The Story Behind the Poem with James Sallis
About the Class
Around the corners of every poem, whether it be Robert Lowell’s autobiographical “Memories of West Street and Lepke,” W.S. Merwin’s brief lyric “Fly,” or the great progenitor of contemporary poetry, Blaise Cendrars’s “La Prose du Transsibérien et de la Petite Jehanne de France,” peeks a story, a narrative. And as with all good story-telling, the poem not only tells (suggests, implies, evokes) what happened, it sketches out character, uses voice to pull us in, conducts us to the emotional heart of a story by way of tone, sound, image, and rhythm. We’re going to use this notion – the story behind the poem, even if in hiding – to approach poetry in a fresh way.
The writer’s struggle is always to get as much of the world as possible into each sentence, loaded onto every phrase, packed away in each line. Real frogs in imaginary gardens, as Marianne Moore wrote – and real warts on imaginary frogs. Poetry in this regard can be the ultimate paring-down. How little can we say and still build, in six lines, or fourteen, or twenty, an entire world for the reader? How can we lure readers into that world and make it endure for them, cause it to dwell in their minds long after the reading? How much of the deepest experience of literature resides in what is not on the page?
We’re going to look behind the curtain and do our best to suss out what the wizards back there have been up to. We’ll be closely reading a dozen or so poems across genres, from Apollinaire and the French Symbolists to Steve Dobyns, Merwin’s fable “The Last One,” Auden. Giving us some new clothes, we hope. And by writing poems to assignment we’ll be trying on those new clothes to see how they fit.