Can the Writing of Poetry Be Taught?

In our egalitarian and democratic societies we very much hope 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 whatever you believe (paraphrasing one of its leading prophets, Napoleon Hill); and we know that poetry is a good thing, so can everybody, if they are taught sufficiently well, be a poet? A large part of my early career was spent on the assumption that it could be done. I was a secondary school English teacher for 15 years, taught thousands of students, and wrote several successful texts on just how to do it.

But to return to my central query: they ought 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 any man of common understanding may, by culture, care, attention, and labor, make himself whatever he pleases, except a great poet,” which quite unequivocally denies the possibility that a poet can be made, although this is not to say that a poet is born. What I have come to believe is that a poet is a poet by vocation. It is indeed a calling, 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? Further, 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 if I cannot name one person who is still writing poetry today. What I can do is name several 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 as a result of that teaching. So, waste of time, definitely not: I have equipped and up-skilled thousands of students. And so for other teachers of poetry, whether they be at primary school or post-graduate level, there are skills and disciplines to learn, and that need to be learnt before the full fruit of poetry can be manifested.

We need to remember that even the great poet starts off as an apprentice; starts off writing much rubbish, and usually continues writing some inferior stuff for the rest of his or her life. To mention the greatest of all poets, Shakespeare: it can hardly be denied that his output was massively inconsistent throughout his career-a fact commented on at the time by his friend Ben Jonson, analysed in depth one hundred and fifty years later by his great admirer, Dr. Samuel Johnson, and alluded to by commentators ever since. How is it that a man who was so inspired by the Muse could also produce such bathos? One is reminded of Socrates remark: “I soon realised that poets do not compose their poems with real knowledge, but by inborn talent and inspiration, like seers and prophets who also say many things without any understanding of what they say.” Perhaps Socrates here is overstating the inspiration a bit, though it certainly appears that way when a poet is in full flow. The key to living up to Socrates’ lofty description is the long and arduous preparation that is essential if the poet is to become a fit conductor for the Muse. Here is where the teaching comes in.

Ah! But I am getting ahead of myself: the Muse? Inspiration? What is this to do with teaching poetry? Everything. In the first place what we can teach the student is techniques, we can introduce models, we can unpick complexity and show how poetry works on multiple 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 any one specific thing, or if it is, that is secondary; what is important is the language and how it works, which is not how logic works. This how-language-works stuff can, bizarrely, get far deeper into the heart of reality-which is emotional-than any rational discourse can. Sidney J Harris said this: “Pupils are more like oysters than sausages.” We see from this that the art of the teacher, then, is not to produce sausages, closed-ended products full of dubious nutrition (like a National Curriculum in the U.K. or Common Core in the United States) but to be oyster-like: to allow the oyster to open to reveal the pearl within. This requires patience and what John Keats called “negative capability.”

Negative capability is that not reaching after facts and certainties, but allowing the imagination to do its work; or put another way, allowing the Muse to enter in and speak, because true poetry is inspired (or in-spirited), which literally means breathed-in. It has a divine origin, and anyone who has written true poetry knows this to be true, for the mind enters a curious state of excited passivity and the poem writes itself. Sure, it may be edited afterwards and incubated for longer still, but the essence of the true poem is that it is inspired and so seems to come in one whole and enveloping motion (hence Wordsworth’s point about poetry being “emotion recollected in tranquillity”-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 actually writing the poem from the beginning. Now this, clearly, is difficult to teach, for it is not a skill but a quality or attitude even of being; there is in the waiting for the Muse a faith, a confidence-confidence in Latin meaning “with faith”-that is transcendental; in fact, as with Samuel, the Biblical prophet, it is waiting for the call-poets hear the words coming to them, and they are not thinking, “What shall I write?” for that would be prose. They are transcribing the words that call out to them. At least they are at their best. With all of us it happens many times that what we thought were divine words turns out to be mere verse, or worse, mere prose, or very worst of all-below verse and prose-mere doggerel.

But let’s not turn away from verse: verse is good, sometimes outstanding, even if ultimately it does not reach the heights of poetry. And this can and should be taught. Give me good verse any day rather than free verse, which mostly is not anything at all and whose essential characteristic is ugliness, the opposite of the Muse. As an extended sidebar, early 20th century English writer Hilaire Belloc commented, “There is (as the greatest of the Ancient Greeks discovered) a certain indissoluble Trinity of Truth, Beauty and Goodness. You cannot deny or attack one of these three without at the same time denying or attacking both the others. Therefore with the advance of this new and terrible enemy against the Faith and all that civilisation which the Faith produces, there is coming not only a contempt for beauty but a hatred of it; and immediately upon the heels of this there appears a contempt and hatred for virtue.” Poet Jose Garcia Villa, whose book I reviewed recently, put this much more succinctly: “In order to be art, form is mandatory.” And we can teach form, and in doing so increase the appreciation of beauty in the world.

To further 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 C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, gave in his marvellous essay on great poetry. He invites us to contrast this extract from 19th century poet T.B. Macaulays’ Lays of Ancient Rome:

Round turned he, as not deigning

Those heathen ranks to see;

Naught spake he to Lars Porsena,

To Sextus naught spake he

with this short passage from the close of Book 5 of John Milton’s Paradise Lost:

So spake the Seraph Abdiel, faithful found,

Among the faithless faithful only he;

Among innumerable false unmoved,

Unshaken, unsecured, unterrified.

Paraphrasing Williams we might say that both passages are about the same topic: courage or heroism in the face of overwhelming odds, but clearly the Macaulay is verse and Milton’s is great poetry. What is the difference? And the difference is entirely experiential: we read the Lay and we think “How jolly to behave like that; how spiffing; isn’t that just so brave?” whereas we read the Milton and we feel what heroism is: we enter the world of pure courage and its very pulse is felt in our blood stream; indeed, it makes our hairs stand on end, as, say, does Shakespeare when Hamlet’s ghost appears and-I could go on. We admire Horatio, but we become Abdiel, “though single,” as the power and sound of language (rhetoric) gets us to wholly identify with the character and the situation. True poetry, then, is always a remarkable achievement because it always entails the primary imagination of mankind becoming unified as it enters into an experience or situation and expresses its inner reality. It is worth commenting as well here on I.A. Richards’ brilliant observation from his famous The Principles of Literary Criticism that “Metre for the most difficult and most delicate utterances is the all but inevitable means.” Certainly Macaulay has metre but it is of a most basic and tub-thumping sort; Milton’s metre is sinuous, flexible (see how the caesura shifts from line to line), insistent and overlaid with a whole series of other sound patterns-one could write a whole essay just on the technical achievements of these four lines; but I doubt, in reading it, whether Milton composed with just such technicalities in mind. Rather, the lines came to him -flowed as the Muse spoke. And because he had spent so much time reading poetry and practising the writing of verse as a younger man, so he did not have to labour too hard to focus all these technical points together as the Voice of the poem spoke to him. This, by way of analogy, is rather like becoming an expert cyclist: once you are that good you no longer have to consciously think of balance, handling, peddling or any other aspect of cycling-the mind-body moves in one effortless motion to guide the bike to its destination.

Here, then, is a reason to teach poetry: not that it produces poetry, but that it prepares the person who is called to be a poet to be fully optimised-mature enough, capable and technical enough-for when the Muse actually does speak or better still, transmits. Furthermore, the teaching of poetry-where we are actually dealing with poetry-promotes the appreciation of beauty and as late English screenwriter Christopher Bryant said, “For beauty makes for joy.” So this is worth doing whether or not any one particular person is called to be a poet or not. And let’s not forget as well the sheer therapeutic effect of writing, be it poetry or otherwise; that is important.

Finally, then, beyond whether we can teach how to write poetry or not, we need to remember what contemporary English writer Patrick Harpur observed: “In bowing our heads humbly before the Muse, and losing ourselves in her imagery, we paradoxically gain greater freedom and meaning, and come to know what it is to be our true selves.”

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