For their final project, my Introduction to Poetry students submit with their portfolio a written analysis of their work and their evolution during our time together. Grabbing the very first one—admittedly elbow deep in the requisite exhaustion of final exams—I paused at the opening sentence: “The first question I had when I saw the class was: ‘Why is there a poetry class?’”
I’ve been thinking about it ever since.
Truly, I’ve been wondering about that question for a long time, or perhaps a broader version of it: What should we teach undergraduate students when it comes to creative writing? What should we teach them—especially at specific universities or colleges where classrooms are filled with primarily non-majors—when it comes to the genre of poetry?
This fall was an odd mixture of magic and I don’t know what else with the students who signed up. Students with majors in Nursing, Business Management and Leadership, Health and Exercise Science, Biology, Psychology, Music and Worship, Criminal Justice, History and the like, but, you’ll note, not a single English major to be found. And yet, I want to know what happened here this time teaching this course so that I may, hopefully, be able to replicate it and, if possible, make it even better. Isn’t that so often our goal as teachers?
“The first question I had when I saw the class was: ‘Why is there a poetry class?’”
Now that we’ve come to the end I’m finding myself looking back to the first time I taught this same course—as least a course with the same name—at this university almost five years ago. A new faculty member, fresh out of graduate school, and generally perplexed about the culture I had entered at this new university, I felt I had to teach all of the students in my class about poetry from the dawn of time to yesterday and assist them with their own writing too. That is to say, I was trying to teach a literature course in a creative writing course. And these students in my class were predominantly non-major white male athletes, there to check off one of their required boxes for graduation. Now I wish I could grab me then by the elbow and say, Relax. If you can get them to finish the course believing in poetry, believing that it is for them, then you will have done something right. I would like to believe that some of them left with that idea, but mostly I find myself cringing while thinking of that time.
Somehow, though, a transition began slowly. A transition away from succumbing to the pressure to teach as much of the canon as I could. A transition away from the pressure to use a standard, big-name publisher textbook where each chapter was a long, boring examination into meter or symbols or the like. Instead, I began teaching students that much of what they had been told about poetry was all wrong. That we must explode the idea of poetry until all that is left is us and the words and the feelings they evoke. That through the deconstruction we can reconstruct poetry again, and find it as it always has been, there just waiting for us from when we were much younger and knew exactly in our bones what it was and what it meant.
You’re getting soft in your old age, a friend and fellow teacher said to me the other day when I mentioned that I was struggling to grade these students turned poets.
I can hear the worried voices of some of those who taught me, and those of the voices who have taught as I have previously taught for years: If students don’t learn of the long history and evolution of poetry and of the classics in my class, then where will they?
Somewhere, I hope, is the answer I have at least for today, but not in this class. Instead, let a literature course focusing on poetry do that worthwhile work, and then let the creative writing course focus on other equally important things. Things that while they do include the many craft toolbox essentials and various voices from the canon also include voices from backgrounds as varied as my students are—as now, five years later, not a single white male was in my class and my university has become one of the more diverse ones.
So what, in the end, is the purpose of an undergraduate poetry class?
To learn that their voice—as it is—has value? Without whitewashing, without academic-language-washing?
To learn how to risk? Risk on the page and on the stage?
To learn that their stories can grow by knowing and learning the stories of others?
To learn how to destroy what negative associations they had about poetry?
To learn how to evaluate their own ideas and words?
To learn how to revise something? To take it—after the grand accomplishment of placing it all together—and pull it apart? To shift and trim and expand? To see what can happen to something, anything, an idea, a person, when we believe in revision?
To create a community of writers? Of students who actually get to see each other as humans?
At times, writing about creative writing courses can be difficult to articulate, especially to those who haven’t been a part of the odd environment. In many conversations I notice the almost religious undertones, the discussion of the class becoming family, of what must be given and sacrificed individually. I especially notice this with poetry and creative nonfiction. And while my students, and even myself, have lost our faith in so many things—too many to list—in this small gathering of people some current runs through: Faith remains in words and in the power of speaking them.
So what, in the end, is the purpose of an undergraduate poetry class?
I do not have all the answers here. Did I ever think I did? Let me tell you what I have told them, now that we are at the end:
“I had to have a strong moment of evaluation these last days about the purpose of a poetry course [and I’m] left with a quandary: What is it, I wondered, that I most want you to take out of this course? What is it I want for you to have all learned?
So I will tell you. I want you to be able to look at the story you have in front of you, the story of your life and yourself, and be able to examine it. No, not just examine it, but challenge it. I want you to look closely at the stories you have been told and question them: the stories of our country, about what a family is or is not, about what makes up our beliefs about love and loss, about those in our world who have power and those who don’t, and those whose voices we privilege and listen to and those we don’t. Siken writes: ‘You want a better story. Who wouldn’t?’ And that’s the thing: I want a better story for you, and that story is one where you get to embrace, decide, and reconstruct the narrative. And of course, as you well know, I want even more than that: three things more, in fact. Firstly, I want you to read voraciously and as often as you can. Secondly, I want you to write and write and then write some more. Don’t forget what this all felt like these last months with crafting your ideas on the page and then sharing them with others. And thirdly, I want you to remember the power of revision: that it is practice, playing, risk, and that it allows you to imagine alternatives and expansions.
The grade you have received for this course is not a period marking the end of our time together, rather it is a contract for what I have outlined above, a promise from you to me that even though this course has ended that you will continue to challenge yourself, your life, and your story.”
The student who wrote about her first reaction to seeing the poetry class and wondering about it, wondering what its purpose is, continued on—you won’t be surprised to learn—to say that she found it crucial to her education, her writing both academically and creatively, and her life. Every class isn’t able to mesh all together and support each other so deeply that at the sharing of their work at the campus-wide poetry slam they were all speaking the lines of each other’s poems, having memorized them from practicing so often together outside of class. Every class isn’t this class, but—as I look forward to whoever sits in my classroom next, wondering about our purpose together—I’ll remember that one small part of what made this semester different was that I stopped fighting larger pressures and went straight to the root of poetry again: the gut, the heart, the mind.
Marissa Schwalm is an Associate Editor for The Flexible Persona.