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Can Poets Teach?: On Writers Teaching Writing

Written by

Joan Houlihan
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Year

2005
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In January 2005 the Academy of American Poets invited thirty-one younger American poets to write short essays about various debates in the poetry community. For more on MFA Programs for Poetry in the United States, consider Arielle Greenberg's essay "A (Slightly Qualified) Defense of MFA Programs: Six Benefits of Graduate School."

Like a Jules Verne novel, Dana Gioia’s famous essay "Can Poetry Matter" got the future’s big picture right, but the particulars wrong. In 1991, when the essay was first published, Gioia thought that the newly burgeoning MFA programs were problematic because they prevented the poet from being the necessary outsider and because they encouraged the proliferation of poet-as-careerist in an academic setting, thus stifling the life experience necessary to refresh the art. As it turns out, the bigger problem is that in many programs the writing education itself is without standards of excellence or a basis in craft. How can you effectively evaluate writing without any standards? Furthermore, as the promise of so-called "language" and "post-avant" writing degenerates from a fresh approach into a redundant and prerequisite MFA house style, the evaluation of student work is dispensed with altogether. How can you evaluate what you can’t understand?

In a small informal survey I conducted recently on MFA programs, there was unanimity in the responses about several related problems in the four MFA programs represented: lack of standards in evaluating individual work; a lack of emphasis on basic writing craft; less-than-helpful feedback from peers in a workshop; assigned reading of mainly contemporary American poems; and, to pay the university’s bills, the admission of students lacking poetic sensibility and talent. Most telling, however, were the responses to this three-part question:

What’s the connection between poetic talent and a career teaching poetry? How about between poetic talent and critical/teaching ability? Do you think your program prepared you to teach?

"Looking at the people who are ensconced at various programs around the country, I would say that there is no connection whatsoever between poetic talent and a career teaching poetry. (Sometimes I think that there’s no connection between poetic talent and a career publishing poetry.) I do think that it’s more likely that a poet who is actively writing and who is doing interesting work will be at least a stimulating teacher, but teaching and writing are completely different skills, and to be good at one isn’t at all to be good at the other."
—University of Iowa student
"Although poetic talent can provide certain hands-on insights, I don’t think it’s required for a teacher to be good. The second case is a more interesting one. I would argue that unless a poet possesses some degree of critical faculty, their work would suffer. Not only will they be unable to revise, but to write clearly in the first place."
—Columbia University student
"I don’t think there’s a great connection. I don’t think you can look at a book of poems you love and assume that poet is going to be amazing teacher. From experience, I know that’s not always the case. And I also know that I’ve encountered some work that I’m not a huge fan of, and the authors of the work were some of the best teachers. I think teaching has a lot to do with caring about what your students learn and having the ability to reach them, and that doesn’t really connect, in my mind, with the writing of an amazing poem. One is very insular and the other very public."
—Bennington College student

None of the respondents felt their programs prepared them to teach, at least directly, and one respondent said, in effect, they learned about teaching only by the bad examples.

In his article "Creative Writing and Its Discontents," published in 2000, David Fenza, Executive Director of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) observed, rightly, that "No credential makes one a successful artist; the proof is in the work."1 He did not however, extend the logic to the teacher of an art, where the "work" is, in fact, successful teaching of one’s craft to others. He maintained that the creative writing MFA program is like MFA programs in the other arts—painting, sculpture, dance and music—and, since they are not blamed for inferior products or students, neither should MFA writing programs be blamed for bad writing. This is a faulty comparison for one reason: there is recognizable craft that is taught and evaluated in the other arts. However, in a poetry MFA program, writing craft is not taught either because it is not known or because literary theory and language writing have destroyed its relevance. The traditional standards for measuring a poem may have disappeared (does it rhyme? have meter? stanzas? and so forth), but the standards by which we measure any piece of writing have not. And while Ezra Pound’s dictum, "Poetry should be at least as well-written as prose," is an ironic affirmation that we expect more of a poem than we do of prose, it is also wise and true. In order for a poem to be better than prose it has to first be as good—and this requires craft.

It is one of the new millennium’s ironies that we have a simultaneous upsurge of MFA poetry programs, and therefore of poets, coupled with an even greater distance from the "intelligent, engaged non-specialist" reader that Gioia predicted losing in his essay. How can the numbers of poets, poems, and poetry publications, increase and, during the same time period, the influence of poetry (not counting "slam" or "performance") on the culture at large dramatically decrease?2 Because, I believe, while the poets have multiplied, their writing skill has declined. The combination of ignorance of basic writing craft and the proliferation of Language writing and theory in MFA programs has been deadly for poetry. It means that teachers can not evaluate poems; therefore, students cannot improve their work. These students then go on to teach in MFA poetry programs themselves. While some would (and do) argue that there’s always been bad poetry, that it was just bad in a different way, I would argue that at least there was an attempt to achieve a level of known craft, and a way to evaluate that achievement (or lack of it). Now there is neither.

It is a well-known phenomenon that the creator of a work is not an objective evaluator of it. Every capable writer and poet knows that they need critical feedback on their work in order to improve it—even T. S.Eliot had Pound. But instead of such feedback, students report a lack of criticism, of having a "group hug" type of atmosphere or an overly subjective, mystical or impressionistic response to a poem. As one student surveyed observed: "Our writing was not so much evaluated as commented upon, and teachers tended to reveal their criteria only in scattered, isolated terms, when reviewing single poems. Always there seemed to be a great deal of concern over not hurting our feelings, so it was rare for even the worst poem in class to not receive a few empty compliments."

I believe that Gioia had it right in 1991, and that it is even truer now: "By abandoning the hard work of evaluation, the poetry subculture demeans its own art." Without an education in craft, without a teacher’s attention to standards and an ability to use language purposefully, without "the hard work of evaluation," the loss to poetry is twofold: to the art and to the criticism of the art that would enable it to evolve.

In a time when there are no critical standards, only proliferation of more poems, each new poem can only matter less. Over a decade after his spookily predictive essay, "Can Poetry Matter?" Dana Gioia’s question has a troubling answer: it can, but more and more, it doesn’t.


1"Creative Writing & Its Discontents," The Writer’s Chronicle, D.W. Fenza, March/April 2000.

2 The NEA released a study that showed readership of poetry has gone down in the past three decades: 14.3% in 2002, down from 20.5% in 1992. During that same time period, an AWP study shows that the number of graduate writing programs in America increased almost 25%.