A few recent emails, and the responses I've gotten to my announcement that I am now taking on private students, have gotten me thinking again about creative writing pedagogy. Thus I am posting another (and final) piece from my as yet unpublished essay on the teaching of creative writing. These observations, like those in my other posts, regard undergraduate teaching. Furthermore, most of my teaching has not been at elite institutions, and most of my students (first generatin college students for the most part) in either literature or creative writing courses (but particularly in the latter) have not had literary backgrounds.
I hope that some of these thoughts will prove useful and/or interesting.
Academics and writers frequently mention the challenges of teaching students who know nothing about poetry, who have no idea of what poetry is. While I have encountered many students who have never read literary poetry (as distinct from the poems of Jim Morrison, for example), I have never encountered students who had no conception of poetry. Indeed, overcoming their firmly held ideas about poetry is a major part of my teaching task. As I have written earlier, most students’ ideas of poetry come from greeting card verse and popular song lyrics, and they often resist both the idea that these may not represent the pinnacle of poetic achievement and reading poems that don’t fit these models. For many of them, poems almost always rhyme (usually in couplets); poems use and should use archaic, flowery language (because it’s more “poetic”), including inversions of normal word order and constructions like “thee” and “’tis”; and vagueness is better than specificity or precision, cliches preferable to original phrasing and imagery, “because then everyone can relate to them” or “everyone can put what they want into the poem.”
Resistance to such notions is dismissed as mere personal opinion, and as we know, everyone’s opinions are not only equally worthwhile but equally true: which in this context means that the instructor’s opinions are in fact less valuable than everyone else’s, since he is both an outsider to the group and of a minority opinion. (On the other hand, this outsider role can also free the instructor to voice things that some students may think but are reluctant to openly express for fear of antagonizing their fellow students, who are after all much more important in their daily lives than any mere professor.) Similarly, when writing fiction, students tend to consider such notions as plausibility, factual accuracy, and descriptive precision irrelevant. That a good story might depend on such elements is something of which it’s often hard to convince students, especially since, as one class explained to me, these are not considerations in their enjoyment of movies or novels.
On the other hand, students tend to resist poems that are more complex and challenging, that are not easily and immediately reducible to a subject or a topic, whether they are by their peers or by poets they are assigned to read: such poems “don’t make any sense” and thus aren’t any good. Or students leave their response at the level of “I have no idea what this is about, but I like it,” assuming both that if it’s a poem by a fellow student it must be good and that anything not immediately graspable on a first, quick read is inherently incomprehensible. (Perhaps because of the exigencies of student course schedules, poems are rarely given a second or third read.) For some, poetry is defined precisely as something that doesn’t and needn’t make sense. In poems, "anything goes."
In some ways this bias toward subject matter and immediate graspability is built into the workshop format: more narrative, straightforward work, whatever its flaws or virtues, is more easily assimilated and discussed in the ten or fifteen minute block usually assigned to each poem. Since work is sometimes not distributed until the day of discussion, there may not even be the opportunity for a response based on a second or third reading.
Nonetheless, the constraints of the workshop format are not at the root of such tendencies and presuppositions, although they do exacerbate them. An instructor’s support of more complex or subtle work is sometimes taken as proof that that students are just being forced to read things that only egghead intellectuals who are out of touch with real life could like. That real life could be larger, stranger, and more multifarious than students have imagined it to be is one of the most important prospects that reading literature opens up.
To get students to see that their poetry is part of an ongoing tradition and practice, with a past, a present, and a future, and that it can and must be judged by the criteria of that tradition and that practice (as opposed to the commonly held conviction that the judging and critique of poetry is completely subjective), is necessary to make it possible that they could one day write poetry.