Returning to Poetry by Stepping Away

Last week, I had the pleasure of teaching a poetry workshop for Year 4 Medical Students studying Medical Humanities at Imperial College London.

This has become an annual workshop, a two-and-a-half hour opportunity to bring poetry to students who, for the most part, haven’t read or thought of the genre since school exams – though to be fair, there were quite a few in this class who enjoyed reading, and in a few cases, writing, poetry.

In the past, we’ve enjoyed incorporating A Humument, and while it is always an excellent workshop, this time I chose something more theory-based. We spent a whole hour discussing Leslie Saunders’s provocative article:

Saunders, L. (2014) Do poetry and science have interesting and important things in common? Some thoughts on ‘parsimony’ and ‘provisionality’, Interdisciplinary Science Reviews 39(1): 6–20.

This took us well into preparing for the next exercise, which was “sonnet building”. I’ve created a simple structural framework that I think of as “scaffolding” that begins with list words, which students are prompted to draw either from an article, in this case, or, in the case of some workshops, from looking at museum objects. The list words then need to be developed into a double list of rhyming pairs, and so on…until one has, roughly, “built” a sonnet. It is a challenging way to write a poem, and by approaching it (as I think,) backwards, the point is for students to better understand the structure of sonnets – we focus on Shakespearean, though there is a chance to try Petrarchan or Spencerian, sonnet form.

To be honest, I’d been somewhat apprehensive about teaching this workshop, because I wasn’t sure I’d be able to approach it with enthusiasm. Last year I had two books of poetry published as well as my first novel, and I’ve been feeling completely creatively burnt-out. Not only did I feel incapable of writing poetry, I didn’t even want to read it – I didn’t even want to think about it. Current, London poetry was utterly disgusting me. Everything felt the same. (And everything was about bees.) When I was asked to write a review of T.S. Eliot Prizewinner David Harsent’s Fire Songs, it took me a long time to work out what I wanted to say, because I was feeling so ambivalent about poetry overall. (The review is forthcoming in The Lancet.)

Fortunately, there was nothing much forcing me to consume poetry, so I avoided it for some months. What brought me back, perhaps oddly, was a bout of flu. I had so little energy to do much of anything that I spent a lot of the week in bed reading Elizabeth Bishop. She reminded me of my love for poetry. I was so happy to read “Casabianca,” which I remembered studying at university, struggling to emulate its rhyme and rhythm. It truly was like meeting an old friend.

Then, I brought out Emily Dickinson, who is one of my favourite poets, hands-down. Her poems create a heart-beat, a rhythm, for daily life, and they capture the heart-beat, the rhythm, of everyday epiphanies. Every little poem of hers is a prayer or an offering – perfect examples of parsimony (as related to the Saunders article, cited above).

Funny, I just remembered that both of these female poets are from Massachusetts…I wonder if a good portion of their familiarity and comfort comes from a shared landscape, a shared home (I am from Rhode Island).

There’s always some poetry out there to love, and I’m glad I rediscovered it. Also, I was glad to approach last week’s workshop with enthusiasm!

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