It is old news now. Everyone knows that only poets read poetry and that to become a poet you need a degree. Even so it is also well known that the desire to write a poem can sneak up on anyone at any time. Poems flow out of the heart. Words crash onto the page. There are times when even Republicans write poems. The 47% of us mooching off the state spend our time writing poems. When the desire to write a poem wells up from the subconscious there are few who can resist the urge. People write poems. It’s part of human culture. Poetry. Music. Painting. Sculpture. Art. We just gotta do it!
Currently, I teach a poetry creative class at Cabrillo College, and this week I promised to come up with a system by which to “grade” poems. What makes an “A” poem? What’s a “B” poem like? Is there such a thing as a “C” poem? The entire system of placing creative writing at the college level presents wonderful opportunities to learn and explore writing and poetry, but creates problematic situations—such as grading. A merit system for poetry just doesn’t make sense—or does it?
Currently the “professional” poetry world runs on a merit system where the “best” writing confers upon the writer awards, publications, speaking engagements, and the ability to perhaps have enough space, time, and money to create more poems. And as all of my wonderfully talented poetry friends and myself know, there just aren’t enough of these accolades to go around. The myth of the starving artist, in this case the starving poet, is too often a reality.
But what about the poets in my class? Should I train them to deal with the realities of the poetry world by becoming the first “judge” they need to impress? Whip them into shape! Only the best should make it through! Hopefully, my insincere tone is coming through. Competition and a merit system seem contradictory in regards to creating art, whether the art is poetry, painting, photography, music, or whatever.
So what is the creation of art about? Why does this impulse well up inside us? No matter the art, all of us have been captivated by artistic expression in some format, be it music, painting, or poetry. We need art. We need to be more than the day to day waking up and taking care of business. So we create. We create songs, scrapbooks, video clips, and poems.
The ability to create ties into our desire for happiness, beauty, meaning, connection. What does it mean to be alive on this planet at this point in time? We can never arrive at a definitive answer, but we can contemplate the journey. Writing poems is about exploring the human experience. What is felt? What is seen? What can be known? All of us think about questions like these. Poems arise in our hearts and flow onto the page.
And now I’m supposed to grade them? If my class was outside of the college system, grades would not be necessary. But I’m teaching a college transferable course, and the grade is expected, mandated, and required. So what is a grade? It’s a code by which educational systems, educators, and students gauge accomplishment and knowledge. Which means that poems can embody accomplishment and knowledge—but accomplishment of what? Knowledge of what?
Accomplishment in poetry focuses on the elements of poetry, of the art, and how they are woven into a particular work: the use of image, metaphor, sound, rhythm, etc. Knowledge is more problematic because the knowledge of a poem begins in the heart of the writer. All I can tell is if the finished poem presents its world in an authentic fashion that crosses over to me, the reader. It’s the writer who cultivates knowledge within herself: what has she seen, observed, read, understood?
That’s why poetry belongs on a college campus and in our society in general: to write poetry, the writer needs to cultivate their entire worldview. A poem arises from the author’s understanding and knowledge of everything: politics, society, religion, science, literature, photography, anthropology, the internet, and anything else that can be named. It is in poems that we find what matters. And an “A” poem is easy to spot: it is simply the one that explains the nuances of existence.