Reading as a Writer; or, How I learned to Sell Satan a Timeshare

During my undergraduate career, I took a class called “Reading Poetry as Writers.” It’s funny to think of my time as an undergraduate as a career –– it was more of a time of careening and carousal, lessons learned on a poorly constructed Cartesian carousel –– nonetheless, (“nonetheless” is my favorite word) that’s what we call it and I took this class called “Reading Poetry as Writers.”

The core concept of the course was to analyze the structure, style, content, and form of established poets’s poems and then implement those qualities in our own poems. It was a class based on imitation. So despite how intimidating it was to imitate established poets –– great poets, really, really, great poets (it’s mind boggling to wrap my head around just how great these poets were)–– I became intimate with specific poets’s works and imitated their voices.

It was presumptuous, perhaps, but it had to be done. A young poet must don the personas of old poets and pose remaining poised for the sake de poésie. How else can a poet develop the techniques necessary to display images to convey a message in an non-didactic manner and combine it with the sort of articulacy necessary to convince satan to invest in a timeshare?




Our voices are an aggregate of acceptance and rejection of everything we come in contact with. I am always hyper-conscious of this fact while reading poetry. There are some things that I know I will reject and then there are some things that I know I will accept. But I know it is impossible for me to simply enjoy a poem written by a contemporary poet without a keen sense of jealousy. Mind you, I’m not talking about the kind of jealousy that makes you wanna polish off a bottle of bourbon –– not that I’d ever do such a thing –– but the kind of jealousy that makes you think, “%#$*! I wish I wrote that.” And mean it too. Really mean it.

The same cannot be said when I read essays of the sort I ought to be writing. I have always had a hate-hate relationship with essay writing. Honestly (I am nothing if not too honest, I am always all too willing to admit my short-comings which are many and huge), I used to use some presumed excellence in poetry as an excuse not to excel at essay writing during my undergraduate career. (There’s that word again {αἰὲν ἀριστεύειν?} no, that’s not the word; that’s something totally different). I convinced myself that I did not have to be good at both, or that being good at one meant I was unable to be good at the other.

By the time I began my senior project on the manuscript of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land  I realized I had to buckle down and really concentrate on improving my academic prose. I was reading a lot. I read everything I could find on the subject and I was writing and revising, but I was having difficulty tying it together.  Unfortunately, there were no classes called “Reading Essays as Writers” –– not that I would have taken that class anyway, I, after all, was a poet and, as such, such things were beneath me. But such a class would have been helpful, nonetheless (still my favorite word).

Graduate school, however,  meant to me a commitment to academic discourse. It meant arguing about topics in the way in which professors argue about them. It meant getting a seat at the grown-up’s table and having my voice heard and respected. And for some reason that seemed important to me. I don’t know if I feel the same way, (which is of course to say that I do not feel the same way, just without saying it. But there it is –– I said it anyway ). I don’t really care whether people respect me or not anymore, as long as they talk about me. Good or bad? It doesn’t matter. When people stop thinking about you then you cease to exist (like a garden and a gardener or a watch and a watchmaker). Consciousness is the key; approval and praise are irrelevant  –– and besides the point: what would people know anyway?)

My reading as a writer of academic prose didn’t happen all at once; I don’t even think it was purposeful at first, but slowly, incrementally, I began to notice how published academics wrote their papers. First, it was the introductions. Then the arguments. And finally the conclusions. It wasn’t that published papers were fundamentally different than my writing, but there was a level of control in those essays that I needed to emulate, and emulate I did.

I suppose I could tell you what I learned from reading as a writer. How I realized that there shouldn’t be a joke in every paragraph (and of course it wasn’t a rare occasion when I violated that rule). How I learned that my conclusion should state the implications of my argument and what that means. And I could tell that to you here. I could write that all down in black and white; I could just spell it all out. Ah, the stories I could tell you if I were easy. But telling is of little use. You have to learn by doing. It’s a sort of wisdom: reading published essays in your own discipline and making your own insights and I’ve gotta close this deal with the devil.

Satan! You of all people need to get away every once in a while! Whatta you say? Do you wanna buy a timeshare or what?

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  • Janet Dengel says:

    This essay does a great dance with the devil in that all writers struggle for words, acceptance, and a place in their field. Your prose about donning a new persona and taking a seat at the grown up table really shows insight into this crazy world of writing and reading. I’m wondering if you use any of this philosophy in teaching students in addition to your writing and selling the devil timeshares?

  • alyce rocco says:

    I would need a class Reading Poetry for Readers, as I could never make sense of it, let alone write it. Nonetheless, I did try to teach myself to write poems to learn the art of brevity.


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