Sunday, February 20, 2011

Suggestions for Your “Reports”

In a couple of weeks, I’d like you to submit your Midterm Reports. So, a few times this week, I will post suggestions for how to approach this, adding to what I’ve suggested on the Syllabus:

First, what I don’t really want: a high-school or (really) middle-school sort of report that lacks insight, effort, or personal connection. This doesn’t need to be more than a couple of pages, but it should be a tool you use to dig deeper into the possibilities of writing and the culture of writers. Use it to connect yourself more to those things in some way, and such that it will be of value to the rest of us.

I have posted here to “Lectures & Notes” during a previous semester a list of movies that in some way relate to poets; you can watch any of these, or any film about a writer in general (that’s a list I’ll start compiling one of these days), and this version of the “Poetry and Poets on Film” is a bit out of date as well – several films have come out that I will add in later. But you might start here, and watch one or two – two allows you to compare strategies or effects. From one, do more than merely summarize the plot.  Some suggestions:

Research the poet in some quick & easy way – Wikipedia is fine for this sort of quick, hit-and-run research (read a biography if you have time, though). How well does the film present a true sense of the poet’s life and personality?

What role does poetry or the poet’s life seem to play in the film? Is it of significance to the plot, is it clich├ęd or innovative, is it related to death, seduction, self-discovery, a mystery, or some other theme or device of the narrative?

How is poetry read or performed in the film?

Find reviews of the film; to what extent do they discuss the use of poetry in the film?

Here is the list:


If you are more interested in fiction, one way to connect film to novels, obviously, is to read a novel and then watch the film version. Which is better, or are they not comparable? Does the film add to your sense of the novel? What do they leave out from the book – or add in? How does it fit your imagined sense of character, scene, and situation? If there is more than one film version of a novel, which is better, in your view?


If you do a report on a writer’s life, although the report is brief, take time to compare two or three different biographical accounts. For more established writers, you can easily find memoirs, autobiography, biographies, and biographical notes in critical works. USE PRINT – don’t just sit and Google! Walk, ride, drive to a library or bookstore; dig around. In the different versions, are there discrepancies? What matters are highlighted or minimized? What matters in the writer’s life story seem most relevant to our understanding of his or her work?


Do a brief survey of criticism of a writer; for this, you can, if you want, stick to library databases and open-Internet searches. Find reviews of books that appeared at the time the book was published; compare, perhaps, to critical reviews published further along in the writer’s career.


A useful research project: dig deep into the web and find writers’ blog sites that seem interesting. Give us a blogroll: a list of the best you found. Annotate, perhaps: tell what seems good about each one. Or: what “memes” do you discover? That is, what issues do literary bloggers seem to discuss with frequency?

Or, look at writers’ web pages (could be blogs, but also simply static pages): what materials do they tend to post there?


Another useful report: what are the best resources for writers on the web? Other than what I’ve been listing, that is: rhyming dictionaries, writer’s software, reference sites, craft sites, discussion forums, or anything you think many writers would be able to use.


or – the same “Writer’s toolkit” idea – but of print resources.

More ideas later this week…

Monday, February 14, 2011

Valentine's Day: Love Poems

Read some of the poems linked here, on the Poetry Foundation web site; as one of your exercises, consider borrowing strategies from one or more of these poems in writing your own love poem.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Poems to Oprah

If you have a poem you're proud of, or one you like by someone else, consider sending it to O magazine:

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Mark Twain, "A Restless Night"

The following tome is available as a free download from Google Books -- or, in newer printings at your local bookstore. I post it here so you can have a look at one of my favorites, "A Restless Night," which is a good model for an additional Exercise: call it your "insomnia story" (or poem), or more broadly, an improvisation on a singular theme: what's wonderful about this one is that Twain gets so much out of one little concept. Take up a simple gesture, problem, encounter, etc. -- go inside, and see how many ways you can twist and turn it. What other scenarios would work with this: "first dates," "homeroom," "the dentist," "playing hooky," "on the bus," "in the elevator" -- make a list until something strikes you.

It's worth noting that most of American humor (sitcoms, movies, humorists like Dave Barry or Erma Bombeck) comes from Twain and stories like this one. Look at old Lucille Ball sitcom episodes, or even contemporary TV fare, and you'll see the Twain DNA in it.

"Howl" Excerpt: Invention

In the following clip from the recent film based on poet Allen Ginsberg's famous poem "Howl," the poet's life, and the obscenity trial that helped broaden the poem's audience, Ginsberg talks about how a particular line came to him. We can take it, I think, as exemplary of one way creativity works: form preceding content, or more particularly, a pulse in the yet-to-be-written line or passage that seems to lead the poet toward the words themselves.

This is not the only way poets invent, but it is a common occurrence. It might sound counter-intuitive to new writers, but I think the impetus to such experiences is the intensive reading that I have already argued for in my lecturing: read, read, read, widely and deeply, out loud, silently, listen to others read, and then, when you write, voices and the patterns of language, will rise in you. Better, sometimes, not to know what theme you'e aiming for; just listen to the pulse. But first, you have to jolt it into being by listening to its permutations in poem after poem.

After watching this clip, you might read an earlier post about the poet Robert Frost, whose argument about the sources of a poem is very similar: