Rereading ‘The Poet in the World’

Kirsten Ogden
March 2, 2008
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Denise Levertov

Having read Dan Barden’s essay Workshop in P&W’s recent issue, like Heather Christie, I had a strong reaction to some of his feelings about teaching the workshop. Then I went back to one of my favorite essays in Denise Levertov’s The Poet In The World. The workshop model that Heather is attempting in her creative writing class, and the types of ‘new’ workshop models she heard other writers outlining at the recent AWP conference, is a model that Levertov outlines in her beautiful process essay “The Untaught Teacher.” Levertov discovered, through her varied teaching experiences, the importance of moving away from a “traditional” workshop model and instead focusing on the community of writers created in any given workshop setting. Levertov, right away, discovered the importance of allowing her students to learn about one another so that they felt comfortable taking chances and sharing opinions; thus, the workshop environment needn’t be tense or degrading or a dictatorship. Levertov notes that in her first teaching assignment, her hope “was not to teach anybody to write poetry–” but instead to “attempt to bring each one to a clearer sense of what his own voice and range might be, and to give him some standards by which to evaluate his own work.” She was also open to what she might learn from her students: “I later came to realize that I was spoonfeeding them” by summarizing class notes and recapping what they should’ve learned after a recent workshop. Instead, she figured out that “when I began to sit back and listen to them discuss each other’s poems [I learned] they had as much to learn from each other as they did from me.”

This approach is one I’m familiar with, as it’s a staple of the Kenyon Review Writer’s Workshops each summer. When I took a poetry workshop with David Baker, he had his writers show up to class on the first day with their favorite poem by another poet. This was a wonderful introduction not only to work some of us may be unfamiliar with, but also to each writing workshop participant’s sensibilities. We all quickly discovered which of us were drawn to story and narrative, which of us were drawn to traditional forms and elements of structure, to comic writing and the speaker’s voice, to observation or spiritual transformation, and so on. It was lovely because it allowed all of us to appreciate what each “beginner’ writer would be bringing to the workshop discussions, and then weigh that against the goals of a particular poem we were working on.

A summer later I sat in Rosanna Warren’s poetry workshop, which she focused around the theme of observation transforming into art through the imagination. Warren’s approach was to share herself with the workshop participants; we learned who her own favorite writers and artists were, what her process to writing was like, and more. This sharing of her experience, expertise, and favorite works helped each of us to understand the context of her comments about our own poems.

Levertov came to incorporate these methods through her own triumphs and failures in various workshops, allowing her teaching to evolve into “an attempt to supply, by discussion of technical elements and of stance some underpinnings for judgment or–a better word–evaluation of their own work; an emphasis on listening to the sounds of poetry, not reading merely with the eye, and upon experiencing the poem as a sonic entity before embarking on any analysis of its parts.”

What seemed to be most important in Levertov’s findings about her teaching process in the workshop was this: the better she was able to get her students knowing one another in the classroom and outside of the classroom, and knowing her inside and outside of the classroom, the better they were able to use their time in the workshop. She believed this allowed for the teacher to curb that tendency to ‘boss’ the student–or, as Mr. Barden says, to be “a bastard.”

I love how Levertov feels “the writer as teacher has a special contribution to make” to student writers. I think all of us who teach and writer feel this way–that our special contribution is our “passion for [our] art” and the sharing of and modeling of our own personal journies and experiences as writers focused on our craft.

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