The Colorado Poet, Issue #35, Sprint 2023

About Your French Toast and the Eugene Onegin Stanzas

David J. Rothman and Susan Delaney Spear Discuss Their New Poetry Textbook, Learning the Secrets of English Verse: The Keys to the Treasure Chest, and Teaching the Difficult Pedagogy of Versification with Verve and Joy.

KW: Teaching over the last few decades, I’ve come to the conclusion that there are two general categories to the “How to Write Poetry” textbook. The first I equate with books like Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, itself not directed only to poetry, but representative for the kinds of book that focus on, for lack of better words, the spirituality of poetry, its intuitive link to the Muse, its deep image, its surrealism. Dare to dig deep enough and true poetry comes— anything else be damned. (Okay, I overstate.) On the other side are the “tools to the tool box”: poetry a craft that the poet learns to perfect by mastering each element of craft.  That craft typically focuses on Image, Symbol, Metaphor, Form and Structure etc. Yet in your new poetry textbook, Learning the Secretes of English Verse,(Springer) you two, David and Susan, grab right onto form and then zero in on the intricacies of the poetic line as a way to teach the writing of poetry. We follow you from the Anglo Saxon line to the couplet to dactyls and nonce meters to Ottava Rima and more. I really don’t think I’ve read a how to write poetry book that so widely and deeply encompasses a centuries plus look at English verse. It is a deep refreshing dive. But I wonder that students don’t balk at the “mathematics” of poetry, pining instead for the touchy-feelie. Tell us about the teaching design of your book and why it obviously has worked for you two.

DR/SS: First, I don’t think you’re overstating on Goldberg. Books like hers are legion, and we think they generally do a disservice to the art. We don’t teach any other serious human activity like that, from surgery, accounting and engineering to dance, music, architecture and…well, anything. Writing verse good enough to get others to read and remember it—verse good enough to be called “poetry”—is hard, and rare, and takes years of practice. People are of course free to write whatever and however they wish, but it is irresponsible for a teacher or writer to suggest that poetry is somehow different from all other human activity whatsoever and requires merely omphaloskepsis (navel gazing) in order to thrive. No—You have to study and you have to practice, and what and how you study and practice matters a lot, just as with everything else.

Second, we also agree with your characterization of the other kinds of books and their emphasis on literary categories such as image, symbol and so on. Of course, such things matter, but they derive mostly from the tradition of close literary reading as articulated in modern English department curricula, not from the poets themselves and their practice across millennia. For the poets themselves—the strong ones, at any rate—have always, in every language, made a very big deal out of how to write verse. Consider Dorothy Parker’s poem, “Fighting Words” (which we could not include because of rights issues in our textbook, but we can here because this interview counts as criticism):

SAY my love is easy had,

      Say I’m bitten raw with pride,

Say I am too often sad,––

   Still behold me at your side.

Say I’m neither brave nor young,

   Say I woo and coddle care,

Say the devil touched my tongue,––

   Still you have my heart to wear.

But say my verses do not scan,

   And I get me another man!

Parker, while particularly witty and pithy, is not an outlier. Our book opens with dozens of other quotations like this from other strong poets, including even William Carlos Williams, who wrote, in his definition of “Free Verse” for the first edition of the Princeton Encyclopedia of Poetics (1965), that “The crux of the issue is measure.” Our curriculum comes from the poets themselves, and it is high time we took that curriculum back from the English Department.

As for the teaching of the kind of approach we suggest—you might be surprised how quickly students come to enjoy it. For instead of being asked to spill their touchy-feelie emotional guts (and then being judged on that spillage), they are asked instead to learn a bit of magic and to play with words. For the kinds of measuring that students are asked to perform in learning, say, how to imitate Anglo-Saxon strong stress alliterative verse, or triple meters, or types of free verse, are not calculus, after all (which is pretty interesting in any event), but rather just learning how to count certain kinds of things that are similar, and to organize them in ways that create meaningful patterns. This kind of organizing is a fundamental human impulse and all we do is restore it to its rightful place in our art. And we have found that many students find this approach to be liberating, not constricting. And after all, it is no different as an approach from learning the rules of baseball, or how to read music, or how to bake a cake, or how the periodic table works, and so on. No one of these things is for everyone, but approaching such subjects with the structure that is evident in the things themselves is not an imposition, albeit it is academically unfashionable when it comes to poetry. And if it is all done with a bit of brio, it can also be tremendous fun. So, the first thing that our book does is seek to upend what have become a code of relentlessly dour pedagogical protocols in creative writing instruction and encourage students to explore the delightful variety and richness of poetic language and history in a playful yet highly structured manner, following the poets themselves.

The reason that this structured approach works is because it makes sense as a pedagogical strategy in general and is utterly fascinating if done in a careful manner. As for the design of the book, the first half roughly follows the historical development of meter in English, from Anglo-Saxon strong stress meter all the way to free verse and nonce forms, and the second half goes through the repeating stanza forms (as there are other books already out there that cover the lyrical forms, e.g. sonnet, ballade, villanelle, etc., so we leave those mostly aside). We organize the second half by looking at stanza forms of increasing complexity, from the humble yet difficult couplet all the way up to Spenserian Stanza, Eugene Onegin stanzas and again, nonce-stanzas. As for classroom practice, we discuss that further below, but the emphasis is on carefully structured exercises that foreground technique, rather than on content. We teach students how to do things with words, which is more than just how to say things. You can say anything you wish in prose. You can even write a prose poem. But you can’t write a prose verse. Our book is about learning to write verse, which is harder and more worthwhile than many realize. Again, more of this below.

KW:     Like all good books on poetry, you provide example poems for every type of line and poem you teach.  Not so typically, you provide actual student poem examples for each exercise and discuss and analyze the student poems just as you do the “master” poems. Why? There are so many beautiful poems out there by accomplished poets across the centuries, what value could student work have over those poems? (I am being a bit facetious here because I think I know why, but, shoot, I’d like to hear what you two have to say!) What was the process, challenges and rewards, in choosing those poems?

SS: In 2005, I began taking poetry writing classes with David at Lighthouse Writers. Five years later, in 2010, through the Writers in the Schools Program via the Colorado Humanities, he came to Chatfield Senior High School (where I was teaching English) once a week and taught a series of lessons in metrics and stanza forms. When I was a Lighthouse student, I noticed how much I learned, not only from the poems by the masters, but from the poems that my classmates brought in. Each week as we listened to David go through our poems line by line and offer comments, we soaked up praise and corrections. I learned from my mistakes and my friends’ mistakes. There is an allure, an encouragement if you will, to a poem written by a peer. One thinks, “Well she wrote about a piece of French Toast, so it’s probably OK if I write about my sun hat,” or “I liked his poem about calculus class, but he made mistakes,” so it’s OK to write about my cat, and it’s OK to make mistakes. The difference lies in pedagogical purpose. Poems from the canon have their place. They are the gold standard that students need to read regularly and revere. They possess a burnished quality that we must strive for. Masterpiece poems hold the standard high. But exercises written by other students offer teachable moments, and they say, “See, you can do this too.” I am biased, but I think these poems from our former students (they are 30 years old now!) give our text a charm that no other book has.

Choosing which poems to publish was a challenge. I wanted to include them all! I looked for poems that made enough errors to teach the rules and were still delightful. Perfect poems, which were few to none, were not considered, for errors and how we respond to them as teachers are crucial in the learning process. In this case, we wanted to include poems that were strong but at the same time included errors of versecraft and also where the craft was strong, but the scansion included errors. So far as we know there is no other book that does this in this way in the entire history of books about poetry composition. We are proud of it as an innovation in pedagogy.

The rewards of seeing these students in print is indescribable. I tried to reach out to each of them when the book was published, and I found a few on social media. When I see their names, I remember them and the fun, no the joy, we had reading and writing poetry—in an AP English Language class! I faced resistance from parents for including verseforms in an already packed curriculum, but that year the students’ scores went up. In part, I believe this happened because the exercises in scanning lines of poetry forced us to slow down and pay even greater attention to text, which should seem obvious but is not.

DR: All true. I’d only add something we also discuss in the book, which is that there is a careful pedagogical strategy underlying this approach, which I developed over many decades in direct imitation of Fitzgerald, whose teaching was a revelation. The vast majority of poetry workshops leap to interpretation and judgement of meanings almost immediately. And yet, it is possible to convey any meaning in prose, where once can use any word, any diction, any phrase, any clause, any syntax, and take up any subject, theme, tone, plot and genre whatsoever. So, while of course meanings matter in poetry, this book encourages teachers (and students) not to worry about them first and foremost—for that misses the larger point, which is that the signal difference between prose and poetry is verse. And verse is a very, very difficult thing to learn how to make well. Poems not only say things, they also do things, and what they preeminently “do” is verse, which is not necessarily a form of linguistic meaning, but rather something that one does with language to give it a different kind of order that is equal to and complementary with the meanings of words. This other function is measurement, and this is just as true of free verse as it is of metrical verse. Free verse is a form (or group of forms) of verse, not a form of freedom. This measurement function is certainly meaningful even if it is not part of the meanings of words per se—and this is what people who want to learn how to write verse well must learn if they are to have any chance of developing their skill at the art.

Of course writing verse well is not sufficient to great poetry—but it is necessary. And teaching this skill first and foremost to aspiring poets leads us to a completely different kind of creative writing (and even literary…) pedagogy, which the poet Robert Fitzgerald exemplified with great elegance and skill. It’s really quite simple: assuming an exercise makes sense and construes, the issue isn’t what it means, but rather if it successfully executes the assignment, e.g. blank verse, or triple meters, or ballad meter. Of course – of course! – meaning matters, but not, in the case of these exercises, at the expense of learning how to make good verses. So, in our curriculum and pedagogy, we give students a very carefully structured progression through the meters of English, with very specific assignments, and we encourage them to take up low-stakes themes. In other words, it’s probably not best to make your first attempt at writing an iambic pentameter rhyme royal be an elegy to your recently deceased brother who died in a car wreck, or a crisis of religious faith, or a hot political topic. That might be a little too hot to handle. Instead…how about trying to write about what you had for breakfast? In that way, you will more likely be able to play with language as you must in order to learn to imitate such a difficult form. We don’t train surgeons by asking them to perform a heart transplant on their first day in medical school; similarly, we should teach the writing of poetry in a progressive, scaffolded way, giving students the tools they need to do the hard things later, but beginning with highly focused and structured assignments on low-stakes subjects. The pedagogy then follows this concept and begins with relatively little commentary from the teacher (or from other students) on the subject, but rather focuses on helping the student see where the metrical and stanzaic work succeeds or fails, with all the gradations in between (and there are many).

Brief example of how this approach extends to reading (and writing is just a highly developed form of reading…). In the Parker poem above, the metrical-stanzaic structure is acephalous dipodic iambic tetramer quatrains rhyming abab and featuring rhetorical anaphora…until the final rhymed couplet, where Parker abandons the anaphora and slyly reintroduces that unstressed syllable at the beginning of both lines. (All these terms come from the poets themselves.) The question is less what she is saying (that’s clear: respect my craft or get lost, lover boy), but rather what is she doing? What effect does it have? Why? Bon voyage…

KW: This is a Big Book: detailed, nuanced, and exactingly researched and documented. Can you share with other poets who might be wanting to write a similar instructional book how the two of you collaborated so well on this? What was your process? Where and when did the book start? How do you share the workload? Find a publisher. Etc. etc. You know, all the juicy details.

DR/SS: This project was a highly successful and enjoyable collaboration because we both worked hard at it, we treated each other with respect and we enjoy each other’s company. We also both believed deeply in the significance of the project, as there is no other book quite like ours on the market (and may never have been).

First and foremost, David wrote the curriculum based on a class he took with Robert Fitzgerald at Harvard, “Versification.” Fitzgerald is not now widely known as a poet (though he was a good one, and, among other things, wrote a lovely poem titled “Colorado”), but he was one of the best-selling American poets of the 20th century if one includes his tremendously successful translations of The Iliad, The Odyssey and The Aeneid. David took this transformative course the last time that Fitzgerald ever offered it, in spring of 1981. At that time very few people were teaching anything about literary (as opposed to linguistic) prosody in a systematic way – there was J. V. Cunningham at Stanford, Miller Williams at Arkansas, Lewis Turco at one of the SUNY schools, Donald Justice at Florida…and that was about it. So it was a piece of very good luck that David encountered Fitzgerald. That course propelled him into a lifetime of research into prosody, including his dissertation on techniques of free verse at New York University under Denis Donoghue, and many years of refining his understanding of craft, both as a poet and as a teacher at a number of institutions, including Lighthouse in Denver. This kind of work was—and remains—unfashionable in academic English departments and MFA programs, but David is slightly crazy and persevered, because he had a deep desire to understand how poetic language and technique work.

Susan was one of a small number of students searching for the information that David had diligently mined. When she studied with him at Lighthouse, but especially when we worked together in Susan’s classroom at Chatfield (which was the initial laboratory for this book), David wrote a description of each meter and form and offered examples from the masters; this then became the basis of the curriculum he developed at Western Colorado University for the MFA there, where he directed the poetry concentration and the full program for many years (and where Susan also earned her MFA in 2012). Susan kept all this material in a notebook along with her Chatfield students’ written exercises. Because she had already had this book in mind, she had sent permission slips home to the students’ parents many years earlier. Before the book was in its first draft, she had signed permission slips for publication from the students’ parents. Most of them were only seventeen at the time.

It was Susan who began putting the chapters together after David made an offhand comment that the low-residency format (where professors have to write out lecture notes in detail) meant that the book was already more than half written. She dared him to do it and he didn’t believe it would ever happen, but then agreed to give it a try if she would get it started. He thought she was joking—little did he know how serious and persistent she could be! She started by pasting in David’s explication of the form; then the master poems, which she scanned; then she selected the student examples and wrote the commentary. Chapter by chapter, she sent them to David, and he returned them with revisions and corrections, often only after she, er, reminded him several hundred times to get it all done. All the while, she was looking for a publisher. She approached the textbook representatives with whom she was acquainted as an English department chair. We were turned down by one well-known publisher but were accepted after a long period of consideration by Springer.

It was then the arduous work of revision and production began. The scansion was particularly tedious because of the transfer from hand-scanned pdf’s to print and then to printer-ready proofs (there is no convenient program for scansion—now there’s a project for someone!), and the diacritical marks roamed around the page at every stage. We sent drafts back and forth, each of us suggesting revisions and line edits. Neither of us took offense at constructive criticism. We were working together for the most effective text possible. The workload divided itself: scholarship, scansion, commentary. David wrote about the history and structure of the forms; Susan scanned poems and wrote commentary and he revised and edited her work as she did his.

The bottom line is that we seemed to have a good division of labor and each of us followed through with help when needed from the other. David wrote the text; Susan scanned the poems and selected and wrote up the student examples; Susan found the publisher; David handled the permissions for poems still under copyright; we proofread the entire book together. No one should underestimate the time and effort involved in such a project, but it was a tremendous learning experience for both of us. We wrote these interview responses together in the same way!

KW: Finally, what’s next for the two of you, individually and even collaboratively    

DR/SS: These days, Susan continues to write poems about her new geography in the Tampa Bay area, and her essay “Where Do the Lost Things Go?” is forth coming this summer in Plough. David is working on an extended elegy for his wife Emily, who passed away in 2020, along with various prose projects such as an essay on literary treatments of plagues and pandemics; he also recently wrote a complete reimagining of Ramuz’s libretto for Stravinsky’s Histoire du Soldat, that was performed by the Iris Collective with dancers from Ballet Memphis in Memphis. Together? We have considered compiling an anthology of elegies as a next project, as we have found no such anthology that we consider to be well-organized. Susan taught a creative writing course at St Leo in the fall of 2022, and David continues to teach at Lighthouse, including a course on stanza forms this coming May 13-14, based on the textbook.

Our Contributors:

Susan Delaney Spear recently retired from full-time teaching and relocated to Tampa, Florida. She is writing poems which spring from her new geography (think alligators and exotic birds). Her book, On Earth . . ., was recently featured on Autumn Sky Poetry Daily.

David J Rothman is an independent writer, editor and consultant who has worked extensively both as a teacher and as an arts and educational administrator. His most recent post (2019-20) was as President/CEO of the Jackson Hole Center for the Arts, in Jackson, Wyoming. He has published six volumes of poetry, including "My Brother’s Keeper" (Lithic Press, 2019) and "The Elephant’s Chiropractor" (Conundrum Press, 1998), both of which were Finalists for the Colorado Book Award, as well as other works. View the youtube on the Secrets of poetic verse.