How Poems Move #1

Thursday, April 4, 2013

It’s National Poetry Month and TriQuarterly is proud to introduce a new web series. Reginald Gibbons, the Frances Hooper Professor of Arts and Humanities at Northwestern University, will follow his undergraduate poetry writing course with mini-essays that lay out the framework of poetry as he sees it. Professor Gibbons will report on his class discussion—and what he failed to get to, or what was too elusive, and how his students develop throughout the course.


First day of classes of the spring quarter at Northwestern: my beginning poetry writing course for undergraduates.  Over the last month I’ve spent at least 40 hours creating a small anthology and working out the syllabus—which in my case is a complicated interweaving of class days with assignments (even more complicated than usual because for the first—and probably last—time I have two sections of this course, one meeting three days a week and the other two).  Why so much time?  I’ve been reading and reading poems looking for just the right ones.  Working and reworking the schedule, which has made the calendar look to me like chronological cole slaw: it’s all chopped up according to the sequence of assignments.  Several different types alternate: poems, exercises, responses to some of the prose we’re reading (by the poets in my collection, The Poet’s Work), some tiny studies of individual words (using the Oxford English Dictionary—the remarkable on-line version that students and professors can access through the university library) and a couple of very brief prose pieces about poetic technique, and write-ups of readings the students attend.  

I didn’t want to teach this course again from a big anthology or a set of smaller ones.  Students typically pay $70 for a 6-pound book that they haul to and from class, and in our quarter system (rather than semesters) at Northwestern, there’s no time to talk deeply about more than what’s on about 60 pages of it. So I created my own anthology (120 pages, typed: I’ll post the table of contents on this blog soon), after rummaging through many books of poems (and many anthologies, too) to remind myself of poems—beyond some of my favorites that I knew I would use—that will help show not so much which poets have written what, over time (history of poetry—but we will get some of that) but rather to teach how those poets have written. What they have done with language in order to make a poem.  

And instead of handing out a syllabus that goes week by week through elements of poetry (structure, sound, rhythm, metaphor and metonym, imagery, forms, etc.), I am going to help everyone see as much in every single poem as possible—and let the students collect the craft elements as we go. Over the quarter, I’ll require them to create their own maps or outlines of poetry instead of handing them mine—they can reorganize when they need to, putting together the elements as they wish.  At the end of the course, they’ll turn in some revised poems, a final very short paper (after writing others during the quarter), and their individual maps.  I’m eager to learn from seeing how everyone takes in the range of the devices and strategies and tricks and structures of this craft—and my favorite subject of all: how poems move.  

 -Reginald Gibbons