Posts Tagged ‘language’

Why Hire a Poet?

I’m not on the job market, so I can use myself as an example in this post. But I’ll try not to brag too much. Poets generally have reasonably high self-esteem, but not huge egos. This probably stems from the fact that most people don’t think of poets in the highest regard. We’re seen as a little strange, I think. But it’s still a respectable profession, though it is one where we face an enormous amount of rejection. We send poems out to magazines, and even with a good submission, most come back unused. More often than not, the whole submission comes back, but we’re thrilled when 1/5 or 1/4 is kept by a publication! (One poem accepted out of four or five in a submission is great. Two is superb.)

This turns poets into perfectionists. We tend to be very detail oriented, though we’re also able to laugh about it (most of the time) and don’t get overwhelmed by our own attention to detail. If I truly were OCD, I don’t think I could live as a poet. I manage the details; they don’t manage me. Or at least, that’s what I like to think.

But more than paying attention to details and paying attention to language at the most subtle levels, which any poet needs to do, you will find that poets have developed a keen sense of structure. This comes from looking at sentences and from looking at how those sentences (and the sounds and images that make them up) are arranged in the grid of the poem, across lines and stanzas or between the poems of a book.

Recently, I was asked to revise the student bulletins at my university. These are publications for undergraduate and graduate students that range anywhere from nearly 400 pages to about 150 pages. They contain descriptions of the university departments, policies, programs, and courses. It is a lot of different kinds of information, in other words. It seems to me that a poet was perfect for this job, even though that might not be the first person you’d think of. After all, the language is these publications is far from poetic.

Nonetheless, it involved arranging and rearranging lots of information, which called for the attention to detail and structure that I’ve developed as a poet over the years. Thinking about how to arrange the information and how to convey it in logical, consistent ways is exactly what a poet does on a micro level every day. This task just meant applying it on a larger scale. Of course, it didn’t hurt that I do a little programming for myself on the side (for fun and to calculate my grades), and that I know my way around web design (at least passably) and have learned a few online authoring tools like WordPress and Joomla!.

The lesson I take from this experience is that employers shouldn’t look down on someone who’s a poet, thinking that they are only impractical ninnies with their heads in the clouds. In fact, poets can be very practical, very goal driven, and very down-to-earth. Poets, on the other hand, can learn from this not to hide the fact that they are poets, but to emphasize the skills that they have developed. There are many kinds of poets and many different ways their avocation might help them in their vocation. Sell it, when you’re on the job or on the job market! And don’t wait until someone hires you to start applying your skills to other areas. Take up other forms of writing, including writing for the web or technical writing. Don’t be afraid to move into ‘non-poetic’ fields and bring some poetry to them.

The Art of Writing

It is the beginning of a new semester, and today I taught the first session of MUW’s introductory multi-genre Creative Writing class. As usual, as I walked the dog and gathered my thoughts before class, my thoughts turned to what we can teach about writing. It occurred to me, that in creative writing classes, we often gravitate to discussing what works (and what doesn’t). Sure, we want to move a an audience, but we often gravitate to the lowest common denominator, to the pragmatic approach. So one of my resolutions for the semester is to remind my students that writing is an art.

In class, we were discussing our goals. It was a good place to lay the groundwork by reminding students that in a creative writing class we focus more on the artistic side of what is said. When we write an essay, we care about communicating the ideas or making an argument. Those things matter in creative writing, too, but we focus more on the sound of the words or the patterns of a sentence. We have the luxury of writing something because we think it’s beautiful. (An essay written in rhyme might be unique, but I would still grade it primarily on the ideas, not the rhyme scheme.)

My goal in in this is to encourage students to move beyond the pragmatic and think about the beautiful. Of course, they don’t have to be opposites. Voltaire, in describing his utopia of Eldorado, praises it for making the practical beautiful. If I can begin to instill in some of my students a love of language and an attention to its subtleties, then I will be happy.

As I reached the farthest end of a cold gray walk along the river, which was already nearing flood stage, and as the dog and I turned around to come home, the looming clouds unleashed a steady rain that didn’t stop all day. Yet despite the cold and rain, the river retained its beauty and showed off its power.

What’s the point?

At the beginning of the semester, I sometimes stop to wonder what is the point to this education thing, especially for undergraduate creative writers. Often at AWP conferences, panels bemoan the number of writing programs out there (usually MFA programs but it applies to undergrad as well) and lament the prospects for their students. Some go so far as to wonder whether they should even allow their students to take their classes (though they do). In this day and age, when college tuitions continue to rise and when students are increasingly practical in their choices of major (or believe they are), how do we justify what we do?

On the one hand, it is tempting to simply justify it because it exists. Poetry has been around for thousands of years, and fiction as we know it for nearly as long. Creative writing has been part of human culture since humans learned to write, before that there was storytelling and oral poetry, so there should be no need to justify teaching it. Oh, that life were so simple.

Students (or their parents) want careers. Actually, many students don’t want careers, or if they do, they want exciting careers, and ‘famous writer’ is right up there with ‘film star’ for some of them. Yet if that were the promise we held out to students, then I might agree that teaching creative writing is unethical. Rare is the student who will go on to a career as a writer, though they do exist and I know several of our alums who are well on their way. Even rarer is the student writer who will someday be ‘famous,’ though that may depend on how one defines fame. So I am looking for something a little more practical in what we teach.

Ultimately, it boils down to two things: self-awareness and expression. Really, aren’t these the hallmarks of a liberal arts education? They may be developed in many fields, but no fields are more appropriate to this than the creative fields of writing, art, music, and theater.

Most students seem to take creative writing classes because they have a desire to express themselves. In order to do this, they must by definition, know themselves, and the process of creative writing involves considerable exploration of the self. Though it is not psychoanalysis — there is no analyst in the room — the creative writing class provides this opportunity, as any art class might. This clearer understanding of the self may be more beneficial to the student in the long run than any professional education, even if it is never directly applicable to a career. It may help the student choose a career or decide when to change careers, who to marry (or not), what to do in her/his ‘spare time,’ etc.

Certainly, creative writing classes can not take credit for every decision students make in the rest of their lives, but there is value in fostering a thoughtful self-awareness. Of course, many students may still make a mess of their lives (who doesn’t at some point) and cope with their messes for better or worse, and this is an aspect of learning that is impossible to grade or assess. Some of those ‘messes’ may lead to brilliant works of art, for which we also can not take full credit, anymore than we can be blamed for a lack of brilliance.

So I usually come round to fostering expression as the main value of what we do as teachers of creative writing. If anything, I hope we teach (and can grade and assess) care with language. Creative writers should pay more attention to how they write what they write. The language of a poem should be beautiful (or intentionally and beautifully ugly), even if the subject is not. A paragraph of prose fiction should be musical as well as informative. Writers should choose the word that is right in a given context, not just the most expedient word, but the word that means, sounds, and feels right. Syntax matters for the patterns it creates (not just grammatical correctness), and paragraphs, poems, stories, even essays are developed with a structure in mind, though that structure often arises out of the material rather than being imposed from outside.

This attention to detail and care for language carries over from writers’ creative works to all their writing. Emails from a writer ought to be better written than most others. In an age of information, when we are flooded with ‘communication’ vying for our attention, the messages that are well crafted will stand out from those that aren’t. There may be more need for poets and writers than ever before, and more need to develop the skills of a writer for those who do want to stand out and make their mark, whether that is with a book of poems or novel or with a memo or blog or tweet or whatever the next technological innovation will bring.

Let’s face it, most creative writing students aren’t hell bent on a career. They may end up in a closely related field, or they may end up doing something completely different from what they studied in college in order to make a living (which is true for students in any major), yet the skills students develop in a creative writing class will stand them in good stead no matter where they go or what they do.