Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Notes on Writers and the Teaching of Writing, I.


Those of us who've been formally trained as writers, who've been the beneficiaries of writing workshops taught by respected practitioners who discuss issues of craft line by line, syllable by syllable, often have to witness or tolerate naive notions about writing and the teaching of writing; such naivete is a constant emanation from colleagues in the teaching ranks or from administrators or even from students who "profess" to know what works best to help students become better writers.

But that last word, writers, is a major irritation because of its broad umbrella, for those of us who've spent a large part of our student and adult years actually working at becoming writers--to the point of publishing, winning awards, and/or accepting visiting or tenured positions as writers in academe--are quite different than the majority of students and composition instructors whose formal coursework didn't help them become writers who publish or win acclaim as poets, fiction writers, or non-fiction writers.

The vast majority of composition instructors aren't trained as writers per se; rather, they are trained either as literary theorists/historians/critics or as teachers of composition (they take courses mainly in composition pedagogy and theory: they learn certain protocols or methods to utilize in a classroom, such as peer-editing, holistic grading, computer-assisted instruction, journal writing or "free" writing exercises, and other non-craft-oriented teaching methods and theories). True, they do write papers, but so do students in sociology, history, and math classes. To use an analogy, music appreciation or art history instructors are trained in specific histories or theories that correspond to various musical pieces or artworks or composers/artists, but they aren't trained to become creators of music or art. But when educational institutions look for faculty to teach piano or 2-D/3-D art classes, they don't look for music appreciation or art history degree holders; rather, they look for well-educated practitioners who've dedicated years to learning their respective crafts. In short, they look for people who can do and teach.

In fact, English departments rarely require composition applicants to even demonstrate their writing skills, let alone require in-depth training as writers. For most faculty members on hiring committees, the only document they look at to determine if one has some facility with written discourse is the dreaded letter of application--not the best piece of evidence when one considers how such letters must address various job announcement criteria, and I wouldn't be surprised if some composition applicants seek out the help of professional resume writers and services to help them fine tune such documents.

As a result, teachers of composition often aren't publishing, award-winning practitioners in any genre, yet they supposedly can teach writing despite their relative lack of training as craftspeople. No wonder some institutions rely on group portfolio programs, holistic grading, and "norming" sessions for their composition faculty--which is quite unheard of among those who teach creative writing workshops: I've yet to come across a well-trained, publishing poet or fiction writer who says he or she needs norming because he or she has doubts about "standards" or "learning outcomes" or "craft concerns." How absurd! I can't imagine Phil Levine or Pete Everwine or Mike Ryan or Terry Hummer or Jim McMichael or Ken Fields or Cynthia Huntington or Simone DiPiero or the late Denise Levertov saying to themselves, "Gee, I don't know what to say about this piece of writing--I should ask my colleagues for help!" Of course,
I wouldn't expect them to hold the same opinions about different pieces of literature, for art by necessity constantly evolves; to paraphrase Terry Hummer, purity in art simply doesn't exist: all art is impure. Writing, like painting and music, is not a hard science, yet the communal need for "norming" sessions among some composition teachers illustrates a definite communal lack of expertise. And that lack does not bode well for composition students.

When we use the term writer, we should delineate between academic, non-publishing, temporary "writers" found in most classrooms (most students and, sadly, many teachers fall into this group) as opposed to writers like William Carlos Williams or Octavio Paz or Cynthia Ozick; the former as a group generally writes for a grade or a position and often does so in a rather hurried, mechanical manner, whereas the latter and their peers, past and present, write for eternity--and eternity is the harshest of critics and isn't pressed for time.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station": Word Choices, Sounds, and Silences

Filling Station

Oh, but it is dirty!
--this little filling station,
oil-soaked, oil-permeated
to a disturbing, over-all
black translucency.
Be careful with that match!

Father wears a dirty,
oil-soaked monkey suit
that cuts him under the arms,
and several quick and saucy
and greasy sons assist him
(it's a family filling station),
all quite thoroughly dirty.

Do they live in the station?
It has a cement porch
behind the pumps, and on it
a set of crushed and grease-
impregnated wickerwork;
on the wicker sofa
a dirty dog, quite comfy.

Some comic books provide
the only note of color--
of certain color. They lie
upon a big dim doily
draping a taboret
(part of the set), beside
a big hirsute begonia.

Why the extraneous plant?
Why the taboret?
Why, oh why, the doily?
(Embroidered in daisy stitch
with marguerites, I think,
and heavy with gray crochet.)

Somebody embroidered the doily.
Somebody waters the plant,
or oils it, maybe. Somebody
arranges the rows of cans
so that they softly say:
to high-strung automobiles.
Somebody loves us all.

--Elizabeth Bishop, The Complete Poems: 1927-1979

I've always been struck by Bishop's craft expertise in her work, and "Filling Station" typifies her attention to not only what a poem means but how a poem means something.

For instance, most of us would probably not begin a poem with the exclamation "Oh": Bad poems often start with such ohs that signal to the reader the speaker's emotional and possibly spiritual state: "I'm in a state of rare sensitivity; I've reached the sublime and I want you to be ready for my oracular exhortations." But Bishop's use of "Oh" is quite the contrary: the speaker is a snob whose initial reaction to the scene at hand is one of disgust. Consequently, Bishop's word choice from the very first phoneme is an apt one. And, luckily for the poem and for us, the term "filling station" was a commonplace during Bishop's and even during my childhood; "gas station" wouldn't have the same effect that "filling station" can and will have in the poem. (And I'm old enough to remember that Exxon was once Esso: the penultimate trope in the last stanza wouldn't have the same soothing effect with the term Exxon.)

And I love how Bishop repeats various sounds for evocative reinforcement of the speaker's experience: Oh, oil-soaked, oil-permeated, and over-all echo the first utterance so that when a reader actually reads aloud the poem, the vowels harp upon each other just as popular songs dig into a listener's cognitive awareness that can't literally be defined but can be mouthed over and over. Music has that effect: certain vibrations in the air hit the eardrums and work their magic. (Was it William Carlos Williams who said that prose is written to be read whereas poetry is written to be heard?)

Such repetitions of words and sounds seamlessly work throughout the poem, and Bishop also utilizes modifiers in a masterly manner. For example, in addition to the hyphenated adjectives, she expertly inserts adjectives that some MFA graduates would never do (a certain "school" in the Midwest comes to my mind): the sons are "quick," "saucy," and "greasy"; the station is "quite thoroughly" dirty; the wickerwork is "crushed" and "grease-impregnated"; the doily is "big" and "dim"; the begonia (one of my favorite plant names) is "big" and "hirsute"; the automobiles are "high-strung." One might associate such adjective usage with Southern poets like Robert Penn Warren and James Dickey, but, in fact, Bishop's contemporaries were not shy of modifiers: Robert Lowell's For the Union Dead and John Berryman's Dream Songs have a multitude of modifiers that, if deleted, would be similar to taking out certain notes in Muddy Waters' music or limiting Georgia O'Keefe's palette to just blues and greens. Does this mean one should go adjective and adverb crazy? Of course not, but Bishop's craft awareness illustrates what's possible when one uses great care when writing and revising one's work.

And another craft element that's noticeable in Bishop's poetry is her awareness of the length of her utterances and where the pauses, the silences, occur. Look at the third stanza: She starts with a heavily end-stopped line; the second line has a natural caesura at the end; the third line has a medial caesura but ends with a run-on which lends a greater emphasis to the beginning of the fourth line; within the fourth line, a ever so soft caesura occurs after "crushed" and then the line utilizes enjambment like the previous one; the fifth line is heavily end-stopped; the sixth line is enjambed; the seventh line, like the third line, has a medial caesura. Bishop's utterances combine repetition and variation, the corrective push and pull of well-crafted lines; as Donald Hall notes, such tension is similar to what corrects one's teeth: "Damn braces."

Craft in the hands of someone like Bishop can make us all the more appreciative of what's possible when one hammers away until the result shimmers and eternally breathes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Proposition 8 and Constitutional and Historical Awareness

Months of the year have unique historical or emotional associations for some of us. For example, ever since I was an elementary school student, August is the month that forever mushrooms over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. As a young boy in Fresno, I would connect such incredible, world-ending heat to the wilting August temperatures outside our swamp-cooled house on Poppy Street. Of course, no amount of my imaginative powers could ever come close to the reality that hundreds of thousands of Japanese experienced on and--for those who survived the blasts--after those two infamous days in August 1945. History often has that effect: Our human brains strive to make connections to what can seem almost as abstract and as memorable as a Pablo Picasso painting.

Today is one of those days in history that will be added to my August consciousness: A federal court judge struck down California's Proposition 8 as unconstitutional.

Some might ask, "Why is this ruling so important to you, especially if you're not gay?"

I'm a believer in the Constitution of the United States and in The Bill of Rights, and I've always considered the Fourteenth Amendment and its "Equal Protection Clause" as crucial for people who are not members of "the majority." We have a history of the majority wanting to place restrictions on various minority groups; for instance, at one time we permitted slavery and we denied women the right to vote. And just because we have a U.S. Supreme Court doesn't mean inequalities can be quickly ended; past Supreme Court decisions led to various "Jim Crow" laws that manifested the so-called "separate but equal" mentality that I'm certain some people still crave (the Tea Party's mantra, "Give us back our country," strikes me as dangerously nostalgic for what were ugly times for people not in the majority). The 1954 Brown v. The Board of Education Supreme Court ruling still bothers some who don't want their children to attend integrated schools, and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia Supreme Court ruling, which put an end to anti-miscegenation laws, must still bother those who think that whites should not marry blacks for whatever sad, ill-conceived reasons.

And such people who don't like interracial marriages, integrated schools, or homosexual marriages have every right to hold such views, but today's ruling reinforces what we all must remember: Constitutional rights can never to be denied simply because a majority of voters deem them as deniable.

The United States of America was and still is an ideal on paper that with the passage of time struggles to become a reality, and today's decision is just one more step toward that reality.