Monday, November 12, 2007

The Hand That Copies the Poem

From time to time I like to copy someone else's poem in longhand. Other times I like to type one out on my computer. There are times when time is of the essence, so for the sake of speed and convenience, I will copy and paste instead. But I think there is instructive value in this old practice of copying by hand. When I do this, I seem to pay more attention not only to the words but also to small matters like punctuation and capitalization. I process the poem in a way that I don't when I merely read. I slow down for the poem and respond more thoughtfully. Why this word? What an unusual word, I think as I write. I notice double entendres that result from strategic line breaks. The effect of repetition in a poem becomes more apparent when I copy and recopy the repeated words. And even though this is an eye/hand/brain operation, my ear seems to perk up a bit, too.

I started thinking about this topic the other day when Julie Enszer typed out "The Return," by Carolyn Forche, and posted it on the Wompo listserv. I asked Julie for her thoughts on the value of copying out an entire poem. Here's what she had to say:

"One of the things I was thinking about while typing the poem was the ways that Forche sustains the poem and expands it as a lyrical narrative. One of the things that I admire about all of the poems in this collection [The Country Between Us] are the concluding lines of stanzas and of the poems in general. In typing it out, though, I could see how she arrived at those lines. For instance, in this section she is concluding an anaphoric series of 'Tell them,'

Tell them how his friend found
the soldiers and made them dig him up
and ask forgiveness of the corpse, once
it was assembled again on the ground
like a man. As for the cars, of course
they watch you and for this don't flatter

The transition of 'As for the cars,' I find to be a very deft move taking us to the conclusion of a stanza but opening the poem further for the next section.

In general, I feel like a time pressured person so doing things like typing out long poems - or writing them in long-hand forces my racing mind, when it is done with being frustrated by how long it is taking, to really focus on the project at hand and what can be learned from it. I was reading recently - was it here? - about people writing poems and imagining that they had written the lines themselves in the process of transcribing them. So lovely."

Ann Lederer had this to say in reply to Julie's thoughts:

"In addition to being a learning tool, performing this beautiful ritual in longhand feels like a spiritual exercise akin to scribes painstakingly copying out sacred texts in calligraphy, or artists with easels set up in front of masterpieces. Each stroke, each letter is laden with import. In deep concentration, there is almost a sense of possession, a thrill of comprehension when a line break or comma placement counteracts one's own hunch. Not being a musician, I wonder what the similarities of this practice might be to playing music written by another."

And finally, Julie sent this response to Ann's thoughts:

"This is a fascinating observation. In Jewish law, one of the commandments is that each (man) shall write (copy) the Torah."

Now I have a challenge for you. Every day for the next week copy out a poem in longhand. Do it slowly and deliberately. Choose one poem that is fairly long. Choose another that you don't especially like.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful exercise, Diane. The value of learning by repetition was embraced by the Chinese. They would have students of poetry come to "class" and each day, do nothing but write out the poems of master poets.


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