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Can Poetry Be Taught

(This reply was part of a conversation on Micro.blog in January 2019 about whether poetry is a skill that can be taught. I’m re-posting it here as a matter of storing it on my own server rather than letting it fade into the haze of replies at Micro.blog. See also this essay, originally written in October 2020. And also this interview.)

The drive to write can be due to the need to express oneself, but I’ve found that over-reliance on “expression” as a motivator plays into the mystical idea that poets are supposed to be “inspired,” which all too often leads to stasis and frustration.

If you wait to be inspired, you’ll be waiting a long time. And when you finally are inspired, you’ll have had no practice, and the product will fall far short of the ideal in your head. No one thinks they can simply be inspired to write a song and, never having played before, just pick up a guitar and boom: a song. So why would writing be any different? Well, I believe it’s because we think we’re practicing all the time, by virtue of using language to, well, talk.

That is, many of us think that writing is the same as talking — and, even more so, that writing is the same as communicating. But poetry isn’t exclusively about communication or expression. (Of course, neither is speech, but that’s a discussion for another time.)

A poem is an event made out of sounds — sounds which just happen to be human language. A writer makes words do things beyond their usual scope, and this takes practice. It also takes a lot of research — that is, reading — to see what other writers have managed to do with words.

If you learn to work the raw materials, you’ll be better prepared for when you are inspired. And you may eventually discover that the joy of working the raw materials is enough.