George Szirtes - 30 May 2008

Only since Bill raises it - Most poets need to earn money, because there really is not much money in poetry. Universities over the last five years have been hoovering up poets and novelists because students want to do creative writing at both degree and postgraduate level. Though, personally, I dropped English at age 15 and studied art instead, I too have been hoovered up. So there you are, one and all. Is this a good thing, or do you think we should be starving in garrets? But can you find garrets now? Can writing be taught at all? Or what, if anything, can be taught about writing? What would you like to learn, Bill? I mean from a decent poet.

And that could take us to reading. Should poets read? How much? Is there any particular way to approach the great mass of books already in existence? Where do you start? - My first poet-teacher was Martin Bell, whom I never cease quoting when he said: Poetry should not be taught in schools. It should be a secret and subversive pleasure. And while everyone is busy being subversive now so that the only true subversives are the non-subversive, where does that leave pleasure? It is, I suspect, number 1 on my list. And I don't mean easy chewy, sweet, forgettable pleasure.I mean the pleasure of struggle and depth. Where do you find that? Who gives you that sort of pleasure?



As one who has had to defend the fact that she studied creative writing in a university setting, I'd say that it can and can't be taught in the same way that art can and can't be taught.

Technical aspects? Yes. How to clean one's proverbial brush? Yes. The colour wheel? To an extent. Vision, inspiration, creative source and drive? Most likely not.

Also, some memorable advice that I received about what I should be reading was: 'Forget [the actual word used was slightly stronger than 'forget] the canon - read what you want'.

Claire, I'm really glad to read your perceptive remarks about the 'teachability' of creative writing. I've alwys thought this argument gets rather extreme and polarized, with one person saying 'writers are born, not made' and another saying 'it's a set of skills you can learn'. Surely you are quite right to separate the technical aspects from the inspirational (for want of a better word). George, in your experience do you think people embark on these courses with excessively high expectations? Do they imagine that EVERYTHING can be formalised, put on a syllabus, delivered to them in the form of lectures and handouts? Is there a danger that our students become lazy or over-dependent, expecting us to MAKE THEM into writers? I'd love to hear your views. Thanks - Jo

1. Hello Claire and Jo. I think teaching is simply intelligent discussion of something in front of a group of people, and it helps if the tutor or chair has a bank of reading behind him/her, a sense of humour, and is, generally, well disposed to the human race, or at least such examples as he (me) finds himself with. Also helps if tutor enjoys talking about work, and listening too.

2. It isn't a matter of imparting 'workshop secrets' that will open the doors of whatever kingdom seems desirable at the time, though a technical challenge now and then is good, and personally, I have considerable belief in the notion that constraints can liberate you. As to the canon, I sort of agree with the advice you were given, Claire, though I think natural human curiosity would - and did - drive me to find out what was so good about the 'canon'. And you know what? It was mostly very good. I think that kind of curiosity can't be a bad thing and only having a little of what you immediately fancy could be, well, short sighted.

3.I expect some fiction students do come with expectations of some short cut to success - and in so far as keeping good company for a year or so is valuable, it can certainly remove obstacles a writer might otherwise have taken much longer to surmount. But no, everything CAN'T be formalised, of course not. I tend to tell my poetry students that at the beginning and admit I cannot guide them to fame and fortune. Maybe I can save them time in becoming better poets, and maybe the group as a whole can work towards that end. Laziness and over-dependence will not make a writer: they are enemies of writing. If you are lazy and over-dependent you will probably write lazy and over-dependent poems. No advantage in that. And the trouble with the adage that 'writers are born, not made' is that you cannot know who are the born ones, if they exist, and while one cannot make writers from scratch you can help writers make themselves. Some of my best students were pretty unlikely people to start with. For most of them it wasn't a case of gradus ad parnassum, a steady trek up a slope, but a series of transforming moments at which something was understood at reflex level. Their writing got better suddenly. Then there was a bit of slope that reached a plateau, then another jump. I suspect that is how it goes.

I am abroad for six days at a poetry festival in Romania. I will try to post a few thoughts from there via webmaster Jean, if it is at all possible.


I have a question- do technical aspects of writing, especially in regard to poetry-writing, really need to be taught? (Technical aspects I assume would be things like poetic devices, structure, etcetera, yes?)
I've been writing poems since I was around seven (I'm sixteen now), and have unknowingly used rhyme schemes, similes, metaphors, and even enjambment in my work. I never knew what any of this was till a year back, when I joined school. (I've been homeschooled.)
These things were defined because people saw them in poems, so how does learning them help anyone become a poet? And do you not feel that they come inevitably with the rhythm and flow of poetry, regardless of whether you learn them or not?
I don't believe writers are born writers, certainly, but I do believe that writing, just as all other forms of expression, must come from within- people can teach a language, but not how to use it; you can take the horse to the well, but can not force it to drink.
And about whether poets should read- I don't know if it's avoidable really. To write you must read, and to speak you must listen, isn't it? How much depends on the individual, I suppose. You need to know a certain amount about what you're writing about, both in terms of linguistic and general knowledge. This knowledge, for me, at least, has always come from reading for the greater part. If you find a suitable substitute source -both for information and inspiration- I guess it's all right not to read.

I hope I'm not replying too late =)

Cheers -Khushi

Oh and, if anyone has the time and interest, I blog my poetry at , and would love if I could get some critique.

I hate academics, greedly enslaving the written word as if it only pulls to the commands of their unruly lease...George is right, poetry and talent for writing is all around and
often overlooked. Death to the critic whom looks upon these things like a cyclops. One should never overlook the graffiti on the wall.

Khushi - I don't think teaching is necessarily a matter of imparting information. A good teacher's job is to help students hear rather than to prescribe. In music, students learn a specific musical notation and modality, in art they learn to handle certain tools and to convey likeness, form and space. In other words there is in both cases a language and its usage. Poetry isn't quite like that because we use the language all the time. We don't have to teach it from scratch. But poetry is a special form of language. As with music, we can hear it; as with art, we can see it. What we can learn is scale and difference. Most teaching is simply intelligent conversation led by someone who has experience of how such conversations might work and with the ability, himself or herself, to listen and to care for what is being said by others. The rest is down to the individual - the desire, the perception, the imagination. I have nothing against academics at all 'unknown'. Poets can be academics and academics can be poets, but it is hard to be a poet and academic at once.

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