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Blueprinting the Poetic Structure


Sheila E. Murphy



This morning I had the good fortune to return to teaching a poetry class for a colleague and friend who was venturing out of town. Having run workshops and taught classes for part of my career, I always welcome the experience of returning to familiar, although consistently surprising, territory. Today’s class was composed of several mature writers who enroll in workshops on a regular basis, to maintain currency and enhance their skills.

It struck me that the students in today’s class reflected opportunities to envision their work differently, in fact, more expansively than they have to date. All of the students thought in terms of the individual poem. In addition, the construct of the poem that students envisioned reflected a fairly fixed entity to be wedged within narrow confines. The concern I had was that students’ perception of what was possible seemed too limited to allow for an adventurous writing experience, and virtually guaranteed a marginally surprising text.

An additional issue that surfaced involved the issue of the poem itself. When discussing poems, writers in the class spoke of one poem at a time. While not a harmful habit, and certainly not an unexpected practice, this perspective appeared to quash the possibility of a larger structure. Any thought of an architecturally brilliant plan appeared dashed before the thinking was released.

The presence of these two related issues reminded me of the opportunity, the opportunities, in fact, that precede the act of texting.  Twin remedies come to the fore: and they function in symbiosis: loosening the text and tightening the architecture. The former can be achieved in a myriad of ways, notably through the use of Bernadette Mayer’s Writing Experiments, Leevi Lehto’s Get a Google Poem, or some other structured means of freeing oneself from the tissues of conscious blockage. The latter requires consideration of some possible, some natural “larger structure” for the poem. In this context, the individual poem might figure as a passage, rather than the whole piece. One of the numerous benefits of this feature is the requisite use of extended time for the composition of the poem, thereby adding dimension. A second advantage of working in this way is that the emergent offering may provide for additional patterning that may change the effect of certain linear gestures or phraseology.

The a priori act of imagination that prepares for the arrival of the poem is likely to possess inherent elements of surprise. The better the plan and the more inclusive its structure, the greater the potential for balancing its level of expectation and surprise, both for writer and reader.

Today’s class also served as a reminder of the difference between teacher and student, a portion of which is simply confidence. At the respective ends of a spectrum, one finds individuals who are patterned to trust in their practice and lineage as writers, and to self-declare to be creators. At the opposite end of that spectrum are the more self-effacing persons who subscribe to the class as a means of validation. While both of these polar opposites have value, each stands to learn from the other.

Arguments galore can be made against projecting a larger structure for a poem or a sequence of poems. I would submit that for the majority of writers, the prospect of a figuratively enlarged canvas for the written composition is virtually nonexistent. Only a scarce few writers allow themselves this vision. Buying into such vision wholesale can present its problems, but even consideration of such planning brings advantages.

While tinkering with the logic that underlies potential content, a writer can recognize that content can and perhaps should be pressured by form. Several current or recent projects that have used this approach to advantage come to mind. The poet Dan Waber, who turned recently 40 in 2006, proceeded to generate a project that involved the identification of 365 people (one for each day of his new year) who had made an impression on his life. For each of those individuals, he would write 40 words. The project began, appropriately, with Dan’s mother. Dan has encouraged others to follow suit, and his blog lists others who are creating passages using their own ages over a period of 365 days. One of my favorites is by JHK (see website), using a 37-year motif.

In my own work and life, I created a birthday poem for my brother Tommy, using his date of birth in the following way: Given the date of June 13, 1954, I created three passages to each page, with the number of pages equal to Tommy’s age. On each page, a passage of 54, 13, and 6 words, respectively, allowed me to configure my perceptions about him, which I subsequently presented as a gift.

Alan Sondheim writes in sequence as part of a larger project, and sections of Alan’s work appear on such listservs as wryting-l. Ongoing collaborative endeavors, including such writers as Douglas Barbour, Tom Taylor, Jim Leftwich, Michelle Greenblatt, Jukka-Pekka Kervinen, John Crouse, John M. Bennett, Dan Waber, I, and numerous others, involve a commitment to engagement in extended practice that expands the context of the written engagement beyond that of individual production of work.

One aspect of allowing the larger invention to serve as home to the poetic, textual, or multidimensional imagination is in facilitating the ability to transcend a narrow definition of the work. That the field can become even larger than one can reasonably “handle” says much about the commitment to innovation. The writer/creator/artist who admits to being but an ingredient of the burgeoning and even resplendent exhibition hall that may or may not be large enough to encompass what is occurring in this golden age of writing and visual art, even mental and spiritual art, is to take a big step back in the department of ego. Today’s and tomorrow’s artist is ironically positioned at the crux of two powerful directions: ultimate confidence and infinite humility. The inevitable result of such positioning is awareness and celebration of being alive at what is perhaps the most productive and exciting time in artistic history.


copyright © Sheila E. Murphy


Sheila E. Murphy is a prolific poet who has published numerous individual and collaborative books of poetry. Her book Letters to Unfinished J. appeared in 2003, and received the Gertrude Stein Award from Green Integer Press. Recent titles include Collected Chapbooks, Permutoria (with K. S. Ernst), How to Spell the Sound of Everything (with mIEKALaND), Quaternity (with Scott Glassman), Circumsanct and Reverse Haibun.

Since 1993 Murphy has led a consulting firm ( now Sheila Murphy, LLC) that provides Customized Artistic Designs for public and private spaces; keynote speaking; and corporate consulting in Strategic Corporate Communication; Individual and Team Executive Advisement and Succession Planning.