Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Science of Museums

Okay, so I've said this before, but I think Johannes Gorranson is going to change the way poetry functions in academia.

As of today there are two truths to contemporary poetry: One, it is an active, practiced art form relegated to the academic pursuit of literary study, or English Departments, meaning that poets write in the same places they study, which, by proxy alone, stunts creative possibilities/desires. Two, it burdens the "teaching" of poetry with teaching, a mandated curriculum that must be approved by heads of departments, that is often too instructional and controlled and often times functions more as an apprenticeship rather than a space to grow a distinct voice. Donald Hall has written about this many times over the years, as have others, but Gorranson is one of the first to offer remedies, or in the very least, the beginnings of remedies.

He says:
One way to move beyond this impasse is to pose student-centered, problem-based challenges, in which student have to read up on poets and writers in order to solve a problem in their own ways, based on their own views and interests. For example, you give them a bunch of ideas about performance and some performances and you leave it to them to figure out what a performance should do and how to do that. The teacher is according to this model more of a guide and less of an authority who imparts knowledge. But you have to abandon the set idea of what good poetry (or craft, form) is.

The problem he poses in that last sentence is a formidable one and the question that arises from it is kung-fu master in nature: How does one teach without teaching? I think in many cases the answer can be found in the workshop.

In workshops we are encouraged to get the "bottom" of things, and then we are told what that bottom is, what effective criticism is, therefore, and as Gorranson mentions in his post, a single set of issues is continually brought up and the author then trains him/herself to write around those issues. Nobody likes harsh criticism, or criticism at all come to think of it, and whenever confronted with it, we do whatever we can do to avoid it, becoming creatures of a pattern, all cut from the same cloth.

I really like Gorranson's decision to throw a bunch of successful examples out in front your students (whether you like them or not), and let them decide for themselves. I appreciate what my writerly education gave me, but all I read was Marilyn Hacker and I hated Marilyn Hacker from day one, but was constantly given her to read as an example of what poetry should strive to be. I didn't want to be that and most of the criticisms I received throughout that time were regarding control. I learned control, but hated my poems...

Anyway, talk about rambling...


Jonathan Barrett said...

I don’t think you can stop at ideas. You need examples that embody the different ideas of performance (although I’m not sure I would reduce poetry to performance…it’s only one aspect of poetry).

I think a teacher should present some ideas, throw some poets in that embody those ideas, and then let the student’s dialogue and organically develop their own ideas which should culminate in an ever evolving, community influenced individual aesthetic.

Thus, the teacher is more of a facilitator of an ongoing dialogue who provides assistance for each individual student in their journey.

Unfortunately most creative writing instructors choose the ideas and poets they like, and direct the workshop in a direction that results in the best chili recipe ever: Hormel???

Embracing and exploring multiple ideas produces a broader well from which to draw. For example, what if a workshop looked at Marilyn Hacker, Forrest Gander, Timothy Liu, Zachary Schomburg, Matthew Zapruder, etc.? These are just a few from my bookshelf who, most would agree, have different ideas about poetry which are embodied by their work.

Also, what if, while teaching a class on form, the teacher used examples of formal experimentation alongside examples of neo-formalists, and then gave them Lewis Turco’s book and said find a form and have fun with it instead of assigning the stock workshop forms. I know it’s important to know the rules to break the rules but what if???

B.J. said...

I think all this "right," as far as one can be right in this situation.

One focus that I see a lot of teachers moving towards that comes really close to embodying this concept is the study of many specific poetics. More and more books are coming out as compliments to poetry anthologies that are nothing more than poets talking about poetry...their poetry and its place in POETRY.

I believe Dana Gioia(?) has edited at least one collection like this.

In short, I think we are saying the same thing...