A Review of "Poets Teaching Poets"

Updated on April 16, 2018
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I can't seem to stop writing poetry or reading poetry. I think it is safe to say I love poetry and I love sharing great poetry with others.

An old photo of Warren Wilson College
An old photo of Warren Wilson College

Poets Teaching Poets

Warren Wilson College, in North Carolina, started a public lecture series on the craft of poetry in 1981. The lecture series opened their community up to a discussion on how poetry was or was not a part of their lives. Gregory Orr and Ellen Bryant Voigt, who lectured in the series, collected the lectures and published them in "Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World" by University Press in 1996.

The lectures in “Poets Teaching Poets“ share a common thread. Contemporary American poetry has evolved from western traditions of lyrical verse. American poets integrated western traditions of lyrical verse into their contemporary voice. A voice that is singing a more introspective song. A view of life through the act of self examination.

Gregory Orr presented what he called "The Four Temperaments" and suggests that these Temperaments are templates for modern lyrical poetry. To help understand how these Temperaments became Temperaments a poet will need a roadmap. The history of lyrical poetry in western tradition will offer the vocabulary and a good look at early lyric and how they apply to modern American poetry will make the roadmap clearer.

Micheal Ryan describes Donald Justice's work in "Flaubert in Florida" by stating "In a good short poem a fine sense of relations among parts is felt, word connecting to word, line with line: as a spider web, touch it and the whole structure responds."

The Four Temperaments

Gregory Orr gives us his four temperaments, in "Four Temperaments and the Forms of Poetry," which are story, structure, music, and imagination.

  • Story brings to the poem dramatic unity by providing a beginning, middle and end. Also by providing conflict and resolution.
  • Structure is the human satisfaction in finding measurable patterns. Stucture provides beauty and balance.
  • Music provides the rhythm and the sound. The poet has control of the poems pitch, duration, and stress. Loudness and softness can be produced by using alliteration, assonance, consonance, and internal rhyme.
  • Imagination provides the flow from image to image.

Therefore a roadmap to a well written lyrical poem is given through the temperaments. This is only a roadmap, however, and there are many dirt roads that veer from its path but all converge into the final poem.

Now the ground rules are presented. How did Gregory Orr come to these conclusions and what makes or breaks contemporary lyrical poetry?

As Maurice Bowra states in her discussion of Sappho, "The "I" is an agent of experience that is not immediately intelligible to us in its particulars becomes so as the argument is presented through sound, syntax, and imagery."

A Brief History of the Lyric

Joan Aleshire in her lecture "Staying News: A defense of the lyric" describes molpe as a form of expressive ritual.

Molpe starts as a story told over music and is performed as a way to share collective memory.

Molpe is a song inspired by the Gods. A dance that mimicks longing whose chief subject is love and death.

Molpe provides levels of transcendence throughout the storytelling; mimesis and methexis.

  • Mimesis is who/where/what we long to be.
  • Methexis is the fulfilling of the desire to be part of ritual.

Homer used a healthy amount of molpe but started to veer towards a new lyric called Epic.

An Epic poem has singers repeating old stories with attention to details and similes, both imaginative and vivid. Usually the singers answer questions from the listeners.

The song soon overpowered the story as Epic moved away from molpe and towards the lyric.

Archilochus (died in 645 BC) felt that instead of telling stories about great events a poets should describe their own sensibilities through observation of daily human activity. He strived to "demonstrate the general and the basic by examples of ourselves."

Lyrical poetry had found a home in Archilochus and was followed by some of the greatest lyrical poets of western tradition.

Poetry started with the story and music. The need to hear a story and the ability to remember rhythmic patterns is wired in us. Homer knew this and Gregory Orr understood a readers desire to follow a story especially if music is involved.

Thus the beginning of the roadmap. A sketch of an area to find our way through mountains and forests of time.

Modern American Masters

Similar to the road to contemporary art the first well known modern lyrical movement came from Russia. The Acmeist movement demanded resonance in the immediate and the concrete instead of the static abstractions of Russian Symbolism.

In Europe T.S.Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, H.D., Ezra Pound, and William Carlos Williams began conversations amongst themselves about what poetry was and what poetry could be. Ezra Pound argued for structure and form and poets like H.D. began to experiment with condensing the line.

America sees, from 1933 to 1956, the Black Mountain Poets, Robert Duncan, Charles Olson, and Denise Levertov, to name a few, wrote essays and taught coursework on form, structure, and the future of poetry.

Conversations that continued into the 60's with The New York School containing poets like John Ashberry and Frank O'Hara.

We have seen the history of poetry almost coming full circle with the molpe of slam poetry and Hip Hop.

Gregory Orr’s list of Temperaments was created riding upon the currents of poetry throughout time.

Earliest Lyric

The time had come for "the sound of the speaking voice making a simple but emotionally loaded statement."

A lyric poet of western tradition, who has held us with her lyrics for centuries, was Sappho.

Sappho, from Lesbo ancient Greece, only wrote poems describing her loves and her longings.

Maurice Bowra says of Sappho:

"It looks like ordinary speech raised to the highest level of expression. In her great range of different meters there is not one which does not move with perfect ease...her words as if they were ordained for it."

Psyche which had meant breath now meant soul. We see into the soul of man, not just the stories of Gods, through many Greek Text from the time.

Pindar, considered one of the great lyric singers of his time, followed what he called "Kairos.”

Kairos“ is defined by Pindar when "the rules of accurate choice and prudent restraint, the sense of what suits the circumstance or fact, and discretion," are followed.

Petrarch brought his sonnet to Italy when he needed a vessel to share his love for a woman, Laura. The Petrarchan sonnet began the use of a "turn around" after the first two quatrains. The “turn around” is when the sonnet moves from conflict to resolution or dramatic focus. Structure starts to play a serious role in lyric poetry of the time.

Though structure and rhythm stood on the podium of poetic expression there was still a search for a more intimate expression. Sonnets though structurally sound try to arrest the flow of time and not to express personal longing or grief.

The courtier poets of the English Renaissance started to write sonnets that explored more personal issues expressing themselves in what was to be called the Shakesperean Sonnet....




What type of poetry do you enjoy writing?

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Conclusion

The western tradition of lyric has evolved into the Modern American poetry of today. Modern American poets explore the meaning of "I" in a changing world.

Archilochus shows the poets of his time that poetry can have a powerful influence if we just describe ourselves going through our daily lives with clarity and precision.

Since the time of Archilochus poets of western tradition have tried to define poetry. Their examinations left us many essays, in collections, hidden in our libraries. These definitions have become the foundation of our understanding of poetry in our lives whether we write poems or read poetry.

Maurice Bowra said in her discussion of Sappho,"Greek Art, at least in its archaic and classical periods, so masters its subjects that it passes beyond realistic or naturalistic representation to show another sphere. What might be unbearably painful is controlled and transformed so that it does not distress but exalt."

Questions & Answers

    © 2018 Jamie Lee Hamann

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