Poetry, Thought, and the Teaching Arts: From Workshop to the Poems as Questions Project
Bruce Bond | July 2017
In the ’70s and ’80s, the complaint was commonplace: poetry workshops promote a status quo, a relatively acceptable avoidance of the usual, youthful failings: the sentimental, the over-generalized, the over-explanatory, the moralizing, the inauthentic, the vague. Workshops were generally known as places where members of the class suggested deletion after deletion, an expurgation of sins. The “workshop-poem” in turn became an object of ridicule, labeled “safe” since it appeared more intent upon deflecting criticism than taking risks or, more importantly, the kinds of risks that raise the ambition of the poem. The irony was that criticism about the normalized mediocrity engendered by workshops came typically from those who taught them, and, for many, essays such as Donald Hall’s “Poetry and Ambition” had as great an influence on their creative writing pedagogy as Richard Hugo’s Triggering Town and Ezra Pound’s “Retrospective.”
Throughout the post-Vietnam era, as the creative writing profession expanded, universities saw a rise in demand for teachers, many of whom would come from the ranks of those who had never had workshops, let alone any training in the teaching of them. Although poets of previous generations—such as Auden, Frost, Berryman, Bishop, and Lowell—had university positions, they never had pedagogical training in creative writing, nor was any training expected by students who sought out a “working writer” whose virtues and authority were, for some students, wedded to their imagined personae as academic outsiders. The writer-in-residence was often a creature apart from the regular faculty and its slate of service responsibilities and stages of professorial promotion. Some, like Auden, who was my mother’s teacher in the 1940s, never taught classes, but rather held office hours where they dispensed their wisdom and advice. This model of mentorship continues of course, but as a supplement to group activity with varying degrees of structure.
The first lessons in creative writing pedagogy came by way of example. Most, like myself, who ventured out of graduate programs in the ’80s, entered the teaching profession with a bit of training and experience in “composition” pedagogy, but our models for teaching creative writing were generally whatever mentorships and classes we had experienced, a handful of which, for me, were disasters. I had one teacher, for instance, who rarely talked at all, and when he did, he mumbled and refused to repeat what he said. I had another teacher who was harshly judgmental but rather vague in his criticism. In the spirit of New Criticism, classes concentrated more on the poem as dissected object and less on the process whereby a poet’s progress might be nurtured and facilitated.
Even the disastrous teachers managed to teach me something about, if not poetry, then the teaching of it: what to avoid, what to develop. After I got my PhD, I continued to study with poets I admired—Don Justice, Phil Levine, Robert Pinsky, Richard Howard, Anthony Hecht—and they all helped add a piece to the puzzle of understanding not only poems but how to talk about them, how to help students manifest work of every greater emotional and revelatory range. Equally important was the fact that these teachers were vastly different from each other, and the contradictions among them returned me to the development of my own independent thinking and intuitive sense. None of them, of course, had studied creative writing pedagogy; and only a couple had ever taken a workshop.
In fact, Richard Howard was not keen on the traditional notion of the workshop, since he refused to talk about students’ poems in a classroom setting, but rather only via one-on-one mentoring. He found creative writing peer review to be quite frequently destructive. I cannot speak for him and say why precisely, but I can surmise that he worried over the possibly harsh and competitive nature of peer review. In the process, he modeled in class a style of attention, of love no less, intent on transforming what he saw as a wide-spread, youthful narcissism. Thus, he aspired to deepen a sense of reverence and historical awareness, to identify “touchstones,” as he conceived them. I thought of Yeats’s passage in “Sailing to Byzantium:” “Nor is there singing school but studying / Monuments of its own magnificence.” Personally, I loved this, because I wanted to broaden and deepen my own historical sense and gain greater perspective on my own time. But not everyone loved it. I can only imagine the reasons why precisely, but I am guessing the resistance came from an eagerness for poets to hear about, if not themselves, then a more immediate extension of themselves in contemporary culture. Indeed, Richard’s process might well displease more today, given common student expectations that a workshop depart dramatically in structure from a standard literature class. Such expectations are not necessarily a reason to abandon Richard’s practice altogether, however. Richard also said that those who never experiment with a certain kind of writing (because it’s “not what they want to do”) often harbor the illusion that it is always good to do what you want to do.
In my experience, the most complete training available for my teaching of workshops was to take a lot of different ones and to go forward and do my best, make my mistakes and adjustments, develop more as a person capable of listening, letting go, and challenging and melding rigor and affirmation. And yes, I needed to work more deeply on my practice and my ways of talking about it. My style as mentor grew out of more and less successful mentoring situations—the more successful being incisive and detailed and the less successful vague and dismissive. That said, these days, my pedagogy bears little resemblance to that of any of my teachers. The reasons for this have less to do with any perceived failure of or resistance to a given approach, than with the evolution of consciousness relative to the art and my sense of the human psyche finding the best conditions to develop that art. When I teach about sentimentality for instance, my rather detailed understanding of it as less a failure of feeling than a failure of imagination is the product of years of practice and reflection. So too my priorities and sense of how to talk about them have drifted somewhat from those of my mentors. That said, this took time, too much perhaps, and better mentors and models with regard to pedagogy might have spared me and my students some of my errors of organization and judgment. I cannot be sure of that, but I suspect it is true.
My style as mentor grew out of more and less successful mentoring situations—the more successful being incisive and detailed and the less successful vague and dismissive.
To help me along the way, I had various textbooks at my disposal. Although I have never used one in class, there are a wealth of such books now to help teachers, young and old, structure their classes. Kim Addonizio’s and Dorianne Laux’s The Poet’s Companion is quite clear, wise, and pragmatic for instance, as is Gregory Fraser’s and Chad Davidson’s Analyze Anything: A Guide to Critical Reading and Writing. Most grad schools, such as the one where I teach, hold symposia in the teaching of creative writing, but it is doubtful that is sufficient, or perceived as such. For me, something critical was missing still from all the sources of pedagogical inspiration and knowledge I have mentioned. Few such sources would facilitate adequately the quality that, according to my taste and judgment, set the great poem apart: that is, vision. Not just vision as we know it in expository prose, but a kind of vision unique to poems, contingent on the emotional, complex, and imaginative experience of poetic meaning. The challenge of teaching such a thing seems formidable still, and yet at the center of why poems matter to me and how best I might communicate that passion to others.
What I might offer the young teacher here is just one small part of a complex of processes that might contribute to a poet’s apprenticeship. Textbooks are full of ways of useful talking about the “tools” of the writer: image, metaphor, irony, voice, form, syntax, diction, prosody, line. All these issues of what is called “technique” are especially important early on, as students are learning just what a poem is, how it is not so much about feelings as it is a creator of feelings, or rather a complex of emotions and ideas, and how such creation is born of singularity of form. In my experience, what textbooks and workshops often lack is a way of expanding and deepening insight. Even mentorship can lack this pedagogy, although the more detailed engagement of a poem’s thought via one-on-one instruction might well lend itself to the investigation of vision. A common slighting of vision in pedagogy reflects not only difficulties inherent in the classroom teaching of vision, but also a broader conversation that eschews “vision” and “thought” in preference for the simplified extremes of juxtaposition, irony, and argumentative instability. While “technique” discussed apart from revelatory power—its transformative potential and feeling of necessity—seems critical in organizing a syllabus, it often sets aside the messy problem of all that is not in a student’s poem or consciousness in terms of, dare I say it, thought. Issues of technique cannot be dissociated from the thought of the poem and the sense of values embodied in the felt expansion of awareness.
The dangers of over-emphasizing “thought” with the young writer are obvious: student work can get talky and directive and fail in some fundamental way to take on the radiance of poems. For this reason, poetry workshops are more likely to err on the side of anti-intellectualism rather than over-intellectualism, though both figure as liabilities. I am reminded of Eliot’s notion that the lesser poet is either too conscious or not conscious enough, though the test for one or the other is, at best, vaguely intuitive and so does not suggest a clear pedagogy. Given the association of “thought” with rationality (what deeply engaged and evocative poems must both honor and resist), it might help to think of poetic “thought” as “light,” a moving light, a headlight in the dark. The sister art to poetry is ontology, though rendered as a felt, imaginative, transformative experience. The root of the word idea is, after all, to see. The inclusively radiant poem has something of this light and, no less, the dark around it, the sense of language at the threshold of what it cannot say.
Some of a workshop difficulty with regard to discussing thought is political: that is, students and teachers alike feel that challenging a poem’s vision or taking about where the subtext of insight might go can be invasive, insensitive even. It is also true that such challenges, handled well, are difficult and rare. It is far easier to cut, trim, revise individual lines and words, change point of view, develop a stylish sense of irony and tonal nuance, than to keep the poem aloft of the vulnerabilities that come with committing emotionally and intellectually. To fail to discuss thought, however, might engender a satisfaction with the “good enough” poem, the one whose technical surface is its own argument for being. Even the notion that poem “says things” is often put under pressure in workshop culture, both in ways that are intuitively emotional and productive and ways that are enervating and lazy and fashionably anti-intellectual. It is tricky work to discuss what the poem does not say, and to continue talking in collaborative ways that truly make the poems better and consciousness more engaged, more unpredictable and enlarged.
Thus, a suggestion: one need not always give suggestions. In both mentorship and classroom conversations, when it comes to exploring a poem’s deepest potential at the level of understandings, sometimes a question or series of questions works best. I am not thinking necessarily of questions with regard to authorial intent, though those might or might not be productive. Chances are, the most effective questions related to unrealized thought will explore something altogether new to the process. Both teacher and writer might be wise not to stray too far from the larger questions always in the room: why do we care? Or stated another way: what is your gift to the reader? When poems get too detached, too linear or merely conceptual, and then a poet might be asked: can you think of a specific time and place when you experienced what is at stake here?
Whether I am working with a less advanced student writing about zombies in the most literal and familiar ways or the more mature student making use of scientific methods from the 18th century, the question of why do we care remains. “What is your attraction to zombies?” I asked my undergraduate student once, at which time he looked back at me incredulously and said, “They eat people!” So, my challenge here was to get the student to read zombies in the process of writing about them. “Yes,” I answered, “but there is a reason your dreams in particular are drawn to them.” This seemed less obvious to him, though he began to examine his own motives, his own excitement, how his interest was related both to the otherworldliness of the creatures and the immediacy of fear they aroused. He began to see more of himself in the material. “Imagine your scene from the zombie’s point of view,” I continued. “What does he want to say to you?” I might well have asked, “If the zombie is a sociopath, can he think of others, real ones, and what he might like to ask them? What is it in sociopathy that begs a deeper understanding?” The questions posed need to be supple and attentive to the student’s responses, what the student is emotionally and intellectually ready to turn toward next. The challenge then is to look at what the poem is repressing as well as what it is expressing, to look outside the given frame of reference and to keep looking in pursuit of illuminating and expanding more fully the human as vested in the given subject. With my particular undergraduate, we were able to invite more of his own personality into his depictions of monsters, and begin the process of greater empathy, originality of thought, and complexity of tone. It was a small step, but a significant one.
For the more advanced student who wrote about 18th-century science experiments, there were times when her poems stalled, when the larger resonances vanished, the thought became truncated or redundant, or the affect flattened out. So, with her poem about Ben Franklin and his experiments with peas—how they repel and attract in different energy fields—the poem found itself making diffuse sexual allusions that risked little in terms of what those allusions might reveal. There was an organizing idea there, but the idea failed to develop and yield new related insight. “Tell me more about what this repulsion feels like?” I asked. “Why do we care if our affinities and repulsions are scripted in the material world?” Her approach was quite intellectual in terms of her interest in the physical basis of the mind, but the poem did not say anything unknown to her before she wrote it. Then she mentioned how the experiments explained the formation of the rain, the potential for the poem began to open up conceptually and emotionally. The new association provided a language for something more elusive, more in dialogue with grief and fertility, transformation and the psychic forces of allurement and abjection in real-life eros, whose magnitude might haunt us. Often, it helps in situations such as this to encourage writers to counterpoint symbol with example—that is, to think of real life situations when they experienced concretely what is at stake in the poem (such as sexual repulsion and/or attraction). The poem need not become autobiographical in the obvious ways, but the process can nonetheless be animated by the whole gestalt accessible through personal memory. The challenge is to access some pressure of necessity and make of it an illuminating gift. Soon, the title of the poem became “The Formation of the Rain”—and the allusions to sexuality became more genuine and deeply rooted. The polyvalent tone and meaning of the rain invited a deeper investigation of the new connections possible in the poem. So too the pedagogical give and take helped to model the dialectical process of the creative mind.
Far from banishing the student writer from critical conversation about his or her poem, I like to take notes as the student responds to my questions. The most valuable focus is not merely the poetic argument but its felt necessity—that is, how the progressive revealing of the poem comes to matter, how one creates an experience wherein it matters. Technique can thus more persuasively be seen revealing a sense of priorities wherein an absence of deepening and follow through of meaning says something about what matters to the poet, how the surface of the poem might be so evasive that it has little to offer in transforming consciousness. I often find more in the impromptu verbalizations that works as poetry than in the rather self-consciously rendered poem on the page. One can often glean, from the student’s side of a conversation, phrases and directions of promise that reveal more, say more, evoke more. I do not pretend this process is easy, but it can provide a way to provide a concrete example of progress without the preemptive ways that can, depending on a student’s ego-strength, render that student passive and distrustful of their own imagination. The process can suggest that the larger imagination and possible poem are waiting in there, always, inside the student.
Far from banishing the student writer from critical conversation about his or her poem, I like to take notes as the student responds to my questions.
One more suggestion: one might try something akin to what I called the Poem as Questions Project, an email thread involving both myself and students in which we responded to each other’s work with poems, not traditional “workshop” criticism. The idea was to read one another closely, imaginatively, and so to locate some region of the unsaid in a given piece of writing, to enter that space with a new poem. Consider what it is you would most like to ask this poem or what it is the poem asks you. This works best, I imagine, with students who have some experience, some appreciation for the difference between poetry and prose, but it can work with undergrads as well who often struggle with finding something worth writing about. In order to initiate engagement in the past, I have also contributed some non-narrative, nonfiction prose into the mix, and each email thread began with a rough territory of theme related to such prose. That said, writers were completely free to respond in any way they saw fit and to depart from any perceived area of concern. Here are the instructions I gave students:
I want to try an experiment with an email thread I call the Poems as Questions Project where participants are invited to share poems that respond to other poems generated by the email exchange.
Structure of Proposal:
- There are never obligations to respond or submit. Ever.
- No criticism of poems. Critical remarks can be useful, but for this project to work, to stay fresh, I think it’s better to have none: too time consuming and possibly inhibiting. Note: this is not a statement about critical commentary in general as inhibiting, it is just that the current exercise is an experiment in pursuing different priorities.
- To begin: you can submit or not whatever poem you like (by you or someone else). After that, it is especially useful if poems respond in some way (however obliquely) to other poems in the thread. Without this, the enterprise loses the productive tension of engagement. That said, a “response” should be liberally interpreted in whatever way you choose.
- If you choose to participate, you might ask questions of the submitted poems, in hopes that this might open something in you. This habit is, I believe, key to the creative process more largely conceived, how we might move poems with greater vitality if we ask ourselves questions. The questions and responses of evocative complexity will lead to more questions.
- You may also share texts (poetry or prose) from other sources as one form of response.
- Please refrain from explaining in your emails anything at all about the poem, including the way in which it is a response. Once again, I want to respect your time, and there is something attractive about letting poems speak for themselves.
- Don’t feel shy about wanting to be removed from the thread.
- Contrariness as a form of generosity: a good thing. Inhibiting hostility: not so good. The point here is that all poems contain within them the possibility of a different point of view. All poems fail to complete our picture of the world. When a poem wishes to make a contrary claim in response to another poem, it need not dismiss the former with simplifying, judgmental language. Rather a contrary poem might engage and honor its imagined other but taking up its torch.
The results of this email thread have been terrific, generating many of the best poems that I have seen from students. In one unusual case, I was able to take a student’s cento (a poem based on language from another text), and respond with another cento based on her text and thereby suggestive of where the poet might look again at her own poem. Indeed, she did. And she responded with yet another cento based upon my cento. This was a spontaneous response to the structure of the thread, and we were both surprised and delighted at the discovery of an alternative form of dialogue wherein critical engagement felt more fully integrated into creative process.
It is possible to see all the elements of wisdom that make one capable of compassionate awareness and engagement as related to the emotional intelligence of poems and the mix of vulnerability, judgment, intuition, and witness that makes them.
Perhaps, it goes without saying that no one pedagogical process will work for all students. The teaching of art is, in turn, an art, and so requires a kind of “listening speech” not unlike a poem’s. To this end, I recommend a great variety of approaches even within one class. And yes, like any art, there are elements of teaching that cannot be taught. They often involve a teacher’s social skills, body language, honesty, absence of pretense, ability to facilitate trust, ability to communicate, ability to “read” poems, people, the world. Also, no class on pedagogy is a surrogate for one’s intellectual discipline and earned, internalized assimilation of history. It is possible to see all the elements of wisdom that make one capable of compassionate awareness and engagement as related to the emotional intelligence of poems and the mix of vulnerability, judgment, intuition, and witness that makes them. I believe this. I also believe, contrary to a dominant mythology, that one less culturally conditioned model of “sanity”—that is, the psyche that is less at war with itself, more in touch with the unconscious, less divided by the complexes, more lively and resourceful with its modes of inner-connectivity—is good for art, though I confess to the limitations of the metaphor: “inner-connectivity.” For one thing, it is too static. For another, such connectivity also implies outward-connectivity. Also, this “connectivity” might better be thought of as “conversation”—in the way that dreams converse with the dreamer, part of poems with other parts, the psychological complex with the conscious mind. The outer world and the inner can never be neatly dissociated successfully, and nowhere is this more conspicuous than in poems. The art of questioning as the art of listening acknowledges a fundamental challenge to the artifice of identities and boundaries, as do the best poems. Poems haunted by a questioning dialectic tend to be risky both in their commitments and their attentions, their admissions, their letting go. We live among monuments, yes, but also beyond them. Thank you, William Yeats. That singing school, I see it in you, your work—in you and around you. I see it everywhere.
Bruce Bond is the author of eighteen books including, most recently, Immanent Distance: Poetry and the Metaphysics of the Near at Hand, Black Anthem (Tampa Review Prize), Gold Bee (Helen C. Smith Award, Crab Orchard Award), Sacrum, and Blackout Starlight: New and Selected Poems 1997-2015 (E. Phillabaum Award). Three of his books are forthcoming: Rise and Fall of the Lesser Sun Gods (Elixir Book Prize), Frankenstein’s Children, and Dear Reader. Presently he is Regents Professor at University of North Texas.