From The Mind
How to Teach Poetry
by Anthony Watkins
First, the obvious disclaimer, while I have a great deal of experience as a poet, and a decade as a community teaching assistant at Penn, and even have organized my own teaching program for poetry in small town libraries, I have exactly zero formal education in the art of teaching anything. All my teaching skills are gleaned from on-the-job training as well as listening to great poetry teachers like Al Filreis, Erica Kaufman, Eric Weinstein, Jerome Rothenberg, and others, talk about the art of teaching. And I am not the best student, so even though they are all brilliant, my take is probably not the best. Having said that, there are a few things I feel comfortable sharing with those who are interested in learning how to be the best poet they can be.
1 Poetry is not a competition.
In spite of the fact that there are actual poetry competitions, both in publications for prizes, as well as poetry slams where one tries to “out poet” the rest of the folks performing, poetry is not a competition. The poet writes because they have a poem inside them that must get out. If you are writing for other reasons, you are likely on the wrong path.
Two short anecdotes on this matter, well, one and a very short poem by my all-time favorite poet.
I used to paint, but gave it up in high school, because I was surrounded by other young artists who were so much better than me. I was talking to a successful artist a few years ago, and told him as much, his response was, “You don’t paint to be the best, you paint because you have something to say with a paint brush” (in my case a roller). He was right. I went home and started painting again. I am not a great painter, but I enjoy expressing myself with color, and some people seem to enjoy looking at the work. The same is true for anything creative. If you have something to say, with paint, with music, dance, sculpture, or the written word, do it. Do not consider, is this better than Picasso, or than Emily Dickinson.
The short poem, an instructive look at creative impulses:
Old Indian Pot
by Dr. James Lancaster
You make a pot
Because you need a pot
You decorate a pot
Because you a need a song
Because you need a dream
Because you need a God
To make your spirit rest.
2 There are as many ways to write and understand poetry as there are humans on the planet.
This should be obvious, but, at least for me, it wasn’t. I always thought all humans, and especially all poets thought more or less the same way, and thus wrote more or less with the same processes, with the main differences being our various lived experiences and points of view. What works for you is uniquely you. You can steal and borrow as much as you like, but at the core, your poetry needs to be what is in your heart and mind.
3 Form is what it is.
A hundred years ago, formal poetry died and then a trend of free verse took the world by storm. A few years ago, formal verse revived and now is a valid and growing part of modern poetry. If you enjoy the challenge of working in a form, do it, be as good and creative as you can within the constraints you have chosen. If you do not want ANY constraints, you can still write poetry, blank verse, full free verse, prose poetry, poetry as micro fiction, as well as epic book length poems. Do not let ANYONE dissuade you based on your form or lack thereof.
4 Write YOUR Poetry.
Someone famously said, a long time ago that poetry is the best words in the best order, but honestly, that should be ALL writing. Poetry is undefinable, sometimes defined by rhyming, meter, line breaks, “poetic phrasing”, or the use of “pretty” words, but the truth is poetry is not a thing with feathers, but a thing “void without form”, only given meaning and form by your thoughts. Write sincerely what you want to say, be honest, be introspective, and remember, you cannot know the heart of another person, so be careful when describing their motivations within your poem. Ironically, usually we reach our most universal when we delve the deepest inside of ourselves. Say whatever you will, be passionate, silly, nonsensical even, but be as honest as you know how and write for whatever your motive is.
5 Understanding Poetry, Your Own, and the Poetry of Others.
Poetry sometimes has obvious meanings, at least on one level. On other levels, it often carries meanings even the poet did not intend or was not aware they intended. Finding meaning in poetry through classes and group readings can be fun and entertaining, but no one, not even the most brilliant teachers and poets can tell you what a poem means to you. A poem is always a mirror, as is pretty much all art. What we see tells us something about ourselves. You cannot misunderstand art. Whatever you see is valid. Of course, whatever anyone else sees is also valid. Don’t spend a great deal of time trying to tell readers what your poem means. What it means to you, what you thought you were saying when you wrote it, is not the complete or even important meaning of the poem to the reader. Create, and then let your creation live independent of you.
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