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Pedagogy 3.3 (2003) 431-435
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Teaching Craft, Teaching Criticism:
The Creative Writer in the Literature Class
As a poet holding an M.F.A. in creative writing and an M.A. in literature, I am often asked by my colleagues on the critical front how, exactly, I teach literature. Explaining that I teach literature as a writer is not enough, and therefore I have to explain the various ways I talk about how poems come together as a series of choices. Larry Levis's poem "Wound" offers a good illustration. Its brevity and my own connection with it make it fit well in my introductory-level classes, and the way it relates to other poems of its time and participates in a dialogue with other poems in a more timeless and international context allows it also to be taught in upper-level courses, just as its smart craftsmanship allows it to be taught as a lyric sample in the creative writing classroom. Levis's poem perfectly illustrates my belief that contemporary poets bring to the literature class an understanding of composition that includes a set of cultivated skills that admit, in a seemingly unconscious manner, allusions, influence, and semiotic and/or cognitive leaps whose effect is realized through revision and craftsmanship. Bringing this element into the literature classroom provides balance to traditional criticism and gives insights to students who often wonder if writers really think all these things through.
When I teach a poetry workshop, whether at West Virginia University or at writers' conferences or as a visiting professor, I always ask students to bring copies of one of their favorite poems to the first class meeting. I ask each student to distribute the copies, read the poem aloud, and talk about why he or she likes it. I am not looking for an explication; what I am looking for is an aesthetic statement, some defining sensibility by the student writer for the rest of the class. I want to know what poetry means for him or her. This is important: often student poets do not know what to expect from others in the class; this first-day exercise allows them access to other poets' work that they may be unfamiliar with and gives them some understanding of how other student poets think about work. Students' expectations are shaped by the work their peers bring in on the first day.
I participate in this exercise, too; I often bring Levis's (1971) poem: [End Page 431]
I've loved you
the way a man loves an old wound
picked up in a razor fight
on a street nobody remembers.
Look at him:
even in the dark he touches it gently.
When I talk about this poem in workshop, I talk about its importance to me as a writer. "Wound" was really the first contemporary poem that sang to me, and I tell my students how I happened to discover it and the book in which it appears, Wrecking Crew. This establishes for them my passion for and relationship to the work. Then I go beyond what I have asked of them: I talk about the poem's form and how seeing this poem as a crafted artwork has enabled it to stay with me as an important poem. I talk about its two stanzas of relatively equal length, which enact the meaning of the poem's separated couple. I discuss Levis's use of sounds in the first stanza: how you and wound are end-rhymed, the latter echoing the former, so that you is equated with wound, and how the first and last vowel sounds of the stanza are the same: I, fight. You are a wound, and I fight. This, I assure them, is deliberate. There is little other sound play in this stanza.
When talking about the second stanza, I point out the tonal shift enacted by the sudden repetition of sound—the distance from this hurting that Levis establishes with the ee sounds as the poem changes from the us of...