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Teaching undergraduates to write poetry
Richard Wilbur Poet
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It is a very interesting thing to try to conduct in a profitable way a course for eager undergraduates who want to try their hands at poetry. One thing I always did, because lots of undergraduates think they might like to write a poem and you can often have too many applicants for the course, one thing I always did was to give my first two hours to prosody. I would talk about metres and talk about stanzas and what the capabilities of all these things were, and I hope I did this in ways that amused me and seemed lively to me, but of course all this talk about the formal aspect of poetry was discouraging to some of the students, and that usually reduced the class to a manageable size.

The thing I found I could do sometimes with an undergraduate poet was to say, 'Good, you've written a poem in which we hear your mother's voice talking under certain circumstances in the kitchen and she's angry. That seems to be something that you can do. You seem to have a capacity which not everybody has for writing what amount to little play scenes in verse, so do do more of that'. And there were of course always with the people, with the young poets who were possible at all, there were always things that you could pick out of their efforts and say this is something you can do, this is something you can work on, it will be a strength in your work if you on with poetry. Some of my students, even when I had narrowed the class down by two daunting hours on prosody, were not able really to write poetry, but I think that they often profited by criticising the efforts of the other students, and that it may, it may have led them to be better readers of poetry in general, of the poetry that they were studying in their classes. I hope that's the case. Indeed I know that was the case with some of my people.

The atmosphere of a creative writing class is always kindly, or should be so, and it's necessary of course to be fairly decent to people who are sticking their necks out and trying to write verse. At the same time there's obviously something wrong with that. If it were possible not to scare people out of writing at all, I think it might be good to begin a creative writing course by saying, 'You are proposing to enter the arena in which John Milton wrote and Shakespeare wrote, and so don't be too self-indulgent, be hard on yourself'. But that's a thing I think but it's not a thing that I have ever gone right out and said to my students.

What else can I say about...? Well, getting students under present circumstances to write anything but shredded prose, a dribbly kind of free verse, is very hard. If they go to the library and look at the most distinguished of our little magazines, they'll find that that indeed is the prevailing form of the period and they'll feel justified in doing something of the sort themselves. But I agree with Mr Eliot that no verse is free, no verse is really free, and I agree with Mr Eliot and many another poet that before you can write good free verse, you ought to be able to write a sonnet. And one way I used to trick students into writing formally was to give them an excited talk about the riddle, which is a great poetic form, offer them some examples of great riddle poems, and then ask them to, as an exercise, to bring me in a riddle the next week. The riddle somehow teaches the students that there are certain kinds of communication which require metre and rhyme. There are a few good free verse riddles, but not many. The great ones, the great ones all get some of their power from the reinforcement of metre and rhyme.

Acclaimed US poet Richard Wilbur (1921-2017) published many books and was twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize. He was less well known for creating a musical version of Voltaire's “Candide” with Bernstein and Hellman which is still produced throughout the world today.

Listeners: David Sofield

David Sofield is the Samuel Williston Professor of English at Amherst College, where he has taught the reading and writing of poetry since 1965. He is the co-editor and a contributor to Under Criticism (1998) and the author of a book of poems, Light Disguise (2003).

Tags: John Milton, William Shakespeare, TS Eliot

Duration: 6 minutes, 14 seconds

Date story recorded: April 2005

Date story went live: 24 January 2008