By Jennifer Lynn Krohn
If you inhabit the more literary parts of the Internet, you probably are aware that April is National Poetry Month. Poets and fans of poetry (usually the same people) will share their favorite poems on social media, will write a poem a day, give readings in small bookstores and coffee shops, and generally get up to shenanigans involving iambs and rhyme. However, for poetry lovers it often feels like the rest of the country is suffering from metrophobia—the fear of poetry. Introduce yourself as a poet, and the person you were talking to starts eyeing exits in case you break out into verse. Ask your friend if they would like to go to a poetry slam with you, and they suddenly have a headache or need to wash their hair—even if they’re bald. I have a few theories for why this fear exists: people feel that they can’t understand poetry and no one likes feeling stupid; it is a Pavlovian response to any subject one associates with high school essay writing; or they think poetry is all about death and despair. However, one thing poetry isn’t usually associated with is play. Poetry isn’t always serious business, and these next exercises are fun ways to encounter words. Hopefully poets and non-poets alike can enjoy them.
1. The Exquisite Corpse
The name of this exercise doesn’t really do much to disabuse poetry of its reputation for morbidity. This is the exercise most people are probably familiar with though. Get a group of friends together. One person writes down a line and passes it to the next. That person writes down a line, folds the paper to conceal the line before his or hers, and passes it to the next person. Continue passing it around. Once done, unfold the paper and read. The poem created from the group effort will often be silly, funny and, sometimes, surprisingly poignant.
2. Nonsense Poems
One of the biggest complaints about poetry is that the person reading it doesn’t know what it means. While many poems are often dense with metaphors, symbolism, allusions, and five-dollar words, sometimes a poem actually has no meaning. It’s a nonsense poem. The most famous nonsense poem is probably Lewis Carrol’s “The Jabberwocky” from Alice In Wonderland. It first stanza goes:
’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.
At least half of the words in the stanza above are not real words. Carrol made them up. One way to write a nonsense poem is to start by writing a description of an everyday thing. I would suggest setting a timer for five minutes and to keep your pen moving the whole time. Don’t worry about polishing it. Once done, start replacing words with made-up words. The only criteria you should have for these words is that they sound good. This exercise allows you to explore sound without worrying about that all-important meaning.
3. This is Just to Say
One of the more famous American poems is “This is Just to Say” by William Carlos Williams. It is written as if it is an apology left on a kitchen table or on the fridge. The speaker apologizes for eating plums and then proceeds to describe how delicious and wonderful those plums were. For this exercise the writer will mirror Williams and apologize for some small mundane transgression like wearing someone’s sweater without their permission or spoiling the end of a TV show. However, while the poet apologizes, they should also describe why that transgression was so enjoyable.
One of the reasons I love poetry is that is has allowed me to have a close relationship to my language. I’ve seen many people who claim they will never understand poetry, yet who have one poem that they love and return to again and again. I’ve also seen people say they will never understand grammar or understand how to get the words in their head onto the page. They are alienated from their own language. Even though they speak it every day, its minutiae are too great for them to overcome. I suspect it is because writing is deadly serious and in turn deadly boring stuff. However, the whole world once appeared that way, and we learned to live in it, often through those silly childish games we played.