Friday, March 16, 2007

More on Creative Writing Pedagogy

"Breaking the Self-Affirmation Barrier," a recent very articulate and thought-provoking post on on K. Silem Mohammad's blog, at least partially a response to my recent post "What Is Creative Writing For?" on creative writing pedagogy, has in turn prompted me to post another part of my essay on the teaching of creative writing, one that addresses some of the issues he so saliently brings up, though from a different angle of vision.

Due to the heavily policed institutional borders between creative writing and criticism or literature, the interrelationship of the two is often obscured. Creative writers, seeing themselves as the keepers of the sacred flame of literature, engage in frequent polemics against the invariably destructive encroachments of theory on creativity, while theorists largely ignore or at best disdain the unselfconscious effusions of authors who refuse to accept the news of their death. This state of affairs has always troubled me, for I have never felt the chasm between my writing and my critical intellect (or that between my emotions and my thoughts on which it is based) that so many seem not only to take for granted but determined to enforce on others. Other literary works, both those with which I have felt affinities and those toward which I’ve felt great antipathy, have always been both inspirations for and challenges to my own work and the work I aspired to do. Indeed, I never would have considered writing poetry without the impetus of reading deeply in it, wanting to comprehend, apprehend, and wield the power I found in it. Complementarily, criticism and what is sweepingly and too vaguely called “theory” have been crucial in thinking through and thinking anew my writing. Such critical thinking has been central to my development as a writer, and has helped me work through many an impasse in my work.

Most literary academics have no idea how to read a poem, having imbibed the conviction that close reading or textual explication is reactionary or simply passé without ever having informed themselves just what such reading might entail. While poetry writing programs have burgeoned, poetry has fallen by the wayside as an object of literary study in favor of the examination of novels as social documents.

Many literary scholars and theorists believe that writing cannot or should not be taught, that talent is some immeasurable intangible. Such academics share many students’ sense that there is nothing to teach or be taught in a creative writing class, that writing literature, unlike, presumably, analyzing or theorizing it, requires no knowledge or training. Reified notions of innate genius which have been thoroughly deconstructed with regard to the literatures of the past are still too often unselfconsciously applied by writers and by critics to dismiss the possibility of training the writers of future literatures. Some people have a greater aptitude than others for musical composition or performance, for dance, for science or mathematics, yet no one asserts on that basis that these practices cannot be taught. Nor would many argue against the assertion that both those with more of an inclination and those with less of an inclination toward such pursuits can benefit from such education and training. But among both writers and critics, canards like “Keats never took a writing workshop” are freely tossed about, although the most cursory scan of literary history shows that developing writers and artists have always engaged in formal and informal processes of apprenticeship and training, of learning from and being guided by more experienced artists and writers. Perhaps it is the wider availability these days of such apprenticeships to hoi polloi to which critics of creative writing programs object. Historically, Keats is one of the few poets born in the working classes to have been able to take advantage of such apprenticeship and patronage.

The idea that writing cannot be taught is a more sophisticated version of the emptied-out pseudo-romanticism pervasive in our society: the assumption that everything one needs is inside one, that thought is the enemy of creativity and of feeling in general, that self-awareness is antithetical to art. As Ann Lauterbach has put it, “There’s a familiar split in the notion of what a creative act is. That split, in our culture, involves an idea of creativity as being natural and expressive: a poet has no need to have thought about anything in order to make a poem; the enemy is the analytical. This is a long-standing divisive space, certainly within the academy but also in the culture at large.” But self-awareness, the capacity to step back and analyze not just the world but oneself, is what defines us as human, and art is the material embodiment of that self-awareness, of the capacity to separate oneself from one’s immediate existence and see it as if from the outside. In that regard, art and science, often conceived of as opposites, have a great deal in common: both are about not taking for granted things as they appear, neither the world nor oneself, about investigating and exploring the universe rather than simply existing in it, about delving through the surfaces of things to understand their true workings. Things are not always what or how they seem, and we are among those things.

In English departments there is little or no attention paid to contemporary literature, except for that literature which can be scrutinized (as distinct from being actually read) as a social symptom, minority and women’s literature for the most part. (I must add, though, that as a black gay man who has taught at three different universities and been a student at several more, I have never encountered the caricatured straw institution so prevalent in right-wing anti-academic screeds where minorities are pandered to and Hopi chants are taught instead of Shakespeare.) In most creative writing programs, only contemporary literature is read, and there is a pervasive neglect of the literature of the past (especially of anything written before the twentieth century) among both students and faculty, who tend to consider it irrelevant or even (if they are a bit more intellectually hip) oppressive. This is not to say that individual students may not make efforts to educate themselves, but they are rarely given any context or structure in which to do so, or any incentive for their efforts.

In creative writing courses and programs, student writing is too often expected to emerge from the vacuum of inspiration (a vacuum too easily filled with prepackaged formulations and received ideas, from popular music, television, and movies, among other sources). The intention of the writer is conflated with the intention of the poem, because no other context is provided or produced for the work: thus the role of the creative writing teacher is simply to facilitate the student in finding and perhaps refining his or her own voice. This voice, like the self it stands in and expresses, is assumed to be pre-existent, needing at most to be shaped and developed. (This is a recent and socially constructed notion of selfhood and subjectivity, one that would have been alien, for example, to Shakespeare.) Each student brings an idiosyncratic and haphazard canon and set of assumptions to the class, basing his or her ideas of poetry on what he or she happens to have read or to have heard on the radio (for many students, popular music lyrics are their main model of poetry). Rarely have they read enough to have made informed choices among the possibilities of writing practice or to have questioned choices made solely on the basis of “what I like.” I have heard creative writing instructors say that they specifically exclude outside reading from their classes in order to focus on student work, as if that work came forth with no connection to anything else that had ever been written.

The unacknowledged assumptions underpinning both student reading and student writing (the reification of taste, the valorization of sincerity, the enshrinement of self-expression) block the development of each individual’s writing, leaving students in cul-de-sacs inescapable precisely because they are invisible. Even students engaged in experimental modes tend not to have read anything outside those modes, any of the work that led up to or even negatively instigated that work. Moreover, they are frequently unwilling or unable to recognize what is still radical (in both senses of the word) or experimental about writers like Sir Thomas Wyatt or Christopher Marlowe, should they take the occasion to read them. Many young writers’ conception of “the experimental” seems a concoction of received ideas about “language” poetry (as if other kinds of poetry were made of something other than language) and an attenuated romantic notion of idiosyncratic individualism. Thus such writers are often also ignorant of and uninterested in the historical and intellectual underpinnings of those modes, seeing them only as matters of style. Anti-intellectualism and an indifference to literary history are rife among both mainstream and avant-garde writers.


Steve Fellner said...


Thank you so much for including more of your article on creative writing pedagogy. This is such an important issue, and so arely talked about except in the most dull, useless terms.

I want to amplify two points you made that I think are of particularly revelance.

1.) The unfortunate and weird polarization between theorists and creative writers in English departments. I currently teach at SUNY Brockport, not a research one institution, a very congenial department considering other places I've been (Syracuse Universtiy, for instance), and even here, there is a serious, detrimental divide. Creative writers often seen theorists as unintersted in creative, claiming that their writing is vague and useless, unconcerned about the beauty or precision of langauage. Of course, this is unfair stereotype. However, theorists often seen creative writers as flaky, their writing takes much less time than scholars who "look stuff up" and spend time in the library. This is articulated in our department in covert ways, but the prejudices are there. Alliances need to be formed betwen theorists and creative writers and hopefully with blogs and articles like yours we can create them. Even as limitied of a writer as I am, which is extreme, realize the importance of theory and other sorts of poetic enterprises than autobiographical narrative.

2.) While I appreciate Mohammad's engagement with your post, I wonder how realistic he is in terms of what a teacher can do in a creative writing class. Time is the problem. For undergraduate and graduate students, his agenda is huge. I agree that vagueness is a problem. But it does, as I'm sure you would readily admit, take a long time to teach them what vagueness is. How many times students begin their poems "I am falling down/a deep dark abyss." It can take several weeks of a semester long course to realize that the language is hackneyed and dull. A lot in our world encourages them to think that is profound. Are they wrong for thinking that? Hallmark cards have a place in our society (in our society: a favorite phrase of my students: how they would love to catch me using it), but in art?
One mean, unethical exercise I do to my students early on in the semester is give them a poem by someone I respect (Lynn Emmanuel, Thylias Moss, Reginald Shepherd), and the inside of a Hallmark Card. I make them pretend that they are editors of the literary magazine and have them articulate why they like what they do.

Of course, there's something unkind in this exercise, expecially in the disclosure of who created what (shame shouldn't be the motivating factor for someone's aesthetic claims), but it creates a dynamic discussion.

Anyway, the discussion doesn't clear up the identification of cliche, vague langauge; it opens it up. A little.

And a little is a lot.

That's why I've stopped teaching books of poems. Our students don't knw how to read poems. They read everything as if it was a USA Today article, briskly and unself reflectively: speed is the issue.

I just wanted to say that I found your agenda useful: it doesn;t expect too much, but at the same time it makes reasonable demands.

Steve Fellner

Joan Houlihan said...

Greetings, Steve Fellner--nice to see you here. At the risk of scaring off K. Silem Mohammad with my "sinister" views, I'd like to say just a few thingsssssss. First, I attended a panel at AWP with the title "Teaching Innovation: Experiments in the Poetry Workshop" with the hope of learning something (I teach workshops, but outside the academy). It didn't take very long to realize I was caught in a kind of living blog, where statements being made about poetry, and especially about writing poetry, were as baffling to me as they were when I first read them on certain blogs, years ago. Now, how is it that when I read this post by Reginald, it seems utterly clear to me, but I cannot understand Silem's response on his own blog wherein he seems to imply that the teaching of craft is not only within every student's ability to master, and rather quickly, but really it is just a stepping stone to what lies beyond it. Further, in addition to the mastery of craft, he wants students to get something about the history/context of poetry under their belts ("I want them to come to terms both with the standards of specificity, concision, and so on, and with the particular values that have historically informed those standards") and all within the time span of an MFA program. But what ARE these other things about writing poetry that are more important than craft (which, by the way, takes a lifetime to learn, if one ever does) and the study of poetic traditions and histories? (If that's what he means by "values" and I'm not even certain of that.) What is it that he wants his students to achieve? There are his four "minimal requisites"--and these resonate with my experience at the AWP panel (in the sense that they cannot be held too long to the light of inquiry without dispersing like mist). To look closely at one of these four items is to know the real nature of vagueness. I have to ask, along with K. Silem: What else IS out there? What is the study of poetry and a learning of craft preparation for? What is beyond...out the mist.. Tell!

Kasey Mohammad said...

Eek! Joan Houlihan is sc-scary.

Seriously, hers are fair questions (except for the parts that misrepresent my claims), just as Steve's reservations about the doability of my proposed pedagogical standards are understandable, and I will attempt to address both of them in a blogpost coming soon.

Reginald, I totally agree--I just flipped through the latest issue of AWP's Writers' Chronicle, and must have counted 2 or 3 jabs against intellectual approaches to poetry right off the bat. Ed Ochester, for example, who makes similar statements in the newest Poets & Writers. To be fair, there were also a couple of genuinely interesting features in the Chronicle this time.

As for the "you can't teach poetry" line, I'm afraid it's not just scholars and theorists who push it; poets do it as well, maybe even more. Ferlinghetti in that same issue of P&W, for instance. I think he even used the Keats claim.

I think the scholars and theorists in question believe that poetry writing shouldn't be taught, rather than can't. Maybe they think there's already more than enough poetry to keep them busy.

Reginald Shepherd said...

I'm very happy to see the comments on this post, and I appreciate the substantive discussion of an important and, as Steve correctly notes, inadequately addressed issue.

I would like to remind everyone, though, to please keep the arguments on the level of ideas. If you wish to engage in personal sparring, please do so elsewhere.

Thanks for reading and commenting.


Steve Fellner said...

K. Silem Mohammad,

I think one of the problem with a lot of creative writing teachers is that there's still a desire to read everything in terms of "theme." The aboutness of the poems.

Which students are too comfortable to do. They'll tell you the poem is about "the loss of innocence" or "the need for the individual" in such a charmingly rote fashion that a lot of teachers falter in saying no, attempting to complicate the charmingly tidy and completely dangerous reading of the poem.

I teach undergraduate and graduate creative writing and we spend about four weeks of the course simply doing close readings of the poems. And one of the wonderful things about close reading is if you do it very closely, you and the class do come to the conclusion that not all poems can be read the same way and that some poems, in facta lot of poems, can't be glossed, paraphrased in the term sof psychogological realism.

And this causes a wonderful, scary frusteration in the classroom.

In fact, I tell my student, directing them to web magazines and websites to bring ina poem that intrigues them and confuses them a little. Or a lot. And usually, within that confusion is where happily the art lies and the real talk of poetry begins.

Steve Fellner

Henry Gould said...

If it were possible to teach people to write poetry...

it wouldn't be worth teaching them to write it.

It's the easiest thing and the hardest thing. It's the utterly impossible thing.

It's hopeless. Like climbing Mt. Everest. Don't EVER try it !!!

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Henry,

I'm not sure how to read the tone of your comment, which seems both jocular and serious. I do believe that creative writing can be taught, and taught successfully, just as Mount Everest can and has been climbed. Of the two, teaching creative writing is much the easier task, and requires less equipment.

I agree with Borges's contention that any intelligent person, given the proper training and education, can write at least one good poem. Not a great poem, not even necessarily what Jasper Bernes calls a "wonderful" poem, but at least a good one. I have seen students begin a semester writing abstract, vague, cliched, sentimental, and often ungrammatical work, and end the term with at least a couple of fully realized poems. If both teacher and student are dedicated and serious, patient with and demanding of one another, amazing things can happen.

Take good care. Thanks for reading and commenting.

all best,


Henry Gould said...

You've convinced me, Reginald. & that's not an easy thing to do. I'm still an adherent of the old "magical" school of poetry, & I've had, & expressed, many doubts about the practice of teaching it. But I think you're right. My remark about Everest was tongue-in-cheek (ie. "don't ever try it" was a dare, not a command).

I would guess many of the problems with MFA programs and college CW classes - some of which have been aired here - could be ameliorated through stronger, integrated writing/literature classes in primary & secondary school. I know from my own (fortunate) experience that students can emerge from high school already knowledgeable & experienced (to a degree, anyway) about poetry & writing poetry. If this were more widespread, it might resolve some of the therapeutic/vocational/developmental issues which have been raised here.

Reginald Shepherd said...

Dear Henry,

I'm happy to have been able to convince you. I think that you hit on a central issue when you point out the necessity of integrating reading and writing. Literature students would get a better feel for literature by experiencing it from the inside, as it were, and creative writing students need to be able to place their work in the larger context of the literary traditions if they are to achieve anything of consequence.

In every other discipline, it's assumed that one needs to learn the basic skills and techniques of the field in order to progress (no one is born knowing how to read music, or how to do calculus), while it's also understood that such knowledge is the necessary but not sufficient condition for any significant accomplishment.

In creative writing, however, there is either a dismissal of craft and, especially, of literary education, or a fetishization of craft, an idea that all one needs are the proper tools (usually much too limited a set) in order to produce real art. I think that it's this fetishization of craft and technique to which and against which K. Silem Mohammad is reacting.

But even within those terms, how many creative writing students are taught to be able to scan a sonnet, to understand the octave/sestet structure and the function of the turn, and to write a successful sonnet of their own? To scan and write blank verse? The techniques taught are, as I've said, very limited. And they are almost never placed in the context of literary history, or in an intellectual context that explores and demonstrates the interrelations of form and content, the ways in which form produces meaning.

The failings of many modes of teaching creative writing notwithstanding, students can indeed be taught to be better writers and better readers (the two are concomitant). No one can be taught to be a great writer, but no one can become a great writer without learning, formally or informally, to be a good or at least a better writer. There are many ways in which writers can acquire this necessary education; I see no reason why formal education in the practice should not be one of them.

Thanks again for reading and for your thoughtful and thought-provoking responses.

all best,


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