There is a popular perception that poetry writing classes are a breeze both for students and professors.
Nope. Students often find the classes highly challenging, and I almost always find teaching creative writing far more difficult than teaching any other kind of class.
If I tell my students that to write a good poem requires x, y, and z, and that their draft lacks one or more of those elements, some portion of the students will mightily resent it.
I get that. I really do. A poem can feel very personal, so an “attack” on the poem can seem like an attack on the person.
What’s more, students in lit classes almost never suggest that their views on what makes for a strong essay are as valid as the professor’s, but this happens regularly in creative writing classes. After all, the students think, quality in poems is just a matter of opinion.
A simple solution would be to simply “give up” and to reward all the efforts of the students with praise and high grades, but this flies in the face of something else students desperately want: TO GET BETTER.
So how can a professor encourage students to lift the quality of the work (which implies, obviously, that earlier work was at a lower quality), while at the same time not having students feel like the professor is being “bossy.”
Here are some tricks I have learned over the years.
First, I do believe in focusing on praise. I always begin by praising those parts of the poem I think are best, and I ask students in workshops to do the same. It is a simple step after that to add something like, “Would the poem be better if you added more lines like that?” This focuses on the positive but also encourages change.
Second, an exercise I have used often is to read aloud two poems by students from a past class (names removed, of course). I then ask the class to vote on which poem is better. I continue this process with six or seven additional poems, asking students to rank them from best to worst. I also ask the students to explain what they think is better about the stronger poems.
When I first tried this, I was fearful that students might love the poems I liked least and for all the “wrong reasons.” That has never happened. An individual student might make a case that worries me, but the overall vote always makes sense. And once students articulate a “rubric,” I can then use it when I talk to them about their own work. If, for example, they say that they liked the poems best that surprised them, I can ask if they think their own poems might be improved by including more surprises.
Finally, I create exercises to help students see the power of good technique. One quick way to help beginning students improve is to get them to focus on including more concrete images. But instead of lecturing on images, I ask them to create longs lists of them. When they are done, I ask them to create a poem by using the best ones on their lists. Students are often impressed by the quality of the work they create from this exercise. This encourages them to add images to all their future poems.
Still, there are occasional students who bristle at any comment about their poetry other than “this is brilliant.” I once had a workshop where every single student agreed that the first stanza of a poem was boring while the rest of it was much better. After class, the student came up to me and said, “They’re wrong. The first stanza is the best.” He added, “Anyway, I wanted that first stanza to be boring. That was my point.”
What did I say in response? I said, “You should never take any suggestion unless you agree with it.”
I meant that. I did. No one should.
Still, it’s also what makes teaching poetry writing challenging.