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.

Friday, September 30, 2011

Intellectual integrity in friendships and groups

In personal relationships, there is no more valuable ability than knowing ourselves and others, and acknowledging what we don't know about ourselves and others. A marriage or friendship in which the parties believe that they possess more truth or goodness than they actually do is not a relationship which will flourish. Intellectual integrity in relationships is a matter of accurately understanding our real limitations. Improvements in character must be based on a realistic assessment of our current character.

— The Habit of Thought, Michael Strong (p. 86)

I am interested in intellectual integrity for a long time now. I often wonder about this facet of character in myself and in others. We have so much bickering back and forth over who is right and who is wrong as if this is the only thing that matters: being more right and less wrong than others. Where is the middle ground where we find that we are all just struggling to figure out who we are and what is our level of engagement in the process of understanding self and others?

When I am in a poetry workshop, not teaching it but as participant, I wonder about the level of expertise the leader holds, what the rest of the group brings in terms of expertise, and how I might contribute. I approach the group with a certain excitement that there might be something new I will experience, some kernel of information or an idea that will inform my own writing later. When I am TEACHING or LEADING a workshop, I bring that same kind of excitement, knowing that not only will I (hopefully) give out some of what I know or have experienced, but that most likely I will LEARN something valuable from those who are in attendance. It is this kind of flow of ideas and experience that makes the workshop experience viable for people of diverse experience. It is why we are able to be in a workshop with mixed levels of expertise and not feel that we are either better or worse at it than others.

It boils down to intellectual integrity for me. We speak about the idea of "truth" in writing and it gets muddy right away. What is this notion of truth when looked upon from the platform of writing? I speak about the truth in poems as being one of two kinds: big T truth or little t truth. And we have to think too about validity vs. literalness. I will digress into a few words about integrity in writing for a moment here:

Big T truth:

This, for me is not the same as literalness. It is the search for something universal that can be recognized by most others. It does not matter whether, for example, a person in the poem is real. It matters whether the experience or activity of the person is common to others or can be validated as common human experience. It doesn't matter if the cup on the table is green or if it is really a cup on a real table. What matters is the essence of "cupness" and the human experience of what the cup and its color or its location represent. Is the narrative in which a green cup rests on a table valid, is it showing some human situation that others can identify as real for them? It doesn't matter to me (should it?) if the person in the poem is a real person. When I read a poem should I expect that the experience represented in that poem actually happened or that it is the poet's experience or that it is REPRESENTATIVE of real experience? Indeed does what I read (or write) SIGNIFY or IDENTIFY reality? I think that this is a case of universality vs. self. It ought to follow that when a poet writes, he/she is writing out of human need and observation. Details can be illuminators and highlighters insofar as they make a poem more accessible to its readers. Details make us identify on a personal level. Embodiment is a great asset to poetry, more so than to prose. Readers of poetry will "get in and stay in" a poem based upon personal identification with the material, specifically its concrete details. An oak is more easily identified with than a generic tree. But perhaps it doesn't matter if the tree about which the poem speaks is an actual oak. Maybe it is a sumac. Poetic license allows the poet to plant whatever specific tree the poem needs, needs by way of locale, syllable, rhyme, sound, etc. In other words, if this poem is a sonnet, and there is need for a rhymer for "back," then sumac would be a reasonable tree choice. UNLESS the setting is somewhere the sumac does not grow. It is intellectually sound for the poet to make these choices for us readers. It is stylistic integrity as well as bowing down to Truth.

Little "t" truth:

This kind of truth conforms more to literalness. Nonfiction writing is often thought of as a bastion for this kind of truth. We want to know that the accident written about in the paper is real, that the injuries described really happened to the actual person in the accident. There is no philosophy involved here, no nuance of feeling or expression needed to REPORT. In fact we are likely to send off letters decrying the lies told in new articles. If we read that 12 children were lost in the woods on a field trip and that Mr. So-and-So just left them there while he went off to a bar, we expect that this is accurate info. We are rightly appalled at Mr. So-and-So and want him fired. But if the news report gets his name wrong, we are outraged at the wrong person. Literalness needs to be in place for the sake of making correct assessments of actual situations and taking appropriate actions. A lack of integrity therein can wreak havoc all around. We want to KNOW that nonfiction (including journalism) is not something lacking in factual information.

But what of little t truths in poetry? Can they be useful? Of course. But the danger lies in readers thinking that every event, every bit of action, every description in a poem is as it is written exactly and that the poet herself or himself has had that EXACT experience. I have read poems in public that are Big T truths and there was someone in the audience who came up later and asked about my experience (Oh I am sorry your father was a drinker). These folks are living in the literal truth realm, not recognizing that the poet is commenting on a human condition or situation rather than exposing a personal reality. If the poet is really adept at representing life with all of its beauty and warts, the poems will seem to be actual real events that the poet has experienced personally. Poetry can be both nonfiction and fiction. It is art, an interpretation of people, places, events through an artistic lens.

These are considerations every poet must face when writing, and when reading to the public. Some give a little disclaimer that what the audience will hear is not necessarily the experience of the poet. I don't do that. I let the poems speak whatever Truth or truth they contain.

But I need to get back to my leading quote here now and speak about intellectual integrity among humans, within friendships and other close relationships.

Recently one of our poetry group members quit the group because he did not like the comments I'd made on one of his poems. (I was commenting based upon little t truths vs. Big T truths) He threw quite the little hissy fit over it and quit. He accused me of "always being right" and of being "dogmatic" in my comments on poems (especially on his poem). He PRESUMED a lack of intellectual integrity on my part.

He decided after re-thinking the whole thing that he would not quit the group. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, we were working on clarifying the procedure for critique to make SURE there was intellectual integrity built in, that people were all of like mind as to what might make for a valid and helpful basis for all critiques. He did not know we were working on this clarification.

In the meantime, he decided to read my blog posts. He came across the one wherein I mentioned his quitting (FYI, I did not name him, but used an initial). He took personal offense and has quit again. During his quitting, coming back, quitting again before coming back, he did not approach me directly one-on-one to work out our differences or to come to a place where we could coexist peacefully. All of his anger etc. has gone on behind the scenes with the leader of our group funneling the information to the group in absence of the angry person. This goes to the idea of intellectual integrity among people. Would it have worked for him to have spoken to me directly with his feelings and concerns? Does he see himself as out of the loop there, preferring to quit and convey his messages through a third party? Is he afraid of confrontation? Does he see himself as either better than me or less than me in some way? Does he feel we are somehow in competition? I am at a loss to understand this. I do know that I see him as a peer. I value his feedback and give mine to him in the spirit of any normal critique. It baffles me. What really grates on my last nerve is the idea that there is on either side a lack of intellectual integrity or even the appearance of this lacking.

I understand that all comments are not favorable on any given day. I know that all comments, given out of a spirit of cooperation and trust are valid. They can be helpful in the revision process. I take comments made on MY poems as a treasure trove of possibilities for later work on the particular poem. I GIVE comments in that same spirit. I hope that things I see (or don't see) in someone's poem will serve as information and inspiration for my fellow poets. Isn't that why we become part of a critique group? We want feedback. But are we giving that in the framework of intellectual integrity? I think so for the most part. I expect that all comments made on my poems come from a sincere place on the parts of the critiquing poets. They want my poem to be successful. They have this as the genuine motive. I ASSUME this. It is how I approach anyone's poems. So why get defensive and quarrelsome? Does it help this person or the rest of us in the group to quit?

At this point I have decided that where there is no actual relationship (as evidenced by a lack of intellectual integrity), I must move away from the person who fails to confront directly to benefit the parties or the group.
I am satisfied that the rest of the group is practicing intellectual integrity and will survive this crisis of understanding and commitment.