This great essay originally appeared in Writer’s Carousel, the newsletter of the Writer’s Center, and I’m pleased to have received permission from the author and the Writer’s Center to reprint it here. I expect you’ll enjoy reading it, too—who can resist an essay that gracefully manages to quote Robert Frost, "Project Runway," and Tom Waits? And speaking from my own perspective, Sean’s comments definitely apply to more than poetry.
Sean Enright regularly teaches poetry classes at the Writer’s Center, which is where I ran into him about a year and a half ago at an Open House. The funny thing is that as we eyed each other’s nametags, there was a moment of shocked recognition, an intake of breath, a simultaneous stammer of, “Are you—were you—did you—?”
Yes! Yes, we had gone to college together long ago, knowing each other primarily through a mutual friend, primarily during freshman year. I had seen his name in the Writer’s Center brochures and had often wondered if it could be the same Sean Enright…how delightful to find an old friend in a new place.
(Speaking of friends, I’ve fallen out of touch with that mutual friend, Mitchell Duneier, author of the excellent book, Slim’s Table: Race, Respectability, and Masculinity…so, Mitch, if you come across this blog some rainy day when you’re self-googling, drop me a line! I’d love to catch up with you, too!)
Of Course It’s Impossible to Teach Poetry: Now Listen to Me
Of course it’s impossible to teach poetry: but if you’ll just listen to me, I’ll tell you how it’s done. That’s the quandary of teaching an unteachable art. One might study the history of poetry and literature, the forms that the great poets have written in over many centuries, the subjects they have chosen. One might ask workshop members to imitate some great poems, either in form or subject. But come on – this is poetry we’re talking about. Many people secretly believe that one is born a poet – that you either have it or you don’t. It’s nature, not nurture.
Others believe it can be taught – I suppose any sane poetry workshop leader does. But one feels there must be chicanery implemented– and black magic unleashed– if one is truly going to pass on something about the art.
In an essay entitled "Education by Poetry," Robert Frost wrote, Poetry begins in trivial metaphors, pretty metaphors, 'grace metaphors,' and goes on to the profoundest thinking that we have. Poetry provides the one permissible way of saying one thing and meaning another. People say, 'Why don't you say what you mean?' We never do that, do we, being all of us too much poets. We like to talk in parables and in hints and in indirections - whether from diffidence or from some other instinct.
That seems to me a central, essential “trick” of poetry – to be able to hold steady two thoughts or two frames of mind at the same time, to write metaphor gracefully, keeping your eye on both balls somehow, dancing with two partners at the same time. When I catch someone trying to saying what he actually means in a poem, I’m almost always going to criticize the line and assert that it is sentimental or over-written. Instead, I ask that I be made to feel that way. Make me think that thought.
And poetry is not perfect – you are not going to move every one of your readers. Some you will positively disturb. (I sort of take this as a good sign in itself. At least something got through!) You tend to remember – and give more credit to – the ones who do like it, though.
My workshop members are almost always people who have spent a good portion of their lives writing poetry – and believing in some private sense that they have the makings of a “real” poet inside them, if only the combination could be found, and the troubadour liberated. This works for me. The key to the art of poetry lies within – there is more than a little faith involved – one must trust oneself as a writer, give a poem room to breathe as it is being composed, allowing the actual process of creation to affect the poem itself – allowing room for accident, for indecision, for wavering and wandering.
I can only say what works for me, the habits or subjects that keep me going, or what makes a draft of a new poem “fresh” and “the real thing” for me. I have a host of tricks and rituals I might use to start, continue or finish a poem – outside the main tricks of memory and reason, the workhorses of the Imagination. But in the end, it’s what you yourself can make of your own poetry that matters, nothing else – the distances you have felt and which you can entrap within a poem, the momentary instances you have experienced as unique and worthy and decided to try to make permanent, the actual sounds you make when you mean something.
The poetry workshop that I’ve taught on and off for years now – "Writing One Good Poem" – is meant to lure people in with its title. But what does it mean? I’m asked. Are we just going to write one poem? Can you guarantee I’ll write one good poem? I make up a response every time: come in and give it a try. Pick up the pen. All you have to do is commit to the habits of consciousness that Gertrude Stein once wrote about: “Be continuously present, begin again and again, and use everything.” Three tiny phrases, three enormous mental labors. To never leave the moment of your focus and concentration, the idea of the poem, to make every line as fresh as if it were the very start of the poem, and, finally, to plumb the riches of your imagination, where the only limit is the limit of your efforts.
I’m always pushing the strategy of “circling” within a poem – if you don’t know how to end it, go back to the beginning and take a piece of that and rewrite it for the ending. Switch the beginning and the ending. Switch the beginning and ending of a line, a sentence, a phrase. Make it work, people! Can poetry possibly be like "Project Runway," where one is given a finite amount of material and time, and told to spin almost nothing into beauty, like Rapunzel? Well… of course it can.
The musician and songwriter Tom Waits once said, "I like a beautiful song that tells you terrible things. We all like bad news out of a pretty mouth." I like that as a catchphrase, a mantra, too – I will ask writers to ambush their own thoughts on purpose, to tell a bad story about a good person, a good story about a person.
Do something in language that you can’t do in your life. In the end, end up with the words of the poem – they are the only value, they are the meaning of the poem. Read it aloud, I tell people in the workshop, read it aloud again and again and again. Say the poem to someone like it is a speech – the person doesn’t have to really be there – that is the poem’s meaning, to be spoken and heard and, with luck, repeated. ~~Sean Enright
About: Sean Enright lives in Kensington, Maryland. His poems and reviews have appeared in Triquarterly, Threepenny Review, The Kenyon Review and Sewanee Review, among others. Currently he is finishing up a novel manuscript (tentatively titled The New Playboy of the Western World), and last year completed a manuscript of a novel called How to Disappear Completely. Information about his book of short fiction, Goof and other Stories (Creative Arts Books, 2001) is available on his website. (Editor's Note: Check out the awesome cover!) In 2006, his play about the Lincoln assassination, The Third Walking Gentleman, was named a semifinalist in the New Playwrights Contest at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center, and a brand new play, a black comedy about dysfunctional families and domestic terrorism, Home for the Holocaust, is searching for a first production.