So what did we - that is to say Marilyn Hacker and I - do? On Monday night we set a few haiku as a light exercise. We knew that a number of people on the course had already published quite substantially so would be pretty sophisticated. By way of starting point I took a few five syllable passages from Marilyn's work and offered them as first or last lines.
Tuesday morning was a joint session, on which Marilyn and I addressed the whole idea of form and explored what that might mean in this context. This isn't a fully scripted session - nothing is - so we were constantly filling out and modifying each other's ideas, joined by those round the table. First, however, people read the haikus. Then Marilyn asked students to add two seven-syllable lines to each to make a tanka; then in groups of three we wrote a renga, handing the sheet round between the 3 and the 2 lines, so in the end we had two tanka each, the writer of the first haiku adding the last tanka. We discussed various other received forms, their characteristics, their rules and possible departures from rules. Marilyn gave us a tritina to write (a shortened ten-line sestina variation). In the afternoon we saw people individually for half an hour at a time. In the evening Marilyn and I read for about half and hour each, in four 15 minute slots.
Wednesday was Marilyn's session, which was primarily on the sonnet, though we began with some more renga and tritina. We looked at a number of sonnets, compared them, listened to them, then the task was to write a sonnet. Afternoon: tutorials. In the evening the visiting writer Vahni Capildeo came to read and talk. Vahni is such a remarkable writer and intense presence - someone with quite a different idea of form - that it was like throwing a firework into an enclosed space, a risk in other words, but after the first puzzlement the firework began to throw off rather fascinating and colourful trails of sparks and lent the course a kind of extra richness.
Thursday was my session, which was going to be on terza rima and, after the coffee break, on the sestina / canzone relation, but after people had read their ongoing sonnets and the time for terza rima, the second half was much shorter, so just enough to deal a little with the sestina and simply leave people with the pattern for the canzone (I having read one on Tuesday night). The terza rima exercise was to get each person to tell their neighbour about an incident or dream that the recipient would then turn into a terza rima anecdote. This was extremely productive by the end. I also gave out the invented words game, which was also very productive. In the evening, after the tutorials it was the students' turn to pick one or two poems from other people's work, to read it and talk about it. One round of 18 (including tutors) takes about 90 minutes, so there was a 2nd round, after which only the diehards remained. The rounds continued and I left at about 12:45 when three more people were going into round 7. This was exhilarating and delightful. They kept bringing in poems they enjoyed from all kinds of times and cultures.
On Friday morning one of the students was sitting by the barn furiously composing a canzone, which she finished in time for the morning session. And so discussion and tutorials, the preparation of the anthology, and the students' final reading in the evening. It was a very high quality reading and people knew it, so the exhilaration was understandable.
It is an intensive time for the tutors too, with no real time to think of anything but the course, the material and the way of delivering it. It is a 15-hour-a-day person-to-person engagement, each person different, each to be approached in a properly individual way. That takes a lot of concentration, but it's also a pleasure - at least I enjoy it. Moments of exhaustion and sleepiness last about 15 minutes but can be overcome. The tutors reach maximum psychological energy on Thursday, after which the students begin to take over. (I can practically feel them slipping into their own worlds through Friday.) Friday night is very much their night, their achievement.
It helped a great deal that Marilyn and I did the exercises we set including each other's. I always like doing this because it is a way of learning and does produce new poems. It did this time too. It is these moments of concentration on our material that keep us sane, I think.
In the process of discussing form we were constantly seeking analogies for the process of working with them, so here are some analogies.
The sonnet is a room with fixed floorspace, moveable furniture and windows. The decor is entirely up to the writer. A door can lead to another room and so on.
The terza rima is a set of train carriages, each clipping into the next. It travels.
The sestina is a swirling of skirts, a conversation on a single subject that regathers itself at every turn in order to discover what the subject actually is, ending a little courteously.
The canzone is like being inside a spin drier, in a vortex. Hearing it - being it - is to hear the beating of wings inside a chimney.