The best poetry-writing teacher

Lectures on poetry & writing by Richard Hugo (cont.)

  • When Roethke read his favorites aloud (Yeats, Hopkins, Auden, …) the students could feel themselves falling in love with the sounds of the words. He gave students a love of the sound of language. His classes were clinics. He performed therapy on the ear.

Self-Portrait With a Bandaged Ear, Van Gogh (1889)

  • Good poets have obsessive ears. They love certain sounds and not others.
  • Quest for a self is fundamental to poetry.

Two Self-Portraits and Several Details, Drawing, Van Gogh (1886)

  • The good poems say: This is how I feel. With luck that’s true, but usually it’s not. More often the poem is the way the poet says he feels when he can’t find out what his real feelings are. It makes little difference to the reader, since a good poem sounds meant enough to be believed.
  • Roethke said: Write like somebody else.
  • There are those usual people who try desperately to appear unusual, and there are unusual people who try to appear usual. Most poets I’ve met are from the latter –

Self-Portrait in Front of the Easel, Van Gogh (1888)

  • If you are really strange you are always in enemy territory, and your constant concern is survival.

 Richard Hugo

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Harold Rhenisch says:

    I took a poetry manuscript to Robin Skelton once. It concerned spiritual matters. “You’re on the right track,” said Robin, “but I can’t hear the music in it yet, and if I can’t hear the music in it I don’t trust it; it’s not finished.” Wise words. Fifteen years later (and fifteen years last week since his death) I’m still working through those poems, finding the music.

  2. Sometimes I feel as though I am always in, if not exactly enemy territory, some place where my intuitions and perspectives are alien. Temple Grandin described her experience as an autistic person in ‘normal’ society as making her feel “like an anthropologist on Mars” (as reported by Oliver Sacks). I am not a person on the ASD spectrum, but I get what she means. And I think that’s what Hugo describes in that last quote.

    1. Sigrun says:

      One could say like this: Being an artist has to do with a capacity to see things from a different perspective. This kind of Verfremdungseffekt, alienation from the ordinary everyday, is exactly what makes art important.
      OK, we have heard that before.
      what I really like about Hugo’s statement is that he doesn’t talk about this foreignness in a cozy, hippie kind of way, its not an optional add on – being a poet is trying to survive in a hostile territory, it is actually very difficult, and at times: very painful. Founded on a situation of not belonging.

      1. Yes, and that sense of not-belonging can go very far back into a person’s psyche or life experience.

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