Investigating Purposeful Writing: From Poetry to Essay

One of the first activities I share with my first-year writing students is a writing exercise based on Sandra Cisneros’s “A House of My Own,” a chapter from her The House on Mango Street.

A key lesson I am reaching for involves recognizing that each sentence in this chapter is a grammatical fragment. It is here that I introduce my students to the problems they have faced in being taught rules (that fragments are errors and should be avoided in their writing) instead of being guided into purposeful language.

The difference, I explain, between Cisneros’s fragments and most of the ones they have included in their writing for school is that Cisneros constructed these with purpose—and the students likely were completely unaware of the fragments, and thus had no real purpose for them in the writing.

Purposeful writing is an overarching goal in my writing instruction—notably focusing on the craft of word choice and sentence formation as they drive tone. Most novice writers are composing carelessly. The result is that the reader couldn’t care less about the product.

As I have examined before, poetry is an ideal text for helping students grow as essayists.

Here I want to walk through January Gill O’Neil’s “The Blower of Leaves” as a model of purposeful writing.

For poets, the economy of language often required by poetry drives well the need to labor with purpose over word choice and sentence formation (although I often have to stress to misinformed students that poetry is almost entirely driven by complete sentences, even as they carry over for more than one line).

As I anticipated, discussing O’Neil’s poem spurred students to notice a variety of effective examples of purposeful writing.

We highlighted the powerful use of “fall”—signaling both the season and the motion. Here I stress that writers often look for layers of meaning carried in the fewest words possible (the power of concision) as well as reaching for ambiguity (this contrasts with most students believing writing is mostly about making grand certain statements).

The poem draws together simple yard work (and we also noted the effectiveness of the accessibility of language throughout the poem) with a grounded but ambiguous condition: “the hard work/of yard work made harder without you.”

Readers know someone is missing—but not the who, why, or how. That phrasing (repeating “work”) emphasizes a key element of the poem (possibly what we would call its meaning) through repetition, which in this case is a bit clunky, possibly jarring the reader.

I emphasize here that students often come to first-year writing having been cautioned against repetition. But the lesson they have learned is mechanical and works against purposeful writing that seeks key works to repeat for effect. “Hard work”/”yard work” comes not from a careless and lazy writer, but embraces the sound devices common in poetry in order to make the central message cohesive with the literal scene.

Here we may be drawn to discuss emotional labor, in fact, but not because it is explicitly stated—the emotional labor of loss.

Sound, I note moving them back to the beginning, gives the poem cohesion throughout—sound as that is combined with the visual:

A million brilliant ambers twisting into

the thinning October sun, flooding my eyes
in a curtain of color.

The rhyme of “million/brilliant” that is not end rhyme, and then the series of words with double letters—”million,” “brilliant,” “thinning,” and “flooding.”

In some ways, poets play word games, but rarely are they games for games’ sake; in other words, these games lend cohesion through patterns. Patterns, we must recognize, create meaning.

O’Neil’s poem is also driven by imagery, concrete language and details. Augmenting the concrete nature of the discourse is the use of analogy (and personification), a powerful but dangerous strategy in purposeful writing.

“My yard is their landing strip,” “the stiff kiss of acorns puckers the ground,” “the gaping mouths of lawn bags/with their remains,” and the final line, “Dependable as a season”—the comparisons, we examine, help emphasize the concrete—becoming more vivid—but those comparisons must also resonate accurately. In other words, purposeful writing does not make analogies simply to make comparisons; they must be true and then must elevate the ideas being addressed as well as working with the tone established.

This poem raises a complicated aspect of purposeful writing, however, since it demonstrates the effectiveness of specific and concrete details along with craft (comparison, personification, rhyme, etc.) in order to create an ambiguous message.

Readers are compelled to believe the speaker of the poem has experienced loss, and that speaker’s hurt over the loss is somehow triggered by doing lawn work. Yet, we cannot be certain of the who, why, and how—although those details help nudge us in some credible directions.

Maybe the speaker has been left by a lover, or maybe someone close has died?

“Forgive” and “forgiveness” sit near “refuse,” “dying clover,” and “weeds.” Readers may be drawn to reading “leaves” darkly (a double meaning as with “fall”), yet the reader is also left with only informed speculation.

“Nothing is ever easy or true” may serve as a ironic line against the poem’s ambiguity, but the poem becomes effective and compelling because of the power of purposeful writing—moves students can make their own as they grow in the writing of essays.

Advertisements