Auld Lang Syne

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Community of Learning... or why we can use Socratic Principle in Writing Groups

Seminars [workshops] are conversations about ideas... they are conversations in which people compare their judgments with each other in the search to improve their judgments... begin with the very ordinary, extremely human impulse to talk and to compare judgments.

"The Relationship Between Seminar (Socratic)
and Ordinary Conversation," The Habit of Thought, Strong, p. 67

Obviously I am still thinking about writing groups and the dynamic of writing groups. Is there an approach that leads to deeper understanding here? I think so. Seminars (which I will henceforth refer to as "workshops") are conversations. We bring forth a poem or other piece of writing for analysis according to some ideas of what a poem is. Each member of the workshop brings an individual skill set to the conversation. What we presuppose is 1. that each skill set adds to the conversation 2. that each member of the workshop is open to improving his/her skill set, and 3. that each member of the workshop is open to improving his/her work based upon the conversation and discussion around the poems.

Strong defines the conversations as centering around the good, the true, and the beautiful. He says that there are such elements in most natural conversations: "do you think it is good for people to cheat on their taxes?" "Whom do you believe, the newspaper or the pastor of your church?" "wasn't that disgusting?"

In workshop, these elements take the form of analysis of the poems. We want to look at whether or not the poem achieves some kind of truth and follows some kind of natural speech or syntax. We hope there is a level of truth in the poem (is it believable even if not literally true in its elements). We hope to see beautifulness of arrangement, musicality, flow, diction, etc. The danger in the application of these principles is that of hyper-judgment, of qualifying the poem based upon the banal concept of "good enough" "better than" or "superior to." This trap is spotted frequently in comments such as "it (this poem) is wonderful" (you may insert any superlative adjective here) By merely asserting wonderfulness, absent any quantifiers (e.g. has wonderful musicality in the ____ stanza as evidenced by the use of assonance and line length), the poet whose poem is being critiqued loses out on some opportunities to improve both the poem and his/her skill set for critiquing.

Additionally, there is the trap of truth. As discussed in yesterday's blog, there is literal truth and the suggestion of universality. In poetry, much of what makes for human connection (reader to poem to poet) is the latter. We WANT to connect, to feel included, to feel heard or seen. But the trap in workshop is that we each bring our own interpretation of truth to the table. It might work well to agree that truth will be examined from both perspectives and comments made (arguments posed) based upon such agreement. If we converse overly long on whether the poem's character is the poet herself/himself or whether the kitchen is green or the dog is named Buttercup, we lose an opportunity to get at the levels of meaning in the poem that are beneath the surface details. If we beat the details to death, absent layers of meaning, we cannot help the poet much in revision. If we, as participants, bring weakened perceptions of literalness and suggestion to the table, we ourselves avoid the possibility of metaphor, conceit, and stylistic interpretation. Everyone loses.

Finally, there is the trap of identification of beauty. Yes, that "eye of the beholder" thing is in play somewhat. We all accept that. For example, what I may find lacking in beauty in a particular dog's face another person may see as adorable and beautiful. This is why we do not all own the same breed of dog. In poetry, however, we move beyond the "I like this very much" or "I don't like this at all" to a more informed sense of beauty (or lack of beauty). We begin with a basic attraction (on the gut level) to a particular poem or kind of poem. Some readers find nothing more lovely than a sonnet, while some find sonnets to be contrived, old-fashioned, or boring. Human nature is at work here. But our notions of the beautiful can be argued, altered, tweaked by application of understanding how a poem is made and by recognition of the various elements present or absent in a poem, no matter the form or lack of form. This speaks in large part to skill set acquisition and to trust within the workshop. When members of a workshop are open to learning new elements and to broadening their skill sets in so doing, this sets in motion a dynamism in the workshop wherein beauty is complex and reachable.

Having a gut reaction to a poem is not either the only or the worst position from which to open conversation about the beauty of a poem. It is reasonable to begin from the point of feeling when discussing a poem. "How does this poem make me feel?" is an appropriate place to begin. The trap therein however is using cognitive description for emotional exercise. Keeping the terminology emotional here is key. The poem makes me feel.... sad, confused, angry, joyful, contemplative, annoyed, etc. No explanation is needed for a feeling; it just is. However if we leave the poem on its emotional level alone, the poet is not able to understand HOW to create that feeling in another poem, or how to go deeper in that one. What skills can the revising poet glean from this stance by her/his peers? It behooves the group to take the next step, to move into elemental possibilities for the poem being discussed. Are there language (diction) possibilities here? Is there judgment on a particular usage? We must look at whether certain words evoke reactions we might want from our readers, or the converse. For example, what reaction and interpretation differences might one expect from choosing words like bedspread vs. coverlet or sip vs. gulp or shit vs. manure? The choice of words clearly can alter the feeling in a poem. But if there is no skill set for discussion of diction, how can the poet be helped? It is not enough to say "I don't like the word shit." That a person doesn't like a particular word is of little help, but why the person believes another word might work better in a particular poem is valid and helpful. "I think that the word shit takes away from the rest of the poem which uses softer language" is more helpful to the poet whose task is to make this poem his/her best work. In terms of diction, there are latinate (soft) sounds and anglo-saxonate (hard) sounds. It is helpful to know this and for the members of the workshop to feel confident enough in assessment of a poem to recognize tone and be able to suggest revisions in diction to match that tone. Tone and diction are two critical choices in creating beautifulness (or lack thereof which may be the poet's intent as in certain schools of poetic thought... more later perhaps). If beautiful poetry is to be written, there is need for the skill set to discuss and analyze tone and diction among other aspects. This is easily accomplished Socratically by way of workshop. It is helpful to remember, however, that this is an ongoing process and one not to be hurried. It requires intellectual honesty and openness.

It is important, in all Socratic discussions, to understand at the fore, that we all bring opinions to the table. As such, their validity (having persuasive relevance) may not be in question if the opinions are based upon evidence found in the text being examined. All conversation over a poem centers on valid opinion being freely offered, valid insofar as it is supported by elements of the poem itself and supported by the skill set of the group. Where this falls off the cliff is when the opinions are based only on gut or a dug-in stance by the member holding them. It is appropriate for the poet whose work is being discussed to reject such opinions as invalid, to discount these in revision. However, valid opinion is a useful tool for the revising poet. This is not to say that the suggestions made from these valid opinions must be used. However, it follows that if they are indeed valid, looking at the suggestions and considering them is wise. Still, the poet has the ultimate decision-making power over the revision process and result.

A word about not knowing is perhaps in order here. Not all opinions are intellectually helpful. Some opinions are just bombast or posturing. Usually this occurs when there is a lacking of skill set for full participation in a discussion, a feeling of "less than" by one or more members of the group. It might be helpful then for the group to consider what could happen if one or more of its members admitted not knowing how to speak about a poem or elements in a poem. This admission, intellectually authentic, can be helpful on a number of levels. First, it sets a tone of honesty in the group. If one is able to admit lack of knowledge, one can acquire that knowledge. Secondly, admission of lack of knowledge shows the person and group to be intellectually curious and mature. It is the jejune approach to "fake it" while hoping for knowledge to seep in by osmosis. It is however a common practice in groups, owing to the shyness or timidity or some members. Hopefully this stance will begin to disappear over time as the timid person acclimates to the group. This all centers around the notion that mere talk cannot progress to real conversation absent at least one person who can transmit knowledge. The dynamic of the group will likely shift as knowledge possession shifts from person to person. One member may have knowledge of form poetry for example, but be deficient in patterns of diction which is the expertise of another member of the group. In a dynamic workshop this is mostly the case. One need not hold an MFA in poetry to be in possession of a knowledge set. However, it may behoove the group to seek out knowledge skill in areas where he or she feels deficient or wants an increase in skills.

It is admirable at a most basic level that people are willing to subject themselves and their writing to the workshop process. This first step speaks to the need we poets have to improve our skills and ultimately our work. I hear poets of a certain level of achievement say they no longer "need" to be part of a writing workshop or group. I wonder if a certain arrogance might be at play there. I wonder how they became able to look objectively at their own writing. For me, I need the feedback. I need the conversation. I need to be able to contribute to both.

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