Friday, March 07, 2008

Teaching Poetry Writing: A Five-Canon Approach by Tom C. Hunley

At first this book, which is exactly what its title suggests, a plan for teaching poetry, really frustrated me because the author kept making statements like "The traditional workshop model fails to take creative writing instruction seriously, and it does not take students seriously...When instructors don't bother with lesson plans, syllabi, explicit grading policies, exercises aimed to help combat writer's block, exercises designed to give students the proper terminology needed for critiquing each others' work, and so on, are students really being taken seriously?" My problem with this statement is twofold: one, he assumes the traditional workshop model is all workshop all the time (apparently without any discussions of vocab built into the workshop also) and two, who teaches like that? I'm sure some do, but the presumption of the book is that most creative writing profs do--which simply hasn't been my experience. Now I don't claim my experience is scientific--I don't have any stats to back up what happens across the country, but neither does Huntley.

But once I got over my frustration with his negative assumptions, I found the book quite interesting. Like most teaching texts, some suggestions were Not for Me, some were Patently Ridiculous, and others were Really Intriguing and a few were even I'll Definitely Try That. The most intriguing, but least likely for me to implement idea was to use classtime largely for writing--guided exercises--and do all of the workshopping online. That swaps out the more usual practice of writing at home and workshopping in class. I'm not convinced by the arguments for online workshopping--that students are more honest, more thoughtful (I think a good workshop leader gets students to be honest and careful for in class workshopping and it's face-to-face, which seems nicely human to me), but I think some students (not all--certainly not me when I was a student) would benefit from the in-class writing. And I would find the in-class time to do more of other things--going over reading, e.g.--appealing. But as in most things, I tend to favor the middle road. My workshops do many things in class over the course of the seemster--exercises, reading discussion and workshopping. Lately I've been favoring a few weeks on, few weeks off movement between anthology-type reading and workshopping.

The overall proposal of this text is to use a more rhetoric-based structure for class. Moving from invention, to arrangement, to style, to memorization and delivery. I don't really dispute teaching any of those things, but I do wonder if focusing so much on poetry as argument would encourage undergrads to fall into didacticism. This could of course be combatted by examples and discussion. But the truth is my students love their creative writing classes but they don't love their composition classes. And it's not because their creative writing classes are easier (trust me, I demand more than the average freshman comp teacher) so I worry that such a plan for teaching might emphasize argument at the cost of art.

Still the book does have interesting ideas, and I'm all for more study of, and more variety in, how c.w. is taught.


Tom C. Hunley said...

Dear Ms. Bucak,

Thanks so much for taking the time to read my book and blog about it! I read your article about your student, Ishmael Beah, in the Chronicle, and it really spoke to me. I try to get my students to see me as a writing coach, rather than a judge of their talent; I tell them that the grade they get in the class is based on how well they jump through hoops and how well they master the material covered in class – not on their talent as writers. I think the five-canon approach, with its emphasis on text generation rather than on workshop-style evaluation, is particularly suited to facilitating that. Still, I’ve had students ask me point blank, “Do you think I can write?” I just don’t want that responsibility. I think talent is the least of it. It’s mostly all about desire and work ethic, and it’s hard to judge that based on one semester. I know that everyone likes quoting Flannery O’Connor’s glib answer, when asked if creative writing classes discourage students: “Not enough of them.” I don’t see it as my job to discourage anyone or to label anyone as untalented; publishers and agents can help writers evaluate where they’re at – I see my role as helping them along on their journey.

Okay, I probably do over-generalize about the workshop model. I’ll grant you that most teachers today seem to be modifying and tweaking the model, adding discussion of terms, some exercises, and so on. I’m just trying to get more people to think out of the box. I see the workshop model itself as unnecessarily confining. On page twelve of the book, I discuss Maura Stanton’s desire to use great poems as models for her students and her concern that there just isn’t time in a semester to use more than a few great poems as models. Anyone working within the confines of the workshop model is going to bump against that same problem, imo. In a workshop-centered class, workshop is bound to take over. It has to. If you implicitly tell students that workshopping is the primary way to learn to write, and if you have 15-20 undergrads in each class, as I do, each student will want his/her turn to have as much of his/her work workshopped as possible, and this will leave very little time for anything else.

You also raised a concern that the five canons are suited to rhetoric but not to art. Composition instructors like to say that “everything is an argument.” (There’s even a comp textbook with that name.) I would say that art tries to convince the whole body, through the senses, rather than merely convincing the intellect. Anyway, I attempt to show in the book that these canons were used for centuries to teach poetry writing as well as speechwriting. Chapter two in particular gets into this and the bulleted items are my first attempt at finding practical ways to adapt the canons to the specific needs of poets. I am now working on an undergraduate textbook that basically expands greatly on each of these bulleted items, in addition to other five-canon-based exercises and assignments.

Finally, my main point isn’t that teachers ought to follow my model, necessarily. I just want to see us professionalize as a discipline, becoming more reflective about our teaching, refusing to be satisfied with a relatively static 80-year-old pedagogy.

Obviously, I really love discussing this stuff. Above all I just want to thank you for your interest in the discussion.

All Best,

Tom C. Hunley (not "Huntley")

Anonymous said...

My son "wrote" this last night on a beach walk. We wrote it down when we came in but did not change it.

April Fools' Day

Your hands are becoming lounge chairs
and your fingers are turning into French flags
your stomach is a beehive
and the whole you is turning into sand

your face is turning into an eeebeee deeebeee da
what is an eeebeee deeebeee da?
April Fools'!

He says it is about our walk on the beach and April Fools' Day. As a writing intructor to nineteen year olds (my son is five) I can't help but fill in the part about a mommy who had a bilateral mastectomy five days ago, and has three behive looking drains hanging at her waist, and some other very unusual physical changes. I did not co-write this or even notice what it could be interpreted as until it was already written down. I just liked the imagery of hands turning into chairs. I think poetry, when it isn't taught at all, can be exactly what poetry is best at being. I am reading your post trying to figure out how to handle the question of how to coach him from someone better equipped to do so. After reading the post and response (thank you both very much) I have decided to stay out of it as best I can. I did offer him one editorial suggestion, which he declined (I wanted, in the first line of the second stanza, to change "turning into" into "becoming"). It is all his and to a poetry lover going through a strange physical transformation, I find it wonderful. Of course, I do concede that I am partial to this particular student :)

thank you again.


Ayse Papatya Bucak said...

Kids are just amazing writers, aren't they? I love that the flags are French. They're French! The detail is tremendous. I think at that age writers should pretty much be allowed to write without edits, but the one thing I've noticed from my young nephew (who wrote my favorite lyric ever: "Fell out of the poplar tree into the Sea of Tranquility") is there is a tendency to devolve into total silliness. So if this were a student poem (rather than a five year old's poem) I would say go back to the moment when the poem turns (second stanza in this case) and consider if the poem could/should take a different turn. But I love that he used the imagery he had at hand--the beach and you.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for taking his poem seriously.

It was definately at the moment he said "French flags" that I decided I would take the time to write it down. There was no French flag for him to "copy" from vision. That was imagined. I liked it better before he added "lounge" to chairs when we wrote it down, although the chairs he saw were lounge chairs. "Your hands are turning into chairs. April Fools'" was what he initially said. I liked that. Poetry is not journalistic. Or is it? The right details work. Whether they are "accurate" isn't about poetry. No?

I love to think about him "writing" this poem because of the transparency of the process, which is why I posted it here (I actually read your post some time ago, and had been thinking about it). I feel very lucky that you responded! Who else would discuss my five year old's poem with me as a serious example of the writing process? Thank you. I would absolutely love to "teach" poetry but wonder if I'd ever feel like it was really "teachable". I think I've helped students write poetry. I've certainly helped them believe they can write poetry and helped them improve poems. I hope that's a good thing.

Your comment about the second stanza rivets me because I know you must be right but I don't see it even though it is "eebee deebee da" nonsense. If I were not standing in the middle of his sea of confusion over these real physical changes and wanting him to give voice to his "fear" of what nonsensical unknown might happen next I might be able to have more objective insight. Who has seen, in less than a week, their mother's breasts removed, replaced with huge bruises, and then one large one appear? There are tubes coming out of me with plastic drains tied at my waist. It is not possible to hide from him. He's incessantly curious. It is nonsensical and real. But of course, poetry is not journalism or journaling. That it is real is not important to the poem. What;s important to the poem is if it works. Right?

As it is, I am trying to remember what he said in between stanza one and stanza two. Maybe it would work if I had a better memory. But it is not my work and I don't want it to be. I'm staying out of it (as best I can).

Thank you again.