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The right word resonates.
(Pedagogy) Philosophy and Nonsense      
Thoughts about writing, education, and experience                                  Presented by Forrest D. Poston

The first goal of teaching is to strengthen, deepen and refine our intrinsic love of learning. All other goals and all methods must stem from that idea. Any that do not support that goal must at least be questioned and adjusted, if not eliminated. Otherwise, we are not teaching but training.

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Perception alters vision.

Writing and Education

Autobiography Challenge

Considering Conclusions

Considering Introductions

Four Meanings of Life

Godot and the Great Pumpkin

A Major is More Minor Than
You Think

The Poetry Process (A look at 4 versions of a poem.)

Thoughts About Picking a Major

Quick Points About Education

Quick Points About Writing

Reading Poetry and Cloud Watching

Revising Revision

Reviving Experience

Reviving Symbolism

Using an Audience

Videos

What Makes a Story True?

What's the Subject of This Class? (Being revised.)

Why Write?

Writing and Einstein (The Difference Between Information and Meaning)

Writing and the Goldilocks Dilemma

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Writing Poetry:  Four Drafts and a Look at Process         by Forrest D. Poston

    The drafts below are by no means all the drafts done. I have eight or so still around somewhere, and they show evidence of others that haven't survived. The last date notation is 3/16/95, and the poem was published in "Block's Magazine" in Spring, 1997, but I wouldn't go so far as to say that revisions are over. I keep going back to these drafts looking for ways to improve this piece, but I'm also looking for other branches, other ideas for new writings. Writing always opens possibilities that can't be explored in a single piece, so the more writing the more possibilities.

     Tracing this process backwards, the earliest date notation is 11/02/92, but that's on a draft that already says "variation." I don't think there were many previous drafts, but something came before. One of the verbal inspirations came sometime in 1991 when one of my composition students took her first shot at writing poetry. Her poem contained the phrase "liquid whispers," which I did and do adore. It rolls around the mouth and off the tongue so very well. I pointed out the phrase and suggested we both try coming up with a poem based on those words. It was near the end of the term, and I moved on, and she drifted into the Land of Former Students.

     The poem is adapted from two experiences. One was in the spring of 1982, and the other goes back to autumn of 1975 or spring of 1976. I did say adapted. The poem isn't "about" those experiences. When I first started writing poetry (during my second time around as an undergraduate), I thought there was a direct line from experience to inspiration to poem. Most of my writing came when a few lines appeared in my mind at some odd moment (in class, bending over the water fountain, or sitting on the toilet---where the first four lines of my first poem found me). Within 20 minutes to about 2 hours from the first flash, I had a poem, and I thought that messing with the inspiration would ruin the expression----experience to poem equals truth. Excuse me, that's "Truth." I wrote a lot about Truth back then: discovering Truth, knowing Truth, being true to Truth. Adolescence lingers for some of us.

     We have no material except experience, but that's a very raw ore requiring refining, distillation, and application. Perhaps there is meaning in experience, but if so, it's at an unknowable level. Experience is an event. That much we can handle (in theory at least), but meaning is an expression of pattern, an connection between events and time. But how can we pick THE pattern out of all possible patterns and say this is THE meaning. If you can conceive of the complete universe across all time and understand all the relationships, then fine. You've found meaning. Perhaps that's what enlightenment really is, and maybe two or three people have managed it. Then there's the rest of us.

     Let's shrink the image. Consider a blank sheet of paper. For many writers, that's the most terrifying image. While blank, it contains all possibilities, all possible patterns. Infinity sits there in front of us--and laughs. Put two dots and you can draw a line, three and you have a triangle. Add enough lines and you can play connect the dots to draw just about anything, but each one of those dots each a choice made out of the infinite, a pattern selected from the infinite. You've selected and created meaning out of the possibilities, but to create meaning you've had to temporarily deny all the other potential choices.

     That's why we get phrases like existential terror. If there is no meaning except that which we impose, then we have definite potential of absurdity, and a lot of existential writing looks at the negative aspect of absurdity. You're born, you die, it all goes on. What's the point, and can there be a point? Ah, but absurdity has an upside as well. In one "Calvin and Hobbes" strip (and I suggest you read every "Calvin and Hobbs" strip and book you can), our characters wake to find fresh, untracked snow covering their world. With no tracks, no trails, it's like an infinite world. It's an unwritten page. You've got a choice. You can look at it as way too much and crawl under the covers, or you can look at it as adventure, and head off on your sled with, "Let's go exploring."

     Experience is Playdough. Turn it, twist it, pull it, nibble it. Maybe we can't handle the infinite all at once, but each experience gives us a tangible slice of infinity to play with. It's the world's greatest toy, and the joy of growing up is you can learn more and more ways to play with it if you choose to do so.

     Enough theory. Let's look at poetry instead.

 

VERSION ONE

Liquid Air

The air is liquid at four
In the morning, when even the
Half-grown leaves of spring
Merely whisper gently in their sleep.
The high tide of night that
Might have drowned spirits
Too far from shore, now ebbs,
But even the first
False dawn has yet to
Scratch its pink revelations
Across the untainted horizon.

That's how the work stood as of 11/10/92. Some things to note:

     The visual appearance is boxy. Up until this point, all my poems looked this way, but two friends suggested playing with line breaks more, trying to begin and end each line with a strong word. It was advice at just the right time. Trying to begin and end with a strong word makes you much more aware of your language and forces you to tighten up weaknesses that might have slipped past.

     You can also find a lot of overwriting in this version: "Merely whisper gently," and two unnecessary uses of "even". Overwriting, especially too many adjectives and adverbs, usually tells you that there are too many weak verbs and nouns. What my high school English teacher adored and raised my grades for was really bad writing. More about that a little later.

     You may also noticed that the orignal phrase "liquid whispers" has already been separated by this time. Somewhere I had a choice between my orignal inspiration/intent and the crafting. Go with the crafting as long as it doesn't say something you really don't mean to say. In version two, keys changes are in blue.

 

VERSION TWO

Muskingum Hilltop

This air is liquid
at four in the morning,
when rooms are dark,
sidewalks empty
and the half-grown leaves
mutter gentle nonsense--
When the spirit can safely cease
treading the now ebbing night
But the first false dawn
has yet to scratch
its faint pink revelations
across the invisible horizon.

     Titles are fun. Each poem has so many potential titles, it gives the writer a lot of room to play, but each title affects the rest of the poem because it sets some of the tone, attitude, and expectation for the reader. Liquid Air was a fun, oxymoronic title and it put the emphasis where I originally felt it, that special quality of air on some spring pre-dawn mornings. Changing to Muskingum Hilltop puts everything in a specific place, a change emphasized by changing the opening word from "The" to "This." The poem isn't dealing with just any time and place. This place, this moment is the important one. There is something about this particular here and now that's important. Thinking in those terms made me look at one of the source experiences more closely, and I pulled in the details about the rooms and sidewalks.

     The section on leaves got some serious trimming. "Half-grown leaves of spring." Is there any other time of year you would expect half-grown leaves? Redundant, not emphasis. Now that they are muttering gentle nonsense, I've completely broken with the inspiration by cutting "whisper," but mutter and nonsense work better together. Whisper anthropomorphizes the leaves too much, but I think "mutter gentle nonsense" plays with that idea. They almost sound like they're whispering, almost sentient, but it's really all in the mind.

     The treading spirit section was one of the most difficult, and it still doesn't work in this version. It took the most work, but I recently realize that it's the crux. That will come when I talk about the "final" version. There's also a one word change in the last line going from untainted to invisible. That spot also went through quite a number of variations, and I still have some doubts. Either there's still a bit missing, or maybe there's another poem waiting to branch off at that point.

 

VERSION THREE

Muskingum Hilltop

This air blows liquid
at four in the morning,
when windows are dark,
sidewalks empty,
and the half-grown leaves
mutter gentle nonsense --
When the insomniac soul
ceases treading,
but the first false dawn
has yet to scratch
its faint pink revelations
across the invisible horizon.

     By this point there are fewer changes, or at least most of the changes involve smaller areas. I suppose that's a good sign, but at any stage you have to be willing to cut or change whatever requires adjustment. At this point (and in the next version) I'm still tinkering with the first line. Having "is" as the first verb in the poem just didn't cut it, far too weak. I went to the basics and asked myself what the wind actually does. Fortunately, I had sense enough to continue looking. I used a similar process with more success when considering the dark rooms. I pulled up the memory and took a closer look. Take yourself out in the dark and look at unlit rooms. You don't see the rooms because even with a bit of moonlight or a nearby street light, the outside is at least a little lighter than the inside. Those windows are sheets of shiny darkness, scarey in a way because things that are dark could be anything. Nothing may be the most frightening thing in the universe. I also like the shade of alliteration you get with "when windows." You should be able to have some fun reading poems out loud. Get used to playing with sound and letting it help you tinker with form and content, and remember that sound affects meaning (the meaning your reader creates).

     That middle section finally came into focus for me with the word insomniac. After all, we've got someone on the sidewalk at four in the morning. That's either an insomniac or somebody getting up way too early. Again, there's some alliteration to play with, though some people don't consider insomniac to be a "poetic" word. That's fine. They don't have to use the word in their poems if they don't want to, but poetic is a matter of taste to some degree. It's even more a matter of context. In this context it's an even better choice than I realized, but that comes in the closing discussion.

 

VERSION FOUR

Muskingum Hilltop

This air soothes, liquid
at four in the morning,
when windows are dark,
sidewalks empty,
and the half-grown leaves
mutter gentle nonsense --
when the insomniac soul
ceases treading,
but the first false dawn
has yet to scratch
its faint pink expectations
across the perfectly dark horizon.

     Smaller and fewer changes yet again, and those were actually spread out over about 3 revisions, with the last dated change at 3/16/95. Every change matters (or it should), but these were the ones that I think finally made this poem fall into place, a stronger, more effective focus. I continued playing with that first line, following the same path seeking precision. When the air "blows," so what? Air blows hot, cold, soft, hard, most anytime of day or night. What was different? What was it about that air, that time? "Soothes." It's a tricky line because it looks like the air soothes the liquid. Watch the comma. Yeah, sometimes punctuation really is as important as teachers like to think it is. Poetry requires precision, so each word, punctuation, and break should be sensitive. Of course, the biggest difference between is, blows, and soothes is that soothes tells you something is wrong. Someone needs the soothing. It also matches with gentle.

     The person who disliked my use of insomniac claimed that it sounded too harsh. Everything had been softer, more comforting up until that point, but insomniac didn't fit. It changed the feeling. She was right, of course. The feeling does change at that point. There is a shift, a horizon, but that's much of what the whole poem pivots upon. I didn't do it intentionally, but the crafting brought it into being. That also leads to changing revelations to expectations.

    Something will happen because we are at a threshold, but revelations contains a little too much certainty, perhaps a shade too much optimism, suggesting that something will definitely be revealed with the dawn. Expectations means maybe. There is the hope that something will be revealed, but hope doesn't always have much effect on reality. The sun will rise; the transition will occur. But will anything be revealed or changed by it? Unknown. The horizon that went from untainted to invisible to perfectly dark gives no clue. It repeats the blank darkness of the windows (hey, I just realized that connection was there).

    "Perfectly dark" also plays with tradition (and you study tradition partly so you know how to play with and twist it). Traditionally perfect has good connotations while dark has negative connotations. I happen to have a higher opinion of darkness than I do of perfection, but that has no effect on what the tradition has been. And we end with "horizon," one of the few words that was unchanged, even in its placement, throughout the process. Turns out it's the key word. Everything is about between, moment of change, threshold, transition. The horizon is that line between land and sky, day and night, where you are and where you are heading. Sometimes the change is positive, sometimes negative. Most often we don't even know when it happens, but there is no moment quite like the instant before the unknown becomes known when hope and fear balance. I didn't know it, but now I think the poem was always headed towards horizon. I just had to come up with all the words to get there.

     As talking with my students helped me see this poem more clearly, I was also seeing one of the major patterns of my life. In many respects, I've lived in between moments, socially, economically, almost everyway. Also, I've had a tendency to wait for those few key moments at the threshold when life focuses and becomes most intense. They are important, but the most difficult thing in life is living well and fully during the most ordinary moments. The great potential in crafting your writing is that you'll also be able to craft your life. If you can get yourself to see it more clearly, you can become more aware, and while awareness has its problems, it also means you live more fully. Creating poetry, you can also create yourself. Whether that's an incentive to write or an incentive to walk away is up to you.


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Other Essays and Poetry

Something Somewhat Vaguely Like a Resume

Being Like Children

The Blessing and the Blues

The Cat With a Bucket List

David and the Revelation

The Dawn, the Dark, and the Horse I Didn't Ride In On (an odd, meandering, semi-romantic story)

Ghost Dancer in the Twilight Zone

The Hair Connection and the Nature of Choices

The Mug, the Magic, and the Mistake

Trumpet Player, USDA Approved

Videos

Poetry

Selected Poems

The Poetry Process

Writing by Current or Former Students

Ms. Write Meets Her Match in Jr. Ms. Write Now
by Heide Perry

I'll Just Have Cats
by Cara Hummel

Toys to Toys
by Allyson Bowlds

Scribbles and Bits

Links to Other Sites