Description and the senses: a masterclass by Devin Johnston

Visiting US poet and essayist Devin Johnston gave a masterclass at the IIML on 8 June 2018. MA workshop member and poet Tim Grgec provides a round-up.

Image of writer and publisher Devin Johnston (source: Saint Louis University)

Poetry, for American writer Devin Johnston, eludes categorisation. It simply exists as a form in which writers extend beyond themselves—wherever that might lead.

Central to Johnston’s poetics is the musicality of language. His poems (which achieve an enhanced meaning when read aloud), illustrate the reflective possibilities of the lyric. Image and sound are inseparable. His work offers what poet Forrest Gander describes as  a ‘rich and particular lexicon’, with consonants—as well as vowels—carrying their own distinct ‘music’. In this regard, Johnston’s work follows in the tradition of Basil Bunting, whose poetry, in its demand to be read aloud, also provides a satisfaction in enunciation: a delight to be both heard and spoken.

For Johnston, the satisfaction of writing poetry comes in its testing of idiom. The ‘give and take’ process, to use his phrase, of sounding particular words, phrases or lines, is a test of a writer’s language against what is being described. Writing, then, becomes an exploration of the ways in which words circulate in both meaning and sound, of precision and gesture.

Johnston’s essay ‘Creaturely’ observes the English language’s insufficiencies in describing smell:  ‘We have little language proper to smell, only makeshift analogies that take on a currency through volatility.’ Rather than favour visual representation, Johnston’s workshop component of the masterclass also aimed for participation in the sensory experience. He began by handing out stems of rosemary. We were asked to describe the herb’s smell, both metonymically and metaphorically, then turn these descriptions into a poem. The second exercise involved describing a scene entirely by sound. Johnston encouraged us to consider the two components of a metaphor, tenor and vehicle. The former refers to the object or phenomenon being described, the latter the associated image of comparison. Successful poetry negotiates between the two, finding a middle-ground of both descriptive precision and metaphoric surprise.

Cover image for Creaturely and Other Essays by Devin Johnston (Turtle Point Press, 2009)
Johnston writes poems almost entirely in his head before putting them to the page. Early drafts on paper or Word documents, he claims, prompt the poet to agonise over concerns (such as line breaks, punctuation and formatting) that can be considered much later in the creative process. The poetic material remains fresh and malleable in Johnston’s head. His methodology, then, can be viewed as an attempt to avoid stale or overworked writing. He reassures us that one’s writing process is not entirely mechanical, much less formulaic. More importantly, writing should be an enjoyable exercise.