P O E T I C L I C E N S E
Notes on Poetry, Poems, and Poets
David Graham's POETIC LICENSE No.57 September 2022
Elephant or Zoologist?: On Teaching and Learning Poetry
In his book on the history of creative writing as an academic discipline, D. G. Myers relates a revealing anecdote. In his telling, the renowned novelist Vladimir Nabokov was being considered for a position at Harvard. The equally distinguished linguist Roman Jakobson attempted to throw cold water on the idea with the following quip: “What’s next? Shall we appoint elephants to teach zoology?”
The idea, somehow, was that a writer of imaginative literature, such as a novelist or poet, had little of value to offer to the academic enterprise. Just because Nabokov could crank out a few novels was no reason to think he could properly teach a course in The Novel. I suppose the further implication is that a creative writer is a naïf: neither sufficiently self-aware nor reliably able to employ the common tools of criticism. In this view, a novelist or poet becomes some kind of idiot savant.
How one interprets this anecdote surely depends on who you are. Are you a poet? Teacher? Literary critic or scholar? Or (lucky you!) merely an interested bystander? Furthermore, what if you’re like me? I blur the boundaries. Having spent most of my adult life producing poetry, I find Jakobson’s snooty attitude insulting at best, downright stupid at worst. Yet having devoted most of my own teaching career to instruction in writing, including both poetry and fiction, I know very well how difficult the job is. So part of me needs to admit that, yes, teaching isn’t the same thing as creating. It’s a related but quite distinct set of skills. For all I know, Nabokov could have been a horrible teacher. I’ve certainly met my share of good writers who are rather inarticulate in analyzing literature—or worse, just not interested, even if they accept a paycheck for doing so. Hard to imagine them being effective instructors. For that matter, I’ve encountered all too many fine scholars who aren’t very good teachers—scholarship also being a related but not identical skill with teaching.
But I also wear another hat. I was a passionate reader of poetry before I ever studied or taught it, and remain so today in my retirement from teaching and my increasing distance from the academic world. So another part of me wants to just walk away from an old argument that brings me no pleasure and that I am no longer being paid to participate in.
Don’t worry: I don’t wish to open that ancient mind-numbing debate of “Can poetry be taught?” Of course it can, assuming you agree that music, dance, acting, and the other arts can be taught—as they obviously are taught all the time. Perhaps in another column I’ll tackle in more detail what I think is wrong with that particular argument—the short answer being that it involves some faulty assumptions about what the verb “teach” means. But let’s leave that debate for another day.
What I’d like to ruminate on here starts with Jakobson’s silly but memorable dichotomy. And that leads not to the question “Can poetry be taught?” but “How can poetry best be taught?” A much more fruitful question. And one that applies to writing as much as teaching, I am convinced. As a practicing poet who was also a long-time teacher of creative writing, was I more an elephant or a zoologist? Well, both, I hope. Like most either/or polarities, the question itself is ultimately too simplistic. But for me it’s useful to start there in thinking through matters that any working poet needs to consider—if she or he hopes to improve and develop, that is.
And the truth is, I love academic ideals and have little patience when I hear folks disparaging book learning—often in terms as simplistic as Jakobson’s sneer at imaginative writers. I remain forever grateful for the scholars, critics, historians, and pedagogues who helped form and inform me throughout my life. I am a loyal child of the academy even when I offer criticism. In my years as a Professor of English I worked as hard as I could to be a good academic—so don’t go using the word “academic” as an all-purpose slur word around me.
In literature classes, my aim was to be a lucid, well informed, careful, self-critical, and enthusiastic analyst of literature. At the same time I aimed to assist my students in gaining the critical skills that would enable them to both understand and appreciate the various kinds of literature we read together. They demonstrated their growing skills, mainly, by writing about poems, stories, essays, and plays. Which skills, in turn, translate quite well into and are even of practical use in many other endeavors, it seems clear. After all, writing is a central form of communication—and in what occupation are clear communication skills not important?
In creative writing courses, all these skills came into play as well. But at the same time it was also my somewhat weird job to encourage wild imaginative leaps, to permit rule-breaking, to be open to improvisation and boundary-crossing, and generally to help students realize that a good poem or story can resist exclusively logical analysis.
In other words, to be a teacher of poetry writing—not just a teacher of, say, 19th Century poetry or the Beat Generation—I typically had to negotiate tensions that my purely scholarly colleagues often did not. I had to be both a good elephant and a good zoologist. And yes, I occasionally had to endure a certain amount of snide dismissal from scholars, as if my insights as a working poet were not relevant to the larger and ostensibly more important critical enterprise. (English departments have had to incorporate creative writing into their curricula because students want it. Not all academics, then or now, think that that’s a good thing, but I guess they’re stuck with us.) In any case, over time I gradually came to believe that, ideally, these two functions—elephant and zoologist—need not be incompatible. In truth, I find them deeply complementary.
So I have as little patience for poets badmouthing the academy as I do for academics patronizing poets. And the reason comes straight from my own experience writing poems. For I would argue that it’s not enough to be a born poet/elephant. Any decent poet needs a strong strain of zoologist in his or her temperament. It’s been said that all children are natural poets. Lacking inhibitions and blessedly uninformed about the history of poetry, they invent crazily, take great joy in linguistic play, ignore or bend the rules, and often turn out work that is more lively and memorable that half of what you find in the professional journals. But unless they immerse themselves in the art as readers, few will be writing poetry for long after the initial flush of excitement. And unless they educate themselves—formally or not—in the history and craft of poetry, few of them will be writing poetry over the long haul. At least not poetry that’s much good, in all likelihood.
My metaphor is the germinating seed. I incline to think that everyone has a creative streak, which can be nurtured and developed, or not. Like a germinating seed, most everyone has enough built-in nutrients to sprout. But unless given sufficient water, sunlight, and food thereafter, a plant will wither away after the initial burst of energy and possibility. All children may be born poets, but most adults aren’t poets. When asked when he decided to be a poet, William Stafford once replied by asking “When do most people stop being poets?” Seems obvious to me that wise poets will be continually reading, studying, thinking critically and self-critically, and so forth—all those perhaps unglamorous and fussy things that schools encourage.
To be clear, I am not suggesting that formal classroom training is the only route to becoming a good poet. Just that it can be most helpful. Keats didn’t have an MFA and Dickinson never went to a poetry conference, but both were formidable and voracious readers. It may also have helped that they were geniuses.
As I’ve said, I am a child of the academic world, and I love it as a boy loves his parents—despite all their flaws, which a child knows better than anyone. I also am firmly convinced that creative writing belongs in the academic world. Not that it shouldn’t also thrive outside the classroom, lord knows, but I can testify from experience that good things definitely happen in the classroom setting. Even if no published poetry emerges and most students don’t go on to a life of writing poetry, a good poetry workshop sharpens mental and emotional muscles, provides deeper appreciation of language and literature, and broadens the potential audience for the art of poetry.
Moreover, the kind of critical questions that writers must ask each other, and the sort of hands-on, nuts-and-bolts analysis of what makes a poem effective, are potentially very useful for academic critics to be exposed to. When you attempt to write your own sonnet, not just analyze Shakespeare’s, you learn things that can’t be picked up in any other way. One analogy would be theater: once you perform in a play by Shakespeare, you know it more deeply than if you just read it on the page or even attend a show.
It’s a win-win situation—good for creative writers to rub shoulders with scholars, and vice versa. I’ve honestly never understood the common prejudice against classes in creative writing—which criticism comes as often from inside as outside the academy. As the slam poet Jack McCarthy once put it, addressing Donald Hall as a representative academic poet, “As much as you need our vigor; we need your rigor. Can’t we find a common ground?” I am all in favor of finding such common ground.
But—there’s always a but in these matters, isn’t there?—one danger is that formal academic study may tilt the scales a bit too emphatically in the direction of criticism, at least where creative writing is concerned. And definitely in introductory-level classes, which can risk turning off students rather than helping them grow. Encouragement and nurturing of inborn talent may require some re-tooling of academic methods. It’s possible that the same critical tools used to dissect a poem in a literature class may not be the best ones to employ in a poetry workshop—at least not exclusively.
Here too my experience as a working poet has informed my views on teaching. That rigor McCarthy mentions is perhaps what academics do best. Good for us. Still, in recent years I’ve thought a lot about the default values of the academic world, which often seem to run in one direction. To oversimplify, such values are frequently negative. In the academy we tend to prize (or at least praise) rigor, high standards, skepticism, and a relentless questing for excellence—all of which are arrived at through the critical method and rewarded with letter grades and academic honors. We may pay lip service to appreciation, but the fact remains that, from academic articles through workshop discussion, we demonstrate intelligence, knowledge, and other emblems of our guild membership by being critical in the negative sense, don’t we?
Thus the academy is a great haven for curmudgeons and cranks, some more harmless than others. But too often, any whiff of unqualified appreciation is considered a lapse, a sign of a less than stellar mind. Hence the universal academic prejudice against “popular” literature, among other things, as if popularity per se necessarily were incompatible with quality. Hence the fashion for critical theories like Deconstruction, which are premised on the notion that authors can’t be trusted and don’t know what they’re doing. As a poet I resent that patronizing view.
Once I had jumped through all the requisite hoops to achieve my own membership card, I gradually began to see more clearly the limitations of academic methods, not just the benefits. I definitely found myself less and less interested as years went by in all the relentless negativity. Frankly a lot of it—not all!—seems to be preening and one-upsmanship. Eventually I concluded that maybe the truly revolutionary act is to inject more generosity and intelligent praise into the enterprise. And that’s where the elephants truly can teach the zoologists a thing or two.
Long ago T. S. Eliot, who was an unashamed elitist and who influenced the academic study of poetry greatly, spoke up loudly for rigor with such remarks as "No verse is free for the man [sic] who wants to do a good job." In Eliot’s view, much study is needed in order to become any kind of poet. In one of his most famous essays, he wrote that “Tradition . . . cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to any one who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year. . . .” Daunting words, I think, to throw at some eighteen year old who just wants to write a decent love poem for a girlfriend or boyfriend. . . .
In contrast, William Stafford, answering those who asked him what he did when he was stuck and couldn’t seem to write something that was any good, replied, "I just lower my standards until I meet them." I think that good poets probably need a bit of both Eliot and Stafford in them. In my experience, the truth hovers somewhere between these two sweeping and seemingly incompatible attitudes. Stafford was all about encouraging the flow, giving permission, exploring past one's own inhibitions and other resistances, and as such he was a terrifically liberating voice. His advice is always good when you're feeling stuck or in a rut, but he really had very little of use to say about revision, discrimination, analysis.
Eliot, in contrast, speaks for the gatekeeping mentality, the setting and upholding of Standards, and (at his worst—e. g. his disdain for William Carlos Williams; his anti-Semitic lines) bigotry and a prissy, nose-holding fear of otherness. It's no surprise he didn't publish very much. Clearly he didn't often meet his own standards. Nor is it surprising that for years after he died Stafford kept putting out books, as if death itself could not cause writer's block. I suppose a doctrinaire Stafford-ite tends to forget that not every emission is of equal interest. Followers of Eliot in this regard sometimes forget that, as Marvin Bell once put it, in the grand scale of things, writing a bad poem doesn't weigh very much.
So what to do, poets, lighten up or tighten up? Back when I was teaching, my advice to students tended to be to follow Stafford in the invention and drafting phases, and whenever you're spinning your wheels. But at some point the stern finger-wagging Critic needs to step in and make some judgments, tighten some bolts, toss out the crapola. And yes, knowing the great tradition in all its diversity is invaluable in this labor. Taking a few classes won’t hurt you.
So do we need elephants teaching zoology? Sure. Doesn’t mean we don’t also want some zoologists prowling around the zoo. Which is more needed, vigor or rigor? Well, in the immortal words of Groucho Marx, ”What's the difference between a duck? Both legs each the same!”