I enrolled on a Creative Writing degree with a passion for poetry, several full notebooks of practice, and the hope that the place would show me how to become a poet. I knew it would take work, and I also knew that not everyone could learn. If a student didn’t already have some kind of interest and talent in the subject, I knew that no teacher could fashion a poet from the person. So, what is the teaching of Creative Writing, and can poetry be taught?
One of the crucial things a teacher can do is create the right conditions for writing. But what does that mean exactly? The role of a teacher of arts differs from other subjects, and the pressure to inspire looms large. It isn’t enough to instruct the student, sharing samples of great poems, and analysing lines and techniques. The teacher must encourage the students to write, putting the techniques into practice. The student must believe they can create their own work.
Belief can be even more difficult to inspire when the student is being introduced to great poetry. It’s easy to feel small when faced with Shakespeare. Presumably, students enroll on the course because they want to do it. The teacher needs them to understand that they can do it. And they need the student to know that their own experience is worthy of poetry.
Sylvia Plath’s poem, Blackberrying, is an outstanding example of an ordinary experience, to which most of us have access, becoming a poem: walking in nature, picking blackberries. The poem explores themes such as a longing to return to childhood, and death.
I like this example, because I believe that its subject and themes are relatable to everyone. Also, I love the poem. The personification of the blackberries, the wonderful they must love me. The mournful image of the burnt paper wheeling in a blown sky brings to mind a funeral pyre, and it sticks with you.
The poem shows how an everyday experience can provide the perfect setting for poetry. The language, too, is simple. One of my favourite lines is quite childlike, even – Big as the ball of my thumb, and dumb as eyes. Monosyllabic, but full of meaning.
In the right environment, a student will feel inspired to create their own poetry, about their own experiences. They won’t be afraid to use simple language and relatable themes. They will analyse the greats and believe they can create something of value.
In conclusion, the best teacher of Creative Writing is reading. Teachers are still essential, as this post covers, because they help students read in the right way. They then develop the poet by showing them pieces like Blackberrying, to encourage them to turn their ordinary experiences into poetry.
I don’t know which of the following statements is truer. Becoming a poet will never be as simple as learning to drive, because there’ll never be a guidebook or set of instructions to follow. Or becoming a poet is much simpler, and as simple as any person picking up a pen and writing a few words down.
Becoming a good poet is something else, though. And yes, poetry can be taught, in the sense that a skilled teacher will create the best conditions to help a certain type of student thrive.