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Aaron Poochigian 04-19-2021 07:07 AM

Interview on Formal Poetry at The Millions

Yves S L 04-19-2021 07:31 AM

Hello Aaron,

I am interested to learn more about the "craft exercises" and how you think the work of translation aided your own work.

To be more specific, I take it that the intense study of the classics was itself one gigantic "exercise", but I am always on the look out for more exercises.

Aaron Poochigian 04-20-2021 05:56 AM

Hello, Yves.

There is a debate as to whether some one can even do "exercises" in poetry as a flautist does on the flute. James Fenton says no--whenever you start writing a poem (whatever your intention), you are writing it for real. I have found, in my experience, that such exercises are not only possible in poetry but useful. I would take a passage of, say, "The Aeneid," and do everything I could to take that dead language with all of its archaic tropes and figures and make it something vital in contemporary English.

Yves S L 04-20-2021 07:39 AM

Hello, Aaron (I am taking your lead on punctuation).

I just recently discovered that a music educator Alice Kay Kanack had basically created exercises for creativity, and if there is a debate for whether exercises exist in poetry, then you can imagine how much more wide ranging and intense the debate on whether there are exercises for creativity in general.

I am firmly in the camp that says there exist exercises for every creative/design discipline on Earth.

Her model summarised a lot of thoughts I have had over the years exploring different domains, and I am going to use parts of it to frame my response to you, so as to give you a better grasp of how I am interpreting your words.

The first phase for creativity she calls "conscious work" and it includes "setting up the problem, understanding the tools necessary to solve the problem, and exploration of different points of view".

The way I interpret your personal poetic project is that you are attempting to solve the following big problem: "establishes that formal poetry is not a museum piece but a mode that can express the full range and depth of 21st-century life."

It then makes sense in pursuit of this larger problem you would give yourself smaller problems "exercises" such as: " take a passage of, say, "The Aeneid," and do everything I could to take that dead language with all of its archaic tropes and figures and make it something vital in contemporary English. " and that you would find models in Auden and Larkin who you say taught you how to write in a contemporary idiom. It is a smaller problem because it removes the challenge of idea generation and allows an utter focus on expression of various modes within formal verse, and allows you later to then use the skill and experience gained in your own original formal verse.

To further clarify my thoughts, I would like to compare your words with that of Derek Walcott in the following interview on his poem "Omeros" [20:22-]20:52 "I remember the Faber Auden and the Faber Elliot and stuff like that ... What I used to do is almost every day, or as often as I could ... I had an exercise book or exercise books in which I would model a poem directly onto, almost like an overlay, down to the rhymes and the meter but out of my own background and family and landscape ..." The larger goal of Walcott was to absorb the tradition of English verse relative to his own postcolonial background.

I am going to classify the different exercises that you and Walcott did as "translation exercises".

So if highly skilled poets say that they solve problems (there are numerous examples), that is, do exercises, in pursuit of gaining the skills necessary to achieve their larger overarching goals, that is, larger problems, then I do not see a reason for controversey.

For someone without much experience in Classics, which one of your translations would make a good start? I am guessing that Aristophanes would give the most exposure to different modes of expression.

RCL 04-20-2021 10:16 AM

Re Exercises: When a kid, I could not comprehend the grammar of English. The rules were useless for me. So, I copied sentences that I liked or looked different over and over and that taught me to write. I taught grammar among other aspects of English for forty years, and at this point have happily lost all memory of how it works. I should add, the same is true for writing poetry, which didn't happen until I was over sixty. Writing pastiches of canonical poems was and still is one of my exercises.

Ego sum id quod sum imitantur.

Imitantur ergo sum ego.

Sarah-Jane Crowson 04-21-2021 07:27 AM

It's a really nice article - interesting, informative, readable. I like that balance of intelligent/interesting conversation which avoids overly academic language very much.

On exercises - I keep a sketchbook, for ideas, quick drawings (these things need practice or you lose how to look) and words. Summarising is useful too, or dialoguing with something dry using only images (visual or verbal). I'm not sure these would count as exercises, though. Probably trying to write formal poetry on here would count as an exercise, though. A deliberate action to try to practice/improve a technical aspect of work?


Yves S L 04-21-2021 07:51 AM

I went into a lot of details about how I was interpreting the word "exercise" in my reply to Aaron, and going on much further without his input would just detract the focus in this thread from his interview.

Going back to the interview, I am again thinking about the overarching goal/problem of Aaron's project: formal poetry is not a museum piece but a mode that can express the full range and depth of 21st-century life.

Now the gigantic elephant in the room is that free verse is the standard for many (most?) poets who never so much mastered the most basic elements of prosody as taught in formal verse, but as I understand the history of verse in English, it was folk already skilled in formal verse who were looking for new modes of expression to match their rapidly changing social environment. Yes, there are a wide variety of modes possible in formal verse, but the formal constraints are themselves a limitation on how something can be said, and it is fun for me to contemplate this tension.

Kevin Rainbow 04-23-2021 08:48 PM

I wonder how many more "modern" translations in English of the same old classics humanity needs, when older translations always turn out still being better anyway?

Max Goodman 04-23-2021 10:09 PM


Originally Posted by Kevin Rainbow (Post 463613)
older translations always turn out still being better

In what sense are the older ones "better"?

Or do you mean that all the classics just happen to have definitive English translations that can't be improved on? If so, please share your list.

Claudia Gary 05-03-2021 12:22 AM


Great interview. Thanks for posting it!

One point of curiosity:

“There was some tension at Columbia over my formalism. I was at one point told not to write that way.”

Did anyone ever give you a rationale for that command? If so, and if you feel free to say, I’d love to know what it was. Some of my students have described having similar experiences back in college or grad school.



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