Thursday, July 19, 2007


Again there's a discussion of teaching on Josh Coreys' blog. I put in my two cents.

It is amazing how people use the idea of a "tradition" when talking about teaching - "it's important that you teach the students the rules before they break them." I've heard this statement a million times. But as Michael Martone once said during a conversation in Alabama, does that convention include Poe?

What people talk about when they talk about the tradition seems rather narrow to me, an anti-modernist construction of the reactionary New Critics as remolded over the past few decades of workshops. The antipathy toward a perceived degeneracy of modernity and mass culture seems one of the main principles (at least when I went to Iowa it was).

It's interesting: This tradition claims to be centered on Lowell, but in its watered-down traditionalism, I wonder if Lowell himself would feel at home in it. Of course, this becoms a matter of pedagogy - how the poems are read, followed.

Another observation: Lots of talk about what to teach, but few people seem to want to discuss the role of the teacher. Contrary to most contemporary theories of pedagogy, most of the poetry crowd seems to still believe that teaching entails the teacher imparting a set of information to their students.


Blogger AB said...

I'm still shocked when someone claims to be a "traditionalist" and rather than Sappho and Shakespeare, or Ovid, Keats, Stein, Dickinson, etc., they talk about Robert Lowell.

It's kind of a weird laughable world where the base standard for architecture is the 1950s ranch home & all structures before it or around it are mistaken for "rubble" or ignored and unseen. I wonder if this short-sightedness and lack of anything approaching a geological sense of poetry-time has as its base an American anti-intellectualism?


9:37 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Do you guys teach many pre-modernist writers in creative writing classes?

I expect that part of the formation of a "traditionalist" set of authors that excludes your list, Anne, is the feeling that one should be reading relatively contemporary works. I usually do the same in creative writing classes, if only because many of my students think that all poetry is supposed to sound like Shakespeare, and that they need models of a poetry where the language isn't archaic. . . Not that I dislike the archaic, but it's usually not interesting unless it's purposefully archaic.

At the same time, if you're going to teach meter, which I usually do, it's hard to get really thumping examples that are good poems unless you reach back a bit.

But maybe this is wrong. I'd like to hear what you do. About traditonalist vs. paradigm-defying, it seems that history, rather than category, is really the answer to this. I think you can introduce a spectrum all at once, and explain the debates, the stakes, the arguments about them.

But just as much as it's a mistake not to teach, for example, some Ted Berrigan or whatnot. It's probably a mistake not to teach some Sylvia Plath (or something like it).

10:31 AM  
Blogger UCOP Killer said...

Oh, just to add. I think you're right , Anne, about the american amnesia. But is it really possible to give much of a historical sense in a creative writing class? I've usually found it difficult to do very much *reading* at all, as opposed to discussing student work. Especially if you're teaching a class that does fiction and poetry in the same semester. It seems like this is the place where lit classes really need to step up to the plate.

10:35 AM  
Blogger Max said...

I think this is the basic problem with "teaching" any kind of creative art in educational institutions. In order for the discipline to be assimilated, it must become academic, engage students in "scholarly" pursuits, etc. So a tradition is founded, rules are laid out, authorities are created. And in order to retain that missing quality, the one expunged in this transformation from art to scholarship, we (the teachers) say "These rules were, of course, meant to be broken."

The more I think about the idea of teaching creative writing as a profession, the more it seems that I would be participating in the biggest academic scam of the last 50 years.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...

I teach Sylvia Plath frequently. In fact Im teaching her in a class this fall.

However, I've only ever taught one creative writing class, mostly I've taught lit and comp. Last class I taught was senior seminar on the avant-garde, this fall I'm teaching comp and and intro to lit class that will focus on "gothic bodies".

There are many different levels of creative writing and I'm sure there's a place for everything. However, what I consistently find is a certain attitude that the student has to be brought into poetry, be introduced to poetry, be converted. I think this is probably a result of New Criticism's messianic anti-populism.

And the teaching suggests an old-fashioned concept of the brilliant teacher who imparts knowledge to students, rather than the model of the teacher as a guide that helps students explore writing. That does sound a bit corny, but I think that's true (knowledge imparted to me when I was a grad student of Education).

5:01 AM  
Blogger Max said...

what I consistently find is a certain attitude that the student has to be brought into poetry, be introduced to poetry, be converted. I think this is probably a result of New Criticism's messianic anti-populism.

I'm not sure that this is always a product of the teacher's attitude (though I can imagine that sometimes it might be).

When I taught creative writing last, there were maybe two students, in a class of ten, who were there because they wanted to write poetry. I would say that about half, or maybe a little more, were hesitant to write poetry because it seemed impenetrable to them, or confusing, or they had had "bad experiences with it in the past," or it just didn't interest them.

I think that this impulse to "introduce" students to poetry is generally a pretty fair impulse, if only because students' experiences of poetry are likely to be far more limited than with any other kind of writing, save (perhaps) drama.

7:44 AM  
Blogger Johannes said...


You're right - but it's a chicken-egg situation. There's a prevalent idea that poetry is somehow isolated from the rest of society - that you have to know the canon etc. This is exasperated by classes that say: Here's poetry (if that is Stevens/Bishop or some other idea of "the tradition"). But yes, clearly students have to be introduced, but not through initiation.

7:51 AM  
Blogger Max said...

You're right - but it's a chicken-egg situation.

I would agree with this, but I would add that whether it's a chicken-egg situation or not is pretty much irrelevant when I've got students telling me that they "hate poetry" (I've actually had several students say this in both creative writing and literature teaching environments). New Criticism may have hatched this mindset, but whether it did or not doesn't really matter when I've got to deal with it in the classroom.

I wouldn't say that you remedy this by teaching students "the canon," though. There are many different ways to "introduce" students to poetry, and I would imagine that that is among the most useless.

At this point, I would say that my teaching style in the creative writing classroom is very much adapted from Michael Martone's. It's a very "Hey, here's some stuff for you to look at! Now let's talk about it and you'll write something for next time" method.

8:01 AM  
Blogger Max said...

Also, I should add that I have the good fortune to teach literature in an English Department that doesn't give its instructors a canon-based list of authors to teach during the semester. I was thankfully able to avoid The Great Gatsby and give them Miss Lonelyhearts instead.

8:04 AM  
Blogger Sandra Simonds said...

Nice post.

My teaching goes something like....class begins: wow, sure is a nice day to write poetry. let's go outside and sit under trees and write poems---class over or

class begins: well i sure am pretty hungry right now. class, let's walk over to the lunch area and make up poems about food on the way. oh, look at the time! class ends.

11:05 AM  

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