Poetry is language uttering itself.
The prose vocabulary we speak and think with is a collection
of word labels that we stick on things and concepts and feelings. “Fragile,” says
the kind of label you take to the post office. “I’m feeling kind of fragile
because I’m in love with you,” says the kind of label you fill out when you
begin writing a novel. But poetry commands us: “Forget the labeling function
and notice the words! Notice how they look, notice how they sound!” And the
next thing we know, we’ll be aware of fragility, or love, or the whole fragile
loveable world, in ways we weren’t even aware of until we noticed the words.
So we’ll spend this semester noticing words in as many ways
as we can. As we’ll discover, the reality of a word isn’t just its description
in a dictionary; it’s also its sound, its association with other words, and its
history. Aside from the sudden joy of that discovery (“Then felt I like some
watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken”), there’s a
practical value to the exercise. By sharpening your eyes and ears to the way
you communicate your own desires in words, it will make you a more efficient
reader and writer. As F. Scott Fitzgerald put it: “To write good prose, read
Text: The Norton Anthology of Poetry, fifth
two five-page papers, two exams, and a final. There will also be some verse
exercises, graded pass-or-rewrite: pass when you’ve learned the technique,
rewrite while you’re still learning.