Chimera Song Mosaic
Friday, May 30, 2003
Self-Flagellation & Some Horn-Tooting
Okay, so I’m back—sort of. I have to admit that even though I know I owe this blog some major literary effort, I am reluctant to come through with it. Why do I feel such anxiety? Months before I started the blog I debated over whether to commit or no, knowing that (knowing me) I might regard it as a chore and therefore shirk it. I can’t believe I am such a baby! But I know myself, so yes, of course I can.
The whole time I was at home, I kept sneaking off to check my email, and they kept asking me, “Oh, are you going to go blog?” “Are you blogging right now?” Maddening.
I must also admit that instead of devoting myself to the blog, I have been sneaking off today and writing an essay instead! Yes—a half-cocked, half-anthropological, poorly informed, unreferenced, epistemological essay about writing, of course. I am belittling my efforts, but of course I am proud. I will post it as soon as my sister okays it—maybe I’ll add in a few references if I’m not too lazy. Don’t get excited; it’s really too long to read. I will post it as soon as it’s not too much of an embarrassment.
Anyway, I am proud of this use of my time, say, the past four or so hours. Proud to be writing and thinking. Why am I so obsessed with intellectual activity? I accused my family of anti-intellectual activity, sort of a reverse McCarthyism. It’s kind of a joke.
The Important Bit
Anyway, the intelligent thing that I wanted to say last time (but was too tired and sunburned to do so) was that I find talking about fiction and well, any kind of prose, to be so—refreshing. Don’t get me wrong, I am all poet, hard-core, but sometimes I just run out of things to say about poetry. What can you say about poetry? It works; it doesn’t work. It should be more narrative or less narrative. It should contain more images and attention to sounds (this is the only sure-fire comment that will probably work for any fledging poem by a fledgling poet—and I suggest you advise them of this as often as possible. Okay, I’m getting glib now, but you get what I’m saying about poetry, right? Who can say?). After logging many hours of poetic thought and discussion in various workshops and lit classes, I have only now come to realize how hard this task of talking about poetry actually is. (Uh, not writing about poetry; that’s a breeze. You can always stop analyzing and start interpreting. I think it’s much easier to write a literary analysis/interpretation about a poem than prose work. I tell my students this, and they seldom listen.)
Teaching Creative Writing
I taught my first creative writing class this semester. It was oodles of fun to organize the poetry part, and poetry had the lion’s share of the workload. All poetry before spring break, all the other stuff afterward. The other stuff consisted of fiction workshops primarily, with a session on screen writing (lead by the famous Kim Henkel (I hope Kim doesn't kick my butt for providing this link, but hey--it's a good picture, Kim!), original co-creator of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre! You didn’t know such celebrity taught at my college, but well, now you do!). Some of the students groaned at the beginning of the semester (because of the poetry), but I just said, “Too bad. I love poetry, and so will you.” (This is my fantasy Ms. Nelson is Missing voice and not my actual response to my students.)
Well, we slogged through weeks of student poetry, and I loved every minute of it, but I could see the students struggling with comments, and to be honest, I was struggling, too. Just like I struggled in graduate school and my undergrad poetry workshops. Just like I struggle in my current weekly workshop outside of school. Struggling for a motor mouth like me is actually not having anything to say for minutes at a time. In normal, less competitive talkers, this manifests as silence.
Then when we transitioned over into fiction, the class blossomed. They wouldn’t shut up, and I could barely get a word in (did I mention that I consider myself to be a professional chatterbox?). The students had plenty to say—good, substantial comments. They judged the realism of dialogue and character motivation and paid attention to plot and thematic development. I was like, “Whoo-hoo!” So why didn’t we have this party with poetry?
The Best Bit
Some of the success of the fiction workshop could be contributed to the community feel as it developed in the class; more specifically, they were used to each other and more readily commented on each other’s work. But that’s not totally it. In my weekly workshop with three other colleagues, we switch from poetry to fiction to essays from week to week, and there is always a notable silence where poetry is involved. My theory is that this phenomenon has less to do with poetry and more to do with fiction; there is something very communal and known about a work of fiction. In short, it is telling a story, and narratives are around us and within us all the time.
So, you might argue, is music—and music is not such a stretch from poetry. In fact, many literary historians posit that western literature grew from mnemonically friendly songs that lengthened into extended narratives in verse form that eventually transformed into fictions. The best bards were the ones that could maintain the narratives for the longest stretch and delight and inform and horrify and entertain along the way. Thus the tradition of power in storytelling--whoever tells the story has the power.
If we are so familiar with nursery rhymes and pop music and jump rope and hip hop rhythms, then why do we turn away from poetry? Maybe because these kinds of poetry evoke the social response that narratives evoke, but today’s poetry—with its inaccessibility, non-playful language play, and abstractions—does not. I can’t explain why I like modern poetry, but I do. I really, really like it. But if I can’t explain why I like it, then how can I expect someone with less exposure to it and other kinds of poetry to offer any kind of valid response?
More About Me
For one thing, I am the first to admit that I am a lazy reader of poetry. I either like it or I don’t; I don’t even care what it means. I am hardly interested in figuring out what my favorite poems mean; I just read them over and over and delight in their complex sounds and images. Is this the kind of person who should teach a creative writing class?
The real question is: should anybody be teaching anybody how to write poetry? I’m not even going to go there. This question has been posed a dozen times or more in recent editions of Poets & Writers. I do hope people continue to think that there is some worth to a poetry workshop so that I can continue to try to teach it, as difficult as it may be. But I don’t just have myself in mind; even though I question whether a person can be taught poetry (or any kind of writing for that matter), I certainly recognize the value of discussing it, of exposure to many different types of poetry, even of hearing the poet attempt to explain what he or she was trying to accomplish with the poem (although most workshops frown on this kind of authorial defense).
A Last Ditch Plea for Understanding
Finally, I hope I have not in any way offended fiction writers by the suggestion that theirs is a more simplistic craft; no, no, no—I would have to be a fool to think that. I am merely observing people’s responses to these similar but different genres and speculating as to what might account for these different responses. If anything, this might mean that people like fiction better than poetry. Some poets might be sad about this. Some might be joyful in their elitism. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion about this; please send me yours!