I’ve recently been reading Peter Brook’s The Shifting Point. I often go back to this book, reading about the world of theatre as a way to think about poetry.
In the chapter entitled ‘Shakespearean Realism’ Brook talks about how we intuitively accept from a young age that our mind is constantly moving from one place to another. A child – accustomed to instantly switching between places, time zones, reality and dreams – gradually becomes aware of the subconscious. Talking about that child, Brook concludes:
By the time he is old enough to be a theatregoer he will have already learned from films if not from life that space and time are loose and meaningless terms: that with a cut the mind can flick from yesterday to Australia.
I’ve always been inspired by poems that travel between different places, poems that effortlessly interweave contradictory images, themes or forms of speech. Poetry that travels between dreams and wakefulness never seems surreal, to me, but realistic, as it follows the way our minds work. After all, we could argue that no matter where we are, we’re constantly carrying with us glimpses of different places, distant memories and the beginning of new stories, not to mention the unconscious, dreams and daydreams. What we can express of a single moment in our poetry has countless possibilities.
In this course we’ll celebrate that complexity, bringing together disparate elements and forming new relations. We’ll discover the playfulness in jumping between countries, seasons and stories, in experimenting with different forms of speech and in simultaneously telling several stories that may not at first glance seem connected. We’ll see how the link between seemingly different worlds can help us reach a deeper understanding of our own place.
In Elizabeth Bishop’s poem, ‘In the Waiting Room’, the speaker sits in a dentist waiting room, reading a magazine that takes her far away to the mouth of a volcano. When she’s back in the waiting room, she forms a moment of existential reflection halfway through the poem:
But I felt: you are an I,
you are an Elizabeth,
you are one of them.
At this moment in the poem the speaker acknowledges, among other things, the notion of change and of transformation. Change, of course, occurs in many different forms. A place may stay more or less the same and then suddenly look dramatically different, because we ourselves have changed. In the final book of the Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante, the protagonist, visiting her hometown, says:
Even Naples, suddenly, seemed far from Naples.
And so, how do we approach the subject of change in our writing? How do we convey a concept that never stands still? One way, perhaps, is to admit that there’s a limit to what we can express with our craft. Sylvia Plath’s ‘The Colossus’ begins with the speaker’s admission of her incapacity to fully understand her subject (the father):
I shall never get you put together entirely,
Pieced, glued, and properly jointed
During this course we’ll experiment with different ways of capturing complexity in our writing: we’ll challenge ourselves with contradictions, questions, and unexpected directions. We’ll experiment with change and uncertainty while acknowledging the limits of our understanding and being led by questions rather than answers. We’ll create variations on themes in order to explore a subject from many different angles, and we’ll discover the joy of changing our mind during the writing process! In other words, we will let the act of writing take us to unpredictable places, where we find new meanings, connections and surprises.
Towards the end of John Ashbery’s masterpiece, ‘Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror’, is a section in which the artist, who never seems to accomplish what he intends, ends up creating something else more exciting:
It is the principle that makes works of art so unlike
What the artist intended. Often he finds
He has omitted the thing he started out to say
In the first place. Seduced by flowers,
Explicit pleasures, he blames himself (though
Secretly satisfied with the result), imagining
He had a say in the matter and exercised
An option of which he was hardly conscious
As poets, many of us are familiar with how the very process of writing brings new ideas and questions. We often start writing about one thing and end up creating a completely different piece. During the course, we’ll celebrate this tendency, testing how far we can go from the poem’s starting point to its ending. We’ll be reading poems by John Ashbery, Elizabeth Bishop, W. S. Merwin, Paul Muldoon, Arthur Rimbaud, Brenda Shaughnessy, Tracy K. Smith, Wallace Stevens, Elizabeth Willis and many more. I hope that you’ll join me in reading and writing poems that travel between different time zones and places, between reality and dream, memories and a future, poems that keep moving forward and never stand still. I look forward to reading and creating complex poetry together!