By: Patrick Johnson
My exposure to contemporary poetry before this semester has been… unfortunately limited, to put it mildly. I had been working on expanding my knowledge base in fiction, so poetry got shoved to the side. That, and I found the prospect of diving headlong into poetry mildly intimidating, as I hadn’t the slightest idea what to look for/at. The Best American anthologies were an option, but I didn’t want to start with those, since I doubted I would fully appreciate them without some sort of a knowledge base to inform my reading.
However, this semester I’m enrolled in a poetry workshop. I figured I should probably read some poetry so the stuff I wrote for class wouldn’t work their way into my nightmares later on. Upon a recommendation from one of my professors, I started with some James Tate. I was not entirely sure what made it poetry instead of flash fiction. However, I enjoyed it and thought it was good, so I didn’t particularly care. Since then, I’ve dabbled around. A bit of Richard Siken, some Alice Notley, some John Ashbery. Random stuff from The Paris Review and Poetry Foundation, as well as whatever happens to get assigned in class.
That said, having to go and actually write poems myself has done far more to increase my appreciation for them. For example, our class was given an assignment in which we had to write a sestina using 6 end-words from a list the class generated together and then randomly distributed. Before starting the assignment, I thought whoever invented the sestina (and the people who then used it enough to make it a recognized form) was crazy. Having written one myself, I could see how the pattern, particularly the repetition of using the last end-word of each stanza as the first end-word of the next, can be advantageous to the poem. And still also drive the writer crazy.
My professor, Nick Twemlow, has also emphasized specificity in poems—the use of distinct images/sensory details in particular. The more I read, the more I notice how the poems which stand out (like this one I wrote a commentary on for the class) benefit from calling to mind distinct events capable of communicating a range of emotions and implications succinctly (see the lines relating God to a firing squad).
Since I’m still exploring poetry, I generally don’t have to worry about critiquing various styles. I can look at poems, spend time trying to figure out what they’re intended to do, and appreciate them for how well they manage to succeed in their intended goal. Then, I can experiment with my own writing.
It’s actually kind of fun.