Having published quite a bit of my own writing, including poetry, I am sometimes called upon to teach college courses in creative writing. It is not my favorite course to teach because there is no commonality of skills the various students bring to the course. Teaching such a class requires a lot of individual attention to get the best out of students.
Because of the need for one-on-one instruction, a creative writing teacher has to motivate, guide, suggest, encourage and edit. Many writing students think that anything they write is good because, well, because they wrote it. The teacher has to change students’ conviction about that while avoiding hurt feelings that would stifle the creative urge. It is a tall order for teachers who would venture into a creative writing classroom, knowing that creativity can’t really be taught and that, as a rule, students are not as good as they think they are. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule. Some students come to the enterprise with splendid humility and an eager willingness to be corrected.
That’s why I try to start creative writing classes teaching the discipline of literary forms. In a way, I’m like a harness racing driver. That kind of racing is beautiful in its rhythm, flow and discipline. The trotting horse is not allowed to gallop or to shift into any gait but the fast trot. The beast’s instinct tells it to stretch out and gallop for speed, but training and specialized harness constantly inhibit this urge. “Do your best at limited capacity” is what the driver requires and the true champions do just that.
Thus, harness racing drivers must be much more skilled than their riding jockey counterparts. These latter hang on and urge their mount to maximum speed, unconcerned about form. They just want to cross the finish line ahead no matter how the horse runs. The harness driver, on the other hand, must exercise restraint and discipline to get the maximum speed out of the horse in a fast trot.
Like the harness driver, formalist poets confine themselves to certain traditional rules. The sonneteer, for example, must pour his soul into a meager 14 lines of iambic pentameter. Wordsworth compared the sonnet writer to a nun in her narrow room. And, like the harness driver, the sonnet writer wrings the best out of the constricted rules of tradition.
The reason I avoid free verse in creative writing classes is that in that kind of formlessness, the writer has a double responsibility: to create form as well as content. Most students in creative writing classes prefer to write in free verse, which most often fails to satisfy. Too much freedom leads to aesthetic collapse. If would-be poets could bring themselves to write in the established forms, half the battle would be won.
My advice to aspiring poets is to emulate the harness driver: get the best out of yourself by sticking to rules. If you imitate the race horse jockey, you may write with less restraint, but you will seldom cross the finish line first.