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Can the Writing of Poetry Be Taught?
In our egalitarian and democratic societies, we hope a lot and want all good things to be available to all people if they have a mind to have them. Indeed, in the world of personal development you can achieve what you believe (paraphrasing one of its main prophets, Napoleon Hill); and we know that poetry is a good thing, so everyone, if taught well enough, can be a poet? A large part of my early career was spent on assuming that could be done. I was a high school English teacher for 15 years, taught thousands of students, and wrote several successful how-to books.
But to return to my central question: them should to be able to be taught to write poetry, but can it be done? Can they be taught to be poets? Lord Chesterfield said: “I am very sure that every man of common knowledge can, by culture, care, attention, and labor, make himself what he pleases, except a great poet,” which undoubtedly denies the possibility that a poet can to be. fact, even if it does not mean that a poet was born. What I have come to believe is that a poet is a poet by vocation. It is indeed a call, and as with the famous words of Jesus in another context, “Many are called but few are chosen.” Why is this? And does this invalidate the teaching of poetry? Also, and more personally, were my 15 years of teaching poetry a complete waste of time? To answer in reverse order: no, my 15 years of teaching poetry were necessary and extremely beneficial even though I can’t name a single person who still writes poetry today. What I can do is name many people who have gone on to write or produce books or literature in one form or another, and many, many more who have never forgotten their love of poetry because of that teaching So, waste of time, definitely not: I have equipped and qualified thousands of students. And so for other teachers of poetry, whether they are at the primary or postgraduate level, there are skills and disciplines to be learned, and which must be learned before the full fruit of poetry can be manifested.
We must remember that even the great poet begins as an apprentice; he starts writing a lot of rubbish, and usually continues to write something inferior for the rest of his life. To mention the greatest of all poets, Shakespeare: it cannot be denied that his production was massively inconsistent throughout his career – a fact commented at the time by his friend Ben Jonson, analyzed in depth one hundred and fifty’ years later from his great. admirer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and alluded to by commentators ever since. How could a man who was so inspired by the Muse still produce such bathos? We are reminded of Socrates remarks: “I immediately understood that poets do not compose their poems with true knowledge, but from talent and innate inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any knowledge of what what they say.” Perhaps Socrates here exaggerates inspiration a little, though it certainly looks that way when a poet is in full flow. The key to living up to Socrates’ high description is the long and arduous preparation that is essential for the poet to become a suitable director for the Muse. This is where the teaching comes in.
Ah! But I’m going ahead: the Muse? Inspirations? What does this have to do with teaching poetry? Everything. In the first place what we can teach the student is techniques, we can introduce models, we can avoid complexity and show how poetry works at different levels of language. If we are really smart, we can get to the point where we can show the student that the poem, properly understood, is not about a specific thing, or if it is, that it is secondary; what is important is language and how it works, which is not how logic works. This stuff about how language works can, strangely enough, go much deeper into the heart of reality – which is emotional – than any rational discourse. Sidney J Harris said this: “Students are more like oysters than sausage.” We see from this that the art of the teacher, therefore, is not to produce sausages, closed products full of dubious nutrition (like a National Curriculum in the United Kingdom or Common Core in the United States), but to be com ‘and oysters: to allow the oyster to open to reveal the pearl inside. This requires patience and what John Keats called “negative capacity”.
The negative ability is that it does not reach after facts and certainties, but allows the imagination to do its work; or to say another way, which allows the Muse to enter and speak, because true poetry is inspired (or in-spirited), which literally means breathed. It has a divine origin, and anyone who has written true poetry knows this to be true, because the mind enters a curious state of excited passivity and the poem is written. Of course, it can be edited later and incubated for more, but the essence of the true poem is that it is inspired and thus seems to come in a whole and enveloping movement (hence Wordsworth’s point that poetry is “emotion remembered in quiet ” – note that e-motion means out of motion. Poets have testified to this experience, and the fact that they can feel that they are not really writing the poem from the beginning. Now this, clearly, is difficult to teach , because it is not a skill but a quality or attitude even of being; there is in the waiting of the Muse a faith, a confidence – confidence in Latin which means “with faith” – which is transcendental; in fact , like Samuel, the biblical prophet, is waiting for the called poets to hear the words that come to them, and not think: “What will I write?”, because that would be prose. They transcribe the words that call to them. At least they are his own. better. With all of us it happens many times that what we thought we re divine words it turns out to be mere verse, or worse, mere prose, or much worse than all-under-verse and prose-mere doggerel.
But let’s not get away from verse: verse is good, sometimes exceptional, even if in the end it doesn’t reach the heights of poetry. And this can and should be taught. He gives me good verses every day rather than free verse, which above all is nothing at all and whose essential characteristic is ugliness, the opposite of the Muse. As an extended sidebar, the early 20th century English writer Hilaire Belloc said: “There is (as the greatest of the Ancient Greeks discovered) a certain indissoluble Trinity of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. Not you cannot deny or attack one of these three without at the same time denying or attacking the others. Therefore, with the advance of this new and terrible enemy against the Faith and all that civilization which the Faith produces, it is not only a contempt for beauty, but also a hatred; On the heels of this appears a contempt and hatred for virtue.” The poet Jose Garcia Villa, whose book I recently reviewed, said this much more succinctly: “To be art, form is mandatory.” And we can teach form, and in doing so increase the appreciation of beauty in the world.
To better understand, however, the difference between poetry and verse in an absolute sense, we need to consider two examples that Charles Williams, part of the Inkling literary group that included CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien, gave in his wonderful essay on to great poetry. He invites us to contrast this extract from the 19th century poet TB Macaulays. Lay of ancient Rome: :
He turned back, as if not worthy
Those heathen ranks to see;
He said nothing to Lars Porsena,
Sextus said nothing
with this short passage from the end of Book 5 of John Milton Paradise Lost: :
Thus spake the Seraph Abdiel, faithful found,
Among the faithful unfaithful only he;
Among countless impassive falsehoods,
Unshaken, unsecured, unterrified.
Paraphrasing Williams, we can say that the two passages are on the same theme: courage or heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, but clearly the Macaulay is verse and Milton is a great poem. What is the difference? And the difference is completely experiential: we read the Lay and think “How cheerful to behave like that; how spiffing; is not so good?” while we read Milton and feel what heroism is: we enter the world of pure courage and its very pulse is felt in our blood; indeed, it makes our hair stand on end, like, say, Shakespeare when Hamlet’s ghost appears and could go on. We admire Horatio, but we become Abdiel, “even single”, as the power and sound of language (rhetoric) leads us to identify completely with the character and the situation. True poetry, then, is always a remarkable achievement because it always involves the primal imagination of humanity unifying itself as it enters into an experience or situation and expresses its inner reality. It is also worth commenting here on the brilliant observation of IA Richards from his famous The principles of literary criticism that “Meter for the most difficult and most delicate expression is all but inevitable.” Certainly Macaulay has metre, but it is of a more basic and bathing sort; Milton’s meter is sinuous, flexible (see how the caesura changes from line to line), insistent and overlapping with a whole series of other sound patterns – one could write an entire essay just on the technical achievements of these four lines; but I doubt, in reading, whether Milton composed with only such techniques in mind. Rather, the lines came to him – flowing as the Muse spoke. And because he had spent so much time reading poetry and practicing verse writing since he was younger, he didn’t have to work too hard to focus all these technical points together as the Voice of the poem spoke to him. This, by analogy, is rather like becoming an expert cyclist: once you are that good, you no longer need to think about balance, handling, peddling or any other aspect of cycling – the mind-body moves in one effortless motion to steer the bike to its destination.
Here is a reason to teach poetry: not to make poetry, but to prepare the person who is called a poet to be fully optimized – mature enough, capable and technical – for when the Muse really speaks. or better yet, transmit. Also, the teaching of poetry – where we really deal with poetry – promotes the appreciation of beauty and as the late English writer Christopher Bryant said, “For beauty makes joy.” Therefore, it is worth doing, whether or not a particular person is called to be a poet or not. And let’s not forget the purely therapeutic effect of writing, be it poetry or others; that is important.
Finally, then, beyond whether we can teach to write poetry or not, we must remember what the contemporary English writer Patrick Harpur observed: “Humblely bowing our heads before the Muse, and losing ourselves in his imagination, we paradoxically gain more freedom. and meaning, and come to know what it is to be our true self.”
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