Sunday, November 02, 2008

Nothing Up My Sleeve, or, Teaching the Extraverts

There are two kinds of people: those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don't. Clearly I'm the first kind, though I try to remain skeptical and self-conscious about my own tendency to do so, and so is the artist referred to universally on the Lake Forest College campus simply as "Archambeau." He has a fascinating recent blog post titled Roberto Bolaño and the Extravert Muse that uses the Jungian categories of "intravert" and "extravert" to characterize artists and their relationship to their work (or maybe more precisely, their muses). As Bob points out, these categories roughly correspond to Schiller's "sentimental" and "naive" modes of poetry, and one could actually easily come up with one of those x/y columns like the ones that I remember use to lay out the vulgar distinction between modernism and postmodernism. So:

meaning creates music
the 18th Century
traditional form
music creates meaning
the 19th Century
open form
One could easily make too much of this. But like all such divisions, as a quick graph it has some utility, and just now what concerns me is the problem it suggests (Bob touches on this too) for the teacher of creative writing. It's relatively easy to teach the first column, and in fact the notion of poetry as teachable derives from that zone. What's seemingly impossible to teach is the second column, and that more romantic notion of what a poet is inspires the saying, "Poets are born, not made," and lead all sorts of people to doubt and calumnify the value of creative writing programs. The best we may be able to do, as Bob suggests, is to offer students Noulipo-type constraints which will produce a poem of the second column using the methodology of the first.

The alternative that I've seen put into practice most often relies on sheer charisma: the students sit at the feet of a poet-guru who may or may not be able to articulate the rules of craft, but whose value as a teacher relies largely on simple proximity. The poet-guru is a role model for how to be Dionysus in a world run by cut-rate Apollos: a lady of first permission, to paraphrase Duncan. Jorie Graham is such a teacher, and a wildly effective one (you can see it in her hair), but it's a pedagogical mode that is itself unteachable. And in a way, to be an extravert teacher doesn't at all address the problem of being an effective teacher of an exravert student. The very framework of the academic creative writing classroom and workshop is intraverted, and the charisma of the extravert teacher may actually do more to loosen up her intravert students than it is likely to foster a sense of permission among those already basically alienated by the workshop structure. What I've seen more often is high- or low-speed collisions between teachers and students of the same extraverted ilk, resulting as often in confusion and bitterness as it does in a sense of discipleship (itself a problematic outcome).

The extraverted students of mine that I can identify are few in number; I think it takes a sense of self unusual in an undergraduate to share writing that one can't or won't explain (most of my creative writing students are ready and eager to explain their work: "No, see, what I meant here was..."). They come to me sometimes expressing frustration with their workshop group, whose response to their original, striking, but messy work is generally one of bafflement. I try to offer them my encouragement and appreciation for what they do, which is after all the poetry I'm most inclined to think of as "the real thing." If they're receptive, I also try to verse them in the intraverted language that can be so helpful to a poet when it comes to presenting his or her work, but is even more important as a shield: the worst thing that can happen to such a poet is if someone steals or vandalizes or changes the channel on the radio from which he receives his Martian transmissions. I point this out more often in my modern poetry lit class: how necessary it is for many poets to be tricksters, to come up with a convincing stream of patter to distract the critics from their essentially ecstatic practices. The alternative for many has been drugs and alcohol, which is of course in the long run as fatal to one's self as to one's art. If Hart Crane had come up with some decent patter for Yvor Winters, he might have lived longer.

When I've taken the Jung-inspired Myers-Briggs personality test, I come up as an INFP: an Introverted Intuitive Feeling Perceiver. But it's always a close thing: my scores hover around the fifty-percent mark in three of the four categories and if I just answered a few questions differently it's conceivable I'd turn out an ENTJ—an Extroverted Feeling Thinking Judger. That suggests a degree of ambidexterity, or maybe a comfort zone that's broad enough to be fungible. Because I can talk the intraverted, craft-y, Apollonian talk as a teacher and critic and inveterate categorizer; but when I write poetry, I don't feel at all the sense of Arnoldian mastery and control that I imagine the true intravert poet does. The words lead me on, and only retroactively can I construct the narrative that might help me present that work for an audience of listeners or editors. I'm not lying when I explain my poems, but I don't feel like I'm being true to my process either, because the meaning of my work, to me, only becomes hazily apparent when I read it.

Only to friends and intimates am I comfortable admitting that I don't know what something I wrote is about—yet. For everyone else, I've got the necessary patter. Nothing in my hand, nothing in my other hand, nothing up my sleeve. Asking myself at every moment of the act: is this my card?

ADDENDUM - 11/3/08

A remarkably relevant paragraph from Adam Gopnik's essay "Last of the Metrozoids," which my creative writing students are reading in Heather Sellers' The Practice of Creative Writing. Can't help but see its relevance for our political moment as well:
It is said sometimes that the great teachers and mentors, the rabbis and gurus, achieve their ends by inducting the disciple into a kind of secret circle of knowledge and belief, make of their charisma a kind of gift. The more I think about it, though, the more I suspect that the best teachers—and, for that mater, the truly long-term winning coaches, the Walshes and Woodens and Weavers—do something else. They don't mystify the work and offer themselves as a model of rabbinical authority, a practice that nearly always lapses into a history of acolytes and excommunications. The real teachers and coaches may offer a charismatic model—they probably have to—but then they insist that all the magic they have to offer is a commitment to repetition and perseverance. The great oracles may enthrall, but the really great teachers demystify. They make particle physics into a series of diagrams that anyone can follow, football into a series of steps that anyone can master, and art into a series of slides that anyone can see. A guru gives us himself and then his system; a teacher gives us his subject, and then ourselves.

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