T.S. Eliot may have been on to something when he declared Ezra Pound to be “il miglior fabbro” (“the better craftsman”) for his work as editor of The Waste Land. Pound notoriously culled and cultivated Eliot’s original draft and helped reconstitute it into a new whole.
Almost one hundred years later, an inundation of information and a concomitant attention deficit that would have sent J. Alfred Prufrock, T. Stearns Eliot, and all their collective teacups over the edge characterize the times. Poetry is an art form that can help students home in on, attend to, and extrapolate pertinent and resonant material from the mass of data readily available to them.
To get into the practice of exercising that muscle of selection and to help young writers to appreciate that their manner of selection is always already unique, I like to introduce them to the following exercise, which I first encountered in a class taught by poet Kathleen Ossip. In honor of Eliot’s heap of broken lines and littered images, and with a tinge of Coleridge, I’ve dubbed it Autobiographia Litter-Aria.
You will need ten different forms of writing (suitable for youngsters) drawn from books, magazines, Google, newspapers, instruction manuals, historical documents, et cetera.
- A paragraph from the US Constitution
- A set of how-to instructions, such as “how to light a fire in the wilderness”
- A page of iterations from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons
- A paragraph from a Harry Potter book
And so forth. Write a number from 1 through 10 at the top of each, and photocopy a set for each student.
Ask students to fold a sheet of paper in half and jot down the numbers 1 through 10 in the left-hand column. Then pass out the writing examples and encourage the students to peruse each one and write down the line (phrase, sentence, fragment, et cetera) that they find most compelling, interesting, curious, and/or quirky next to the number associated with that example. This will usually take fifteen or twenty minutes, depending on the size of the class. Encourage students not to think too much about it, to trust their intuition regarding which lines to select. To give your students a laugh, you might quote Marianne Moore who once wrote, “To cite passages is to pull one quill from a porcupine.”
When students seem settled, ask them to turn their papers over and, in the right-hand column, write down ten lines that come to mind under the category “My favorite memories.” (Note: The subject of this category is entirely up to you—it could be “My favorite facts and fictions” or “Interesting information about animals” or any other topic.) Tell students that these lines can include quotes from parents and friends; vignettes or anecdotes; fragmentary memories or dreams; lists of favorite foods, games, activities, family rituals; phrases from songs or movies, et cetera.
When they finish, students should open their papers and see what interesting conjunctions occur between the two columns. Here’s an example of the first column:
- “... in order to form a more perfect union ...” (historical document)
- “make a fire with friction” (instruction manual)
- “Any change was in the ends of the centre. A heap was heavy. There was no change.” (Gertrude Stein excerpt)
- “Something came whizzing down the kitchen chimney as he spoke and caught him sharply on the back of the head. Next moment, thirty or forty letters came pelting out of the fireplace like bullets.” (Harry Potter excerpt)
For the next five to ten minutes, have students begin to assemble poems from these curious parts, with minor tweaks and unexpected amendments. Here’s an example of what might emerge:
In order to form a more perfect union,
make a fire with friction
like playing rocks, paper, scissors was in my family
where any change was the end of a certain
centering and the beginning of a-kilter. A letter
shoots out of the fire: There is a rumbling
then zillions of letters come shooting
out of the fire. I remember the first time
I heard the word un-
happy, and it was not uncomfortable. The fire,
the un- that illuminates all union.
Conduct this exercise a few times throughout the term, and students will begin to notice and appreciate the kinds of lines and language—as well as tones, structures, and content—they tend to gravitate to. When young writers are given an opportunity to realize that they are unique—not simply because they create shocking syntax or dazzling enjambments but also because of the very nuanced and subtle ways in which they attend to the multiplicitous world—a new variety of writing and attentiveness and understanding become possible. Or, as Eliot would say, Shantih shantih shantih.
Christina Davis is the author of two collections of poetry: An Ethic (Nightboat Books, 2013) and Forth A Raven (Alice James Books, 2006). She currently serves as curator of the Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University and lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.