Tuesday May 21

Hoppenthaler-Year5b Yes, I know. Social media is abuzz with venom and spite; it is equally abuzz with truth and misrepresentation. Much of it is about the Association of Writers and Writing Programs and the upcoming conference in Los Angeles. All manner of opinions are already out there, and so I will just say that—whatever faults AWP might possess, whatever things it may or may not be guilty of, I remain grateful to the organization for any number of opportunities and the support it’s provided me over the course of my writer’s life. I want to recognize, too, the many hard-working individuals—many of whom have been featured in A Poetry Congeries—that have done so much to try and make AWP more inclusive and sensitive to the needs of all of its members. 

What I’d rather do is talk about the writing of poetry. With Halloween approaching, here’s a challenge: write a ghost poem. Below is an assignment I often give my graduate poetry students during the fall semester. Have a blast.  
Writing the Ghost

We’re all ghostwriters; that is to say, we write the stories of ghosts with which we live. We do this not so much to escape these ghosts, though some seem indeed malevolent; rather, we do it in an effort to find ways to co-exist with them, perhaps even to learn from them. They become powerful metaphors. Consider Hamlet, the title character in Morrison’s Beloved, the various spirits in Garcia Marquez’s work, the “mute folk” of Frost’s “Ghost House” and the apparitions in hundreds of other poems.

Ghost stories are not a modern tradition. According to N.S. Gill, the earliest written story comes from the Epic of Gilgamesh. Homer, the Augustan poets Vergil and Ovid, and Pliny told ghost stories as well. Even their appearance—“gauzy, insubstantial, roaming aimlessly”—has remained much like those described by the ancients. Take, for example, this quote from the Odyssey XI: Ghost of Anticlea: “’My son,’ she answered, ‘most ill-fated of all mankind, it is not Proserpine that is beguiling you, but all people are like this when they are dead. The sinews no longer hold the flesh and bones together; these perish in the fierceness of consuming fire as soon as life has left the body, and the soul flits away as though it were a dream.’”    

Who are these ghosts we write about, and why do they haunt us so? Again, we look to ancient history and discover that the main reason for a ghost’s plight was unfinished business. Often, this meant the corpse remained unburied. The ghosts we write about are unburied, too; we can’t allow them their rest because we are unable to let them go. We love them or hate them too much; we are unable to make our peace. In truth, whether ghosts are malevolent or benevolent has much more to do with our own “issues” than it does with the supernatural.   

As long as we believe in ghosts, they will haunt us. Most religions allow for them. Buddhism teaches that each time someone dies his or her spirit spends an amount of time as a ghost, seeking to be reborn. The dead person must become emotionally detached from loved ones before that rebirth can take place. I can see it the other way around; ghosts can’t find peace until WE become emotionally detached from THEM. Since that so rarely happens, perhaps until we go senile or die and become ghosts ourselves, we may as well write these ghosts that so insist themselves into our lives.     

Compose a dramatic monologue—a narrative poem—either from the point of view of the haunted (Poe can be useful here) or from the ghost’s perspective. Consider what these ghosts might signify and what it is that motivates the monologue’s speaker to tell of them. Identify and remove gothic trappings and clichés, re-imagine and re-define “ghosts” in the contemporary world. Address tonal concerns; remember, terror may most usefully reveal itself with subtlety. Since a monologue is usually meant to be performed, and because a good one requires a compelling and convincing voice, be sure to enact the narrative as part of your revision process. This may lead to useful changes in diction and rhythm, and it can lead to good fun, too. Boo!