It’s orientation day on campus, and the students are busy racing beds down St. George, festooning trees with toilet-paper, inventing new inter-collegiate profanities, and otherwise celebrating the start of the academic year. In my basement office I doodle alphabets and flowers down the page in lieu of outlining a schedule for my third-year course in creative writing. How does one “schedule” creativity?How does one “teach” writing?
There are some gut instincts to follow. I’ve just telephoned a young man to tell him he’s been rejected from the class. Gently, into the silence at the other end of the line, I explain that although he exhibits a certain verbal facility and a humorous take on romance, the 4-to-10-line apercus he’s submitted are not substantial enough to weigh in as poetry. I elucidate further that by “substance” I mean both the persuasive embodiment of experience in language (the “narrative” motive for poetry) and a full deployment of the resources of language itself (the “lyric” motive). The balance between narrative and lyric varies widely from poem to poem between the extremes of free-verse storytelling in conventional language and syntax and highly-wrought rhymed-and-metered poetic diction. But in balancing these two motives, in achieving their own internal equipoise, all good poems attain intensity, density and substance: an authority of voice and vision that engages the reader more fully with life. I tell the young man that the stuff he’s sent in doesn’t have that authority; that it’s mostly notes towards poems, and I’d need to see a couple of really worked-through pieces in order to admit him to the class.
Can he understand me? Probably not. As with most beginning poets, he is so intoxicated with the lines that are given to him he can’t recognize that they must be lines to, not just lines from (the Muse, the Unconscious, whatever). Like the punch-drunk freshmen outside, he’s playing at beginnings. The responsibility of middles, the terror of endings, haven’t yet cast their shadows on his page. But it is these shadows — the spaces between the lines that are given — that interest me more and more. It is when we go beyond our delight in language and our need to “express” ourselves, when we let ourselves plummet down the rabbit hole where word and world intersect, that we find out why we’re writing at all and whether we do have anything to say. Perhaps, as a creative-writing “teacher”, my role is to disorient my students!
© copyright Susan Glickman 1990