Ellen Bryant Voigt gave the room of Advanced Placement teachers an extra heartbeat of time to take action: to dig into the poem she'd just read to her and reply to her question about what they had heard. And when nobody rose to speak, she rose instead and urged them to never allow their students to be passive in the face of poetry.
Drawing them fiercely toward her, she gave these top teachers -- the ones who gather at St. Johnsbury Academy each summer for fresh teaching strategies to apply in the most openly competitive American classrooms -- an object lesson in how to light up their classrooms from a blazing torch.
"You guys are the teachers, and I figure if each one of you can go away from here and get one kid to love poetry, then we can make a difference in how people see poetry," she reminded them. And she urged them to energize their students around the poems: "A poem is like an onion. But if there's nothing that engages you in the outside layer, you will never reach the inside."
Opening with readings from her varied dramatic sonnets in KYRIE (1995), Voigt explained the three great structures or strategies of writing put forth by Aristotle: (1) dramatic structure, in which two forces compete against one another, in action; (2) narrative structure, a equence of events that occur in time and that have consequence; and (3) lyric structure, which for Aristotle was exemplified by the early (and not at that point plentiful) poems sung to a single strum of the lyre -- and now for Voigt is the structure that's about feeling: "It sits at the center of complex emotional dilemma and sings out of the single strum of the lyre." She added, "Most of what we now think of as poetry is really lyric, because the other two don't do as well with complexity of feeling."
Voigt demonstrated with work like her KYRIE piece that begins, "Oh yes I used to pray. I prayed for the baby, / I prayed for my mortal soul as it contracted, / I prayed a gun would happen into my hand. / I prayed the way our nearest neighbors prayed, / head down, hands wrung, knees on the hard floor."
Why the sonnet form, with its familiar iambic pentameter and frame of fourteen lines that KYRIE wrestles with in varied twists and angles? "The sonnet is a lyric form that was developed in order to provide compression," Voigt noted. "One of the things it can accomplish is to hold the reader in that moment and not let the reader move."
She contrasted the compressed moment with the lengthy passages that unfold into narrative in her collection THE SHADOW OF HEAVEN, illustrating the way narrative outlines the familiar movie in the mind that American readers/students recognize more easily: "Movies, TV, all of that, took over narrative structure, so we're used to that, and we worry less about -- Am I getting it?"
Voigt has spoken of her work as hovering along the edge that connects lyric and narrative, and she carried the listeners through "Largesse," from the same collection, to exhbit the lyric purpose of driving deep into the center of a moment so that its emotion can resonate. Her 2007 collection MESSENGER: NEW AND SELECTED POEMS 1976-2006 provides this and much more of her focused work.
She'll be reading on Wednesday August 1 at the St. Johnsbury Athenaeum at 7:30 p.m. And so will Michael Collier.
Collier, a powerful editor of poetry and collections, as well as author of three of his own books, has been director of the Bread Loaf Writer's Conference since 1995. He is also co-director of the creative writing program at the University of Maryland English Department. Here's a poem from Collier -- whose work with form and with allusions to the classic may be an excellent partner for the evening reading, played against Voigt's. Be sure to arrive early, as seating is limited, and dress for the heat.
whose home is in the straw
and bailing twine threaded
in the slots of a roof vent
who guards a tiny ledge
against the starlings
that cruise the neighborhood
whose heart is smaller
than a heart should be,
whose feathers stiffen
like an arrow fret to quicken
the hydraulics of its wings,
stay there on the metal
ledge, widen your alarming
beak, but do not flee as others have
to the black walnut vaulting
overhead. Do not move outside
the world you've made
from bailing twine and straw.
The isolated starling fears
the crows, the crows gang up
to rout a hawk. The hawk
is cold. And cold is what
a larger heart maintains.
The owl at dusk and dawn,
far off, unseen, but audible,
repeats its syncopated intervals,
a song that's not a cry
but a whisper rising from concentric
rings of water spreading out across
the surface of a catchment pond.
It asks, "Who are you? Who
are you?" but no one knows.
Stay where you are, nervous, jittery.
Move your small head a hundred
ways, a hundred times, keep
paying attention to the terrifying
world. And if you see the Robins
in their dirty orange vests
patrolling the yard like thugs,
forget about the worm. Starve
yourself, or from the air inhale
the water you may need, digest
the dust. And what the promiscuous
cat and jaybirds do, let them
do it, let them dart and snipe,
let them sound like others.
They sleep when the owl sends
out its encircling question.
Stay where you are, you lit fuse,
you dull spark of saltpeter and sulfur.