I have been thinking a lot lately about my creative writing class. Our instructor has entered the murky grounds of trying to identify what a poem is. What is poetry? I think that this question is about as subjective as subjective gets. My instructor however did not belabor that point. On the contrary, he stated in class (I am summarizing to an extent) that poetry is using words in a creative fashion to revitalize and explore the meaning of words in a new way, In other words to freshen up and rejuvenate the English language. In creative writing classes across the country in one breath they say that poetry is subjective and in the next they give you there definition as if it were the gospel truth.
We have also been discussing the value of concrete language over abstraction. Which is very useful and something I have been looking at for this week’s revision; but when I read Byron and some of my favorite poets they make very good use of abstraction. Like this one. If I listened to my instructor however I could never write a poem like Inscription on the Monument of a Newfoundland Dog because of two pieces of instruction:
- Avoid abstraction at all costs
- Never sit down to write a poem with a predefined message
The later he explains will make your poem seem forced. I can see the wisdom in that. I have been dealing with that in my revision process with Cracker, however if you only allow for your sub conscious to imbue your poetry with meaning while you sit around and play with the language, while avoiding abstraction at all costs, you have severely limited yourself and your poetry.
I have gone to a number of university sanctioned poetry readings and have seen a number of young, soon to be MFA graduates recite there poetry, some of them published. I have noticed that although the imagery is vivid, the cadence is spot on, and the word play is sophisticated and inspired, the poem seems soulless. It falls flat; it carries no passion and reveals nothing about life. It is the opposite of insightful. It’s like a tall glass of your favorite microbrew served flat and warm. It’s like opening the prettiest, most carefully wrapped present on Christmas only to find a pair of socks. In this way even though all of the poems are unique, fundamentally they are the same pretty yet vapid, just like the girl I took to homecoming. It’s the antitheses of what I love about poetry. I fear that the formulaic way that academia teaches poetry, with its one size fits all approach is only serving to standardize what a poem should be and not exploring what a poem can be. I don’t want to be the product of a creative writing assembly line.
This is not to say that my creative writing class or the creative writing program is useless. There is much to gain by learning the tricks of the trade, what is commonly referred to as craft. I will however have to tread carefully. I will have to meet the standards set in class, writing what they want me to write in the way they want me to write it. All the while I must do my best not to internalize anything no matter how mundane, until I have carefully considered and explored how it might affect my thinking process and my creative work. I will also have to continue to expose myself to other schools of thought. The way that poetry is being taught in my current class subscribes heavily to the imagist philosophy but I am sure that there are other opinions out there. Perhaps I am being paranoid but I have seen how a hive mentality and strict standards and practices can have a negative effect on creativity. I was in the military for nine years after all. What good does it do to be a poet, if you are a poet who writes like everyone else who graduated from your program.