Can it ever work
What are the elements of a poem? What is the difference between poetry and prose? Can anyone write a poem? Can you learn to write a poem? Is “poetry” some “gift” instilled in the “soul” of a writer?
As someone who was “taught” poetry by some very gifted writers; who went on to teach poetry to others, and even had the honor to teach it, for a brief period, in an exclusive workshop, I can confess there are some answers to some of those questions.
But most are rather elusive.
One, however, which exists within the avenues of those boundaries, is less obscure and easier to tackle. We sometimes hear it discussed — or, on the contrary, we often hear it avoided.
I was reminded of an incident in that “exclusive” workshop the other day while reading an essay about a poem by Langston Hughes, Johannesburg Mines (1928):
In the Johannesburg mines
There are 240,000 natives working.
What kind of poem
Would you make out of that?
240,000 natives working
In the Johannesburg mines.
We were going around the room, in that exclusive workshop, about twelve students and I (and I was only just not a student myself) reading the students’ latest work and critiquing, when we came across one student “poem” and someone commented: “This reads like prose that has been broken down into smaller lines. That’s not poetry at all.”
This was, of course, as she had been taught, and not by me.
Now, everyone had their names on their work. That was part of the class rules. No one had the opportunity to hide their head in shame there or run out of the room. Time to face the music.
So, the student who wrote this piece immediately spoke out:
“No, I read a poem by Langston Hughes just last week, Johannesburg Mines, that read like a piece of prose, broken down into smaller lines.
“What’s wrong with that?”
So, I’ll put it to you, as I then put it to that class:
Okay. What is wrong with that?
First, I would never torture you with the twenty+ line screed that student had just put the class through about the breakup with his girlfriend. In prose, broken up into tiny, pitiful lines, some of only one and two words.
Actually, I could stop right there. I feel confident Hughes himself would say, “Yes, you could stop there, that actually accounts for at least three points before going further, my brother!”
Because we have, in Hughes’ poem the repetition (1) and the reversal from the first to the last stanza, plus the singularity of the question in the middle, (2) but we also have the absolute statement of a politicized compassion for The Other, and, in this case, a completely unknown Other.
A Trifecta, as it were. In six, compact lines.
You might argue, and until you were quite blue of skin, that this is somehow made up of “prose,” but it is, in its most appropriate form, poetry for those reasons even if you discount the rather obvious rhythm (which makes it a nice fourth). Many people do. Especially white people.
Now. I read a great deal of poetry and I have since I was a child. Good poetry and bad and lots in-between. It still took me a LONG time to figure out what was good in what I was reading and what I was writing. This is not easy.
Writing is not easy. It isn’t meant to be.
If it were, anyone could do it as well as anyone else.
Think. How easy is it to play the viola? To paint a landscape? To sculpt a nude? But to do them properly and well? Convincingly so as to draw out both an intellectual and emotional response from your audience. Perhaps even the one you prefer.
Of all the styles and forms of writing, poetry is the MOST difficult.
Yet, most people write poetry as though it were the easiest possible thing to do. Tra-la-la. Knock out four or five haiku in an afternoon. Why not?
People complain all the time about “Ivy League” this and “College educated” that and yada-yada-yada BS. Without a full and decent education in your field of endeavor, whatever it may be and however you manage to acquire it, you will fail.
Trying to learn the viola by ear without ever studying how someone else has played it; without ever playing the “classics” of viola composition, will lead you to failure. Unless you are that “one in a million.”
Learning how to write poetry is no different. Sitting in a room by yourself, writing in a journal and then “sharing” your work with like-minded, self-educated “autodidacts” will teach you nothing. Not if you all have failed to learn from the “classics.”
Not if you think you can break up lines of prose and turn them into a poem.