If you’re a regular reader of Writerly Life, you’ve heard that this fall I’ll be teaching an undergrad creative writing class. It’s kept me busy, thinking about what reading materials will be most helpful to a roomful of budding writers, or perhaps a roomful of people who fear writing and are only here for a requirement (I hope I get a roomful of the former). Because the class must be half-composed of poetry discussions, I’m a little afraid of launching myself into that murky jungle. As a fiction writer, I often feel overwhelmed by poetry; I enjoy reading it, but I’m poorly equipped with the tools needed to discuss and analyze it. That’s why I want to hear from you.
What can poems teach us? And which poems are the best to learn from?
The first question to ask when assembling a reading list is, What do I want the readings to teach? For the poetry section of the syllabus, I want the chosen poems to teaching my students about voice, mystery, and detail, among other things. I’ve chosen a very wide range so far, from selections from Walt Whitman to excerpts from Rumi. For contemporary poetry, I’m a little more out of the loop. Some of my favorite poems that I’m including are Billy Collins’ “Workshop”, selected odes to ordinary household objects from Sharon Olds, and Tom Wayman’s “Did I Miss Anything?” These contemporary poems are memorable and teachable to me because they ask questions or capture singular, complex moments in modern life, including our love of workshop language, our regret at missing every opportunity for a realization, and our dependence on simple, ordinary objects. They’re good for teaching because their structures can be replicated, but filled with students’ original ideas.
But what do you think? Poetry lovers, give me poem suggestions to teach and tell me what you think they can teach new writers. I’ll certainly check ’em out. That leads me to that question of what poems can teach us. Why do we read a poem in a creative writing class? More than anything, I think the poem can teach us how the personal makes something universal. The more vague and cliched an idea is in a story or poem, strangely, the less universal it feels: it becomes alien from us, feeling unreal, something made up for a glossy magazine or a television commercial. If you rely on the personal details and experiences of your own life, however, it begins to feel as if everyone could identify and sympathy with it. Art lives in personal experience, and there’s no art form more personal than poetry.
What do you think poetry can teach us, and what poems will best show that lesson? Share your thoughts, and keep the poetry discussion going.