By Lesléa Newman, Spalding Low-Residency MFA Poetry Faculty
“Good writers borrow. Great writers steal.”
I can’t remember who I stole that quote from. Which doesn’t make me a great writer necessarily. I am, however, a pretty good thief.
I started my career as a crook back in the 1980’s when I was attending the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa Institute. I was studying with the literary luminaries Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, and Patricia Donegan, and one of them put a life-changing book into my hands: Rose: Where Did You Get That Red? The author, Kenneth Koch is often credited for being the granddaddy of the “poetry in the schools” movement, for he was one of the first poets to go into the public schools and teach children how to read and write poetry. How did he do it? He read the children great poems and had them write their own poems modeled on and inspired by the poems they heard. In effect, he taught the children how to “steal.”
Being someone who often has trouble coming up with an idea for a new poem, I turned the pages of Koch’s book eagerly. Why invent the wheel when it has been invented before, and so beautifully? Why not use the already invented forms of beloved poems as a container to pour my own words into?
One of the classic poems that Koch employed in his book and his teaching, is Wallace Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird” which can be found here.
What is Wallace doing in the poem? He is taking something ordinary—a blackbird—and making it into something extraordinary by describing it in thirteen different ways. He looks closely at the blackbird, observing a tiny part of it in the first stanza: “Among twenty mountains,/The only moving thing/Was the eye of the blackbird.” He multiplies the blackbird and imagines three of them in the second stanza: “I was of three minds/Like a tree/In which there are three blackbirds.” He imagines the blackbird moving as part of a performance or pantomime in the third stanza. And so on. And in these various exploration, he not only observes the blackbird, he observes himself observing the blackbird. And thus he observes many things about life itself.
Before I began to write my own poem, I decided to type out Wallace Stevens’ poem, just to get the feel of it underneath my fingertips. And believe it or not, when I went back to re-read it, I found that I had made a typo in the title. And that’s how this poem came to be:
THIRTEEN WAYS OF LOOKING AT A BLACKBOARD
Among twenty crowded classrooms
The only sound
was the rat-rat-tat
Of the white stick of chalk
Against the black blackboard
I was of three minds,
Like the multiple-choice question
With three incorrect answers
Scrawled upon the blackboard.
The eraser whirled across the blackboard.
It was a small part of the pantomime.
A teacher and her classroom
I do not know which I dread more,
The start of the lesson
Or the end of the lesson.
The blackboard covered with problems
Or just erased.
Foreign words filled the blackboard
In a curled and swirling script.
The shadow of the teacher
Paced to and fro
Her mood was indecipherable.
Oh restless children at your wooden desks
Why do you stare out the window at the sky?
Do you not see the blank blackboard before you
Waiting like a Buddha for your attention?
I know great lines from great poetry
And my times-tables up through twelve.
But I know, too.
That the blackboard is involved
In everything I know.
When the blackboard disappeared
From the front of the classroom,
It marked the end of one of many eras.
At the sight of the cracked blackboard
Lying on the curb with the trash,
Even the most overworked, underpaid teacher
Would cry out sharply.
She dreamt she was back
In her third grade classroom
And a great fear pierced her
As she watched herself vanish
Into the bottomless black hole
Of the blackboard.
The classroom is empty.
The blackboard must be lonely.
It was the end of the school year
All year long.
We were graduating
And we were going to graduate.
The blackboard sat
Covered in chalk dust.
One of the writing exercises my mentor Allen Ginsberg assigned was to “write an imitation of one of your own poems” which is a very eye-opening endeavor. And so I wrote an imitation of my imitation:
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poet
Among seven silent rooms
Under a moonless midnight sky
The only sound heard
Is the poet’s pen
Scritching across the page.
The poet was of three minds
Like a sonnet, a sestina
And a terza rima.
The poet tried to compose herself
She was a sorry part of the pantomime.
A poet and a poem are one
A poet and a poem and a reader
The poet does not know
Which to prefer,
Starting a poem
Or ending a poem:
The act of writing
Or the act of having written.
Coffee grows cold in the cup
Lunch lies uneaten on the plate
The poet paces endlessly
Her mood is indecipherable.
Oh young people of the world
With your cell phones, laptops, and video games
Can’t you see the poems waiting to be read
Scattered like fallen leaves all around you?
The poet knows how to dance the fandango
And bake brownies that can break your heart
But she knows, too
That poetry is involved in everything she knows.
When the poem flew out of the poet’s mind
It marked the edge of one of many circles.
At the sight of all those poetry collections
On the bookshelves of the library
The poet cried out in ecstasy and despair.
The poet went to a café
And fear overtook her
In that she mistook all the
Latté-sipping patrons for poets.
The poet’s pen is moving
The poet must be writing.
It was the middle of the night
All day long.
The poet was writing
And she was going to write.
The poem sat
In her mind waiting.
When I was putting together my newest poetry collection, Lovely, I included these imitations and several other imitations as well including my two-line poem “Old Age” modeled after Robert Frost’s two-line poem, “The Span of Life;” my long, rhyming narrative poem, “The Writer and the Messenger” modeled after Lewis Carroll’s long, rhyming narrative poem, “The Walrus and The Carpenter;” and my prose poem, “Maidel” modeled after Jamaica Kincaid’s short-short story, “Girl.” I figure, if you’re going to steal, why not steal from the best? As long as I keep writing, I will continue to “steal” from poets whose work I admire. Won’t you “steal away” with me?
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at A Blackboard” and “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Poet” copyright © 2018 by Lesléa Newman, from Lovely published by Headmistress Press, Sequim, WA. Reprinted by permission of the author.
Lesléa Newman has created 70 books for readers of all ages including the poetry collections I Carry My Mother and Lovely; and the children’s books Sparkle Boy; Ketzel, the Cat Who Composed; and Heather Has Two Mommies.