Tuesday, February 15, 2011

What We Run On When We Run About Poeting

There was a time when I loved long-distance running. I would head out with no real route in mind and just jog along; staring out at the world, knowing my eventual destination would be familiar, that somehow it would be where I started, in the bosoms of something I knew. Then came a time when I hated long-distance running: I had just started boarding school and a coach, stunned that someone as tiny as I was had the stamina to complete the cross-country course, decided to focus on making me faster. He wouldn't let me daydream along; he wanted me to focus on my strides, my breathing pattern, the consistency of my pace. With all that emphasis on the technical, the joy just went out of it for me. I stopped running.

Years later, I picked it up again with a group of work colleagues – we would just chat as we did a lunchtime run, no talk of breathing patterns, just a leisurely run a run for the feeling of running, a run to experience the beauty of the fields around us. In time, I did learn about breathing/stride patterns, but it was after I had improved my times dramatically just enjoying myself and wanted to understand how that had happened.

My experience with poetry has been similar: love, hate and back to love. And the reason why I relate it to running is the notion of feeling. Writing and printing has, with time, moderated our receiving of poetry through the abstraction of text rather than directly through sound, and that has in turn led to a shift of focus from feeling-first to technique-first. I believe that the feeling should come first, and the exploration of how we feel should lead our study and teaching. Haruki Murakami, in his book about running (with a very similar title to this piece, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, which he in turn adapted from Raymond Carver) said that he learned "practical, physical lessons" during the act of running, that running heightened his receptivity to landscapes and shifts in weather patterns. Poetry is similar, in that it CAN heighten our awareness of emotional shifts, the oft-missed nuances of human interaction with the world. Its joys lie in its ability to make us engage with detail, to take the small and magnify it. Poetry works in tandem with its environment and that environment includes the reader. Just as the sensation of running is strongly linked to the world around the runner, so the experience of a poem is linked to the world around the reader. It is so important to remember that.

Words are triggers and carry meanings well beyond the scope of the dictionary. A reader or listener who has lost someone close to them whose favourite word was 'blossom' will react very differently to an encounter with the word in a poem than someone who does not have that personal history. This indefinable human element is one of the key reasons why we have to let each person develop their own relationship with a poem before introducing any analysis or technical exploration. Beyond text there is sound, and the internet offers us a unique opportunity to bring poems alive by playing videos of poets reading their own work – allowing comparisons between performance and representation on the page. More importantly, it is another way to experience poetry, to engage with the feelings that poetry evokes. Gwendolyn Brooks' poem 'We Real Cool' is a short but very good example of how a poet's reading can change the feel of a poem. Looking at the text below, it's hard to tell where her emphasis will be, but when it is heard (link here), the strong emphasis on the 'we' at the end of each line, gives the lines the edge and 'attitude' of their inspiration – a pool hall.

We real cool. We

Left school. We

Lurk late. We

Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We

Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We

Die soon.

Coming back to the central idea of feeling (which is what I run on when I run about 'poeting'), I would like to touch a little on the concept of ownership in the learning process. By using inclusive learning approaches, it is possible to get students much more enthusiastic about the learning of poetry. It is also important to retain lightness in the approach since poems, after all, are little bubbles of wordplay. For example, I often muddle up poems of great technical accomplishment and then ask my students to reconstruct them according to their own experience of the text. What I get back is very different versions, but with each person able to articulate why they have structured the text as they have. However, the trick is I am able to share with them at the same time, why the original writer's structure works. The example below is an extract from 'Facing It' by American poet, Yusef Komunyakaa: first a version without broken lines and then the poet's version.

My black face fades, hiding inside the black granite. I said I wouldn't, dammit: No tears. I'm stone. I'm flesh. My clouded reflection eyes me like a bird of prey, the profile of night slanted against morning. I turn this way--the stone lets me go. I turn that way--I'm inside the Vietnam Veterans Memorial again, depending on the light to make a difference.

My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite

I said I wouldn't,

dammit: No tears.

I'm stone. I'm flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me

like a bird of prey, the profile of night

slanted against morning. I turn

this way--the stone lets me go.

I turn that way--I'm inside

the Vietnam Veterans Memorial

again, depending on the light

to make a difference.

In the poet's version, we can tell – especially in the highlighted sections – how important the breaking of the lines in the poem is to add nuance to each segment. You also sense, by reading out loud, how the breaks affect pacing, and thus mood. A similar exercise with Tina Chang's 'Duality' (link here) shows the effect of stanza breaks, and by changing the length of lines, subtle changes in mood can be felt when reading both Yusef's poem (above) and Tina's poem (link here). Engaging in these discussions allow a great deal of poetic technique to be discussed in an inclusive manner, with everyone contributing, but also it gives us the material to use in accented notes.

I like to encourage my students to make two columns of notes – one representing accepted critical opinions on the work and another column of supplementary notes representing the opinions of themselves and their peers, which I encourage them to use to personalise any responses that they might have to offer on the poem – underlining the fact that with material as subjective as poetry, every opinion counts as long as it can be backed up with a reason. Those personalised additions become their accent on the work.

In rounding up my thoughts I am compelled to refer to childhood. Watching a child learn language is probably the best instruction of what engaging with poetry should be like; it may take ages for the meaning to become clear to us, but it should not stop us enjoying it. Children begin to use words that they like the sound of long before the meanings become clear to them, and they create beautiful juxtapositions by doing so. It also means that we can engage them with what seems like nonsense poetry and they will make their own sense of it, whereas an adult might seek to draw a specific meaning from the work. This search for meaning is what our educational systems teach us to do, so in a way I guess I am suggesting that the teaching of poetry must be, to some degree, counter-curricular i.e. while the choice of work can be curriculum-led, the teaching of it must deviate from the obsession with logic and fact. Indeed, one of our leading contemporary poets, Don Paterson remarked on this in a recent article in the Guardian discussing his re-reading of Shakespeare's sonnets. He makes a distinction between a 'primary' and 'secondary' (the analytical kind we tend to do in school) reading of poetry, saying:

"a primary reading doesn't have to articulate its findings. It engages with the poem directly, as a piece of trustworthy human discourse – which doesn't sound too revolutionary, but the truth is that many readers don't feel like that about poetry any more, and often start with: "But what does it all mean?" on the assumption that "that's how you read poetry".

Essentially, raw enthusiasm – what we should run on when we run about poeting – has been lost.

I often think that the moment we stop running in corridors is the moment we need to make a conscious effort not to be too analytical when we first encounter a poem. There is something about that abandon, the possibility of bumping into someone, the acute alertness that aids us if we have to swerve or stop suddenly, that contains all the breathless quests that poetry emerges from. The human and the environment, the traveller and the land, the lover and the terrain of sentiment, the child and the family tree – we must run through it all with no harness, no fear. Poetry is an act of faith.

© Nii Ayikwei Parkes

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