Exploring the art of words

Expression: Balancing creativity and form is a key theme in poet's classroom discussions.

December 04, 2003|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

Poet Jean Nordhaus wants to encourage creativity in aspiring writers as she speaks at Howard County high schools this winter. But she also wants students to understand that poetry is about more than simply scribbling ideas onto paper.

"There is always a balance between letting go, free association, letting ideas come in ... and [the fact that] you have to discipline it, you have to shape it, you have to form it," Nordhaus told an honors English class at Reservoir High School this week.

Nordhaus, who grew up in Baltimore and lives in Washington, is meeting with students at all of the county high schools as the Howard County Poetry and Literature Society's 12th annual Writer in Residence.

Her poems have appeared in several literary publications and three published collections. She administered poetry programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington in the early 1980s and again in the early 1990s and has taught at the University of Maryland, the University of the District of Columbia and St. Mary's College of Maryland, among others. She teaches workshops at the Writer's Center in Bethesda.

Nordhaus tackles a wide range of subjects in her writing. One series focuses on workers who renovated her home (including "Painter," "Carpenter" and "Tile Setter"). One poem draws from a painting she saw in the Phillips Collection in Washington. Some verses re-imagine experiences other people have told her about.

"The wonderful thing about writing," she told the students, "is you can use everything that goes on in your life, if you can find a way to form it."

Nordhaus pulls ideas from her education, which includes studying philosophy at Barnard College in New York and earning a doctorate in modern German literature from Yale University. She also refers to years studying dance, her Jewish heritage and her relationships with her family.

One poem she discussed with the Reservoir students came from her frustration at always having to refill ice cube trays - a sacrifice that represents the give-and-take of being married.

She wrote, " ... Each time/I wipe the bottoms of the trays/with checkered towel and glide/to the refrigerator, sinuous as Delilah/balancing baskets on her head, voluptuous/as a saint, I make myself remember/all we took on - willingly -/when we took each other."

Her latest book was sparked by her study of German literature and music, which led her to research the influential 18th-century writer and philosopher Moses Mendelssohn.

Nordhaus read that in Germany in the 18th century, Jews were required to buy porcelain pieces that no one else wanted from the royal factory before they were allowed to marry. Mendelssohn was forced to purchase 20 life-sized apes. The Porcelain Apes of Moses Mendelssohn, published last year, uses poems from his point of view to examine issues of religion, social class and personal struggle.

"It was quite fascinating to me," Nordhaus said. "It had many elements of a fairy tale."

Despite the variety of themes, Nordhaus' poems came across to the Reservoir students.

"Her poems were easy to understand," said Schquita Goodwin, 15, of North Laurel. But, she said, it was still nice to hear from the writer. "It was really different to see her point of view on poems," Schquita said.

Nordhaus responded with enthusiasm to the students' feedback. "It makes me feel so good that you really get it," she said.

But she also made an effort to impart the importance of form and structure. "Everything about language is just thrilling to me," she said. " ... Language is my medium, the way a painter works with paint or a sculptor works with clay."

When Nordhaus was at Centennial High School last month, questions from an advanced composition class focused more on the process of writing.

"It's not just about self-expression," she said. "It's about form ... finding the way to do it, shaping the language. There is really craft involved."

She told the teen-agers, "I probably do 50 or 60 versions of my poems. ... It's sort of like a sculptor with a huge shapeless stone, I chisel and chisel and chisel."

Then, she said, at some point she feels she is not learning anything new and decides the poem is done.

"It's a very mysterious process," she said. "But it's lots of fun."

Centennial English teacher Michael Clark said he thinks his students benefited from Nordhaus' firsthand account.

"It's the first time we had a dose of the intellectual side of poems," he said. As the students absorbed what Nordhaus was saying, he said, "I saw some lights come on around the room."

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