Can a person be taught to be a poet?

by Dawn Potter

Or can she only be taught to appreciate poetry? In other words, are all poets actually self-taught? And are writing workshops essentially useless–either “warm and fuzzy” or “butcher block”?

If you read the exchange here, and can manage to overlook the bad manners, you may find yourself pondering the questions the disputants bring up, questions that I find both tedious and germane. I do get weary of these what’s-the-point-of-an-M.F.A. quarrels, but I also know that nearly all the poetry workshops I’ve attended have been either “warm and fuzzy”–e.g., “This is such a great poem! I love it!,” which is flattering yet unhelpful–or “butcher block,” in which a participant prepares to be publicly humiliated for breaking craft rules, focusing on unfashionable subjects or forms, or not respectfully imitating the teacher’s style. Of course there are variations on these two extremes; of course there is also the personal bond (or lack thereof) between a student and a mentor; of course there are the issues of stage of growth and prior experience.

You can read about approach that Baron and I use at the Frost Place Conference on Poetry and Teaching, which involves neither cuddling nor hatchets. But, in the end, is this method more effective than any other at teaching a writer to be a poet? We work primarily with teachers, who, even if they think of themselves as poets, are for the moment focused on bringing poems to their students. In other words we are trying to teach teachers to be the kind of mentors that we, as young embryo poets, did not have ourselves.

Nonetheless, we grew up to be poets anyway.

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