“Affluentia Poesis”: Meeting Poetry in the Universe of Possibility

“To let each impression and each germ of a feeling come to completion wholly in itself, in the dark, in the inexpressible, the unconscious, beyond the reach of one’s own intelligence and await with deep humility and patience the birth-hour of a new clarity, that alone is living the artist’s life, in understanding as in creating.”

-Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

The title of this blog comes from one of my former students, a science-minded young man who asked Google Translate for the Latin equivalent of an English phrase: flow of poetry. I know the translation is incorrect, and exchanging several emails with colleagues (whose knowledge of Latin surpasses mine) has not helped me to find the accurate rendering of this idea. The Internet at least tells me that “affluentia” is closer to affluence—an overflow. Nevertheless I build my philosophy of teaching poetry around Affluentia Poesis, poetry as living, incalculable current.

Affluentia Poesis was born on a writing assignment, inspired by Kenneth Goldsmith’s Uncreative Writing course. As a class, we read Goldsmith’s “It’s not Plagiarism. In the Digital Age, It’s ‘Repurposing’” an excerpt that appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education. In describing his methods and motives, Goldsmith (2011) questioned the value of literary originality and praised the general repurposing and imitative practices found in other arts. He relayed the testimonials of students whose most creative work came from a period of strict constraint, a course in which Goldsmith punished their attempts at originality.

After our discussion of Goldsmith’s article, I offered my students an opportunity for uncreative writing. I gave them a handout titled “Plagiarizing Poetry” which included these eleven poems:

I chose these poems for their variety. Some offered classic poetics like St. Vincent Millay’s sonnet and Bishop and Thomas’s villanelles, while others—like Williams and Lopate—scarcely used punctuation or capitalization, resembling a prose paragraph scattered over a sheet of paper. Rich and Owen both offered social critique, one in short, provocative form and the other with rigorous, hypnotic sound repetitions. Heaney and Housman used earthy language to describe domestic conflict, one poet talking to himself and another offering dialogue between a friend and a ghost. Each poem was manageable in some aspect and daunting in another: complex messages offered in short, simple lines or familiar meaning wrapped in elaborate language.

My instructions were straightforward; I asked every student to create two poems using only words or lines from the eleven. Like Goldsmith’s students, mine were piecing together poems rather than writing them in a more traditional way. They could wander through the poems as gardeners or naturalists, picking out the words or phrases that struck their fancy and situating them on a new page.

To make beautiful bouquets, gardeners do not have to invent flowers. To make meaning, my students did not have to invent language; they had to arrange it, place it, shuffle it around. Soon, their playful and determined efforts resulted in a surprising number of interesting poems whose components—wrenched from their original context—hummed together to reveal new depths of meaning.

As my students read their work aloud, some sheepish and others gleeful, I witnessed the collaborative power of creating. Tradition elevates the solitary genius, who labors beneath the light of inspiration, but our creations are more often the work of many voices, both present and faded, some half-remembered and others daily cherished. None of us compose in a vacuum.

Though most students strictly adhered to the exercise, some could not help but flaunt their originality in titles. The student who weekly professed his loyalty to science and medicine took from “Ars Poetica” a need for Latin: he titled his first poem “Affluentia Poesis.” When I asked him what this phrase meant, he proudly replied, “Flow of poetry.”He was the only student to offer a Latin title for his poem—a touch of creativity that I could never have anticipated.

By harvesting their poems, rather than inventing them, my students realized the pleasure of serendipity—of seeing meaning spring up as words come together on a page. This is the moment when the poem you think you’re writing changes shape, and you’re awash in moments you haven’t remembered in years. The tingle of a sharp perfume, the metallic slam of locker doors, the raucous laugh you heard around the corner—these are memories you could not have forced to the surface. This is your poetry talking back to you, telling you what it wants to become.

Teaching poetry is too often a one-sided conversation. The poem, positioned beneath the glass display case of the printed page, is never allowed to rise up and take part. Teachers cling to the value of moving line-by-line, so that students can understand what the poem “means.”—as if understanding a poem’s meaning is as easy as swallowing a multivitamin. But of course, in these arenas, the meaning of a poem is finite, digestible, and controlled by the instructor.

Students complain about interacting with poetry for a simple reason: they don’t want to be “wrong” about it. Difficult or confusing language wouldn’t be so annoying to them if they felt no pressure to parade their nuanced understanding—smartypants fashion—before the judge who delivers validation in the form of grades. But no one expects a first-time cook to master a complicated French dish right away. No one expects the young musician to play flawlessly with sophisticated interpretation. In these novice stages, we applaud and encourage the heart needed for someone to step forward and expose their inexperience.

Poems may contain finite elements—a certain quantity of syllables and sounds—but their meaning and reception can’t be predicted. When we as teachers remove the capacity for error—and its cohorts of diffidence and exclusion—we take the surest step of bringing students to a love of the arts. Students who can play with poetry will lose their fear, their hesitation to touch and be touched by language.

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2 Comments

  1. Lois Gray

     /  May 25, 2015

    What evocative and apt poems you chose for this fascinating exercise in your poetry class! I greatly enjoyed your blog post about the results as well. I can see that you are an excellent teacher and a bright light to lead the students into the sometimes misperceived “dark woods” of poetry. Your students are lucky indeed to have you with them!

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