Thursday, November 15, 2007

Donald Hall on Poetry and Ambition

Donald Hall, from his (in)famous Poetry and Ambition

So the workshop answers the need for a cafe. But I called it the institutionalized cafe, and it differs from the Parisian version by instituting requirements and by hiring and paying mentors. Workshop mentors even make assignments: "Write a persona poem in the voice of a dead ancestor." "Make a poem containing these ten words in this order with as many other words as you wish." "Write a poem without adjectives, or without prepositions, or without content. . . ." These formulas, everyone says, are a whole lot of fun. . . . They also reduce poetry to a parlor game; they trivialize and make safe-seeming the real terrors of real art. This reduction-by-formula is not accidental. We play these games in order to reduce poetry to a parlor game. Games serve to democratize, to soften, and to standardize; they are repellent. Although in theory workshops serve a useful purpose in gathering young artists together, workshop practices enforce the McPoem.

This is your contrary assignment: Be as good a poet as George Herbert. Take as long as you wish.

So does this mean we can't teach young poets by such means? Is that all we can do, say, "see that great poet? go be like her!" My students are smart young women and men. They know the difference between an excursion helping them to see and a poem that teaches them something in its making, that resonates beyond the formula. Write a deep context poem. Sure. It's a trick, a pattern, a suggestion. And it comes along with "Don't write a Google-poem, a wiki-poem." And then we talk about that. And then they go to an American lit class and meet the unilimited ambition of Whitman and Melville. And the uncertainty.

Coming soon--"how not to write a google poem" and "what can be taught and when."



Dayna said...

"That poetry workshop was the best of a dozen I taught during my years at Michigan. The students, who ranged from sophomores to graduate students, were smart, funny, lively, talented, outrageous, and agreeable. We met one long evening every week in the big living room of the old farmhouse I rented, cramped between newer houses on South University Avenue. We drank a case or two of beer and argued about poems. For the first few meetings I held the floor - talking about student work and about poems from an anthology - to establish criteria and provide vocabulary. Before long the students took over direction of this class, in high hilarious seriousness, praising and blaming. They loved and assaulted each other, using critical terms like "shit," caring for poetry not diplomacy."

Donald Hall in The Best Day the Worst Day

Donald Hall's "Mcpoem" comment might rub people the wrong way, but there's definitely something wonderful about the way his workshop classes worked. And my favorite poet, Jane Kenyon, came out of that class.
The cases of beer is an interesting idea...

dw said...

I think D. H. often wants to have it both ways. I'll post more on this soon. And, no, we will not be having cases of beer. Cookies? Pizza? Maybe those.