Many years ago I wrote a poem dedicated to one of my teachers that ended with the lines “Still I seem to need so much teaching/ still I am so unteachable.” Besides giving the poem as a small gift, I haven’t done anything else with it except, I hope, build on whatever skill I had at the time I wrote it.
Since that time, I suspect the sentiment of these lines has stayed true, though I have come under the eye of many more teachers in the intervening years. I’ve been thinking a great deal about my choice to study poetry: I was initially resistant to undertaking an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) degree in writing because I too questioned the degree to which creative disciplines could be taught. Having acted as both student and teacher, I have come over the course of many years to believe that, in fact, a great deal can be taught—and that at the same time what is “so unteachable” is a certain wildness that is perhaps what I most seek out when I look for new poets to read.
And despite this notion that, at the core of it all, there is something that can’t be taught, can’t be learned, the truth is that I have learned an incredible amount from both formal and informal relationships with more experienced poets—as well as from younger poets, friends and peers, from students, and of course from books.
I first realised how much I needed teaching when I gave my first attempt at blank verse to my first teacher, poet Chris Wallace-Crabbe. He had been very encouraging with the poems I had shown him previously. When he gave me back this one the only words written on it were “Flat as a pancake.” No comment on the fact that I was writing in a formal metre, or any other elements—because, in reality, there was no reason to comment on these things. What I had given him was a failed poem, and though I was proud for having tortured language into an iambic flow, all that hard work had killed off whatever was special in the poem. Perhaps if I had never been taught anything else that single line of feedback would have been enough: I think it is still the most significant I have ever received.
It was this feedback, which stung my eighteen-year-old self greatly, that made me realise how much work is involved in poetry. That maybe after I’d written another one or two hundred iambic lines I would find a good one; that after I’d experiment with another one or two hundred caesuras I would be able to see the ways in which a pause best enhances the line.
I was told a story by another friend and mentor about her own early days writing poetry, relating one of the first times she read her poetry to an audience. Afterward, amid the congratulations, someone said to her, “You are good, but you need to write another hundred poems.” Though this was a lesson received second-hand, it’s another I have come back to. Several years ago I took trapeze lessons, and one of my teachers told me that he was only ever allowed to perform a trick without the harness after he had performed it perfectly over a hundred times. All those studies on the passage from novice status to something like expertise are right. There are things that can be taught (such as how to recognise when your work is flat as a pancake) and other things that can’t be—such as the grit to recognise that a poem is a failure, and the next ten, or one hundred, may well be failures too, but to keep working anyway. That when you’ve worked so hard on a poem that the seams are showing, that you need to work as hard again to make the thing seamless.
One of my teachers, too, gave me the single most freeing piece of advice I have ever received: when Laura Kasischke said to our class “Trust your obsessions,” a great fog of anxiety cleared for me. Again she reminded me that not every poem written out of obsession will work, but that an obsession takes hold of a writer who has something she needs to find in the midst of its subject—that obsession is personal, as personal as the biographies of confessional poets in their poems. For me, an Australian poet working for some reason on a long poem about an American river, the words gave me permission to breathe. This wasn’t an arbitrary “project,” but a landscape and story that had taken hold of me, and the best way to serve it was to listen to the frenzied voice that had me read National Park brochures and government water treaties and historical accounts of river runners in search of pieces of the puzzle that would become my poem. Even now, as the poem is still “becoming,” I say those words to myself almost daily.
At the same time that I have been lucky in these personal relationships, though, my greatest teachers have always been the books on my shelf. I learned more from reading the Norton Anthology of Poetry intensively over the course of three weeks than I have in any classroom, more from The Vintage Book of Contemporary World Poetry than from any poetic treatise. When I read the Paris Review interviews, which I have written about before, I always feel that any insight a subject gives has been spoken directly to me. And, too, when I read books, anthologies, interviews, I always ask questions and argue back. It’s that conversation that can span centuries and continents to which I always return.