In The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser prefers to use the word witness rather than reader or listener because it “includes the act of seeing or knowing by personal experience, as well as the act of giving evidence.”
The overtone of responsibility in this word is not present in the others; and the tension of the law makes a climate here which is that climate of excitement and revelation giving air to the work of art, announcing with the poem that we are about to change, that work is being done on the self.
These three terms of relationship—poet, poem, and witness—are none of them static. We are changing, living beings experiencing the inner change of poetry.7
Reading, conversation, and writing are bound to one another. What we read not only changes us but presses us, in Rukeyser’s terms, to take “responsibility” for “giving evidence” of that change. For an analogy, think of how listening intensely to music can press a songwriter to create her own work. Yes, the listener is acquiring information about song craft and construction. But she’s also drawing the sounds and emotional resonance into her inner self. Her subsequent need to write her own music is driven by the “climate of excitement and revelation” that creates her “inner change.”
Philip Levine describes this sensation in his essay “The Poet in New York in Detroit”:
I had known García Lorca only as the author of the “gypsy poems,” a writer of lovely, exotic poems that meant little to me. But now one Saturday afternoon became a miracle as I stood in the stacks of the Wayne University library, my hands trembling, and read my life in his words. How had this strange young Andalusian, later murdered by his countrymen, come to understand my life, how had he mastered the language of my rage? This poet of grace and “deep song” had somehow caught my emotions in a way I never had, and suddenly he opened a door for me to a way of speaking about my life. I accepted his gift. That’s what they give us, the humble workers in the field of poetry, these amazingly inspired geniuses, gifts that change our lives.8
So it’s important, whether you’re in the classroom or working alone at home, to make sure that your forays into writing aren’t limited to detached poetry prompts. By linking creative writing directly to creative yet focused reading, you and your students may be lucky enough to discover that “suddenly [a poet] opened a door for me to a way of speaking about my life.”
I’m sure you’ve met more than one would-be poet who writes reams of verse but never bothers to read books. Often these writers seem to believe that a poem is nothing more than a blurt of undigested feeling, a hysterical diary entry broken randomly into lines. Detached poetry prompts do nothing to solve this attitude. Merely they offer a formula. Many, for instance, function as templates (“Write a four-syllable first line, a five-syllable second line, a six-syllable third line”). Others are simply story starters (“Imagine you’ve found a locket in a leaf pile”). Even though they induce writing, they don’t draw the writer into the larger conversation of poetry—what Jorge Luis Borges calls “the tale wherein all the voices of mankind might be found.”9
Just as importantly, detached writing prompts don’t inspire revision. When you’ve fulfilled the instructions of the prompt, you’ve finished the poem. Revision becomes a chore, an imposition, not a natural stage of writing. But when you write within the reading-conversation-writing cycle, you’re always returning to poetry: perhaps rereading a poem, perhaps engaging with a very different one. The cycle ignites fresh conversations, and the poet strives to capture her quickened emotions and ideas in new approaches to a draft. Like Borges, she aspires: “Sometimes I am courageous and hopeful enough to think that it may be true—that though all men write in time, are involved in circumstances and accidents and failures of time, somehow things of eternal beauty may be achieved.”10
So imagine that your students have just spent an hour engaged in an intense conversation about which word in Shakespeare’s "Sonnet 81" might be the most important one. Your next task is to give them a chance to respond creatively to what they have just read and discussed with such sensitivity and enthusiasm. How do you shift their thoughts from “What’s the most important word in Shakespeare’s sonnet?” to “What’s the most important word in the poem you are writing?” and then eventually to the recognition “I must figure out how to make every word of my poem important”?
Sonnets can be dangerous writing prompts because they tend to lure poets into rhyme-scheme obsession. Those fourteen come-hither line endings often become so distracting that the poet allows the rest of her draft to fade into undifferentiated filler. So, as you did during the classroom conversation, structure the writing exercise around the power of individual words. To get yourself started, look at the words that open each line of "Sonnet 81":
Now that I’ve erased the rest of the sonnet, Shakespeare’s first words stand out as remarkably colorless—at least connotatively. With the exception of the bland personal pronouns your, your,and you and a single article, the, all of the words function as sentence drivers. Or what? what? From where? Where to? Every one of them requires a writer to push herself to choose a next word.
When I’m teaching a class, I sometimes throw out this poem’s opening words as verbal writing prompts. “The first word is Or!” I shout, and the students write feverishly. “Next line,” I shout. “The first word is Or!” I don’t give them time to analyze but push them to write quickly. The results of these rapid first drafts are always varied, but they are consistently active and dramatic, making full use of the propulsive sentence logic that fluent English speakers internalize over the course of their lives. The bland opening words force the students to keep moving down the page, yet each writer retains control of her subject matter. Simply she’s responding to an arrangement of grammatical sign posts.
“A poem is the act of having an idea and how it feels to have an idea,” said Robert Frost.11 By teaching poetry within the frame of the reading-conversation-writing cycle, you help your students recognize and participate in the synthesis of thought and invention that drives great poetry. Instead of separating analysis and creativity, you fuse them into a single concentrated experience. As a student once said to me at the end of a class, “I needed that joy.”