What are we teaching when we teach the writing of poetry?
Much of what we call the “teaching” of poetry is actually the teaching of contemporary conventions governing poetry. There are fewer truths in this art than poets like to think; what is “good” shifts from culture to culture, subculture to subculture, and even within a culture, shifts over time. The general opinion that poetry comes from the heart (and, implicitly, concerns the self) was not so obvious a truth in 17th century England, where Wit was cherished; nor yet in 3rd century India, where demonstrations of the nine rasas, or artistic moods, were prized. And for that matter, that characterization of good poetry isn’t, even now, much of a general opinion: The poems of John Ashbery, Frederick Seidel, and Kay Ryan, to name three major American poets, happily ignore that deeply-felt-personal-emotion criterion, which wasn’t a catch-all even at the height of the Romantic Era—think Byron’s Don Juan, or Shelley’s dramatic poem The Cenci, or Keats’s “Isabella, or the Pot of Basil,” a retelling of Boccaccio that has, it would seem, absolutely nothing to do with Keats’s personal life or feelings.
Verse, then. If “Poetry” is a shifty critter, surely the nuts and bolts of good verse are teachable? Iambs and slant rhyme, right? Ah, but even the most basic-seeming truth about the art of verse—for example, that a good poet avoids using words solely as metrical fillers—is not a universal truth. Even the so-called “formalists,” who fixate on meter, rhyme, and forms like the sonnet, believe this; they are always on the lookout for a “padded line.” Yet metrical fillers are a staple of verse technique in Homer; there’s a reason Zeus is “cloud-gathering Zeus” even when he’s just answering something his wife said, why Apollo is “far-shooting Apollo” even when he’s doing nothing of the sort. In the Eastern tradition, the Bhagavad-Gita is rife with words added for the sake of meter, usually eva, an equivalent of the word “indeed.” Not to mention the Homer-like, opportunistic use of epithets that suspiciously fill out a line with exactly the right number of syllables. Yet the systematic proliferation of padded lines hasn’t kept the Gita being revered as scripture by millions of people, myself included, nor has it kept Homer from being regarded as one of the supreme practitioners of poetry in the Western tradition. We don’t like metrical fillers (probably because we don’t like regular meter very much: another convention), but the art of poetry, considered as a whole, has no such qualms.
This is why I have never wished to teach poetry writing, and I wouldn’t know where to start or what to say if I had to.
I can imagine taking this approach: “Okay, let’s learn about the conventions governing contemporary American poetry as it’s written today, or at least that subset of conventions (because conventions vary from subgroup to subgroup) which produce (what I think is) effective poetry. There’s pretty much no way you’ll see why much contemporary poetry is ‘good’ unless someone points out what you need to look for and appreciate: the conventions that govern it have evolved in a closed system of universities, and it does not ‘make sense’ in the manner of everything else you read (including poets from many centuries ago). It’s not supposed to make paraphrasable prose sense, and that’s one of the many ways it’s ‘good,’ and by ‘good’ I mean that it’s written in the way specified by contemporary conventions.”
But immediately, I would feel the need to add: “Of course, by ‘learning’ how to write contemporary poetry, with your syllabus being mostly poets from the past century or so, and several of your models still alive, you will become experts in producing poetry that understands and perhaps even plays with those conventions. But whether you’re knowingly honoring or knowingly subverting those conventions, those conventions will govern your work; you will be, by definition, a ‘conventional’ poet; and so, in a way, I’ll have done you a disservice. On the other hand, you will be more likely to actually get published. But what you’ll have written will be that much more unlikely to be read.”
And then I would have to explain further: “Of course, it is impossible to write poems that ignore all conventions; conventions are actually necessary, they constitute a consensus, or at least a local consensus (given our fragmented and heterogenous poetic culture), about what is Good, and what is Bad. Padded lines, for example, are Bad; deeply felt personal emotion is Good. Different notions of the Good and the Bad in poetry pertained in different times; and most great poets, except maybe Emily Dickinson, have towed the line, wherever the line happened to be drawn in their particular century. It’s why they’ve come down to us at all; they impressed somebody. So learn these conventions, and honor/subvert them, even if those conventions make your work turn off the majority of literate Americans (which–ask any publisher–they do). Because the hardest-to-die poetic convention, the one that has survived even the Modernist revolution, is the very convention a statistical majority of your countrymen find toxic: the linebreak.”
And so, having asserted and retracted and re-asserted, and having utterly disheartened myself, I would leave my podium, tender my resignation, and go back to my day job.