We live in a culture which robs people of social, political, and economic agency, making them feel as if their experience counts for nothing, while simultaneously insisting that everyone's every passing notion and experience is of supreme importance because it happened to them. These two aspects are concomitant with one another, the second offering an imaginary (that is, an ideological) compensation for the first.
This is an astute analysis of the impoverishing ethos of empty "self-affirmation" that too often characterizes the teaching of creative writing as a cultural industry. Reginald's comments throughout the post resonate with much of my own experience, in particular his observation that one of the major pedagogical hurdles for any teacher of poetry is the popular belief "that poetry is too subjective to judge, because it's all opinion and personal preference."
I want only to add that I think the problem is yet more difficult than getting students to realize "that specificity, particularity of image and language, precision, concision, and avoidance of cliché are aspects of all good poetry." In the first place, I'm not sure if that's entirely true, or if it's always true that "vagueness is not a style." I will probably concede if forced, however, that it's generally beneficial for students to engage at great length with the kinds of poetry for which these statements do hold true before they go on to other, vaguer terrain. I want them to come to terms both with the standards of specificity, concision, and so on, and with the particular values that have historically informed those standards. I know, I want a lot. In the second place, even when a teacher is successful in instilling a diligent respect for such standards, I would maintain that this is not enough on its own to lift the pedagogical scene out of the "self-affirmation" level. It may serve to generate an impressive bank of professional "output" that students can use to establish and enhance their artisanal status, just as painting and music students can be taught certain techniques that mark them as "accomplished." This also--or most importantly--provides a way for the program to advertise its success: it has produced subjects who function as living testimonials of its efficacy in instilling recognizable, marketable aesthetic skills. A context for institutional competitiveness is manufactured thereby. The only difference between this and the carefree "express yourself" model of less competitive pedagogical situations is that the self being affirmed extends beyond the individual and into the corporate body of the institution. The program, institution, industry, all affirm themselves along with the student--whose affirmation remains largely at the level of imaginary compensation, except for those fortunate few who are actually able to ride that affirmation all the way to a paying career (and who then, likely as not, perpetuate the whole predatory pedagogical system via their own students).
What else, then, is needed to break all the way past the "self-affirmation" model to a truly substantive poetic education? In addition to the aspects of craft addressed above, I would suggest that the following are minimal requisites:
1. Some degree of grounding in various historical and intellectual contexts for the production and reception of poetry
2. Some degree of immersion in contemporary poetic theory, as well as relevant political and philosophical studies
3. Some degree of engagement with the social and communal aspects of the poetic life, especially insofar as this involves stepping out of the institutional framework and looking critically at what it means to be within it in the first place, and what it means for other writers to be outside it
4. Some degree of consideration of what lies beyond "craft" as defined above: under what conditions might vagueness be considered a "style" worth taking seriously? when do the protocols of "precision, concision, and avoidance of cliché" fall short, and what might be the value of deliberate unwieldiness, ugliness, or banality in certain contexts? and what else is out there?