Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Conversation I'm SO Done With . . .

. . . but I keep coming back to anyway.

The conversation regarding the teaching of creative writing (can it or can’t it be taught/ should it or shouldn’t it be taught) comes and goes. I was thinking we were in a fallow period, but then I came across this, and it reminded me how this conversation is always back at square one.

Still and all, I’m continually surprised that this conversation has to keep happening. But it does. As long as people keep giving platforms to those who argue against the teaching of creative writing, then articles like this will continue to be necessary.

Must we, though, have this conversation again? Really, must we? It reminds me of the wonderful exchange between Frank O’Hara and Jack Kerouac that John Ashbery read from a letter O’Hara wrote him in the early 60s. It was recounting a reading, where O’Hara was at the podium. It was a raucous event. And there was Jack Kerouac being Jack Kerouac.

Kerouac: O’Hara! You’re killing poetry!

O’Hara: That’s more than you ever did for it, Jack Kerouac.

Yes. That’s my metaphor of the day, and probably my favorite come-back of all time. Whatever creative writing teachers are doing that’s messing up art is more than those who argue against them have done for it.

Here we are, 2012, the apocalypse year, still defending what shouldn’t need any defending. What interests me in this conversation is what people who are arguing against the teaching of creative writing really want, because they’re not against advice to writers. They’re full of it. So what is it then? I keep going back to the notion that there’s a large measure of sour grapes in arguments against creative writing classes. And such solipsistic divergences need redirecting.

Here’s a helpful redirection from Anna Leahy: “That’s what novelist John Irving said to John Stewart on The Daily Show, namely that a creative writing program and his mentor Kurt Vonnegut showed him, ‘You do these things better than those things. Why don’t you do more of these things and fewer of those?’”

That’s succinct and persuasive enough, I should think. (But I’ll go on a bit longer, because it’s a Saturday, and the kids are watching a movie.)

And what is the strong argument against creative writing classes anyway? That it fosters sameness? That it will lead to generations of writers who write the kinds of poems that “go over well” in creative writing classes?

I should think, then, that doing a quantitative study of everyone who went through creative writing classes and then who taught creative writing classes of their own would show that people are being normalized into writing very similar things over time. And, of course, that’s not true.

As Dinty Moore writes: “Critics of creative writing as an academic pursuit take a small, small part of the whole and attempt to paint the entire enterprise in one, inaccurate color.”

And that’s the point people who argue against creative writing classes can’t seem to get. Yes, there are terrible classes and terrible teachers out there. But those we will always have with us.

I’ve been in many creative writing classes, and, at the undergraduate level, I’ve lead a good many as well, and even across the classes I’ve lead, they’ve been radically different over time. So much of a discussion-based class, as creative writing classes tend to be, is contingent upon the whole of the group, that generalizations across classes are close to worthless.

But these are old arguments. The fact that the conversation is still at this stage is depressing. As Vanderslice and Leahy say, there are more interesting, “more important, more complex questions” we should be spending our time on.

I’ll leave with this bit from Anna Leahy:

“In a book called The Creating Brain, Nancy Andreasen (who is a professor of psychology and a former professor of Renaissance literature) argues, ‘creative people are likely to be more productive and more original if surrounded by other creative people. This too produces an environment in which the creative brain is stimulated to form novel connections and novel ideas.’

A creative writing program is this sort of environment. Students in a workshop learn from writing, which is usually done in isolation, but they also learn from interactions over time, whether that's brainstorming ideas, receiving feedback from the instructor and peers, or offering critiques. In fact, my students comment that they learn how to revise from responding to others’ work even more than from direct feedback they receive. This process leads each student toward distinguishing her voice. The interactions nudge innovation because, as Andreasen says, ‘creative people are individualistic and confident.’ They don’t want to be just like everybody else.”

[JG: Side note: I’ve seen way too many creative people who are not confident to completely sign on to this, but I agree with the general point.]


At 2/11/2012 8:29 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

People can't be taught that writing can be taught. Believers and disbelievers in writing classes are born, not made. Some people are born to think that if you take a writing class, your beef stew will end up tasting just like Dinty Moore's.

At 2/11/2012 9:01 AM, Blogger David said...

I wouldn't be visiting this blog today, were it not for the creative writing class that I took in college nearly thirty years ago. I owe a debt of gratitude to the instructor of that class, the late Jack Elliott Myers.

At 2/11/2012 1:57 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

That Huffpost article gave no specifics to support their 'creative-writing-can-be taught' case, beyond, "We really help our students! We do!"

What stood out for me the most, was the authors of the article called the 'old' model of teaching of creative writing "destructive."

Do you agree the old way was "destructive," John? Do you believe their attack on Stephen Dunn was fair? John, you really come across as saying the whole issue is a slam dunk---but then why do you think these very defenders of all you believe in go out of their way to call another teaching of creative writing method "destructive?"

Scarriet has written extensively on this subject (and it's not a slam dunk to me) but I'm just curious what you think about that "destructive" charge.

At 2/11/2012 2:37 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I decided to take a positive approach to their general defense of the teaching of creative writing, and skip over the iffy bits. But yes, I wish, if the one who talked about Dunn would have taken a larger perspective.

The point was valid, that not all teaching is good. But the difficulty in this position as put forward here is that it generally condemns a whole generation of creative writing teachers. Teaching as “what I want to talk about” is not always a bad thing. It depends on what it is that “I” want to talk about. Dunn might have been a terrible or wonderful teacher. I’ve really no idea. The stance alone is not enough to praise or condemn.

So yes, I was sorry to see that bit in there.

I never said "slam dunk," by the way. It's just that the teaching of creative writing in general is, in my view, too large an egg to spit through a straw.

At 2/11/2012 2:44 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

If the "famous white-haired poet" is a great poet, and you're talented and serious, the kind of extemporaneous workshop Hunley described could be very helpful. I'm not sure I'd take a workshop like that with Stephen Dunn, however. I'd want to take it with a genius. Ashbery, for example.

At 2/11/2012 3:56 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

I'd rather read Dunn than Ashbery, but that's just me.

Here's three points:

1. The real work of writing is two-fold: reading and writing in solitude.

2. Good literature classes teach literature.

3. Students do creative writing beginning in grade school.

This is all you need. Note what's missing from the above. The creative writing class. The point is not that the creative writing class for older students might not help, but the real issue is: what does the creative writing program as a ubiquitous, nation-wide phenomenon provide?

Why aren't literature classes and the writing all students do in school starting in first grade, and reading and writing in solitude enough?

Lousy schools? Lazy writers?

So is a 'creative writing class' going to help a student who hasn't read enough literature, either because he's too lazy, or the schools have failed him or her? No way. Even creative writing teachers admit they are no substitute for reading literature.

So what exactly is going on in those 'creative writing classes?' No wonder the huffpost writers gave no specifics, beyond, well it's good to put would-be writers in a room together and have a writer 'teach' them.

Can you imagine Shelley and Byron and Keats sitting in a classroom together as writing students? It's laughable.

The writer has to find himself in solitude, not trying to please another writer sitting next to him in a classroom. This is just common sense.

Finally, and no one talks about this except Scarriet, the whole Creative Writing Industry was started by a handful of men---the movement has a history, and it happens that the men who started the Creative Writing Industry had a certain bias for 'new' poetry, and this, of course, is the trump card of the creative writing industry: You don't write very well, but we're going to teach you how to write like a contemporary, approved by your peers. The default 'sameness' of the creative writing industry is that you are not allowed to every write like Shelley or Keats or Byron. Write any way you like! But if we sniff the faintest smell of 'old' on you, you're finished!

But the so-called 'old' is where really great writing resides, and the contemporary ought to be simply who you are---you shouldn't have to go through a brainwasing session in a creative writing class so that you can sound 'contemporary.'

Socrates long ago identified those who a charge high fee for a vague kind of 'learning:' sophists.

At 2/11/2012 4:25 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


You talk as if Scarriet was something other than you. I don’t trust people who talk about themselves in the third person. Unless you’re the queen, then it’s sexy.

As for the rest of your list. Have you been to a typical creative writing classroom? Mostly what they do is talk about writing (just as the Romantics did). It’s the social aspect of art making. Sharing and arguing and caring about it. Just as Keats did. Call it whatever you want, it’s really just people as it always has been.

The writing is still done in solitude, though I don’t see any reason why it needs to be. But then again, there’s really no such thing as solitude. [cue train sounds]

Other things creative writing classrooms do is have students read poetry. I have my students read whatever I feel they’re most deficient in. Usually what they’re most deficient in is the contemporary. So, somehow, they’re getting a pretty good dose of Shakespeare – Yeats.

In other words, I find your complaint to be without merit.

At 2/11/2012 4:43 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

The critics of creative writing in post-secondary education don't go far enough -- you can't teach literature, either.

In a culture that worships itself as exceptional, what reason is there to study literature, philosophy, the humanities in general? What can these dead people possibly say to us, aside from Burke, of course.

At 2/12/2012 4:48 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Those who never look backward to their successors will never look forward to their predecessors.

At 2/12/2012 5:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Yes! But you’re not going far enough either. We also do a pretty bad job of teaching walking, or even crawling. I remember with my daughter, she kept kind of lilting backward. She never could get crawling. And then she just kind of skipped it and pulled herself up one day and she was off. We tried telling her that you have to crawl first, but she was hearing none of it.


Nice formulation.

At 2/12/2012 8:03 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Thanks John. I wrote it himself.

Come to think of it, we're bad at teaching teaching. I have a teaching certificate, but all it means is I was mulcted of a lot of moola. I couldn't teach a goldfish to roll over and play dead.

Let's just go DIY, like punkers.

At 2/12/2012 8:26 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


"As for the rest of your list. Have you been to a typical creative writing classroom? Mostly what they do is talk about writing (just as the Romantics did). It’s the social aspect of art making. Sharing and arguing and caring about it. Just as Keats did. Call it whatever you want, it’s really just people as it always has been."

I know what goes on in a creative writing classroom. It's not a mystery. "Mostly what they do is talk about writing." Did I imply something else was going on? Look, those who question the creative writing industry don't ever say that what goes on in the "typical creative writing classroom" is something other than "mostly what they do is talk about writing." You think this closes the discussion---and I, and others, do not think it does.

"Talk about writing" can never be bad, and the "social aspect of writing" is a worthy aspect. This is the wall you use to keep the questions out, and this wall is too general to have any meaning and you are satisfied with it. OK.

You are "SO Done with it." I know. I know. That's pretty obvious.

At 2/12/2012 8:50 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I fail to see what questions this keeps out. I have yet to see a real question.

At 2/12/2012 2:41 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


The main question I've asked already is a real simple one.

I'll ask it again:

Kids do 'creative writing' in school starting in first grade. Literature courses teach literature. If one writes seriously, one reads a lot and writes a lot---in solitude.

Creative writing has already been part of the student's curriculum his whole life. The student who aspires to write, wants to write literature---which he has studied his whole life. The student,if he cares anything about writing, has "talked about writing" with friends and family and teachers his whole life.

Now, this 'creative writing' course, or degree, or program. What in the world is it offering that's different?

And, secondly, what specifically is being taught?


At 2/12/2012 3:23 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Those are easy questions:

Creative writing classes do not offer anything that’s categorically different than many of them have had in the past.

But I would disagree with your assertion that people practice “creative writing” all through school. I often get students who say they’ve never written a poem. So I make them write one. Knowledge transferred!

What is specifically taught? Nothing that couldn’t be gotten some other way. If one wants to follow this line of reasoning, though, all of higher education is nonsense. I mean, anyone can read the books on any of the subjects, right? I really don’t get what the complaint is.

I teach a “Publication Skills” course, for instance. We’ve spent the last two weeks reading the first two chapters of the book I had them buy and discussing them. Some of the students in the class have publication experience. One works as a copyeditor of the school newspaper, two or more have worked on yearbooks, lit mags, etc, in High School, and one, in her 50s, is a freelance editor wanting to have a degree for her CV. The book was new to all of them, and they’re finding it helpful. So, there’s that. You know, proofer’s marks, and all that.

What are any of us doing in this class that couldn’t be done without this class? Nothing. But the conversation is fun and I end up thinking things I hadn’t thought before. It’s the same with my creative writing classes. People talk about what moves them (be that up, down, strange, charm, bottom, and/or top). They trot out stances and explanations. Nothing special.

I consider the time spent in a creative writing class (remember, the class is a choice, they don’t have to take it) to be a success if the time itself is a success. The other day I taught them how to use AUDACITY, a free audio software program. Knowledge transfer a second time. I’ll have to stop soon, or else people might start to think this is practical or something.

And that, of course, is the joke. People who don’t like—for whatever reason—creative writing as a formal class, consider people who teach such classes to be dishonest in some fashion. It’s part of the general attack on universities that’s been going on for generations.

And why? Bitterness? I don’t see why anyone would be bitter about it. Jealousy? That’s funny. Jealous of what? I mean, I’m 47 and have tenure and make $50,000 a year. I mean, it’s OK, but it’s nothing to be jealous of. Are people upset that we’re just goofing around, having too much fun? That seems pretty far-fetched. Why should people care about what other people find interesting? Do people think this is somehow hurting art? Bah. Art is impenetrable. It laughs at us.

At 2/12/2012 3:28 PM, Blogger David said...


The creative writing workshop that I took in college offered an exposure to the art and craft of writing poetry, something that I had never received in my entire elementary and secondary education, nor in my basic college-level English literature classes. Creative writing workshops certainly have their value within a broader curriculum. The influence, for good or ill, of MFA / Creative Writing Programs on the present state of poetry and "po-biz" in America is a separate issue altogether.


At 2/13/2012 4:55 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

"Creative writing" classes aren't just a sinister post-WWII phenomenon. The medieval Irish bards, for example, went through a 12-year program. You started out with a bronze branch, progressed to a silver branch, and ended up with a gold branch, which meant that you were a Doctor of Poetry. We all know that, right? There's nothing new under the sun.

At 2/13/2012 5:07 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2/13/2012 6:32 AM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...


My experience with pre-secondary does not match up with your assertions about it. We read a lot in elementary school, but it wasn't literature, and we didn't read poetry. Middle school focused entirely on grammar due to standardized testing. In high school, we did read some poetry, but it was a minor part of one or two courses. During that unit we had to mimic some of the old forms, but this was only one or two classes in twelve years.

I have an associates in general education and a bachelors's in Writing and Literature. While getting my AA, there were no classes on writing poetry. The one time it was offered, they canceled it due to lack of enrollment. Other than that it was straight literature or fiction writing.

By the time I made it to Naropa as a junior, I had never been in a writing workshop that focused on poetry. I had never met other people interested in writing poetry. I had never had professors who were interested in teaching poetry. I had never had professors who were poets themselves.

Having that network of people allowed me to engage at a level I had previously not been able to. You can argue that poetry is about writing and reading in solitude, but I'll direct you to any number of studies that show creative people are more productive and adventurous when surrounded by other creative people. I'll also direct you to any figure in the canon because odds are that they had at least one friend with which to discuss this stuff with.

Course highlights from Naropa: Close Reading of Surrealism and Dada with Elizabeth Robinson, The Art of Translation with Anselm Hollo (I translated Garcia Lorca's Poet in New York in its entirety), Radical Prosody with Reed Bye (we studied Beowulf to Susan Howe!), Classic Modernism (this class taught me to be a better reader than any other, besides Radical Prosody), not to mention the numerous workshops I was in each semester.

At 2/13/2012 7:07 AM, Blogger David said...

By the time I made it to Naropa as a junior, I had never been in a writing workshop that focused on poetry. I had never met other people interested in writing poetry. I had never had professors who were interested in teaching poetry. I had never had professors who were poets themselves.

Except for the name of the college, that describes my own experience exactly.

At 2/13/2012 9:35 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

It's possible to have first graders dictate stories, but they generally don't have the focus and the physical mechanics of writing to make a directed classroom writing exercise pan out. If you're interested in teaching first grade, Tom, I can recommend Patsy Cooper's book When Stories Come to School. Third grade is about where I'd put the open bracket on writing instruction, and from there through sixth grade, the books you want are Wishes, Lies and Dreams and Rose, Where Did You Get That Red. None better, and I've got the bookfair pass to the NCTE convention to support that assertion.

At 2/13/2012 9:44 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Thanks for your thoughtful responses. I do appreciate it.

What this says to me, then, is that there's something sorely wrong with our schools...

I wrote lots of haiku when I was in 6th grade. (P.S. 145 in NYC)

My son's in 6th grade now (charter school). He is reading/memorizing and writing original poems in his English class.

When I was in 11th grade, English class, Mr. Chalk introduced us to Roethke and I wrote tons of original poetry.

My English Comp students absolutely write original compositions, including poetry.

Learning Shakespeare, the Romantics, the history of literary criticism, reading the classics, was without question the most important 'schooling' I got. Nothing else came close. The mere idea of original writing, once entertained, was all that was needed to make me aspire in that direction.

Learning about AUDACITY sounds fantastic, but I don't consider that 'creative writing.'

A tremendous influence on me in college was a poet roommate I had; we were not in any classes together, we didn't write the same at all, but since he was my roommate, and he was passionate about the Romantics, he made a great difference.

Here's an idea: In colleges, have Creative Writing dorms, where would-be poets live together. That way, you wouldn't need creative writing *classes.* And students could go to classes that teach great literature, instead.

As far as medieval bards and their writing creds, including Doctor of Poetry, that does sound medieval!! I wouldn't recommend that. Writing shouldn't be quantified with levels/creds that way. Bad idea.

A small cadre of poets and their friends in mid-20th century absolutely did use 'the system' to infiltrate the canon---teaching/recommending themselves and their friends. Why venerate poets from the distant past, when YOU can teach/promote yourself and the kind of poetry you and your friends can write? Keats? That's too hard to write. But, wait a minute, there's a new way of writing and my friends and I are the champions of the new writing!
This is exactly what Stevens, Williams, Pound, Eliot, Ransom, Tate, Lowell, Jarrell, Bishop, Moore, Cummings, etc (and then onward to the second generation) did. They all knew each other and promoted each other, and shifted literature away from history and towards *creative writing,* code for...


At 2/13/2012 9:53 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? is one of my all-time favorites. I’ve used it with second and third graders. Last semester I had it as a text in a creative writing course, and two of the students then used it in elementary classes. Both had great experiences.

At 2/13/2012 10:00 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I don't rememebr Stevens ever teaching/recommending anyone. Or really having many friends in the literary world at all.

Well, I was going to talk about Ketas today in class, but since I suppose, according to your description I can't, I guess I'll have to go with either myself or a friend. I get antsy talking about myself, so then which friend to choose. I'm sure that whomever I talk about in this one class on this one day will certainly get a real bump from it. As world domination plans go, it's a little flawed.

At 2/13/2012 1:19 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


If you're teaching Keats, you are teaching literature, not creative writing.

I'm just trying to get a handle on what we're talking about here.

Despite what you've been told, that Stevens just worked at insurance all day, no...he was very much part of the same Kreymborg and Arensburg clique of 'modern artists and poets' which included Williams, Moore, Pound, Man Ray, etc. One can find pieces by John Crowe Ransom discussing Stevens, and Stevens, in turn, discussing Ransom...don't worry, the little game was being played in earnest, even in the so-called 'High Modernism' days, when 'giants' (ha) walked the earth.

At 2/13/2012 1:35 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

O dwarf, thou bear'st thy giant on thy back o'er the dirt.

At 2/13/2012 1:47 PM, Blogger Fuzz Against Junk said...

Keats was a baiter of bears.

At 2/13/2012 2:14 PM, Blogger David Grove said...

A 70-year-old Yeats got a shot of monkey glands and made a black-and-white porn film with Joan Crawford.

At 2/13/2012 2:40 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

And Soylent Green is people!

At 2/13/2012 3:30 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Wouldn't you like to be a Pepper too?

At 2/13/2012 7:10 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

Look! It's Wallace Stevens' dry cleaning.

I'm SO done with washing that man's clothes!

Alright, poets!

Forward, march!

At 2/13/2012 8:38 PM, Blogger David said...

Then in 1915 Kreymborg met a fellow poet, Walter Arensburg, and decided to produce Others, a magazine whose title and whose motto ("The old expressions are always with us, and then there are others") suggest their intention to offer an experimental alternative to the poetry of the genteel tradition. Kreymborg and Arensburg had also befriended a New York insurance executive named Wallace Stevens, and, especially because Arensburg was an avid patron of modern art, an informal circle of moderns soon grew up around the three of them that included Willians, Mina Loy, and Lola Ridge (all of whom placed poems in the first issue of Others) as well as Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Francis Picabia, Charles Demuth, Marsden Hartley, and Joseph Stella.

~ Jack Selzer, Kenneth Burke in Greenwich Village: conversing with the moderns, 1915-1931

At 2/14/2012 3:58 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

Seriously, though -- has anybody remarked on how the rise of the Creative Writing program coincides with the general decline of the Idea of the University? (Sorry, Cardinal Newman.) We don't talk about higher education as a good in itself much anymore, and I can hear you all saying "Who we, white man" but do we? It certainly has seemed that way to me since, oh just after I landed on the barren (non-academic) job market in 1992. Creative Writing programs are part of a general drift toward specialization and credentialization, toward creating the means for individual advancement, and away from a generalist, civic sense of education as equipping a state with citizens. Which, ok? I understand instrumental views of life as keeping the eye on the ball, getting paid, surviving. I think, though, we are already seeing what kind of art an instrumental view of poetry gets us -- a lot of middle muddle, a lot of bland consensus, very little you might call determinate or shapely.

At 2/14/2012 4:33 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


True true. When I was thinking of Stevens above, I was thinking of the later Stevens. And even then I suppose I could be wrong. But anyway, yes, in his earlier years (the teens and most of the way through the twenties) he was very much a friend of WCW, and was a more social cat.


A very big question. The business model has been imposed on the university from outside the university, and parents by and large LOVE it. I don’t.

This though: “we are already seeing what kind of art an instrumental view of poetry gets us -- a lot of middle muddle, a lot of bland consensus, very little you might call determinate or shapely.”

I think bland consensus we’ve always had with us down the wide middle of any period. And there’s always very little of the “determinate or shapely.” Great art (I’m not really sure what you mean by “determinate or shapely” but I’m guessing you mean great art?) is difficult and few achieve it in any time. Maybe we’re in a time with fewer great artists? Maybe. I’m not confident pronouncing on the issue. But certainly we’re doing about as well in this regard as 1830 – 1915 did.

Maybe one of us is great and determinate and shapely but none of the rest of us is noticing through the very large mass of white noise produced by (and this I think is the “problem” of our period) more books being written and published every year than any person could ever hope to keep up with. What is it now, something like 3,000 a year? It’s a torrent.

On the one hand, that great. More opportunity to publish. But, as a reader, forget it. There’s opportunity, but there’s also a very crowded room of everyone talking at once. I’d say white noise is a bigger problem than bland consensus.

At 2/14/2012 4:38 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

John -- yes, white noise is a much better way of putting it.

At 2/14/2012 6:29 AM, Blogger Henry Gould said...

I'm enjoying this discussion. Like Jordan's comment about the context of CW programs : rise of instrumentalist education, decline of idea of "liberal arts".

I'm guessing Stevens would be puzzled by CW programs (even though he called for a Chair of Poetry Theory at Harvard). Poets write & communicate out of a sort of inner necessity. Careful readers of Stevens have shown with what complexity his poems allude to & play with themes & vocabulary of other poets - Keats, Milton, Shakespeare, Eliot... He's taking up their themes and reworking them, driven by an inward & personal engagement with poetry itself.

I think CW programs have a tendency to de-personalize and objectify this inner necessity : giving young poets the false impression that a poetry vocation is "out there" and that they just need to take up the necessary tools provided by the schools. In a sort of instrumental fashion.

At 2/14/2012 7:06 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


But then, of course, the question becomes the King’s complaint to Mozart, from the movie Amadeus, that there are too many notes in the symphony. Mozart’s reply: “Which ones would you have me take out?”


I’m more or an “art-talk” person than a “craft talk” person, myself. I get a little anxious when it becomes a modes & strategies conversation. But “art-talk” has its own slippery slope. Cue James Tate:

Teaching the Ape to Write Poems

They didn't have much trouble
teaching the ape to write poems:
first they strapped him into the chair,
then tied the pencil around his hand
(the paper had already been nailed down).
Then Dr. Bluespire leaned over his shoulder
and whispered into his ear:
"You look like a god sitting there.
Why don't you try writing something?"

At 2/14/2012 7:54 AM, Blogger Jordan said...

John, that scene of Shaffer's is a touchstone for me too, partly because Joseph II wasn't wrong either.

The James Tate piece is amusing -- here's Kenneth Koch's approach to the theme:

"Once I taught polar bears to write poetry. After class each week (it was once a week) I came home to bed. The work was extremely tiring. The bears tried to maul me and for months refused to write a single word. If refused is the right term for creatures who had no idea what I was doing and what I wanted them to do."

At 2/14/2012 8:12 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...

I blame it on Mad Libs.

Keats + Mad Libs = John Ashbery

Stevens was the slippery slope. That sly, wordy, attempt to turn poetry into an abstract painting, bankrupt of all real feeling. Stevens feels completely fake to me.

Williams, and Pound? That wasn't so much a slippery slope as a cliff.

I'm telling you, boys, the wound won't be healed until we make real peace with the major Romantic poets. (Telling, that Ashbery could only stomach the minor ones.) The New Critics owe the Romantic poets an apology. The "new Sincerity" is mere a tip-toeing around the problem.

At 2/14/2012 8:30 AM, Blogger Henry Gould said...

Tom, get ahold of Eleanor Cook's book, "Poetry, Word-Play and Word-War in Wallace Stevens". I think you will discover a Stevens you might have missed & dismissed before.

At 2/14/2012 8:40 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Jordan, this is excellent. I really like it. Thanks. I'm going to use this several times in the future.

Tom. Well, there you are.

At 2/14/2012 10:13 AM, Blogger David said...

The "new Sincerity" is mere a tip-toeing around the problem.

The very term "new Sincerity" rubs me the wrong way. It's just too cutesy-clever. In any case, I wonder how anyone can seriously address the issue of sentimentality / sincerity in poetry without confronting the Romantics. I did a word search on "Shelley" in the Sentiment Symposium, which turned up nothing. Keats is mentioned in passing once.

At 2/14/2012 10:13 AM, Blogger David Grove said...

Tom, that's cool, the Keats + Mad Libs = Ashbery.

An obedience school I had the displeasure of attending briefly calls itself Eastern Michigan UNIVERSITY, though it employs beetle-headed professors (sorry, Mr. Eshleman) and accepts any hirsute-knuckled rube who can make his mark on a check. Any Jehovah's Witness Sunday school held in a broken-down bus can dub itself a university--like a janitor putting on middle-class airs by calling himself a custodian. You don't need anyone with a fervent desire to enlarge his mind--just people willing to buy the illusion of getting ahead, just administrators venal enough to sell them a worthless "credential" and claim that it confers professional status. Jesus, come and kick the crooks out of the temple of learning!

At 2/14/2012 10:43 AM, Blogger David said...

Jesus, come and kick the crooks out of the temple of learning!

"Zeal for thy green shaded bowers consumes me."


At 2/14/2012 12:07 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

"Stevens was the slippery slope. That sly, wordy, attempt to turn poetry into an abstract painting, bankrupt of all real feeling. Stevens feels completely fake to me."

Funny, because Stevens feels more real than any of the major romantic poets to me, while critiques like this feel bankrupt and fake.

At 2/14/2012 1:13 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


Yea, there's nothing sadder than mediocrities aggressively seeking art creds.


The whole point of poetry is it shouldn't need a third party to validate it. I never, for instance, tell someone, "Read X on Poe, then you'll get him!" Poe doesn't need that. I will always think of Stevens as light verse with a heavy dollop of metaphysical pretense.

At 2/14/2012 1:32 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

" ... light verse with a heavy dollop of metaphysical pretense."

That's a pretty accurate description of my feelings toward Poe.

I like his stories, though.

At 2/14/2012 1:39 PM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


don't start a poe v. stevens contest.

you'll lose.

At 2/14/2012 1:54 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 2/14/2012 2:04 PM, Blogger underbelly said...

Who started it?

And please. I would not lose. No one wins contests like that, because they just end up being reducible to my taste vs. your taste. The only losers would be the bystanders to all that drivel.

I only responded as a reminder that there are people in the same world as you (the same comment stream, in fact) who hold opposing views to the opinions you state so authoritatively (e.g., the whole point of poetry, etc..)

At 2/14/2012 2:56 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

Ambiguities ok: Empson spoken here.

At 2/15/2012 6:21 AM, Blogger Henry Gould said...


Bicycles don't teach children how to ride them : usually they require a third party to do that. But I guess you taught yourself to ride, along with everything else. Maybe you learned that trick from an ostrich?

At 2/15/2012 6:42 AM, Blogger Thomas Brady said...


Let me go read a book and then I'll tell you how I learned to ride a bike.


No one "started it." Poe and Stevens (unfortunately for you, it seems) exist in the same world, and this fact we cannot escape. This is the point you seem to be missing.


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