trivialize and make safe-seeming the real terrors of real art

Most poets need the conversation of other poets. They do not need mentors; they need friends, critics, people to argue with... The history of poetry is a history of friendships and rivalries, not only with the dead great ones but with the living young. My four years at Harvard overlapped with the undergraduates Frank O'Hara, Adrienne Rich, John Ashbery, Robert Bly, Peter Davison, L. E. Sissman, and Kenneth Koch... I do not assert that we resembled a sewing circle, that we often helped each other overtly, or even that we liked each other. I do assert that we were lucky to have each other around for purposes of conversation.

We were not in workshops; we were merely attending college. Where else in this country would we have met each other? In France there is an answer to this question and it is Paris. Europe goes in for capital cities. Although England is less centralized than France or Romania, London is more capital than New York, San Francisco, or Washington. While the French poet can discover the intellectual life of his times at a cafe, the American requires a degree program. The workshop is the institutionalized cafe...

So the workshop answers the need for a cafe. But I called it the institutionalized cafe, and it differs from the Parisian version by instituting requirements and by hiring and paying mentors. Workshop mentors even make assignments: "Write a persona poem in the voice of a dead ancestor." "Make a poem containing these ten words in this order with as many other words as you wish." "Write a poem without adjectives, or without prepositions, or without content. . . ." These formulas, everyone says, are a whole lot of fun. . . . They also reduce poetry to a parlor game; they trivialize and make safe-seeming the real terrors of real art. This reduction-by-formula is not accidental... Games serve to democratize, to soften, and to standardize; they are repellent. Although in theory workshops serve a useful purpose in gathering young artists together, workshop practices enforce the McPoem.

This is your contrary assignment: Be as good a poet as George Herbert. Take as long as you wish.

- Donald Hall, from his lecture "Poetry and Ambition", which was later published in the Kenyon Review in 1983. You can read the whole lecture here. Thanks to Conrad DiDiodato for pointing it out.


Zachariah Wells said...

I kinda sympathize with what he's saying, but athletes don't do aerobic and weight training with any delusions about those preparatory activities being the game. Whether those activities Hall lists are good training is up for debate, but that's not really what he's saying.

Rob Taylor said...

Yeah, I agree. But I do think there's a greater potential for the "training" and the "game" to blur together in the mind of the workshop participant than in the mind of the cross-training athlete.

It's something to stay aware of and to communicate during workshops with newer writers.

Zachariah Wells said...

Sure, but I don't think there's much hope for any young writer who has to have that explained to them.