Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Teaching Poetry, Tossing the Coin


Most of my poetry students come to my classes with the goal of self-expression. They come to poetry with their ideas of themselves already formed, complete and entire. They seek to render, boldly or shyly, entirely “as is,” their ideal selves with sentences broken into lines. I do my level best to cut against this late-Romantic expressivist grain with a little old-fashioned constructivsm. I give them exercises and constraints, some Oulipo-inspired (S+7, abecedarian poems, lipograms, etc.) and some homegrown. One of my favorite tricks, usually at the beginning of the semester, is to ask them to write the worst poem they possibly can. The results are hilarious and raise student consciousness about the dangers posed by cliched images, overfamiliar or archaic diction, and clunky end-rhymes. To a greater or lesser degree this opens their ears and their eyes, and they start to think about poetry differently. All along, I’m working cheerfully to undermine the assumptions that they brought to the class, to fight a covert war against poetry as self-expression. It’s not that I’m against it per se, or that I’m on a moral crusade against the small-bore narcissism of Facebook and YouTube—I’m all for narcissism if it leads to interesting work. But I believe that poets, especially young poets, whether they realize it or not, write not to express the self but to discover it: to open the Russian doll of themselves, to give birth to multiplicities, to contain multitudes. Derrida wrote that there was nothing outside the text, infuriating just about everybody; but for me it’s an article of faith, at least as a poetry teacher, that the self is text, part of the larger weave of language, and a poet must find the seamy side of his or her particular embroidered corner and work it.


All semester, she’d endured the incomprehension of her classmates, while I gently and sometimes less gently tried to nudge her obvious talent toward something I could grasp, something I could recognize. She sank into stony silence while continuing to write baffling little poems, often with the grammar or syntax mangled to a degree that maddens because you can’t be sure if it’s deliberate or a mistake. The images spoke of something subterranean and grand, something having to do with sex, death, alcoholism, and a mother half helpless, half horrifying. They weren’t good poems but they were strong poems. I pointed out her mistakes, tried to encourage her, eventually just tried to avoid discouraging her. At semester’s end, in the artist’s statement I have each student append to his or her portfolio, she complained about the class. She’d felt humiliated by the experience of having her classmates read her poems, time and again, without ever getting them. They kept asking her, as I asked her, for clarity, though we meant different things by this. They wanted to know what the poem was about; I wanted the poem’s components, its lines and word choices, to ring more resonantly. She wrote a cry from the heart: “I don’t want to write from a place of clarity. I want to write from a more private, unseen place.” And reading this, after the class is over, no longer really her teacher, I want to applaud it even as I lament my inability to have seen that private place—not that I would intrude upon it, but that I could have felt its presence more palpably and encouraged its growth and slow revelation. She’s building a self, maybe several selves, maybe her mother’s self in new relation with her own. She’s doing it in language and she believes in the self. She’s a romantic, she’s a visionary, she’s clumsy as all hell. And I can’t, don’t, teach that. I gave her some tools, I got out of her way, but I didn’t get clear, and she didn’t. I hope she will. I hope she won’t.

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