National poetry month 2018

It’s the middle of National Poetry Month, and, if you’re like me, that means you’ve been reading a whole lot of poetry. Of course, this isn’t necessarily a new thing for me. I’m usually reading a whole lot of poetry; however, I had a thought a while I was in the middle of this poetry cram: perhaps instead of trying to get as much poetry into my day as I possibly could, it might be a good idea to take a deeper dive into a single poem. To that end, starting this second half of National Poetry Month, I’ve decided to try to actually memorize an entire piece. While I’m doing this, I also thought I would make a bit of a case for memorization as opposed to cramming when it comes to poetry.

First, poetry is not the same genre as prose, and because of this, it requires a different reading tactic. If you sit down with a good book, you could easily keep reading forward for hours and get the gist of the story. Poetry doesn’t work that way. A lot of the time, reading a poem requires more than one read in order to really understand what the piece is going for, and even after two readings, there are still going to be things that get missed along the way. Basically, a poem invites the reader to take things a little slower and really appreciate what the words and the language are doing. The best way to see what a writer was going for with the language (especially if you can’t hear them actually reading the piece) is to memorize it. This doesn’t put the poem in your own words, but it does put it in your own voice and allows you to get at that deep appreciation of how the words are being used.

Another thing to consider is ownership. No, you won’t ever completely own a poem unless you’ve written one yourself and never show it to anyone else; however, with memorization, there’s a way that you let a piece become a part of you: a piece of the way that your mind works. If you have some poetry memorized, lines will come into your head, sometimes when they aren’t appropriate, but more often than not when they are completely applicable to whatever your situation happens to be. Further, a memorized poem can’t be taken away from you. Your book might get lost, stolen, left on a bus, etc., but if you have something committed to memory, the book doesn’t matter as much. The piece that you know will always be with you.

There are some other benefits as well: memorization is also good for your cognitive functioning, and the more you do it the easier it gets to do. While those are good to know, I think they’re mostly just gravy. All the good stuff is the experience of the poem that you can really only get through memorization.

Memorization is a long and difficult process, and it can be fairly hard to do. That being said, I’d still suggest giving it a try. It’s, arguably, the best way to enjoy a poem, and the best way to really understand a piece. If you’re thinking of committing something to memory for National Poetry Month, I have two pieces of advice: start with something small, and start with something that rhymes. Sonnets are great for this. Fourteen lines and a really regular rhyme scheme make memorization really easy, so if this is something you want to try, that’s where I would suggest starting.

Happy National Poetry Month!

-PWC

On getting stuck in a writing rut and what I do about it

I managed to get myself stuck in a writing rut over the last week, so of course I did what anyone would in this situation (or so I imagine) and did a Google search for writer’s block. I’m not really certain what I was expecting, but what I got was an incredible display of writing advice. Some of it was good, most of it was bad, and all of it was a little too self-helpy for me, so I thought I would add my own advice to the mix: keep the word count in mind. By this, I don’t mean that all you need is to add extraneous detail to get to a required word count– here’s looking at you, beginning composition students. Instead, I mean that writing sometimes needs a definable, clear goal, or it can become maddening.

My own goal is to write around 500 words per blog post. The number gives me enough space to actually say something interesting, but not so much space that I ramble on and on. That is, of course, in addition to the various other things that I write, but the 500 word minimum has given me a clearly defined goal when it comes to writing. That being said, here’s the advantage, and here’s what setting a word count goal can do for writing.

The main advantage of a word count is that it feels like an accomplishment. This is true even when it really isn’t and all you’ve written is a hot, steaming pile of garbage. We’ve all been there, but at least you made the word count, right? Typically, there’s something in the garbage pile that is worth saving, and it’s easy to write more than the goal. This means that my advice is to set the bar reasonably low when it comes to word counts. One hundred words is probably too low, but if that’s where things start, so be it: revel in the 100 words. The feeling of accomplishment will probably be enough to keep the writing going for at least another 50.

Setting a word count can also provide you with some much needed parameters. Writing is difficult, after all, and writing with no clear ideas can be even more difficult still. It isn’t much, but a short word count can give you a nice box to work in, and it can make a useful jumping off point if something needs to be longer. Again, no one is saying that you can’t write more. The problems only come about when the word count is consistently missed. That can quickly become demoralizing. Meeting the goal not only helps writing, but it can also make you want to write more. If 500 words is too easy, add another hundred and then keep going.

I tell my students every semester that I teach writing that it was a skill that can be practiced. I might argue that getting out of writing ruts and avoiding writer’s block are also fairly easy to practice as well. A quick, 500-word practice is enough to keep me writing, and as it becomes easier and easier to do, it might just be a quick warm-up instead.

-PWC