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How to Win at Guess My Poet and other IMPORTANT POETRY OBSERVATIONS

1. Gauge your difficulty level & know your audience.

When playing “Guess My Superhero” with my youngest son I’ve learned (the hard way) to ask early on, “Have I ever heard of this superhero before?” It’s not fun to play “Guess My__” if the person guessing has absolutely no chance. It’s also not fun if the only thing you know about the person is that your kid is always picking him and you don’t know anything else about him (Skaar, Sentry). On the other hand, the game’s not fun if it’s too easy. When we first started playing, my youngest picked Batman almost every time or he’d pick whichever superhero my older sons had just picked. So, when playing GMP with my husband I’m not going to pick Alice Notley (she’s my Batman) and I’m not going to pick Josie Siegler (sorry, Josie, my husband doesn’t know you yet, you’re my Scarlet Witch).

What does this have to do with writing poetry? As poets, it helps to know our audience and to aim for something that’s hard but not impossible. I’ll speak for myself: I like my readers/listeners to have a feeling of difficulty but not impossibility.

2. 70/30. The (vexed) value of categories.

In order to efficiently win (or do well at) these games, you should ask a question that enables you to eliminate the greatest number of people possible. You don’t want to ask a question like “Is your superhero powerful?” because that’s not going to help you eliminate anyone; you also don’t want to start out asking “Is your person Red She Hulk?” because unless you’re a telepath, asking something that specific is almost always a waste of a question.

You do want to ask questions like, “Is your Superhero in Marvel?” Ask, “Does he have weapons or powers?” (that should really be two questions). Ideally, you want to ask a question that divides the candidates into two groups of roughly 70 and 30 percent and you’re hoping that the person you’re trying to guess falls into the smaller group.

So, in “Guess Who” the board game it’s smart to ask, “Is your person a woman? Does your person have brown skin? Is your person wearing a hat?” Because, if the answer to any of these is yes, you can eliminate a lot of people. Similarly, there are fewer bad guys than good guys (in Superheroes anyway), fewer women than men (again, Superheroes). My husband often asks, in “Guess My Poet”: “Does he teach? Is she dead? Is he over 60? Have I met her?” Particularly effective recent questions have been, “Is his first name Robert?” “Is he gay?” “Does she live in New York?” “Do I find her attractive?” (Strangely, roughly 30% of all the poets I think of tend to be named Robert or are gay or live in New York or are attractive to my husband.)

Poets often resist being identified as part of a “school” and often bemoan the silliness of poetry “camps.” And, (huge understatement) identity politics are tricky—most people don’t want to be identified (only) as a black poet or a gay poet or a New York poet or poet-attractive-to-Rachel’s-husband. But think about how young children learn to sort by shape and color. The development of schemata is helpful if not necessary for understanding, and categories like these are schema. This is part of what my sons love about superheroes—their categories and attributes, the ways in which the superheroes are the same and also different from other superheroes.

If I were playing “Guess My Poet” with a poet instead of with my husband, we’d ask each other, “Is her work experimental? Narrative? Confessional? Surreal? Fixed-forms? Does she write in short lines? Book-length poems? Is he more a child of Whitman or Dickinson? Are his poems funny? Surreal? Would Stephen Burt like her?” These categories are useful in playing GMP—funny really narrows things down!—but not, always meaningful for the writing or reading of poems and they are certainly not value judgments and say nothing about whether the poetry is good or bad (although and obvious category is “do I like this poet’s work?”).

The value of categories is limited, but it’s naïve to think readers don’t come to poems with a set of expectations or schema or categories of understanding about the poet, about the genre, about the language, about meter. These expectations are often established in the first few lines or even earlier. Arielle Greenberg speaks eloquently on this subject and developed a model of workshop she calls the Contract Model that acknowledges and makes use of these and other kinds of expectations when workshopping a poem. Part of the process of reading is about fulfilling or breaking or changing readers’ expectations (and also, therefore, changing or refining readers’ schemata). Even though Julie Carr says she ‘doesn’t believe in ‘types of poetry’” I think readers do think about what type or kind of poetry they are reading. I know that I think about what categories a poem falls into (or complicates). And, while I don’t think about this while I’m writing, I think it’s important for poets to occasionally try to articulate “what kind” of poetry they write. (Look out for an upcoming post on how poets answer the question: “What kind of poetry do you write?”)

Here I’ll even go way out on a limb and say perhaps poets might want to think about what it might mean for them to want to be in a 30%? For example, you might want to write some funny poems—that’s probably easier than changing your name to Robert or your sexual orientation or living in NY or coming on to my husband. Seriously, what distinguishes you? What makes you characteristic? If my husband asks, “Did this poet write a poem that is more than 200 pages?” or “Did you actually cry while reading this poet’s work?” or “Does this poet primarily write in traditional meter?” or “Does this poet write about pornography?” and the answers to any of these things is “yes”—the field is narrowed. A less uncomfortable (because it feels less market driven) way of putting this is: What are the poems that only you could write?

3. The beauty of the hard to answer questions & lucidification.

Categories are useful. But what’s fun and interesting is when the categories fail. Is Punisher a good guy or a bad guy? Does Hulk have “skin color human beings don’t usually have”? (not when he’s Bruce Banner…). Does Silver Surfer have weapons or powers? My sons and I once had a long and impassioned argument about whether R2D2 and C3PO were alive or dead and whether they were male or female. (By the way, when playing with a four year old, the four year old always wins: R2D2 and C3PO are ALIVE and BOYS.)

Some of the most interesting poets are working at the boundaries of aesthetic categories or write poems that combine categories that previously seemed uncombinable (in order to examine this tendency we invented POETICS). I’m speaking here of work that now falls under the large category of “hybrid” but also, more specifically, of poets who are not necessarily “hybrid” but are always working with seemingly disparate tendencies. Some poets are highly lyric and highly experimental or write super chatty, low-brow poems in fixed forms. On some level, I think the poet’s desire to wrench or reinvent or reuse or stretch the language and the categories of language is basic and ubiquitous that we fair to see this as anything other than a defining aspect of poetry but playing GMP (especially the advanced version in which you are not allowed to ask ANY biographical questions) reminds us of this central poetry drive.

One of the pleasures of these games (heightened when the questions are hard to answer) is how it seems impossible that you’ll ever figure it out and then suddenly the answer comes into focus. You can’t imagine who is the poet who writes prose, lives in the Northeast, doesn’t teach, isn’t married, sometimes rhymes, is white, old, alive, straight, narrative, not named Robert, was married, I’ve never met him but have read more than three of his books, didn’t go to Iowa… who could it… DONALD HALL!

Some poems really go for that eureka moment when something opaque or seemingly-unintelligible lucidifies (that should really be a word). I’m not so interested (and don’t trust) the kind of singular truth or “right answer” in poems that I’m looking for in “Guess My___,” but I do think one of the great and regular pleasures of poetry is when language makes something—a story, a feeling, a sound, an idea—clearer. Maybe “clarifies” is a better word than “lucidifies.” Lucidifies makes it seem like something is becoming more solid, stronger, less malleable, but I like to think of the substance in poems becoming clarified like ghee. It changes form—becomes more translucent and fragrant—but doesn't totally clear or disappear. The clarified substance isn't an answer or an ending; it's a new ingredient.




Read GUESS MY POET here.

Originally Published: April 9th, 2012

Poet and educator Rachel Zucker was born in New York and grew up in Greenwich Village, the daughter of novelist Benjamin Zucker and storyteller Diane Wolkstein. She earned her BA at Yale University and her MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop.   Zucker’s expansive yet lyrical poems interrogate and deftly...