My own teaching life feels haunted. I don’t mean that the classroom is filled with ghosts, nor that tradition’s image is the book as sepulcher suddenly opened (though, on second thought, both these denials might be true). I mean something much simpler, much more common, something I’m sure every teacher of writing must feel at the onset of trying to honestly teach the art he or she practices. I feel haunted by how I was taught. There are no spooky sound-effects echoing in this paragraph, no floor’s wooden slats creaking with portentous weight—there’s only these memories of being myself a student, moments (as all such haunted moments are) in which what I was given by my teachers could not be reconciled to a lesson, recollections in which what I was told resisted my understanding, at times to almost desperate confusion.
While in graduate school, I recall showing up to an advising conference with the typical mix of dread and hope cinching their opposite natures closer together with every step up the stairs to my teacher’s office. I knocked. She opened her door, a conspiratorial look in her slightly lens-enlarged eyes. She closed the door behind her, turned around, and said, “Dan, there’s only one thing for you to do.” She stepped toward me. “You must make friends with the dead.” I could not tell if she was joking, but she was smiling, as if conferring on me some exact promise whose importance I could not yet guess at. I feigned comfort, sophistication even; I suspect I laughed. But I felt vaguely frightened. I felt frightened because what she said felt true.
Then, deeper in my memory, less distinct, more nameless, I remember studying Art History as an undergraduate. Bauhaus was our week’s topic. I don’t remember if I read the anecdote in my textbook, or if it was an aside in a lecture. I don’t recall the name of the man about whom the story was told. I only remember the story. On the first day of sculpture class, the master-teacher gave each one of his students one large piece of paper. He gave no lecture, no introduction to the class’s goals, no syllabus. He simply gave them their first assignment. He told each student they were to take the paper home and fold it in such a way that it could bear their body’s weight. It seemed impossible to me—that assignment. It also seemed beautiful, seemed true. It became for me—and still is—the definition of what great teaching offers. It assigns us the impossible. What is impossible is the gift.
Would it sound awful to admit that what I believe a genuine education in Poetry requires is to give each young writer over to her or his confusion in an almost desperate way? Lesser confusions, and lesser ambitions abound. The trouble with teaching is that the student arrives knowing what it is she or he will be taught. We possess expectations we do not like to admit. A Poetry Workshop offers, through peer critique and teacherly guidance, a way to make a given poem better upon revision. The mark of succeeding in Workshop is to publish the workshopped poem in a journal; the success of the degree can be measured in many such poems being published in the form of a book. There is almost always an underlying assumption that what we are here to do—be the classroom clad in dark wainscoting with ivy breaking the window’s light, or the light’s fluorescent hum rebounding off linoleum floors—is to make each poem better, to make each poem “good.” It is an assumption, I fear, that makes of Poetry mere craft—that word evocative of thin prosody (at best), and those shallower notions in which poetic voice proves itself “unique” while simultaneously recognizable, even fashionable (at worst). Mere craft is important, absolutely—and it is a series of lessons the serious student of Poetry must seriously learn. But it is not to be learned as an end in itself, but to make of itself a remarkable homonymic transformation, in which “poetic craft” becomes the craft that is a poem. Then music and rhythm, form and image, metaphor and voice, cease to be a demonstration of “mastery,” and instead become a craft themselves, that vessel which, leaky as it might be, leaky as it must be, is all that keeps the poet afloat in her necessary confusion.
What I am suggesting as the profound work an MFA Program might offer a student does not fit into a syllabus, cannot be scheduled, cannot be guaranteed. It is not, as workshop parlance so often has it, to “take a risk.” It is to put that which felt certain in oneself at risk—to undo the certainty of what one wants, what one expects from the education one is paying for, what one thinks a poem is or must be. It is, I might suggest—but suggest with trepidation, unsure of the advice even as I give it—the work of changing craft as poetic practice into craft as poetic condition.
Writing, it has always felt to me, occurs in solitude. Workshop enters that space of solitude, at times even betrays it, and must do so for good reason. What convinces me of the worth of workshop, and how workshop might offer something to its participants of lasting poetic value (because of ongoing poetic work), finds its best expression in a section from Henry David Thoreau’s Journal on February 13th, 1838: “It is hard to subject ourselves to an influence. It must steal upon us when we expect it not, and its work be all done ere we aware of it. If we make advances, it is shy; if, when we presume to pry into its free-masonry, it vanishes and leaves us alone in our folly,—brimful but stagnant,—a full channel, it may be, but no inclination.” This will sound too simple to say, but may well be worth difficult consideration: workshop at the highest levels of education opens us to influence. To be influenced in the way in which Thoreau suggests requires a letting go of will, letting go of purpose, and instead, finding a way in which each of us opens ourselves radically to those thoughts and ideas and insights we have not authored ourselves. Those influences arrive from centuries nearly forgotten, as well as from the mouths of those sitting next to us, marking the poem in front of her as she talks. A good workshop—this ideal of the MFA model—provides a conversation in which one voice is imbricated beneath another, as is the armor of the pangolin, as are the scales of a fish; save that this conversation does not offer protection from the world, but offer entrance to it; imbricated, let us say, using one of poetry’s oldest images, as are the inter-folded petals of the budding rose. Should we learn to let influence do its work in us, should let open our secrets to it so it can secretly enter, should we learn to encourage each other in letting influence do its dark work in each other, than the full channel isn’t stagnant, but is inclined, is full with intent, a currency runs through it, and the end of that current is the writing of a poem.
Influence is haunted work.
The best writing advice I’ve ever received is to make friends with the dead.
And how to fold a page so that it holds one’s whole weight? There is no secret. It is plain to see. It is putting the blank page on the table, and then stepping on it. It is in learning not to fold the page at all.
First published in Writer’s Digest 2010/2011