Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Writing the Shadow

I have been overwhelmed with work these last two months. As a result I haven't been keeping up this blog, though I've been reading weekly 32 student blogs. It seems clear that if I assign so many student blogs that I need to (and enjoy) reading, there's no time left for my own!   

I have to prioritize other writing over the blog, though, and I have managed in the last two months to revise the manuscript I've been working on for several years and send out to three possible publishers.  I also took on the editing of an anthology of essays and gave myself a deadline of a year and a half to get that done, which means I've been reading lots of essays outside of the ones I read for classes these last two months as well.  So there are other reasons I've let the blog slide a bit. 

Blogs do help me to clear my mind, though, and, like journals, are great places to explore new ideas.  I just finished reading, again, Ai's Vice: New and Selected Poems, which I assigned to my poetry class.   The poems I find myself--still--most drawn to are the most violent poems, the ones from her early books, Cruelty and Killing Floor, the ones in the voices of child molesters, murderers, etc.  Although the later poems, written as dramatic monologues in the voices of actual persons, may be just as well written, I'm not as interested in them.

Why is that?  I think it's because, for lots of reasons I won't go into here,  I'm drawn to the shadow, and by that I mean the word in the sense that Jung would have meant it.  My favorite holidays are Mardi Gras and Halloween because you get to pretend to be all the horrible things you have repressed during the year, and it's all in fun.   I hate Thanksgiving because it's so earnest and good and moral, at least on the surface.  No one wants to talk about the shadow of our massacre of the natives, we just want to thank God for all the good stuff.  I want to think about the bad stuff.  This is probably also why I'm drawn to the figure of Medusa as well as some of the more terrifying and powerful ancient goddess figures.  Medusa represents for me, a shadow self.  

I would like to develop a poetry writing exercise for my students that gets them to think about their shadow selves and culminates in a persona poem or dramatic monologue written in the voice of the shadow.  Since we are discussing Ai tonight, this would be a good opportunity to do some shadow writing.  The exercise might look something like this:

Writing the Shadow:

 the Persona and Dramatic Monologue Poem

I.  Some Definitions:

Persona (from Merriam Webster)

            1 : a character assumed by an author in a written work

            2 a plural personas [New Latin, from Latin] : an individual's social facade or  front that especially in the analytic psychology of C. G. Jung reflects the role in  life the individual is playing

            b : the personality that a person (as an actor or politician) projects in public             (image).


Dramatic Monologue (from A Glossary of Literary Terms, M. H. Abrams)

--A single person, who is patently not the poet, utters the speech that makes up the whole of the poem, in a specific situation at a critical moment […].

--This person addresses and interacts with one or more other people; but we know of the auditors' presence, and what they say and do, only from clues in the discourse of the single speaker.

 --The main principle controlling the poet's choice and formulation of what the lyric speaker says is to reveal to the reader, in a way that enhances its interest, the speaker's temperament and character.


            a.  “The shadow is that part of us we fail to see or know. “  Owning Your Own             Shadow:  Understanding the Dark Side of the Psyche, Robert Johnson

            b.  The shadow is “the personification of certain aspects of the unconscious personality… which…is the dark, unlived, and repressed side of the ego  complex.  Shadow and Evil in Fairytales, Marie-Louise Von Franz.

II.            Exploring your Shadow

            What is the nature of the face you project to the world?  What do you have to repress or hide in order to keep that face alive?  Imagine you are Dr. Jekyl  and Mr. Hyde.  What would your Mr. Hyde be like?  In the tale of Jekyl and  Hyde, Jekyl was a doctor who saved live, and Hyde was a murderer who took  lives. One could argue Hyde was Jekyl’s shadow. What might your shadow be?  Write a draft of a poem that is written in the voice of your shadow.  Do  not use the word shadow and do not refer to yourself.  This poem is writtenonly in the voice of the shadow.  Give it a title at the end that makes it a  person outside of yourself (see, for examples of titles, Ai and Christopher Davis persona poems).

In your poem make sure that you make clear the following:  What is the shadow’s world like?  What does it see and hear?  How does it speak?  Make sure the language sounds authentic. What does it know?  What does it do?  What does it feel or think?  What is the physical location of your shadow?  Give the shadow a strong sense of place that is more than just a setting (sights, smells, sounds with an eye toward showing the connection between the place and the shadow.  Remember that your shadow has been shaped by its place and culture. Yeats:   a poet's words have "to be wedded to the natural figures of his or her native landscape."

See this poem by Ai for an idea of how to work place and other  specific  details into a shadow poem such that the character is brought alive:

The Hitchhiker (from Vice:  New and Selected Poems, NY:  Norton, 1999)

The Arizona wind dries out my nostrils

and the head of the sidewalk burns my shoes,

as a woman drives up slowly.

I get in, grinning at a face I do not like,

but I slide my arm across the top of the seat

and rest it lightly against her shoulder.

We turn off into the desert,

then I reach inside my pocket and touch the switchblade.


We stop, and as she moves closer to me, my hands ache,

but somehow, I get the blade into her chest.

I think a song:  “Everybody needs somebody,

everybody needs somebody to love,”

as the black numerals 35 roll our of her right eye

inside one small tear.

Laughing, I snap my fingers.  Rape, murder, I got you

in the sight of my gun.


I move off toward the street.

My feet press down in it,

familiar with the hot, soft asphalt

that caresses them.

The sun slips down into its cradle behind the mountains

and it is hot, hotter than ever

and I like it.