SYLLABUS for BECOMING A PLAIN-SPEECH RESONANCE POET: A Workshop

This workshop class will develop plain-speech resonance writing skills and explore the work and techniques of the plain-speech resonance poets. In a nutshell, the style is typified by maintaining an accessible narrative thread, telling a story that ordinary people can understand, in resonating language that is not obscure, while still managing to accomplish a unique poetic take on things, in language that moves to a rhythm, if not a prescribed classical meter.  Plain-speech resonance is the poetics of the way we speak, not the way the pompous pontificate.  

The list of plain-speech resonance poets is long and varied.  It includes (but certainly isn’t limited to) the following poets as representative of the genre: Wendell Berry, Elizabeth Bishop, Gwendolyn Brooks, Lucille Clifton, Billy Collins, Rita Dove, Robert Frost, Donald Hall, Robert Hass, Robert Hayden, Jane Hirshfield, Langston Hughes, Jane Kenyon, Yusef Komunyakaa, Ted Koozer, Lisel Mueller, Howard Nemerov, Sharon Olds, Mary Oliver, Kenneth Rexroth, William Stafford, Ruth Stone, Mark Strand, and Nancy Willard.

This course reaches inside some of the classic influences to discover the quiet techniques that yield the poetry of common speech.  Frost referred to what he was attempting as “the sound of sense.”  Through it, the literal tones and tunes, the over-sounds of ordinary human talk, “the abstract vitality of our speech,”  become transformed, alchemically, into poetry.

The formula of simplicity in plain-speech poetic communication, finding poetic expression within a common style driven by passions to discover and communicate, is often elusive.  Staying within its form requires that the poet focus on the need to communicate as conversation, not as performance, not as formality.  The persona that the poet assumes is just another one of the folks being addressed, and the poet always remains within the circle of audience as the poetry unfolds. The poet discards the cloak of poetic formality, forsakes the forms of fragment-poetry that make up a lot of the current culture’s poetic landscape.

The goal of the class is to nurture and further develop plain-speech resonance skills in those students who participate in the class.  

Each session will include the opportunity for students to distribute and read aloud one or several poems that they have written, based upon the theme of the weekly assignment.  Each week’s assignment will derive from the topic featured in the preceding class session.  Student submissions will then be discussed constructively and positively by the instructor and other members of the class, with a goal of highlighting the imagery, unique slants, sublimity and rhythms that make them into poetry.

Each week, some class time will be devoted to studying representative work by one or two of the poets whose styles typify plain-speech resonance poetry.  Students will be assigned several representative poems to read and will be provided with on-line links to those poems.  Students will also be invited to bring in what they consider to be poems written and published by others in the plain-speech resonance style, so that their structures may be discussed.  Comparisons will also be made to contemporary poetry that is written in styles other than plain-speech resonance.

Several sessions will include a short in-class exercise that will invite and encourage the creation of short, resonant plain-speech passages.  

Week One: The Wide Lake of Poetry - After introductions, the first session will be devoted to exploring the dimensions of plain-speech resonance poetry and to developing techniques for jump-starting the process of writing it. We’ll begin by spending some time exploring what plain-speech resonance is and what it isn’t.  To do this we’ll compare the formal poetic style of Emily Dickinson with the informal style that comprised the hidden poetry of her extensive correspondence with friends and family.Students will be encouraged to compose poetry that speaks aloud of its own volition, even as it quietly rests upon the printed page and silently seeps into the reader’s mind. The product will be poetry that needs to be communicated, in words that need to be understood – “the illusion of dramatic presence” - almost as if it’s being told in a conversation, except that the audience isn’t talking, because the poetry is so remarkable.  An in-class exercise will get the process started.In addition to a couple of representative poems, readings to be assigned in week one will include a short article by the instructor, entitled “The Wide Lake of Poetry,” as well as a published conference paper on plain-speech resonance poetry, also by the instructor.   

Week Two: Finding your Voice - This session  will include evaluation and discussion of poetic voice – what is it? How does one find it?  We’ll discuss and explore the impact of the poet’s self-image upon the creative process. How does he/she visualize the active role of the poet and the telling of the poem (not in a reading but within some idealized setting the poet imagines when she writes).  We’ll also evaluate the effects upon poetic inspiration and output of the way the poet visualizes the listener-reader.  We’ll also explore “the Irony Zone” as a technique for discarding intervening persona baggage when composing poetry.

Week Three: Nature - The week’s theme will be Nature Poetry. In exploring nature as a source of poetic inspiration, we will evaluate some of the poetry of Mary Oliver and Wendell Berry. The in-class segment will include a “stone session,” in which students select from a collection of polished stones and derive poetic inspiration from interaction with the inanimate energy that the stones represent.
In the weekly assignment, students will be asked to write a poem that draws upon or is inspired by a natural setting or theme.
Briefly, we’ll explore the Vietnamese tradition of Ca Dao folk poetry.

Week Four: the Power of the Visual Image - Discussion in week Four will focus upon the significance of the image, not only in poetic rendering but also in poetic inspiration.  Seeing, feeling, touching the world and reporting the impressions in poetry.  An in class exercise will involve photographic images.  We’ll also re-visit the topic of the imagined audience as an influencer of poetic style, that was first explored in Week Two.  Discussion in this regard will include a brief exploration of “theory of mind” as it has been developed in consciousness studies.   

Week Five: Metaphors – This session will highlight the importance of metaphors and similes in the poetic process.  We’ll talk about right and left brain functions and how they come together in poetic renderings.  And we’ll explore the depths of the poet’s persona, in an effort to encourage and develop the poet’s alliance with higher-self resources in the composition of  poetry.  

During this session, we’ll also evaluate and discuss the practices of some poets to adhere to daily regimens of poetic output, including William Stafford, David Lehman, and Ted Kooser.

Week Six:  Masterpiece Presentations – In the final session, each student will have an opportunity to read and present a selection of poems.  Discussion will focus upon appreciation of the work that is presented.  We will also talk about strategies for submitting poems and getting them published.