Oct 242003

Erin O’Connor favorably cites this piece from the poet Tom Henihan, slagging poetry workshops. Henihan writes:

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.

Erin glosses:

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.)

  18 Responses to “School of Poetry”

  1. The difference between teaching calculus and poetry is students of calculus can and do fail. The way poetry is taught now, the only way a student can fail (maybe) is to not attend and to not turn in any work.

    I am agreed that teaching poetry right serves a useful purpose. What it can’t do is make a non-poet into a poet. It can help anyone understand poetry better (to the degree it can be "understood"), and it can help a poet become a better poet, sometimes. It can probably at least help a poet become a better poetic technician.

    The three exercises you gave are not what one finds at these poetry workshops, on the whole.

  2. Dan: Why the scare quotes for "understood"? In one narrow sense the deconstructionists are correct: poetry, like all art, lives only in the mind of its audience. (They are deeply wrong in supposing that all readings are equally "privileged.") A poem exists precisely insofar as it is understood. I’d love to ask Milton what the "two-handed engine" in Lycidas is, but we’ll probably never know. Part of Lycidas has effectively disappeared forever.

    Incidentally, in my poetry class people would flunk, for sure.

  3. A,
    Apart from the "teaching of craft" function there is one aspect of poetry seminars that was omitted from both of your original sources- cross pollination of ideas. Poetry seminar, in traditional way it is arranged, consist of one-two advanced poets and more or less "school" of followers/students, adapting for their writing philosophy of the circle, even if individual style and/or technical abilities differ dramatically. I agree that formal seminars, if they were taught in the manner of exercises you provide (of course, I can only base this opinion on Russian tradition, due to my lack of knowledge of English poetry) can only teach technical proficiency. Informal"school of poetry, with numerous examples in history, (which I am sure you can think of loads more than me- with your erudition) triggers something of resonance effect in aspiring poets. What would become of Tsvetaeva without her summers at Cocktebel in Maximilian Voloshin "pension of poets"? – even though Voloshin himself is a much lesser poet. Or Achmatova without Gumilev’s "Shop of Poets", even if other students, like Odoevtseva, etc- never made it into even 3rd row. Or Brodsky and Naiman without their informal communication with Achmatova in her late years. Etc, etc.

    On the other hand, some poets, by sheer determination, don’t need to be influenced and schooled and are able to learn techniques by themselves and even invent new poetic form (Mayakovsky and Chlebnikov), but that’s an exception conforming general rule.

  4. Well, part of what makes poetry, and all art, interesting, is that when it attains the status of "great" there’s something ineffable about it. Thus the quotes. Much poetry can be understood. Some can only be understood to a small degree; it just works, and does so for a wide audience across time and space.

    Poetry is what gets lost in translation partly because of this. It’s pretty durned hard to translate what you don’t understand. Of course, there are sound elements that can’t survive the transference from one language and culture to another also, and allusions, and a few hundred other things, but I can argue that all of these participate in the pool of things we rarely completely understand about poems.

    Good criticism manages to shine a light into another dark corner of a poem, helping us understand a bit more. Great criticism brightens the whole room, but there are still shadows. I have a suspicion that completely understanding a great poem might destroy its greatness. That is not an argument for ignorance, however, just an observation. It’s unlikely to happen.

  5. I believe the Dowland line is "Fine knacks for ladies cheap, choice, brave, and new" (not "true"). Since I don’t entirely trust web texts — most of the Latin ones are very poorly proofread –, I checked the liner notes of a Dowland CD, and they also give "new", not "true". Besides, "new" makes a lot more sense.

  6. Weev: You are correct. That’s what I get for not looking up the line first. It’s now corrected in the text, with a credit to you of course.

  7. Is there a case to made that only craft, and not art, can be taught? I’ve never been able to put my finger on that special something that turns the one into the other. What makes craft take the leap? And can you have art without craft? (Tom Stoppard, who called contemporary art "imagination without skill," seems to imply that you can.) I write for a living; I work hard to be a competent craftsman, but have no hope of being an artist. Aaron, I’d go to your class.

  8. Aaron’s Sister wrote:

    Is there a case to made that only craft, and not art, can be taught? I’ve never been able to put my finger on that special something that turns the one into the other. What makes craft take the leap? And can you have art without craft? (Tom Stoppard, who called contemporary art "imagination without skill," seems to imply that you can.) I write for a living; I work hard to be a competent craftsman, but have no hope of being an artist.

    A case to be made "that only craft, and not art, can be taught"? It’s the only case, breathless equalitarian notions to the contrary notwithstanding. And, yes, one can have art without craft. Perhaps the most clear example in the domain of literature, for instance, is Emily Bront, a genius writer almost immaculate of craft, as opposed to sister Charlotte who had almost nothing but.

    With your,

    [What is] that special something that turns the one [craft] into the other [art][?] What makes craft take the leap?

    we’re solidly (so to speak) in the realm of the metaphysical. There exists not a dividing line nor a gap between the one and the other, but a virtual chasm of infinite breadth which no after-the-fact bridge, no matter how well designed or constructed, can possibly span.

    Genuine artists and idiots are born, not made. Such has been the witness of history, ab aeterno.


  9. I’m no equalitarian, as AC knows, but genius, whatever that may be (and there’s an interesting book to be written about the history of the term), just isn’t enough. Hart Crane may have had more poetic talent than anyone in the last hundred years, but his adherence to half-digested Emersonian ideas made a hash of his poetry. Wuthering Heights would be a far more satisfactory novel if Emily had absorbed a bit of Charlotte.

  10. Wuthering Heights would be a far more satisfactory novel if Emily had absorbed a bit of Charlotte.

    Indeed it would be.

    I wasn’t by any stretch advocating neglecting craft, even by genius. I was simply highlighting the distinction, and the impossibility of converting the one to the other after the fact.


  11. I should have added to my last that in this matter the very idea of conversion is fundamentally flawed. Conversion has nothing whatsoever to do with the thing.


  12. It may be possible to have genius without technical skill (I’ll defer to ACD on this). But it seems to me that many of the artists I hear about in the media these days have neither. Anybody else remember Cristo and his yellow umbrellas?

  13. It is possible–and necessary–to teach the workings of poetry, but I strongly doubt teaching how to write verse is a sound suggestion. The type of understanding that can be taught is analytical and involves analytical means; understanding a work of art as a living whole can’t be taught this way, if at all.

  14. Alex(ei)–

    Then composers shouldn’t study harmony? After all, such analytical study can’t lead to understanding of the living whole of a concerto.

    It astonishes me that, unlike any other art, people think that poetry can be made without studying technique.

  15. Michael,

    As I have said, it is necessary to study the workings of poetry — and as long as aspiring poets understand that, there should be demand for proper instruction. That is the analytical approach to understanding poetry. I do not question its value. Moreover, I am ready to presume a synthetic approach to composing verse can also result in decent output.

    Still, this approach has limitations because there is another side to understanding art in general. Call it intuitive or direct. If one lacks a faculty to perceive a "thing of beauty" in its entirety, one must be unable to appreciate it in the way most of us, I suppose, believe we are able to.

    That faculty can be developed through practice, but from at least a microscopic germ. What is the point of teaching harmony to the hopelessly tone-deaf?

  16. Although I’ve had many poems published in literary journals here in Ireland and the UK I feel the lack of a training in traditional forms. I don’t necessarily want to write in these forms – some of them set my teeth on edge – but I guess learning them would teach me something about sound and rhythm. Basically, I suppose I want to know I can write in these forms before I abandon them and take with me whatever I’ve learned.

  17. Do these lessons in poetry (workshops) help to give you a yardstick of your own abilities? Writing to thin air for lack of public interest leaves just dribbling on a page that even history will walk away from, thats if any body cares to save that scrap of paper on life’s floor. Learning the ways of past poets not only gives you an insight into the common concepts of poetry but also into what has been considered good or an interesting form. Having a group tear each other’s wordy throats out also might help you to start to look at your own work in a more remote manor. Instead of Aunt Mays opinion of her families genius you may get a valid measure of your abilities based on seeing and understanding the works of others past present and if lucky the future?
    There are also other aspects such as where do I find like-minded people? The places that don’t have the poet’s interest at heart, the more public ones allow you to start moving into the circles where real knowledge and interest can be found simply from the word of mouth within them. Though a poorly run course can be very damaging but it can make you question? I’m new to all this so I’m asking not telling? I dont know if I’m a poet, a writer of prose. Or just driftwood of life!

  18. I facilitate a group of adults in re-hab. I am supposed to teach but do not attempt even the basics of creative writing which is the title of the course. I simple devise ways to get them to write automatically-beneath the circuits of the habitual mind – and they do fiercely, imaginatively and often with flashes of brilliance.

    I get more shivers up the spine in one two hour session than I have experienced in many poetry events.

    In nearly two years not one of the very mixed and oft changing group has called himself or herself a poet. There have been a few songwriters and a couple of aspiring journalists but never a self styled poet.

    These people, of varying ages and from a wide variety of backgrounds, are facing their demons moment by agonizing moment. The results are never dull and hardly ever sentimental or trite.

    Without this group many would not write at all. I tell them the two hour sessions are in no way therapy but they have told me that the process of writing freely has given them insights into their lives that many hours of so called therapy have not.

    I believe that so called poetry classes would better serve their group members if they made it clear that the time in the group was simply time given to write and share, if they wish.

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