A Few Words on Poetry: Order and Accident
Since April is National Poetry month, we wanted to spend a week on our blog talking about all things poetry. We’re kicking off the week with a piece from professor and poet, Eric Ekstrand.
I was asked to contribute a few words on what poetry has to teach us about language and writing. Of course, there are many, many good answers to this question. In fact, there are likely as many answers as there are poets, (or maybe poems).
Conor O’Callaghan, in my first writing workshop here at Wake Forest, suggested that every poem has built-into it an Ars Poetica (an explanation of poetry). I think he’s right, but this may not be a satisfying answer by itself. I think you really would like to know what poetry has to teach us about language, and I should try to give one of the many possible, good answers that I might.
This is the one that occurs to me now: Poetry teaches us that language itself is worthwhile. In a poem by Charles Bernstein published this month in Poetry, he says, “Poetry has / no purpose / & / that is not / its / pur- / pose,” which is the negative way to say the same thing.
I do not mean that poetry teaches us about L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E in the post-modern, post-structural, post-ironic, post-identity politics, post-etc. ways—at least not only in those ways. It can be put in warmer terms, because, finally, I am talking about pleasure. Language can, itself, be a pleasure.
There are many pleasures: turn, rhythm, image, story, timbre, tone, line, argument, voice, form, iconoclasty, paradox, physical shape, revelation, on-and-on. But, more often, it’s that the poem amounts to more than the sum if these parts—that is where the soul-power in language is, and where things get hard to talk about rationally.
Most poets can’t say exactly how it is that discreet choices in the language coalesce to mysterious and exceeding totals. When they try to, they fall into, usually, one of two camps: those who emphasize the choices themselves (craftswomen), and those who emphasize the mysterious result (improvisationalists). We know all writers are both.
Order and accident, together, are how things seem to proceed naturally. Donald Revell, in The Art of Attention (part of Graywolf’s Art of series) says, “Whether I write or not, the world continues the effortless composition of itself . . . but writing is . . . a pleasure I prefer to enjoy rather than remember.”
I am fairly sure that most of my first-year writing students (or senior English Majors for that matter) do not think of the writing that they do as possibly pleasurable to themselves or anyone else. There is, a lot of times, a joylessness in their writing. I do not think this is some kind of moral failure on their part. Part of it is the practicality of needing to meet a deadline; really, to meet many deadlines over the course of a semester. Part of it is one result of the strip-mining approach to writing instruction that is the given. That I am guilty of practicing.
I would like to think about how to instruct my students in pleasure more—even, or especially, in their “academic” (students automatically translate this to “boring”) writing. Can I actually assign pleasure? Are there in-class exercises that would practice pleasures in an intentional way?
If you are a student, please meet me half-way: how are you working to find pleasure in your writing, even in classes or assignments you may not like so much? Even on a deadline? Where is the piece of your class that sparks you?
If you hate writing papers, maybe try writing papers that you like, instead.