I’ve heard it said that one definition of insanity is when an individual does the same thing repeatedly but expects different results each time. This expression essentially sums up the actions and expectations of about three-quarters of my 203 students. Every week these students submit poems that exhibit precisely the same errors and shortcomings that I have hammered them for time and again: “Don’t end-rhyme,” “Don’t omit punctuation,” “Don’t end lines on prepositions or articles,” “Don’t end-stop every line,” “Don’t tell, show,” “There’s no use of imagery anywhere in this poem—why?” “Don’t assume the reader knows as much as you do about the dramatic situation,” “What is the dramatic situation?” “This is not a narrative poem,” “Don’t write poems only your mama/grandma/girlfriend/etc. are going to care about or understand,” and so on. I could extend this list by a factor of 3, at least, believe you me.
It has gotten to the point where I spend a lot of time critiquing about five students’ poems, and the rest I generally write something like: Again, there’s no clear dramatic situation, no use of imagery, and I can find no discernible reason why a reader should care about this poem at all. Revise accordingly. Sometimes I don’t even give them that much; instead, I simply circle the entire poem and write “NO”. That may sound unduly harsh, but when you spend several hours each and every week commenting on twenty-two poems and, midway through the semester, you’ve still not seen any discernible effort to improve, it is easy to become short-tempered and downright cynical with your comments. For instance, here’s an excerpt from a student poem in the FINAL packet of the semester (which means this student has already submitted at least 14 poems thus far):
In the same ocean where we swam,
15 feet long, over 1,000 pounds.
dark and cold.
Rows of razor sharp teeth,
some the size of my hand.
The ultimate weapon,
the ultimate predator,
the hammerhead shark.
There are only seven more lines to the poem, which I’ll spare you, but suffice it to say that they don’t come close to redeeming those first nine. Now, I’m not suggesting that the student who wrote this should be writing quality (i.e., literary) poetry, by any means. But at this point in the semester, s/he should be composing narrative poems that have a very clear, concrete dramatic situation, and which attempt to employ a more sophisticated grasp of sensory imagery than “dark and cold.”
That s/he isn’t doing these things wouldn’t bother me so much if s/he represented an exception to the majority instead of the majority itself. And I would gladly take responsibility for this trend if I thought it was merely an issue of my not providing them with appropriate instruction regarding the craft of poetry or not giving them quality examples of contemporary poetry that illustrate aspects of craft, but that’s not the case. (Which isn’t to suggest that I’m some kind of badass poetry instructor, because I know that isn’t true, either.) And yet, week after week, they turn in more of the same. So the question I keep asking myself, then, is: Are these students insane? Or are they simply so little invested in the course that they don’t much give a damn one way or the other? The answer is probably the latter, of course, but sometimes I strongly suspect the former—if only because being insane makes more sense to me when all that is ultimately required to get an A in the course is material proof of having made an effort.