On Studying Writing

I might have mentioned – I now seem to be doing a degree in writing. Poetry, at this moment.

So, every week, there is a poetry workshop, and half the group submits poems and the entire group talks about them. There is also a reading from a book called Poets Teaching Poets. Some of the points that have emerged from the essays provide a breakdown of the construction of poetry. It’s a little bit like taking a morning muffin and putting it into different chemicals, and weighing what’s left.

Not much.

The students are an interesting bunch. Some of them seem very keen, eager to share what they already know, and encouraging their friends. Whether or not the comments are useful doesn’t really matter. Listening to what people notice tells you more about the culture and their background than anything else. Sometimes they see something that you hadn’t noticed, and that is helpful. How do things resonate with any group of people?

The professor is a published poet. I’m not sure what he thinks of all of us in the class. He has a nervous giggle, and a way of making seemingly obtuse comments. I’m beginning to notice that within these gnomic statements hide his actual opinions. I’m not sure he likes teaching, really. He does come out with some very good observations – but then they are followed by suggestions that may make poets of all of us, or may make us all sound exactly the same.

There is a site I discovered on Substack called Poetic Outlaws. It’s very good. Like tarot cards or astrology or an oracle, it has a neat facility to come up with a poem or a philosophical thought that applies to the situation at hand. The other day, it posted a poem by Charles Bukowski called “So You Want to be A Writer.”

I’ll share some lines that keep echoing in my head.

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you

in spite of everything,

don’t do it.


if you’re trying to write like somebody


forget about it.

I had been loaned a book of poems called Inside Job by John Skoyles. I look through it in between sending emails, like an antidote to poison. I came across this poem about Grace Paley, which contains within it a story of her teaching a class, and listening to a student complain about how she couldn’t come up with anything to write about. And Grace says “well, maybe you’re not a writer.” Or something like that. And then tells the class, “and that’s ok.”

The poem – and he makes it look easy, but you’d be a fool to think it is – lifts so many classroom memories out of the dust. The other students looking on. The shock value of her words.

It would never happen now. And it’s hard to know exactly how to take it. I’d rather have a world of mediocre poets and painters than another Hitler. Somewhere between the gatekeeping of the classroom, and the whining of privileged undergrads and grads, is the truth that writing either grabs you by the throat and punches you in the gut and kicks your shins and raps your thin knuckles with the metal edge of the wooden ruler, or it doesn’t. And that’s just what it does to the writer.

Hitting myself once more in the face with my iPad as I drift off to sleep or try to, in the middle of the night, ideas come and go, and vanish if you think of anything else. Or move.

Back to the class, everyone bares a piece of their soul for a minute, their friends encourage them, the professor points out that the poem could use continuity in punctuation, or in narrative, or could have more space, or more surprise, or more reassurance, or more detail on how it went from one place to another.

I just visited a museum that had an exhibition on the early works of a well-known artist and background on his links to the area. I am purposefully not naming names here. They also displayed some paintings by his wife, who was the better known artist when they first met, romantically enough, in the town where the museum is. Fascinating to see his early works, early talent, the use of color. Ten years later, he had borrowed her technique and was famous. But there were ten years of practice in there, not counting all the time before. The sketches as a teenager. His experimentation with watercolor which he initially got from his mother, who, and I am reading between the lines here, was a painter as well. Although well heeled women at that time were expected to draw, and play music, etc. Go read Jane Austen.

The thing is, no one sees you practice, and there is no detailed map of how things get from here to there. A friend introduced me to a poet named Regan Good. Her work is entirely different from all the poets above. But maybe what they all have in common is that they are putting words on a palette, looking out to sea, and thinking about brushstrokes they have loved. And one day, someone decides that they are worth reading.

Meanwhile, there were photographs of the sailors who used to populate the town, and go out to sea, and risk their lives to make money catching fish. Photographs not that old, next to the arrowheads of the people whose land it once was, the tools used to make ropes and sails, and the Fresnel glass that someone saved from two lighthouses that were refurbished. The other giant glass prism – gone forever, broken up somewhere in some USCG graveyard of stuff. Gone – like the wooden boats, the sail lofts, and most of the fish.

Three hours a week discussing poetry.

no capitals and lack of punctuation may convey emotion

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