by Jason Koo
The following is an excerpt from Spellbound: The Art of Teaching Poetry, a new book from Teachers & Writers Collaborative. Edited by Matthew Burgess, Spellbound offers a range of exciting ideas to inspire students of all ages to explore their potential as writers and creators.
I got the idea for this assignment from Ed Hirsch, the author of one of the mentor texts below, and over the years as a teacher I’ve fleshed it out with more guidelines to help my students get the most out of their writing. Ed taught this assignment toward the beginning of his workshop on poetic forms at the University of Houston’s MFA program in the spring of 2000, my first year there as a student. I’d been struggling to write poems before that. I’d gotten overly self-conscious about the writing process, largely because of the influence of classes I took as an upperclassman in college, which focused on writing in forms such as blank verse, the sonnet, and the villanelle. We didn’t write much free verse, and while my teachers—JD McClatchy and John Hollander—by no means believed in some dumb dichotomy between poems in free verse and poems “in form, “ they didn’t give us the same structural approach to free verse that they did to forms like the sonnet. In other words, they didn’t give us the same kind of creative constraints for free verse. So when I went back to writing free verse after working in more traditional forms, I felt hobbled by the anxiety that I was “playing tennis without a net,” as Frost would say.
Hirsch changed all that. He taught a class on poetic forms that began not with blank verse or the sonnet, but with free verse, demonstrating in practice (not just in theory) that writing free verse qualified as writing ”in form” just as much as counting syllables or following a rhyme scheme. He showed that there are myriad forms within the larger “form” of free verse that have their own structural patterns akin to those of a sonnet or villanelle, so that simply to call something “free verse” was reductive.
The one-sentence poem is one such form. Before Ed’s prompt, I’d never thought that using only one sentence in a poem could be just as challenging a formal constraint as, say, writing ten syllables per line, and just as defining of a poem’s movement and expressiveness, even its content. The purpose of the prompt is, at a fundamental level, to get poets to understand how crucial syntax is to the form of a poem, especially when writing in free verse. Ed’s sense was that poets paid more attention to formal elements like line breaks and sound and less to what they were doing with their sentences, ultimately using short sentences of roughly the same length in almost every poem. This was true in 2000 and it’s even truer today, when many poets don’t bother with punctuation at all, largely muting the expressiveness of their syntax.
One of the best examples of the one-sentence poem is Hirsch’s own “Fast Break,” published in his second collection, Wild Gratitude, which is one of the books that made me want to study with him in the first place. I hadn’t noticed when I read the poem the first time that it was all one sentence.
In Memory of Dennis Turner, 1946-1984
A hook shot kisses the rim and
hangs there, helplessly, but doesn’t drop.
and for once our gangly starting center
boxes out his man and times his jump
perfectly, gathering the orange leather
from the air like a cherished possession
and spinning around to throw a strike
to the outlet who is already shoveling
an underhand pass toward the other guard
scissoring past a flat-footed defender
who looks stunned and nailed to the floor
in the wrong direction, trying to catch sight
of a high, gliding dribble and a man
letting the play develop in front of him
in slow motion, almost exactly
like a coach’s drawing on the blackboard,
both forwards racing down the court
the way that forwards should, fanning out
and filling the lanes in tandem, moving
together as brothers passing the ball
between them without a dribble, without
a single bounce hitting the hardwood
until the guard finally lunges out
and commits to the wrong man
while the power-forward explodes past them
in a fury, taking the ball into the air
by himself now and laying it gently
against the glass for a lay-up,
but losing his balance in the process,
inexplicably falling, hitting the floor
with a wild, headlong motion
for the game he loved like a country
and swiveling back to see an orange blur
floating perfectly through the net.
Ed showed how by extending your syntax, especially over the course of a whole poem, you could create incredible tension and excitement and momentum down the page. And this kind of form did two things really well: capture physical movement and capture the movement of the mind, often at the same time, so that the two kinds of movement seemed to mirror each other. Since I began writing poems, I’d always been most interested in how a poem could embody consciousness; the poets I was most interested in, such as Whitman and Ashbery, used long syntactical movements all the time to convey the motion of the mind thinking, as did prose writers I loved like Proust. So this assignment, coming at this particular juncture of my life, was a godsend: it opened a gateway for me to write the kind of poems I wanted to write.
I don’t remember the poem I ended up writing for Ed’s workshop—it wasn’t very good. But after that I found myself writing one-sentence poems all the time to try to tap into my mind thinking or, if not writing poems all in one sentence, launching or deepening or closing poems with a long sentence. It became my favorite move, so much so that after a few years of this I had to work against it—using shorter or medium-length sentences—to develop my writing even further. If you look at any of my books, you’ll see long sentences in just about every poem and many poems that are a single sentence. I still find that a long sentence is the best way for me to launch a poem, especially if I haven’t written one for a while or am having trouble putting an idea on the page; once I feel I’ve pushed off from shore and am at sea within syntax, so to speak, I feel I’ve started something.
I like to give this assignment to students at the introductory level, especially as a way of introducing them to free verse. It both pushes them to pay close attention to syntax and punctuation (which they usually don’t) and serves as a kind of release from the constraints of counting accents and syllables and coming up with rhymes, as I usually teach free verse after blank verse and the sonnet. But this is a great assignment for any level (as evidenced by my experience in grad school), particularly if you’re feeling blocked or that your writing is dead rhythmically. It’s a great creative pick-me-up. Focusing on just describing a physical action in one sentence, as Hirsch does in “Fast Break,” takes some of the pressure off you to wow yourself (and your reader) with what you’re doing; you’re doing something (seemingly) basic and mechanical. But as you do this you’re getting into a rhythm, and the movement of the poem starts to get the mind thinking; almost always the poem ends up becoming an enactment of consciousness. Before you know it, you’re in flight!
Write a one-sentence poem that moves fluidly and describes a physical action in detail. This should be a complete, grammatical sentence that exhibits your control over its syntax, not a run-on or an unpunctuated stream-of-consciousness amoeba. The music and movement and momentum of the poem will largely arise from your nuts-and-bolts precision over the parts of the sentence. What this prompt is trying to teach you is how control in making a poem can paradoxically create a feeling of freedom, even abandon, in the reader.
- Use first-person perspective
- Speak in the present tense
- Use regular stanzas. I recommend couplets, as Hirsch uses in “Fast Break,” or tercets, as these are good at building movement and help create a sense of regulation and order as your syntax stretches out.
- Deliver one stretch in the poem of at least five straight lines that are enjambed (not ending in punctuation). This is a challenge and will help speed up the poem in a compelling way if done well. Notice how in “Fast Break,” beginning with the second couplet, the poem accelerates in breathtaking fashion through thirteen consecutive enjambed lines!
- Pay attention to your verbs. Poets often pay too much attention to nouns and adjectives, thinking these are the building blocks of images, and not enough attention to the quality of their verbs. In an action poem, verbs are hugely important; they can make or break a phrase or image. I suggest using participles (-ing form of verbs), a favorite trick of Whitman’s, as these are extremely useful at building long sentences and creating energy and momentum. Note the great participles in Hirsch’s poem—“shoveling” and “scissoring” and “fanning”—that bring the fast break to live
- Use concrete imagery! This is like Creative Writing 101, but it never really fails, especially in a poem highlighting physical description.
- Embed a turn (or several turns) somewhere in the poem, as we see toward the end of “Fast Break” when the power-forward “loses his balance” and ends up “inexplicably falling” and the poem suddenly takes on an emotion that wasn’t there before, connecting us to the loss (noted in the epigraph) that it is trying to memorialize.
Note: The physical action does not have to be something the “I” is participating in; it can be something observed. The first-person perspective of Hirsch’s poem is never explicitly announced; it’s buried in the description of the fast break (“our gangly starting center”).
Another poem that I share with students as an exemplary model of the one-sentence poem is Terrance Hayes’ “Carp Poem.” It moves more slowly, more deliberately, than Hirsch’s, but the description of the physical action gives way to a broader enactment of consciousness, as the speaker makes more leaps into memory and myth and social commentary as the poem picks up speed. These leaps are great examples of the turns mentioned above: the speaker seeing the orange-colored uniforms of the prisoners triggers a flashback to orange carp in Japan, and the memory of the carp packed tightly together leads him to think of Jesus walking across water.
After I have parked below the spray paint caked in the granite
grooves of the Fredrick Douglass Middle School sign
where men and women sized children loiter like shadows
draped in the outsized enim, jerseys, bangles, braid, and boots
that mean I am no longer young, after I have made my way
to the New Orleans Parish Jail down the block
where the black prison guard wearing the same weariness
my prison guard father wears buzzes me in,
I follow his pistol and shield along each corridor trying not to look
at the black men boxed and bunked around me
until I reach the tiny classroom where two dozen black boys are
dressed in jumpsuits orange as the pond full of carp I saw once in Japan,
so many fat snaggle-toothed fish ganged in and lurching for food
that a lightweight tourist could have crossed the pond on their backs
so long as he had tiny rice balls or bread to drop into the water
below his footsteps which I’m thinking is how Jesus must have walked
on the lake that day, the crackers and wafer crumbs falling
from the folds of his robe, and how maybe it was the one fish
so hungry it leapt up his sleeve that he later miraculously changed
into a narrow loaf of bread, something that could stick to a believer’s ribs,
and don’t get me wrong, I’m a believer too, in the power of food at least,
having seen a footbridge of carp packed gill to gill, packed tighter
than a room of boy prisoners waiting to talk poetry with a young black poet,
packed so close they might have eaten each other had there been nothing else to eat.
Here is a one-sentence poem from one of my students.
by Rashme Rajshekar
Thump, thump, thump, I can hear
the rhythmic pounding of my feet on the ice-crusted road,
grinding powder into a compact mass which
might be slippery the next day when
some unsuspecting child, carrying
a backpack with books and a computer and
the weight of the world, steps on it but not
perilous enough to make her pirouette gracelessly unlike
the sheet of ice I avoided by swerving
sharply and mildly twisting my ankle
adding throbbing pain to the burning
inside my calf muscles and the cramp
in my stomach; but I knew I couldn’t stop
or give up or catch the next bus because that
would be a sign of weakness and “We
Do Not Quit,” I whispered audibly to myself as I
reached the suspension bridge hanging
hundreds of feet above a frozen rivers
which in the summer is a torrent of youth, gushing
like the endorphins that were supposed to be gushing
through my veins, just like my therapist said
to heal me without medication because
the depression was mild, he said, (and after all,
I wasn’t suicidal, just self-pitying), but
exercise was supposed to cure that, he said, regular
aerobic exercises every other day would
keep the anti-depressants away, and in return
all I had to do was to get out of bed and
run past the snow, past the whistling
wind that made my ears numb and
my nose glow fire-engine red and keep
going, laboriously up stairs and then
flat-out sprinting on level ground, until
the agony became sugary sweet.
About the Author:
Jason Koo is the author of three full-length collections of poetry: More Than Mere Light, America’s Favorite Poem, and Man on Extremely Small Island. He is also the author of the chapbook Sunset Park and co-editor of the Brooklyn Poets Anthology. An associate teaching professor of English at Quinnipiac University, Jason is the founder and executive director of Brooklyn Poets and creator of the Bridge. He lives in Brooklyn.