Can writing poetry be taught?

‘Can creative writing be taught? Can creative writing be learned? They are really the same question’.[1]

‘Creative Writing encourages the capacity to see the world from different perspectives and the study of Creative Writing thus involves a commitment to improve the quality of one’s own and other’s cultural experiences.’[2]

The rise of creative writing as a course at school and university has been met with some criticism. It is impossible to teach creative writing, the argument goes, because there are things about writing that simply cannot be learned. You either have the talent, or you don’t.[3] A student studying for an MA in Creative Writing (Poetry) was once faced with a similar argument at a party. They were telling an old friend that they had recently enrolled on a creative writing course. The friend asked: ‘Why are you doing a course in writing? I love music. I taught myself the guitar. If I want to play music, I just join a band. I don’t need a course.’

Let’s explore this statement. The friend is right in one way. Whether it’s poetry or music, the reason to learn is because we want to. It’s a choice (unless you are at school, where learning is compulsory). The fact that the friend taught themselves the guitar doesn’t change the fact they had to learn it. So, it’s not a question of whether poetry/music needs to or can be learned or taught, but how that learning takes place.

Teaching yourself is one option. Many of you will have taught yourself aspects of writing. You may also have reached a certain limit when you suddenly feel the need for another point of view. Again, this does not necessarily mean doing a course. The friend decided to join a band. In terms of poetry, it might mean sending a poem to a magazine or competition. It might mean reading at an open-mic night or joining a local writing workshop. Or yes, doing a taught course.

A Creative Writing course is a very particular kind of course though. There are knowledge and skills to be learned in the same way that musicians might train at a conservatory for music. You have to practice to be a musician. You have to rehearse, play scales, learn new techniques. Similarly, a creative writing course is not just writing. As Heather Beck writes, ‘Creative Writing encourages the capacity to see the world from different perspectives’. The poetry workshop is a space of sharing, speaking, listening, and learning from each other.

For many, a course in poetry is a confidence builder. For others, it is a signal to yourself that you take your own writing seriously. Above all, every course is different, because it depends so strongly on the input of the learners. Depending on your own background and experiences, your reading of poems and your own writing will be very different from the next person’s. When the friend at the party said ‘I just join a band. I don’t need a course’, the truth is that when it comes to creative writing, the course is the band.

References

[1] Morley D. The Cambridge introduction to creative writing. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2010.

[2] Beck H. Teaching creative writing. Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillian; 2012.

[3] Flood A. Creative writing professor Hanif Kureishi says such courses are ‘a waste of time’ [Internet]. The Guardian. 2018 [cited 29 March 2018]. Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi

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