A Bill Knott Poetry Exercise

In an interview on the site Memorious Bill Knott (who passed away this week) describes a poetry exercise he’d given to students. I don’t know for for a fact if he actually did this, or what the results were, but I find the exercise fascinating. If you reading this were ever a student of Knott’s and did this exercise, please comment on what it was like and how effective it was. I offer it here:

“I often recommend to my students that they take their two favorite poets and try to combine them as an exercise. To do a quantitative line-by-line analysis of a template poem by poet X, and the same with poet Y. (All successful poets have a template poem.) How many verbs per line? Adverbs, adjectives, prepositions, concrete nouns, abstract nouns, etc. Count them up. Take the number-totals from the two models and add them together, and then divide those in half. And then use that final amount to write your own poem. Split the difference. Combine the quantitative habits of your two faves to create your own constant. (What the successful poet knows that you don’t, I tell the students, is how to quantitatively distribute the elements of language (verbs, nouns, etc.) down the page in an effective and commensurate ratio.)”

I wonder how many poets are as conscious of their “template?” Do we even recognize our own styles? Sometimes I think so, and sometimes not. One of my favorite poets, Richard Hugo, clearly had a template and in fact wrote a whole book about it. A practice a friend and I used to do on our own in graduate school was to take poems we admired and rewrite them but using different words–replace each noun with a new noun, each verb with a new verb, etc. (a poplar tree might be replaced with a blueberry bush, for instance). We’d mimic the line and stanza forms, maybe even the metaphor styles. The idea was to study by imitation the craft of another poet. Afterword, if we liked the new poems we created, we’d feel free to write them further away from the original to ensure it was our own. I haven’t done that in a long time, but it was a useful exercise in understanding how a particular poem worked, seeing the inside workings, the machinery of the thing, rather than just the emotional jolt you get from the experience of reading a poem.

By the way, I have recognized a sort-of template in some of my poems (the nature/woodsy poems seem to follow a bit of a construction pattern). I even wrote the template out as a prompt and offered it to a class. It was surprisingly successful for the group.

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