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Fairhaven Seminar on Reading and Writing Poetry

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Transcript of a Fairhaven College Seminar:

On Starting to Read and Write Poetry

(recorded and transcribed by Desmond Jagewon)*


Carol: All right people; lets get started.  We have a guest today — the poet Roger William Gilman.  Our topic is “How does one get started reading and writing poetry?”  What are the alternatives?


Roger: Thanks for the invite.  As a philosopher, I don’t often get to talk directly about reading and writing poetry.  The closest I usually get to these topics is in a philosophy of language course (talking about how metaphors make their meaning; and explaining how you can tell the truth by using a metaphorical or ironical sentence that is not literally true); or in a class on ethics (where we might consider, among other things, the question of moral limits on the responses to, or interpretations and uses of, a poem – or any other kind of artwork for that matter); or perhaps in a course on the philosophy of literature (where we might be considering the question: what is the contribution of consuming literary works to cultivating our humanity?).

Carol: So this is a chance for you to confront head-on the ways in which a person might get started reading or writing poetry by talking about your own experience.  We have additional guests this semester that will speak to the same question (which is one of the topics of our seminar): Why become a dedicated reader of poetry, or a life-long composer of poems?  Is there some reason to do these even if you don’t plan on becoming a professional poet or critic?  We’d like to compare your answers to these questions with those of others.  So we’d like to ask you a series of questions that get at possible answers to these issues that organize our curiosity.


Roger: Interesting.  I usually teach by asking questions rather than by answering them.  This will be fun; I’ll probably learn something here. My second thought now is that there must be a multitude of ways to get started reading and writing poetry; and what I can best do is describe my own way of getting started; but it may not be the usual way to begin. My way may not work for you. But we’ll have to assess all this in the end.


Erin: I’ll start.  I’d like to know which came first for you – reading or writing poetry.  And when and where did this happen?


Roger: Humm.  Can I start by complicating your question a bit?  I was actually drawn to poetry by listening, not really by either reading or writing.  I didn’t realize this at the time I started reading or writing poetry in earnest . . . didn’t know I was listening to poetry.  And after that, my engagement with reading and writing poetry happened simultaneously, but for a very odd reason.  My reading and writing of poetry happened right here, when I was a student here at Fairhaven College, many years ago.  The listening started earlier.


Erin:  How so?


Roger:  In the army I had started listening to jazz.  It had attitude.  It had sprung rhythm. It was syncopated. The jazz I loved then was of a contemplative kind.  I needed that calm and introspection in the middle of the chaos of the time.


Prior to that, as a teenager getting out of high school, I listened to the folk singer-songwriters Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen.  They were real poets.  And, again, their lyrics were full of attitude.  Their vocal sound was full of attitude.  I had attitude.  I could relate.  In them I realized that the sound of a voice could give it power.  I discovered that an attitude expressed by a voice reflects a constellation of values.  I learned that a well-crafted voice could draw attention to things that mattered.  And it could move people, not only to feeling, but also to action.  Feeling like my parents and my country controlled me, I wanted that power.  I thought it might be a means to designing my own life.  So upon graduating high school I intended to become a composer.


And even earlier, when I was a young boy, I was listening.  I listened as my father preached sermons on Sunday mornings and noticed how when he was inspired his voice began to take on a different tone, a new cadence, a rhythm and a phrasing; it just swept you away.  My father made me memorize much of the King James Version of the Bible.  It’s dignified vocabulary, iambic meter and hymnal phrasing, its vivid metaphors and symbols, and compelling storylines entered my veins, my breath, my heartbeat, my brain.  And its attitudes of praise and contrition entered my soul.  All I could do was sing and pray.


And so I was groomed as a poet without knowing it.  This is it: my main point concerns this possibility of being prepared for something without your knowing it.  Perhaps this has happened to you too, without your knowing it.  Think about it; it could be true that what’s been going on beneath the surface of things in your life is a preparation for a serious commitment to poetry.


Chris: Wow.  That blows my mind.  But what came next; when did you first began to read poetry, when did you began to write poetry . . . here at Fairhaven College, you say?


Roger: So . . . the music school I was enrolled in after high school turned out not to be accredited so it could not officially award college degrees, even though it was giving out diplomas.  I was not protected from the draft, as I had supposed.  And so I actually started college after military service when I was 25 years old. The war in Viet Nam was not yet over then.  I had served in Europe (Heidelberg, Germany) working for NATO in military intelligence.  [As an aside I might mention that when I got out of the service and enrolled at Fairhaven I became active in organizing anti-war protests. But that’s another story.]  And so it was right here, in this eccentric experimental college — where we have the rare freedom to design our own majors — that I began reading and writing poetry against my will.


Chris: What!  Against your will?  Really?  What do you mean?  What happened?


Roger: Yes.  It was basically an accident.  I had unknowingly been prepared to take advantage of choices offered to me.  The reading, the writing, and the form of poetry I ended up specializing in, all began as the unintended consequences of other choices.


Erin:  You mean, you didn’t really know what you were doing as you began to read and write poetry?


Roger: Indeed; that’s what I mean.  I began in ignorance and with indirect motivation.  I fell into writing cento poetry without knowing that this was what I was doing . . . without knowing that “cento” was the name of the form of writing in which I was entangled.


Anders:  So what is cento?


Roger: Well, briefly, cento is a form of writing that takes experience as a trigger for writing something, but uses words and phrases (if not whole lines) extracted from a variety of other texts and rearranges them into a new poem.  [If you’re interested in the topic you can consult my author’s page at www.rogerwgilman and read my encyclopedic article “Cento: the art and craft of quilting poems”.]


Anders:  So, how did this fall into writing cento occur?


Roger: Here’s what happened.  I designed a major, a degree program here at Fairhaven, in the history and philosophy of science.  In my study of scientific explanations I noticed how often they were structured by metaphors.  The first one that caught my eye happened to be the “cloud of electrons” around a nucleus that had been put forward by Niels Bohr in his model of the atom.  Over the course of time, I discovered many other metaphors in a variety of the sciences.  In fact, my study of the role of metaphors as a thinking tool led me to appreciate the role of the whole set of tools for analogical thinking, especially as a tool of discovery.


Tanya:  So how did this lead you to writing poetry?


Roger:  Ok.  Now we’re down to it.  My mentor, a mathematician named Harvey Gelder, advised me that if I was seriously interested in understanding the role of metaphors in scientific explanations he would require me to consult with the resident poet at Fairhaven, Anis Hovde.  I would have to study metaphor, not just science.  And so I went across the hall to talk with Anis. Hovde was an old craggy-faced Norwegian who looked and wrote like Robinson Jeffers, one of his favorite poets.  He even built a stone house high on the side of Chuckanut Mountain over Bellingham Bay much like Jeffers built Thor House on the bluffs above Big Sur in California.


Anis told me that I’d never really understand metaphors unless I learned how to make them myself.  He would require me to learn to write poetry.  This would be a condition for any serious conversation and advice from him.  Wow.  This was sobering.  A lot of work.  But, in the end, I decided that this is what I wanted to do.  This was the deep question in my mind.  How could scientific method explain the literal facts using non-literal concepts?  [It was similar to my question I had for my father, the minister, when I was a teenager: How can you believe in the literal truth of the Bible and spend your whole sermon unpacking symbols and metaphors embedded in one of the stories of the biblical epic?]    I really cared about this problem; it was deep in my life.  And so, I determined to learn to write poetry as a way of coming to understand how metaphors make their meanings . . . and how you could say the literal truth by speaking non-literal expressions.


Tanya:  Earlier you said you started reading poetry at the same time you began writing poetry.  Who did you first read, and why?


Roger:  Hovde asked me lots of questions about what else in the world I was interested in beside philosophy and science.  I told him about my love of music, my study of music, my performance of music, my composition of music — during the first 25 years of my life.  So he identified two things about poetry I might respond to intuitively: poems with obvious musical sounds and cadences, and poems that featured vivid metaphoric and symbolic images.  I began my intensive reading of poetry with the poets Dylan Thomas and Gerard Manley Hopkins, Emily Dickenson and Walt Whitman, William Wordsworth and John Keats, Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Thomas Stearns Eliot and William Butler Yeats.


Akiko:  So, how did you get started writing your first poem?


Roger:  During my initial conversation with professor Hovde, I protested that I knew nothing about poetry; how could I write a poem without having studied poetry, or without having spent time in a creative workshop (like this one that you’re part of).  He just said “So What?  You’ve got to start sometime.  And you don’t need a class to start learning anything.  You can learn poetry on your own if want to . . . if you work hard at it.  Just do it.”  Never let schooling get in the way of your education, he said, quoting Mark Twain.  And he went on to say that I might as well start now.  If not now, when?  “No one can call himself educated – let alone civilized – who has never tried to write poetry.  It’s one of the most profound ways to cultivate your humanity.  It’s a way of refining your soul.  So, just do it.  Just start.”  And so I surrendered; and begged him: “Where do I begin?”


Akiko:  Yes?  And what did he say?


Roger:  Well, he did two things.  He slid a sheet of paper across his desk toward me and said: “Here’s a poem I just wrote.  Try this:  Write a response to my poem, to something it says or does.  Take as a theme the experience of writing your first poem.  And add-in this.”  He leans way back in his office chair without turning his head, and reaches behind his head, pulls a book at random off the shelves, throws it to me and says “Here, take this . . . ah, this, oh, I see its an anthology of poems (which turned out to be called Sound and Sense, edited by Laurence Perrine) and flip through it and stop at a random page; then read the poem you find there.  Then I want you to steal a phrase from that poem and include it in your new poem about writing your first poem.” And that’s how it all began. I became writing what turns out to cento, but didn’t know it.  I don’t think Hovde knew it either.  So. It was all random, a by-product of other projects, a consequence of other choices. It was perhaps an odd way to begin.


Zeke:  So what did you come up with?  Do you remember the first poem you wrote, the one that was a response to Hovde’s prompt?


Roger:  Yes.  I remember it well.  [He goes to the blackboard and writes out the following poem; when he finishes it; he recites it from memory.]


Warming Up

“Awakening lies beyond the search for self;

the self-ungloved is like that slow turning

out of sleep toward love.” A.J. Hovde


The young writer tunes up.

With careful curiosity he bends

Over the paper with his pen,

Not with a conqueror’s arrogance

To command both sound and sense,

But as a man with loved guitar or woman

Might inquire with humble hand

What subtle vital things she had to say

Before they started, he and she, to play.



Zeke: Oh, I recognize the phrase “sound and sense” from the title of the anthology.


Roger: Yes.  And do you know what poem that title comes from?


Carol: I know; it’s a line from Alexander Pope . . . out of his poem called An Essay on Man.


Roger:  Right.  So I wrote my first poem because I was a student at Fairhaven College where I needed to design my own major; and the question that I wanted to answer through my studies was about science, but this required me to learn to write poetry.  I wrote that first poem in the spring of 1970.  And I’ve been reading poetry every day since.  And I’ve been writing in a modernized cento form ever since then too.  It’s been a long journey, sometimes without direction. But I’ve been driven.


Its possible that you too might discover deeply motivating reasons to make use of your past development . . . use of experience that might not appear on the surface . . . to lead you toward a poetic life, that includes reading and writing poetry.  Carefully do the work of self-reflection, and see what you find.


Carol: And how we learn to read poems, and how we learn to write poems are the follow up questions to why do these at all.  These are questions we usually answer once we have internal, personal reasons, if not also some generic ones, to set out on a life of poetry in the first place.  But now we know we may have already begun this journey and didn’t know it.


Thank you for joining us today, and telling us your story.


*[Since the persons speaking on the tape were not identified, I gave each voice a name. DJ ]



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