Friday, November 05, 2010

So with what does one fill those 10,000 hours or ten years or twenty years or the instant karma of genius?

I like, I mean I really like, to read short takes on what poets think about writing poems. A book like the recent Poets on Teaching, then, is pretty much tailor made for me. It’s the perfect bedside book. Something to dip in and out of. I’ve read through it, and now I’m making a second pass, taking notes. I thought I might as well start putting some of them up on the blog.

I like the conception of the creative writing class as less interested in “writing poems” as a definition for what’s going on, and more toward what Eleni Sikelianos describes as “establishing a collective, collaborative space in which we can explore some of the edges of our interior conditions . . . as well as engage in documentary . . . experiments, and to test those edges against what previous poets have done.”

Definition is important. Sikelianos’s above description might sound to some like “writing poems,” and I’m sure what comes out of the class most often looks like poems, but the openness in defining the endeavor is foundationally important. What language one uses in describing what the class is up to becomes the language the class lives and works by / with / through.

Do anything long enough and there's a tradition.

She goes on: “What I want to steer them away from is ‘product’; what I want to steer them toward is an exploration of consciousness (whatever that term may mean).”

What she also stresses, in the midst of this consciousness exploration, is reading “what previous poets have done,” as she continues: “I also want to steer them toward as least a rough grasp of twentieth century poetry . . . with some indication of writers from other parts of the world, and I want them to know where to go to continue their readings.”

It seems that’s one thing that links nearly every conception of a creative writing class or education: reading. And usually reading a lot (hence all these 10,000 hours and ten-year admonitions). It gets me to wondering how much and what sort of outside poetry people bring into creative writing classes. I, like Sikelianos, have a fondness for anthologies more like the Norton Anthology of Post-Modern Poets over more “canonical” anthologies such as the Norton anthology Modern Poems, for instance. I just find that students usually have a rough grasp of Stevens, Eliot, WCW, Frost, up through Plath, Lowell, Sexton and more recent poets such as Olds, Dove, Strand, and etcetera when they arrive. I feel I can do the most help be bringing in an alternate tradition. But, again like Sikelianos, I’m concerned mainly with the twentieth and the twenty-first centuries. Starting roughly with 1911, for me. Even narrowing it down to that, I find that there’s not a whole lot of depth I can approach, as I want to spend most of our time talking about their writing processes and what other poets are doing right now. The call of the right now is loud, and for good reason, as the right now is where we are, what we’re joining. But the right now is transitory and is comes out of and is tied to a just then that is also very important. Such things bother me, and why I’m sympathetic to conceptions of art production that are heavy on reading what came before, even as my classes do little of it.

Given that, how far back should or could a creative writing class reach for examples? It’s important, in the abstract, for poets to read as much as is possible, from all eras and locations, but any real attempt at completeness fails in the face of time. Silliman, in a rather antic move, writes that “you need to be able to trace the history of this landscape backward at least two hundred years . . . . I’d argue that you need to know enough Middle English to reach Chaucer in the original . . . . If you can’t, you haven’t read enough, written enough, thought hard enough.”

I will therefore admit that I haven’t read enough, written enough, or thought hard enough. I, like most of us, have a long way to go.

I like Bin Ramke’s take on the issue:

“The process of teaching writing is a process of introducing the student to him or herself, to her own concerns and intentions, and then of challenging the student to confront what these concerns and intentions might mean in a larger (social, cultural, aesthetic) context, and how those concerns and intentions fit into some sort of artistic continuum—a tradition, if you wish.”

I like the “introduction” quality of it, and the generality of “artistic continuum,” where genre (among other things) is downplayed.

Now I’ve got to go. As they say: “In hel ne purgatoré non other plase!”

Tradition is like a plant. Most of it is underground.


At 11/06/2010 7:20 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

I haven't taught creative writing since I was in an MFA program--since I inflicted my tedious "poems" on other pretentious ignorami circle-jerking their egos and entertaining the delusion that they were poets. I'm sure I was farcically inept. Now that I'm a middle-aged failure who realizes too late that he should have done something useful with his life, I think I could teach cw much better. I'd like to take students way back, take them where they wouldn't go of their own accord. Make them read John Lydgate, scan Herrick. Make them write in a complicated form from Herbert or Hardy (Roethke recommended this). Make a student study his antipodes. When I was a snot-nosed Reagan-era poetaster, I was attracted to passion and baroque extravagance (e.g., Dylan Thomas and Charles Wright), so someone should have advised me to read rational and plain-style poetry (e.g., Auden and Stafford). But I probably wouldn't have taken the advice.

This blog is a great place to go when I'm avoiding grading papers...

At 11/06/2010 8:30 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I have a little pile of first-year composition papers I need to get to, so my sympathies are extended.

Question: where does "poetaster" come from? I see it used but have no idea of the derivation. Is it poet + taster? I guess to say that the person is not a deep poet, but a dabbler?

Auden has some wonderfully irrational moments. For me, that's what saves him. And Wright and Thomas have some flatly rational moments ("Do what the clouds do" from Wright, is simply a wonderful line). The opposite move completes the move. Or something like that?

At 11/06/2010 1:21 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

I guess "aster" means either star or kindasorta. Like "He's a poetkindasorta." Or maybe type. "He's a poet-type." Ever notice that a fake poet or poetry event sycophant is often called a poet-type? I guess a small asteroid could be called an asteroidaster.

I find much of Auden impressive in a slightly boring eighteenth-century way, but I respond to almost everything by Wright. I've been haunted by "Dead Color" for years, especially that echo of Blake: "Between the grey spiders and the orange spiders." I was delighted when I read that Wright intended it as an anti-poem with "no point of reference," "no bobbin on which the whole poem is wound"!


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