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I've previously noted Erin O'Connor's link to Canadian poet Tom Henihan's vigorous thrashing of poetry generated out of creative writing programs and workshops. I remarked on those posts chiefly to join those who posit that poets with their feet firmly planted in the day to day trenches of earning a living may have a leg up (if they can get those metaphorical feet unplanted from the goo) on those who soak their poetical toes in the reflecting pools of the academy.

I did not comment on Henihan's suggestion that poetry as such cannot be taught. Aaron Haspel, however, has taken up that very topic, with his usual relish. Aaron asserts -- and you may be sure that I agree! -- that while it may not be possible to learn the many intangibles that contribute to the very best poetry, the practical skills that lead to better poetry are available to all:

Doing original mathematics requires inspiration, creativity, a 'feel' for numbers, all the mysterious qualities that Erin posits for poets; yet no one would dream of saying that teaching calculus to a class of sub-Eulers and sub-Gausses is useless. Why, then, is there no point in teaching poetry to a class of sub-Jonsons and sub-Dickinsons? Poetry is every bit as technical as car repair, and poets, like car mechanics, need to know what they're doing. . . .

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I've never attended a poetry 'workshop,' and I stipulate that they are as ghastly as Henihan says. My poem's OK, your poem's OK. The fact that poetry is often taught badly, however, does not mean it cannot be taught at all. If I had a two-week poetry workshop to teach, I guarantee that I would improve the poetry of everyone in the class. Or your money back, no questions asked.
Whereupon, he generously offers up the student's first three assignments, which are as good a starting point as one could wish for. (They also covertly disclose a bit more about our instructor's tastes, which in these instances favor "metaphysical" poets both distant (Jonson, Donne, Greville) and Modern (Stevens). Students take note: he's tough, but fair.)

By all means, do try this at home.


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