Topics discussed in this episode include:
-Versecraft will be on hiatus in June. See you again in July!
-The wonderful educational resources available to Classical musicians
-The not-so-wonderful educational resources available to poets
-Why MFA programs don't cut it
-If creative writing "can't be taught" then poetic education becomes a joke
-No standards = total subjectivity = no legitimate curricula
-Recieved techniques are optional to use, but they are not optional to learn.
-The "World of Versecraft" program
-David Rothman's book, "Learning the Secrets of English Verse "
-The core five: Independent Study, Classical Languages, English Literature, Poetic Technique, and Literary Criticism/Philosophy
-Why an independent study model is superior to a workshop model
-A defense of teaching Classical languages
-The curriculum at Helicon Conservatory of Poetry
-A call to actionSupport the show
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My favorite poetry podcasts for:
Sharp thoughts and cutting truths (Matthew): Sleerickets
Lovely introspection and sensitive reflection (Alice): Poetry Says
The landscape of Ohioan poetry (Jeremy): Poetry Spotlight
Supported in part by The Ohio Poetry Association
Art by David Anthony Klug
List of the most common metrical feet:
Iamb: weak-STRONG (u /)
Trochee: STRONG-weak (/ u)
Anapest: weak-weak-STRONG (u u /)
Amphibrach: weak-STRONG-weak (u / u)
Dactyl: STRONG-weak-weak (/ u u)
Cretic: STRONG-weak-STRONG (/ u /)
Pyrrhic: weak-weak (u u)
Spondee: STRONG-STRONG (/ /)
Versecraft: The Idea Of A Poetry Conservatory
Hey everyone, before I begin today, I’d just like to remind you all that this is the last episode before Versecraft’s June hiatus, but that the show will start up once again in July. In the meantime, you can use this opportunity to catch up on episodes you haven’t listened to, listen to the other great podcasts I recommend in my show notes, or focus time on writing your own poems. The possibilities are limitless.
I’d also like to give a shout out to my childhood piano teacher Christine, who was kind enough to make a donation to the show this week. Thank you so much, and I hope you continue to enjoy! For all of my other listeners, if you like this episode or are otherwise interested in supporting the show, please check out the link in my show-notes where you can very easily become a member of the show or leave a one-time tip. Otherwise, please try and take an opportunity this week to reach out and tell someone you know about the show. Thank you so much.
Allow me to begin this episode by painting a picture for you. Imagine you have a daughter who demonstrates great promise at playing the cello, and who is furthermore deeply passionate about her instrument. Though she still has to learn the fundamental academic subjects in school—math, science, history, and English— you devote much time and hard-earned money to ensure that she is able to develop her musical skills outside of school, and later, you help her apply to a fine arts high school that has a serious and competitive orchestra. While in this orchestra, she wins prizes, competitions, and distinction. Naturally, by the time she starts thinking about college, she wants to go somewhere that will give her the rigorous training, education, and connections she needs to succeed as a professional cellist. “Wonderful!” you say. Here’s where you should apply: The Julliard School, The Manhattan School of Music, the New England Conservatory, the Peabody Institute, and the Berklee College of Music, to name a few.
At any of these excellent and well-funded institutions, your daughter would likely receive a deep and comprehensive four-year education in Classical musicology, ear training, music theory, and piano, to say nothing of private cello lessons with master instructors, concert experience both solo and in ensembles, and a generous smattering of electives and seminars. By the time she graduates such a program, she is guaranteed to leave with a highly developed set of skills, skills which have not only made her an immeasurably superior practitioner of her craft than she was before, but a master of the tradition in which she is working.
Needless to say, nothing equivalent to this exists in the realm of poetry. Nothing. Not on the college level, and certainly not on the high school level. This is baffling, considering that poetry, at least historically speaking, is an art form of arguably even greater cultural importance than Classical music. Consider the formative impact of Homer, Virgil, Shakespeare, Dante, Moliere, Goethe, Mickiewicz, Pushkin, or T.S. Eliot on the psyches of their respective peoples. If we look further to Persia, China, and Japan, we find that poetry occupies an even more exalted pride of place as the undisputed queen of the arts. Why then is poetry consistently treated with the least amount of seriousness as an art form? You might point out that poetry, especially poetry in the classical sense, doesn’t have nearly the sway that it used to, and you’d be right; but neither does Classical music, and yet we still treat that tradition with the reverence, rigor, and sometimes even the funding that it deserves. Why not poetry? That is the question.
Before we go any further, I’d like to state for the record that I’m aware of the fact that undergraduate and graduate programs in creative writing exist all over the world. I myself am a graduate of an MFA program. But this is not at all what I’m talking about. For one thing, four-year undergraduate programs in creative writing are merely majors or even concentrations in a larger university education, not stand-alone academies in themselves. For another, apart from some rare exceptions, the pedagogy of both undergraduate and graduate programs in creative writing is woefully inconsistent and unsystematic, and has very little to do with developing measurable skills and thorough knowledge of one’s craft. The typical poetry MFA consists of two kinds of classes.
Firstly, there are workshops, where, typically, students and teachers who lack a common standard spitball their subjective impressions about one another’s poems with no goal in mind other than to make other people’s poems conform to their own vague, unsubstantiated feelings of what a poem should be, and who are furthermore often dissuaded from making any serious critiques by the social dynamics of the classroom environment. I remember in my first semester at my program— a highly regarded program, by the way— I entered the workshop with my critical guns mildly blazing, and was soon informed, by private phone call with my professor, that I would do well to keep my more caustic opinions to myself, for the sake of maintaining a friendly atmosphere. Point taken, but I soon realized that this was not an atmosphere dedicated to improving one’s poetry. I found myself paying tuition for the verbal equivalent of a massage circle, with the occasional firm knuckle rub for variety.
Secondly, there are seminars on various poetic topics, which can often be informative and constructive, but are also so hyper-specific that whether or not they are fruitful for any given student is largely a matter of chance, and furthermore, regardless of how instructive they are, an education which consists of them will necessarily be fragmentary and incohesive.
Students do usually emerge from creative writing programs better writers than they began, but I believe this has more to do with the copious amount of reading and writing they have undertaken and personal one-on-one time with professors and peers than it does with the actual classes they have taken. Even in the best of circumstances, such a program is a very far cry from the systematic and comprehensive structure of a conservatory education.
The question of why creative writing programs are the way they are and why poetry conservatories don’t exist can be answered in more or less in the same way. The horrific fact of the matter is that many people don’t actually believe that creative writing is a skill that can be taught. American children spend years in humanities classes learning how to write coherent sentences and make persuasive arguments, and everyone agrees that learning how to write well is not only possible but necessary. When it comes to creative writing however, people’s eyes glaze over, and they declare it a mysterious talent that cannot be taught. Refined, perhaps. Guided, perhaps. But ultimately, goes the argument, one is either born a writer or not, and the best instruction a talented writer can receive consists mainly of suggestions, prompts, and vague maxims, and only the sort of critiques which encourage the writer to further develop what is mystically referred to as their “voice,” and learn to express themselves in increasingly confident ways. The teacher is not an instructor so much as a kind of doula, a figure whose purpose is to facilitate the birth of the student’s genius. It is all very superstitious, and anyone who is not soused on their own egos and the Romantic haze of being an artist will quickly come to see that this is no way to teach what is an actual discipline, an actual set of skills. People are so titillated by the idea that creative art requires inspiration that they forget that it requires hard-earned competency too. As Brahms once said, “without craftsmanship, inspiration is a mere reed shaken in the wind.”
This Romantic mystification is strengthened by the fact that the very idea that poetry requires a definite and distinct set of skills is an alien one to the majority of people in our time. At this stage of history, most people have been raised to view free verse as the default method of poetic composition, and taught to believe that the art form is beholden to no standards or strictures at all.
Now, in a discipline where there is no belief in a standard of formal mastery, a belief in objective value swiftly goes out the window too. After all, if one asserts that there is no correct or best way to say something, this implies that what is being said at all is arbitrary. To devalue the means of expression is to devalue what is being expressed, for the abandonment of the first implies the triviality of the second. If I am trying to communicate something to you, and I do it in whichever way is most easy, interesting, and fun for me, without giving thought to how I can make my language as clear, precise, and impactful as possible, then I clearly don’t believe what I’m saying is all that important—what is evidently far more important to me is the pleasure I take in saying it. An objective value, the value of the statement in itself, has been replaced by a subjective one, the value of my feeling about it. Because the poem has become merely an occasion for feeling, and because there are no formal standards in place, the only way I will be able to measurably improve the poem is to find ways to take more and more pleasure out of it. Others may have their own opinions about how to make the poem more pleasurable, but ultimately, these opinions are as arbitrary as my own, and I have no reason to listen to them if they do not suit me. When personal feeling rules, when every student is their own master, there is indeed nothing to teach. All we can do is voice our preferences to one another and see if they stick. Such is the awkward and wheel-spinning situation of the typical MFA writing workshop. Can you imagine if music education worked like this? Can you imagine how our orchestras and concert pianists would sound after a couple generations of this? It is disturbing to contemplate.
For those poets who do primarily wish to create works of enduring value, and who therefore wish to gain as many skills and as much knowledge of their craft as possible, there are precious few resources which can offer them what they need. I have argued in previous episodes that poets serious about producing the most powerful work possible must learn how to harness all the resources of their language, which almost always requires learning how to use some form of meter, as well as other verbal and literary techniques. Nearly nowhere however are these necessary techniques required for a poet’s education, and even where they are, the instruction is far from comprehensive.
Now let me be very clear on this point: I am not saying that poets are obligated to always use particular techniques when they write. This would be an intolerantly dogmatic and unrealistic demand. What I am saying is that poets, if they are serious about producing the best work they can, are obligated to learn and master the techniques which have been developed over hundreds of years to ideally suit their medium, their language, and if they are attempting to create the richest work possible, they will almost certainly use meter more frequently than not. Regardless of whether poets end up using meter or other techniques consistently however, a knowledge of meter and traditional poetic technique can only improve a poet’s art, not only by giving them the opportunity to use these powerful tools if they like, but also by teaching them more generally how to use their basic materials: diction, rhythm, stanza, imagery, argument, form, etc.
At the moment however, the poet who would receive a rigorous and comprehensive foundation in their art form, learn the skills and receive the invaluable benefits which come from mastering time honed techniques, has no adequate educational option. As recently as the 2010s, there was such an option. At Western State Colorado University, Professor David Rothman put together an MFA program called, coincidentally enough, “The World of Versecraft,” a program conceived as a thorough education in the meters, forms, and poetic genres of the English tradition, supplemented by courses in the history of English language and poetry, criticism, public speaking, and more. The program, sadly, no longer exists, and no comparable program has sprung up to replace it. Luckily, David has just come out with a textbook which serves as a crystallization of the formal elements of the “World of Versecraft” education, entitled “Learning the Secrets of English Verse,” which you can find at my link in the show notes.
Building on David’s ideas, I’d like to use the remainder of this episode to sketch out my own conception of what a Poetry Conservatory education might look like, that it might be a rallying cry for future efforts to provide a decent education to the next generations of poets. As David readily acknowledges, two years of an MFA program is not nearly enough to fully develop the skills necessary for poetic mastery, and the school I have in mind would be a true conservatory education, not a two-year but a four-year program that an undergraduate might attend just as they might attend Julliard or Berklee.
Before I begin, let me state at the outset that the following program is designed for poets writing in English. As English is a European language, the program necessarily emphasizes the education, conservation, and continuation of the European poetic tradition. This is not to at all to say however that one could not found an equally top-notch conservatory founded on the history and aesthetics of other languages across the globe. Just as a conservatory of European Classical music does not preclude or discourage the existence of a conservatory for Jazz, or Flamenco, or Hindustani music, so too the existence of a Poetry Conservatory focused on the English accentual-syllabic tradition is not a statement of superiority to any other rich, beautiful, and sophisticated poetic tradition. As all conservatories are, it is a stand merely against ignorance, incompetence, and mediocrity in the arts, and a bastion for preserving one of the beautiful traditions which enriches human life.
I envision this conservatory as structured on the American five classes per semester model, roughly equivalent to between 15 and 18 credit hours. The backbone of the curriculum would consist of five kinds of courses: courses in poetic technique, courses in English literature, courses in artistic philosophy and literary criticism, independent study apprenticeships, and courses in Classical languages. Of these core class types, the latter two may require additional explanation.
Independent study apprenticeships are the primary opportunity for the student to develop their work and poetic practice, and are the superior alternative to workshops. Working closely one-on-one with a rotating cast of professors each semester, the student will write poetry, receive in-depth, personalized, private feedback from their knowledgeable mentors, and revise their work based on this feedback. The student will also work with their professors to develop a reading list which best suits their interests and goals. Not only does this process allow for a much deeper, more thoughtful, more fruitful, and specifically useful relationship between student and teacher than the workshop environment, and allows for the student to fill in any educational gaps missing from their other classes, but it avoids the distracting social dynamics and spontaneous, impressionistic, peanut gallery chatter that the workshop model encourages. As someone who has been through both workshop and independent study experiences, I can testify that the latter are infinitely more useful. Far and away the best part of my MFA program, and the justification for its reputation, was its emphasis on this mode of education.
In advocating for a four-year education in Latin and Greek, I am calling back to a very old-school vision of humanist curriculum which was the bedrock of English education for about 500 years, dying out completely only in the mid-twentieth century. Some of you may raise your eyebrows at the idea of requiring the careful study of two dead languages as part of an English poetry curriculum, but the fact is that educators have long recognized the treasure trove of benefits that learning Classical languages offers to the intellectual mind, to say nothing of the poetic mind.
To begin with, it should be obvious enough that a person whose artistic medium is a particular language should learn as much about the nature, mechanics, and possibilities of language as possible, and this is powerfully accomplished by learning new languages which contrast with one’s own. In the process of learning a language, one trains oneself to examine language itself with a new focus and attentiveness that one is apt to gloss over in one’s native tongue. The mental discipline required to learn a language overlaps significantly with the mental discipline required to be a good poet: one must develop concentration, memorization skills, attention to detail, and conceptual analysis, and, when it comes to translation, imagination, mastery of one’s native tongue, and good judgement.
Though it is possible for the study of any foreign language to hone these abilities, Latin and Greek are especially suited for this task due to their grammatical and syntactical sophistication and difficulty, as well their distance from the mechanics of English. Even here, however, one might say that studying Japanese, Arabic, or Hungarian would offer similar benefits. When we begin to look at the specific benefits offered to an English speaker in the European arts tradition however, Latin and Greek utterly crush their competitors. To begin with, over half the vocabulary of English comes from Latin or Greek roots, so a knowledge of these languages instantly enriches one’s grasp of English vocabulary. Secondly, and most importantly, knowledge of classical languages opens one up to direct contact with many of most formative, influential, and artistically great writings in European literature: Homer and Sophocles, Plato and Aristotle, Sappho and Pindar, the New Testament, Cicero and Seneca, Virgil and Ovid, Livy and Tacitus, to say nothing of all the philosophy and a great portion of the literature from the Middle Ages and early Renaissance. Through exposure to reading and translating these writers, one develops not only a razor-sharp grasp of language and rhetoric, but a profound acquaintance with the history and ideas of what is broadly called the Western tradition, the soil out of which English poetry sprouted.
For poets in particular, Latin and Greek have yet another benefit, namely, they allow one to gain a deeper understanding of meter and prosody. Even though English verse is accentual-syllabic, while Latin and Greek verse is quantitative, we have borrowed almost our entire prosodic vocabulary from Greek and Latin poetics, and to learn these poetics, to hear them, read them, analyze them, translate them, is to gain a more refined and technical appreciation for how rhythms work in English poetry.
It is for these reasons that I say that for those who would be the masters of the English poetic tradition, a foundation in Latin and Greek is essential. It is probably the greatest regret of my own life that I didn’t study these languages when I was younger—I feel it as a profound loss. I would like the new generations to learn from my mistake.
To begin with then, in the first semester at, let’s call it the Helicon Conservatory of Poetry, one would take five courses: an independent study apprenticeship, Latin 101, Medieval poetry, Pre-Modern philosophy of art and criticism, and an introduction to meter, which would cover Anglo Saxon accentual-alliterative meter, Classical quantitative meter, Biblical syntactical meter, Syllabic meter, and English accentual-syllabic meter, as well as writing exercises in English to go with each of these techniques. Writers would begin learning to write accentual-syllabic meter by focusing at first on iambic, trochaic, and anapestic trimeter and tetrameter.
In semester two at Helicon, the student would continue their independent study with a different professor, and take courses in Latin 102, Renaissance poetry, 18th and 19th century philosophy of art and criticism, and continue their study of meter by focusing exclusively on stichic iambic pentameter in blank verse.
In semester three, independent study would continue with another professor, and the student would take Latin 201, Baroque and Neoclassical poetry, 20th century philosophy of art and literary criticism, and a course in stanza forms, where they would learn to master composing in couplets, tercets, quatrains, and other stanzas like terza rima, ottava rima, and dizains.
In semester four, independent study would continue, and the student would take Latin 202, Romantic poetry, contemporary philosophy and literary criticism, and a course in lyric forms such as the sonnet, villanelle, triolet, etc.
In semester five, independent study would continue, and the student would take Greek 101, mid to late 19th century European and American poetry, a course on the poetry of Persia and India, and a course on lyric genres such as elegy, ode, epistle, and epigram.
In semester six, independent study would continue, and the student would take Greek 102, modernist poetry, a course on the poetry of China and Japan, and a course on writing verse drama.
In semester seven, independent study would continue, and the student would take Greek 201, post-war 20th century poetry, a course in translation, and a course on writing epic poetry.
In the final semester, independent study would continue, and the student would take Greek 202, contemporary poetry, a course on writing book reviews, and a course on how to be a professional poet.
To my mind, this is what an actually satisfactory education in poetry would look like. I know it’s wildly ambitious, quixotic even, but if we could find a way to even roughly approximate this sort of curriculum in the real world, it would provide an invaluable resource to the bright young poets of future generations. My hope is that by putting this episode out into the world, it will bring us one step closer to finding the wealthy patrons who could make such a dream a reality. I implore all of you: send this episode out to all of your well-off, art-loving friends, and see if they would have any interest in contributing toward the creation of such a school, and if they do, please have them email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you have passion for this project and logistical business acumen, reach out to me, and let’s form a committee. It may take five years. It may take ten years. Or twenty. But I hope that someday, this proposal reaches the ears of enough people, or the right people, and it could become a viable option.
If one of our primary goals on this earth is to provide a better life for the humans that come after us, that must extend to all domains—not only to the environment, or politics, or social relations, but to the domain of culture, and the arts are at the heart of culture. By establishing institutions that promote excellence in the arts, we are ensuring the preservation and further creation of the most beautiful and profound works of which the human mind is possible, works which enable us to better understand ourselves, our place in the cosmos, and the meaning of our lives. To realize this dream would be to truly put more good verse in the universe, and, by extension, more good thoughts in the minds of humankind.