Saturday, April 9, 2011

Fashion and Poetry

A good friend is teaching an undergrad poetry workshop and it has been something we talk about a lot.  Recently her class has been wanting a lesson on meter and I told her not to do it.  She wants to do it because her students want to learn it and told me "not all poetry is Frank O'Hara and Tao Lin".  I have a lot of reason for disagreeing with her about this and the biggest reason relates to Sebastian Horsley but I'll have to take the long way to get to him, and an even longer way of getting to form as a bad or difficult aesthetic choice.

The way I think about learning to write has a lot to do with learning to dress myself.  When I put clothes on  or buy clothes I always have a reason.  Those reasons are either a way of borrowing from something I've seen in an ad, on tv, or from a friend, a utilitarian function, or a way of standing out.  I do borrow styles from other people.  My haircut is based on this blog about Aaron Levine from over a year ago and I wear white t-shirts based on a weeklong adventure with some good friends where it was part of the uniform, and levis and tennis shoes is an homage to Frank O'Hara's portrayal in a Joe Brainard poem.  I carry a hankie, a folded piece of paper, and three writing utensils (two sided sharpie, fine bp pen, and mechanical pencil) because I find them useful.

When a college sophomore wakes up and goes to poetry class, they make those decisions too, though they will be more or less conscious of it than I am.  They may wear pjs because they like being comfortable and want to sleep longer, they may wear a tight fitting shirt to show off their muscles/boobs, or they wear jeans and a t-shirt because that's all they have clean.  My point is, they make decisions about their attire.  Some of them will be very strict in their attire such as only wearing casual clothes, or always wearing jeans, and some will wear whatever is clean, but these are decisions.

If you ask these students, "if you had to look and dress like someone else, who would you want to look like?" most would say some current celebrity or athlete or mention clothes from a certain retailer.  None would say an older Shirley Temple, Cary Grant or Babe Ruth, even though these people are attractive, interesting people.  We don't want to look like people from a bygone era unless we're going to a costume party.

This is what it feels like to me when I hear students wanting to write in form or learn form in a workshop.  They want to run around with their Robert Frost and Edgar Alan Poe poems when no one in poetry world is writing those poems. If they want to do that, write in a bygone era, they're going to have to have a type of dedication that I don't have and can't effectively teach:  that of a dandy.

Sebastian Horsley took his aesthetic choices seriously.   He even had himself crucified as part of his art.  His appearance and art remind me of John Waters and Lady Gaga.  These people would be less interesting if they let their (avant) guard down and went to Starbucks in their jeggings like Britney Spears (though also an interesting person aesthetically).  Instead they boggle the mind as to what they're like in real life, but real life and art have thin divide when you're this dedicated:

This said, a dedication to form is not something I would or could teach.  I see the undergraduate workshop as a way to show students what poetry is in the 21rst century, not the 19th.  Sure, I'd give them books, tell them who to read if they're interested in form, but I'd be there to show them what poetry is and can be, not the familiar thing that it was.


  1. well, you neglected to mention that i'm also having my students present on hyper-current work, work published in journals in the last 6 months, based on a similar assignment mike did in his 220. one of my students chose your poem from kill author. not sure what's more 21st century than that.

    i've had a difficult time deciding how and what to teach in my workshop semester. there are seriously endless ways i could have gone about teaching the workshop. i could have focused on schools/movements/aesthetics of poetry, on voice, on subject matter, on the canon....all sorts of things. i chose to touch on a bunch of different subjects, give them a lot of exercises and a lot of examples of different poems and poets from all kinds of eras and with all kinds of styles, make them write in an "image" journal, and create an atmosphere of constructive criticism for workshop. i am by no means a creative writing pedagogy person. i'm not sure i taught this class as effectively as i could have, especially this being my last semester in the MFA (in which i have been very much focused on completing my thesis and not as focused on teaching as i have been in previous semesters).

    i am, or at least try to be, the kind of teacher who finds student feedback important. at the beginning of the semester, when we discussed sonnet and villanelles, some of my students expressed their desire to have a full class period devoted to meter, specifically. i haven't spend much time studying, thinking about or writing in meter since a forms workshop with elizabeth arnold when i was an undergrad. i felt uncomfortable teaching the class, but i felt it was important to give the students what they had requested. because i respect my students, their likes and dislikes, and their wishes.

    if i had ignored my students desire for ONE 50 minute class period devoted to meter, i would have been doing my students a disservice. meter, and form, are a large part of poetic history. thankfully, i'm not teaching a course on poetic history. i am teaching a class where i hope students can become more interested in, comfortable with, and proficient at reading and writing poetry. if that definition happens to include a bit of poetry that's written in traditional form or in metrical lines, i can't see how that is in any way other than a good thing.

    i'm invested in giving my students different paths to appreciation of poetry, which is why we've read everything from margaret atwood and elizabeth bishop to pablo neruda and emmy perez . this is why they had to write a short paper about a canonical poem (and give their personal opinion on whether or not the poem should be canonical) but also complete the aforementioned assignment, a presentation on a current poem in a current journal. this is why they've written sonnets and villanelles, but also completed erasures.

    i don't write in form and don't plan to. it's not my taste. however, i don't, and won't, feel that willfully ignoring meter in a poetry workshop class (especially when specifically requested by several students) will accomplish anything aesthetically. i guess this brings me to an interesting question, one i think mike would be interested in, too: as teachers, what is our responsibility in terms of teaching different types of work, works that fall into different aesthetic camps? i have to say i think that teaching only within the realm of work you personally enjoy is, frankly, irresponsible.

    poetry was, is, and can be, multifaceted. i don't presume to suggest that because i am not a formalist or a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet that these kinds of poetry have no place at the table, in the classroom, or even in the current poetry climate. to do so, in my opinion, is both dangerous and disrespectful.

    i direct your attention to this essay, which i distributed in class as a modern perspective:

    i think you'll find it interesting.

  2. Good job outing thyself Carrie. Haha. I wasn't criticizing your whole class, your workshop sounds awesome actually, but just the small decision of teaching meter. Students that want to use and learn about meter, fine, but I wouldn't teach it. The same way I wouldn't teach a beginning workshop about concepts of the sublime or post-modernity. Seems out of the scope. But seriously, I'd take your class Carrie, I'd just punch the kids who write in form.