When the student is ready, the teacher appears–isn’t that a Buddhist adage? Or at least the New Age rendition of one? At any rate, sometimes just the right teaching falls into one’s hands at just the ripe moment. That happened to me when I picked up the book Poets Teaching Poets: Self and the World, and read Reginald Gibbons’ rich and complex essay, “Poetry and Self-Making.” The essay demonstrates what it seeks to elucidate: Why writers write and how writing helps in making the self.
As a writer, and a teacher of writing, I can lose sight of the land I’m rowing towards. I find myself in the midst of a difficult project, and I ask, Why am I doing this again? As a teacher and facilitator, I enter into relationships with my students based on the assumption that what I am teaching carries in it the seeds of self-making. But what do I mean by that? And how does that work? I need an apologia as much as any priest.
The experience of writing can be frustrating, time-consuming and full of struggles that to many might seem a form of masochism. But to any writer who has wrestled out a story or poem, who has entered into a strange and mysterious inner world, knows the thrill of discovery. When I was a kid, my brothers and I used to hop on our bikes and “explore.” We found abandoned houses and hoisted ourselves up into shattered windows, fell through rotted floors, found a “secret garden” next to a mansion inhabited by an ancient alcoholic, followed streams to beavers’ dams, and all the while made up stories about the places we found ourselves in. The world seemed abundant, numinous, full of terrors and beauties, and we were suffused with aliveness. Writing is the place where, as an adult, I can recover some of that same feeling.
Gibbons makes a similar point:”writing delivers us into discoveries of what, til we had formed some way to articulate it in language, had remained unformed, had been unknown to us, and that it must do this if it is to be interesting to anyone–even the writer! The articulation becomes the knowing; the knowing comes out of the process, and it refuels a further effort at articulation. A sense of ecstatic fruitfulness, of rich discoveries, of voyaging, comes to us in the exhilarating moments of being-in-our work-in-progress.”
Research done by sociologist James Pennebaker demonstrates that when realizations, insights and feelings are articulated in language, that language works to “cement” them into the person’s psyche. Other work of his cites measurable health improvements in those able to articulate traumatic experiences which had been previously unarticulated. His work provides another type of apologia for the self-making possible in poetry making, in writing.
We need our scientific data, but I will end here with Gibbons: “What you find if you are lucky, is a sense of the live pace of change in your own life and art, and therein, the reality of your feelings, the reality or truth of your of your intuition, the authority of your imagination, the words for what you now see you want to say–to paraphrase E.M. Forster.”