Ye Olde Question: Can It Be Taught?

piseco trina mushrooms aug 05 003

Every creative writing teacher faces this question. Probably a student is happily proclaiming (or angrily…) that it can’t be taught, therefore s/he should not be critiqued or graded by some rankly subjective instructor who no doubt has some secret agenda anyway and just wants everyone to write like her (or him).

If we’re lucky, the question is asked in genuine curiosity, with a willingness to learn leaning in from one side of the arena and a healthy skepticism looking on coolly from the other.

So what works? This is a question I’d love to hear responses to. Anyone?


Filed under Teaching Creative Writing

5 responses to “Ye Olde Question: Can It Be Taught?

  1. Jay Rogoff

    I actually have never gotten this question–usually it’s raised by professors & conference sessions. But if the student is angry, an appropriate response might be that if she or he thinks it can’t be taught, then taking the course would be of no use & the student should not enroll. There seem to be three questions here that are related at various levels: (1) Can poetry writing (my own field) be taught? (2) Can/should poetry writing be evaluated? (3) Can a student’s poetry be evaluated objectively? The answer to 3 is no, because grading in any course is subjective. How do we get around that? We don’t. We acknowledge it. The instructor explains that there are specific skills the student needs to acquire & demonstrate, and that the student’s grade will have to do with the extent to which the instructor perceives that those skills are demonstrated in the work. What those skills might be has to do with the answer to (1): the handling of imagery & figurative language, the sense of rhythm, the understanding of prosodic devices such as meter, rhyme, and form, the sense of structure in a poem, the intensity with which the student poet develops a consciousness of the reader’s needs and an ability to engage the reader in the world of the poem, and above all, the student’s ability and willingness to rethink and revise his or her poems (spontaneity, which students so often prize, is a literary illusion created by long, hard work). Again, these will be evaluated by the instructor, necessarily in a subjective way, according to what the instructor believes most crucial for a beginning poet to learn. As for question 2, can & should poetry be evaluated–well, we do it all the time. Although contemporary theory and scholarly practice have declared all texts equal, we are always saying Shakespeare is better than Spenser, for example, or Plath is better than Sexton, and these judgments are always subjective. And we also make these judgments about poets’ individual poems: “Frost at Midnight” is better than “This Lime-Tree Bower,” or “Sailing to Byzantium” is better than “The Lake Isle of Innisfree.” It can be pointed out to students that they do this all the time in the arts as well: they may not know much about poetry, but they argue about the best bands, or the best singers, or an individual musician’s best song. Does anyone think “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?” is a better song than “Hey Jude”? We make these judgments all the time.

    • nancywhitepoetry

      This very much echoes what I feel (and think!), Jay, and parallels so many conversations with students over the years. I suspect when someone does raise this question in class, it may have been triggered by reading an article or overhearing a conversation where the question arose…and then the realization starts to work away at the edges of their previous assumptions: there might be two sides to this question. And the discussion is always fruitful, in fact, may be the beginning of a student really pondering how they write, why they change what they do, even why they write in the first place.

      One of the student assertions that startles me every time is “There are no rule in poetry, but there are rules everywhere else in writing; therefore poetry can’t be taught, but other kinds of writing can.” This is so full of misguided assumptions that I hardly know where to begin! At ACC, so many of our students have found their only relief from writing as following-the-rules has been the realm of creative writing, especially poetry. The resulting “Anything goes” conception of poetry is both an asset and a liability, and getting them to think about their (unconscious) standards–and whether even those may need revision!– is key. You’re so right that one way to accomplish this is by relating poetry to music.

  2. Mary Sanders Shartle

    As a writing workshop leader both for grown-ups (memoir) and sixth graders (poetry) and now high school (poetry and other), I am constantly amazed at the students attracted to the casual workshop situation, rather than, say what Nancy and Jay see on the college level. The adults and senior citizens I work with (writing memoir) fall roughly into two categories:
    1) never wrote much, read even less, just want to tell their stories and have fun. However, they don’t want to be challenged too much
    2) those who have read much, traveled far, experienced and tasted life to the fullest and want to more deeply explore life’s pageant on the page.
    It wouldn’t take much to guess which of the two is more rewarding to work with.

    HOWEVER, neither group of adults is as enthusiastic and interested as the kids.

    Billy Collins said something to the effect that “poetry goes to high school to die.” Not in Lake Luzerne, New York. Four or five years ago, I was asked to facilitate a poetry workshop for a group of sixth graders in an after school class. The group calls themselves The Adirondack Writers’ Guild. I teach one month and several other writers representing other disciplines come in the following months. The kids are so jazzed up about poetry. They don’t know not to be.

    And four or five years later, some have moved on to the high school and are still writing and reading poetry. (Denise Duhamel is a particular fave.)

    Is it a question of getting students early before they get hammered with whatever high school teachers insist they read? I’m not saying they shouldn’t read Shakespeare, but Duhamel engages them on another level altogether and they get hooked realizing poetry can be graceful, intelligent and engaging as well. To watch sixth graders “get” Billy Collins “Litany” is a wonderful experience.

  3. I’ve been more frustrated by the “anything goes” or it’s called “creative” writing and I can do what I want comments…Jay, you get at the heart of it when you talk about audience. I usually start a creative writing class’s focus on poetry with “what is poetry?” and “why do you write poetry?” and this usually leads to a question of: “Do you want to communicate to someone? do you want to be understood?” Many students want to express their feelings and they don’t care if you “get it” or not. Many of their peers will support them in this assertion (and praise each other for making them feel something). But I usually tell them for class we need to try out the assertion that poetry is a formal way of writing just like an essay– but more specialized, and more challenging, because it’s compressed. But that can also make it more exciting and interesting. If we want to communicate through poetry, and do it “well,” then there are tools we can use– figurative language, line breaks, stanzas, etc. And in the class we’ll be practicing those tools, and looking at what other writers do that is inventive is what’s helpful. You can break the rules– look at Emily Dickinson! But you have to do it consciously and clearly and consistently– do it for a reason. And when you do it for a reason, it can be so exciting, so refreshing, because it does what really good poetry does: makes us see things in a new way! I’ve got very few good poetry discussion starters, but here’s the story of my fave:

  4. first, to comment without reading the comments of others: that little munchkin with her pad on her knees in your photo– she doesn’t look like there is anything standing between her and the next Tale of Two Giddy(s), maybe we should ask her about what comes naturally…but she’s likely mimicking bodily posture more than anything else.

    i think the initial job of the writing teacher is that of giving wild permission (can you tell i’ve put in time at naropa?); to plant the seed, and then to challenge the usual route the seed might follow to grow. secondarily, the teacher can divert light, so it comes into/onto the work in question from new angle to nourish said seed– but the student determines, for better or worse, how the plant can possibly respond. so– you can’t force writing.

    the above, however, is a specimen of a paragraph in which a helpful writing teacher might give the metaphor a small, instructional spanking. also: evidence that i need to drink more tea before opining on important questions.

    and now i’m going to contradict myself, or superdict myself: i think “a” definition of a poem is something which speaks to far more than its content, and somehow maintains its root with song. all students and all writers need tools to understand how this is done. i have found revision to be one of the richest and, ironically, generative processes out there. our body follows implicit “rules” and signals by which it breathes. so does a poem, and if that’s what a person wants to do “naturally” (write verse), then knowing “rules” (i include figurative tropes here) is both a beautiful and essential aid and a reverent nod to the ancestry of the art form. i do think a student can acquire rules descriptively rather than proscriptively– read read read read and read more and, when you think you’ve read enough, read more. being a poem-whore is never a waste.

    with love from the honking boats on the bosphorus– and now for the tea emergency–

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