Non-Standard (3)

(This third section throws down some ideas about teaching Creative Writing that would obviously benefit from being revisited, particularly in terms of the power relationship inherent in mentor-tutee interactions, but the main intent is, I hope, evident: to carve out a little space in which such matters can be considered.)

I’ve been attending and hosting poetry workshops for twenty five years, ever since turning up at one in Hertford College run by Stefan Szymanski in my second year as an undergraduate. From that callow body (whose members included Martyn Crucefix among others), to the group I currently attend with the writers Sean O’Brien, Paul Farley, and others, and including all the academic teaching I’ve done at Lancaster and Newcastle, there has always been a consistent if arguable set of assumptions: that the poem must stand by itself as a cultural artefact, that through it the writer can affect the reader in quantifiable as well as unquantifiable ways; that the quantifiable ways can be discussed and the text altered as a consequence; that the unquantifiable can be negotiated even when it cannot be fully articulated .

Literary theoreticians are not keen on this point of view. When I was touring the anthology Strong Words around the universities five years ago with its co-editor, Matthew Hollis, its subtitle, ‘modern poets on modern poetry’, caused one literature colleague to challenge us as to what gave poets any special authority about poetry. He meant as opposed to anyone who chose to write or read a poem, but his unstated implication appeared to be as opposed to academics. The first part of his challenge is, I think, addressed by Kathleen Jamie in her piece for Strong Words, ‘Holding Fast’:

If our poetry is engaged with, and received well by others, by readers and critics, their interest and engagement gives us the moral strength to permit ourselves to make further moves…We accrue permissions, and consequently make poems, which in turn grant us permission to extend into new scary areas. Through that we develop poetic authority.

What’s the difference between the professional poet and the occasional writer, reader or critic? Partly it’s that exposure to an audience, consisting of writers, critics, and readers; partly it’s that commitment to the whole journey. As Kathleen goes on to say, ‘Each poem individually does not require an inner ‘permission’, but ‘permission’ is required for the bigger breakthroughs which occur maybe once every few years, perhaps once a decade.’

The second, unstated, challenge – in what sense are poets better suited to teach poetry than academics? – goes to the heart of the Creative Writing endeavour. It is easy enough to argue that writers must keep a foot in the marketplace; that their knowledge of what gets published and how is what draws students to courses where established writers form part of the teaching staff. But of course students are drawn to all creative writing courses; there is such demand that it would be more accurate to say that those courses with established writers on them get to reject a better class of applicant.

A further complicating factor is an idea often stated by writers themselves: that poetry, and writing in general, cannot be taught. This would seem to display a certain complacency in terms of what those writers themselves have already been taught, whether by practice – the sheer repetitive act of doing something badly until it gets better – or by the secondary route I followed, of studying literature in order to learn how to write.

There is an echo in this of the way more privileged members of society are apt to regard what they possess as somehow being innate to them. Creativity becomes innate in much the same way as the right of members of a certain class to a commensurate level of education or to property is innate. Those of us who have, because of our different origins, come to look ambivalently on education as simultaneously liberating and restrictive, have greater respect for its powers of transformation.

Let those who wish to learn creativity determine whether it can be acquired or not through practice, instead of leaving the matter to the theories of those who may simply be reluctant to teach it. Or the suspicion will remain that those who are ‘born with it’ coincide on the whole with those who are born with most other things too.

Is everyone potentially creative? Let’s at least try to find out. Scan the creative mind, examine the roots of literary techniques in the mind’s ordinary behaviour. Neuroscientists use diseased brains to posit models for the activities of healthy brains. Why not use creative minds to posit models for creativity? Perhaps artists are actually distinct or disordered, or, more challengingly, perhaps non-creativity is simply a social disease.

To return to the question of why writers rather than academics might have some insights into the teaching of writing, I’d simply argue that what writers teach tends to be based in practice rather than theory, and this is not because writers tend to be less interested in theory. Rather it is the case that practice is fundamental to this particular learning process. The text under consideration differs from texts considered in literature classes, in that it is not fixed. The student has still an ongoing role in relation to the criticism being offered: he or she can simply alter what is being discussed, and so alter all the terms of discussion. The text is fluid: under discussion, it becomes performative.

It’s the dynamic of this relation between student and tutor which means it’s not helpful for the tutor to be a non-writer. How can you advise a student on, say, whether or not to rhyme in any given poem or for any stage in their development unless you know something of the processes which lead toward and away from rhyme, and therefore have some means of assessing where they are in relation to such a process? This also applies to the relationship between any text being generated and previous texts, the latter of which may not have a direct pedagogical function: a study of the sonnet may not inspire another sonnet of any artistic merit, whereas an exercise based on bedrooms we have known may do exactly that.

Essentially a writer does not develop by being told things in seminars or by reading books on how to write, but by engaging in the act of writing, and discussing the product. Writing is an intuitive business, and teaching it is similarly intuitive: you have to know the student as well as the student’s writing; you have to encourage them at the moment they are ready to be encouraged, and push them in the directions they are able to go as well as agree whether these are appropriate directions for their writing. The teacher’s role is a kind of chiropractic of the imagination, based in paying attention and broadening their students’ knowledge and skills at the point when this will make most rather than just any impact on their creativity.

The student’s experience is therefore best defined as learning-through-practice. In this sense an adequate theory for what happens in a creative writing class does not yet exist. I would suggest devising such a theory is the poet’s job, it is where we locate the academy in the poet, and that it must concern itself with defining the strategies we bring to bear on this fluid text. All I can say is that, unusually, Bartleby is willing.

This method of teaching Creative Writing perhaps arose from the compositional methods taught at Scottish universities and exported to American institutions – as Robert Crawford tells us, ‘the eighteenth-century Scottish teaching of Rhetoric and Belles-Lettres had been bound up not only with the appreciation of older literature but also with the production of new work…Developments in America often followed that Scottish Belles-Lettres tradition…’. But rather than following his interesting route from Longfellow at Harvard on through Frost via the Iowa method, I’d prefer to backtrack in the direction suggested by Tom Grimes in his anthology of Iowa writers, The Workshop, where he states, ‘This method mandated a return to the study of classical rhetoric, a belief that literary craft could be learned.’

One of the key arguments in Sidney’s Defence of Poetry was that poetry itself was not only something that could be learned, but that it, in itself, was the highest form of teaching:

And that moving is of a higher degree than teaching, it may by this appear, that it is well nigh both the cause and the effect of teaching. For who will be taught, if he be not moved with desire to be taught? and what so much good doth that teaching bring forth (I speak still of moral doctrine) as that it moveth one to do that which it doth teach? For, as Aristotle saith, it is not gnosis but praxis that must be the fruit. And how praxis can be, without being moved to practise, it is no hard matter to consider.

As Brian Vickers tells us in his introduction to English Renaissance Literary Criticism, this is a brilliant reapplication of the affective triad as Cicero defined it of docere, delectare, movere. By requiring similar skills from tutors, and seeking to inculcate them in its students, Creative Writing is reoccupying an under-used wing of the academy, and, as I suggested earlier, its influence can and perhaps should be felt in other corridors of learning. Those undergraduates who have studied it appear to have a more lively response to the poetry they discuss on literature courses, and the essays in which they discuss it also appear more alive to the possibilities of writing good English. In short, they begin to regard writing as something they can inhabit, and to look on those forms produced by previous writers as not entirely alien constructions.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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