Monday, January 13, 2014

WRITING FROM A MENTOR TEXT


Cover Art by
Katherine Janus Kahn
Long, long, ago, in a galaxy far removed from Smart Phones and the Internet, I was a college student taking creative writing classes. My first poetry writing professor gave us an assignment that helped me produce my first publishable poem. He told us to choose a favorite poem and try to imitate the cadence and style for a poem of our own.

This was the first time I had ever encountered an assignment like this. Mentor texts had not been a part of my earlier education and to my knowledge, not widely used in any classroom way back then.

My first task in this assignment was to choose a poem as my model. It had to be a poem I admired enough to try to imitate. The selection in itself is an important lesson for a young writer. Choosing a model means defining one’s tastes. It also means being thoroughly familiar with the poem—understanding its construction enough to recreate its rhythms in your own words.

After some soul searching, I chose T.S. Eliot’s "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." To read the poem, visit this link. 

I knew Eliot’s poem almost by heart, because I had written a term paper on it during my senior year of high school. The thesis of my paper was that Eliot’s poem could be appreciated without comprehension of the many literary allusions in his work. It is a stance I still abide by. While a footnoted copy of this poem enhances one’s appreciation for Eliot’s genius, the poem is still meaningful and extraordinarily beautiful all on its own.

“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” portrays a tormented man examining his life. He begins with “Let us go then, you and I/When the evening is spread out against the sky.”  It is never clear whether or not Prufrock is carrying on an internal monologue or talking to another person. But Eliot’s “you and I” along with a repeated two line stanza, “In the room the women come and go/ Talking of Michelangelo” gave me an idea.  Instead of a name, I could give my protagonist a setting. I decided to write in the voice of a nameless young woman visiting a psychologist after a self-destructive experience. The full text of my poem, "You and I," is below at the end of this post. 

During the course of “You and I,” my protagonist reviews her year of sessions with the psychologist. I employ rhyme, just as Eliot did in “The Love Song” and vary the length of my stanzas for emphasis. My poem is significantly shorter than Eliot’s but it comes to an end with a few similar ideas.

Toward the end of “The Love Song,” Prufrock says “For I have known them all already, known them all.”  I use this idea when my protagonist says that she has told the psychologist all she can tell about her life: ”But we have done this all already/ done the childhood, mother, father, siblings,/defined the large and small defeats”

And Eliot’s lines “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices/Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?” inspired my lines  “So it's time now/ Yes, it's time to test your doctor's license/ as we force these sessions to a crisis” in which my protagonist tells her doctor that she is ready to manage without therapy.

My poem, “You and I,” inspired other poems and eventually became the concluding poem of a thematic collection in the voice of an 18-year-old girl who travels from self-destructive behavior to a new acceptance of herself during weekly sessions with a psychologist. The power of a mentor text can motivate writers to create something completely original. Ask your students to identify a favorite poem and use it as a model for their own work. Try it yourself. It is a worthwhile writing exercise for writers of all ages.  

FIELD TRIP TO THE MUSEUM is scheduled to be published by Finishing Line Press in March 2014. To read sample poems and order online visit the Field Trip to the Museum blog 

YOU AND I
by Jacqueline Jules
(from the chapbook, FIELD TRIP TO THE MUSEUM)

We started off, you and I
with tissues pressed against my eyes
and you, stirring coffee, pretending surprise.
That's how we started, you and I.
In this room where the patients come and go
speaking of lives eclipsed, shadowed.

Do you remember? (Say you do.)
Our first hour conversation
my long list of agitations
and your knowing, nodding smile.

In this room which is carpeted, paneled, and square,
this room where I have come and gone and shared
the details of a cold November night,
the harsh glow of a bathroom light,
and bright red blood, a startling sight . . . .

But we have done this all already,
done the childhood, mother, father, siblings,
defined the large and small defeats,
traveled all those narrow, winding streets
which crisscross and finally meet
in the same small place of no retreat.

It wasn't you who saw me as a snail,
a slimy worm without a tail. It wasn't you.

So it's time now. Yes, it's time
to test your doctor's license
as we force these sessions to a crisis,
when, with a surgeon's sharp incision,
you will remove all self-derision
and present me with the lovely vision
of the person I have always longed to be.

Or does that job still belong to me?



2 comments:

  1. Yes, it belongs to you, but others can help.

    Fantastic poem and well done, I loved it.

    ReplyDelete