Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Open Field: A Poetry Prompt from Instructor Anne Becker

In celebration of National Poetry Month, The Writer’s Center is sharing prompts from current and former instructors. This installment includes a prompt from Anne Becker.

This assignment is about “form” or “structure” in poetry. In the past I have thought of the form of a poem as a kind of scaffolding. But I want to start with a new image. The open field.

We could first imagine the blank page—that will later be filled with words and silences—as the open field. Filled only with possibility. It’s spring, the soil has lain fallow through the winter. But, of course, below the surface, water, insects (larva and adult), fungi, bacteria, humus, chemicals, minerals, little mammals have been working, preparing for this new season.

Then we—the poets—step into this open arena. We will plant something here. But before we plant, we need to plow, to loosen, to break down clots of dirt, and arrange the aerated soil into patterns of shallow trenches, little hillocks, following the contours of the earth. Most of this goes on as we sleep, as we dream, as we daydream.

Now we are ready to plant the seeds we have been collecting since we were born, going about the daily business of our lives. These we drop into the furrow, leaving space between each seed or cluster of seeds so that when they sprout there is enough room for these fertile pods to burgeon. And when this herbage expands, the image of the field transforms from a space of infinite (almost) possibility into a mass of experience, teeming with life above and below the surface. The open field fills and fills. It has a new texture, new color, new odor, new energy, heat, light, music. And growth we didn’t intend, we didn’t imagine has taken root.

The field has now become not a bounded thing but an expanse of being. And if we go back to the poem, we can see its form as an arrangement of breathing, of moving, of growth, of discovery.

In poetry we have both “received” form and “organic” form. We can set out with a form already in mind, like the sonnet, villanelle, pantoum and then pour what we feel that we have to say into. Or we can have an idea, sensation, emotion and let that create the form it needs to fulfill itself.

If we decide to use a form already invented, just mastering the rules, syllable count, rhyme scheme, number of lines is not enough. it is imperative that we consider its parameters, its powers, its operations, so that we understand what kinds of beings it can hold and what kind of existence will fulfill it.
Anne Becker, M.A., Writing Seminars at The Johns Hopkins University, poet laureate emerita of Takoma Park, Maryland State Arts Council grantee, is the author of The Transmutation Notebooks: Poems in the voices of Charles and Emma Darwin, and The Good Body. For over 15 years, she was the senior producer of Watershed Tapes, recording major American and international poets reading their work, including Nobel Laureates Joseph Brodsky and Czesław Miłosz. Currently, she is poet-in-residence at Pyramid Atlantic Arts Center.

No comments: