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My Creative Writing class at the high school is just starting with poetry, so I gave them my most basic lesson yesterday.  This is one of those "foundation" lessons that underpins everything else I tell them during the unit.  The lesson is on "private" vs "public" poetry.

The difference is this, private poetry cannot be critiqued (or taught, for that matter), but public poetry can.  I give them a little table on the board that separates the differences between the two:

Private Poetry Qualities:

Telling (you might find out how the poet feels about something)

Public Poetry Qualities:

Showing (the reader gets to feel something)
Concrete (appeals to the senses)

Private poetry, in general, only has an emotional or intellectual effect on the poet who knows what it is about.  In contrast, public poetry can effect the readers, even if they have never met the poet and have no idea what provoked the poem.

A private poem might go like this:

I'm in love.
Happiness fills the world.
My joy knows no end.
Everything is beautiful.
Gladness makes my paradise.

And it might go on like that for stanza after stanza, piling one abstraction on top of another until it reaches (thankfully) an end somewhere toward the bottom of the page.  All the reader will be able to conclude from the poem is "I guess the poet is in love."  This poem, by the way, is at least comprehensible.  There's quite a bit of student poetry that is not only abstract and general, but, if you are honest, you have to admit you don't know that the heck it's about.

Here's a much more interesting poem that I give them as an example of a public poem.  You don't have to know the poet or the situation to be effected by this.  It's a high school student's first poem to me from a couple of years ago:

The Girl Who Was Always Trying to Light Me On Fire

I once knew a girl who never tired
of trying to light me on fire--
Her flaming eyes her molten heart
succeeded in setting her apart,
from all those other phony dames
so afraid of life and flames.
She burned my bridges as I crossed--
Molotov cocktails she always tossed
into the room where I slept.
A bottle of lighter fluid she always kept
to squirt at me in that affectionate way--
then dodge the matches we would play.
Then one day in the yard--
She said she could not love one so scarred.

This isn't without flaws, but it's a darned sight more interesting than the other poem.

As it turns out, this basic lesson on moving from telling to showing, from generalities to specifics is the biggest hurdle most of my students face.  I tell them that it's actually pretty easy to be original: all you need to do is be ferociously specific.  If you are specific enough, you will not be duplicating anyone else's effort.

The lesson after this is about how if you want to be universal you need to be specific.  When writers generalize in an effort to reach everyone, oddly enough, they become increasingly less universal.  It's one of those interesting contradictions in writing.

When we get to the writing of stories later in the class, we draw on this initial lesson dividing poems into the private and the public.  If they can make the leap in poetry early, I get much better stories at the end.  Instead of them summarizing scenes, they actually paint them with detail.  What I teach them with poetry is the power of the well chosen detail, and that goes a long way toward making them better story writers when we get there.


( 18 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 23rd, 2007 02:11 pm (UTC)
A great post on writing. If I hadn't just spent the last 45 minutes composing an essay at the BG site and then linking it everywhere, I'd be sure to post. I'll try to point BG readers this way later this week.

Nice work.
Aug. 23rd, 2007 02:46 pm (UTC)
Thanks! I'm doing this lesson right now in my class. It's always fun. It's always an eye opener.

What's weird is most of the kids act like this is revolutionary, as if no other English teacher pointed out to them that they will write better if they pay more attention to specifics (and get them into their writing).

I worry that the teacher they have next year will get the same reaction and think, "What the heck did your teacher last year do?"

Aug. 23rd, 2007 03:17 pm (UTC)
What I teach them with poetry is the power of the well chosen detail, and that goes a long way toward making them better story writers when we get there.

How do you know, though, which are the right details to choose?
Aug. 23rd, 2007 04:29 pm (UTC)
That is a good question, but before they can ask it, they have to get it through their heads that detail are important. So, when they write a description of a camping trip, they don't just say, "We set up our tents in the woods" (especially if their intent is to make the reader know what the woods were like), but instead they write something like, "I set my tent under a huge oak at the edge of the clearing that cast a lovely, flickering shade all day, but at night creaked and groaned in the wind."

Of course, to do the details they have to either observe more closely, remember better, or imagine fully, all skills most of them lack.

To answer the question, though, the details that are the "right" details are the ones that the point of view character would notice, and through that noticing paint a picture both of the scene and the character's internal landscape.

I know that sounds a bit theoretical, but that really is what is going on. Every detail functions to build the wholeness of the work.
Aug. 23rd, 2007 08:54 pm (UTC)
Great lesson, Jim! I'm a-stealin' it. I've got 2 sections of Creative Writing each semester this year. :)
Aug. 23rd, 2007 09:35 pm (UTC)
Hi, Patrick. Do you see students next week or is it in a couple of weeks?
Aug. 23rd, 2007 11:45 pm (UTC)
Meetings next week, students come back after Labor Day. I am NOT ready. I'm still trying to climb out of the mess that is moving in to a new place, PLUS getting Talebones 35 out (it went to bulk mail yesterday!), and the Nolan book (which needs a lot of work and corrections).

On a good note, I have 1st period planning. That will be nice indeed.
Aug. 23rd, 2007 09:00 pm (UTC)
I rather like your student's poem.
Aug. 23rd, 2007 09:33 pm (UTC)
I did too. There aren't many poems from students that I keep. This was one of them. There is one that a student turned in once that I can't get out my head. I don't even know if it's original, but it cracked me up:

Don't cuss.
Call Gus.
Gus will cuss
For all of us.
Aug. 24th, 2007 07:11 pm (UTC)
Show-don't-tell... It's kind of an obvious approach, and yet it has to be brought up again and again. This brings to mind an interview I recently read where a writer said that his books are almost all dialog because of his years watching and reviewing movies. I'm not sure how ell that works when you don't see Cary Grant say "How does a girl like you get to be a girl like you?"
Aug. 25th, 2007 05:50 am (UTC)
I love your icon!

The kids turned in their first poetry today. Despite my best initial efforts, it's clearly beginner's work. But that's why I do the job.

My first poems in school were all science fictional. I have no idea what my instructors thought of them.
Aug. 25th, 2007 11:09 am (UTC)
When we were given a story-writing assignment in high school, I of course chose an SF one. My teacher didn't give me a good grade for it, but not because of its subject matter. It wasn't very well thought out, and that was a requirement even for SF, he said. Or words to that effect, if I remember correctly something that happened almost 40 years ago. Thinking back, it surprises me because it suggests that he was familiar with SF and yet gave no indication of it. Maybe he didn't want the rest of the department to find out he read that stuff.
Aug. 28th, 2007 09:38 pm (UTC)
LOL! Very possible.
Aug. 25th, 2007 03:13 am (UTC)
THANK you. Now I understand what all that stuff is that I projectile-purge when I'm having some kind of mania or meltdown. "Why yes, in between bouts of brilliant fictional prose, I do dabble in a bit of private poetry." :) It sounds good, too! (A much more attractive image than "purging," anyway ;-)

Terrific--and helpful--post.

Aug. 28th, 2007 08:56 pm (UTC)
Nice post, Jim. This advice is something that definitely has stuck in my brain.

In fact, it came to mind when I was listening to a "Best of" CD by an artist I liked when I was younger. I was finding that I liked the early songs (with which I was familiar), but not the later songs.

Part of it was the "nostalgia effect" (the earlier songs reminding me of some good times from my youth), but it was also because the newer songs weren't "public" and "specific" and "insightful" but "private" and "general" and "trite".

I always think of good songs as small stories in themselves, which leads to another possible way to teach this stuff to kids - through the songs that surround them a large part of their waking hours. It could be interesting to have them bring in song lyrics and then analyze them for public v private, specific v general and see if this affects (or characterizes) their enjoyment of the songs.

Perhaps the "general, public" quality of so much pop music is a partial explanation for why it's always such a hurdle for students to move from generalities to specifics when writing.

Random thoughts,

Aug. 28th, 2007 09:43 pm (UTC)
I love a good lyric, but I constantly have to remind myself that a song is more than its lyric. I remember Deep Purple had a song I really, really liked entitled "I'm So Glad." The whole lyric was "I'm so glad. I'm glad. I'm glad. I'm glad" for five minutes.

Still, a good lyric is wonderful. Have you ever seen matociquala's posts? She always entitles her entries with an interesting lyric. Besides saying interesting things about writing all the time, I find I like her posts to see if I can guess what song her posting title came from.
Aug. 28th, 2007 10:17 pm (UTC)
Hey Jim --

Oh yeah, a good musical hook and style can completely justify simple (or even insipid lyrics). I love Kraftwerk as much as any geek, but they were not complex, insightful lyricists :-)

But I still find myself drawn to songs with lyrics that are well-constructed, thoughtful, "specific", tell a story, and are touching. Now that I'm writing, I like to think of songs as another method of storytelling and look at how they do what they do.

I'm trying to get my (13-year-old) daughter to think about the music she listens to, by asking questions like "What do you think happened" or "What do you think it means". Alas, her main answer is the standard (for a 13-year-old) "I dunno." We'll work on it :-)

Maybe college students would be more forthcoming...

- yeff
Aug. 29th, 2007 01:55 am (UTC)
Oh yeah, and I do have matociquala (Elizabeth Bear, for those who might not know) on my list. I'm maybe batting about 20% on her quotes, on a good day. She has a pretty eclectic list of music interests...
( 18 comments — Leave a comment )