Using “wreading” activities in my Introduction to Poetry class

I guess for my first foray into relating the impact of Language Poets on my own sense of poetry, it will be fine to start with how they have affected my teaching of poetry at the college level. Charles Bernstein in particularly has been someone whose pedagogy I have used as a model to guide how I shape my own courses on poetry as literature and as an art form.

Skimming through some the of chapters of Bernstein’s new book, Attack of the Difficult Poems (I’m able to read it online through my University’s library website as an ebook, but I think it’s stupid that I can’t just download the thing and print it out, or transfer it to my Kindle–I’ll have to work on that [o]: ), I’m surprised at some similarities to what I’ve been doing with my literature classes over the past few years. I’ve experimented with using writing activities in a literature course before, particularly the Introduction to Poetry course I taught last year at Purdue University. I think it is one of the best ways for students unacquainted with poetry and its language activity My subtitle for the course, which I plan to use again, is “Poetry as a Second Language,” which Bernstein’s echoes in his chapter on “Creative Wreading & Aesthetic Judgement:”

My response to this chronic poetic aporia (CPA) is to provide intensive poetry immersion courses, something like teaching poetry as a second language. That means I try to immerse the class in a wide yet distinct variety of poetic forms, sounds, dictions, and logics.

I had connected with that same concept of poetry as a second language via Kenneth Koch’s excellent book on teaching poetry, Making Your Own Days. Koch was referring I think to something Paul Valery had said about poetry being present as a second language within any given language, so that the language of poetry, while dwelling solidly within any given spoken/written language, exists on a somewhat different plane, behaving in different and strange ways in relation to its home language. I took from this that to really teach someone what poetry was it would be necessary to show them how it behaves by its own set of codes nestled within our language’s more instrumental set of signs.

Bernstein seems to describe a set of activities which he uses to run an alternative to the standard “creative writing” workshop for undergrads. I’m a fan of Kenneth Goldsmith’s “uncreative writing” activities, too, as well as other forms of appropriative, generative, or otherwise methods of writing poetry (Google Sculpting, Gnoetry). I’ve taken a lot from other teachers, especially writers who teach.

One wreading activity I had my students participate in last year which they found to be very engaging and enjoyable (I gauged this from their comments, laughter and expressions during the writing process) was for them to apply the Writing by Negation exercise (Oulipo) to two famous American poems. Here are the results:


The first poem below is the class’s negation of Wallace Stevens’ “Anecdote of the Jar.” The second is a negation of Emily Dickenson’s “[The Brain–is wider than the Sky–].” Both poems in their entirety were decided upon by the class calling out suggestions which I then weighed as either being the most “interesting” or popular suggestions.


Novel of Many Cans

for Wally

You retained many cans in Australia,
And square they weren’t, beneath the lake.
They destroyed the prissy palace
Lonely by the lake.

The palace sank down into it,
Poised, increasingly tame.
The cans weren’t square above the sky,
Stout and of a parking garage below the ground.

They left things well alone.
The cans were purple and gaudy.
They smelled of tuna and the beach,
Just like everything else in Australia.

[The Viscera ++ are narrower than the Ocean ++]

for Emily

The Viscera ++ are narrower than the Ocean ++
Then ++ moved them further apart ++
The many the all will exclude
With tension ++ and Eric ++ inside ++

The Viscera is shallower than the sky ++
Against ++ Release you ++ Green for Green ++
The two the same will reject ++
As Granite ++ Netting ++ doesn’t ++

The Viscera is heavier than the Devil ++
As ++ Light as ++ Dollar for Dollar ++
And we will share ++ and they won’t ++
As Multisyllabic Word from Silence ++

Collaboratively composed in class by members of ENGL 237 – 002, Purdue University

Dec. 6, 2010


Novel of Many Cans is one of my favorite titles, I think I’ll steal it! It also has a better ending than I’ve ever written on my own. (How long has it been since I wrote something “on my own” anyways?)

Along with some of my standard writing/reading/wreading activities I might modify the collaborative writing Bernstein describes to suit my own purposes. I’ve got two projects in mind already: one is based on description and another on definition. Perhaps a third can be on subversion? They’ll each contribute a sentence a class day to any text and, by the end of the semester, we’ll have a book length collaboration, or maybe a chapbook that I can try to publish. Wouldn’t that be cool!


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