A Generative Poetry Exercise from Kenneth Koch

Generative Exercises allow creative writers to think outside our normal default modes of creation. Often, the poems created during exercises are stronger than ones created with no prompt.

Koch’s book Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children may be designed for teaching poetry in elementary school, but I find the exercises work for all levels, including seasoned poets. Another useful book by Kenneth Koch and Kate Farrell is Sleeping on the Wing: An Anthology of Modern Poetry with Essays on Reading and Writing

The following exercise is taken from Chapter 7 of Rose, Where Did You Get That Red?

Directions

Part 1 – Preparing/Creating/Reflecting

1. Study the following famous poem, “Between Walls,” by William Carlos Williams. Read it aloud to get the feel for its music and use of line. Then, read what Kenneth Koch (and I) write about some of “Between Walls'” elements:

Between Walls, by William Carlos Williams

the back wings
of the

hospital where
nothing

will grow lie
cinders

in which shine
the broken

pieces of a green
bottle

In Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children, Kenneth Koch draws our attention to [Some of these observations are mine, not Koch’s.]:

  • “the un-beautifulness of the broken glass bottle and how Williams thinks it is beautiful anyway”
  • that this poem is not about “highly poetical things” that people often think are the “only proper ones to write poetry about,” but common things
  • note there is no punctuation, the poem not really a sentence (poetry allows you to not be perfectly grammatical
  • the language is plain, simple
  • the lines are very short (2-4 syllables each and 1-2 strong accents)
  • the image gradually unfolds image with no stops and constant enjambment (lines that do not pause at a punctuation or natural pause) where the lines pull the reader down deeper into the poem.
  • Most importantly, “Between Walls” creates meaning by never telling it. It is all image. (Well there is one important elaboration of an image as exposition or commentary – the explanation “where / nothing / will grow”.)

2. Write: Write a poem after this model that discovers what is beautiful to you in something you see, in an unexpected way – be sure you are writing about really plain, ordinary things and using simple, unadorned language.

  • Write at least 12 lines.
  • Do not rhyme.
  • Pay attention to line endings – what words you end each line on, and create enjambments.
  • Make sure your poem is an unfolding image – don’t tell us what you mean, keep commentary (exposition) to an absolute minimum. Think of how you might employ multiple sensations.
  • Try to imitate this style of one quasi-sentence for the entire poem, building up to a surprise at the end – this poem uses the sentence vs. the line to create suspense and creates the surprising turn “in which shine / the broken / pieces of a green / bottle”.

3. Reflect: Often, it’s reflecting on your work that creates the most intense learning. I suggest you don’t skip this step.

  • Write a paragraph reflecting upon the experience of writing this poem. Consider:
    • What were you trying to do with the word choices and structure of your poem?
    • What beliefs about poetry did “Between Walls” and your own poem change, confirm, or challenge?
    • Anything else you want to reflect upon that the first three did not cover or challenge.
  • Look at the surprising fact about this poem at the end of this lesson.

Part 2 – Respond to Other Poets

If you are working with other writers, you can get together as a group to get workshop feedback. If you are a teacher, you can put students into workshop groups. Here are two ways to entice useful comments. They are based on the techniques presented by Peter Elbow.

Sharing:

  • First, we will call this part “sharing.” say something about the poem and what it might have revealed for you. Respond to the poet’s reflection, if that is shared. And may I say that we always want to appreciate that a someone created a poem out of nothing. You have something to start with for possible future revision!

Responding As a Reader

  • Second, we will call this part “responding.” For this type of critiquing we are mainly “responding as a reader.”  (Sometimes we are responding as a fellow writer, such as when looking at the “turn” of a poem.) A writer needs to know how audiences react to the creative work in order to have ideas for revision. Your response should include, “What works for me as a reader,” “What doesn’t work for me as a reader.” Here are some ideas to guide responses (use what is most important to the poem).
  • Where does the poem keep the most interest? Where the poem seem to keep the least interest for you? Why?
  • What does the poem make you feel and think?
  • What words seem most important to you, feel right to you? What words seem not to be as effective, and why?
  • What images are most effective to you, least effective? Is there enough imagery in the poem?
  • Where do you sense a turn? Can you find a turn? (The idea of the “turn” or “volta” in a free verse lyric poem is that the poem “goes somewhere” emotionally). Is the turn creating emotional interest? Does the turn help the poem stay with you after it is over? What thoughts does it provoke?
  • What do you feel the poem is trying to say?
  • What places confuse you, or you think are unintentionally cloudy or too difficult?
  • Thinking of future revision: Is the poem the right length, too short, too long to do the work it seems to want to do?

Surprising Fact about “Between Walls” by William Carlos Williams

“Between Walls” is an example of “imagism” – a movement in poetry that began in 1913 and lasted for about a decade. Its goal was to experiment with poetry made up of only “concrete images drawn in precise, colloquial [everyday] language” (Poetry Foundation). It tried not to explain, but only to show “an instant of time” as poet Ezra Pound put it, and to always use “the exact word, not the nearly-exact, nor the merely decorative word” as poet Amy Lowell put it. Doing so would create both emotional and intellectual complexity, it was thought. Lowell also wrote of imagism that it should “render particulars exactly and not deal in vague generalities, however magnificent and sonorous. It is for this reason that we oppose the cosmic poet, who seems to us to shirk the real difficulties of art,” that it should “produce poetry that is hard and clear, never blurred nor indefinite,” and that “concentration is of the very essence of poetry.”

This movement’s philosophy reveals what Williams was up to in this poem and why it may seem so different than other types of poetry. Personal Reflection: How do the ideas of imagism challenge your ideas of what a poem should be and how might it affect your future writing of poetry?

If you enjoyed this lesson, you might also enjoy Finding the Words 2: The “Eight Words” Poetry Generative Exercise.

Although the lessons are free of charge, you can help support maintaining lessons on this site through the paypal link on the top right of this post. Thank you for your support! – Michael

For several decades I have conducted writing workshops of all kinds, and for 14 years I have taught writing on the faculty of Indiana University Southeast. Now I have decided to give back for these opportunities by making my lessons available online. I hope you enjoy this lesson, and the other lessons here on my writing Web site, michael-jackman.com. You may download and use any lesson here free of charge, provided you give credit as: © Copyright Michael Jackman. All Rights Reserved.

I appreciate comments. Thank you!

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