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Some years ago I was trying to buy a truck in Boston, and the salesman after some conversation asked me if I might be available to tutor him, to "improve his English," as he put it, so that he might secure a better job. I think that habit of attitude toward the fact of speaking, and writing and reading equally, is deeply ingrained in anyone who passes through our usual system of education. There is a sense adamantly present that a "right" way and "wrong" way exist and what one is trying to teach and/or learn is the correct approach. But writing, insofar as I've had to do with it, is absolutely hostile to such an assumption. There can be examples obviously, facts of writing one responds to and respects, and these become the literal measure of one's own practice. Such measures are, however, inevitably personal, no matter how much they may seem instances of general or topical interest. Millions of people may be involved by what Bob Dylan is saying, but the more significant point, for me, is that each one hears him as a singular occasion.

That, in fact, is one of the delights of writing, that it involves such a one-to-one relationship. At least its most active possibility lies for me in that fact. I know that many people may reach college with a marked resistance to writing, but again, assuming that they have been subject to the right and wrong emphasis, it seems very evident

Jonathan Baumbach, ed., Writers as Teachers/Teachers as Writers (New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1970).


that writing as a discipline has been used primarily against them. Even when they've done it correctly , the effect is most often a complete generalization of their own concerns, and what hopefully they began with—some explicit fact and their own relation to it—has become "correct usage" only.

Of course language, a language, is a system, and acquaintance with the nature of that condition is most useful. But what a difference there is between the usual college grammar text and such a book as Ernest Fenollosa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry —or Gertrude Stein's notes on parts of speech in "Poetry and Grammar"—or Edward Sapir's Language . Clearly these represent my interests, and I cannot assume their relevance for another—but the point is, I would like to, and in teaching I would absolutely depend on texts having explicit involvement with language as a system rather than the generalized "rule books" all too frequent.

But this gets the cart before the horse, just that in teaching writing, or any other possibility, one begins with the students themselves. If I speak French and they speak Chinese, no communication occurs. It's not indulgence that argues the use of knowing the terms and active content of those one proposes to teach. So, then, "why write?"—and is any possibility to be found in it that they themselves value? What do they read, if they read? What uses do they find in writing, if any? Is it an activity merely demanded by their various courses—reports, analyses, explanations, etc.

Don't be discouraged if, at first, nothing much happens at all. I was once in a writing class taught by Delmore Schwartz, who began with the reasonable assumption that there must be one writer that all of us respected in common. Unhappily there wasn't—and the class sat in that dilemma for the full length of the semester. It isn't that he was wrong or right, but rather that any assumption about what can or should happen must yield to the actual situation. Most frequently the people one is trying to teach will have been habituated to feel that reading and writing are activities having as necessary purpose the gaining of a didactic information, and in a class which, hopefully, is not intended to center upon a "subject," or to make known specific content of such order, a significant number may well be disgruntled, feeling that the course is a waste of time. Others, proposing more sympathetic interest, will want immediately to know what ways of writing will be most useful to their intentions and will expect to be taught these in a rather literal manner—with appropriate notes as to adequate and inadequate "performance." I'd suggest that both attitudes be balked—there is nowhere one is


necessarily going, there is really nothing more to say than what seems of interest to them at the moment, and if no one has such interest, then that's true—for themselves as well as for you.

If such a way of beginning appears to be extraordinarily lax—granted that writing is, in one sense, a discipline of very complex and actual particularity—do remember that one's own interests and commitments in no way involve the possibility of others until those others have entered their condition. My excitement will only be an irritation for anyone who finds himself sharing neither my situation of experience nor my own commitment to the terms of the activity involved. How, then, engender such circumstance as makes a common ground?

First of all, begin with what's there—by which I mean, the literal fact of the people. You can ask them "what they want to do" and may well get the answer, "nothing"—but that's enough, i.e., push that, "what is that state of activity," or literally do nothing, if that is chosen as the state of possibility. In such a situation the one thing most dulling seems to me to insist that such and such is a "great" book or that this or that way of writing is most "effective" and to argue consequently, but only with oneself, all the possible justifications.

You may choose to impose upon them the necessity of writing something—there is obviously no reason not to—but don't limit it too didactically to a "subject" and don't look for what you think it should say. The dreary habit of parroting so prevalent in contemporary education comes of such insistence, and profits no one at all. Take what is said as the context and use that as the means of exchange. You cannot apply to an alternative or to a rule you may respect, which the writer himself has not experienced. In other words, make known to him that what he is saying has the possibility of this or that extension—not that what is unknown to him is a constant and frustrating limit.

Having once taught the first grade, I can remember that lovely experience of witnessing someone's coming into the possibility of reading and writing, so that the literal fact of speech gains extension in time and space in immeasurable senses. It is an absolutely human delight, and if people have forgotten that, it may well be due to the fact that this incredible agency has been so hedged in by impositions of purpose , and necessary meaning , and all manner of didactic insistence. As if the only point in learning how to swim were to get from A to B . . . Poets were once called "makers" and the word poetry comes from a root meaning "to make." But what to make—despite all insistences to the contrary—is as viable as language and human condition can make manifest. It's hardly permis-


sive to want to return some of that possibility to senses of teaching and learning.

In fact, that seems finally the point—that unless writing does become that pleasure, it remains a drudgery and only an occasion prompting more criticism, more "doing it wrong." How to make it such pleasure no one can easily tell another, nor can one assume that all people will share equally in its delights. But you don't have to kill it. You don't have to humiliate and ignore and find contemptible what may be the very possibility you are committed to foster. I am sick to death of "taste" which wants to convert all experience to terms of fashion and the social. Rather, respect Pound's "Damn your taste! I want if possible to sharpen your perceptions, after which your taste can take care of itself." Your own are involved as well as those of your students.

How you do what you do remains your own possibility, and invention. It may or may not involve books, newspapers, films, television—or any fact of activity possible to your life and that of your students. Writing is an activity, not a subject. You cannot propose an isolated area of its relevance.

What follows, then, is an instance of my own involvement with teaching and writing, specifically with poetry—although writing is, for me, all that is made with words and written down.

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