by Henry Woodland
The film Dead Poets Society isn’t a wellspring of literary insight, but there’s one scene I love. In Robin Williams’s first lesson as an English teacher, he has his students read the introduction to a textbook called Understanding Poetry:
To fully understand poetry, we must first be fluent with its meter, rhyme, and figures of speech, then ask two questions: one, how artfully has the objective of the poem been rendered, and two, how important is that objective. Question one rates the poem’s perfection, question two rates its importance. And once these questions have been answered, determining the poem’s greatness becomes a relatively simple matter.
The author of the textbook asks the reader to draft a graph according to these criteria and plot poems onto its axes. Williams, disgusted, instructs his class to tear out their pages.
I was reminded of this scene recently when reading an essay by the Vietnamese-American poet Ocean Vuong, who is also a professor of the MFA Programme at the University of Massachusetts. Vuong’s essay is delivered through a string of Instagram stories, a form which, though deft and democratic, is perhaps a little on-brand for a popular millennial poet.
Despite its informal delivery, the essay sets out a clear poetic thesis on metaphor and simile. Vuong argues that a ‘good’ metaphor must have (1) ‘a sensory connector between origin image and the conforming image’ and (2) ‘a clear logical connector between both images’. Under this rubric, he praises Sharon Olds’s line ‘the hair on my father’s arms like blades of molasses’ as a triumph: arm hair looks like blades of molasses (sensory), and there is something sharp and sweet in the figure of the father (logical). On the other hand, the uncredited line — ‘the road curved like a cat’s tail’ — doesn’t make the cut: the feline invocation doesn’t add anything to the road (weak logic) and the tail has little optical resemblance to asphalt (weak sense).
I’m troubled by Vuong’s essay for two reasons, the first being that I reject his criteria. While his examples prove that some impactful metaphors track along a sensory-logical taxonomy, isn’t it equally possible for a poet to engage us with a comparison precisely because it defies a sense of order? In Stanley Kunitz’s much-anthologised ‘Father and Son’, the speaker recounts walking through the suburbs: ‘The silence unrolling before me as I came, / The night nailed like an orange to my brow’. There’s a comprehensible shock to the night being ‘nailed’ to a brow, conveying the kind of dense and intense aura one can experience on night outdoors. The orange, though, renders the simile absurd, so that it fails dismally to meet Vuong’s criteria. Why, then, do so many readers return to this line, possessed by its illogical surmise? In part, the attraction must rest on its detachment from logic, and its evocation of how our perception can be coloured with an everyday surrealism. In employing an analogy that must make very little sense to anyone but the speaker, the poem relates how unrelatable our conceptions of the world can be. If the task of poetry is to slash the canvas of the ordinary and allow us to catch a glimpse beyond the knowable, Kunitz’s simile succeeds by communicating something outside of sense and reason.
Later in his essay Vuong states that a function of poetry is to forge connections between ideas, so that ultimately ‘the practice of metaphor is…the practice of compassion’. This is a nice utopian ideal, but it’s also true that poetry can trade in pairing things that don’t go together, to form assemblages that startle us with disharmony. In her poem ‘Essay on what I think about most’, Anne Carson writes that: ‘Metaphors teach the mind // to enjoy error / and to learn / from the juxtaposition of what is and what is not the case’ [emphasis in original]. She points to how poets can find new forms through the association of disparate concepts, a kind of creation through disorder. On this understanding of metaphor as ‘error’, poems are valuable not because they forge compassionate linkages, but because they transgress them.
Part of why this practice of ‘illogical’ analogising appeals to me is because it invites us into a way of conceiving the world that we would not — and could not — have otherwise understood. Michael Earl Craig’s ‘Winter’ describes a trainyard where: ‘One of the trainmen sees the cow and has a thought / like a small grey infant sinking / ever so slowly in the icy harbor’. I’m not sure if the image of the sinking infant is intended to be ‘like’ the thought or the cow, and I’m not sure why the poem’s objects deal in such troubling tones, but I imagine that’s just where Craig wants me. I do know that he charts miserably on Vuong’s axes, and that I remain beguiled by the world he has formed, which deals comfortably in the unexpected.
The second fundamental issue I have with Vuong’s essay is what is said about broader pedagogical trends in creative writing. ‘Apply to UMass!’ he urges towards the beginning of his essay; I imagine many young writers will apply, and so my issues with his rubric are mapped onto wider curricular concerns. If poetry — or at least some poetry — rests on a departure from order, is the imposition of structure through an MFA inimical to its flourishing? If the teaching of creative writing embodies a series of industry standards for the use of poetic techniques, there would seem to be a grave risk of literary homogenisation. This becomes especially concerning in a landscape where such courses have become a rite of passage for young writers. ‘Like everyone else nowadays,’ reads a bio of the poet Sam Riviere, ‘he has an MFA’.
This concern shouldn’t be overplayed. There’s clear evidence that MFA programmes don’t always serve as standardised training-camps, born out in the diverse and valuable work of the many poets associated with them: Kevin Young, Jo Shapcott, Simon Armitage and Vuong himself, to name just a few. Many of these writers speak confidently to the importance of having havens of poetic training, where writers can develop their craft in a community of productive exchange. There will always be a strong guard of autodidacts who form their voice independent of institutional scaffolding, according to their own poetic sensibility — a Peter Porter for every Jericho Brown. Hanif Kureishi’s claim that MFAs are a ‘waste of time’ falls into the same trap as the didactic practice it purports to reject. Developing hard and fast commandments is not helpful. In truth, some writers will benefit from a process of poetic apprenticeship; others won’t.
For those poets that do enrol, it seems preferable that an MFA programme provides criticism on the level of individual expression. This is a process hampered by the imposition of universal criteria. Direct instruction pitched at too high a high level of generality will necessarily induce monotony in writing practices, and a pedagogical course should be charted away from graphs, maps and commandments.
I suspect this is how most taught MFAs work in practice, with a less overbearing instructional bent. I also imagine that the advertising of objective criteria is partly a product of pedagogical insecurity. MFA programmes are in their relative infancy within universities, and David Morley comments that as a discipline, ‘creative writing has been looked upon with intellectual suspicion, or dismissed as a school for amateurism and wildness’. It could be that professors like Vuong feel the need to expound lucid artistic standards in order to establish the credibility of their courses against such scepticism and hostility. Humanities departments have long trodden a path that wavers between pedagogical doctrine and creative expression, a balancing act made more precarious under modern, institutional conditions. In this light, Vuong’s desire to ground his teaching in the stable phraseology of science is understandable.
I remain convinced that teachers should err away from objective requirements and retain a degree of flexibility which avoids fettering their students to a standardised art. The strictures of modern education simply might not allow it. Follow Robin Williams! I want to call out to Vuong, tell your students to tear up their graphs! But he is tucked up far away in a New England brownstone, and knows as well as I do that Williams ends the film unemployed.
HENRY WOODLAND is a graduate student in literature at Oxford University. He works as a roof thatcher.
Art by Kathleen Quaintance