageYesterday, I received advance copies of my new book, Barrier Island Suite: poems inspired by the life and art of Walter Inglis Anderson. What I nice thing to discover on my return from spring break in Chicago. While we were there, I read a couple of poems at the Green Mill Lounge, and talked to Marc Smith and Cin Salach about possibly coming back for the 30 year poetry slam reunion Marc is planning this summer. At the Mill, I could only read from my typed manuscript, but having hard copies of the book is just that much more satisfying!

While I was waiting for it to arrive, I’ve been busy planning a few events to celebrate its arrival. March 29, we will mark the official book launch on campus with a reading and signing in Puckett House from 5:00-6:30, and on April 1 (no fool), I will join alumnae authors at The W’s Homecoming Author Garden Party in the patio behind The W Room of Hogarth. I also have bookstore appearances lined up for Bay Books on April 9 and Square Books on April 25. See my new Calendar page for details on these and other events as I confirm those arrangements!