Rhyme must have reason

June 30, 2006

It may offer insight into what it's like to be a piece of cheese, but a PhD in poetry does not indicate talent. Is it good for anything? asks Don Paterson

Can poetry be taught, and is university the best place to teach it? Given the ubiquity of the creative writing MA, it might seem a little late in the day to be asking such basic questions. No other academic subject can ever have found this kind of popularity so quickly - although, as we all know, the reasons for this are economic, not a mysterious countrywide epidemic of literary talent. Creative writing courses fill up quicker than a journalist's expense sheet. The reality is that creative writing is a terribly young subject, still working out the terms of its academic and intellectual tenure.

So why study poetry at a university? At St Andrews (where I teach, alongside the poets Douglas Dunn, Kathleen Jamie and John Burnside) many of our MLitt students arrive because they want to work with an individual whose work they admire. They are simply seeking out their own teachers, as artists have always done. Since this is the principal attraction for most serious students - an opportunity to learn about one poet's art practice from the horse's mouth - all attempts to lend the subject academic legitimacy through the standardisation of its teaching should be fiercely resisted.

I have leafed through a number of reports on "best practice in creative writing" and my heart invariably sinks. My largest bugbear is the centrality of the poetry "workshop". The use of the word alone brings me out in hives. Workshops are for sweating and swearing. Santa has one. Not all workshops are bad, by any means, but there are still too many where you get half an hour to write a poem in which you imagine you are a piece of cheese or you are asked to write a villanelle seamlessly incorporating the names of the seven dwarves - all in the name of "kick-starting the imagination".

To my mind they represent the infantilisation of a perfectly serious subject and are mostly a waste of time. Some US students, in particular, are surprised to learn that poetry has done very well without the workshop for several millennia now. Its reputation as an indispensable teaching aid owes more to it being a pleasant way of passing the afternoon than it having ever produced much in the way of decent verse; more sinisterly, it seems to me to be a way of keeping the poem safe and unambitious by lying about how it comes into being. For most of us, poetry takes ages to write, if it's any good. And, hush - we don't even necessarily enjoy it: this stuff can hurt.

The trouble with such teaching methods is that they tend to take their cue not from great poetry, nor any study of how it may have been produced, but from contemporary practice, which it reflects uncritically. The trouble with the contemporary poetry of any age, however, is that 99 per cent of it will be no good, so it is no surprise to find that the workshop is ideal for churning out just the sort of experiential, trivial, half-baked surrealist, shapeless and idea-free verse that is our unexamined poetic default these days. That is not to say that great poems aren't being written, just that every age has its defining stylistic vices.

I teach in three ways. The first is the one-to-one tutorial, where we focus on ways of tailoring the artistic process to each individual's temperament.

At St Andrews, we all teach that most things can be solved by reading, and we draw up a customised reading list for each student that will push the work where he or she needs it to go. The second is the seminar. While real talent will rise with or without the poetry MLitt, the one thing that can be sensibly taught is poetic technique.

While the names of our various techniques might sound familiar to anyone who has studied English literature, they are very different beasts in the context of our discussion: in poetry, composition, rhyme, form, metre and metaphor are verbs, not nouns. We don't, for example, sit around identifying different rhyme types like species of beetle but we learn how rhyme can be used as the engine of poetic composition to generate the content and shape the direction of the poem.

The last is the read-round, where students will read out their work for critical feedback. This is very important as it represents a form of publication. My own line is that the poem begins with inspiration and ends in publication, not just completion. An unread poem isn't finished, and the poet's relationship to it is improperly configured: poetry proceeds from a generous instinct, and our aim is to give these things away, to move and to enlighten others. Publication allows us to see the poem as someone else's handiwork: if we anticipate it, we can bring an unsentimental, cool eye to the work and see its flaws more clearly.

Not that I am proposing any of this as best practice either - it's just what works for me. Because every teacher is free to teach their own enthusiasm, courses are emerging that reflect the current poetry "factions": some, such as our own, specialise in "mainstream", page-oriented verse, others in performance poetry or in postmodern verse (which has a close relationship to critical theory and Continental philosophy) and yet others in "life-writing" - experiential approaches to poetry.

While this diversity is essentially a good thing from the students' point of view, at some point we will also have to address the uncomfortable business of who is actually doing the teaching. No academic would tolerate any casual and inept incursion into their specialism, and the charlatans are quickly sent packing. Nor should we tolerate any in ours. Only writers with a proven track record should teach writing, as only they can talk with any authority on successful practice - although being a good writer does not guarantee you'll be any good at teaching. Either way, a little self-regulation may soon be in order.

The equivocal status of the subject within the English department has recently become uncomfortably clear with the (again, economically inspired) introduction of the creative writing PhD. The awkward question is this: can a PhD that results in nothing but a mediocre and perennially unpublished book of poems call itself a PhD at all, in the sense of a contribution to human knowledge? Might it not instead represent merely a growing embarrassment, both to the candidate and the university that awarded it?

The truth is that no publisher gives a hoot about the poetry MA or PhD on your CV: all they care about is your poetry. This means that the only sensible use for a doctorate is as a creative writing teaching qualification - precisely what it is not. Nonetheless, the creative writing PhD is regarded as such in the US, and I'm dismayed to note that some British universities have begun to follow suit. The result is that many writers are now in the ridiculous position of turning out unpublished poets better qualified than themselves to teach the subject. The danger is that this will, in time, guarantee a kind of dynastic mediocrity, where ignorance is passed on seamlessly from one generation to the next and where the workshop is king.

At St Andrews, we have tackled this by requiring a straight 50:50 split between the research and creative components of the PhD. (Most other universities divide it 80:20 or even 90:10 in favour of creative writing, with the "research" sometimes consisting of little more than a diary account of working practice.) The academic research might be related to creative writing as a subject - for instance, pedagogy or theory or some aspect of ars poetica - or it might involve some cross-disciplinary study related to the direction, content or style of the creative work, be it eco-criticism, cognitive science, film studies or anthropology. The idea, apart from smartly seeing off any charges of Mickey-Mousery and reflecting the intellectually promiscuous nature of the subject, is that this will, in time, contribute to the critical literature of creative writing itself and so bolster its academic credibility.

Early days, then, but nonetheless university teaching of poetry represents a marvellous opportunity to serve an intense apprenticeship under people who know what they are talking about. However, at the end of the day, our courses can be validated only by the books they produce and the memorable poems the students go on to write.

Don Paterson is a lecturer in creative writing at St Andrews University and winner of the 2003 Whitbread Poetry Award. He is poet-in-residence at this year's Ledbury Festival, the UK's biggest poetry festival ( www.poetry-festival.com ).

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