Spreading the Word: Misc.

18 08 2007

Some miscellaneous quotes. Insights on teaching and writing poetry.

Talarico, Ross. Spreading the Word. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

writing is the gateway to reading, rather than the other way around. Furthermore, because it is an active experience, writing in fact is easier for most young people than reading, if the consideration is a meaningful literary experience. [28]

…it is not simply words to which we expose ourselves. It is the silences around words—the silences of reflection, focus, curiosity, imagination, concentration—that form the essential background against which we can express, whether spoken or written, the occasional utterance. [50]

Of course the real secret to motivating people to write is to create the urge to communicate. [88]

More on Spreading the Word:

The Poet’s Service
Workshops and Exercises
Rational Discourse
Miscellaneous Quotes


Rational Discourse

18 08 2007

So my colleague Antonio Calvo, who shares my classroom to teach Spanish, was writing a grad paper on Jurgen Habermas. He asked me where he could find a good summary page, and I directed him to the Wikipedia entry on Habermas.

It’s funny that he brought up Habermas in the wake of my finishing Talarico’s book. They both fundamentally share the belief that meaningful communication is being replaced by a pervasive propagandas, and that it’s necessary to recover “rational discourse” to bring about a more humane existence.

Spreading the Word: Workshops and Exercises

18 08 2007

The book has a number of wonderful “word games” that Talarico contrived for and used in his Rochester workshops. These could be great for teaching metaphors and figurative language.

Talarico, Ross. Spreading the Word. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

  • Word games
    1. Write at the top of a blank page two aphorisms:
      * Vows begin when hope dies (Leonoardo da Vinci)
      * The beautiful remains so in ugly surroundings (Malcolm de Chazal)

      • Forget the quotes but keep them in the back of your minds.
      • Make a list of five familiar objects on one card. Any object you see everyday.
      • On a second notecard five verbs, ordinary action words, physical or mental, that express what you do every day.
        • Interesting ones better
      • Write a poem in ten minutes that makes a connection between three of the words on the object list and three on the verb list.
        • No rhymes, no preaching, no cliches
        • Let each connection suggest something physical to you, and go on to describe what’s happening further, surprising yourself as you write. For example, if your words are window and sleep, perhaps the window is sleeping, and if so, the glass begins to darken, and when it does, you no longer see the fence and the basketball court out there but a mountaintop and a glacier.
        • Don’t forget to introduce yourself into the setting of the poem—you are a part of the image you create.
        • Write first, think later.
      • Just before they begin, remember the aphorisms.
      • Look for one good line, or two, to be used in the next word game.
    2. Describe a place, make it physical, feeling a particular emotion change as he sees something taking place
  • Oral history poems
    1. Close your eyes. Imagine a room somewhere, a place indoors, outdoors, a specific place where you are sitting or standing or leaning…
      • Respond on the blank sheet of paper before you to the questions I will ask. Your responses should be spread all over the page, not in any strict linear form, to suggest the random placement of details that exist in the mind.
        * What season is it? Give me the evidence of that season—how do you know?
        * What time of day or night is it? What is it that makes you know the time?

        • Questions that awakens senses, thus giving each the physical presence essential to the re-creation of a moment
          • You touch something—what is it you touch?
          • There is a noise—what is it?
          • There is something moving in the distance…
        • Questions that utilize remembrance and flashback
          • You think of another place from sometime past—describe it in a phrase
          • A name comes to your mind—what name?
        • Questions that anticipate the aspects of tone
          • Write down a color, any color
        • Questions that simply provide for the connective tissues of this lingual inquiry
          • Write down a verb, any verb
    2. I listened. I asked questions. I took notes, and eventually I worked out the poetic transcriptions of their stories.
  • Journeys
    1. Draw a line across the top of a sheet of paper. Attach to that line two arrows, each pointing to the margins. Next to the arrow at the left-hand margin write the word resources; next to the arrow on the right-hand margin write the word destination. Above the line, write the word journey.
    2. We are constantly on our way toward something, but always reaching back to something from our past. Each moment is tentative, as we lean forward, or lean back, trying to understand how we got to where we are.
      • Varying levels of destination: a street corner, the end of the highway, adulthood, a fulfilled human being
      • Varying levels of resources: money in your pocket, geographical knowledge, knowing how to build a fire, the proper vocabulary to speak of your needs
    3. Imagine the line drawn to be a river, or a road, or a path, or anything along which he or she is making a journey.
    4. Create the physical presence of that journey—what their feet are touching, what exists on either side of them as they make their way forward, whether it is daylight or twilight or evening, what sounds they hear, etc.
    5. There is something always tugging at them—their past—and each step forward is a step into or out of the resources within.
    6. Each discovery along the way should be a discovery for the reader as well.
    7. Give a few words that avail themselves to metaphor and the exercise and ask to include a couple somewhere in their poems.
      • echo, curtain, fire, map, guitar, lost, moonlight, shoulders, current, wind, footprints, …
  • Conjuring the image
    1. Make a list of weather-related words, say fifteen or twenty of them.
    2. In an adjacent column, make a list of body-related words.
    3. In a third adjacent column, make a list of abstract words that represent ideas so vast in concept they constantly change in meaning, requiring re-definitions as identities change (love, regret, wisdom, ignorance, loneliness, disillusion, joy, etc.)
    4. Pick one of the weather words and write it down on a blank page. After it, write a verb that commonly goes with the weather word.
    5. Now scan the second column, the body words, and describe where the first phrase is taking place using one of the listed words.
    6. Finally, write the preposition of after the body word noun and examine the last column of words, the abstractions. Ask yourself what abstraction might describe the concept of the image you’ve created, and write it after the word of.
    7. Eventually, I encourage the students to do away with the prepositional phrase, the abstraction itself thus illustrating the power of the image to illicit on its own the prevailing thought or emotion of the poetic rendering.
  • Greetings
    1. Create group poems that will appear as the inside lyrics to original “season’s greetings” cards. Once the poem is completed and we find someone to illustrate the front of the card with an original drawing, we print them up.
    2. The group poem allows me to take the lead and examine the process of how random images and thoughts can be connected, considered, disassociated, and eventually molded into focus. It is important for the workshop participants to see the revising and editing of a single work as it occurs spontaneously. It is important to see the process of elimination, particularly of the clichés and generalities, as the poem slowly takes its form.
    3. To see the connection between the chance utterance and the completed expression—to see the urge to communicate something not yet articulated turn into not just a group of printed words, but a true celebration of a moment.
    4. List random images
    5. Another list of thoughts/themes
    6. Along the way we dismiss several clichés

Spreading the Word: The Poet’s Service

27 04 2007

Talarico argues that poetry provides a space for reflective thought, meaning discovery, and true self-expression that provides some cure to the manipulative rhetoric of modern life. He urges poets to make themselves accessible to the public for this vital mission and not reside in self-congratulatory coteries.

Talarico, Ross. Spreading the Word. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

like any other professional seeking a purpose in society, a writer must discover and define his or her role as someone who provides a service to the community. There was a time when writers could assume their role, given the nature of the culture—when literature was a mainstay of societal enrichment. But now such intellectual activity remains at the periphery of our cultural experience, and artists must remind themselves in very real terms just how essential they are. They must work to make themselves available. [33]

Poets are the merchants of intuition, intuition transcribed through words into general awareness. We are living in a world where people, especially our youth, have an increasingly difficult time just seeing the world around them, let alone contemplating whatever the meaning of such observations may be. Our poets—the poets of all ages—make us see the world more clearly, and give us the music and the words that make that vision more accessible to others. In a sense, like all artists, they are subversive: awareness breeds change as well as celebration. But they represent an affirmation of life, the possibility of betterment, and a strange optimism in the midst of a society darkened by the clouds of skepticism. [55]

it is not eccentricity that drives an artist, it is a sense of normality intensified. In a society too preoccupied with stress, security, and survival, normalcy is not easily identified. It has to do, of course, with maintaining the whole being—which includes our emotional and intellectual appetites, not simply physical needs. Our best poets lead us to an integrated existence—often rubbing against the cultural grain of technology’s convenient strategy based on binary simplification. It is our poets, our artists, who remind us just how diverse we are. And when we realize the depth of our being, our dreams become a realistic extension of our desires—not a corporate pipe dream of simply attaining possessions, but a dream of human potential… [64]

Often I arrange to bring together different generations, youth and elderly, to try to identify those universal moments that bind us through empathy and understanding. [13]

What’s to happen when this unlikely cast exchanges words with each other? Well…if by ‘words’ one means language and creative expression in the form of a literary experience, then ‘what happens’ is that people begin to identify with others—and become more gracious toward one another. That, sadly, is the forgotten power of language in this country: it illuminates, and heals. [153]

Spreading the Word: De-Literacy

26 04 2007

Some extracts from a very thin but powerful book. More to come.

Talarico argues for the necessity of poetry as a discourse counter to the commercial one that is overwhelming our society.

Talarico, Ross. Spreading the Word. Durham: Duke University Press, 1995.

[literacy] is a concept Americans have an incredibly difficult time grasping—it’s symptomatic of a cultural disease more than a failure of education! [49]

The truth is that culturally, socially, we no longer provide the prerequisites for language development. Immediate gratification, once a phrase to measure immaturity, is now the norm at the heart of consumerism; it correlates directly with the general shortening of the attention span…. Strikingly absent in our culture is any overt encouragement or any inducement to engage the public in some thought-provoking, self-reflective activity…. How few stimuli, really, to encourage dialogue between family members, friends, or neighbors. [50-51]

Deliteracy indicates a general lack of interest in self-expression through language and indeed a disinterest in forming perspectives. How does it come about? It comes from the successful misuse of language! The culture rewards those who use language to deceive others, and abandons those who use it in attempts to enlighten. [51]

The group of black students were not listening to the story—they either lacked interest or the skills to do so. All they heard were the words of the dialogue that I’d used to expose the racist feelings rampant at that time—‘nigger-lover, black-ass kisser,’ etc. And without a context into which they could put these words, the words became simply code words to alert them to racism; and thus whatever the nature of the story, they could only view both it and the author as racist.
…when it comes to knowing how people react to language, writers may know less than marketing strategists who can put such a listening deficiency to profitable use.
This point, as devastating as it is, is simple: without the ability to perform basic communication skills (reading, writing, and listening), we will be completely vulnerable to anyone with a few marketing skills…. The nonlistener, the nonreader, is a slave to advertising, cheap politicking, and slick pseudoreligious ministration: to sell something—whether a product, a system, or a donation—the object is to make the target feel empty. Well-armed, on the other hand, with self-knowledge, insight, confidence, and self-respect (the by-products of the literary experience), we are less susceptible to the tricks of those who find it profitable to exploit us. [53]

in the world of deliteracy, language is successfully misused—the culture rewards those who use language to deceive others and abandons those who attempt to use language to enlighten.
As a result, we are society cluttered with antiliterature, and language professors, desperate to create their own territory, make the use of language more uninteresting, difficulty, and ambiguous than it was ever meant to be. [55]

Coleridge, in his discourse on poetry and the imagination, described the creative process by comparing it to the movements of a water bug: the quick spurt forward, the collective subconscious transformed into the energetic creative will, and then long periods of reflection as the bug collects its resources from its new and temporary environment.
In America, we are encouraged daily to make the quick spurt—through words, music, and visual stimuli, an intense campaign designed for a 15- to 45-second bombardment of the senses—we are encouraged to engage in our culture’s new interpretation of the ultimate ‘creative act’ in a consumer environment: to purchase! Our periods of reflection too have become what advertisers hope to manufacture: a pining for material goods, a daydream of accumulating those goods that represent a successful existence.
It is, in effect, a new kind of poetry we are experiencing as we come to the close of the twentieth century. It is not a poetry of enlightenment—for it is not insight nor the discovery of inner resources that entices us; it is, rather, a poetry of confirmation. We want to know—ironically now more than ever—who we are and what we require to fulfill ourselves. But the formula has changed. It is an outward, not an inward exploration. And, therefore, we never get beneath the surface. The result is a fascination with appearance rather than self-knowledge.
And yet the lingual strategies we use are quite similar in form and purpose—the abbreviated line, the striking image, the intensified moment, the musical tone that duplicates with proper variation the human utterance. [133-134]