TEACHING POETRY – AN ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVE

The first question, which there is no getting round, is can you teach poetry?

As with many such questions to do with creativity, which are beyond scientific proof one way or another, it is not in the power of any individual or any one theory to give a definitive answer. There has been a long debate & there are multiple perspectives.

Some have a mystical idea of the poet, believing she merely channels transcendent voices & sacred messages. ‘It’s not me who wrote it’ this poet will say, ‘I’m just channelling something higher’.

On the other extreme, there are those who argue that ‘poetry’ & ‘poet’ are just labels and conventions which change across cultures and times and that practically any kind of language construct can be called a poem somewhere by someone. Since anyone can be a poet, and anything can be a poem, what is there to teach?

Despite writing poetry & teaching poetry for thirty and more years then, I can still only offer an opinion, not an answer.

But I do have an opinion, based on reflecting upon these many years practice as poet & teacher & also of course as a student.

I think some people, whether by the lottery of blind cosmic fate or the predestination of God’s great unfolding plan for the universe, are born with, or in early infancy develop, a predilection for word-play, just as some others inherit or rapidly develop a predilection for mathematics or music. Such people, i.e people that are inclined towards poetry, can be taught at least basic competency in poetry.

How many people are born with, or as infants acquire, an above average delight in the sound of words & in making their own pleasing sound patterns? Another question no-one can really answer, but if i was to hazard a guess I’d say somewhere between 1 in 150 and 1 in every 300 people.

I say that because this is the rough size of many human groups during the middle & late Paleolithic (Old Stone Age) when language & poetry evolved.

Early human groups, lacking writing and libraries, needed poetry & thus poets to preserve their accumulated knowledge in poems – poetry serving as ‘the cloud’ of human knowledge then as the internet does today.

Poetry, then indistinguishable from song, was the major means of the preservation of all knowledge in pre-literate societies – i.e in 99.99% of all societies. It is certain that the knowledge of poetry, of how to be a poet, was passed from generation to generation by a form of apprenticeship, which may have lasted many years & may have begun in infancy when the developing brain is malleable & can perhaps be shaped into a poetic brain.

Perhaps these early societies had means of discovering which among their infants had an advanced capacity for language and memory – the two ingredients that make up poetry.

But that is a world far more beautiful and honorable than ours & which is long gone. These days the vast majority of those born into our bleak & burning planet of capitalist imperialism will never get the chance to express & refine their natal gift, whatever it might be, due to poverty & oppression & all the ills that flow therefrom.

Such that are lucky enough – such as I – to both have a gift for poetry and also to have been schooled in poetry, in my very fortunate case both formally through the education system and less formally by way of family & community that encouraged creativity, can, I think, be taught to be better at poetry, if, of course, they work hard at it themselves & independently alongside going to workshops or evening courses or MAs in creative writing, whatever the case may be.

The question then becomes who can teach poetry?

Well, the obvious answer is someone who has demonstrated that they know how to write it. Ideally someone who will have demonstrated repeatedly that they know how to write it. Such a person will have a publication history, a readership, a reputation among their peers (and also detractors – good poets always inspire peer envy), all built up over a long period of more or less continuous practice of poetry.

If a person hasn’t written good poetry, they certainly can’t teach it. Of course, far from all good poets are good teachers, a profession which requires equal shares of affability & forthrightness. And many will not be interested in teaching atall. Perhaps some who do teach do so by circumstance & not vocation, & are therefore not very good at it or not very interested. Others are ‘entepreneurs’, which in plain language is ‘chancer’ and know how to make money out of gullible people, of which there is no shortage.

Some other teachers will be polemical, or belong to factions, as in they will have narrow/ideological views on what poetry is/should be & spend time trying to prove their pet theory. Perhaps these should also be avoided.

Remember too that there’s no qualification to teach poetry & an unregulated profession attracts a certain amount of charlatans. So, do your research if you are thinking of taking a class!


Over my years of teaching I have narrowed down to two basic approaches.

First, I teach an online course on Exploring Poetry, which is about the general origins, history, & varieties of poetry. It’s not a writing poetry course, but a reading poetry course for people who write or want to write poetry. The more you know about poetry, the more poetry from throughout time & space you absorb, the wider one’s one range & depth as a poet may become. The next Exploring Poetry course kicks off in June.

Secondly, I do one-on-one mentoring with emerging poets working on their first collections. This involves both overall advice on the structure & order of the collection, & line-by-line close editing. I find this to be much more fruitful for participants than taking part in group poetry classes, where an unevenness of standard tends to drag on everyone. I have been involved in developing many dozens of published manuscripts over the years. Mentoring is by application.

dlordan @ hotmail . com to enquire about Exploring Poetry courses or Mentoring.