Steve Fellner's comments on my most recent post on creative writing pedagogy, "A Few Issues in the Creative Writing Classroom,", as well as K. Silem Mohammad's "Breaking the Self-Affirmation Barrier," a response to my post "What Is Creative Writing For?" in which he lays out some of the things that he thinks that an ideal creative writing course or curriculum should do, have prompted me to post another portion of my essay on the teaching of creative writing. While complaining about student shortcomings and about the difficulty of teaching in general has become an academic genre, I thought it might be useful to talk about some of the things that I do to address the problems I have discussed. Once again, I hope that this will be a productive contribution to the conversation.
Making reading, both of contemporary poetry and of the poetic tradition, central to the workshop process expands the realm of poetic possibilities for students by exposing them to work that can challenge their assumptions about what poetry is, can be, and should be. “Canonical” work, when actually read, can be as unsettling and exploratory as explicitly avant-garde work. Indeed, there is no such homogeneous literary past as the singular term “canon” suggests—the idea of a monolithic canon is a pedagogical fiction, throwing together works that if taken seriously often cancel one another out. Nor is there any such absolute divide between traditional and experimental: if actually read, T.S. Eliot’s poems are as radical now as when they were first written. Such avowed opponents as John Hollander and Charles Bernstein, however antithetical their ideological positions (their material positions as holders of endowed academic chairs are remarkably similar), share the conviction that the matter of poems is words and their relations, even if neither is always faithful to that conviction.
By emphasizing and making explicit the contextual and intertextual nature of all writing (did I invent the words I am using now? did I create this syntax or produce this grammar?), and by exposing students to the polymorphous and often contentious nature of literatures in the plural, the integration of critical reading into creative writing helps check the tendency to be influenced at second or third hand by writers whom one has not read, and broadens the field of conscious affiliations and repudiations available to each student’s work. As I often remind my students, one can learn as much from seeing what one doesn’t want to do as from discovering what one does want to do.
Form, like theory, is a resource, including the resource of restriction: the French poet and critic Paul Valéry wrote that the artist is he whose imagination is stimulated by constraints, and poetry is as much about what is not written as about what is. Whatever forms a student ultimately chooses for his or her own work, she should be aware of as many of the possibilities available to her as possible, and of the uses to which these have been put in the past and are being put now. Of course, in order for this to happen she or he must become aware of the active presence of form as such, and of its inescapability—as Eliot might have said, there is form that works and form that doesn’t work, but there is never formlessness, just as true randomness always falls into patterns.
There is no single past or present of any artistic medium, but rather many, both coexisting and competing. It’s the duty of every writer to maintain and expand rather than diminish the medium’s formal capacities. It’s the duty of every teacher of writing to make those capacities as available as possible to his or her students.
In discussing student work, I try to show students that reading critically and reading for pleasure are indissoluble or at least complementary, that the first leads to and enhances the second. When I read a poem, by a student, in a literary journal, in a collection of poems by a single author, or in an anthology, I want to enjoy the poem, to immerse myself in the poem’s world. The problems that constructive criticism points out are impediments to that enjoyment, literal stumbling blocks to my attempts to approach the poem and immerse myself in it. Thus such criticism is in the service of pleasure, to increase the reader’s pleasure in a poem and the clarity and intensity of the experience that the poem provides. This doesn’t mean that the poem must be pleasant in its subject matter or even in its techniques, but that it should provide the pleasure of a fully achieved aesthetic accomplishment, whatever its other aims. Nor does this preclude the possibility that a poem can and sometimes should be asked to try to accomplish more than it aims at, that a reader should expect it to provide a richer or deeper experience than its original conception proposes. As the brilliant poet and teacher Michael Anania once told me, one of the tasks of the creative writing instructor is to say, “You’ve done this very well. What else can you do?”
My creative writing courses emphasize the interdependence of writing and reading, stressing poetry as a practice of language. To misquote Mallarmé, poems are made out of words, not out of emotions (though words both entail and embody emotions). Poetry arises from the engagement with poetry; emulation and even imitation are an integral part of writing, as they are of so many other activities. Ezra Pound wrote that technique is the test of a writer’s sincerity; T.S. Eliot, that no verse is free for the writer who wants to do a good job. I try to remind students that in poetry language is not a means but an end; that language itself can speak, can tell us (including the writer) things we didn’t already know. The poem can be a new experience in itself, not simply a commentary on experience.
Many of my exercises are designed to distract students from what they have to say and to open up the possibility that the poem might have something of its own to say (rather than simply being a vehicle for their thoughts and feelings). While their attention is on the restrictions and conditions of an assignment, something interesting that they didn’t plan on or expect might sneak up on them. As W.H. Auden wrote, of two aspiring poets, one of whom writes to say something, the other of whom writes to capture what words have to say, it is the second who will become the better writer. I try to steer my students toward such listening.
Making reading and responding to reading central to the poetry workshop provides a common frame of reference and a common vocabulary, especially since even those students who have read some poetry have very rarely read the same poetry. Among other things, this can help students transform personal opinions into considered arguments, by providing a context for their thoughts and reactions. Instead of discussing “metaphor” in the abstract, for example, we can look at the ways Stevens uses metaphors as figures of thought and landscape in “Credences of Summer” or “The Snow Man.” With undergraduates, who have often read very little, my aim is to introduce them to conceptions of what a poem is and can be outside of the very limited models of pop music lyrics and the poems of Jim Morrison or Jewel. With graduate students, who often have a prematurely fixed view of the kinds of writers they are and the kinds of writing to which they are willing to respond, my aim is to encourage them to question their preconceptions by introducing them to work that challenges their assumptions of what poetry is or should be.
When having students read more complex or challenging work, I urge them to first allow themselves to experience it, immersing themselves in its language and its imagery, before irritably reaching after certainty—to postpone their will to understand or master the poem in favor of exploring the world that the poem offers. Just as in life we often have experiences whose impact is clear but whose meaning only becomes apparent later if at all, so is often the case in reading poems.
In my poetry workshops at least half of the students’ poems are responses to assigned readings chosen on the basis of work that will expand their ideas of what is possible in poetry and of work that highlights specific aspects of writing poems (such as Stevens’s embodiment of ideas in images, or Ann Lauterbach’s use of syntax as a structural principle, or Carl Phillips’ distanced, objectified treatment of personal material). I want students to think of the readings as a tool box from which they can draw techniques and resources for their own poems, and also to realize that they can make use of a poet’s work (including by clarifying for themselves things they don’t want to do) even if they don’t necessarily “like” it (and that a second or third reading of a work may yield different impressions than a first glance will).
I also have students write prose pages on their responses to the readings, articulating what they see in the poems of others and what they are trying to do in their own poems. It is crucial that students be able to think and write about what they are doing when they write poems; the development of this self-critical consciousness tends to be neglected in creative writing courses and programs.
Revision (or as Adrienne Rich calls it, re-vision, seeing one’s work anew) is also a central part of my workshops. I allow and encourage students to revise anything they turn in over the course of the semester. This both alleviates students’ fixation on grades (since they know that they always have an opportunity to improve a grade with which they are unhappy) and encourages them to take responsibility for their own writing. Integrating revision into the class structure reminds students how much of writing is rewriting, that nothing they have written is etched in stone, and moves them away from the “first thought, best thought” mindset so prevalent among young writers.
Such an engagement with poems (as distinct from an abstract notion of “poetry”) can produce a sense of participation with poetry as a practice (a practice with a history as well as a present) and as a discipline, not simply as a mode of unconsidered or even self-conscious “self-expression.” It can also help students realize that “self-expression” is a much more complex thing than it may at first appear, and that clichés and vagueness (not the same thing as ambiguity or well-deployed abstraction) are obstacles to any accurate and effective expression. My larger aim is to steer students toward the production of aesthetic objects with an independent existence in the world.
Most students will not become writers, nor do most even aim at that (something that we often forget in our teaching and discussion of creative writing, seeking to reproduce ourselves or our self-image as writers). But such a heightened attention to language can make them better and more involved readers, and will improve all their writing, be it letters or academic essays or business reports. I also hope that it may at least help to make them less susceptible to the seductions of dead and false language that surround us in all areas of life and serve as impediments to actually living, as opposed to merely existing.