Our in-depth interview with Colorado Poet Laureate Joseph Hutchison concludes today. In this segment, Professor Hutchison addresses trends in teaching poetry, the notion of “difficult” or “inaccessible” poetry, his views on creative writing programs, his interest in creating a database of Colorado poets on which teachers may draw for lesson plans, and his perspective on promoting poetry in America.
Has the teaching of poetry changed since your first years in a classroom? What are some of the trends, good or bad, you’ve observed?
My teaching changes all the time, pretty much in parallel with my own changing challenges as a poet. I’m a fan of teaching as “conducting one’s own education in public, ” so the discoveries, small and large, that happen in my own practice affect how I teach. In the beginning, I focused on the image—images and metaphors; later on, I focused on what I used to call the through-line but now simply call the structure; and now, I’m “ate up with blending” (ambivalence in images and metaphors) and issues of cadence.
I don’t know that I’ve noticed any particularly good trends lately. Poetry has become more and more dominated by theory but my students haven’t been touched by that so much, because it’s a minor and very-much-inside-baseball trend in poetry. It’s negative because poets spend more time on poetics than on poetry; they cleave to their own cliques and shoot from the hip. Theory-driven poetry has no audience to speak of, and mostly it doesn’t deserve one. It’s divorced from reality, because the poets who write think that reality is either in language or beyond language. It’s no surprise that this is a dead end.
The one bad trend that hasn’t changed a whole lot in my lifetime, that has only gotten worse, is the trend toward complete ignorance of poetic tradition. I don’t mean traditional forms but the traditional functions of poets in the world. I have adult students who come into my graduate-level classes with very little knowledge of poetry before Robert Frost [1874-1963] and almost no knowledge of poetry after T.S. Eliot [1888-1965]. That’s a pretty narrow scope of awareness.
We often hear that poetry is just “not accessible, ” and you have written at your blog, The Perpetual Bird, that your experience is that “readers who dislike poetry typically dislike complexity, period.” If you do, or had to, argue for teaching “difficult” poems in the classroom, what would be your reasons?
There is nothing easy about the lives we lead. Living is difficult. So it would be the height of foolishness to avoid teaching difficult poems. Good poems are always difficult, though they may succeed in hiding their difficulty. (This hiding was something Frost was especially good at.)
Difficult poems require readers to tap into their own difficulties, and that is at the root of many readers’ objections to poetry: They don’t want to confront their difficult lives. They want the comforts of Disney films; they want bromides instead of thought, cheerfulness instead of emotional honesty. But the classroom is the place where thought and emotional honesty need to be honored.
One way of [honoring thought and emotional honesty] is teaching difficult poems. Of course, there are poems that are difficult because they’re bad; they either have nothing to say and want to pretend otherwise, or they have something to say and haven’t found a way to say it well. But that last phrase is misleading. Poems do not “say something”; they are something.
In a good poem, the meaning can’t be extracted from the language. The whole point is to let multiple meanings, multiple layers of significance, exist within the poem. Not for the sake of being difficult but for the sake of being true to life. As I said before, living is difficult.
What is the most important lesson you personally have learned from teaching poetry in the schools?
That everyone has imagination but not everyone wants or needs to write poetry in order to exercise it.
Recently, Nobel Literature judge Horace Engdahl* stated that creative writing courses are “impoverish[ing]” Western literature, having a “negative” effect by “professionalizing” writing and cutting writing off from society. He’s taken a lot of criticism for his remarks. In light of the various jobs you’ve had in your life, including book-store clerk and marketing writer, what is your opinion about Engdahl’s statements?
The fact is that most writers never make a living at writing. They have to find something else to do. Whitman was a sometime teacher, a printer’s assistant, and a newspaper editor; Eliot worked in a bank and later became an editor; [William Carlos] Williams was a doctor; [Wallace] Stevens was an insurance executive and, three generations later, Ted Kooser earned his living in the same way; David Ignatow, among the most underrated poets of his generation, worked jobs ranging from hospital admitting clerk to paper salesman; the fine Los Angeles poet William Pillin made pottery to support his poetry. [Read A Large Red Heart: Three from William Pillin.] All that’s well and good.
The problem [that] Engdahl gets at is the fact that writing programs have become a “bubble” for many writers, but especially poets. You learn the basics of your craft (writing schools cannot teach talent, of course; they can only teach craft and poetic theory), get your M.F.A. or Ph.D., and get a job teaching craft or theory to other poets. Two or three generations later you have a system that’s aesthetically in-bred and campus-bound. Not that poets can’t write fine poems in the bubble, but they can’t write about the bubble because, as Engdahl says, it’s cut off from society. Only inside the bubble can one find a respected university press publishing a book extolling “uncreative writing” or an award named for Walt Whitman being given for a book that includes a “poem” consisting of nothing but 60 blank lines with the word “thing” in parentheses under each. [Read Walt Whitman Spins in His Grave.]
You’ve said that as Colorado’s Poet Laureate, you want to create a database of poets in the state in which the poems are organized by subject/topic. How do you envision teachers’ use of such digital content?
I picture teachers of history, for example, when confronted with the Colorado Gold Rush, capturing the spirit of the times with poems drawn from Robert Cooperman’s “In the Colorado Gold Fever Mountains”, or biology teachers drawing on the science-based poetry of Pattiann Rogers or Reg Saner’s nature poems. There is a push for writing to be taught in classrooms across all subject areas, and certainly poetry should be available in all areas as well.
This idea is really aimed at accomplishing two things. One is to help students connect with the human side of the subject they’re studying, which poetry does better than any genre of writing (in my opinion); second, I hope, [is to] help break our addiction to teaching poetry through the lends of form and literary devices.
In addition to appointments of national, state, and local poets laureate, we’re seeing poetry being used in therapy and prison workshops, readings and spoken-word performances are increasing, poetry websites are proliferating. Recently, the federal NEA joined with the Poetry Foundation to create Poetry Out Loud: National Recitation Contest. Yet we also hear that “poetry doesn’t sell, ” and poets cannot make a living writing poetry. What can be done, then, to promote reading, writing, and performance of poetry across America?
I don’t want poets to make a living writing poetry. For the poet, there is freedom in the work having no or very little commercial value. It would be like being paid for love-making. And you know how people frown on that.
Imagine you have received a $5 million grant to launch a national poetry project that involves public schools. How would you use the funds?
This I would have to think about a good long time. I’ll have to get back to you. In four years, maybe. . . .
* Alison Flood, Creative Writing Courses Are Killing Western Literature, Claims Nobel Judge, The Guardian, October 7, 2014
Joseph Hutchison’s Website
Joseph Hutchison blogs at The Perpetual Bird
Ready to stop scrutinizing a poem for what it’s saying, and discovering what it’s being? Maybe it’s time for you to explore poetry through the gentle guidance of NEA Fellow and published poet Tania Runyan.
How to Read a Poem offers delightful advice on how to explore poetry for enjoyment and meaning. Uses images like the mouse, the hive, the switch (from the Billy Collins poem)—to guide readers into new ways of understanding poems. Excellent teaching tool. Anthology included.