Notes on Teaching

photo credit: Marnie Crawford Samuelson
photo credit: Marnie Crawford Samuelson


I carry into my own teaching the desire to share the attentive presence my teachers have offered me, inflecting that attunement with my own particularities of intuition and experience. My commitment is to the whole student, to help bring forth her most exploratory work. Keats singled out as the essential quality of the poet the capacity for “being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” and I heartily agree. I would like to shift the emphasis a bit, however, away from the image this all too easily evokes of the poet sequestered in an attic room somewhere, alone in the thrall of this endowment, toward the importance of relationship in stoking this capacity. How do we stay in this uncomfortable position of not knowing long enough to invite new work to take shape? What Robert Motherwell said of painting is perhaps true of tolerating uncertainty as well: it cannot be taught, but it can be learned (and, of necessity, relearned). And it can be practiced.

Before I moved to San Francisco in 2007, I had the privilege to work as literary assistant to Stanley Kunitz from 2000 until his death in 2006. Our work together included writing The Wild Braid: A Poet Reflects on a Century in the Garden (with photographer Marnie Crawford Samuelson.) I saw daily how poetry sustained Stanley’s life. If his energy flagged, reading Hopkins would revive him. The chance to immerse myself in all levels of a life in poetry, and to work closely with a master teacher who, during my tenure, served as Poet Laureate and returned from near-death, was intensely transformative, and challenged and activated untapped reserves. From early on Stanley read my poems with his extraordinary generosity and acuity. I told him once, “Nothing I say scares you,” and he said, “Hardly!” This was a pivotal moment in my work, an invitation to see more clearly my own self-perpetuated limits.

As a poetry teacher, my primary responsibility is to offer a field of regard. To provide what D.W. Winnicott termed a “holding environment” within which the student can experience murky generative states long enough to learn she can survive the process. It’s very rewarding to help students find their way to whatever provokes the freshest, most direct language, to help them hone their alertness to the living, breathing poems they brush past on their way to service their idea of the Poem. Mainly I just listen, and try to help them hear how much of what they say never makes it to the page. It is my job – and my delight – both to detect and care for these near-poems as they come into being. And to help the student attend to the poems on the page.

In this ongoing endeavor, which Robert Thurman calls “the long meditational cultivation of our tolerance of incomprehensibility,” I have been fortunate to work with extraordinary teachers, too many to name or adequately thank. Some I consider to be “deep-tissue teachers.” They are with me in those most delicate hours and moments, before the poem is recognizable as a poem. The deep-tissue teacher does not impose an agenda, but creates the conditions for discovery; the strength of what is transmitted in the relationship instills the trust to let instinct become gesture.

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