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Susan PlettYou Can't Teach Poetry?
Copyright©2010 by Susan Plett

This is Susan's fifth column in our "Poet's Classroom" series.

“You can’t teach poetry," the revered author declared with a dismissive wave. Other writers nodded agreement.

Who was I to argue? The author had written and sold adult novels, screenplays, Young Adult novels and Middle Reader novels. She had just spent the better part of a week teaching people how to write fiction.

You can't teach poetry? Is this why big writers conferences rarely mention poetry? They offer continuing week-long tracks for just about everything except poetry. Oh, there may be a few afternoon poetry workshops here and there, but the places that a poet is rarely offered the chance to immerse herself in the craft.

I fumbled my tongue into argument, "Of course you can teach poetry!"

"You're either a poet, or you're not." The revered author was baffled.

Oh right… poets are magic.

I thought back over my past week, surrounded by writers honing their skills. In response to my comment that I had a waiting backlog of poetry to critique for a magazine, someone had queried, “But isn’t poetry subjective?” While discussing what is or is not a “first draft” of a novel, someone else had declared, “Well, you wouldn’t do a rough draft for a poem.”

I was flabbergasted—stunned into silence.

But my more thoughtful reaction was, Yes, I remember when I felt that way. When I first started to write, I wrote prose and only prose. I came to poetry reluctantly because I knew poetry was hard. I was certain that poets' brains worked differently. You had to be really smart and see the world in a completely different way from ordinary people to write poetry. Nobody was more shocked than I was when poetry began to appear on my pages. In fact, I was likely more shocked than many of my writing peers, who had seen "poetry" in my work long before I did.

Why would prose be teachable and poetry not?

Each April is national poetry month, and every April I receive a minor flurry of email defining the difference between poetry and prose:

“Prose is the right words, poetry is the right words in the right order.”

“In poetry, you have no room for distractions.”

“In prose, anecdotes don’t work.”

“Poetry is the practice of paying attention.” Ellen Bass

“The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug”. Mark Twain

Any one of these statements could apply equally well to poetry and prose. No novelist flings his words at the page in random arrangements—the writer of a mystery novel chooses words as carefully as a haiku poet. An extra character who doesn’t move the story forward, or a gun that doesn’t fire, is no more welcome in short story than it is in poetry. A novelist who does not pay attention does not write a story that resonates with us on any level—ditto for the poet.

“Today I saw a lovely heron in the pond” is as meaningless in poetry as it is in a novel.

No matter what trail you traverse, attempting to define the difference between poetry and prose, your path eventually dwindles to nothing. There are prosaic poems and poetic prose.

I tried to concoct my own definition of the difference: poetry is the chocolate morsel—prose is the whole chocolate cake. But that doesn’t work across the board; what do we do with Calvin Miller and his lyrical book length poems? Or, for that matter, Milton or Chaucer. What do we do with Fredrick Buechner's novel, Godric (HarperOne 1983, ISBN 978-0060611620), which is almost impossible to read without lapsing into the rhythm and realm of poetry?

     "…You'd never take him for holy. He smells of fish, his smock hiked up to his hips and his long legs lank as a heron's as he picks his way along the banks of Wear coughing his fearsome cough.
     "Peace, Godric," he says.
      He's all bones. Godric's all rags. They kneel there hours on end under the low thatch without a word to clutter the silence save for the prayers they heave heavenward braided together like a hawser the better to hoist the world a cat's whisker out of the muck…"

Is it poetry? Is it prose? And despite the answer, does one definition make the creation of it more "teachable?"

Could the form of poetry make it unteachable?

Certainly poetry is considered to be more concise than prose, but the biggest quantifiable difference is how it looks on the page. One glance, and a readers knows if she's reading a sonnet or a short story or a novella, a novel or an epic ballad. That’s it. It comes down to form.

Or does it? Can I lift a sentence or two from a novel and make it a poem? Picking from a stack of novels on my desk I find Lee Kvern’s finely tuned novel, The Matter of Sylvie. Page 42:

Jacqueline yelled
out the kitchen window
the station wagon sped off
knocking Sylvie to the ground.

Well that would get my interest, whatever the form (although I have to resist the urge to change it to present tense!) Flipping to Page 120:

She can’t rely on her husband
and her mother
two provinces away
is of little use

Less compelling. On to Page 136:

Lloyd hangs his hand
out the window
to retrieve his change
from the woman.

Hmmm. Not all down to form, then. While this is fine prose, Lloyd waiting for his change is not poetry. (Could I make it poetry? Probably. Faced with these four lines in a longer poem, there is every chance I’d reduce them to three or four words.)

We can all learn to choose our words more expertly

The plain truth is, “If you can’t teach poetry, then you can’t teach any form of writing. All of us can train our brains to think more deeply, observe more carefully, and choose words more expertly.” (Angela Hunt)

The differences between poetry and prose may be difficult to articulate, but the idea that poetry is unteachable is not one of those differences. If you can learn prose, you can learn poetry!

I think there's a problem when we seek quantifiable differences between prose and poetry... and we concoct rules about the differences because there’s no one to ask.

How long is a poem? How many words? How long is a poetic line? There’s just you (the poet) and the blank page. That can be a scary place to be. The up side?

Scary is a great place to meet with the Creator... and with a teacher, you might make poetry out of that meeting!

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Copyright ©2010 by Susan Plett