This semester, I have taught a Creative Writing: Poetry class to undergraduates for the first time in decades. It has been easy enough to avoid because we always need to cover many sections of English Comp, and then someone has to teach the required literature classes for our few English majors. But finally, last fall when we were constructing the schedule for this fall, I decided that it might be fun to do again.
For many years, I worked with high school aged writers, which was, in general, a joy, but I found that after all those years, I had lost interest in working with beginning poets. I was tired of poems about unrequited love and tired of poems that relied on abstractions and clichés.
So, it was with a little trepidation that I jumped back into a Creative Writing class. I had nine students enrolled, six women and three men, of various ages and backgrounds. We began working in small forms, paying attention first of all to image. As we worked on filling our poems with sights, sounds, tastes, and textures, each poem became richer. The students moved from image alone to using image as metaphor, doing that powerful poetic trick where a poet shows a reader two ideas and says, “Look, this is like that” and a reader feels the unexpected connection. It was during one of these classes when Ernest said that he liked a particular line. When I asked him why, he replied, “It makes my ears happy.”
Often after that, when someone wrote a satisfying line or a whole satisfying poem, one of us would repeat Ernest’s words.
Although it’s a seemingly simple statement, it says a lot about what we want from and what we should expect from poetry. Before anything else, poetry should delight the ear. Beginning poets often say that poetry is about “emotion” or about “love,” but that is because they have been exposed too much Hallmark verse and not enough real poetry. When I read Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” out loud to the class, I didn’t ask them what the poem was about because that is not a particularly interesting question, nor is it one we can really answer, but I asked them how it sounded and what pictures it created in their minds. One of the students observed that it was “trippy,” which it is, indeed, if the stories about that poem are true, but if we read it, or listen to it paying attention to image and sound, it becomes an experience like looking at a piece of interesting surreal art or listening to Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique.” We don’t especially care what it is about, but listening to provides a real, sensual and visual experience.
The best poetry stretches our senses. We feel the best poetry in our bodies and skins. It is the combination of image and sound that makes the best poetry work the way it does.
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed
And drunk the milk of Paradise
And so, I want to thank all the students in this fall’s poetry class for providing me with many moments that made my ears happy.