Poetry Corner

by Arthur Mampel

When I teach a poetry workshop, I ask the students to free their minds and try to imagine a place in their lives that they retreat to when they want solitude and reflection, a place where they can clear their minds of everydayness, where they can think new thoughts. It may be a bench in the park, or their private room, or a walk by the lake, or in the library. I tell them that when they have imagined such a place they are to describe it in as many one syllable words as they can put on a single sheet of paper.

When they are done, I say to them, “Now you have the vocabulary for the poem I want you to write.” They have questions: “Why only one syllable words?” I tell them that I got that idea from Ernest Hemingway. He once said, “I know all the ten dollar words, and I’ll have none of it. The old words are better.” To keep his language bare and emotionally honest, Hemingway would use words that produced unmistakable images, like “sea, sun, wet, rain blue, sky” and so on. I tell my pupils that they can use a two or three syllable word ever so often, but only as a rarity. I tell them that now they are ready to compose a poem about that sacred place in their life. I ask them to use as many of the words they have chosen to describe that place of retreat. And, they should not try to be brilliant. “Do not think too much. Write with feeling and abandonment. Don’t try to be clever. Do not control your emotions. Just let the feelings roll off your fingers onto the page.”

It almost never fails! The students will come up with the most surprising lines, lovely word combinations that startle and awaken the reader. Perhaps only one or two lines will be worth keeping, but as they revise their poem they can awaken the poet in themselves and poetry can become a new outlet for their emotions. Saul Bellow writes that perhaps only poetry had the strength “to rival the attractions of narcotics, the magnetism of TV, the excitements of sex, or the ecstasies of destruction.”