This is the problem I face when teaching poetry in Creative Writing. I can go the "all expression is equally valid" route, or I can try to communicate a poetic aesthetic. Naturally, since I'm who I am, and I'm teaching the Creative Writing class, I opened today's class by talking about good and bad poetry.
Here's where I started: The first time I taught Creative Writing, I gave an open-ended poetry assignment. Thirty poems came in. The very first one I read was about a trauma in the student's life: she'd been given a puppy that died. I was moved by imagining the young high school student I had in my class as a little girl, mourning her dead puppy.
Because it was the very first student poem I'd read, it was the very best student poem I'd read (it was also the worst, but I'm an optimist). However, two poems later, I read a second poem about a dead puppy. Different student, but the same subject. Oddly enough, by the end of the thirty poems, I'd read three more dead puppy poems and two dead kitten ones. This class was extraordinarily unlucky with pets!
But, more importantly, I had a stack of dead puppy poems. Why, I wondered, were a couple of the poems way more effective than the rest? In my years of teaching, I have a considerable stack of dead puppy poems (and dead relatives, and dead horses, and dead goldfish, among others). I can sort the poems from least effective to most effective.
And here's what's important: so could anyone else. Their stacking might not be the same as mine, but there would be sorting, and that sorting would reflect judgments, ultimately, about what is "good" and what is "bad," and an awful lot in between.
What I teach the kids is what qualities I see in the "good" part of the stack, and what qualities are in the "bad" part. The picture from the white board contains the broadest principles I gave them today.
I did this with warnings and provisos.
- First: everything an English teacher or writer tells you is a "rule," has exceptions, and sometimes genius is in breaking a rule brilliantly.
- Second: Talking about "good" and "bad" poetry does not invalidate your tastes. You have the right to like what you like, for whatever reason.
- Third: I don't grade poems based on these standards. All poems in this class are an "A," if they followed the assignment. But I will respond to the poems based on these standards.
- Fourth: A poem can be "good" by merely being really good at just a part of the good qualities. An otherwise fine poem, however, can become "bad" by a single misstep, like a wrong word or a jarring image, or a rhythmic stumble.
- Fifth: If you want to write for an audience instead of just for yourself, you have to start thinking about what kind of writing works for other people. In general, writing on the "good" side of the board gives you a better chance of reaching readers.
I have a theory about bad writing and the writer's clear-headedness about the subject, but I didn't want to get into that with the kids today. Afterall, I only have them for forty-five minutes!