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Responding to Violent Poems in the Classroom
When I taught creative writing at Lynchburg College in Virginia, I discovered, like many creative writing teachers, that violence pervaded the lives of many undergraduates students. After receiving several poems about assaults, suicide, and abuse, I conducted an unscientific survey. I asked students to anonymously list violence they, their families, or friends had experienced. All but fifteen of my 50 students were victims or had a close friend who had experienced one of the following: abuse, murder, suicide, assault, or rape.
I think many of these students turn to poetry as a way of understanding and integrating violent experiences into their newly developing sense of selves. Yet undergraduate poems about violence, often poorly written or too narrowly autobiographical, present a dilemma for the creative writing teacher: how can one respond to them both as a writing instructor and fellow human moved by another’s suffering without blurring the roles between student and teacher, or writing workshop and therapy group?
To find an answer back then, I read the literature written by doctors helping soldiers suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). While not all students who are victims of violence suffer from PTSD, some do. Those with PTSD live a half-life, marked by a profound sense of emptiness and a continual reliving of the traumatic experience.
According to Jonathan Shay in Achilles in Vietnam, a book about Vietnam veterans suffering from PTSD, “Severe trauma explodes the cohesion of consciousness.” He discovered that narrative is what “pieces back together the fragmentation of consciousness.” To effectively shape a narrative, Shay argues, narrators require “trustworthy listeners.” A trustworthy listener is someone who can: 1) hear the horrifying accounts of violence without denying them or blaming the victim, 2) experience some of the terror, grief, and rage of the victim, 3) listen with emotion and respect for the storyteller, and 4) refrain from judgment.
Shay’s attributes of a trustworthy listener parallel some guidelines used in many workshops to respond and to critique poems. I used to instruct my students to identify a poet’s intention and then assess whether the poem successfully achieves it. They should not judge the subject matter, or ask questions about actual events. I’ve found that no matter how often I repeat these guidelines, students first respond emotionally and sympathetically to their peers’ poems, especially those about violence, and then critique a poem’s stylistic achievement rather than judging its subject matter. In short, they function as trustworthy listeners, freeing me to comment on craft.
Before yesterday, I used to think it was less important for the instructor to exhaustively critique a poem about violence than it was to simply let it be presented with minimal suggestions (and to contact the college counseling service if it was especially troubling). In doing so, students and teachers alike could view these poems as milestones, steps in a process that will mend an intelligence fractured by violence. Now this seems heretical, a blurring of the lines between therapist and instructor. I thought then it taught students about one of poetry’s roles—that of naming the unnamable. To listen to these poems as trustworthy listeners, I thought, was to help the sufferer name what has been up to that point unnamable. Naming, a quintessentially communal act, can reunite the sufferer with his or her social network and enlarge it to contain his or her suffering.
After yesterday’s violence, I think creative writing teachers should turn to experts in PTSD and psychology to figure out what to do when students turn in writing that contains horrific acts of violence.