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The Lost Sense

Zest, Shape, and surprise—a good writing exercise revs me up, even if I taught it the week before. It surprises new things out of me and my students. “The Lost Sense”—a writing assignment based on Federico Garcia Lorca’s poem “The Little Mute Boy”—works like that. Each time I teach it, I feel called to attention by Lorca’s poem. I invent strategies on the spot to loosen the bounds of the normal and expected. I want students to experiment with new combinations and see the world afresh.

I also hope that they will stumble around, briefly deprived of a sense they take for granted. I’d like them to glimpse how they might cope, recognize a longing to recover their lost sense, and learn to appreciate how their other senses adapt. Although I do speak about “handicaps” when I teach this exercise, my emphasis is more on compensation than on deficiency. When someone loses a sense, I say, the other four senses become more acute. Sound develops color; you can small the color of lead.

Step One: Synesthesia: Substituting Senses

First comes a conversation about compensation. We talk about the sensitive hearing of people who are blind, or they way sign language draws with dancing hands.

As the student identify them, I list the five senses on the board: sight, hearing, taste, smell, touch.

Next, we play with synesthesia, the mixing of senses. For example, I might ask the class to suggest a color which I writ on the board: brown. Next I ask them to tell me what instrument plays that color. Hands go up, and I take suggestions: drum, saxophone, trombone, bass fiddle, viola.

Then I ask each student to write a color on a sheet of paper and couple it with a texture. Since the words for textures don’t come as readily as those for color, we brainstorm a list of textures, which I write on the board: pebbly, sandy, scratchy, silky, smooth, cool, icy, prickly, rough, slippery, slimy, sticky, velvety, and so on.
Students read aloud their combinations of colors and textures when I call on them.

Step Two: Surreal Sense

Usually I present this exercise to a class that has already written poetry for at least several days. We’ve discussed free verse, seen how repetition gives a song-like quality to a poem, and considered the virtues of compression and surprise. They know that poetry comes from real life but transform experience by, among other things, comparisons.

Now I explain that the poem I’m about to read by the Spanish poet Federico Garcia Lorca departs from real life in radical ways. It enters a surreal realm: surreal means above the real, beyond the real.

I mention Salvador Dali. “He painted pictures of clocks dripping over walls to suggest how slow time feels when you’re board. Lorca’s poem has some very odd ideas, bu on inspection, you’ll see that they work just like Dali’s limp clocks.”

Before I read the poem, I also discuss what a translation means and tell them that W.S. Merwin translated this Lorca poem from Spanish.

The poem has parenthesis, too, I tell the students, and ask them when you’re supposed to use parentheses. “To set something off that’s private,” they’ll say. “Or to add a thought that isn’t in the main line of thinking.” Acknowledging the correctness of these answers, I suggest that Lorca uses parentheses in radical ways, to capture another versions of reality and enter it into the story of the poem. I promise to cup my hands to show when the parentheses come.

Here is the poem:

The Little Mute Boy

The little boy was looking for his voice.
(The king of the crickets had it.)
In a drop of water
the little boy was looking for his voice.

I do not want it for speaking with;
I will make a ring of it
so that he may wear my silence
on his little finger

In a drop of water
the little boy was looking for his voice.

(The captive voice, far away,
put on a cricket’s clothes.)

There’s a lot going on in this little poem. The surreal elements occur in the imaginative leaps and the metaphor for loss that Lorca creates. For example…