The Stuff of Poetry: My First Good Cry of 2018

Poet Tara Skuru, The Amoeba Game, posted her “Morning Love Poem” as a gift for the new year:

I responded that it brought my first good cry of 2018, and she shared a nugget about how the poem came to be:

The poem and exchange prompted more from me:

Teaching poetry can include focusing on poem analysis, using the poem as a model text for understanding poetry (what makes a poem, a poem?), or fostering poetry composing (how to write poetry).

In all of those contexts as a teacher and poet, I strive to help students unlearn their misconceptions about poetry while helping them become comfortable with the far more nuanced elements of understanding form, genre, and mode that contribute to being able to read or write well any writing form.

Skurtu’s “Morning Love Poem” is both a lovely poem and an ideal model for teaching poetry because it demonstrates the stuff of poetry that students often miss.

In an interview, Jason Reynolds confronts some of the essential aspects of that stuff of poetry:

One of my favorite poets is Countee Cullen, and he only wrote in tight form. But it’s powerful stuff. It hits you, every single one. And I think of Lucille Clifton who wrote these really short poems. She was the master of brevity. You may get five or six lines but it’s a gut punch. It may not be a particular structure like a sonnet or a sestina, but that also doesn’t mean that when structure doesn’t have a name it’s not structure. The danger in talking about free verse the way we normally do, we typically don’t complicate the structure of free verse. What it does is it strips the poet of agency and decision-making. There is a structure. That poet chose to break a line here or add a stanza. To punctuate or not punctuate. And that constitutes the structure of that piece.

About the common “fear (or intimidation) of poetry,” Reynolds explains “[i]t comes from the over-intellectualization of poetry from the classics,” adding:

It’s all over-intellectualized. But I think that the poet has always been seen as the intellect of the literary community. The poets were supposed to be the scribes of all the things. The poets were the leaders of the literary community for a very, very long time. And so, I think it just comes from the echelon this BS caste system that’s carried over. I think it’s that nonsense on top of racism, which is always there, on top of the undervaluing or de-valuing of diverse voices. The truth is Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” should be considered a classic. “We Real Cool” is familiar, it’s accessible. It’s interesting.

Skurtu’s poem as a model for the stuff detailed by Reynolds is a powerful way to help students as readers or writers of poetry—coming to understand and embrace that poetry comes from poet purpose and not from some mechanical analysis, the over-intellectualizing too often common in English courses.

For students, “Morning Love Poem” upon first glance probably triggers their awareness of what a poem looks like (lines and stanzas), but their student-urge likely soon hits a wall against the mechanistic ways they have been taught—looking for narrow sorts of patterns in line/stanza formation, meter, rhyme, etc.

Yes, poetry tends to be grounded in purposeful line/stanza formation, and it depends heavily on pattern. But some of the most compelling poetry is driven by voice, concision, and a poet’s craft to render the language in a way that appears simple (as if anyone could have written it). Think Lucille CliftonGwendolyn Brooks, and Maggie Smith. Or even William Carlos Williams.

In just 14 lines, Skurtu creates a layered story (a couple and both a dream and their reality) and powerfully explores a bittersweet and enduring thing of being human: “It’s hard to say I need you enough.”

Students are well served to contemplate that this could just as easily have been a short story, or even a short film. But Skurtu chose poem, and that makes all the difference.

The line formation and stanzas guide the reader, influence the reading, and then, her diction (word choice) drives the concision: “cracked,” “nose-dived,” “poison,” and as she noted herself “get wet” (two simple three-letter words that rhyme)

And here, I think, is where over-intellectualizing, as Reynolds argues, raises its ugly head. Students become mired in mechanical and simplistic technique-hunts, but they also have (mis)learned that poetry is hard, inaccessible, something to be solved like an arcane puzzle (5000 pieces all blue).

But even when poetry is challenging, possibly inaccessible—think Wallace Stevens—the reductive ways students have come to think about poetry fails them; consider “[if seventy were young]” by e.e. cummings (yes, challenging).

Students can begin to play with how cummings uses pattern in unexpected ways—the dashes, the teasing with rhyme (see also Emily Dickinson), space and colons, wordplay and sound.

cummings becomes more accessible, in fact, if we resist over-intellectualizing, and choose instead to play along with him as readers.

Ultimately, I want students to recognize that, for example, Skurtu’s poem is rich with story (plot, setting, and character) and that it works because of concrete details, the triggering of the senses that Flannery O’Connor called for in the writing of fiction.

In other words, we read poetry not to calculate what the poem means but to share with the poet, often, what we feel, what we intuit possibly in ways that cannot be articulated beyond recognizing that the words shaped on a page are so beautifully bittersweet (“All the moments/we stop ourselves”) that we are looking at them through spontaneous tears.