From the Intern Desk: The Value of Structure and Creativity in Poetry
by Isabelle Parker
In the spring of my freshman year at Bennington, I decided to take two very different poetry courses with the same teacher, Michael Dumanis. One was called Dada and Surrealism, the other was Art of the Sonnet. Right off the bat, you can tell that one would be all about imagination and experimentation, and the other about rigidity and structure. So what drew me towards these two very different classes?
The Dada and Surrealism class appealed already to my sense for poetic detail, for beauty, lush description and imagination in my writing. I wanted to exercise this poetic muscle of mine so my work could really shine with life on the page, the way poetry by Rita Dove or Sonia Sanchez does. Dada sounded experimental; Surrealism sounded like the stuff of dreams to me.
On the other hand, when I looked at the course description for Art of the Sonnet, I remembered something (besides the enticing promise of weekly creative assignments) that pulled me back, again and again, to the idea of taking that class. In the description, the teacher had quoted writer Laynie Brown in saying that sonnets were “a controlled measure of sound and space within which one can do anything. An invitation.” According to her, sonnets were not rigid, restricted by form, meter and rhyme scheme but simply a little box of space where anything can go inside. That certainly sounded freeing, and I had never really used any sort of structure in my poetry before. I decided to give both classes a shot.
I remember sitting in the first day of that sonnet class, wondering what I was in for. Yes, in time we were given packets of 17th Century Sonnets to read, and from there we would immerse ourselves in the words of Shakespeare, Wyatt, and Petrarch—but on that first day of class, Michael introduced us to the magic of word-music, of what you could do in the space of a syllable, a meter, a few lines. I was fascinated with all the ways one could stress and unstress words, and what effect that would have on the language. Iambs, for instance, placed stress on the second syllable of a word (or the second part of a foot in a line), and stringing them together would gallop the language: Because today the sky is blue. Trochees, however, would place the stress up front, putting a front-loaded force into a sentence (Everything is going great!). And if you wanted to experiment with three syllables instead of two, the sounds would vary greatly depending on where the stress went. With amphibrachs (middle-stressed), the stresses could happen anywhere: Accepted/ regardless/of what com/prehended. Dactyls, on the other hand, brought light-hearted childish phrases to mind, with words like underwear, jungle gym and flattery.
Armed with this knowledge, language became my experiment. What would happen if I mixed up different kinds of stresses in a line, and what effect would changing the meter length of that line have on how it sounded and looked? Over the course of the class I learned that the elements of the sonnet did not mean to butt heads with you or build a wall over the creativity of your writing, but rather, they simply gave you a 14-line-shaped box, in which you were invited (and constructively challenged) to pour in anything you wished, with as much or as little attention to rhyme scheme, rhythm and meter as you desired. Perfection here was hard: not every line was able to work itself into exact iambic pentameter, and sometimes slant rhymes worked well where exact rhymes would have sounded forced. This was ok. In experimenting with this box and these rules, I learned how to dissect my language and see how every part of every word mattered. If a line was too long for a pentameter, I’d try to cut something down—a syllable here or there—or I’d try to replace a long word with a shorter one that would serve its place. Bit by bit, we were all pushing ourselves towards succinctness and honesty in our writing, and it was refreshing.
Dada and Surrealism, as it turned out, didn’t have us work with language insomuch as it had us work with, and learn about, ideas. We studied the art movements of early 20th century Europe, seeing how artists like Andre Breton, Filippo Marinetti, Tristan Tzara and others all came up with their own rules and perspectives for creative expression and ran with them. Their ideas (often mapped out in lengthy, self-important manifestos) were fascinating: how does one write about the mighty promise of technology and the future? What happens when you decided to go against all other art movements, and make a movement out of chaos and gibberish? What do you get when your creativity stems from your unconscious, your imagination, and your ability to draw different, disparate things together in order to create a new world?
This last idea, which is rooted in Surrealism, inspired me the most. Michael often described the movement, which used techniques like chance methods and freewriting to express itself, with a quote from Isidore Ducasse. To him, Surrealism was "the chance meeting on a dissecting-table of a sewing-machine and an umbrella." In other words, Surrealism gave you the opportunity to mix together anything from your mind’s reality you could dream of, in order to create a new surreality: a new dream-world of anything, horrible or beautiful, could be conjured from your mind and entered. With all of these ideas and all of the amazing works we read from Andre Breton, Robert Desnos, Apollinaire and many others, I began to conceive of creativity as a limitless white geometric plane, in which anything could float around and combine. Within this white space things could fade away, come into focus, expand, repeat themselves, multiply, metamorphose, do anything. There were limitless ways to fill this physics-defying plane—maybe the resulting world would look like the sun hatching from an egg, a rainstorm of snowflakes and cigarettes, or an image of a man literally rooted in his seat, his limbs becoming trees and his body festering with fungus and animals. Whatever dwelled under the surface of our imaginations, we learned to pull out.
In both classes, Michael had us not only read works by a multitude of writers, but often had us write mimetic poems that let us emulate their styles and techniques. We would always workshop these poems in class, which—along with actually writing so frequently for these assignments in the first place—helped improve my writing immensely. I was not only challenged to make every word count in a short amount of space (and to experiment with the musicality of language), but I gained an appreciation for the vividness and power of imagery, description, and the imagination. Here’s what I can pass on.
Structure: Start small. There’s really no need to take on a whole Shakespearean or Petrarchan sonnet in one go. In the beginning of my class, one of the first things Michael asked us to do was to try to come up with one good iambic pentameter line. And then write another, and another, and see where that goes. My first line was I leave the crowded room for quiet night. Even see if you could read an essay of someone’s, and paraphrase their main points in iambic pentameter, once you get more comfortable with it. Pay close attention to how your writing sounds. If there’s something syllabically or rhythmically off, maneuver it and see what you need to add/subtract/change. If you want to experiment with the different types of syllabic feet you can use and for how long in a line you can use them, this page is an excellent guideline. What would your lines look and sound like, for instance, if you wrote them in trimeter or tetrameter? What kinds of feet can you use and/or combine? Even see what happens if you just compose a poem of only 14 lines, no matter what the meter and rhyme scheme in those lines are. Modern sonneteers like Laynie Browne, Olena Kalytiak Davis and Ted Berrigan have all experimented with the loose box frame of the sonnet, and have made their words count in that space. Browne herself actually offers a whole lot of crazy, experimental sonnet-writing ideas here.
Creativity: When Breton’s gang of Surrealists wrote their work, they claimed to be able to spontaneously freewrite their poetry without ever having to edit it. Michael said he doesn’t believe that, and I don’t either. If you start freewriting about anything you can observe or feel conscious of, don’t hold back. Don’t judge yourself. Don’t try to do anything, just let your writing out. Only after (not before) you finish free writing can you look your work over, see what you’ve come up with, and edit it. The exquisite corpse is also always a fun thing to play with some writer friends—again, if you don’t hold back, any image (as absurd as you like) that you can quickly write down as a line will fuel the next person’s creativity, and their contribution will continue to spark the next person’s idea. If you play with an imaginative group, the resulting poem will surely be strange, wild and magnificent. Even playing around with fridge magnets or cutting up a newspaper article and sorting the words by random into a poem are good ways to see what chance and spontaneity can summon up. And of course, reading the works of 20th century Surrealists as well as those by Neo-Surrealists like Russell Edson, Mark Strand and Matthea Harvey (who, fair warning, are a little more absurd and logic-twisty than their classic Surrealist forebears) are fantastic sources of inspiration.
One of the things I will never forget that Michael Dumanis taught me is that if you start from a Point A in your writing, not much happens if you already know where your point B might end up. In the journey from A to B, it’s always much, much more interesting if you naturally let yourself take a detour to Point X. So if you start somewhere, don’t be afraid to ease out of the fully-formed vision of the beginning, middle and end you had in mind. If you start somewhere, see where it takes you. Have fun!
Isabelle Parker is currently studying literature, music and social sciences at Bennington College. In high school she was known to carry around a copy of the New Yorker to read in her spare time. In addition to reading, she loves to write poetry, listen to classic rock and sing.