Monday, May 17, 2010

Poetry Pedagogy: The Essay That Started It All

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine told me about the poet, Taylor Mali, making an appearance at a conference in Texas; he's a spoken word artist I really admire. I figured I simply had to go - so I sent off a pretty tame abstract about how much I had learned in all of my years in creative workshops around the country. A few nights later, I asked myself, "What did you really learn in those workshops and what did you actually have to learn on your own?" Before I knew it, I was writing the essay that follows. I admit, the language may feel a bit combative and maybe creative writing classrooms around the country have moved on. Yet, I want you to know that if you have been frustrated in a creative writing class, you're probably not alone.

My goal, ultimately, with this project is to inspire creative writers to work harder at their craft and, honestly, for creative writing instructors to work harder for their students. One of my favorite instructors likes to say "students are fragile" and what she means is, as instructors, it is our duty to take care of them. They walk into our classrooms expecting us to give them the goods. We get that in other areas of English - we would never teach a literature class without assigning books to read or teach a composition class without a lot of writing assignments. Why, then, do some creative writing instructors put no effort into the lesson plan and structures of their classes? Our students cannot "find their voice" unless they are shown how. In this essay, I offer my humble suggestions.

But I've never been one to bitch without offering some sort of solution. This project is my solution. I am offering students all of the elements I describe in the essay below: exposure to the canonical poets and poets who are not canonical but skilled and worth looking into; exercises that demonstrate the way I think a class might be taught, balancing some lecture type stuff - history on a form, read through of a few example poems - and a structured walk-through of a form or a concept, sometimes both; serious modeling opportunities where we delve into the art of a particular poet and use that intensive study to improve our own work; examples of my own "shitty first drafts" (as Anne Lamott calls them). I want to offer a solid alternative to the workshop, so I also offer some details about the philosophy behind this method of pedagogy in the subsections of this introduction.

Here's the original essay I wrote just to meet Taylor Mali:

The Current Pedagogy of Poetry and a Call to Change Our Minds
 by J.D. Isip
“I’m writing the poem that will change the world,” Taylor Mali announces in his poem “Like Lilly Like Wilson.” The point of the poem, of course, is that it will not change the world; rather, it is Mali’s teaching of Lilly Wilson that is going to (or has the potential to) change the world. Creative writing instructors and poets (like Mali) know that poems do change the world. The world of creative writing would spin off of its axis if there were never a Milton or a Shakespeare or a Dickinson. These great (or “canonical”) poets, likewise, might never have existed if it weren’t for the teachers they found in books, if it wasn’t for their approach to poetry as an art form requiring practice, repetition, and perhaps more tenacity and tedium than exploration and expression. The poets who really changed the world with their poems either plied at their words in solitude or relied on the observations and suggestions of a trusted few – and most of these great poets would never have stepped foot into a “workshop” to build anything with a verse. Yet, for all that the creative writing instructors in classrooms today should know about the realities of the writing process of truly successful poets – beyond simply being published, but being remembered, being esteemed – the pedagogy of many (if not most) hardly reflects knowledge of or acquisition of the practices of “the greats.”
Many eschew the tradition and the canon because they believe this makes poetry more accessible (and, perhaps, doing so relieves them as educators of the task of keeping up with what is being written about these poets and, more importantly, what is being written about their poetry). Some instructors might ask their students to “try out” modeling poetry at home on their own time or they may not even bring up modeling at all because they find it boring (or, perhaps, it has been so long since they have done so themselves they fear they won’t know how to write a sonnet or a sijo – as if a few key strokes could not jog the memory – or, worse, they feel that modeling might alter what they have come to accept as “their style” of poetry). Many creative writing instructors seem to convince themselves that workshops are the best approach to teaching poetry writing because workshops are enjoyable (and they sure beat building a lesson plan or teaching a poet and his or her works). It feels as though these instructors have given up on the idea of writing poems that will change the world and, instead, they have adopted pedagogical practices that produce the poems that will be printed in the literary magazines that only a select few (mostly those in academe or poets themselves) will read. This is not to say that new poets are not often preoccupied with being published; they certainly are and, in part, the current pedagogy has been a reaction to this market demand. This is not to say that instructors completely forget Pound’s assertion that poets should strive to “make it new”; they must. However, in the light of a new decade, creative writing instructors might want to begin to look at the practices of poetry pedagogy with new eyes; we might find that it is time that to change the course of our pedagogy – revisit apprehensions about using the canon, distaste for modeling poetry, and overreliance on the workshop. In Mali’s poem, Lilly Wilson “changes her mind” and Mali reminds his readers that being able to change your mind is “one of the best ways of figuring out whether or not you still have one.”

The Uses of the Canon
             The focus here is not whether or not there should be a canon – that debate has kept many occupied for decades and is not likely to be solved in these few pages. The debate at hand, a much easier one, is whether or not the canon is useful in the teaching of poetry writing. Although Harold Bloom, with a fair amount of wailing and gnashing of teeth, sent the canon off to Avalon sixteen years ago, in many ways it feels like the canon still exists in the dark memories of poetry professors, teachers, and poets – a sort of bogeyman to avoid, one that will devour the creativity of a writer or the originality of her works. The canon, to many instructors, is a tyrant they escaped from and their pedagogy often betrays the very “anxiety of influence” whose existence they might be inclined to deny to their students. That influence, of course, does exist and poetry teachers can either choose to continue to plug their collective heads in the sand and send students into the world thinking that their “free verse” is so radically different from the Whitman and Ginsberg and Plath they were never exposed to in poetry writing classes which relied too heavily on the students’ own curiosity to lead her or him to the library or to the poetry websites like or The students who do show the initiative to find poetry on their own (and this is probably a small percentage of new poets who, again, are more interested in being known than in knowing others) are met with literally thousands of options and no one willing to help them wade through the mix – not the librarians or their peers and, sadly, not their poetry professors who seem to buy into this unfounded fear of influence. Indeed, those who fear their being taken over by or being too influence by Shakespeare, Donne, Keats and Eliot should be more concerned with the alarming number of “new” poets who sound more like Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, Philip Levine, and, thanks to her national stage, Elizabeth Alexander, or slam poets like Saul Williams, or famous people who “try out” poetry like Jewel and Henry Rollins – all of these latter poets the most likely to pass on from Canon-phobic instructor to Canon-ignorant student. These are teachers, lecturers, and guest speakers who churn out students who have often honed their craft to be pleasing to the instructor and their classmates in a workshop setting, never realizing that everyone is writing the same thing because they are all working off of the same standard. Students will “model” poets regardless of whether or not they are taught to do so, but at least teaching them how to do so consciously and helping them choose the poets who bring canonical richness, recognizable allusion, allows those students more control over their influences. Teachers and professors who find their students’ work sounding more and more like their own have seen the ugly step-child of the workshop – the “pleasing” poem. The practice of looking to the older poets has not been forgotten in the least, but it has become a practice of the cheapest type of imitation – imitation not done out of reverence for the work of a favorite poet, but imitation done out of the desire to sound like what gets published and wins prizes or, at the very least, to sound like what gets praised in the workshop setting.

On Reading Erasmus: A Personal Anecdote
After spending four or five years in workshop settings creating “pleasing” poetry, I met a Shakespearean professor, Dr. Laura Scavuzzo Wheeler, who decided to introduce the class to Erasmus’ Copia: Foundations of the Abundant Style and my practice of poetry (and, later, of teaching poetry) was never the same. Erasmus famously creates over a hundred alternate versions of the sentence “Your letter pleased me greatly” to demonstrate the faculty and range of language and, moreover, encourage writers to work out language in a series of exercises that required something almost unheard of in the modern workshop: a lot of repetitive and not-at-all sexy exercising of the mind (and not so much of “the soul”). Wheeler used Erasmus to show how Shakespeare, in his sonnets, is sometimes working out his mind in a similar way, changing out one metaphor for another, recycling a word or phrase, practicing the form over and over. We spent two classes working on the sonnet, hammering out the iambic and throwing every adjective at a line until one stuck with just the right rhythm. Where my classmates found the exercises juvenile and praised the heavens that poetry classes aren’t “done like that” anymore, I found myself mesmerized by the freedom of this type of play – not the kind of play we did in workshops where we waited for the approval of the majority in deciding what metaphor to keep and what allusion to cut – but the freedom of dressing up and undressing lines over and over until I found just the right fit, the fit that pleased me and me alone. I went back to the poets I was supposed to be afraid of because they were canonical, Whitman and Herbert in particular, and copied their work verbatim. Then I changed a line or two, then another and another. Soon I was finding my way into the thoughts of these poets as I imagined them (like Ginsberg in the supermarket), guessing at the motivations behind enjambments, and theorizing the reasons behind the layout and rhyme. Poetry was fascinating again.

The “Art” in Poetry Pedagogy
            Those interested in becoming artists are asked to sketch innumerable figure studies, fruit bowls, and geometric figures. Those interested in becoming chefs will be asked to poach eggs, cut vegetables, and stir sauces for months (or years!) before they are ever given a kitchen of their own. This makes sense. It seems that it is easy to appreciate the time it takes to master technique in just about everything… but poetry. Poetry instructors are inclined to tell students that poetry is a truth that is born in us and those students are just as likely to be Arthur Rimbaud or John Keats as anyone else. No one wants students to become discouraged by thinking of poetry as “an art” – one that, like painting and cooking, takes practice and dedication. Students are rarely introduced to poets like Browning, Eliot, Yeats, or Auden, who wrote both lovely and reverent verse that could not be dreamt up without a fair amount of study of earlier poets and an understanding of rhyme and meter (even if they chose on occasion to use neither). Creative writing instructors largely ignore the canon – it is ominous and overwhelming, it is contradictory and convoluted, and, in postmodern terminology, it is a center instructors would rather not adhere to, a tower they have been meaning to topple since their own professors told them it was their duty to do so. Perhaps some of those instructors feel like failures when they decide to reconsider that tower and all those “dead white men” (and many others who have joined them, guilty of being esteemed for the greatness of their work) because, try as they have to do right by the postmodern gods and their own instructors, they have not killed the canon; they have only produced hordes of young poets who are not better than their predecessors not because they could not “out do” Ovid, Milton, and Brecht, but because they were largely ignorant that there ever was an Ovid, Milton, or Brecht before them.
The truth that seems to have escaped some well-meaning instructors in their attempts to “protect” students from the canon, is that it may not be what the experienced poet wants or needs, but is exactly what students new to writing need to become the poets that they are dreaming of becoming. These students need models not to be the winners of popularity contests in the workshop or “contest” winners, largely the progeny of nepotism (who were briefly revealed in the days of but who continue to proliferate in the ever-tightening circle of those who are thought of as today’s “real poets” in academia). In contrast, Shakespeare looked to Ovid and Seneca, not Jonson and Spenser, Whitman to the Romantics, not Longfellow and Poe. The “greats” over and over again, looked beyond their contemporaries (in time and space, or both) into the rich past and vast spectrum to find ways to make it new. With just about every canonical work available by ways of search engine, students have the opportunity to commiserate with the greats in the same way that Kerouac and Pound did with Basho, the same way that Mary Oliver does with Emerson and Rumi. Instructors in the creative writing classroom can and should embrace this abundant resource and find ways to guide students to poets they might be impressed by or poets who might challenge their current styles and sensibilities. One of my mentors, Frank X. Gaspar, did this by noting my love for Biblical allusions and he pointed me in the direction of George Herbert and the other so-called metaphysical poets. On the other end of the spectrum, my graduate advisor, Irena Praitis, challenged my leanings towards male poets by introducing me to the works of Emily Dickinson, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and the Brontë sisters, and by challenging me to at least “try out” Gertrude Stein. These mentors dared to use the canon with me and trust the canon to do with me what it would. Will this make his poetry sound too much like Dickinson or look like Herbert on the page? they must have thought, but it seems they were willing to take that risk in order to make me a better poet.
Make no mistake about it – teaching with the canon is risky. It can become tempting to turn a writing class into a literature class, and an instructor can end up spending more time talking about the works of these “great” poets rather than the works of the students. Of course, the benefits of helping to “create” a more informed and most likely better poet in each student would seem to outweigh this initial risk. With the canon, students are taken out of the present poetry world overpopulated by the enigmatic drivel so obsessed with being new that it, as Ginsberg put it, “forgets it was a flower” or, worse, poetry about barn owls and menstrual cycles so resigned with being pleasing or clever that it fails to be the kind of poetry Dickinson knew, the type that would “take the top of someone’s head off.” The poetry that fits what Ginsberg and Dickinson were talking about is well-known to most poetry writing teachers and professors; they know it because it is the kind of poetry they are often required to teach in literature courses, poetry that has moved readers and writers for generations. What can a student learn from these poets and their poems?  What better teacher of narrative than Chaucer or Frost? Who better to demonstrate the beauty of a “wandering thought” than Wordsworth or Yeats? Who better to teach economy of words than William Carlos Williams or bravado than John Donne? Most instructors grew up with the canon, whether they like to admit it or not, and it shaped their poetry as much as it shaped them. Yet, they are haunted by their own professors and postmodern/deconstructionist theorists who tell them not to be a slave to the canon (all essentially trading one tyrant for the next). Perhaps it is better to live at a cautious peace with the canon – let it work for the instructor as a tool and let it work for the student by teaching them how to do the same.

Top Chef: A Model for Modeling
The easiest way to take advantage of the canon is to use it for modeling and imitation. Recently, the reality/competition show on Bravo, Top Chef, had a challenge for the aspiring “chef-testants” wherein they were to taste the food of an established and well-loved master chef and replicate his food without the recipe. The junior chefs did not gripe about not being able to show their originality or personality, but all were excited about showing off their abilities – their superiority in taste and execution. In the creative writing classroom, instructors almost always have the advantage of “taste” simply by being exposed to much more varieties of poetry than their students. It is assumed that poetry instructors who have read both good and bad poetry (and lots of each) are more or less able to make some rudimentary distinctions between the two. Students have every reason to expect this when they come into a creative writing classroom – as much as they would assume their American Literature instructor would know more than them about Twain and Melville. Students, particularly novice writers in undergraduate courses, are looking for the most basic kind of guidance. Far too often, though, students are only introduced to the art of writing poetry through the workshop. It is assumed at the outset of the workshop that every participating student can write, though most would point out that they are taking the class specifically because they have decided – valid or not – that they cannot write or they feel that they can improve. Considering current K-12 curriculum in the United States, there is no reason at all to assume that students come to a creative writing classroom with any knowledge whatsoever of how to even approach poetry. Most freshmen would be at a complete loss if they were asked, for example, to explicate something as simple as Marianne Moore’s “Poetry” (let’s say the shortest version) or Theodore Roethke’s “My Papa’s Waltz.” Students who cannot even begin a conversation about poetry can hardly be expected to write it with the same amount of success as those who have had exposure, those who have become familiar with what is out there and available. Well-meaning instructors want to encourage students to “break all the rules” without ever explaining what those rules might be.
Exercise and repetition are desperately needed in most poetry classrooms. It is not enough to let new poets run wild with their imagination in “free writing” assignments, but instructors have to challenge students with structures like form and meter and allow those students the opportunity to decide when they are good and ready to throw off the chains of such restrictions. For the most part, poetry instructors are asking their students to do the Top Chef equivalent of cooking up a five course meal without ever giving them a pot to boil water in. It is the job of the poetry instructor to do the “work” of having students write and rewrite Bishop’s “One Art” or Kipling’s “If -” until they have something new to say about these poems, until they feel like they understand how the poet was feeling when she and he wrote the lines. It is the job of the instructor to take a note from Erasmus and have the students write and rewrite a sonnet, then a pantoum, then a sestina, then a rondeau, and maybe do the whole set over again later in the semester. Students may hate the exercises and they may, momentarily, hate the instructor, but this is the hard part of teaching in any classroom, creative or not. Teaching isn’t all about the ways an instructor can let students dream and create - though that is certainly important – but it is how they also make those students really work at their craft, how the instructor forces his or her students to push their thoughts and ideas further than they believed they could. A poetry writing class should be as exhausting mentally as a cooking course is for a chef. Besides, if a student does end up hating poetry as a result of the arduous practice, this would allow an instructor the opportunity to send that student away with a copy of Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet and remind that student that those who are not willing to work at their craft should probably avoid the profession altogether. As for those students who remain, the following semesters with them might prove to be more fruitful for the hard work they put into reading many, many poets and, perhaps most importantly, writing many, many modeled and structured poems. It is likely that modeling would be less useful in the graduate atmosphere and certainly in an MFA program (though, honestly, it couldn’t hurt), which is where the workshop – oft derided in this article – is really the best fit.

Okay Workshop: A Pact
Most of the tone here may seem a bit harsh in regards to the traditional workshop setting (as it has been handed down from Iowa and, most notably, Wilbur Schramm and Paul Engle), but this is only concerning poetry writing classrooms for inexperienced writers, mostly undergraduates, and certainly freshmen. The workshop in these instances, which constitute the majority of poetry writing classes on most college and university campuses, is simply inappropriate in its present form as a round table of writers commenting on a packet of works from other writers, all taking their cue from the instructor. Workshops, therefore, at the freshman and sophomore level should be expunged from the curriculum and only introduced in the latter portions of junior and senior poetry writing classes. No distinction can or should be made between particularly skilled students, honors students, or English majors. At the undergraduate level, educators are responsible for providing tools, and, in the case of the poetry writing instructor, those tools are rhyme, meter, rhythm, cadence, metaphor, a thousand other tricks of the trade, acquaintance with the current poetry scene, guidance through the submission/rejection process, and an introduction to as large a portion of the canon as is possible (and useful). In a traditional workshop of twenty people, the class might spend an entire week going over one packet of poems, perhaps even two weeks. This is a waste of money for every student involved. They are reading works by untrained poets and offering untrained commentary. Those paying good money to be “chefs” are relegated to being customers of the restaurant; they have no idea what duck confit is because they never get to taste it, so they nibble on Kentucky Fried Chicken and comment on whether or not it is better than Popeye’s Fried Chicken. This being said, the workshop does offer a wonderful setting for the experienced.
There are countless examples of poets and writers who have served one another in the workshop setting, in addition to the famous names from the now infamous Iowa Writers’ Workshop. One need only look to the famous alliances of Eliot and Pound or Kerouac and Ginsberg or the circle of “confessional poets” or those who were part of the Harlem Renaissance or the members of the Bloomsbury Group to see that the exchange of ideas between artists is incredibly beneficial. However, within these particular groups, the beginners and novices are few and far between (though there are some in each group). These groups are composed of individuals who had, for whatever reason, staked a claim in the art form of writing. These individuals would sharpen one another because they could offer informed commentary – they could spot a misattributed quote or reference different versions of a famous tale that was alluded to so that they might, for instance, decide which Achilles Auden is referencing or which prophet Hughes is attempting to mimic. Sometimes their sharpening didn’t come from education at all – Ginsberg would tell Kerouac if something just didn’t sound like him, and, likewise, Lowell and Bishop would push one another to simply try harder. The “workshops” with the most potential seem to be those which gather a greater number of professionals than beginners, which is why the workshop seems to be ideal for graduate level work. Those in MA, MFA, and PhD programs have informed commentary to offer and their work (though not always) is likely intricate and layered, sumptuous… like a meal prepared by an experienced chef. Certainly they hope all will tastes and all will enjoy, but they are really looking for the approval of those who know what is good, their peers – not other students, but other poets.
This Is Just to Say
In his book The Sounds of Poetry, Robert Pinsky informs his readers that they can “enhance [their] pleasure in poetry through knowledge of a few basic principles and their tremendous effects.” It seems so simple – that establishing some basis, some common ground allows for a better appreciation of poetry and the art of producing that poetry. Yet, the current pedagogy of poetry has moved so far, it seems, away from those “basic principles” that most poetry students would hardly recognize them, much less know how to utilize those principles. Creative writing teachers didn’t go off course for any diabolical reason. In fact, the mergence of the workshop in lower-division creative writing classes and the state of poetry pedagogy today are results of instructors with very good intentions. They wanted students to fall in love with poetry, so they made it palatable; they focused on the exploration rather than the exercise. Professors wanted students to get their works published, so they turned the workshop into a place to make “publishable” poems; they focused on pleasing rather than blowing off the tops of people’s heads. This is just to say that those good intentions may still produce – and have produced – some of the best poets writing today; those good intentions may have created some of the best creative writing classrooms available today. The truth is, there is really no singular model for the perfect creative writing classroom. That being said, those who teach others how to write, how to create poetry and become poets, should reconsider just how much effort it takes to create a syllabus around a “workshop” style classroom and challenge themselves, for their students’ sake, to try a little harder. After all, what that student is taught determines, in large part, who that budding poet becomes, and eventually, how that instructor changed the world.

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