Grackle art by Ceallak Monster
In both our poems and our brains, ugliness is “heavier” than beauty. Neuroimaging studies have shown that “ugly” art mobilizes the flight mechanism in our brains more intensely than “beauty,” which makes us want to run away from “ugly” faster. So why write poems about ugly things that make people want to run away? Because if everything in our poems is beautiful (or sexy or wistful or whatever), nothing is, and ugliness is a bracing counter-ballast to the easier moves we make out of habit. Ugly wakes up the poet and the reader. Umberto Eco said, “Beauty is detachment, absence of passion. Ugliness, by contrast, is passion.” By this logic, we might be living in a Golden Age of Passion! Moreover, ugliness emits 100,000 times more ambivalence than beauty, and if you write poetry, you’ve probably made out with ambivalence in a public restroom more than once. Now that’s ugly! 😉
This class is for intermediate poets who want to explore their idiosyncratic manifestations of ugliness in order to conjure ambivalence, surprise our readers, and deepen the empathetic capacity of our poems. In every session, we’ll read and discuss poems that explore ugly images, settings, subjects, diction, forms and voices; we’ll write and workshop poems that explore ugliness in the body, the brain, and the world.
Jennifer L. Knox is the author of five books of poetry in English, most recently Crushing It (Copper Canyon Press, 2020). She is currently at work on MYCYOWA, a traveling public art installation dedicated to increasing awareness of mycoremediation, supported by the the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs and the NEA. She has taught poetry writing at Hunter College, New York University, Iowa State University, and in her own series of private online classes. She lives in central Iowa and is the proprietor of Saltlickers, a small spice blend company.