Recently during a Q&A session, I was holding forth to a room full of students on the Myth of Feelings—that feelings were the prime mover of a poem, and that every element of a poem took a back seat to them. I declared that a well-placed comma could do as much, or more, for a poem than feelings, because the reader derives his/her feelings from the symbols arranged on the page.
A young woman sporting a futuristic haircut raised her hand. “Who says we have to know how to use a comma?”
“Well…” I scoffed, “being a poet and not knowing how to use punctuation is like being a painter but being, like, ‘Fuck color.’ It’s one of our most important tools. It sets the pace of a poem. It shows the reader what your characters are thinking. It…shows that you know what you’re doing as a writer.”
“Yeah, but who says?”
I was stumped, then I got it: who was I to tell her that she needed to know how to use a comma? Certainly, there had been master poets throughout the ages who had never given two shits about it.
“You never need to know how to use a comma if you don’t want to. Writing is like cooking. You can cook food any way you want. You can leave tuna fish out in the sun for a week and call it casserole…”
“But who’s gonna eat it?” a voice shouted from the back row, finishing my sentence.
Now having mulled over my answer, I'm pretty sure I came off like a bitchy old fuddy-duddy. The question warranted a more respectful exploration because she really didn’t know the answer. And she’s not the only one. If you’ve ever encountered students in poetry writing classes who haven’t mastered basic skills, then you’ve encountered students in poetry writing classes who don’t want to master basic skills—because mastering things is hard, and very few people like to do hard things that they had managed to avoid all their lives until you came along. Why should they learn them now—and in a poetry writing class of all places? The class that was tailor-made for comma splices! Forcing someone to study punctuation in a poetry class is a little like making someone learn accounting before they go to Las Vegas.
But how willing/able are creative writing instructors to teach the basics? Lately I’ve been working on my teaching statement. In an umpteenth draft, I noted my experience teaching basic grammar, which one of my generous Proofreading Pals suggested I remove. “Comp departments aren’t necessarily hot on teaching that stuff,” he said. “We’re teaching what makes a good argument. Grammar is something students should’ve learned in high school. In creative writing classes, I'm there to encourage creativity. They can worry about the details when they start publishing (which, for almost all of them, is never).”
I posed the question to creative writing teachers on Facebook: 1) Do/should you teach writing basics in a creative writing class, and 2) Can you?
Nearly everyone was in agreement: many students lack basic writing skills, even at the graduate level, but you need to know the rules before you break them—to be able to establish consistency—so teachers need to teach the rules when the need arises. They point out glaring errors and show students how to fix them—but not at the expense of the subject at hand.
A few people said they had experienced an unwritten policy of behalf of their school’s administration to avoid teaching grammar. “It’s something the student should’ve learned in high school.” “It’s expensive to offer that additional ‘remedial’ class.” “They don’t want to lose students, and if students fail, they will drop out.”
Can you fail a student in a creative writing class for not having the writing skills s/he should? If s/he can write the villanelle and fulfill the assignment, should it matter that all the possessive apostrophes are in the wrong spots? “Failing a student in a creative writing class for grammar would be very difficult to do,” one teacher said. “The student could say, ‘I’m doing this super cool apostrophe thing on purpose,’ and what are you going to do? Make them take a test? It’s not what the class is about.”
But a few teachers, including my Proofreader Pal, said the rules had no bearing on their own creative processes as writers. So unless a student was doing something absolutely bat shit, they saw no need to correct them. Doubtless, many more teachers feel this way, but why would they bother defending their positions on my officious, pro-grammar, tight-ass Facebook thread? “No, I don’t teach grammar to students who desperately need it, and you know what? My students LOVE ME! I sleep like a baby! The waiting list for my class is longer than the line for the Frozen ride at Disneyland!”
Like folk dancing and ultimate Frisbee—creative writing is, after all, an elective class in the lower levels. It’s supposed to be fun. It is fun! Teachers on the thread agreed that once a student progresses to graduate school—that if s/he is motivated enough to apply to (and pay for) it—they must know the basics. But I’ve met plenty who didn’t. During one graduate workshop, I asked, “This is a great poem, but why is the comma usage so erratic?”
The author spoke sheepishly into his chest, “I don’t know how to do that.”
Very sad. Yet it was there but for the grace of God went I. I knew nothing of the basics until I had to teach them—at a bank teller training school in downtown Milwaukee after I got my undergraduate degree. True story. Those students were just dying to call me out (“Why the hell do we gotta take this class?”) so my lessons had to be tight. In high school, I had attended one of the most underfunded school districts in the state of California. Our teachers were paid less than city bus drivers. I remember diagraming sentences for years and years and years. Let’s say that maybe—just maybe—I stopped paying attention. I was woefully underprepared for college, especially writing. I only learned how to write a critical essay in my last semester as an undergraduate (albeit one riddled with typos); the rest, I learned as a teacher.
“Maybe mastery is determined by the motivators. If a student wants to get their poetry published, they'll need to know this stuff,” I suggested to a friend.
“What if there are no motivators?” she countered.
So in the spirit of motivators, if I had the opportunity to answer the young woman with the futuristic haircut’s question again, I’d say, “Ideally, you should know this information now. I didn’t, so I had to learn it, but I wanted to learn it. If you want to be a poet, this stuff does matter—these are essential skills. How do you learn them? Get yourself a workbook or do an online class then ask your teachers if you’re doing it right. If you believe your poems are so good, they do not need to meet the expectations of our language or your readers and adhere to the rules, you’re probably wrong. But if you’re right—and you could be—the only way you’ll know is to keep writing and getting better. Surprise us all."
-- Jennifer L.Knox