Just recently, I’ve been able to read and critique poems with greater insight. In workshops, I was always full of praise. Everyone’s poems were so accomplished. I held poetic gems in my hands and felt nothing but awe. During critique, others would point to diction shifts, the need for stronger verbs, an adverb, or three, to eliminate. I’d lap it up, wonder how the others were able to find the flaws in these perfect poems.
During the pandemic, I took two eight-week classes from Tom Montag, a poet-teacher associated with The Mill, a now-defunct writer’s school in the Fox Valley area. He asked us to analyze a poem each week for its architecture, measure, sound, image, leap, and mystery. By the middle of the second class, I began to see how stanzas, lines, and words cohere to create poetry. At last, I could point out the places where perspective shifted, where an abstract line appeared instead of an image, or could share a substitute synonym with a poet to try for alliteration’s sake.
I know what some of you are thinking. The workshop can be a dreadful place, full of know-it-alls making stinging critical comments to appear better-than. Or so I’ve been told, but the workshops I’ve attended have included praise as well as suggestions for improvement. These suggestions are sincerely offered for writers to accept or reject as they see fit. “In the end, it’s your poem,” is a mantra I heard often while participating in the Rat’s Ass Review Workshop.
It was great to realize that I learned something in the past five years since I started studying and writing poetry. Last night I thought about my literary background. I have a B.A. in Anthropology at a school whose curriculum did not include minor fields. I have sometimes regretted the choice I made not to major in English. Last night I thought about it differently and started counting the credits of the literature courses I’d taken. My undergraduate education included:
- 9 credits English literature
- 16 credits Spanish literature
- 3 credits African literature
In the 46 years since I graduated from college, I never realized that I had a strong, though perhaps atypical literary education. Why not? Because it didn’t result in a degree in literature, so I disregarded it, and so dishonored the learning and scholarship that I engaged in. So I rectified that error with this post in which I brag about it.
And to celebrate that long ago achievement, today I bought a 1960 edition of Platero y Yo by Juan Ramón Jiménez at the library for $1.00. Here’s to more literary explorations.🎉🎉🎉