Poets on Teaching

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Stephen Burt


<p>How to Teach "Difficult" Poetry and Why It Might Not Be So Difficult after All STEPHENBURT Any poem is difficult to talk about, to like, and hence to teach if you don't know how it operates, ifyou don't have the words to describe it, just as any poem is easy to talk about-though not, perhaps, easy to love- ifyou have the wordsand the experience to describe what the poem has been doing. What we find difficult, what we find enjoyable, what we find comprehen-sible (not that wecan't enjoy what's not yet comprehensible), flow inevi-tably from what we already understand, what gives us a purchase on art, what gives us a way in. The appreciation of any art, the ability to get inside it and see how the work is put together, what it is trying to do, comes in part from our experi-ence of prior, related- maybe distantly related- art, related art with which we feel more comfortable, art we think we in part understand. That's true forartists(seeE.H.Gombrich, Art and Illusion), it's true for students, and it's true for readers, listeners, and viewers of almost anything: If you know how to like Johnny Cash, you are more likely to know how to like both Bright Eyes and Hank Williams, Sr.;if you already know how to like Seamus Heaney, you are more likely to know how to like William Words-worth (and the other way around, though readers outside classrooms are more likely to encounter Heaney first);if youalready know how to like William Carlos Williams and Emily Dickinson, you are more likely to like Rae Armantrout. Wearealsomore likely to enjoy any kind of representational art if we are familiarwith what it represents, or at least with prior depictionsof what it represents (see Gombrich again). If you are teaching Armantrout to people who have never read, or never learned how to like, Williams or Creeley or Dickinson (or Niedecker,but almost no one lovesNiedecker withoutalready enjoying Williamsor Dickinson),youshouldconsider yourself lucky if those people are familiar with the plastic sameness of our warm-weather suburbs and new-model cities; with left-wing critiques of such sameness; with feminist critiques of the patriarchal family and the ideology of motherhood;with the student movements of late1960sand 18} tl theearly1970s,thereject-everything-old,build-something-brand-new ethos within and against which Armantrout's skeptical, terse sensibility formed (see Armantrout's memoir True).Once you have figured out what might be represented in a poem-and "what," for Armantrout, can be any-thing from "patriarchal ideology" to a bit of cactus, a dream about cartoon characters, or a lamppost-you are on your way to seeing how that "what" gets represented, how the verbal and formal choices within the poem (line length, choice among synonyms, order of details, notable omissions, etc.) add, to that "what," a "how" and a "why" and a "who." But you might need some help (from a teacher, for example) in figuringout what to look for, what might be represented, first. As you might gather, I do teach even "difficult" modernist and contem-porary "experimental" poetry asrepresentational works:it seems to me that even the poets most distant from prose paraphrase- Rae Armantrout and Ron Silliman, but also Mebdh McGuckian, and Dylan Thomas-still use words, and that words have meanings, separately and in combination, and that our students should figure out what those meanings are.Some-timesthe meanings in combinations of words have little to do with the meanings,and theapparent referents,the wordswouldhavesingly,or in most prose, and much more to do with perlocutionary acts (Silliman's book-length poem beginning "Not this"), or with jokes about the social or literary contexts the words acquire in groups: "representations" ofthe per-locutionary actscorresponding to "Goaway!"or "Ha, ha!" or "Yuck!" or ''I'm taking my marbles and going home;' for example, are ways into Flarf (I have not taught a Flarfbook yet, though I might teach Katie Degentesh that way someday soon). What you find difficult depends on what youalready find easy;what you find comprehensible or enjoyable depends on what you already know. Randall Jarrell used to say that when he taught in Austria,hisstudents found "The WasteLand" easy and Frost hard because they were used to Eliot'smoves,havingencounteredtheminotherlanguages,otherart forms (e.g., modern painting), or in daily life:Europe as rubble, the world as disillusioned collage, the poet as Tiresias, helpless latecomer to history. Frost's people, Frost's world,and even Frost's kindsof poetry (American eclogues,dramatic monologues,and neo-pastorallyrics) were not what the Austrians thought modern poems could be. The most difficult poets for moderately well-prepared undergraduates to appreciate arenot con-temporary poetsof anysort:they arethepoets from before18oowho fit neither modernist, nor Romantic, nor "confessional," nor avant-garde, Bu1t{ 19 tl frame-breaking,shock-the-audiencemodes.Amongallthepoetswho have exerted agreat deal of influence over the course of the English lan-guage, the hardest to teach now is almost surely John Dryden. All poetry is difficult if you don't have a way in, a sense of what's repre-sented how (which allows you to ask why);all poetry can be enjoyable, if not easy, if a teacher can make clear that way.I have seen West Coast poets with impeccable "experimental" pedigrees declare with some pride that it's easier toteach beginners how to read Stein,or Williams,or Arman-trout, than to teach the more advanced students schooled,or deformed, by reading (say) Heaney or Frost: the poets who say such things think that they are making a point against older forms of poetry, older modes of edu-cation, but really they are just demonstrating that teachers give students (among other things) expectations, and that students, in our culture, pick up few expectations about poetry outside of class. That means that the analogies most useful in teaching many contempo-rary poets are not analogies linking one poet to others, one kind of page-based poetry toanother kind, but analogies between a kind of poetry,a book of poems,and someother kind of art form- kindsof pop songs, kindsof non-song-based pop music, kinds of prose (love letters, op-eds, satire ala The Onion, blogs), kinds of film, or kinds of scenes in films. You shouldn't stop with those analogies, since all good poems use tools specific to poetry, but they can make the best places to start. 2 0}Bu1t tl Teaching An Improvisation JULIECARR From 1988 until 2000 I spent most of my time performing, studying, and teaching dance in New York City.Iwas dancing under the shadow of the Judson Church era of experimental danceand performance, training in somethingcalled"releasetechnique,"inascenewheredemocratically organized collaboration was the dominant ethos, and abstraction, juxta-position,and improvisation were preferred over narrative,lyricism,and regulation. The dances I watched and participated in, whether improvised or choreographed, were one of my primary ways of experiencing art and others.Iunderstand that much more now than Idid then.Now,when Imeet anew person or am struggling tounderstand someone,Ioften dream of him or her dancing or dream that we are dancing together. And, when I think about my teaching, it is often in terms of dance. When we created a dance it was generally first a shape, a texture, and a series of timings. Rarely, if ever, did we begin with an "about," or a narra-tive.Instead: heavy here, heavier there, four people for fiveminutes, two for two minutes, slow over here, then still (the most still thing is the thing that has just finished moving or is just about to). Whatever it was we had to say in these dances we said by way ofthe abstractions oftime, space, and numbers. Narrative and emotion were the direct results ofthese things. (If you do not know what I mean, watch any dance by Trisha Brown or Merce Cunningham, or rent the video "Fall After Newton," which features semi-nal improvisers Nancy Stark Smith and Steve Paxton.) Once, Jeff Bliss, who had been offstage, shot upstage at full speed and without warning dove headfirst into a rather still line of people. After that, the space wasutterly changed;everything that happened before hisap-pearance and everything that happened after would now be in reference to him. That one spontaneous and indecipherable choice organized forty minutes of movement.Such a thing can happen on a page with the sur-prising introduction of a series of words, a single word, or even a sound. Teachingpoetry writingis,forme,firstabout teaching thiskind of listening:a listening for language'sabstractions.Iwant my studentsto {2 1 tl become moreattuned to language'snonsayings.In writing or reading a poem, I want us to focus first on the visual or textural aspects of the words and page, or to focus on sound. (Often these are indistinguishable; sound and shape cannot, in poems, easily be divided.) One ruleof improvisation that Iattempt tocarry into my teaching: assume the other'sperfection. Everything your fellowimprovisers do is, by definition,perfect.If youdo find yourself critical of your fellowper-formers' choices, if you perceive them as in error, it is you,and not they, who will end up looking foolish. Instead, you must find a way to meet and support the excellent choices that the others are making. Similarly, when Iam teaching,Iassume the poem in front of us isal-ready masterful. It is my job to support its mastery. Sometimes that mas-tery is hidden. There is some noise in the way or some excess. Sometimes the poem's brilliance lies only in one phrase, the rest being a kind of pro-tection,a kind of padding. As a class we work to reveal that bit of clarity. We listen for it and articulate it, so that it can, in turn, speak itself I assign ten to fifteen books a semester. Each one I hope to be challeng-ing, difficult, and astounding- at least to someone. And each book should make evident some aspect of the history that has created our contempo-rary writing situation. I am not only assigning books as examples of what can be done, I am also assigning them as portals into the history of poetry. Just as the dancer who knows the vocabularies of ballet, soft shoe, mime, Cunningham,Paxton,or Brown can reveal that knowledge with a single sweep of the arm, the poet whose memory includes Dickinson, Browning, Hopkins, Akhmatova, Celan,Olson,Beckett,Stevens,Guest (thislist is purely improvisatory and cannot be completed) can express these memo-ries in a direct line of description. People often say that teaching isan honor. Iagree with this,and Iadd that it isalsoa way of honoring other people. Teaching providesoppor-tunities for a kind of abstract affection, circumscribed by precise rituals, thriving within very particular walls. When I am teaching I do not imagine that I am turning nonwriters into writers. Rather, I am attempting to look through whatever obstructions present themselves in order to discover the expertise of any person in the room. This requires a constant humility: For if I cannot see what the person is doing, or what the poem is doing, then it is not the fault of the writer, but of myself If I am rushing, or too absorbed by my own preoccupations, I will miss it. And that will be my loss.I will be the one who has, in failing to recognize another's perfection, failed to create something meaningful out of the time available. 22}GmT tl Improvisatory dance, like jazz, givesthe audience a chance to observe the mind of the performer observing itself in action.It might seem that writing cannot mimic the movement of improvisation. Its stillness on the page freezes that process, presenting only thought after the fact. But writ-ing that is still in question, that isopen fortransformation, retains this sense of adventureand curiosity.One of thegoalsof my teaching,then, is to encourage even finished works to somehow hold on to this quality of exploration, this not-yet-arriving. The writing I like best, like the dances I like best, reveal the curious process of the mind watching itself move. A teacher from high school once told me that if you can't write well, you can't think complexly.I find this to be deeply true and would take it fur-ther: If I am not writing, I am not thinking much. I write in order to think. And Iteach writing in order to regularly observethe often-spectacular travel of other minds. Can{23 tl The Craft Can Be Taught but Not the Art TIMOTHY LIU Igrow more and more convinced that whilepoetic craft can be taught, the writing of poetry cannot. What I can provide as a teacher is something akin to being an eye, a friend, an editor, a cheerleader, a collaborator. What cannot be taught is how to beef up the imagination, let alone have a real vision (in the religious sense). When I was called to be a Mormon mission-ary,I reported to the MTC (Missionary Training Center) in Provo, Utah, in order to receive an eight-week crash course in not only learning how to speak Cantonese but also in adopting various local social customs pertain-ing to various dos (bring fruit asa gift when invited to dinner) and don'ts (but never bring fourpieces of any fruit because the number four signi-fies death).And yes, while I was diligent in my studies and curious about the new adventures that it seems I had already been embarking on,such training did not turn me into the missionary I'd become; it only laid the ground. All of us there received whatever training there was to be had, but not all of us succeeded in subsequently bringing souls to Christ. So this is pretty much how I feel about other types of training like the MFA, such as having worked for WITS (Writers in the Schools) in Houston when I was a graduate student myself at the University of Houston (having worked with the likes of Richard Howard, Cynthia Macdonald, Ed Hirsch, and Adam Zagajewski).Or having pursued an additional stable of Pulitzer stallions throughout my formativeyears(DonaldJustice,Mark Strand,Charles Simic, James Tate). Or having the eyes of Gordon Lish on everything that I wrote while he was editing The Quarterly. As a nascent poet, I was a col-lector of books,of texts,of lives lived,of tales told.It wasasimportant then to have veteran eyes on rookie work (and my eyes on their work)as it is now.I can't imagine living the life of poetry without having hung out with other living artists. Or cozying up with the great dead through their own accounts in verse and prose and through biographies and sundry mis-sives.Ilove how Allen Tate'swifecalled Allen over to their kitchen win-dow one morning and said, look! There's a tent pitched on our front lawn!" only for the couple to later discover that it was the young Robert tl Lowell who had shown up in the middle of the night, eager to make con-tact. I remember meeting Linda Gregg in Aspen, Colorado, back in 1990, following her around town and crowning her mane with daisies. We only get to be green once. If there were, say,a school...</p>