Some of the discussion in Joshua Corey's recent posts of creative writing's function as an affirmation of the self, and particularly his quote from a long and eloquent email message from the fine poet G.C. Waldrep, author of Goldbeater's Skin, regarding creative writing pedagogy, has prompted me to post this excerpt from a longer piece I have written on the teaching of creative writing. I hope that it will prove illuminating or at least interesting.
Many students attend college for no reason other than having been told that is what they should do after high school, and perhaps with the hope that they will make more money if they have a college degree. They tend to feel simultaneously resentful (“Here I am stuck in this stupid class”) and entitled (“I’m not in high school anymore, now I’m an adult”). Students often see creative writing classes as the antithesis to their other classes, in which they are forced to absorb and regurgitate all kinds of information in which they have no personal interest or investment. In a creative writing class, they can be themselves, because anything goes in a poem. (The idea that they might not yet have "selves" to "be" does not occur to them, nor does the idea that selfhood might be a process of becoming, not a fixed state of being.) Concomitantly, they also believe that poetry is too subjective to judge, because it’s all opinion and personal preference.
To acknowledge that personal preference and opinion are always factors while still maintaining that specificity, particularity of image and language, precision, concision, and avoidance of cliché are aspects of all good poetry (as sometimes needs to be pointed out, vagueness is not a style) sometimes seems beyond them, especially since they are convinced and have often been taught that if they think something then it must be true. (One great problem in American education isn’t what students don’t know, but what they know that isn’t true.) My partner has a bumper sticker on his office door that reads “Don’t believe everything you think.” It’s a caution that many might profitably take to heart.
We live in a culture which robs people of social, political, and economic agency, making them feel as if their experience counts for nothing, while simultaneously insisting that everyone’s every passing notion and experience is of supreme importance because it happened to them. These two aspects are concomitant with one another, the second offering an imaginary (that is, an ideological) compensation for the first. Much of the boom both in creative writing programs and in slam poetry, performance poetry, stand-up poetry, and the like, has more to do with a cult of the public performance of personality (á la Oprah Winfrey and Jerry Springer), on the one hand, and with the scarcity of outlets for genuine feeling and expression in our society and an ever-increasing sense of the impotence and insignificance of the individual, on the other hand, than with an interest in poetry as an art form.
The turn to creative writing, and to versions of poetry in particular, is a way of saying “I matter” in a wholly ritualized and conventionalized format, and is wholly understandable (if somewhat misdirected) as such. But again, this has to do not with an interest in the art of poetry, but rather with a sense that poetry is a mode of personal expression unsullied by commerce or social constraints. (And of course poems are shorter and thus apparently easier to write than novels or even short stories, another aspect of their appeal in a society that seeks quick results but shuns effort.) So the recent rise in the popularity of poetry doesn’t contradict poetry’s marginality in our culture any more than does the use of the word “poetry” as an all-purpose honorific: Michael Jordan, as they say, was poetry in motion on the basketball court. I prefer to think that poetry is poetry and basketball is basketball. Indeed, it is one of the functions of art to help us see things as and for themselves.
Canonical poetry, or literary poetry, or Modernist poetry, or post-Modernist poetry, or any poetry grounded in a practice of language and of writing as such, rather than one of personal expressivity and/or identity confirmation, still isn’t much read. Rather, it is disdained as one or another variety of stiff academicism, insular, "elitist" and oppressive, as opposed to the authentic expression of slam poetry or some similar construction. In this model, “creativity” is just another commodity which anyone can procure, on credit if necessary.