First day of my workshop with the teenagers. It’s probably a good thing that kids don’t know that when you walk into a classroom, you’re a hell of a lot more nervous than they are. That’s because you know, much more than they do, how much it matter. You’ve got this awesome responsibility not to waste their time, and to give them something to take away that’ll make a difference in who they are and what they understand.
In teaching a poetry workshop, I focus on giving my students tools for making poetry. I try to stay away from self-expression. That happens whether you encourage it or not. The question is how you’re going to construct the vehicle for your self-expression.
“Poet” comes from a Greek word which means “maker.” A poet makes something out of words. He/she is a carpenter, making a house out of words and sounds and rhythms and images, which someone else—many other people—will be able to move into and furnish and live in. A good poem doesn’t tell the reader how you feel; it gives the reader a structure in which to experience in a new way how he/she feels.
I started off by using a structure that I’ve used before.
I play the class a recording of Buddy Holly singing "Peggy Sue Got Married." It's from the "Apartment Tapes" - the acoustic demo tapes that Holly made in his apartment just before he died, of songs he planned to record later. I play the song, and then ask the kids for the data - and data only - of what they've just heard. They always start by saying Well, Peggy Sue got married. I say yes, but how do you know that? Well, he said it. Yes...so part of the data is words. And this is, in fact, what I'm looking for.There are words. Rhythm. Melody. A guitar. A male voice.
I play it for them again, and pass out a lyric sheet:
Please don't tell
No no no
Don't say that I told you so
I just heard a rumor from a friend
I don't say
That it's true
I'll just leave that up to you
If you don't believe me I'll understand
You’ll recall the girl that's been in nearly every song
This is what I heard
Of course, the story could be wrong
She's the one
I've been told
Now she's wearing a band of gold
Peggy Sue got married not long ago
What are the feelings in the song? You can't really talk about art without talking about feelings. If I told you I'd been to a concert, and you asked what I'd heard, and I said words, melody, rhythm, a guitar and a male voice, you'd think I was nuts. So we start making a list, and it comes out to be things like sadness, doubt, regret, nostalgia, uncertainty, envy, etc. Then I ask, who is the song about, and generally the answer is "Peggy Sue." Which is pretty much the right answer. Then I ask, how do you know all this stuff? How do you know that the singer feels sadness, doubt, regret, nostalgia, uncertainty, envy? Well, he says it. You get it from the words.
Then...and I can't really convey this in writing, you have to hear it -- I play the overdubbed version that was released commercially, and ask the same question again. What's the data? How has it changed?
It's changed by the addition of drums and an electric guitar. It's also changed - I generally have to point this out - by what amounts to the removal of the acoustic guitar. It's buried so far down in the mix you can't really hear it any more.
And the feelings? Are they different? Yes, they are. It's not the same song any more. It's more upbeat, lighthearted. It's a dance song. The sadness and nostalgia are gone - as a student once said, "It's like she's gone, but he's got a bunch of friends over, and they're partying and having a good time, and he doesn't care. He doesn't miss her." Also, with the hard edge of the electric guitar and drums (by Jimmy Glimer and the Fireballs) there's an edge of anger, of defiance -- a rock 'n roll edge. Who's the song about now? It's really not about Peggy Sue any more. It's about the singer. She's gone and forgotten.
So how can this happen? Same words. Didn't the feeling come from the words? Not that simple. Art is more complex than that. And - as one kid in this group said about the second version - he's just covering up his real feelings. He really misses her. And as another said about the first version - at first you think he really cares, then you think maybe he doesn't. And they were both right. Emotions are complex and often contradictory. Art makes us feel that complexity.
Next, I ask: There's a symbol in the poem. What is it?
That's easy - the band of gold. Right - and what's the band of gold a symbol of? That's easy - marriage. Right...but here's where it gets interesting. What's marriage a symbol of? Maybe not the same thing in each version. In the acoustic folkie version, it seems like a symbol of growth. She's gone on to a richer, more rewarding life...she's grown up. He's left all alone in a little room with his guitar. In the rock 'n roll version, it may be a symbol of limitation. She's grown up, taken on adult responsibilities, said goodbye to fun and partying and rock 'n rolling. But he doesn't have to do that...at least not yet. He still has his youth and his freedom.
OK, there's another symbol in the song. What would that be? A good class gets it...this one did.
The girl who's been in nearly every song.
Now, this is the line which takes this very good song and makes it exceptional. This is an incredible symbol. What/who is "the girl who's been in nearly every song"? In the acoustic-folk version, she's the girl you can never forget. Every girl you see on the street reminds you of her. Every song reminds you of her. In the rock 'n roll version, where she's gone and forgotten, maybe that line tells you "They're all the same. Girls are like buses - if you miss one, there'll be another along in ten minutes."
The girl who's been in nearly every song is a muse...the muse of rock 'n roll. If you're a sad guy sitting a room alone with an acoustic guitar, the muse maybe has moved on. If you're a rocker, with a band backing you up, then maybe it doesn't matter if Peggy Sue goes and gets married - rock and roll will never die, and girls will always go on inspiring songs.
And...the power of all that comes from the image. "Women are all the same...they're like buses, another one will be along in ten minutes" tells you what to think. "The girl who's been in nearly every song" opens up your mind to a range of possibilities.
Anyway...that's the idea. That’s where we started.