Essay by Leslie L. Nielsen
We all are taught; some of us are also teachers. Part of instruction is assertion and part of it is redirection. In a creative writing classroom, right and wrong become works and doesn’t work, or strong and weak, or clear and cryptic. Because writing is something one does to get better at it, the students have to do it, and do it wrong/weak/messy a whole lot on the way to right/strong/coherent. That’s the process. All art learning works this way—novice, apprentice, master—lots of waste.
Risk and security need to be balanced in communication about writing-in-progress. Trite praise and righteous-sounding criticism are equally worthless—so are cautious, indifferent niceties. Participants in a workshop who cultivate direct candor and tact have a better experience and everyone’s writing improves if insight is keen. An instructor both facilitates and fills in gaps to push for improvement. So how far should the instructor go toward naming the mess? How much criticism is medicine, how much poison?
During a stint teaching creative writing at a private Christian college, I systematically risked accusations of apostasy from students in suggesting that good poems needed more than the gospel message to be good, that a narrative ending in salvation was not, only on the merits of that deus ex machina maneuver, a good story. Craft counts. And I knew how to teach craft.
Each poetry workshop brought fresh opportunities to review Mary Oliver’s litany of inappropriate language from A Poetry Handbook: avoid Poetic Diction, Cliché, Inversion, and Informational Language. I’ll bet it’s the same in many undergraduate poetry workshops, but at the time I felt like fondness for both classic and contemporary religious liturgy was working against fresh creative language and structure.
One student in particular spoke in effusive expressions of devotion which were matched by emphatic permutations of the same in her writing. The message was absolutist and repetitive. Theologically, it was in line with the school’s mission statement—and while passion for anything at all can certainly put a burning core at the center of poetry about it, this poet took little interest in craft exercises and suggestions. Vitality of form, novelty of image, compression of language, and curiosity about theme would have enlivened her passion for the reader as well. Once spelling was corrected, however, her art was, she believed, entirely sufficient.
I disagreed, but in short, I gave up. She would not take the medicine. And it was not for me to force the toxic dose, to snug the pillow of craft a little tighter around her point of inspiration.
If I had, however, I would have been in good company. Most know Flannery O’Connor’s comment,
“Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher.”Before adopting a pedagogy of the snuff-out, it’s worth asking a couple questions. Do we, for instance, know whether or not any aspiring student’s talent (or tenacity) for writing great poetry is apparent when she’s an undergraduate? Given the ratio of enthusiasm to success in literary art, when might an instructor be justified in discouraging firmly?
Early in my career (it wasn’t a career yet) I was stifled (probably not deliberately) by a writing instructor who leaned back, sniffed, and uttered over a marked-up pile of my (perhaps un-magnificent) poems, “Strong emotion makes bad poetry.” Meaning mine. I didn’t stop writing poetry just then, but did stop showing my work to others and excused myself from engagement with the wheels of submission and publication for, oh, about thirty years.
It’s been lovely having that instructor to blame. If I’m being completely honest, though, that teaspoon of indifference percolated inside me for too many years, until maturity helped me to release that poor-poisoned-me narrative. Would I kick him in his emeritus shin now if I could? Well, probably. His dismissive manner stung a lot and taught little.
I’m certainly not the only writer who has encountered real discouragement, though. A recent installment of The Writers’ Almanac describes the experience of Maxine Kumin,
“In college, an instructor handed back comments on her poetry that read: ‘Say it with flowers, but for God's sake don't try to write poems.’ She was so discouraged that she gave it up until she was in her 30s, in the middle of her third pregnancy.”Kumin was born in 1925, so her twenties and thirties did not pass during a time particularly kind to women who wanted to write much beyond grocery lists and ladies’ devotionals, certainly not those who’d become mothers. She later reflects, however, that
"The grit of discontent, the acute misery of early and uninformed motherhood worked under my skin to force out the writer."So what she couldn’t get from the establishment, she found in life experience. The professor who zinged her could not have lived to know that she became Poet Laureate of New Hampshire, Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets, and Poetry Consultant to the Library of Congress, a job now known as Poet Laureate, as well as winning piles of prizes including the Pulitzer and publishing piles of books including memoir, novels and short stories, more than twenty children's books, five books of essays, and eight of poetry.
She also found what her poetry needed in a close friendship with Anne Sexton. The two poets wrote together and encouraged each other while both were raising children. And while their poems and life stories do not much resemble each other’s, their successes trace back in part to good friendship.
As for strong emotion, Kumin writes plenty of it. But her craft includes rigorous attention to patterns, syllable count, and rhyme as the way to deal best with emotional subjects. She writes with tight lyricism when the subjects are deep issues, and in that, she teaches by example.
“How It Is” (1997) is a poem about Sexton’s suicide. Intense grief and memory become the simple concrete image of a handed-down piece of clothing.
A month after your death I wear your blue jacket.And at the end,
My skin presses your old outline.
It is hot and dry inside.
I will be years gathering up our words,Enduring sorrow is gently carried in straightforward language. Kumin wrote again in 2005 about the same tragedy in her villanelle, “The Revisionist Dream.” Using a 19th-century given form, Kumin repeats four times the line, “she didn’t kill herself that afternoon.” The compounding effect of repetition moves from wishful to imperative. It’s a terrific lesson in control.
fishing out letters, snapshots, stains,
leaning my ribs against this durable cloth
to put on the dumb blue blazer of your death.
Last week at my local library, I discovered a third self-published book of poetry by the student who had not been ready to receive craft instruction. Theme, trope, and technique replicate those submitted in class and printed in the first two books—they are the same ones sung by heart in contemporary praise and worship services tradition-wide, based on best-loved parts of a most-read Book. Is such adherence to form different from Kumin’s use of prescribed patterns? It is. Simply put, Kumin is the maker: her words and images are her own, not endless repetition from a collective databank, not trite rhyme, not the well-worn expected path. And yet this former poetry student is, by evidence of duly-catalogued books, a Poet.
So what’s the teacher’s role in nudging the student off gravel and into the undergrowth? O’Connor sounds tough, but her famous quote pushes the executioner’s role onto the non-specific “they” of “the universities,” so she has no blood on her hands, not really.
There have been others among my students whose post-workshop grumpiness I was content to weather because their attention and effort—and snarls—indicated that, like Kumin, they had something under the skin worth forcing out. But force needn’t come from the instructor’s hand. If the student’s ready to approach her writing critically, even judiciously-poured sugar water will help her to concoct her own powerful critical medicine. The choice between Flintstone’s vitamins (Hallmark verse) and an Olympic-strength protein shake with egg whites plus whole food mineral capsules (Jorie Graham league) resides in the writer.
Discouragement is less needed than an instructor who pays attention, lives alongside, and can supplement the students’ messy discoveries with apt analysis of fantastic poetry, and show them how to sharpen their lines with excellent tools of the craft. In either brief or sustained interaction between teacher and student, professor and disciple, mentor and wannabe, human connection is the essential dose. Although—the best teaching by far is to have written much.
Leslie L. Nielsen is the Nonfiction & Blog Editor for Poets’ Quarterly. She is an adjunct instructor of writing at universities around northeast Ohio and has just completed her MFA in Poetry and Creative Nonfiction at Ashland University.