Introduction to The Helen Burns Poetry Anthology: New Voices, Vol. 9
The Academy of American Poets has sponsored its College Prizes for decades now, offering encouragement to perhaps three generations of younger poets. I was myself the recipient of one of these prizes, in 1971. I was a freshman at the University of Arizona, and I'd written a long and dreamily associative poem called "The Green House." I can't remember a whole lot about it save that I composed catalogues of the attributes of the house I was imagining, and that it was fervid and smoldering: "Now I am going to the green house, the house on the street of smoking pearls..." one of the lines ran. I was seventeen; that was the year that William Stafford read some poems of mine and said, "Well, I have a feeling these are poems in heaven, but they aren't really poems on earth yet." That was the kindest thing he could have said; he recognized a potentiality, a yearning in me, and suggested, in a gentle way, that I had some work to do.
It was later that year that Mark Strand chose my poem. I felt the good things that a prize makes a young poet feel: heartened, a little more brave, confirmed in the notion that the work Stafford had suggested I needed to do was worth it, that it might lead somewhere. My private scratchings and fumblings might become, if I could find ways to shape them, something that could speak to someone else.
Some version of that story has happened over and over again, though more accomplished poems than mine—many of them gathered here—have been recognized, and their writers given a bracing boost. The hundred bucks I won was very welcome, but it wasn't the money: a poet I admired held my words in his hand and said yes to them.
One thing evidenced, in this rich and varied collection, is the power of teaching. What happens when poets teach poets? I don't think you could say that they taught their students to love the art; there must have been an interest already there, a desire to make something durable and vital out of words, and at least a nascent faith that such a thing could be made, somehow, if one tried hard enough.
But certainly teachers of writing can help deepen their students' passion for the word. This happens in any number of ways. First off, a good teacher is a fountain of resources, able to locate those poets a student might profitably read. This is a kind of art in itself, trying to intuit what another person might love. Sometimes these recommendations are based on content, or on a formal affinity, but often it's a tone, a way of making meaning that seems to have some resonance with what the developing poet might be trying to do.
Of course a teacher can, and usually does, convey some principles of craft. But the truth is that these are nearly always provisional and contextual. What's right for a taut, spare evocation of feeling may feel more-or-less useless in an expansive, Whitmanic catalogue. And artists tend to respond to rules of any sort with a healthy defiance. My friend who gives her workshops a list of unusable words each year is, to put it directly, asking for it; who doesn't read such a list and start dreaming up possibilities?
I think myself that there are two essential things a teacher of poetry does. The first is to try describing a writer to himself or herself, as precisely as possible. "This is what I see you doing" seems to me one of the most powerful phrases we could employ, if simply because it is very hard to see one's own writing with any clarity, especially early on in the process. Such acts of description might address stylistic habits, lines, sentence making, habitual gestures, recurrent themes, or questions. A good description makes us feel known, which is an incredible gift; a less-successful one at least has the virtue of provoking our thinking: is that who I am, does that describe the poem I've written?
The second essential thing we do is be fellow citizens, fellow makers, and fellow lovers of the art. The characteristics of such a person are curiosity, an appropriate degree of bewilderment, humility in the face of the great dead, and the ability to take and to express pleasure. Allen Grossman describes the conversation of poetry as a feast around a table, or you might also think of it as sitting together beside a fire—a very old fire, one that goes on without us, yet is quite amenable to being tended.
This notion of poetry as a kind of transmission between the past and the present is powerfully stated in a poem by the late Jason Shinder, from his posthumous book Stupid Hope:
A poem written three thousand years ago
about a man who walks among horses
grazing on a hill under the small stars
comes to life on a page in a book...
Jason's poem suggests to me that younger writers are somewhere along the way toward knowing themselves, in order that, in the long run, a reader might look into their work and likewise, feel "finally known / by someone." What could be better than that?
As long as there have been creative writing programs, somebody's been bashing them in print. This is an expression of a perennial fear of homogenization and commodification. Why anybody thinks young writers would be better off working at coffee bars or painting houses while practicing their craft alone is beyond me. It's a lot harder to find people to talk to about Muriel Rukeyser or Jack Spicer that way. I can't imagine a better alternative—at least for a part of one's life—than immersion in a community of like-minded souls, where the things you care about are crucial to others, and you can form friendships with people who want to argue with you, love what you do enough to criticize it, and can't wait to show you the amazing thing they've just read. In a country the size of this one, such people aren't always easy to find; the university connects us to other readers, brings us into conversation. The faux-populist notion that if we just got the academy out of the way, poetry would thrive naturally among a grateful people seems to me naive; the reality is probably that market forces would have buried it even more deeply than they already have.
If indeed writing programs ever homogenized writers, they are far less likely to do so now, when we have a national network of writers increasingly linked by the Web, by rapid reviewing, publication, and discussion. Back when I was lucky enough to have my poem chosen, news didn't travel quite as quickly nor esthetics intermingle with such promiscuous energy. In Tucson, I was more likely to read the poets my teachers liked and the work of my peers; I didn't know what was going on in Charlottesville or Missoula or the Lower East Side; now such knowledge would be pretty well inescapable. As for commodification, well, poetry is likely to take care of that prospect all by itself. You can produce a book of poems and offer it for sale, but you cannot prevent anyone from memorizing a poem, reading it out loud to friends, copying it out and e-mailing it; you hope, in fact, that people will do those things. Art gets given away, again and again, which means it's worth everything and nothing. Is there a risk of selling out? Only in terms of censoring our own turbulent or difficult or unsettling material, out of a misguided desire to please, or perhaps in terms of following patterns of thinking and speaking that are already laid out for us.
I suspect the real resistance to writing programs lies in a failure to come to terms with a paradox. How can I teach you to do what I don't know how to do myself? I do not know, plainly, how to write your poems. No teacher does. A skillful person can show you how to solve an equation or how to speak Urdu, but no one but you knows how to write your poems, and if you are a young artist you don't know yet either. But you will; that's what those who sign on to the enterprise of teaching writing must believe. And that's what the lively, achieved work in this collection demonstrates.