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Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Lessons to a (Young?) Poet


               I was recently allowed to substitute for a creative writing class, and discovered that the teacher taught the class a series of forms as their entrance into poetry. I found this curious because the students faced the same struggles I faced as a young, undergrad writer--filling the form with the content. Now, there are those who can argue that, at eighteen, nineteen, twenty plus years of age, one has lived enough that their daily lives and history can provide fodder for poems. However, that leads burgeoning poets to the navel gazing that seems to populate so many literary magazines currently. It also leads me to question whether or not these young writers have the craft skills to take the content of their lives and hone it into these forms.
               So, the questions I ask readers are as follows:
  • What are the essential skills that a poet needs, and are they teachable? If so, how?
  •  If you were to teach a poetry writing course, how would you design it? What lessons would be important?
  • Going back to PWLGC days, what sorts of lessons do you feel you can teach other poets? What do you find missing at open mikes and wish more poets would attend to? How would you teach them?
  • What do you wish you could do better as a poet? Whose poetry do you admire and what lessons would you like to learn from them?
A lot of this assumes that the readers of this blog have an interest in helping each other, which I hope to be true, but that there's also a way or method to help each other beyond presence and support. I'd hope that this could develop into an informal project of blog entries that we could use to help teach each other our particular skills and strengths, but that might be jumping the gun a bit. Right now, I'm just curious to know what lessons we have to offer each other.

25 comments:

michael salinger said...

One of the essential traits that a poet needs is the poet’s eye – the ability to look at something and see it in a different light – to dissect the imagery and reproduce an interpretation of it. This can be taught through modeling and discussion although a whole lot of poetry instruction falls into the category you’ve mentioned above – the idea of taking a form and then filling it up. A poet – educator from Boston, Michael Brown has the best comment on this, I paraphrase: “Form should be a constraint, a vessel that limits what may be contained but not what is said.” Too often we teach form in a way that our students work toward completing it as if it were a worksheet – much “academic” poetry falls into this realm as well. Gymnastics with no soul - see Ted Kooser’s book, The Poetry Home Repair Manual: Practical Advice for Beginning Poets.

In teaching writing I think one cannot underestimate the importance of pre-writes. Thought gathering, research and prioritization of information – especially if one is hoping to produce a poem Concise and Precise is the way to go. So - it is a good idea to think of all the ideas you have on a subject – but more importantly – to select only the best for your final draft. But, that gathering of ideas to have enough that you end up needing to discard some is critical. Too often, especially amongst those who are used to performing their work out loud, the pieces go on twice as long as necessary.

What I find lacking during many open mics is the performance of work by poets other than the person reading. I challenge all poets – especially feature readers to read at least one poem by someone else during your time at the mic.

What I wish I could do better as a poet is be more prolific – I am amazed at what my students produce on demand at times.

Marcus said...

What are the essential skills that a poet needs, and are they teachable? If so, how?

The first skill is reading, good reading, imaginative reading, the kind of reading that makes you despair of ever being able to write anything again because the people you’re reading are so good that their level of writing seems impossibly distant and far away. This is the hardest skill for someone who is ambitious to write to acquire because its rewards seem so antithetical to writing, and it takes such a long time to read enough to get really good at it. Five years, and read all the poets in all the anthologies. All of them. If you don’t get it, that’s ok, ask around briefly to see if anyone you know gets it, and if not, move on. You’ll get it later, when you come back to it.

The second skill is reading, too – re-reading the people whose poems, after you read all the anthologies, so impressed or motivated or challenged you, or pissed you off, that you sought out more of their work. You have to keep reading poetry, really, pretty much continuously throughout your life. Look, if you, who want to write poetry, aren’t interested enough in reading poetry for fun, for illumination, for joy, who else is going to? Who do you think your readers are going to be, anyway? Your readers are people who love to read poetry. Some big proportion of that readership is going to be people who hope to write better poems than you do. There is no better audience for any difficult endeavor than those also involved in that endeavor. If you’re not one of that dedicated and enthusiastic audience, but still present yourself as a participant in the endeavor, then you are merely profiling, pretending to be something you’re not, a poseur.

The third skill is that you have to love language, how it works, how it’s put together, how words and phrases can ring with resonance, damp down with depression, surprise with humor, tickle a memory, evoke a taste or smell, and all the other fascinating things language can do inside your own and others’ heads. You have to love how words sound, how some seem so right and some seem so puzzling, how some carry their baggage with them and some lost it at a long ago port of entry and only echo faintly with their pasts. Why is it that we can say horse, steed, mount, nag; or policeman, thin blue line, cop, pig? Why use this word instead of that word at all? Because words have baggage – every word is a buried metaphor, has connotations as well as denotations. Mother, mater, mom, mommy.

The fourth skill is something like what Salinger is talking about: experienced selectivity among the words and phrases you use to try to communicate or express your own thoughts and feelings. This is only gained by writing writing writing and then comparing comparing comparing. You cannot be afraid to write something and then compare it to the famous poem that communicates or expresses something similar. And don’t give me any crap about wanting to ‘be yourself’ or ‘be original’ or being afraid that your precious self or originality will be tainted or corrupted by all those thousands of poems by talents and geniuses now dead. You’re either going to find a way to write your poems in your way or you’re not, but how embarrassing it would be, not to mention career-killing, to discover that the way you want to write turns out to be just the way Roethke or Byron or Yeats did, and people think you’ve stolen it rather than invented it. You get no credit for inventing it the second time – second baby down the well, dude. No one cares. You have to know who did what and when and why so that you can depart from there, and not merely replow old ground. That’s why you have to have read all the other poets, and why you have to love language and words so much that you cannot keep from trying to write your own poems just differently enough from all the other ones that we can recognize it’s you.

pottygok said...

@Salinger: "This can be taught through modeling and discussion."

What would these lessons look like?

"In teaching writing I think one cannot underestimate the importance of pre-writes. Thought gathering, research and prioritization of information – especially if one is hoping to produce a poem Concise and Precise is the way to go."

How would you incorporate gathering, research and prioritization of information? A lot of this sounds like Ed Sanders's "Investigative Poetics," which is a study or system that I think more graduate students need, though it might be a bit overwhelming for undergrads, who are still struggling with basic craft issues.

"What I find lacking during many open mics is the performance of work by poets other than the person reading. I challenge all poets – especially feature readers to read at least one poem by someone else during your time at the mic."

How much of this is a result of open mike structures? At Deep Cleveland, we used to have the "invocation" where the MC or featured reader would read a poem by a dead poet to invoke their spirit, and so that the dead person could go first. It became a chore getting folks to find a famous dead poet to read, so we eventually dropped the idea. For many readings, poets have a time limit, or a poem limit (sometimes only one), and they're not able to read multiple pieces, by themselves OR others. How would you encourage open mikes to change that mindset?

pottygok said...

"Five years, and read all the poets in all the anthologies."

Sam Hamill, at Naropa, told us his job was to give us a twenty-year reading list. He also advocated spending three hours a day just reading other poets. How does one condense this idea into a semester?

"The third skill is that you have to love language, how it works, how it’s put together, how words and phrases can ring with resonance, damp down with depression, surprise with humor, tickle a memory, evoke a taste or smell, and all the other fascinating things language can do inside your own and others’ heads."

Cool. How does one teach this?

"You’re either going to find a way to write your poems in your way or you’re not, but how embarrassing it would be, not to mention career-killing, to discover that the way you want to write turns out to be just the way Roethke or Byron or Yeats did, and people think you’ve stolen it rather than invented it. You get no credit for inventing it the second time – second baby down the well, dude. No one cares."

What I find particularly interesting is how many poets will argue that they way they wrote such and such book is by reinvestigating what a certain poet did, and imitating it in their own style. For example, Stephen Dobyns wrote the bulk of "Griffon" by exploring Merwin's translations of asian folk sayings and medieval riddles. He's fully admitting imitating, but comes up with something new and brilliant, which other poets point to as inspiration for THEIR work. This seems to be a new poet fear--"I'll sound like someone else."--whereas experienced poets tend to wish they could sound like/as good as X poet.

Marcus said...

“Sam Hamill, at Naropa, told us his job was to give us a twenty-year reading list. He also advocated spending three hours a day just reading other poets. How does one condense this idea into a semester?”

One doesn’t. Education is about lighting a fire not about pouring in knowledge. The mistaken notion that you can teach something like writing is just that: a mistaken notion. You can teach people how to read better; you can teach people what your culture has, over a long time, agreed is what should be read; But the only thing you can do with a student’s writing is to teach him or her to compare it to similar kinds of work by other poets. It’s daunting to the student, and it should be. Something in the student has to rise to the challenge. It’s not something that can be taught, only encouraged or, at least, not discouraged.

“How does one teach this: ‘The third skill is that you have to love language, how it works, how it’s put together, how words and phrases can ring with resonance, damp down with depression, surprise with humor, tickle a memory, evoke a taste or smell, and all the other fascinating things language can do inside your own and others’ heads.’?”

One doesn’t, and can’t. One can only hold it up as the ideal. Some people love maths, some language, some politics, and so on. All one can do is encourage it, or not discourage it, when one finds it. If it’s not there, it’s not a waste, since an appreciation of excellence from the outside can be as valuable to a student as achievement of excellence from the inside can be. But you can’t teach a fascination that amounts to love for language and how it works. You can teach appreciation, but not fascination.

“What I find particularly interesting is how many poets will argue that they way they wrote such and such book is by reinvestigating what a certain poet did, and imitating it in their own style.”

That’s the way any potential artist learns any art, and the way any artist gets better at that art. You start with imitation and you progress to craftsmanship, and sometimes to art. Who was it who said that a poet is someone who spends a career standing in a field trying to get struck by lightning, and if it happens once that’s astonishing, and half a dozen times is excellence and a dozen times is greatness? It was Eliot who said

“One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”(T.S. Eliot (1888-1965). Philip Massinger, The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. 1922.)

But how do you teach someone to steal, in Eliot’s sense, instead of borrow? Once again, you don’t, and you can’t, and it may be argued that you shouldn’t. An artist has to learn to steal on his or her own. All you can teach is the difference between borrowing and stealing, in Eliot’s sense: the difference between defacing the original and making it better or at least different. You can teach the appreciation of the difference, but you can’t teach how to do it.

michael salinger said...

What would these lessons look like?

Sharing examples of whatever literary device one is working on -(rather than examples of a form) - we work with the building blocks of good figurative language. Once we have discussed an example we write a piece together as a group modeling the use of the device. Then the students create their own pieces. We teach the use of figurative language - not the filling in of form. I have found it is easier for a student to identify metaphor, imagery etc., if they have written pieces using these devices after participating in the crafting of them as a group.

How would you incorporate gathering, research and prioritization of information?

This can be as simple as making a bullet point list of details about your subject matter before writing about it.

For many readings, poets have a time limit, or a poem limit (sometimes only one), and they're not able to read multiple pieces, by themselves OR others. How would you encourage open mikes to change that mindset?

This is why I specifically called out feature readers who do have the time to read another's piece. Also, I have on occasion read someone else's piece at an open mic when we were limited to a single poem. It's a decision one should be willing to make every now and then.

pottygok said...

@Marcus:
You've provided, then, a list of the unteachable, the intangible, the essence of poets. What, then, can teachers teach that would provide useful for these poets?

@Michael:
You write "Sharing examples of whatever literary device one is working on -(rather than examples of a form) - we work with the building blocks of good figurative language."

So what are the examples that you use to teach? What do you focus on, in terms of both figurative language as well as other literary devices? What are important craft tools for your students to learn?

pottygok said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
michael salinger said...

So what are the examples that you use to teach?

I usually present one of my own pieces which highlights whatever we are working on that day. It may be imagery, metaphor,visual language, sensory words, - whatever. Of course one could find others work to fit the same bill.

What do you focus on, in terms of both figurative language as well as other literary devices?

Well - the ones listed above - but I never try to teach more than one at a time.

What are important craft tools for your students to learn?

Being precise and concise number one. Number two, word choice - show don't tell - and avoid cliches like the plague!

pottygok said...

Michale wrote "I usually present one of my own pieces which highlights whatever we are working on that day. It may be imagery, metaphor,visual language, sensory words, - whatever. Of course one could find others work to fit the same bill."

Okay, so you've listed four ideas:

*imagery
*metaphor
*visual language
*sensory words

What are the the pieces from your own work that you'd use to teach each one of these. Also, can you list one or two pieces from other poets that you'd use to teach each one of these?

michael salinger said...

Pick one and I'll come and present to a class of yours.

Marcus said...

"You've provided, then, a list of the unteachable, the intangible, the essence of poets. What, then, can teachers teach that would provide useful for these poets?"

Reading skills, encouragement, and the literary-critical skills of comparison to what the culture agrees, over a long period of time, are the pieces of writing most worth reading. That's all writing teachers can offer, in my view.

There is lots of classroom fun to be had out of group writing and sharing individual writing with the group but writing is not a group activity; writing is a solitary activity. No one really wants to hear a poem by a committee -- very few people want to hear a poem at all.

That's really the thing you have to teach your students: the arts in general and poetry in particular are solitary, individual arts that appeal to very small groups because there are very few people who are well enough trained in the kind of focused perception that art appreciation of any kind requires. The rewards of art are, except for the geniuses who capture essences and the lucky who capture zeitgeists, individual and solitary.

Really all you can do is point to the good stuff and talk a little bit about how the artist got his or her effects in this particular instance, and emphasize that imitation is the way to learn the difficulties and the ways to get past the difficulties, but that imitation is only imitation. The goal is to internalize all that material, skillfully and thoroughly read and re-read so the new writer has a chance to place a few poems where they'll be hard to get rid of.

michael salinger said...

That's really the thing you have to teach your students: the arts in general and poetry in particular are solitary, individual arts that appeal to very small groups because there are very few people who are well enough trained in the kind of focused perception that art appreciation of any kind requires

See - this is the kind of thinking that I believe has made poetry irrelevant in people's lives nowadays.

The communication skills one learns from writing and reading poetry can spill over into all facets of interactions. Having an appreciation for language and succinct description will improve a book report, an essay to get into a college or your argument with a magistrate over a traffic ticket.

Now will all our students turn into Pulitzer Prize winning poets - no way. But will they learn to be better communicators and should poetry remain in the curriculum to that end - of course. Can this be a collaborative experience? Certainly - in fact sometimes it is best to take a friend along when trying something a little bit scary.

The idea that poetry, or any art form for that matter, need be a hid away in a solitary room with a garret or two is precisely the MFA secret decoder ring wearing type thinking that has made our art form irrelevant to 95% of the population. (How many of the great masters of visual art headed studios? Would one consider their work solitary?)

It seems to me (and more than one or two past poet laureates) these Academic programs work more to exclude than include because of the financial rewards bestowed upon their own special brand of imitative mediocrity.

Marcus said...

Michael said: “See - this is the kind of thinking that I believe has made poetry irrelevant in people's lives nowadays. The communication skills one learns from writing and reading poetry can spill over into all facets of interactions. Having an appreciation for language and succinct description will improve a book report, an essay to get into a college or your argument with a magistrate over a traffic ticket.”

Poetry is irrelevant in most peoples’ lives because most people are more concerned with living than reflecting on living – and furthermore, most people are better at living than reflecting on living. And they’re way better at living than reading someone else’s reflections on living because most people just can’t read that well. The number of people who can and will read that well is small – and has always been small and will always be small.

I’m not saying people shouldn’t try to teach poetry appreciation or try to learn it. The question, though, was can we, and if we can how do we, teach people who want to write poetry to write poetry. By that I understood the question to be about people who have, or are thinking about, a life-long commitment to writing and reading poetry, not people who find themselves in an English class. As I said before, there is lots of fun to be had in a group writing a poem, but the number of committee-composed poems that have survived to be read again and again is small. I can’t think of one off-hand. That is not ‘writing poetry’ as I think the original question posed it.

The conflation of artists’ studios with poets is a profound confusion. Artists’ studios are commercial enterprises that occasionally aspire to art when the money is right. If you pay enough you can get the master to execute the whole thing; but if you’re looking for cut-rate wall-filling, which is what art studios do, you get an apprentice’s or journeyman’s work, as you deserve. There are no examples in all of history of a poet being so commercially in demand that he or she had to hire apprentice and journeyman poets in order to write ‘in the school of’ that poet to meet that commercial demand. Poetry and commercial art are two entirely different endeavors – you might as well have compared poetry to a machine shop for all the good your comparison does you.

But it’s not my contention that poetry should be hidden away in a solitary room or garret, and it’s not the MFA industry’s contention that they are, or want to be, doing so. My contention is that poetry is created by solitary and individual effort, and that that effort is necessarily appreciated by a relatively small audience (compared to artists’ studios or machine shops) because the demands that poetry makes on readers, even the most accessible poetry, is beyond most readers’ capacities. It may be that by assiduous and careful and expensive mass education in poetry that audience may be made slightly larger, but I doubt it would be much larger, for all the effort and money expended. Most people just aren’t that reflective themselves, and don’t care to hear your reflections on love and life even if they’re NOT poems.

The MFA industry is most definitely NOT arguing or urging that poetry be solitary and individual. The whole workshop-cum-reading enterprise, combined with the deliberate focus on acquiring creative writing or other writing-oriented teaching jobs, is specifically and proudly opposed to the entire ‘solitary and individual’ view of the poetry enterprise. The MFA industry’s enterprise is to try to make poetry a mass-appeal art through workshops, readings, and thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of class-hours. Equating my view with theirs is simply silly.

michael salinger said...

The question, though, was can we, and if we can how do we, teach people who want to write poetry to write poetry.

Can we teach people who want to golf how to golf? Of course we can - will some be better than others - yep. Will the one's who aren't as proficient still appreciate the intricacies of the game even to the point of spending hours watching someone hit a white ball around a field on television? Sure thing.

the demands that poetry makes on readers, even the most accessible poetry, is beyond most readers’ capacities.

Gimme a break - one decent hour session on poetry can rectify this - if not the attitude that believes this true. I am constantly impressed with the depth of comprehension in all my students given the opportunity along with according expectation.

The MFA industry’s enterprise is to try to make poetry a mass-appeal art through workshops, readings, and thousands of teachers and tens of thousands of class-hours. Equating my view with theirs is simply silly.

Wrong - the MFA program seeks to create an insular web of readers and writers whose work is only validated after being part of this closed group via buying into their system with tuition. Once indoctrinated you might get lucky and have your work assigned to the students of your cronies from the same system. This AWP badge wearing cadre seek to keep poetry a secret that must be kept from the unwashed masses. It is exclusionary in order to be self sustaining.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/anis-shivani/creative-writing-programs-corrupt_b_757653.html

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

Well, although I do think it's interesting to ask what the purpose of MFA programs is, and why they think we need to train several thousand professional poets each year to do whatever it is that MFA-trained poets do, the overwhelming majority of young poets won't go on to MFA programs. What is it that we are trying to teach the young poets who aren't going to go on to a MFA?
I suppose, we want to teach to use language with accuracy, with beauty, and with passion.

Marcus said...

The object of sport is to perform within well-defined, even very strict, limits. The enterprises of sport and art are so entirely different that Salinger’s analogy does his argument no good at all. Next he’ll be telling us that writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.

Even within his own analogy Salinger’s answer doesn’t work. If the golf school offers to teach golfers how to be good enough golfers to go on the pro tour, and all it does is teach golfers how to appreciate the intricacies of the game as they watch it on TV, is that teaching golfers how to get good enough to be on the pro tour? Similarly, if the poetry school offers to teach people to write poetry that will get publication and prizes and a teaching job in the po-biz, and all it succeeds in doing is increasing their appreciation for the poetry other people write, can that school really claim to have done what it promised?

The question posed here was what advice do more-or-less established poets have for more-or-less beginning poets that will make them better poets, not merely more appreciative of other peoples’ poetry. And while making people more appreciative of poetry is a worthy goal, it’s not the same as the goal of making poets better poets.

The MFA program enterprise seeks to do what the AMA and other semi-professional unions have done with their enterprises: claim an exclusivity for producing licensed professionals, and create a market for those professionals that will reinforce the value of the credentials MFA programs offer, thus creating a demand for more certified MFA professionals.

MFA programs produce more appreciators of poetry than professional poets, even given how many professional poets they produce. But the goal is to produce professional poets and poetry teachers, not merely to inculcate some increased degree of poetry appreciation in general-population students. The MFA programs are intimately concerned with trying to answer the question posed here, “What can established poets teach beginning poets that will make beginners into established poets?” on a practical level. As capable as Salinger surely is at getting schoolchildren to appreciate the virtues of poetry, his goal remains the teaching of poetry appreciation, not the goal of identifying and coaching the most talented students to choose to follow a lucrative career in the fast-paced world of writing poems.

I don’t support the MFA program enterprise any more than Salinger seems to. I’m not trying to defend it against Salinger’s disdain, but I think he’s wrong about why to disdain such programs. The problem isn’t that

“… the MFA program seeks to create an insular web of readers and writers whose work is only validated after being part of this closed group via buying into their system with tuition … [and] to keep poetry a secret that must be kept from the unwashed masses.”

The MFA program enterprise’s goal is not to keep the secret from the unwashed masses, but rather to sell that secret to those masses by claiming the sort of expertise that doctors, lawyers, nurses, paralegals, teachers, architects, engineers, and other professionals claim for their specialties. Every such group deliberately excludes people who claim expertise acquired by other means than buying their expertise from the credentialing group. The MFA program enterprise is no different than the AMA, the AIA, or any other credentialing group. So Salinger is simply wrong on the face of it to claim that MFA programs are trying to keep poetry a secret from the unwashed masses.. What MFA programs seek to do is professionalize poetry in order to sell the secret to the unwashed masses, retail.

The MFA program enterprise at least is trying to answer the question posed here: what can established poets teach beginning poets about how to become an established poet. Salinger is not. I hope he’ll address the question actually asked in this forum.

Shelley Chernin said...

I can't decide whether to write "Interesting discussion" or "Here we go again." Both are true.

I've never taught poetry, so don't have anything to offer from that perspective. I've been a student.

I remember the joy in 3rd grade of becoming aware of sound as I fulfilled an assignment to write a poem in which most of the words started with the same letter. (Maybe I misremember the assignment, but I know that's what I did, and I remember the emotion clearly.) I also remember the satisfaction I felt when I read a poem aloud in class, and the class listened to me.

Exposing kids to using words in different ways. Learning to listen to each other. Teachable things that impacted my life.

Junior high, we made books of poetry terms, illustrated by examples. Read contemporary song lyrics in class as poetry. A good teacher made all of this interesting and fun. Poetry was okay.

Analyzing poetry in high school, not very interesting or fun, and I decided that I liked fiction better than poetry.

Nevertheless, although I specialized in fiction writing as an undergraduate (no creative writing degrees in those days), I took a poetry writing workshop (a requirement). I don't remember much (which is probably telling in itself). We had to write a couple of form poems, but mostly, we came in with our mimeographed copies, sat around a big table, and discussed each other's poems. Looking back, the two most important things I got from that were pretty much the same things I learned in 3rd grade--the joy of words (precise words, playful words, imagery, sound, rhythm, creativity) and the satisfaction of being listened to and listening to others.

I continue to go to workshops and readings to get these same two things. Seems like I pursued the things that grabbed me emotionally throughout my school career and beyond and ignored what didn't touch me. I don't know if that perspective helps the teachers in this group, but I hope it does.

michael salinger said...

I dont like the tone this is taking. Somehow seeing my name repeated over and over in your post turns this discussion into a personal attack for me and I do not want to promote that type of discourse here so I am bowing out.

pottygok said...

:::HEADSMACK:::

Perhaps I should have made my request more clear because I'm not sure how the discussion of MFAs and the like got involved, and like some of the other responses, feel as though this is a debate rehashed to death.

The class I was teaching was an undergraduate course. They had been instructed to attempt half a dozen or so poetic forms, simply filling up the glass with whatever, as it were. I don't think this is a way to teach poetry.

Two of the responses to this discussion have mentioned some very specific craft tools:

*metaphor
*visual language
*sensory words
*precise words
*playful words
*sound
*rhythm

And only one (ironically, Salinger...sorry to use the name again) actually offered something approaching a lesson when he wrote "I usually present one of my own pieces which highlights whatever we are working on that day. It may be imagery, metaphor,visual language, sensory words, - whatever. Of course one could find others work to fit the same bill." I'd have liked more detail about this, but I also respect the need to protect one's secrets less one gives away the milk for free, as it were.

I think the issue, that I see, is a lack of connect between the craft and the teaching. Some of the responses have this ethereal, intangible quality to them of vague skills, but little mechanism to teach them. Others have mentioned specific skills with no mechanism whatsoever.

What are the mechanisms? What would a lesson look like? What would the class look like? What poems would you use to teach X skill, and how would you use it? Those are the sorts of questions I was hoping to see answered, not whether or not these classes are valuable and what their value is.

My ultimate hope was that we could use these theoretical lessons on this forum to teach each other, developing and relearning our basic craft skills. Instead, we devolve into yet another useless argument that does not further the discussion of poetry but alienate members of the discussion. How extremely disappointing.

Marcus said...

My point is that teaching poetry is not a matter of classwork but of long-term commitment and long-term encouragement. There are no specific teaching techniques with which to teach poetry. There are of course specific techniques to teach specific forms and formats, and those techniques are all deeply concerned with requiring the student to start out with 'filling in the form' and then comparing those fill-ins with poems in the same form that have been judged over a long period of time by a lot of different people, to be excellent.

But there is no way to measure the amount of poetry in any given poem. It is a matter of educated taste, and thus almost entirely subjective. The teacher's goal is to persuade the willing (and the unwilling will never be persuaded, so let them go) that the accumulated judgment of many people over time is not only right but compelling.

That's why I suggest that the only way to teach people to write poems is to require them to read them, and to read a lot of them, and re-read a lot of them over a long period of time. It's a matter of trying to get the student to acknowledge the claims of past excellence as the basis for the student's own standard of excellence.

There is no test for value in poetry except the test of educated taste. There is no way to acquire educated taste except assiduousness over time. Until the student commits to such an assiduous study over the long run all you can hope to teach is the appreciation of other peoples' work. There is nothing worthwhile likely to come from anyone who hasn't internalized the culture's collective wisdom about what constitutes value in poetry, or any other particular art.

This is not to say that there ought to be no classes in art appreciation that include a little hands-on writing, painting, sculpting, whatever. It's true that that hands-on experience teaches a good deal about the difficulties involved in accomplishing merely something that can be called a filled-in form, much less any artistic value. There's no reason not to use such techniques in the art appreciation classroom.

If that's all you're trying to do, then 'filling in forms' and then comparing those filled in forms explicitly line by line to the agreed-on excellences of acknowledged masters of those forms is the only way for the casual student to come to something like appreciation of art in the semester-sized timeframe, and also the only way for the serious student to internalize what excellence looks like so he or she isn't producing nothing but form-filled mediocrity -- or worse.

Geoffrey A. Landis said...

The problem with Marcus' answer to the question is that it is a non-answer. Replying to the question of what techniques are useful to teach writing poetry "There are no specific teaching techniques with which to teach poetry" is not terribly useful.
I disagree with the point that "the only way to teach people to write poems" is to make them read and read and re-read. No. Certainly reading is important, but reading is not the same as teaching writing, and only will not teach writing. You learn different things when you try to write, even badly, than you do when you only read. And, in fact, you appreciate a well-written poem better when you've tried to write one then if you never have; reading with the eye of a writer is different from reading simply for appreciation (or, worse, reading with the eye of critical dissection in order to write a term paper).

Rob said...

Joseph Campbell used to say that religion was the way in which people protected themselves from religious experience. Learning the form is an academic discipline, experiencing the reality is something different. One can be taught, the other cannot. Sometimes the games and rules of the gatekeepers can diminish delight and destroy creativity.

Shelley Chernin said...

Thank you to those of you who are teaching poetry. I appreciate your efforts here to help each other find the best ways to enrich your students' lives. Your students are very fortunate to have such dedicated teachers. I'm sorry that this discussion did not accomplish what you'd hoped.

Marcus said...

First, I didn't say you must ONLY read; rather what I said was you must FIRST read. Then, when you write you must be willing to compare what you write to what you've read. Teaching writing is teaching that you must be willing and able to make that comparison, honestly. You can't get better at any craft if you think you're already great at it.

And that's all teaching writing is, really: teaching people to read well and then teaching them how to apply those good reading skills to their own writing. People who can't read well can't write well.

Finally, though, teaching techniques are irrelevant. There are no teaching techniques that will create passion for writing poetry in the student who has the capacity for a passion for doing another art -- or a passion for doing anything else, for that matter.

The reading program is a winnowing process. Lots of people learn to read well enough to read menus and street signs and business documents. Some read well enough to read genre fiction; some to read literary fiction; some to read poetry. Out of those who read well enough to read poetry, some will want to try to write it.

Encourage them, sure, but encourage them honestly. In the end the only teaching technique that can possibly be of any use in trying to teach creative writing classes is honesty. You must be willing to praise what is praisable and leave the rest to silence. There is not point in telling people they suck at it, but neither is there any point to telling them they're better at it than they are.

Because in the end, you can't write their poetry for them, and you can't be there to critique and improve every poem they ever write. They have to learn above all to be honest about what they're reading, even if it is their own work. And the only way they'll learn that is if you, their teacher, are honest with them as their role model in reading.

Cited...

The poet doesn't invent. He listens. ~Jean Cocteau