Teaching Poetry to Stones
As a creative writing teacher, I wage a daily battle against boring poems
I love teaching Introduction to Creative Writing. It’s a wonderful triathlon: We start with fiction, then move on to poetry, and lastly we write stories from our lives. And I do my best to persuade students to abandon their hastily selected majors and join the writing program so they can help us uphold our time-honored tradition of disobeying our parents.
But this semester, something’s gone wrong.
I, a man who is more like Peter Pan than a man, have become the parent, and the students are my disobedient children.
How did this happen?
How is it possible that the lost boys turned into cynics, rolling their eyes at the great Pan himself, party poopers only grudgingly joining their leader on fabulous adventures?
If only this was true. If only I was Pan and they were the lost boys. Then I would know exactly how to handle the situation.
I would fly the killjoy boys to the lagoon and hurl them to the mermaids who would drown them and eat them. Then I would write my own student evaluations: “They never attended class. I never saw them. Please send more, better ones. Send ones who don’t hate happiness and magic.” — Pan
This semester, my students’ hearts hardened into wrecking balls, but not during the fiction portion of the class. They were soaring then, as free as my hope for them.
The problem was poetry.
These innocent-looking youths turned Dead Poets Society into a story about a despised teacher who can’t handle the pressure of colossal resistance and ultimately kills himself. When the news of his death reaches the students’ ears, they stand on their desks and cheer while urinating on copies of Leaves of Grass, then they take out their math and accounting textbooks and zealously dig in.
These past many weeks, while walking to this favorite class of mine, I got in the habit of thinking about death. I would see a scrap of paper drift by in a lazy breeze and think:
Hello, scrap of a slaughtered tree. Murdered, pressed flat, and cast out. Hello, me.
And I would hear in the distance the sound of a student laughing and think of my funeral. My tombstone:
I tried and tried to understand why I was failing. Why they didn’t believe me when I told them what a good poem sounds like? When I read aloud the grandest poems ever written, why did they sneer? When I tired to help them write better poems, why did they act like I was attempting cosmetic surgery on their newborn babies?
What am I doing wrong?
It took a while, but I think I figured it out.
Before I tell you my theory, I want you to experience the resistance.
Here it is:
I say, “Excellent poem, Jaiden. There’s rhythm and consistent rhyming. I worry, though, that it’s a little vague.”
We all look to our copies of Jaiden’s poem. I read it aloud:
The students roar with enthusiasm. “It’s a tree!” they scream. They want to lift Jaiden on their shoulders and use him as a battering ram to destroy me for suggesting that this poem has not already reached perfection.
Me: I just worry about its vagueness. It’s so general. What does the speaker mean by “a place”? And what does he mean by “this tree called LIFE”? And why does the speaker love this “place”? See what I mean? When a poem is so vague that it could be about anything, that means it’s really close to being about… not much.
Students: You don’t get it.
Me: I think I get it.
Students: It’s a tree! Can’t you see it! (Eye roll and snort.) He can’t see it.
Me: No, I do see the tree. What I don’t see is specificity. Where are the particular details? These are the things that make a poem glitter with meaning. Specific details make a poem heavy enough to imprint on the soul.
Then I tell them my favorite example.
Me: What I mean is, don’t write about a car. Give the car a color. Blue. The faded blue of submerged icebergs. The car’s a Volkswagen Beetle… no, a van. A Ford Aerostar! And let the blue van be unique. There’s a mark on the door; a crescent moon of rust from where the family horse “Chester” kicked the door…
While I speak, the students’ eyes produce grayish, semitransparent membranes, translucent curtains of defiance, which slide into place like the second eyelids of reptiles, creatures preparing to dive into the dark to kill.
And then one student raises his hand. It rises like a weed, not a pretty one but a mean weed, one with barbs and secretions that smell like pee, and it’s crawling with ants.
I know what’s coming. He’s about to say the thing I’ve learned to hate. He’s about to celebrate a common belief among students new to poetry, a belief that has become my great enemy.
Whenever I hear it, my mind flashes back into war mode. I am the conservative parent whose child comes home from college dating a communist. I am the liberal parent whose child, after hanging out with affluent bullies, mocks the poor.
The student says, “But I love the vagueness.”
Not again, I think. Not this again, please! Anything but this!
He continues. And his speech is one I’ve memorized word for word. It has been written on my heart 500 times with the torture quill, a mortal message carved by the many young Dolores Umbridges who have haunted my classrooms.
Student: The vagueness is wonderful. It’s freedom.
Me: God, I think I might be ready to die.
Student: That way I can plug myself into the poem. It can mean anything I want it to mean. The vagueness is an invitation, to me!
Here’s me fighting back:
“Okay,” I say, “take that logic and extend it. If vagueness is great, then I’m about to share with you some of the greatest poems ever written. Are you ready?”
Down slides a second set of translucent eyelids. But I fight on. I have to. Not because it’s my job, but because we only live once and only for a short time, and folks who go through life armed only with bad poetry are in big trouble.
I am George Bailey on the bridge. My students bob in the icy water. I have to jump. To save them? Yes. But also to save myself from despair.
“Prepare yourselves,” I say. “You’re about to hear the poster-child poems of the Vagueness Movement.”
I take a deep breath, then I sing out the following poem:
“You see?” I say. “There’s so much room for you to plug yourself into this poem. It can be any ocean you like, anywhere in the world. But before you do that, before you succumb to the invitation and get lost in the fathomless depths of this poem, here’s an even better one. Why share a better one? Because I know what you’re thinking: The ocean poem was restricting. Its specificity made it a bad boss, a micromanager. It shouted ‘ocean’ at you, and that made it hard for you to think of whatever you wanted. Forgive me. It was wrong to imprison you. Here’s more freedom. Ready?”
Then I declare to them the better poem:
“Excellent, no? Are you plugging yourselves in? There’s no ignoring the invitation. What choice to you have? In the Vagueness Movement, the poem’s emptiness creates what we call the ‘vortex effect.’ A black hole. The absence of substance pulls so strongly, it can even bend light. Ready for another one? This one’s even better.”
“Behold: A poem about whatever love means to you, or whatever it doesn’t mean. Bring it all into the poem. Plug it in. You see how this poem contains the others? The word ‘love’ can suggest death: ‘Until death do us part.’ It can also bring to mind an ocean, any ocean, all oceans. How? Love is deep and oceans are deep. Bingo.
“But, my friends, there’s still one poem that’s even greater. It’s the crowning achievement of the Vagueness Movement. After our greatest vagueist poet wrote what you are about to experience, she immediately died of grief, for she had put to death the need for anyone to ever write poetry again. I take a great risk in showing you this, but since you are the most devoted disciples of this movement I’ve ever met, I think you can handle it.”
Because the poem is one that cannot be spoken, I go to the board and compose it for them:
“I present to you the masterpiece: Untitled. Compared to this poem, ‘Ocean,’ ‘Death,’ and ‘Love’ are straitjackets of the imagination. This line allows you to come to the poem with everything you are, everything you think, everything you fear and hope, as well as all the things you aren’t, and don’t think, and do not fear or hope for. Those things are welcome, too. The empty line beckons. Go ahead, look at the poem. What does it make you feel?”
I showed them Untitled, then I noticed they weren’t howling with joy, jumping up and down, rolling on the floor with fits of freedom. I was confused.
“I don’t get it,” I said. “Here’s a picture of the freedom you desire. Why doesn’t it move you?”
A handful of my students assassinated me in their imaginations, splattering the curved walls of their inner skulls with gore. But not just any gore, specifically mine. I wanted to explain to them that by specificity, they had all just created decent poems about my death. But I didn’t want to startle them by revealing that I knew exactly what they were thinking, down to the last drop of my blood.
Instead, I threw an analogy their way, hoping for a better breakthrough than the one produced by the Vagueness Movement masterpiece.
I said: “Think of poetry as a sandwich at a restaurant. You go to the restaurant and choose a sandwich. It comes to your table full of so much detail: sourdough; lettuce; bacon; turkey; gravy; three types of cheese—provolone, muenster, American; and there’s humus too; and mayonnaise; sprouts; pesto; and salty avocado. Yum. Someone else’s creation tastes great. It makes you feel more alive, all your taste buds singing. You’re not angry with the sandwich’s creator for being so specific with his flavor work, for tyrannizing you with a sandwich that simply will not be soup or ice cream no matter how much you want to plug soup or ice cream into it. You enjoy what was so beautifully and intricately made, a thing bursting with specifics.
“Now imagine the kind of poetry you’re describing. It works like this: You walk into a restaurant and say, ‘I’d like a sandwich.’ Then the server says, ‘Very good. Right this way,’ and they lead you to a table. You sit. You want to eat. But you’re out of luck if you didn’t bring your own bread and meat and cheeses and sauces. Now the server says, ‘I trust you’ve come prepared with something very tasty. Whatever it is, bon appétit!’”
I waited for my class of reptiles to rise out of the killing depths, to shed their scales and join me in the land of soft-hearted humanity. My good logic had given them no choice.
But they did not. They sat there in stony silence, furiously holding their breaths like children who wish to punish their parents by dying. Little air bubbles slipped out now and then, the only proof that they still lived.
On the final day of the poetry section, we workshopped a student who had spent weeks saying nothing, looking at me as if I was paint drying.
We discussed her poem. I said the usual: “To take this to the next level, be more specific. Instead of stopping at ‘Love is a blossom / You are awesome,’ tell us more. Who is this ‘You’? And tell us why this person or creature or ghost or angel or God is awesome.” On and on I went.
When you know you’re not being heard, you come to hate the sound of your own voice.
I turned the floor over to the poet, so she could have the last word on her work, and she thanked everyone for being so supportive. The class had loved her poem so much.
She finished thanking everyone and then turned to me and said, “Sorry, not sorry, but I think you’re wrong. I like when poems are vague. I like when they’re general. Because that way… ”
No! Please don’t say it! After all this time, after everything I’ve done to try to convince you, anything but that —
“…I can plug myself into the poem. I can put my own thoughts and experiences in. I don’t like it when it’s specific. I feel like someone’s controlling me.”
I left the class, shaken. Deeply discouraged. God tried to send down Clarence Odbody the wingless angel, but Clarence sided with my flightless students. He loved them though they refused to believe in him, since angels are so closely related to fairies.
For days, I imagined battles with my students. Over and over, I won. But I hated myself for these fights. They took up so much time, and like I said, we only live once, and it isn’t long.
I had to stop. I decided to let the students believe whatever they wanted to believe about poetry.
I, George Bailey, leaned away from the railing. I did not jump from the bridge. My students, floating in the choppy black water like little icebergs, sank out of sight.
It was nice to stop, to surrender. I felt free.
This lasted 10 minutes.
I couldn’t help myself. I wrote them a letter. I planned to read it aloud before we moved on from poetry.
It often happens that you don’t need to send the angry letters you write. The act of writing is enough.
This happened to me. After I finished my letter, I realized I could keep it to myself. My heart felt lighter. I am wise. I was finally free from the burden of convincing my students. This is the power of writing — it speaks the soul, releases anguish, soothes the troubled heart. With writing as a companion, a person can live in silence and yet feel he has shouted his being to the cosmos, and the cosmos has heard him.
Then I got pissed again, so I’m sharing it:
If you say you love vagueness because it gives your creativity room to breathe, then you must hate TV, movies, music, paintings, dance, and you must hate nature, and I’m certain you hate your own faces.
TV, with its pictures of specific places, its images bristling with specificity, is a tyrant to your creativity.
Movies, with their images drowning you in specificity, are tyrants, too. They hate your creativity. Movies must feel like prison to you.
Music stuffs your ears with its specific melodies, blocking yours. Your own music can’t breathe. Oh, how you must hate music.
Paintings. Van Gogh was an a-hole for using blues, blocking the hot pinks and electric browns your creativity wanted to paint on his canvas. And how dare he paint specific trees and flowers, this kind, not that kind.
Van Gogh, you oppressor. You monstrous shackler of the mind.
Dance. Those dictator dancers who fill your mind with their shapes. How dare they. Their flying feet kick your creativity’s nose bone up into the brain. Murderous despotic dancers.
And Mother Nature. Bad god. Bad! Stupid pine tree who won’t allow you to see it as a bonsai. Stupid bonsai who doesn’t give your creativity the freedom to eat it because you wanted it to be blueberry pie. Stupid Mother with all her specific details.
And your face. You look in the mirror. It’s your face, not another person’s face. Not a blank canvas to paint features on every day. No, it’s just yours every time. Like no other face on earth, the specifics making it unique, wonderful, beautiful, but also, a bossy jerk of a face because it is so stubbornly itself.
When you die, my darlings, I hope heaven is completely empty. Blank. Otherwise, for you, it would be hell.
Your Teacher Who Gets It
After writing the letter and cooling down somewhat, I was able to figure out what had happened to poetry this semester.
The three theories
Sometimes you get a lethal-combination classroom. You have students who were born believing they know everything. New information threatens them. They clam up. They attack. Others are so scared of their own shadows they’ll never tell you what they really think. A few are way too cool to be vulnerable. These camouflage themselves with jokes and snarky comments. The rest were raised by flightless families and don’t intend to dishonor their parents by learning to soar.
You, the teacher, are screwed.
I can no longer teach. I should retire and open a junkyard so I can spend the rest of my life training dogs to chase children.
Theories one and two are wrong. Theory one is wrong because, as I said, way back in the fiction section, my students were all flyers. We spent every class period dancing on the ceiling.
Theory two is wrong because, if anything, I’m a better teacher than ever. Almost too good. The administration has ordered me to rein it in. Other majors are losing all their students to my program. Because of this imbalance, the college is on the verge of capsizing!
So, it can’t be that I’ve forgotten how to teach.
Therefore, it must be something else.
Poetry exposes the deepest self. And this is something that might not be possible for new poets during a pandemic.
If this is true, then maybe writing vague poetry isn’t a failure. Instead, it might be their only way of protecting the deep self from the poisonous shadow of worldwide gloom.
Now I realize what I’ve done.
By hunting their deepest selves, I forced them to build defenses: the Vagueness Movement. They raised the thin steel of their ambiguous poems against me, and the more I pummeled the steel with perfect logic and famous examples, the thicker the steel became, not only insuring that their inmost secrets of self were safe from me and everyone in the room but safely hidden from the cruel and chaotic world beyond.
After this is all over, they will emerge with their most precious selves intact.
At that time, they will try to thank and compliment me for saving their lives with poetry, but I will stop them. I will say: “Be more specific with your thanks and compliments. I want them to move me. I want them to last forever.”