On Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook

Dan Rosenberg

Ed. Joshua Marie Wilkinson. University of Iowa Press: Iowa City, IA, 2010. 344 pages. $29.95.

Poets on TeachingMost of us who teach poetry are just making it up as we go. We cobble together our syllabi from a hodgepodge of pedagogic elements we’ve cribbed, inherited, and adapted from our teachers, along with a smattering of our own ideas. Eventually, from these exercises and approaches, a teaching style emerges, solidifies. How robust it is, how much it exceeds mimicry of our mentors, depends in part on the breadth of our stolen materials. Poets on Teaching is a diverse, rich source from which to thieve.

The authors of these ninety-nine short essays on the intersection of poetry and pedagogy span the aesthetic spectrum but are united in the belief that the practice of poetry has a place in the academy. They have rejected the picture of poetry as an isolated art and adapted to the realities of twenty-first century America, where the academy is the default home of the poet, where the university system is the new patronage system.

The essays range from practical writing assignments to lyric meditations on poetics. Jenny Boully offers a manifesto-like definition of poetry as “an instant in which transcendence is achieved, where a miracle occurs, and knowledge, experience, and memory are obliterated and transformed into awe.” Like many of the contributors, Boully worries, Can poetry be taught? Her tangential answer invokes the difference between tools and their purposes: “These things can be learned: rhythm, rhyme, imagery, metaphor, form, synecdoche, line. The tools of the poetry trade are there; they are easily given over to you. But do you know what use there is for metaphor or what form is for?”

Wilkinson has arranged the essays in clusters that rebound off of each other, sometimes in mutual support and sometimes in contradiction. Fred Moten follows Boully’s metaphysical essay with more casual, quotidian remarks: “Maybe poetry is what happens on the bus between wanting and having.” Similarly, Lisa Jarnot’s fiery denunciation of MFA programs leads directly into Juliana Spahr and Joshua Clover’s opening line: “Twelve people sitting around a table talking about poems is not going to ruin poetry.” Such juxtapositions are fun, but they also suggest a strength of this sourcebook: it has no allegiance to any particular camp, aesthetic, or agenda, and instead celebrates the multitudes that poetry contains.

Despite this polyvalence, there are several unifying assumptions in Poets on Teaching. Memorization, once a cornerstone of any aspiring poet’s education, seems to have fallen out of fashion. The tension between teaching and entertaining never arises as a concern, and students’ pleasure and surprise often appear as inherent goods. Is this a healthy reclamation of poetry’s pleasures, or a cynical/pragmatic attempt to keep student enrollment and teacher evaluation scores up? The generosity of spirit in many of these essays suggests the former, but the specter of the latter hovers, unaddressed, over this anthology.

Several contributors perform a familiar weirdness, suggesting that they worry about sufficiently distinguishing themselves from Comp teachers—as artists, not academics. Their essays present poetry as antithetical to the rhetorical writing that students grind out in other classes, and their advice matches this resistance to the conventionally academic. John Gallaher notes that, for poetry, “the point to a prompt is never the rules of the prompt, but the action of distracting oneself from working one’s imagination too hard on the surface of the poem.” Linh Dinh advises his students, “Don’t be afraid to be as weird—meaning as PECULIARLY YOU—as possible. . . . Be as crazy and as perverse as possible, be inspired to the point of madness, but don’t be glib.” Hadara Bar-Nadav makes thoughtful connections between poetry courses and studio art, advocating for the poetry workshop as a space to create (rather than just talk about) poems. These contributors agree that poetry has a place in the academy, but they struggle usefully with delineating the dimensions of that place.

Many also frame poetry teaching as a kind of damage control, an attempt to undo the harm that years of American education does to students’ poetic sensibilities. These teachers see their task as restoring students to a more natural relationship with language. Karen Volkman: “Like many poets, my deepest wish in teaching is to reawaken such a state of immediate engagement with language, as though we were first discovering the word krill or lava, and taking pleasure in the new realm of sensations it ignites in the mind.” Tips abound for teachers aspiring to the same goal, from Stephen Burt’s guidelines for teaching “difficult” poems to Laynie Browne’s twenty-nine offbeat writing prompts.

Unfortunately, Wilkinson offers no particular guidance through the anthology for a reader faced with specific questions. He has divided the book into four broad sections, such as “Reflections/Poetics” and “Exercises/Praxis,” which seem more useful for creating juxtapositions than for practical utility and quick browsing. I grouped the essays into my own categories, based on what would be most useful for my teaching, including “Teaching Poems I Dislike,” “Workshopping Bad Student Poems,” and “What Am I Even Doing Here?”

While some of this book rehashes well-worn notions, it is wide-ranging enough that each of us can find new wisdom—even if it comes from recycled advice. In fact, I’m not sure if the most useful parts of this book are the new ideas or the better articulations of old ideas. I’m excited to try having my students make Sasha Steensen’s “Five-Minute Chapbooks.” And the next time a student praises clichéd writing as “easy to relate to,” I’ll have Mark Yakich’s response on the tip of my tongue: “If your main claim to a poem is that you can relate to it, you aren’t reading it sufficiently. Poems are not meant to be related to; they are meant to offer you something you didn’t know, experience, or imagine before.” I’ve muddled through an explanation along those lines countless times; it’s not a new idea. But watching someone else grapple with a familiar problem illuminates my own approach, and I believe I’ll be a better teacher for it.

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