What not to do in Poetry Class


Why do I take these risks? I forget that the stakes are quite high in these places and that it matters, or at least it does to me, how I feel when I go out the door.

I’m talking about my new poetry class. Such a treat. What could possibly go wrong?

The tutor is a woman, a poet, who I respect deeply. The class is relatively local, the cost is reasonable, minimal preparation was required.

All I had to do was bring in a poem that I like, read it to my classmates and talk about it.

My first thought was Will Kemp’s Moons and Cricket Balls which was published in a recent edition of Ambit magazine. It’s an absolutely lovely poem, accessible, but mysterious, a pleasure to read and say. Why didn’t I just stick with that?

But, no, I had to read Kim Hyesoon’s this night. I don’t dare to reproduce any of it here given the response it provoked.

Winding back a minute, Kim Hyesoon is the poet I saw read at Parnassus (part of the cultural olympiad that ran alongside the Olympics) in London’s Royal Festival Hall. Also on the bill were Seamus Heaney, Kay Ryan and Bill Manhire. She was among the greats.

At the time I commented that she looked like Edna from The Incredibles. Maybe this was her revenge.

When I heard her poetry I found it viscerally exciting. I mean I really felt it in my guts. I had to buy her book. She responds to the world with total freedom, it seems to me, a kind of freedom that I have rarely, if ever, encountered in any other writer.

When I read more of her work I was even more excited. This is a woman who owns her body. She’s not afraid to discuss any aspect of her body, or any woman’s, or ANY of the things that happen to women’s bodies.

I’m really grateful for that.

So I took both poems to class. In a brief discussion with my tutor, she was keen for me to read the Korean poet and teacher’s work, although she didn’t know her work.

I got six lines in and my tutor put her hand up and said, ‘Stop. Please stop. I can’t take any more.’

The rest of the class said it made them feel ill.

I haven’t been able to tell anyone about this without laughing hysterically (I use the word advisedly) to the point of incoherence.

My tutor said it’s great that I read what I read because it allowed a valuable discussion of boundaries. I can’t really remember any discussion of boundaries. People said that they felt poetry ought to offer some kind of light, that the work couldn’t be totally dark.

People – kind people – tried to find symbolism in the work. They hoped she was writing in the censored North (she’s not). (But I appreciated their kindness which redeemed the experience for me quite a lot.)

They did not value her freedom in the way I do. I was alone in that.

My tutor then made me read the Will Kemp and said that it was a safer choice.

For me, what this exposes is that I am at odds with the group (it could be any group) and not for the first time. I try not to believe this. People who think they’re different and special (therefore) are just annoying.

I’m trying my hardest to be normal. Honest.

It also exposes the issues of decorum and sensibility in poetry which people often think is a medium in which anything goes. On the diploma course that I’ve just finished I watched some of my classmates struggle with the poetry strand.

Some wanted to write traditional verse, complete with archaisms (doth, thee, thy),  which is deeply frowned upon. You better be a Keats or a Shakespeare if you’re going to compete with them, seems to be the general view. And, as contemporary poets, we should use our own language, not hark (!) back to some ‘golden age’. That makes sense to me.

Others liked to use words like ‘gossamer’ and ‘shard’ (usually in relation to ‘sunlight’) and ‘rainbows’. These words, and others like them, are said to have become tired and can no longer bear the weight their users are hoping they will.

I did ok in the poetry strands. I got the sensibility and wanted to work within it. That was lucky for me.

But the lesson I therefore didn’t learn from personal experience is that poetry has rules. I’m not talking about rhythm and rhyme. I’m talking about decorum, a term I encountered in a famous Billy Collins essay. He says every age has its own decorum:

that cultural force which sets down for any given age certain guidelines governing acceptable artistic expression

The current antipathy for traditional verse and the lists of banned words are clearly part of ours.

Sometimes I hear it in my work, this decorum, and it does weary me a bit. The self-consciousness of voice, the measured words and flashy line-breaks. If I manage to execute it, it feels a bit ‘pat’. It’s probably because I’m a beginner and the joins in my work still show. Whatever the reason, it feels compliant and veering towards clever (very distracting, cleverness, can slap you out of a poem).

As to boundaries, if I can argue with my tutor a little, I don’t think it came up much in the discussion. I think I was simply an object lesson in getting it wrong or going too far. I wonder if my tutor hopes it will stop others in the class bringing in questionable work, such as the overly personal or obscene.

I chose the wrong poem. Everyone hated it. I felt bad. I don’t feel bad any more. I just feel a bit worried. I feel like this isn’t the first time I’ve been off the grid.

It’s not the first time the book’s fallen off my head.

ADDENDUM: There’s been some debate about this event on another blog. From the distance of a few months on (January 2013) this was clearly my mistake. I love Kim Hyesoon’s work but for the first class of a new course, a less confrontational text would have been wiser. This was really nothing to do with decorum (although that’s an interesting and real phenomenon) and everything to do with me seeking to justify an embarrassing blunder in a room full of people I didn’t know at all.

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Posted in creativity, criticism, feedback, feminism, life writing, literature, Poetry, reading, women, Writing
9 comments on “What not to do in Poetry Class
  1. Nikki Fine says:

    I don’t think it’s a matter of decorum, it’s just, as with so much relating to poetry, a matter of personal taste. For some people, Kim Hyesoon’s style is not to their personal taste. I workshopped a poem recently which included the n word. The group was split almost exactly in half as to whether I should leave it in or not. It was shocking, it was meant to be shocking, and for some just the suggestion of the word would have created sufficient shock. Personal taste.

  2. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Thanks Nikki. That’s fascinating. I’d love to read the poem.

    I suppose I would have felt more confident about putting it down to personal taste but it was 17 – 1, including our tutor, who is a broad-minded person of varied experience. (I’m sure the rest of the group is too I just don’t know most of them that well.)

  3. Emily says:

    That’s an interesting response from your class. I just read Kim Hyesoon’s “Conservatism of the Rats of Seoul” (the only poem of hers I could find online). ‘Like’ is the wrong word, but I haven’t been affected so strongly by a poem for a while. It will stay with me.

  4. Cathy Dreyer says:

    Thanks Emily. Never thought I’d want to learn Korean quite so badly. 🙂

  5. bigmammafrog says:

    Maybe it’s more about what people find offensive. Whether it’s poetry ,or a joke, if people find the content distasteful then they’re not going to appreciate it in the same way as the person telling it. You might get away with it by calling it “art” , but that’s a whole other discussion…

    Sent from phone

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      Maybe 🙂 Clearly personal taste is involved and I wouldn’t deny that the poem is distasteful. My point is that when the consensus is so completely united (when everyone’s taste and distaste is the same), cultural forces are in play, although 17 is a small sample. However, the reason I don’t dismiss it as a failure of taste is my respect for our tutor. If she’s suggesting, and I think she came close, that the work I selected wasn’t – for her – poetry and/or wasn’t appropriate for her or the class, then that’s a powerful voice in my world and in the world of poetry as I know it.

      Somewhat to my surprise I find that I value the poet’s freedom to such an extent that it cancels out the distastefulness for me.

      I am trying to ask myself what my limit would be and I think it would be child abuse, or abuse generally. I don’t have an intimate knowledge of Hyesoon’s cannon but I don’t think I’ve read anything I’d define as abusive.

  6. But if it resonated with you, it’s a fine poem. At the risk of being uppity or “at odds” with others, I think the experience is more a reflection on the tutor’s limitations. That’s really not a put-down; she has phrasings and rhythms she likes, and clearly the Korean poet’s work fell outside of that.

    Should I recite “The Road Not Taken” now?

    • Cathy Dreyer says:

      My tutor is definitely not limited. She’s fab and a vital force for good in poetry in this country. She didn’t like the subject matter of that poem, the words. That’s absolutely her choice to make. The fact that no one except me liked it is what I wanted to write about and investigate a bit as I found it embarrassing and difficult. The argument I’m making, that culture decides what’s acceptable at a given time, means that everyone in the room that day can be okay, including me. 🙂

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