Paul Allen was probably my favorite of our guest instructors for Governor’s School. He focused on the sounds and rhyming of poetry, but he wasn’t interested in sing-song poetry. He showed us the impact of replicating sounds, even near-rhymes.
It was under his guidance that I produced my absolute favorite poem of the program. First, we were asked to think about an event we had experienced. We described that event in one to two sentences. From there, we chose about five to six key words. These words topped separate columns across our paper and underneath we wrote down as many words as possible that rhymed with them. We incorporated literal rhymes (church, birch) as well as capturing similar sounds (for instance the long A sound in sway, rage, fade). We used these words to craft our poems.
The situation I wrote about was this recurrence of blacking out or shaking for no reason. I’ve shared before about walking from one room to another at home and then finding myself on the floor. There was an earlier instance of strange behavior that I focused on for this particular poem. I always referred to these episodes as black outs, even though I didn’t necessarily faint each time. It was just my way of acknowledging my vision obscuring, feeling weaker, light headed and sometimes uncontrollable shaking. I did write about this experience in my tenth grade autobiography, so here’s the description from that assignment.
My first few blackouts occurred during fifth grade. The main one I will always remember was in the middle of the Living Rosary. The entire school was at church and the junior high lined up in the aisles representing the beads. It was a fun way to pray. I do not remember when exactly, but at one point my vision faded out. Everything became dark and even the voices and sounds around me were decreasing until they were almost a whisper. My legs went weak and I felt dizzy. My heart was pounding faster and faster and everything seemed so weird. It was so frightening too. I had no idea what was going on. The strangeness did not last long, thankfully, but that was not the only time they happened.
A squeeze in my chest made my breathing
Unstable. To set my heart at ease, I gripped
The pew in front and stripped my mind
Of the worst. My legs felt dead like twigs
About to break off a birch. The lit candles
Swayed in rage as my fears dripped on the table.
Blips of speech fade into bits and pieces
Of pitter-patter, and the scene turns to static,
Like the addicting snow on TV. My legs
Slip from under me and I sit on the pew,
Begging for my head to clear
And images to quit swerving. The slight breeze
Eases the twittering pegs that failed.
I start to search in my purse,
Leafing past make-up for Kleenex.
With the last bit of rehearsed beliefs,
My sense are retrieved and knit-up feelings released;
No longer weighted down in the dark.
Another memorable moment with Paul Allen’s sessions were the audio recordings. He played a few clips of writers reading their work so we could hear the rhythm, pacing and emphasis on certain words. I believe that hearing Gwendolyn Brooks’ reading of “We Real Cool” was part of that, and her delivery was quite unexpected.
Hearing the recordings also helped with preparing our own poetry recitals. A major part of the experience was to participate in public poetry readings; sharing your work to people beyond the creative writing group. This was a tricky thing, mostly because we were set up in high-traffic areas, much like a musician playing in a subway station. There are people who stick around and listen but also more who just continue walking by. It’s challenging to continue reading for those who are staying and listening without getting distracted by the movement or side conversations. It’s also difficult to refrain from
evaluating yourself based on the crowd size.
A key lesson I took away from Paul and other instructors: the way you end a line is important. Don’t end on an article (the, a, of) or something equally weak; you want a strong word or image to punctuate the end of each line. That’s certainly something I hadn’t focused on before. My line breaks seemed very random.
Here’s another poem that focused on sounds. It’s not so much an emphasis on exact rhymes but on duplicating sounds (for example: the o sound in soothing, coo, drool, oozing).
The soothing coo of a child,
Babbling in father’s arms,
Drool oozing; she wants the old stuffed
Doll. With a wobble from father
To couch, her attempts to talk is lost
In slurred sounds
Among the gathering of relatives,
Creeping around the room
As if on eggshells,
In hopes that gurgling
In rhythm with the girl,
Will possibly establish everlasting youth.
Rattling her parents’ keys, a rainbow
Surfaces across her lips
And giggles rule the air.