Saturday, 26 May 2012

Teaching form

The first question is whether one can teach anything at all, in the sense of passing on learning and experience. Why not just say to people: read that? That is if one's own reading is considered to be even faintly comprehensive.

I make no comment on that as I have been teaching a long time.

The next question is whether the stuff that makes you a poet (the books are there so you must be one, and a few prizes too to suggest some people are willing at times to confirm you in your belief that you are one) -  the 'stuff', whatever it is, that makes you a poet, is something you can pass on? And, while on the subject, whether passing it on is what you should be doing for, after all, it might be of little use to someone else, nor do you quite know what it is yourself.

The question that follows is whether the stuff you are talking about is actually the valuable thing. In this case, form.  Everything does, after all have form or it would not be perceptible. Given that, is it of sufficient value to explore the idea of regularity or repetition, since that is what is commonly perceived to be form? Repeat this, move that into a half-predictable place, and you have form. Because expectation - as created by repetition - and the breaking of expectation - is the nature of the game.

And beyond that there is the world of received form, whether that is the standard verse forms, the ancient ones revived, the new variations on the standard and revived - those old warhorses: the sonnet, the ballad,  the couplet, the sestina, the villanelle, terza rima etc etc etc - or the shift to classical metre, do actually do what we claim that they can do.

I am not going over the arguments for such things, as I have done so often enough. The arguments are good. But the point of them, the point perhaps of any argument, is not to convince or to justify, because at bottom we know argument is just argument, not the full and actual state of affairs. Arguments must be made because we have to see elements and processes clearly, not because they are the truth.

Do I believe that my years of formal writing are the product of an argument? No way! I do what I do because it seems to have been in my nature to do it. Not that I am arguing from a given nature: I am arguing from retrospect. Not so much Vonnegut's So it goes, as So it seems to have gone. Adding only the words: for better or worse.


James Hamilton said...

Teaching qua teaching is falling victim alas to great man syndrome: every teacher must now be inspiring, exceptional, remarkable etc. rather than schools, parents and politicians making it possible for the mediocre rest of us to do what we are capable of doing and having it be effective.

That said, the "best teachers" in my life didn't teach me - what they did was twofold: their heart-on-sleeve love and enthusiasm for their subject made it feel vital to life, and their heart-on-sleeve love and enthusiasm for us as pupils and tutees made our efforts and frail insights feel vital and important, and made us feel genuinely, importantly involved in the bigger world that the subject represented.

Once in a blue, a teacher would come along who could explain the impossibly complex, but communicators of that calibre aren't to be found often, let alone manufactured by training colleges.

So I, along with most people I know, are actually self-educated. Memories of mid-1990s afternoons slumped over Teach Yourself Music and having, for a moment, revelatory insight into those forms you listed there - understanding, for a second or two, what they were actually about - and then it went again, and hasn't returned. But it was a good second or two.

Mark Granier said...

Nicely put George.

Re passing on "the stuff" that "might be of little use to someone else" and being uncertain "what it is yourself', I can empathise with that. Also with this:
"I do what I do because it seems to have been in my nature to do it." Yes, exactly.

The American poet and teacher Richard Hugo wrote a wonderful book, 'Triggering Towns' which is part autobiography and part primer, among other things. Apparently he began the term (teaching Poetry/Creative Writing I think) by announcing to his students "Everything I am going to tell you is wrong." Of course, this would be qualified by explaining that every writer must develop his/her own favourings, prejudices, etc. which can only come from reading other writers.

James, I take your point. I slept or daydreamed through most of school, and though I've bought and read many books of poetry, and published three collections, I really don't feel I've learned nearly enough. Re poetry, I probably only had one true *teacher*, my old friend and mentor Anthony Glavin, who was an excellent poet and (apparently brilliant) piano teacher. He is certainly one of the reasons (perhaps the main one) that I am still dabbling/diving now.

George S said...

I agree, James, that teachers are expected to beextraordinary now which leaves little room for the ordinary. It's the same principle as in sport where - rather loathsomely to my mind - '2nd is nowhere'. And woe betide those who come 3rd!

So students expect outstanding grades (outstanding from what?) as do their parents, as do governments of whatever colour, even while knowing that the terms involved are devalued, but that we cannot admit.

I do think the course just finished was particularly good - more importantly the students thought so - and my query (and this replies to Mark too) is not about the experience of teaching and learning, which can be managed better or worse, but, in circumstances where everyone seems to think the experience was wonderful, wonder what exactly has happened? I mean: beyond the 'experience' what exactly has the material delivered actually achieved? How much can it achieve? And beyond even the achievement, how do we know the value, or even nature, of the material, which is certainly of importance to us personally, but may address questions others may not need to answer with any great urgency. Especially when we don't really know why it seems to have been of such importance and urgency to us.

I know it's tangled. The question is the product of fatigue after five days of intensive engagement that succeeded in producing a delightful exhilaration and that particular degree of mutuality there tends to be on successful Arvon courses.

In a quiet moment, in private so to speak (in so far as this space is private), I ponder it.