John Ashbery's Teaching Advice
My advice to younger poets is to read as much poetry of the 20th and 21st century as possible. In writing workshops I assign books of poems, but there’s never time enough to do that and attend to thestudents' poetry, which is all they’re interested in. They never take my advice. I was once telling somebody that if you don’t read what’s been written, you may end up sounding like some poet you’ve never read. This has happened. I had a student once who reminded me quite a bit of Hart Crane. He had never heard of him, of course. I suggested that he read him. Some time later, he turned in another poem that reminded me of Crane. I asked him if he’d taken my advice, and he said, ‘No, but I’m going to.’ [laughs]
I just don’t think young poets today read enough poetry. They’re more into expressing themselves and their personal dramas. Sometimes the workshops turn into group therapy. I think sometimes the students are even communicating with other people in the class that they may have designs on. [laughs] I try to get them to be more objective, and I sort of propel them into the further reaches of consciousness by using assignments designed to derail their first instincts. My old favorite is the sestina. You’re interrupted at every line. What you want to say is derailed. Somehow, at the end, the students write the poem they were going to write anyway, but it turns out more satisfying because their attention was deflected from themselves for a little while. Sometimes I ask them to translate a poem from a language that I assume they don’t know, which is practically any foreign language, it turns out. Something like Finnish. I even tried Egyptian hieroglyphics once, but then I was getting a lot of eyes and fish. Sometimes I use pictures, like Max Ernst’s collages.