Yer in the (Poetry) Army Now

Posted on May 7, 2010


While in the middle of grading term projects I happened on a story about Derek Walcott’s appointment to teach at the University of Essex in the U.K. A number of items caught my eye in the piece, but the one that really got my attention was Walcott saying that, “I had forgotten how much I like teaching the young. I like roughing them up–they’re like recruits, they need to be trained.”

A teacher — no matter what the level — would have to be lying if they couldn’t admit that they sometimes would like to take underperforming student work and file it in the nearest trash bin. But we don’t. We teach. We take the moment to try to find out where the student was coming from–what went awry–and get them back on track.

Yes, teachers can get frustrated. But it’s my goal not to cram students’ heads with tons of facts and rules, but rather to get them to think independently and critically. To learn. To know how to gather data, sift through it, come to conclusions and decisions based on what’s there (and not just what they want to see), and to be aware of the probable consequences of those decisions.

The best teacher I ever had in a poetry workshop made us all miserable. In addition to the weekly class, we had to meet with him individually every other week. We all dreaded these conferences. We would have to sit through an hour of him going over our poems word by word, making us justify each one. It felt like the Spanish Inquisition. But at no time during these conferences did this teacher ever call us dumb, or stupid, or make sort of negative judgment as to our intelligence or characteristics. Instead, he wanted us to be perfectly aware of what we were doing in a poem, why we were doing it and with what implications. And, at least, I did. I learned.

The worst teacher I ever had in a poetry workshop made us all feel good. Every word, line and poem was a gem. We were all great. I learned squat.

But Walcott’s quote has me more than worried. He makes the analogy that helping poets learn is merely like training recruits. The purpose of training recruits in the army is to instill the idea of the cohort. The training of recruits consists of making their physical and mental skills respond, uncritically, to the beck and call of those giving orders. When under fire, a sergeant does not want the privates under his/her charge to start debating the merits of his/her order. Obedience, and conformance, are crucial to survival.

But is obedience crucial to the survival of the poet?

A good, or even great, poet does not necessarily make a great, or even a mediocre, teacher. Old age may give some of us more latitude to speak our minds, but learning gets lost when the sole effect is to become good copy, good fodder for cocktail party conversation.

We can be ornery and disrespectful of others and it can be whitewashed as “it’s just ol’ gramps sounding off, pay him no mind.” Problem is when too much mind is given. In return for what?