The teaching of poetry has become epidemic. The question of having the “gift” never comes up; the assumption being that poetry can be acquired like everything else. I have to say that the poets who head up these little retreats are very sensitive, preferring to lie rather than give any genuine criticism that may offend the student. You see they must keep these aspiring poets coming back, year after year, stanza after stanza, by shamelessly lending credence to the most flat literal efforts. I have yet to meet anyone who has been told the truth about their work (good or bad) at one of these little soires in the woods.
The blame shouldnt go so much to the hapless souls that sign-up for these exercises but to the purveyors of snake oil that put them on. I am not suggesting that poets cannot teach one another a trick or two, but taking 10 to 15 aspirants to a nunnery in Sooke for a 3-day workshop is so sweet it could make one cry. It goes up against everything radical, wild and individual in poetry. These people would be better served and brought closer to poetry if they got drunk, got laid, or went dancing.
Henihan may come off as a snob at first glance. He may come off as one of those vaguely anti-intellectual artistes who hold critics and teachers–the people who try to analyze the why and the how of their art–in unapologetic contempt. But to read his essay that way would be to miss the point. There are some things that cannot be taught. Inspiration is one, creativity is another, having a “feel” for language a third. Skills can be taught, and those are certainly necessary if one wants to be a writer of any caliber. But too often creative writing courses are about far more than the teaching of skills–there is a dishonesty to them, as Henihan notes. Their premise is that everyone enrolled in the course can write; their guiding principle is that deep down, we all have a poet or a novelist in us just waiting to come out. We don’t.
Doing original mathematics requires inspiration, creativity, a “feel” for numbers, all the mysterious qualities that Erin posits for poets; yet no one would dream of saying that teaching calculus to a class of sub-Eulers and sub-Gausses is useless. Why, then, is there no point in teaching poetry to a class of sub-Jonsons and sub-Dickinsons? Poetry is every bit as technical as car repair, and poets, like car mechanics, need to know what they’re doing. The byways of literary history are crowded with talented poets who damaged themselves with technical misunderstandings and home-grown metrical theories. Gerard Manley Hopkins, with his theory of “sprung rhythm” and “outrides” and his belief that there can be five-syllable feet in English, is the most famous case. Hopkins’ problem was assuredly not that he didn’t get drunk, get laid, or go dancing, although by all accounts, being a Jesuit priest, he didn’t.
Good poets need good models, and most modern poets are bad because their models are bad. Trying to write like William Carlos Williams is hopeless unless you’re William Carlos Williams. Trying to write like Walt Whitman is hopeless even if you are Walt Whitman. Trying to write like John Milton, whose virtues are unique but whose vices are easily imitated, set English poetry back about a hundred years.
I’ve never attended a poetry “workshop,” and I stipulate that they are as ghastly as Henihan says. My poem’s OK, your poem’s OK. The fact that poetry is often taught badly, however, does not mean it cannot be taught at all. If I had a two-week poetry workshop to teach, I guarantee that I would improve the poetry of everyone in the class. Or your money back, no questions asked.
Here are my first three assignments, for those of you following at home.
1. No one who can’t read poetry has any business writing it, and you have not read a poem properly unless you can paraphrase it. Of course the meaning of a poem does not consist entirely of its paraphrasable content; if it did we wouldn’t need the poem. But the paraphrase remains the indispensable baseline. Paraphrase the following three poems: in order of increasing difficulty, Ben Jonson’s To Heaven, John Donne’s Valediction: Of My Name in the Window, and Fulke Greville’s Down in the depths. When you finish this assigment you will understand that poems can argue, with great complexity, and that great poetry is possible with a minimum of imagery, or none whatsoever. These three poems make Ezra Pound’s petals on a wet black bough seem like a pretty pallid affair.
2. Now it’s time to develop a little respect for traditional forms. Find two perfectly regular iambic pentameter lines — no substitutions, no elisions — that differ as far as possible from each other rhythmically. Meter is simply the background, the bass line, as it were, against which the movement of the line takes place. This assignment will turn your attention to syllable length, caesura placement, strength of accent, and all the other aspects of rhythm that make lines move the way they do. It will prove especially useful to people like Ron Silliman, who sneer at “tub-thumping iambic pentameter” as if all metrically identical lines sound alike, or K. Silem Mohammed, who is so bored by meter that he’s going to hold his breath until he turns blue. To get you started I’ll do this one myself. The first line is from the 16th century, Dowland’s Songbook; the second is from the 20th, Wallace Stevens’ Sunday Morning. They are both regular pentameter lines.
Fine knacks for ladies — cheap, choice, brave, and new!
The world is like wide water, without sound.
Mike Snider has also already completed it.
3. Write three poems in rigid forms. Begin with the easiest, an Elizabethan sonnet, next a rondeau, and finally a villanelle. This will be graded strictly on its adherence to the form in question. Don’t worry that the poems are bad: they will be bad. Attend instead to the way formal demands concentrate the mind. You can’t say exactly what you want because it won’t fit. You begin to revise it until it will fit. Then, if you work at it enough, you find that your revision is better — more precise, more compressed, more poetic — than what you thought you wanted to say in the first place. Poets who always compose in slack meters cannot grasp this process, which is how all great poetry is forged.
(Update: Mike Snider comments. George Wallace comments. Nate Bruinooge comments. Jim Henley reports from the belly of the beast. PF, who seems to know a great deal about Russian poetry, comments. Desbladet comments.)
(Further: Dr. Weevil notes that I misquoted the Dowland line. This has been corrected. Two lines of verse in the damn post, and I get one of them wrong.)