Friday, September 28, 2012

The Ballad of the Eagerly Terrified Poets

I'm teaching a creative writing class this year for the first time in several years. I have a great bunch of kids -- nice, eager and engaged. Still, I've been reminded of several things about teenagers and creative writing, but in a more vivid way than before.

Little children create without hesitation, but once we hammer them with a heapin' helpin' of schoolin' -- into their teenaged years -- they become terrified of it. I'd even go so far as to say they are embarrassed by it. Most of them anyway.

This is what I meant awhile ago when I referenced an American over-emphasis on science and math. As I said before, these subjects are important, on many practical (and necessary) levels, but they tend to bully away the humanities; science and math tend to become the rock stars and the humanities and arts are just the road crew: the show couldn't go on without them, but they never get the groupies or the spotlight.

My teenaged students are terrified of "doing it wrong" when I ask them to write a poem, even when I let them do their own thing; maybe especially so. If I give them a free-verse poem with no constraints and guidelines, they will write one and ask if it is "okay." All I can do is to respond by saying, "Of course it's okay." I make it a point of saying that before I look at the poem.

They are so used to being evaluated at every step, they expect me to whip out a rubric and say: "10 pts. for iambic tetrameter; 10 for couplet rhymes; 5 for including three internal rhymes; 5 for using enjambment once..." but, I'm not doing that and it is freaking some of them out.

Now, one can see why grade rubrics are important in education -- they give the kids clear goals and they minimize subjectivity. But, if we start making the writing of poetry into a methodical game of point-gathering, we are in big, fat trouble.

That said, today I told them we were going to write a villanelle -- a very difficult and complicated poetic form. (See the most famous of all, here.) Their reaction to this: eagerly terrified. (One student did ask if it was too late to drop the class... It is. Mmmmmuhahahahaaah!) However...this, they can sink their teeth into; this is familiar; it's like getting hit with a mound of homework: a clear if unpleasant challenge.

Maybe the marriage of structure and creative freedom will open things up a bit. They are getting better every day and producing some excellent stuff.

I just think we are taking good kids and ratcheting them up so tightly with responsibility and practicality and we're hitting them so hard with an emphasis on the achievement of measurable goals and yummy rewards that we are forgetting to teach them to just express themselves. (Unless by expressing themselves, we mean scoring well on the SAT writing section and --say it with me -- getting into a good college.)

Well, I'm gonna fight a little of the good fight this year with my fledgling poetry buddies. They're good kids. They deserve to take a break from cutting the grass and just jump in the cool river and swim. (But that doesn't mean they don't have to do their homework.)


  1. Oh, I so hate "Dead Poets Society," and that scene most of all. Never in the history of modern literature textbooks has there been a book that proposed reducing poems to points on a graph--yet I know people my age who believe, almost religiously, that that's what most English classes used to do and often still do.

    I suppose I was burned (and bored) by the free-for-all emphasis on "self-expression" growing up. I took years of "art" classes in the New Jersey public school system, but when I look back, I realized I *learned* nothing. I didn't learn about the history of art; I didn't learn how to understand art; I didn't learn composition, color theory, or the uses of various media or tools. No wonder later generations of educrats found those classes so easy to cut!

    (I was very resentful about this for a long time. In college, I would meet kids, usually from expensive or elite schools, who knew their way around museums, knew what all that stuff was in an art store, and knew how to sit down and effortlessly make a sketch. I spent years teaching myself what 1970s state curriculum designers decided I didn't deserve to know.)

    That's why I like "the marriage of structure and creative freedom." I'm heartened to see that your kids are learning, for example, what a villanelle is. The shapes of our words and phrases have names; form gives ideas shape and shows us things we didn't even know we were thinking, in infinite variety. Teach them that form is a tool for focusing, refining, and unlocking their thoughts rather than stifling them and you'll be doing their brains an immeasurable favor.

    1. Hi, Jeff -- yes -- the "Pritchard" intro in that video is so very perfect for the point being made, but it is certainly an exaggeration of any real view of poetry in history. My brother-in-law and I often talk about the problem of "feel-good" art, too -- that it is a shame that some kids think that they can become a good artist without knowing who went before them and how they did what they did. The message in the scene above is a reaction to pendulum swings in theory, I guess -- if an artificial one. I almost feel like the teaching of English has reached the level of the one in the film, though -- it's a shame that everything has to be quantified. People are, in fact, starting to treat literature like a science, all maps and charts and the like. For my kids, I want them to be able to write rhymed couplets in iambic, but I also want them to spin wild free verse rhymes -- to feel comfortable with and without rules. But without the nuts and bolts, art can't flourish -- I agree.

    2. Oh, and your last paragraph is almost a verbatim representation of my words to them at the beginning of their first class. Creativity is inspired by form, not crushed by it. Slowly, they are seeing that.

  2. Structure is good. Form is good. Can be amazingly freeing, in fact. Many visual artists prefer to work with a spare and basic palette of a dozen colors or less.

    Your high school kids will remember and thank you for providing some boundaries. I can still recall my junior year of H.S. in which I studied and practiced writing formal poetry, e.g., haiku, triolet, villanelle, and sonnet forms come to mind.

    But I echo Jeff and his comment about the serious gaps in public education (and I too am a product of such) and the difference betx what privilege buys compared with public. One day, while going through a museum in D.C. a few years back, I happened to be tagging along behind a couple of young women, possibly late teen years in age. I could sense by their conversation and their choice of language that they knew in the most intimate way all about the art we were viewing and that the curatorial notes were mere adornment for them.

    I can still remember one of them drawing near to the piece and making an observation that sounded, well, so authoritative. It was the way she had, her worldview almost, of examining the piece and then expounding on it that pointed out my own deficiencies in understanding.

    But I listened and learned and perhaps in the end, that remains all we can do. Even when we are old.

    1. Hi, Elsa Louise. Even in composition, there was a trend in the 70's and 80's to have the college kids write nothing but personal essays: express, express, express was the message, which is, or course, nonsense. You can't go wrong with the Aristotelian modes, for my money.

      Sadly, I only had a few art classes in high school, one of them in cartooning. But I agree with you and Jeff that we need to give our kids some classical background and not just set them at a table with paints and tell them to "feel and express." Now, though, I see education as a pendulum swung the other way: no expression, all recall, with only token stabs at analysis and creativity and synthesis. Writing is taught with formulae. In my college classes, I have a hell of a time getting the kids to let go of the 5 paragraph essay lifeline and start structuring things with instinct, reason and creativity of their own. Many of them write with clarity, brevity and precision, but with no risk or depth.

      BALANCE is what I'm going for. I'd hate to turn out students who can't wildly bang the drum and then go play some Bach on the harpsichord.

      Thanks, as always, for commenting.

  3. I should have thought Empson's "Missing Dates", or one of those around the theme "I die of thirst beside the fountain" (, perhaps for us Anglophones Richard Wilbur's ( would have been the most famous. Certainly I prefer Empson and Wilbur to Thomas.

    I do not think we should be teaching kids how to express themselves, we should be teaching them how to write and speak. They can express themselves when their selves are better formed, and they will be grateful for the guidance. I suspect that a system that says "write a Spenserian sonnet using the following rhymes, and you will be graded entirely on rhyme and meter" would be easier on the kids and less resented than one that says "write me a sincere essay."

    1. George -- I don't think anything should be excluded; expression and structure and expression and the lack thereof (to some extent, anyway) are all parts of poetry, for me. In working with these kids day after day, though, I see them struggling to allow themselves to open up and create; it's sad. They haven't been given permission for creative catharsis; they have been taught to see education as a contest instead of as an opportunity to enrich their lives. That's heartbreaking to me. I'm more worried about their hearts than their minds on this one. I suppose it is easy to label this as a corny viewpoint, but...well, there it is. BUT, that all said, a balance is everything. Grammar, diction, etc. are all part of the stew. I'm certainly not a hippie-poet. In fact, one of the first things I write on the board in class is: "inspiration is unecessary, but it's nice when you can get it." They're going to crank out whatever I ask for, whether sonnets or prose-poems or free-writes. I just want them to find the full range of their heads.

      I'm with you on the Empson and the Wilbur, by the way, but I think the general audience knows Thomas best.

    2. I find, by the way, that the Wilbur is not, as I remembered it a villanelle. Nothinng like failed pedantry, is there? But more later on your topic.

    3. Really? Power of suggestion, I suppose -- I bought it hook, line and sinker. Haha.

    4. (Whatever form it is, I do remember having liked it quite a bit.)