Wednesday, February 23, 2011

A Moment of Insight

I have this assignment I give in my poetry classes. I ask students to write a specific sort of poem, and then I ask them to analyze the writing process, or how/what choices they made, and so forth. The thing I care about is the analysis, because I really don't think that most of my students are into writing poems, but they can learn a lot by trying.

It's a really good assignment for learning. Most students put a lot of time in trying to come up with this or that rhyme or metrical pattern, and grapple with word choice and such. They think really hard (often for the first time) about using language in specific sorts of ways or with specific structures.

But, the poems tend to be painful to read. And the students really, really want to hear that they're wonderful, insightful, brilliant, whatever. But I'm a Shakespeare person: I value a highly crafted sort of poetry, and that's not what most people can produce in response to this assignment.

Most of the poetry tends to be vague at best. There's a lot of hinting about stuff, without really saying what they mean. And I find that frustrating.

And the analyses are semi-painful to read, because a lot of them tend to talk about how they usually just write what they think, and they don't revise, because revision is fake-oh (can you hear Holden Caulfield here?) and so forth. Then there are those who want to just paraphrase the poem rather than analyze their process or choices. In there with sometimes really smart analysis of their difficulty tends to be a lot of tortured genius talk, and I don't really have much interest in tortured geniuses.

One of my students, though, had a really helpful insight. S/he said that s/he found the poem difficult to write because s/he felt vulnerable being too specific about things or saying things explicitly.

And I wonder if that isn't a big part of the vagueness and hinting. I tended to think of it as more being about thinking they were being highly allusive and poetical tortured geniuses, but maybe it's really about feeling vulnerable. They can't grasp the concrete image because then the reader might learn too much about them.

It makes me a little less frustrated to think that might be part of it, anyway.


  1. Hey, Holden Caulfield takes a lot of care with his writing and uses very detailed images! Think about the essay he writes about his dead brother's baseball glove. His way of handling the fear of vulnerability your student talked about is not to avoid details but to change the name of the glove's owner. (I know that you don't like Catcher in the Rye, but I couldn't let this particular slur against Holden stand unchallenged!)

    Sounds like a cool assignment, one that I might try on a simpler scale with my 9th-graders this spring. Ideally (if not always in practice), writing with meter and rhyme requires students to think about different ways to say the same thing, which is a concept that really bewilders some of my less able writers.

  2. i think your student's insight -- that it is hard to be explicit for fear of revealing too much of one's self and becoming vulnerable -- is excellent.

    some of the vagueness is something else, of course; perhaps a lack of focus, or imagining that they are creative geniuses. but i bet it would be helpful for your students to consider what they are hiding, and why, if they are tending toward vagueness.