Essays and Comment: David Wojahn

AT THAT URGE FOR MORE LIFE: ADVENTURES IN LO-REZ  (Part 2)

Let me now talk about what happens in one of my letters to students, beyond the anecdotes and exchanges of pleasantries. Typically, a letter first addresses questions students may have posed in their own letters, questions ranging from nuts and bolts stuff (“Could you please talk to me about enjambment?”) to larger and more challenging queries (“Does every poem have to have an epiphany?”) It then moves to something which I try to address in every letter—general remarks about the poems included in the packets. What are the prevailing concerns in the group? What thematic and technical issues do the poems as a whole address? How has the student’s recent reading affected the new poems? Are there other writers I can suggest that they read who may help the students to reach their goals? This portion of the letter is often the most challenging to write. I of course have my own stylistic and thematic preferences, but to try to foist them on my students, whether overtly or even unconsciously, does them a disservice. Instead, I am challenged to read the poems as steps toward a kind of platonic ideal on the students’ parts. How can I help them to write in the particular individual style (or voice, although I’m suspicious of that word) to which they aspire? How can I help them to be energized by their thematic and psychological obsessions, while at the same time not be tethered to or delimited by them? Often this means encouraging students who are writing in a mode I would not attempt myself, and during a given semester the students are apt to be writing work that is all over the aesthetic spectrum. In a recent semester, I advised a writer much engaged by language and conceptual poetry; another who was composing a crown of sonnets, and another who was writing what amounted to a book-length sequence on the career of the professional wrestler, Andre the Giant, who turned out to be less a figure of caricature than a kind of tragic hero. Such a mixture is by no means unusual. Every now and then I am confronted with a student who causes me to feel that what she is doing is so foreign to my own way of writing and teaching that I can’t help her. But such situations happen only with extreme rarity, and as often as not in these cases, I eventually come to better understand and accept the poet’s approach—if not always wholeheartedly.

My letters follow these general remarks with specific comments on student poems and revisions. These can often be somewhat detailed, and go on for several pages; they are augmented by my annotations on the manuscripts of the poems themselves. I often suggest specific revisions of passages—what would happen if you dropped the opening stanza? Can you replace this hackneyed image with something more surprising? etc. But comments can just as frequently address what for better or for worse might be called the larger “vision” and goals of the poem. “What is really at stake here?” I sometimes ask, knowing full well that such a question can be presumptuous. Some poems require lots of specific edits, others more general observations. Some poems I ask to see in revision; others seem close enough to being finished (for now) that I don’t; others, and there’s no shame in this, may need to be abandoned entirely. I have my ways of approaching poems, but no approach can be exactly the same as another.  Near the end of a letter, I will discuss the critical writing that the student has submitted. The critical writing is the product of an often very lengthy semester reading list that I work out with the students. And, once again, these lists differ for each individual student. Although certain names appear with great frequency on these lists—who couldn’t learn something significant from Bishop, or Cavafy, or Milosz?—they tend to be as dissimilar from one another as snowflakes. By the time I have finished a letter, I’ve spent a good number of hours on it. To do the job right, you can’t rely on shortcuts. And sending the letters off, first as an email attachment to be followed by snail mail hard copies which also contain my handwritten comments on the poems, is always accompanied by feelings of satisfaction and a wee bit of exhaustion: I’ve put in a good day’s work.

One purpose of all this fiddle, dear reader, is to give you a wide-ranging and nuanced sense of what low-residency learning can be at its best. But another is to offer you to a small number of specific pieces of advice, ones that have over the years been useful to nearly all the students I have worked with at Vermont. It’s counsel aimed at writing students, of course, but—as all serious writers know—to a pursue a career in literature means that you will always be, in one respect or another, a student, a tyro, a “perpetual beginner,” as Roethke put it in one of his poems. This advice will of course be different from that offered by my colleagues, but not that different. Consider it my six-point writing plan.

 

  1. 1. Read, read, read. Read widely and read well. No student gets as far as graduate school thinking that she can write passable poetry without also reading other poets. Unfortunately, though, “other poets” often means the more popular contemporary American figures, or the students’ former teachers. If they have read more widely than this, they tend to also be familiar with poets who write in the way they themselves would like to write. Writers of autobiographical lyrics tend to almost exclusively read other writers of autobiographical lyrics; language writers other language writers. As Marjorie Perloff (an indispensable critic whose opinions I find myself agreeing with not even half of the time) put it in in a dialogue we published together about Robert Lowell, “I meet Ashbery enthusiasts who have never read Lowell. Or Ginsberg fans who can’t believe anyone cares about, say, Berryman or Merrill.” Later in the same piece, she alluded to an observation by the pioneering avant gardist poet David Antin. Too many poets, he said, refuse to read outside of their “discourse radius,” and I know of no observation about the status of contemporary poetry that is more true—or more sad. Any poet worth her salt has to read all over the aesthetic map, even if this means encountering writing you think you will disdain. And you can’t subsist on a diet of the current flavors of the month. I am often appalled when I discover that a student is unfamiliar with the dominant modes of even so recent an era as the 1950s and 60s. Say Black Mountain and they think you’re alluding to a heavy metal band; say “Deep Image” and they think you’re describing a feature on a widescreen TV; “Confessional?”—didn’t Pope Francis say you didn’t need to do that kind of thing anymore? The Modernists are often Terra Incognito as well, as are modern European and Latin American poets, even figures of such importance as Montale, Vallejo, or Celan. And don’t get me started about the lack of knowledge of writers going further back into the tradition. In addition to passionately advocating (again and again) that my students read more widely, I often find myself a bit puzzled when in particular cases they balk at my asking them to study certain films, read criticism and biography, or—heaven forbid—theory. Yet I’ve never had a student assigned to read Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes’ extraordinary meditation on photography, who didn’t very quickly realize how notions Barthes expresses in that book (the concept of the studium the punctum, for example) could easily translate into ways of conceptualizing her poetry.
  2. 2.  Study Form: How can anyone think it’s possible to write credible poetry, even in the most plain American English that cats and dogs can understand, without some basic knowledge of scansion and without some experience working in the better known received forms? It’s true that there are precious few good, let alone great, examples of the sestina or the villanelle in the language—you can count the number of great poems in both forms on your hands. But can you really call yourself a poet until you’ve tried your hand at them? Without doing so you’re like a surgeon who faints at the sight of blood. Without the command of a basic prosodic vocabulary, your command of the language will always be insufficient. And if you can’t tell an iamb from a trochee, an enjambed line ending from an end-stopped one, a rising rhythm from a falling rhythm, you’re like someone who has willed herself to aphasia, or someone who has decided that there’s some aesthetic value to putting water in your gas tank so that your car moves jerkily down the road. A good prosody handbook is as essential to a working poet as a dictionary, a thesaurus, or the Chicago Manual of Style. My typical RX for students uninformed about these matters includes Paul Fussell’s imperious but brilliant Poetic Meter and Poetic Form, Robert Pinsky’s The Sound of Poetry and Eavan Boland and Mark Strand’s The Making of the Poem. But there are many other worthy texts available. And, by the way, hardly anyone writes free verse well without also having some knowledge of the rudiments of formal prosody.
  3. 3.  Syntax: when Shelley said that effective prose is made by putting words in their best order, whereas writing credible poetry is done by fashioning the best words in the best order, he was likely thinking less of the fact that poetry employs a specialized vocabulary as he was being mindful of the fact that, in English, an awareness of how one employs syntax not only allows you to distinguish “poetic” speech from ordinary speech, but also how a poem manages time, rhetoric, and emotional intensity. Yes, there are ways to–and occasions for—making decent verse from predictable subject/verb/object sentences. But not many. Almost every great line or pair of lines in English verse is great in part because it has, from some combination of musical and emotional necessity, distorted (slightly or radically) conventional syntax—“Full fathom five thy father lies,” “I caught this morning, morning’s minion,” “Daddy, daddy you bastard, I’m through,” “There sat down once a thing on Henry’s heart/ so heavy.”
  4. 4.  Your obsessions write your poetry, and you are stuck with them. I remember very vividly a question and answer session with Philip Levine, circa 1976. I was an undergraduate and he was visiting my school. Someone asked him what he wrote about, thinking no doubt he’d speak of his upbringing in Detroit, or of the ways in which his years of living in Franco’s Spain had impacted his work. But no, he said he wrote about “certain holes in my life that have to be filled.” This was canny way of talking about what we normally call our obsessions, those forces that shape us, those wounds that never fully heal. They are not “subjects,” strictly speaking, and very few of us possess more than a handful of them. But they keep insinuating themselves into our writing. People talk endlessly about Elizabeth Bishop’s great powers of description and abilities with imagery. Yet all of these qualities derive in some mysterious way from the fact that she was an orphan, and felt her status as an outsider in the most acute fashion. As we learn to write poetry with some degree of skill, we come to know what our obsessions are, and know that they will (often helplessly) inform our poetry. And, as Richard Hugo observes, “our obsessions ignore relative dramatic values.” We cannot easily turn them into story, or into occasions for those sudden insights and epiphanies which lyric poems seem so gracefully engineered to address. No, they’re obsessions, static and inert things. As poets, we can subvert this inconvenient truth mainly by finding new ways to address our obsessions—not new ways to address them from a psychological standpoint, for that desire can only very rarely be met. Instead, we make writing careers out of the process of have to find new forms to address our obsessions. This process doesn’t allow us to smooth down the holes in our lives that have to be filled, but it can certainly make the way we wield our shovels seem less burdensome.
  5. 5.  Don’t make the need to publish become one of your obsessions. Being poets, we continually face a conundrum we have been told about time and time again: we are working in a medium for which there is no audience, and any annual income you may derive from publishing poetry is likely to be smaller than the daily wage of a factory worker in China or Bangladesh. These claims, however, are not precisely the case; it’s true that the readership for a collection of poetry, even one from a commercial or a better regarded university press, rarely exceeds a few thousand, something highly ironic when we consider that perhaps the majority of poetry collections published today are contest winners. As often as not, a prizewinning book will sell a few hundred copies, whereas the number of contestants who entered the competition that selected the prizewinning book will be three or four times that number. Yet at the same time, MFA programs in poetry, writers’ conferences, and various community-based workshops are thriving as never before. And publishing venues for poetry have expanded exponentially thanks to the web. (Way back in 2005, in in his wry and insightful critical study, The Resistance to Poetry, James Longenbach estimated that there were three hundred thousand websites devoted to poetry.) But publishing a poem online may not assure you an audience much larger than that of a small circulation print journal. What is the audience for poetry today? No one exactly knows anymore. But we all want our poems to be published, even if we do not know who our readership will be, or how large. A good percentage of my graduate students send their work to journals, and later the majority of them take a year or two to turn their graduate theses into collections which they send out to the contests. The odds are of course stacked against them—they must compete against thousands of other entrants in the book contests, and literally hundreds of thousands of would-be contributors to The New Yorker or How do aspiring poets deal with a marketplace in which there are so many poets, many of them writers of talent, all vying for publication in the same quality journals and book competitions? My best counsel is to urge them to detach from the publication process as much as possible. Professionalism in the current marketplace means that you need to keep your work in circulation, but it is even more important to keep one’s focus on the writing itself. Here’s a rough rule of thumb: for every seven days you spend exclusively at work on your poems, spend one day on the po-biz stuff—sending things out, reading Poets and Writers for contests and deadlines, checking out web sites such as Poetry Daily and Poets.org. Above all, it’s essential to remind yourself that the act of writing poetry is ultimately its own reward. Your loyalty must ultimately be to your struggles alone in a room with the English language. One writes poetry because one must, said Wallace Stevens. Writing careers can be made without a sense of this mysterious necessity. But they will not be careers of consequence.
  6. 6.  Keep writing for five years and your writing is apt to get better; keep it up for ten years and it is likely to be better still. The shelf life of a career in poetry can be astonishingly long. You can start it at any age, and it is entirely possible for a poet to ascend a Hegelian escalator and get better and better as she ages. You’re not like a figure skater, a boxer, or a would-be Olympic distance runner—not someone whose game will give out somewhere around the age of thirty so that your options will be limited to coaching or doing television infomercials. Over the years, I have almost unfailingly asked each of my advisees to read at least one poet whose greatest work was composed in old age: Yeats, Milosz, Valentine, Hardy, Kunitz. Mind you, for every such figure there are other figures who grew worse as they aged. But late Wordsworth and post-1940 Auden do not nullify the significance of the examples I’ve cited. And, sure, there are poets–among even some of the most talented ones I have taught or taught with–who succumb early on to the vanity of self-imitation. But the advantage of a career in writing is that–should you have the good fortune to practice your craft for a sufficient number of years —there is time to make the necessary course corrections. W.S Merwin began his career as a pretty uninteresting poet, then became a great poet for some ten years; he then fell back into dullness for another ten years, prior to getting his mojo back for another twenty or more. But posterity will judge Merwin by his great poems, not his mistakes and self-replication. Would that we might all be so lucky.

 

*

When I arrived at my first Vermont College residency in 1983, I had no idea I would return to the place for more than sixty additional residencies, teach more than sixty workshops there, work with so many esteemed writers who became life-long friends—or write those 4,345 pages of letters to my students. Nor did I have any idea that the number of low residency MFA programs would grow from two to the fifty-nine that are listed in a recent “Guide to Writing Programs” that appeared in an issue of Poets and Writers. Many of these programs advertise aggressively in that journal, and a good percentage of the ads are unintentionally comic, as crass as those for the Famous Writers’ School. (The September/October issue of the magazine, the one that contains the writing program guide, is graced on its back cover by an ad for a newly franchised low-residency program at Salve Regina University in Newport, RI, where, the pitch tells us, “JFK married Jacqueline Bouvier, where Dylan went electric …Shangri-la for rumrunners, heiresses, and tycoons. “There’s a dramatic picture of JFK and Jackie on what appears to be the deck of a yacht—although, to their credit, the folks at Salve Regina don’t overtly imply that John Kennedy is a member of its faculty. Many of these proliferating programs—Antioch College, Spalding University, and the Stonecoast Program at the University of Southern Maine—were developed by former faculty or alumni of Vermont College, and hew closely to Vermont’s pedagogical model. Schools often go in and out of the low-residency game: Bennington College offered a low residency degree for a number of years, then closed its program down for several more years, then started a new program that has met with some success. Goddard, too, got back in the fray, and now offers a low-residency MFA in writing as well a BFA.  A distressingly large number of schools on the list—Augsburg College, Chatham University, Reinhardt University, Pacific Lutheran University, Western New England University, and the University of British Columbia, among others—should be more accurately labeled as “micro-residency” programs, requiring students to attend residencies that seem shorter than the running length of your average television mini-series. While the best-regarded low-res programs tend to follow a model that asks students and faculty to annually participate in two ten-day residencies, these schools have shaved the residency durations down to half that length.  In their defense, I should add that most of the micro-residency programs also ask that students also participate on online writing workshops. But, as Ben Lerner slyly suggests in his recently published pamphlet, The Hatred of Poetry, virtual workshops tend to produce virtual poems, poems written on a laptop by a laptop. The online model is essentially antithetical to low-residency learning as it was originally conceived at schools such as Goddard, Warren Wilson, and Vermont College.

Perhaps I should not carp about what is obviously a great pedagogical success story, especially one that I am immensely grateful to have played some small part in creating. But there are now more low-residency MFA programs than there are qualified students to attend them, and I worry that within the next several years most of them will bite the dust. It’s the dot.com boom all over again. And the pressure by administrators and other malefactors to replace traditional learning–and what are now traditional low-residency models–with exclusively online degree offerings is cause for some alarm. I fear that it is only a matter of time before all of us who so revere the low-residency model will be replaced by pixels teaching other pixels. Much will be lost when that happens. But in the meantime, I plan to continue writing my letters—letters—to my students, and to returning twice a year to a place where writing is valued to a degree unheard-of in the rest of the world.

 

 

 

David Wojahn‘s ninth collection of poetry, FOR THE SCRIBE, was issued this year from the University of Pittsburgh Press. His previous collection, WORLD TREE, was published by Pitt in 2011, and was the winner of the Academy of American Poets’ Lenore Marshall Prize, as well as the Poets’ Prize. The University of Michigan Press released a new collection of his essays on poetry, FROM THE VALLEY OF MAKING, in 2015. He teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University, and in the low residency MFA in Writing Program of Vermont College of Fine Arts.

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