Rant ahead, I warn you. A mild rant – but still.
So I took this MOOC – let’s name no names – about poetry. I don’t write poetry, but I greatly admire the skill of compressing meaning into a limited amount of words, structured and highly shimmering. I’ve always yearned to achieve at least a little of that focused effectiveness… And last year, in the spirit of “you won’t know until you try in earnest”, I’ve decided to stop yearning, and try instead. So I took a MOOC – and liked it a good deal. I’m not saying that I wrote good poetry, mind – but exploring the mechanism was absolutely fascinating.
So a few weeks ago, when another poetical MOOC came my way, I decided to repeat the experience – all the more so because it promised to focus on the “craft” aspect of things…
Instead, it turned out to be all rather vague and generic… Oh well, I told myself. It’s the first week, it will go deeper as we proceed, surely? At the end of the week we were given an assignment: we were to write a found poem, and submit it for peer review. So I took bits from a series of billboards and a theatre programme, and arranged them into a found poem, and submitted it…
And the system informed me that it was too short. If I wanted helpful feedback, I needed to write more.
I was baffled – and also a little annoyed: the poem was indeed short, but had a structure and a pattern: was I to wreck or dilute it, to meet a minimum word-count that had not been specified in the first place? I tried to contact the team about this – and when there was no answer whatever, I decided to cheat. I submitted my short poem and added a series of “o”, until the system decided that it was long enough.
And one of my reviewers took this padding for a second, and especially impressive, stanza, but it wasn’t her fault: she expected me to have put it there for a reason – a better reason than “you can’t submit a short poem”… And besides, for this first assignments, we were required to say only “positive things” – so I guess she did what she could.
But then I went on to review other submissions. I reviewed three poems – and not one of them was a found poem, as clearly required. Why, one was even some kind of short story… And because I could only say “positive things”, it was hard to point this out. So, to recap: my found poem would not do (until I cheated) – while the random poems that did not meet the assignment’s requirements were perfectly fine?
All of a sudden, I was twelve again, on the day when our teacher asked us to write a poem about spring… Being a cynical child, I wrote an entirely unsentimental, sarcastic little thing about allergies, sudden downpours and other evils of spring – in rhyming octosyllables. And was told that it was not a real poem, like the ones my classmates had written. Now, most of my classmates had written about the blue sky, the daisies, and the butterflies – with plenty of random line-breaks, and maybe one cliché rhyme thrown in… But those were real poems – while mine was not.
And mind: I’m not saying that either my found poem or my spring doggerel were especially good in any way – but… my own sense of unfairness apart, wouldn’t it be nice if people teaching poetry (whether in college or middle-grade) tried to impress on their pupils that poetry is more than just a matter of random inspiration and weird line breaks?