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.

Barbara Kingsolver’s “Justicia” and “Refuge”

“I wasn’t prepared for the knowledge of what one nation will do to another,” Barbara Kingsolver explains near the end of the Introduction to her poetry collection, Another America/Otra America, continuing:

But knowledge arrived regardless. I saw that every American proverb has two sides, can be told in two languages; that injustice does not disappear when you look away, but seeps in at the back of the neck to poison your soul. The unspeakable things can be survived, and sometimes there is joy on the other side. (pp. xvii-xix)

And so Kingsolver presents a collection of poems, each translated into Spanish by Rebeca Cartes, written over many years and finally published in 1998.

“My way of finding a place in the world is to write one,” Kingsolver concludes. “But when I want to howl and cry and laugh all at once, I’ll raise up a poem against the darkness. This is my testament to two Americas, and the places I’ve found, or made, or dreamed in between” (p. xix).

This idea of two Americas grounded in culture and language, poems now two decades old and well before the rise of Trump’s America, offers a way to navigate what seems to be contradictory claims: Trump’s politics represent enduring ideologies and patterns that in fact reveal who America is while also confronting the nation and the world with a unique bravado and crassness that deserves an equally resolute response.

“Justicia” and “Refuge” speak to historical problems with the American character and current tensions inflamed by Trump’s rhetoric and policies.

“The feral incantations of our dreams” begins “Justicia,” a title evoking “justice” but also (possibly) the flower of that name. Nature is always prominent in Kingsolver, and this poem is grounded in the lone wolf (given a human pronoun):

His orange pain becomes a desert sunset.
His hunger perceives the scent of blood
on the wind,

the sleep of sheltered animals,
everything
but borders.

Kingsolver investigates civilization (“borders”) and the wild, the wilderness (“feral”), a paradoxical tension in which it is the wild that is framed as violent and dangerous but that is often sacrificed.

Next, Kingsolver turns to the politics of race and geography:

The television says McAllen, Texas,
is closer to Managua than to Washington, D.C.,
and housewives in McAllen

check their own
possibly Bolshevik eyes in the mirror
and lock the windows.

The poem ends with a crescendo of “peaceful,” “liberty,” and “justice” building to “the wolf deserves a meal.”

Reading “Justicia” in 2018, in the wake of Trump’s incessant demonizing of Mexicans and invoking images of immigrants as “animals,” I am compelled to suggest Kingsolver is offering a powerful exploration of racism and nationalism folded into the image of the lone wolf reappropriated as a sympathetic symbol of the dignity all living creatures deserve.

Quoted in full in Feroza Jussawalla’s “Cultural Rights Theory: A View from the U.S.-Mexican Border,” “Refuge” fits equally as well into the state of mangled U.S. politics under Trump.

Kingsolver dedicates the poem “[f]or Juana, raped by immigration officers and deported”—replayed with an awful intensity during the current debate about separating children from parents seeking political asylum and reports of children being sexually assaulted by immigration officials.

“Give me your hand,/He will tell you”—the opening inviting tone triggers for me Adrienne Rich’s equally disturbing interrogation of how the criminal justice system subjects victims of rape to a second assault in her “Rape”: “There is a cop who is both prowler and father.”

“[B]arbed wire,” “desert,” and “hunger” create next an oppressive tone, building to “I will/take your hand./Take it” and then:

First
He will spread it
Fingers from palm
To look inside,
See it offers nothing.
Then
With a sharp blade
Sever it.

Again paralleling Rich’s poem, the language is both violent and sexual, dehumanizing and invasive.

The final stanza is disturbing in its simplicity detailing the officer keeping the severed hand as a token of “the great/desirability/of my country.”

In these two poems, civilization—specifically America—is the rapacious aggressor, the taker that objectifies the weak, as Others, foreign, less than. This is the America that is contrasted with the America claimed.

Kingsolver’s poetic recreation of two Americas, another America, resonates in awful ways that should turn our stomachs, that may prompt us to turn our eyes.

“Another America” confronts us as not the America we claim to be; “another America” challenges us to become the ideal we have yet to achieve—a people devoted to human dignity, to enduring values such as each child is everyone’s child, such as there are no strangers, such as anything we have we will halve and share.

In her poems, essays, and fiction, Kingsolver implores us to be our better selves. I wonder if that is a dream also, an ideal, something we simply are not capable of being.

Where Do Poems Come From?

The quaint euphemistic way we once talked around having “the talk” with children about the birds and the bees is at least metaphorical, even poetic in its tip-toeing.

Here, I want to play a bit with a slightly different version of “the talk”—specifically walking through where poems come from.

It was a Friday afternoon, and I found myself alone with friends all somewhere else even though we usually congregate at the local brewery on Fridays.

So I came equipped with a book, Acceptance by Jeff Vandemeer, as well as a lingering dose of depression and anxiety. This seemed an ideal opportunity to inject a few pints of the seasonal beer just being released.

I also came with my constant companions—anxiety, introversion, and solid doses of ADHD and OCD.

It was mid-afternoon so only a modest crowd was there mulling around and the band had not yet begun. My introversion runs in a way that this sort of public space allows me to disappear and be nearly relaxed. Once the crowd grows and especially when live music cranks up, the same space become the worst sort of hell for me.

To appease my ADHD as I read, I slipped into my smart phone surfing that annoys my intimates because I am apt always to be doing several things at once, giving off the impression that I am not in the moment with any one person. Ever.

And then it happened.

I was scanning through Instagram, where I follow several artists, and saw a post by Valeria Ko:

hanging clothes

The painting of a woman in only panties, from behind and holding a laundry basket outside near a trailer, immediately prompted these words:

we buy an RV
and then unceremoniously we leave

somehow we reach the desert
where we park for days

because we have been watching
on the couch Breaking Bad

Let me pause here to stress how this represents at least for me where poems come from.

This scenario holds several elements that I find are consistent: the presence of creative works (reading volume 3 of Vandemeer’s science fiction trilogy, Ko’s artwork), a sudden burst of lines of poetry that seemingly just come to me, and not a small dose of sadness or depression.

Many poems of mine begin in some way while reading, viewing a film, or listening to new music; visual artwork is also a powerful trigger [see Fisherman and The Siren (vortex of desire)].

Poetry, unlike my blogging and scholarly writing, always comes first as inspired words, phrases, and lines; in other words, I never sit down to write a poem.

The poem itself initiates the writing.

Some who know I am a poet and read my work have noted as well that depression and sadness seem to rest next to my poetic output. I must confess that seems fair.

Now, back to the writing of this poem*.

Mornings can be fertile times for poetry to call, but typically, my first move with a poem is to type the inspired words or lines into notes on my phone and then email that to myself to work on at the computer.

I often will continue to run through those lines in my head, incessantly and often that repeating causes the poem, or story, to grow.

In this case, I knew I had a good bit of time alone and would not be at the computer until the next day, likely, so I did something I think I have never done before; I began drafting the poem right there on the notes of my phone.

Drafting a poem includes after the initial rush of inspiration a recursive act of discovering what the poem wants to be (in terms of content and story as well as craft) and then writing and revising to meet those unfolding demands.

A few initial ideas were the repetition of “we” and then “some” in “somehow” and “some times.” I considered for a while having “we” in every line but let that slip eventually.

The central purpose of the poem appeared to be my associating an RV and the desert with the series Breaking Bad, which I have been re-watching.

The artwork spoke to my essentially visual nature, but it also challenged me to think about, as someone who read the poem noted, the voyeuristic motif that is present in the painting and my poem.

As I drafted, I returned to the Instagram post and discovered something truly stunning: The painting itself, as Ko notes, was “[i]nspired by @joshsoskin photos” (see here and his web site).

A photographer inspired a painter who inspired a poet—all of which depends on both the intent of artists and the co-created meanings of those viewing/reading the art.

What is the intended tone of the painting? Of the photographer’s image? And then how does the intended story I created resonate with any or all of that?

The original idea and the focus on “we” soon became subsumed by the imagery of the poem, specifically the desert scene.

The first title of the poem was just “we,” but I eventually revised as “we (deserts),” editing that to “we (desert)” since this narrative is clearly about one couple in one desert—a singular event and a poem about being alone while also existing in a way that is the antithesis of lonely.

Some key elements revealed themselves and became the focus as I read, reread, and drafted: the couple as voyeur and watched (man inside, woman outside), the concept of being alone as a couple and that being a state of freedom, and the overarching reframing of a desert, not as barren or oppressive but as a refuge, a paradise.

My poetry tends toward narration more than narrative, but this poem clearly was meant to be a story with characters and setting. But I also seek an economy of language, inspired always by Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool.”

To say the least possible for the greatest effect—so two stark images of the woman (grounded in the painting); adding “cacti,” “sand,” and “brush.”

Also along with the voyeur/viewed problem I felt compelled to focus on stasis (man) and motion (woman) while keeping the dynamic of the couple both something I was celebrating and problematizing.

How to end a poem is always a challenge, one that typically comes to me in a similar way as the initial lines—I simply feel it, both the sense that it is not finished and then that these lines are it.

The turning point for this poem being finished was “people i suspect don’t know/a goddamn thing about deserts” and imagining this couple in the desert during the longest daylight weeks of the year (so the 14 hours detail).

I enjoy being able to talk about and through a poem once I have made it public and can hear others respond. Doing that led me to describing this as a post-apocalyptic poem, the apocalypse not some nuclear holocaust but the act of this couple: “we buy an RV without a plan or map/and then unceremoniously we leave.”

An act not away from anything but toward their being entirely alone and together, free as the woman seems to be in her complicated image of the painting—the gendered domesticity outside and partially clothed while being watched by her lover.

As much as I was motivated by the opening lines—that I still love—and the narrative, I am mostly haunted by the next to the last stanza, and wondering what do people know especially about being happy, about refusing to sit there alone instead of holding tight the one you love.


* we (desert)

But what if you discover that the price of purpose is to render invisible so many other things?
Acceptance, Jeff Vandermeer

we buy an RV without a plan or map
and then unceremoniously we leave

somehow we reach the desert
where we park for days then weeks

because we have been watching sometimes naked
on the couch Breaking Bad

we realize we are o so alone
except for sand and brush

on warm bright mornings i watch
you outside hanging clothes

sometimes wearing only a shirt unbuttoned
other times only panties soft tan like your skin

i do not run through the door and sand
tackling you cradled in my arms to the ground

because my chest is overfilled with this
so that everything seems to be spilling from my eyes

and once you turned seeing me through the window
curtsying and opening the shirt with a smile

people i suspect don’t know
a goddamn thing about deserts

or being all alone as we are
with 14 hours of sunshine and cacti

What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”

Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.