Auld Lang Syne

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Independent Judgment and the Poetry Workshop

Continuing on from the previous blog:

Enlightenment is man's [woman's] emergence from self-imposed nomage. Nomage is the inability to use one's own understanding without another's guidance. This homage is self-imposed if its cause lies not in lack of understanding but in indecision and lack of courage to use one's own mind without another's guidance. Dare to know! "Have the courage to use your own understanding" is therefore the motto of the enlightenment.

— Emmanuel Kant, "What is Enlightenment?"

This interesting notion can be applied directly to the workshop group. It can be used to determine whether or not all members of the group are autonomous and engaged. What is in play here [Kant quote] is the basic difference between fact and opinion and the notion that all participants [of workshop] have something useful to add to the mix.

Some people want to spend time in a workshop determining facts and dismissing opinion. Is this poem really about a car ? (fact-based judgment) or is it about the person-in-the-poem's search for himself? (one kind of opinion-based judgment) When literalness takes over nuance, the workshop deteriorates. It becomes or stays boring for those who wish to progress in skill as poets or who wish to gain a deeper understanding of poetry. Judgment based upon material in the text (poem) is multi-faceted and can lead to a real exchange of ideas and strategies for revision. Judgment based upon literalness is useful only insofar as it asks questions of the text to determine verisimilitude of some details (i.e. if a poem is discussing AIDS and a time frame is present before the discovery of AIDS, or if a particular setting is inaccurate ... either of these would be a problem for the poem). Such fact-based explorations of a poem are therefore useful to make the poem fit into its own framework. However, nuance-based analyses of a poem delve deeper into the kernel, the center of the poem's reason for being. It is this nuance-based sharing that propels the group forward into helpful opining.

It is often the case that the opinions of unschooled participants' opinions are seen as less important than those of schooled participants. This is not a helpful stance for a group. If on the other hand, all participants' opinions are considered valid, and respected, and given a high level of consideration, all participants will keep striving to learn more about the art and about how to converse about the art in ways that are helpful to all.

So what of the participant who is dug in to a purely fact-based analysis? Turning to the Socratic Method, a group leader can elicit more nuance-based opinions and ideas and gently guide this participant along the road to more helpful and informative discussion. This happens when everyone is fully engaged and listening actively and willing to respond by way of open-ended querying. If a person is locked in to fact-based analysis, any one of the participants or the facilitator can jump in and propose a question or idea that may open up the fact-based participant's thinking to a more nuanced position. One of the beauties of Socratic Dialogue is that it opens up discussion and makes everyone feel heard. Making participants aware of opposing or other opinions and strategies is helpful. This is a case of expression under larger, holistic insights. In other words, what happens is the appearance of a wide range of thinking. Intuition, social skill, and creativity are hallmarks of this kind of expression. The criterion for a helpful comment or expression is social in nature, i.e. asking oneself "is this [comment, opinion] helping someone else to understand?" Judgment requires use of both hemispheres of the brain, the cognitive and the intuitive being engaged actively. The idea of asking questions of a poem might be that no one answer is sought, but rather a plethora of possibilities. This encourages autonomy in all participating in a workshop and fosters a sense of trust. The sense of "right" or "wrong" is, for the most part, not a function of the group or workshop unless for a detail that might fit into the verisimilitude issue or when discussing details of form. For example, is there a form being used and does it have any, all, or none of the precepts applied to that form?

Just as emphasis on content-driven transmission of ideas is prevalent in most traditional educational settings, so too is it in many seminars or workshops. Also a problem is the notion held by some that judgment cannot be cultivated, but rather is taught to a select few (professorial lecture methodology). The person "in charge" vs. the person who facilitates. On the professorial side of things, it is thought that the only person qualified to supply "facts" and "methods" is the person at the front of the room. In Socratic Practice, however, there is no one at the front of the room. The room is equivalent, validity of opinion and engagement being assumed of and for all participants. The "leadership" may in fact shift from one participant to another, or may be one person who acts as official facilitator while not taking an official role or position. That facilitator acts as timekeeper to keep the discussion moving along, and perhaps as "practice-keeper" to keep the group on track with Socratic practice. Socratic workshop style can be a bit disconcerting at first for traditional thinkers. However, if participants let go of their long-held assumptions, the workshop can become satisfying on new levels. Independent judgments based upon open-endedness will become a platform for helpful discussion. The result is likely to be a better range of ideas for the poet(s) in revision.

Rather than rightness or wrongness , participants in workshop might aim for the giving of opinion or advice cloaked in a question or musing out loud: "I see that most of these stanzas contain the word "bereft" and wonder if the poet is using some kind of repetend here or if perhaps she/he is just overly fond of the word." The poet whose poem is being analyzed has the solitary task to look at and hear these statements and questions and determine the answers based upon a dedication to revision later, outside of the group. It is appropriate of course, as in any Socratic Discussion, that the poet feel free to respond when it is her/his turn to speak. Clarification is the desire here. It is not a defense of position, rather it is another form of inquiry wherein the poet asks participants for further information or suggestion or where she/he simply thanks the others for their thoughtful attention to her/his work.

It is worth noting here that a Socratic workshop is not simply freewheeling. There is a need for structure and a plan for conducting the workshop, timekeeping and scheduling for instance. It may be helpful for example to have a critique sheet of sorts, one with sets of ideas and questions to serve as a guide for looking at the poems, with some basic ideas of poetry, with definitions, etc. This is particularly helpful for those participants who have not been schooled in the technical details of poetry writing, but who have been or are writing "from the gut" rather than from expertise in prosody. But with such a guide, it may be seductive to fall back into old ways of discussion, by merely listing "flaws" in prosody and condemning poems that reach beyond the bounds of traditional prosody. Workshops would be wise to exercise care that the discussion style stays open-ended and inclusive. Room should be made for the experimental while adhering to basic rules of poetry. It is important for participants to stay clear of nomage and to remain open to others' ideas and suggestions. Once mutual trust is established in the group, effort must be made to maintain it. The Socratic workshop depends upon this mutuality.

Perhaps the best result of applying Socratic principles to workshop is the acquisition of skills and abilities. Unlike the more traditional method of reliance upon a single voice of "authority," once participants begin to discuss in a critical way on their own, with a sense of mutuality, there develops an empowerment in each. Because each has a stake in how the discussion progresses, a responsibility for the material, a sense of movement beyond literalness emerges. No longer is there a lack of critical judgment, but rather there is a surge of critical judgment based upon skill sets and personal responsibility. Judgments are made thoughtfully and consciously and upon a basis of accuracy (using the skill set developed for discussion of poetry). It will take a period of consistent practice to see this discussion/analysis method gain ground in a group. Thus is is wise to keep a group stable in membership. However, if Socratic principle is in effect over time, new members of the group will likely acclimate quickly by example.

Finally, because there is a relinquishment of a singular intellectual authority replaced by mutual intellectual authority, there are but two restraints at play: text and reason. It is not a matter of every evaluation (of a poem) being "right," but of every text having layers of "correct" interpretation, brought out by the thoughtful, reasoning attention to detail of each member of the workshop. Of course a three line poem is not a sonnet. Of course a 14 line poem is not a haiku. Participants of Socratic workshops are constrained by the patterns and conventions of prosody, but insofar as they behave Socratically, there is room for a wide range of text-based interpretations. They are free to interpret as they see fit so long as they are able to point to the text (poem) for support. If Socratic Practice is used in a workshop, the group has a great chance of satisfaction and success, more so than a group where there are members who do not take active roles in the dynamic and the discussion. It is all about empowerment and integrity.

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