What is a poem?: Reflections on teaching Reznikoff

Once, I gave students Reznikoff.

I wanted to discuss documentation. I wanted to walk in the world; to write what we saw; to stir conversations about “authenticity” and what it means to be in the world, with the world, of the world.

From Keri Smith's The Guerrilla Art Kit
From Keri Smith’s The Guerrilla Art Kit
After reading Reznikoff’s work, we tried to “testify” to concrete and particular details. One student found a strangely placed leaf—alone on a branch when other branches were full, facing slightly upward in comparison to other leaves, and sunlit. She enticed us to see the leaf and recognize that it “deserved” attention. [I should note that we read Basho and practiced Keri Smith’s “notice” activities the week prior to set us up for “observing” the world and helping each other see small things.] We all wrote about the found leaf for 5 minutes. From my experiment with them:

belly up until

downed light

knits in one

ear, a vertical man

who names bees

folded in striped center

To see the world, to only say what you see, was hard. I added a bee. Would Reznikoff have added? I associated the leaf’s stem with a “vertical man.” Is that addition descriptive, clear, precise, found? We rewrote/revised our observations for 10 minutes, trying to be more descriptive and restricted to just what we saw:

Upward, turned leaf,

covered in light. Eyes

think sound—

a bee in stem.

And this still suffers from abstraction (but a 15 minute poem isn’t easy).

We compared our created works, discussed what a “poetic” voice might mean, and assessed (in small groups) our individual “poem value systems” based on which versions we preferred of our own work and our collaborators works.

Surprisingly, they didn’t like Reznikoff or their more descriptive poems. Describing the work as boring, difficult to identify with, and too detailed. Abstraction, symbolism, personal representation, and expressions that might only mean something to the writer were deemed “more poetic.”

To quote my talented friend (and former student) Maureen Foody, “my idea of a poem is a bit loose in the waist”—I hadn’t bothered much with defining a poem, but students were starting to ask how these descriptive works were, indeed, poems.

I didn’t have an answer, just an impulse to witness the world.

The total visibility Reznikoff rendered seemed, to me, like a project full of expansive connections: how do you translate what you see? How do you connect eye, ear, and word? How can you communicate when so much of what we are trying to say is caused, influenced, or touched by something that isn’t us? How can we use poetry to connect, to unearth layers, to look? Maybe, and this is only one suggestion, you document.

Maybe you document because you empathize, because you want to cultivate deep and expansive sympathies. From Reznikoff:

I do not like
my own face
in the little mirrors of the slot-machines
before the closed stores.

As a poetic practice, documentation makes me honest about what I’m adding/imagining and it makes me think about why I’m adding, embellishing, or associating. I feel more aware of the work, more researched.

Aaron Patrick Flanagan and Brian Mornar, poets I’m lucky to have known, both blow me away with researched and observant writing. I can’t tell you why it’s a poem, but I can tell you that what they do changes me when I read it, and makes me feel more connected to the world.

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