If You Want to Be a Writer--Be a Reader

by Tina Blue
September 6, 2000

          I teach a 200-level course here at Kansas University called "Introduction to Poetry." I enjoy teaching the course, and from the feedback I get, I can tell that my students enjoy the course, too. Certainly they enjoy it enough to send their friends, since we often end up with SRO crowds and have to steal desks from other classrooms.

          But it's funny that a significant minority in each such course will come up to me toward the end of the term and tell me that they had taken the course thinking it would teach them to write poetry, and were surprised to discover that it was a course in how to understand poetry, with emphasis on the poetic tradition, on certain major poets, and on close analysis of specific poems. I also spend a fair amount of time teaching about cultural and literary traditions, themes, and conventions generally and about how they are embodied in poetry. The students tell me they like having learned this stuff, and that having learned it, they are more serious and effective in their own writing, but also that they hadn't originally thought of taking such a course at all.

          Perhaps it's also funny that just as students who thought they only wanted to write poetry, not read it, discover the extraordinary delight in being able to understand and appreciate poetry that once seemed opaque to them, students who never thought about writing poetry themselves find that what they have learned in my class virtually drives them to writing poetry, when all they ever meant to do was to wallow in other writers' works.

          I tell my students, whether they plan on writing poetry themselves or not, that all serious poets, like serious artists in other fields, "go to school" to their predecessors, and that one of the important steps on their way to becoming either poets or readers of poetry is to immerse themselves in poetry, especially really good poetry, and especially in the rich poetic tradition of their own language.

          A lot of people think poetry is just stream of consciousness arranged loosely on a page with lots of white space around it. A lot of other people think a poem is simply a group of rhymed lines on a specific topic. It is neither, though either may have its place as an aspect of poetry. Poetry is a form of composition, and for this reason the structure of the poem, its internal connections, its context, and its aesthetic impact are usually as important as the idea or image it embodies. Indeed, in a poem it is absolutely true that, as Marshall McLuhan once said about television, "The medium is the message." That is why a paraphrase of a poem's idea leaves out pretty much everything that makes the poem a poem, and also why the poet didn't just quit fooling around and say what he meant, instead of making us play "guessing games." (Yes, these are things I've heard from students at various times.)

          Another thing that poetry usually represents is a love affair with language--a delighted romping and wallowing in the sheer texture and potential of words, sounds, and syntax, what novelist John Barth meant when he once said that in all his writing he was concerned to discover "What one can do with language."

          I once read a clever, funny article--a "rant" of sorts--bitching about tongue-twisters and questioning their value. (What are they good for, the author wondered--what's the point of them?) Obviously she was just playing with an idea, having fun with it. But the fact is, tongue-twisters are a form of "antic poetry." I coined this phrase as a label for tongue-twisters specifically for use in my poetry class. I seek out tongue-twisters, and I invent lots of my own. Often, in the middle of a class (not just the poetry class either--but all of my classes, since they all deal with writing essays or with appreciating one or another form of literature), I will suddenly give my students a killer of a tongue-twister, and challenge them to say it three times fast. The first time I do so, they resist, but when I press them, they'll go ahead and try. From that point on, they greet such challenges with delight, and sometimes throw one right back at me.*

          The point? I want my students to fall in love with language, and to play with it, for no other reason than because it is so darned fun! When I ran my home daycare, I used to delight infants of just a few weeks or a few months of age (plus older kids, of course) with nonsense verse made up on the spot, and with tongue-twisters. (Television can't hold a candle to language play!)

          I got into tongue-twisters obliquely. As a child I had a speech impediment. I had read about how Cicero, the great Roman orator, overcame his own impediment (a stammer, which was only one of my speech problems) by putting pebbles in his mouth and walking along the beach declaiming speeches.

          I had also read about how dialect coaches had students speak with a pencil held crosswise under their tongues, as a means of overcoming their accents. So, in the spirit of running with weights on your ankles, I stuck a pencil under my tongue several times a day and practiced tongue-twisters. It worked. You can only hear my lisp or my stammer when I'm exhausted or rushed and pressured--and almost anyone stammers under extreme pressure. Another bonus--despite my progressive deafness, my articulation is clear and precise. No one can tell from my speech that I am deaf.

          But I think it may have been those tongue-twisters that also got me hooked on poetry. A love affair with language, you see?

          So what is this website about? A lot of you read and write poetry. (A lot of you are good, too.) Some of you would like to know more about traditions, conventions, effects, and all those other things that we respond to in any work of literature. But many of you are essentially self-taught. Just as with my grammar and usage website, I would like to offer a service in this space. I don't plan to say everything one might say about poetry--most of you already know most of what you need to know to write or to appreciate poetry, just as most of you already know most of what you need to know about grammar and usage. But there are odds and ends of things that puzzle even good writers and readers--like those difficult issues of punctuation and grammar that I raise in my grammar and usage articles. And there is background information that you might not have encountered along the way to becoming a poet, information you might have always wished for, or information that you weren't even aware you were missing. I know some stuff, and if you're interested, I'll share.

          I write very little poetry myself--what I write mostly is fiction and non-fiction. What poetry I do write is largely light verse.  One cannot "master" poetry the way one can master grammar and usage, so the comments in this column won't be as authoritative as those in my grammar and usage column. Mostly I want to tell you some cool stuff I've learned in over thirty years of studying and teaching literature. I'm betting that a lot of you will be interested in at least some of it.


* Try this one three times fast: Toy boat.
  How about this one: Unique New York.
  Now try this one: When one black bug bled blue blood, the other black bug bled blue blood back. 
  Fun, huh?
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