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Poetic Forms: Master Class Review & Writing Prompts

Recently, I attended Masterclass: Poetic Forms: Overt and Oblique with David Baker through the Hudson River Valley Writing Center. Baker led a deep reading and discussion of works by Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Linda Gregerson, and Solmaz Sharif. My commentary will skip along the surface of class's content. However, below are 3 points that stood out, along with poetry prompt takeaways:

1. Poetic Form as a Logical Argument

Dickinson’s poem #640 is shrouded in ambiguity. However, we know it is about a relationship. The speaker “I” is addressing a receiver “You.” Most poets will generally agree that iambic pentameter is the standard America verse, but here Dickinson’s line breaks disrupt that natural cadence. Likewise, the poem appears to be about 2 long sentences (this is debatable), providing a logical strand of argument with metaphorical associations imbedded throughout.

“I cannot live with you” Stanza 1

“I could not die with you” Stanza 4

“Nor could I rise with you” Stanza 6

“So, we must meet apart” Stanza 12

Logic: Because of this, this, and that, then “we must meet apart.”

It’s mathematical (x + y + z = n), the poet is entering context within the variables and then ending with a sum of those reasons. Of course, this likely occurs on a subconscious level for the poet.

This is a complicated poem, but a high-level study of the structure can help us understand what is happening with the content in the form.

Baker’s poetry prompt takeaway: Write a poem presenting a logical argument.

2. Poetic form as a weaving of narratives.

Gregerson’s poem An Arbor builds a cohesive narrative constructed of other multiple narratives. I call these themes as well. The poem is numbered into 5 parts. The poem opens with a sense of community:

“The world’s a world of trouble, your mother must

have told you.”

The next sentence shifts to a reflection of an event happening in nature:

“The oak

is going the way

of the elm in the Upper Midwest-“

Later in Part 1, a personal narrative is revealed:

“and Jason’s alive yet, the fair-

haired child, his metal crib next

to my daughter’s.”

The poison leaking into the community is intertwined with the Oak Wilt disease infected the trees. The events in the community and nature are laced with the unfortunate accident that is Jason’s early death. One event didn’t cause another, these events are just happening in parallel of another and cannot exist without the other.

NOTE, the realization of these themes was guided by the discussion with Baker, so I don’t know if I would have seen them without him, so I will give due credit to the Masterclass for my above interpretations. Also, other themes could be pulled from this poem depending on the reader.

Baker’s poetry prompt(s) takeaway: Write a poem with at least 2 narratives, (3 or 4 could be better). However, a good poem always has at least 2. Invent a form while experimenting with syllables. Does it change the poem if you use 3- or 4-line stanzas? How about 12 syllable or 7 syllable lines?

3) The Prose Poem

The definition of a prose poem differs. I am not aware of an agreed upon definition in the poetry community. Recently, in a workshop, I heard someone say, “a prose poem has all the elements of a poem but without any line breaks.” This was a good definition for me. However, Baker didn’t attempt to define a prose poem, but instead, offered an observation about what prose can do as a poetic form. Baker said, “the shape of a paragraph provides a documentary quality. People tend to trust prose.”

In the class, we examined Sharif’s special events for homeland security. The poet makes obvious and explicit use of military language in sexual contexts.

The poem opens with a command:

“Leave your DOLLY at home – there is no INNOCENT PASSAGE.”

The poem inserts jargon into a context that is not where it originally came:

“An exclusive MAN SPACE with over two-dozen HEIGHT HOLES and bitches in READY POSITION.”

The poem consistently makes it’s point overly obvious:

“Guaranteed to make your SPEADER BAR SWELL.”

Baker’s poetry prompt(s) takeaway: Write a poem that is obvious. Write a poem that differs from your usual way of speaking. Use jargon from other literature (corporate, legal, pharmaceutical etc.) What happens if you put it in another context?

Hope you enjoyed this post and good luck with your writing.

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