Solitude or Community: Writing As It is Taught

Donald Justice | September 1980

Donald Justice

That gregarious and perfervid evangelist, Robert Bly, praises solitude for the poet-to rather large public gatherings, paradoxically enough; I, alone in my study, compose a few sentences in praise of community for the writer. But no writer, I think, can long thrive as merely one among many; nor is the hermit, clad in his rough skins, ever likely to take the measure of his vision except somehow in relation to society. Our choice of the destructive element in which to immerse may depend in the long run on temperament: for the solitary, society; for the sociable, solitude. There is in the lives of many writers, of course, a fruitful going back and forth between the two states and conditions. The great temptation of the community-minded must be to please his friends and editors; of the solitary-an even more dizzying temptation, I would think-to please, only himself. With the first type what might' be feared is a certain relaxation into the comfort of rules or of mere habit and custom, conveniently thought of as "the tradition"; with the second type, an abandonment not only of the past and its ways, but of any standards whatever, for standards may conveniently be seen as reflecting the accumulated prejudices and expectations of a community. The first type is the academic, the second the rebel or experimentalist. There is a notable tendency, even so, for the avant-garde to develop with something like the speed of the duplicating machine its own orthodoxies and academicians. And probably there are more clubby associations of so-called experimentalists, who have voluntarily surrendered their solitude for the strength of numbers, than of so-called traditionalists, who often appear to be individually isolated and rather enjoy feeling set apart.

A writing school, whether we like it or not, is by its own nature unavoidably lined up on the side of the community-minded. Ideally such a school might in fact become a little community of writers, with a common purpose perhaps, even if that purpose were no more strictly defined than to be writing marvelous stuff. A community, it might be, of numerous rather solitary spirits, who agreed to forego for the time being-and less for I the common good than for the private good of each-the more refined pleasures and higher spiritual rewards of solitude for the cruder democratic inconveniences and discomforts of intermingling. A tentative definition of the ideal writing school: a temporary community of solitary spirits all wishing to write marvelous stuff.

According to custom, the leaders of such communities are usually older writers, who presumably bring to the little community some sense of the larger world outside, as a corrective to too religious a devotion. And how such an authority-figure asserts his authority matters a good deal. Consider this, for instance, from the composer Poulenc's diary of an American tour a generation ago: "Heard this afternoon some works by young American composers. Gifted, certainly, lots of health, some technique, drive; but how dangerous are the lessons taken from the great composer- teachers. In Los Angeles the young musicians write like Schoenberg (which is where the master was then living and teaching), in Boston like Hindemith (the visitor must here have confused New Haven, where Hindemith was, with Boston, where the composer Piston taught). Milhaud alone, to the gratitude of his students, maintains in San Francisco a climate of electicism." At Iowa, where I teach, the most famous artist is a printmaker, and it is notorious that all of his students pass through a stage in which what they do resembles, to the best of their skill, and, it is whispered, at the insistence of their teacher, the work of the master himself, except of course for self-portraits. Writers are not alone, then, in exerting on their students a certain influence: The best applications to our graduate writing program often seem to come from young poets whose work resembles the work of Mark Strand, say, or Philip Levine, or Larry Levis, Levine's one-time pupil, or perhaps Richard Howard or Richard Hugo or Norman Dubie, etc. Almost always, looking the record up, one discovers the unremarkable coincidence that the young writer influenced by X studied with X. Such a measure of influence is not quite ideal, and yet it may be the only practical means of getting the job done, if the job is to be done at all, and sometimes of course I wonder about that. The exertion of influence does, however, turn into the inexcusable assertion of authority when it results in the dictation of rules for poetic conduct, often no more ,than whim, trivial and irrelevant, as if there did exist artistic commandments chiseled in granite. For example: Never begin a line with a capital letter; or the reverse of that; and so on, ad infinitum. It is still worse when authority results in the prescription of dogma and program, as with so-called Black Mountain poetry, which over the years has become an absolutist and, in my opinion, fascistic doctrine. Confucius describes the ideal this way: "There were four things from which the Master was entirely free. He had no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations, no obstinacy, and no egotism." We could travel many miles before we found a poet fulfilling Confucius' fourth condition-no egotism-, and a lack of obstinacy might prove almost as difficult to come by, but I do believe we should expect-and, as for me, insist on-the first two: no foregone conclusions, no arbitrary predeterminations.

To elaborate slightly: the ideal teacher would not so much influence others as discover the uniqueness of each writer and thereupon respond to and develop that, and the same for each piece of writing; at the same time, he would see the single piece and the individual writer in a larger setting, a wider and deeper context of language and tradition. All this would require much energy, discrimination, experience or intuition, considerable tolerance, and a great deal of time. I don't think it can be done but I don't think it should be forgotten as something to aim at either.

Ezra Pound may have been the teacher of the twentieth century who most nearly approached this ideal, if only for a very brief but very brilliant period, the London years during World War I. His letters to the youthful Iris Barry, for instance, bristle with what I think of as typical workshop criticism, some of it quite sharp, as one might predict.

The workshop by its very nature emphasizes, as Pound did in such cases, not inspiration but amendment, not the buried source but the visible result. The talk is not usually of creation but of revision. And since cutting is, I believe, normally the best form of revision, then Pound's editing of his friend's Waste Land may also stand as a kind of model, though I am likely to prove the only one who believes that on this one occasion at least the teacher cut too much. But such conscientious editing of a text, admirable and exemplary as it can be, has usually to be avoided in workshops because of the tender and insecure personality of the young writer, not to mention the possible incapacity of the teacher or friend who would too confidently volunteer for the task. As for Pound, at that period of his life, although pushing poetic reform, he had not yet settled into the more rigid dogmas that were to afflict his later opinions, and he was remarkably generous about all sorts of work, not only that which resembled his own (a blindness some teachers of writing do not, unfortunately, even wish to overcome); but Pound's work, after all, just about this time did resemble, among others, Browning, Li Po, Propertius, and the troubadors. An eclectism supremely healthy for the teacher, I have long been persuaded.

We would all know, whether we had ever been in a workshop or not, just about how this fairly peculiar American cultural phenomenon works. Even the English, who like to make fun of it, seem to have heard how it goes. A smallish group of writers, often mixed in ability, meet once a week or so for an hour or two to read-either out loud or from dittoed duplicates or both-pieces of their own work. After being read, the piece is then subjected to a process thought of as criticism, though it may amount to no more than an unconsecutive sequence of frivolous observations along the lines of: "Oh, that really works for me," which is, even so, almost certainly more useful than, "That word dancing is all wrong at the end there; it should be flying"-unless either sort of remark can be supported by reason or example. What I am describing sounds like a sort of club meeting, perhaps, or one of those antiquated debating societies where papers were read, or-if this were France-the salon, one of Mallarme's famous evenings, it may be. What the leader does is probably pretty much what the members do, but with more force and perhaps even more dogmatically. If the workshop is lucky, the criticism will be based on some sense of the tradition, esthetic truth, public expectation, etc. Of course it may not be. If my view sounds a little jaded, it is probably because, after all these years in the field, it is jaded. I am skeptical of the whole method. It may actually resemble less the club meeting I have suggested than something less happy, a session in group therapy; but what is being treated in the workshop is not the psyche itself but some written-out projection of that psyche which we call, out of courtesy, a poem, even if it is no more than a snippet from someone's personal journal or a childish, and possibly harmless, wordgame in the style of Kenneth Koch's grade-schoolers.

I sometimes think that we go through these ritualistic motions because that is simply how it has always been done. At Stanford, in 1948, with Yvor Winters, that was pretty much the way things went, though the sense of dogma was particularly strong with Winters, amounting to a secular faith. At Iowa, in the early fifties, the business of workshops whether conducted by Karl Shapiro, or Robert Lowell, or John Berryman, was pretty much the same, though less dogmatic than Stanford's. It is still much like that at Iowa, for better or worse. And it was so, I suspect, in universities at large even before we heard the term workshop applied to such classes, back when a class like this would have been called something like "Creative Writing: 101"-back, I mean, at the University of Miami, in the early forties (I speak from my own experience), with a very nice woman whose qualifications to teach writing were, aside from interest and availability, that she had written pageants at a good Eastern school for girls (as they were then) and for some public ceremony in Bayfront Park in downtown Miami. What I wonder is how, in the mists of the pre-workshop culture, did this method for con: ducting the actual class get devised? I have no idea, unless it does come from something like club meetings or perhaps seminars in which papers are read and discussed. In any case, I don't think it works very well. In my most cynical moods, it seems to me that its very inefficiency, its indirections and evasions, are positive, though unacknowledged, virtues-as if some inertia in the academy, or perhaps on the part of the bardic cult itself, worked to hinder and impede the dissemination of the craft and the passing on of any secret wisdom there may be. That, just possibly, would constitute a benefit.

Perhaps in the other arts as they are taught there are clues to a more appealing method? My researches have not been extensive. But I am still able to recall my instruction in music composition from Charles Ives' friend and peer, Carl Ruggles. Our lessons took place once a week, on Saturdays, and were private tutorials, lasting anywhere from 45 minutes to several hours. Each week I would be given an exercise to prepare, something simple on the order of harmonizing, according to good practice, one of the voice lines of a Bach chorale. After demonstrating my results and getting a mixture of praise and blame, equally welcome, I was allowed to show what I had been writing that week "on my own," as we thought of it-my free, unprescribed, more personal efforts. These then came in for praise or blame, as the case might call for-all taken seriously, with interest. Remarks like: Oh, but you mustn't double the voices there, the sound would be too muddy; or, how did you get from there to there? And then, usually, there would follow a demonstration by example-even if it was sometimes hard for me, being innocent, to perceive the connection-the example coming from something current by the master himself, rendered quite inadequately but very impressively on the piano, with much humming and shouting of the various parts. It was a fine show and highly instructive as well. Part of the instruction was surely the mere fact of being impressed. I have never forgotten those Saturdays. Of course, Ruggles had only three pupils most seasons, and lots of time for us.

I never studied art but imagine some such procedure as the method of the Art Students League generalized: a large room, probably a bit drafty, with numerous easels, at each of which a young painter stands, with palette, studying the arrangement of fruit and pitcher at the front of the room, or the model. While everyone works away at the given problem, the teacher is drifting around the room sizing up the work in progress and offering comments, suggestions for change or development or erasure or, when called for, compliments and admiring exclamations, and all this at the leisurely pace of a normal creative act. How pleasant this method is to contemplate! I imagine a large room with many writing tables, perhaps a model or arrangement of still-life as well, perhaps only an assignment (as, for instance, to write an elegy), and an instructor who drifts around the room looking over everyone's shoulder and offering enlightened observations. I really do think I would prefer teaching in this way. But it is not going to come to pass; the system is too deeply entrenched. In any case, we would be handicapped in dealing so immediately with the work before us, for there is nothing more than remotely analogous to the painter's typical observation: Ah, but the drawing of the arm is a little off. Or if there is, there may still be no common ground of belief which would allow the writer to correct, as we might say, the drawing of the arm. Nor do we have, really, the materials of an art to deal with in anything like the sense that painters, for example, do-the sheet of typing paper is no canvas, no copper plate, nor is the pencil a fine brush or burin. So that what often forms, I am told by painter friends, the subject of discussion in an art tutorial, the nature of the materials and their treatment, is not in the same way available to us, more's the pity. Probably the closest approximation to this aspect of the case is simply the formal character of the piece of writing. But much of what we see in workshops has, to tell the truth, no formal interest whatever: the psychology- the soul, even-of the poem is directly engaged, without intervention of the medium, the material, the formal character.

The first poet I knew was a gifted young man, now forgotten, named George Marion O'Donnell, a 2nd-generation Fugitive, whose only collection of verse, so far as I know, appeared in one of those New Directions collections of young authors in the same series with John Berryman and Randall Jarrell. I knew him through correspondence first. He used to mark the poems I sent with plus or minus marks in the margins and a few very perceptive and friendly remarks written out, usually at the foot of the page, again a mixture of praise and blame, both of which I was very glad to receive. I met him once. What I chiefly remember is his willingness to talk at length about writing and writers, past and present, telling me, as I still remember, of how he had suggested a change of word in the last line of an early Delmore Schwartz poem. Schwartz was his friend and the suggestion had been adopted-very thrilling to the aspiring young writer that was, somehow; and out of such an experience one might perhaps imagine or extrapolate an infinite series of workshop experiences spinning off, in which O recommends to S this or that change, which S gratefully adopts. He read to me two pieces which I likewise recall, Hardy's "The Convergence of the Twain" (I had known only "The Darkling Thrush" and "The Oxen"-the diction of the Titanic poem was a bizarre revelation that has always since seemed a sort of touchstone to me) and the horrific passage from Dante featuring poor Ugolino (giving me in one stroke a lesson in the power of drama and character and image and feeling all combined). In short, I learned a great deal, as it seemed to me, from simple and obvious methods, methods that were not even methods, I suppose, but more what one friend might do for another. Of course, so far as I know, I was his only pupil, at least that year, and Mr. O'Donnell must have had considerable time to pay attention to the poems I sent him through the mails, for which I remain grateful.

It should be clear that I am not at all happy with the present arrangements, but neither do I have any sweeping reforms to propose. Good writing may happen because of us who are involved with workshops-or in spite of us; because of a cracker-barrel mystic like Robert Bly, who finds a perverse joy in attacking the workshops which once nurtured him and which still contribute to his welfare by sponsoring his performances-or in spite of him. I have recalled for this occasion two passages in my life when it seemed to me that I learned something about art and trying to make art. Both were modest, early, and tutorial in nature. Whether there is a lesson in this I do not for certain know. It does suggest that some of the best teaching may be the earliest, and that, as much as possible, it ought to be one-on-one, as the current jargon has it, like playground basketball. In the proliferation of workshops to which I have been a party if not a prophet, for I could not foresee the consequences, there are some obvious discomforts and dangers. Teaching too much technique or too many techniques is a familiar charge but it is not, for my money, one of the dangers. What these so-called techniques could be I do not know or I would gladly teach them myself, that is, if the students would stand for it, which is quite doubtful. But the mongrelization of taste is a danger; another is the democratization or disappearance of style; also the multiplication, on a Malthusian scale, of many so-called poems; also the exaltation of the contemporary at the expense of the past (something I once thought desirable); and so on. I acknowledge my own guilt in all of this and can only say that I did not mean for it to turn out this way. There is, perhaps, something at fault in the process itself? Why, indeed, do we have the condition Auden once described, as follows?

Among these would-be writers, the majority have no marked literary gift. This in itself is not surprising; a marked gift for any occupation is not very common. What is surprising is that such a high percentage of those without any marked talent for any profession should think of writing as the solution. One would have expected that a certain number would imagine that they had a talent for medicine or engineering and so on, but this is not the case. In our age, if a young person is untalented, the odds are in favor of his imagining he wants to write.

Did a society as it expanded and loosened make an unprecedented demand on us to provide a place on the side, as it were, where those who had not yet been subdued to the requirements of society might test or indulge themselves for awhile before moving on to the real work for which they would prove better fitted, a demand we all unconsciously and innocently leaped to fill? But the art is more valuable than the workshop. Unless we can do better, maybe we should revert to the less pretentious and more honest game of teaching expository writing and literary masterpieces.

Though I have long resisted the notion as a piece of propaganda, I am reluctantly coming round to the view that there really is, after all, a workshop poem; but it is not merely a workshop poem, it is a contemporary American poem, sorry to say. It is what we read in our magazines as well as on our worksheets; it has virtues-though it does lack the one virtue which for some reason not clear to me it is most frequently accused of flaunting; it is not at all likely to be, despite what they say, well-crafted (hideous phrase). And not only is there such a poem, I believe, but there is also a received critical opinion about it and about the reasons why it is good, and we hear them in our workshops every week, if not from our own lips, then from the lips of our students. I know-I know very well-that I prescribed neither this sort of poem nor the critical opinion I hear regarding it, for I do not like the first very well and I do not agree with the second. In a recent graduate examination I encountered over and over again the same fixed opinion about a very lovely poem expressed by people who could hardly have been expected to share the view they were, unknown to themselves, sharing, for they had been to different schools and were not particular friends, not to mention the fact that the opinion was, for my part, quite mistaken as well. Where had they come up with such ideas? Not from me, their sometime teacher, and certainly they got it from workshops, from the workshop culture, as I am calling it. Is there something about having to talk about poems-that is, each other's work-in such conscientious detail which encourages us to talk and even to believe nonsense in the end, to follow ill-thought-through prescriptions and principles so as to sound, after all, not like Keats or Hardy, but like Joe and Cindy? Alas . . .

Keep a pet if you like, as Auden once proposed. I advocate nothing. Let us go on exchanging our poems, praising as much as honestly possible, writing meanwhile as clearly and beautifully as we can, and remaining forever short of certainties, especially about the very small matters on which theologies and theologians founder. For me the most hopeful note I can finish on is simply enough this: that poets have seemed to me, ever since I gave up in late adolescence on musicians, the pleasantest, brightest, and most complicated set of people I know, and a community of poets has a good chance always of being an exciting if not a very healthy or instructive group to hang around for a year or two.

"Solitude or Community: Writing As It Is Taught," copyright© 1980 by Donald Justice.


Donald Justice, on leave from Iowa to teach at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville this year, is the author of The Summer Anniversaries (Lamont Award 1960); Night Light (1967); Departures (1973), and selected Poems (1979). He has edited The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees and co-edited Contemporary French Poetry. "Solitude or Community" was first presented at the AWP Meeting in Sun Antonio, March 15, 1980.

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