Creativity & criticism

June 27, 2005, by Teaching at Nottingham

Creativity and criticism: spotting a gap and motivations to change

Peter Howarth: “I joined the Department in 2000 and as part of my teaching, began a module on Modern Poetry. I realised that the students had to develop an understanding of the shape and form of poetry, and how form affects meaning; students read poetry as if they were reading a novel, and when asked to criticise an individual poem they too often wanted to tell me the story of the poem, not talk about how the poem worked. I had limited success in teaching this and felt I was doing too little, too late.

“At the same time we wanted to do more in the course for creative writing, since I was often getting shy knocks at the door with students asking me to read their poems. Often they were written in the free verse of tortured self-discovery, and they were more worried about self-revelation than about making a good poem which other people could enjoy reading. So I knew that students wanted to do creative work quite strongly, and could be helped to write better and understand other poets better by doing so. But the problem is that in terms of how it’s taught, creative writing is often divorced from the rest of the curriculum. It’s as though creativity belongs to one mental realm, and criticism or language work or historical context belongs to another. For example, none of my shy poets above would ever write in an essay that Bleak House was good because it conveyed Dickens’s feelings well, but in their poems that’s what they were saying about themselves. I didn’t feel creativity and criticism should be so split – I wanted the students to understand and love poetry from the experience of writing it and from the experience of reading it. After all, poets read the work of others, see things they like and say “I want to steal that” and for them, the two processes are integrated and help each other. How could I run a module which helped students see that the poem and the person writing are different things?

“My third motivation was that I had felt for some time that in Arts degrees the way the student learns means that they stop seeing their texts as moving, engaging works of art. Too often, the system encourages them to see each piece of art as a privileged example of something else you want to say about philosophy or history. Of course, understanding context like this is vital, but I wanted to re-connect with a sense of art’s power to move and change our frameworks of understanding and to engage with our emotions as well as our reason. Students need to feel the excitement of live art. And we’d been encouraged to link with the Lakeside Pavilion: the Director had visited the Department the year before and spoken of her desire to explore ways in which Arts and academia could be connected.

Thoughts for the new module
“I got the chance to re-vamp my modern poetry module into a 10-week course worth 20 credits, and I had the idea of bringing in a poet to co-teach it. I didn’t know how this would work. I didn’t know if a professional poet would be willing to get involved in teaching and at what level, or how comfortable they would be on a mixed creative-critical course. Not every poet would be the right person – some want nothing to do with the academy at all, and some are a bit too closely involved for my taste.

Finding my poet
“In my Department I have a couple of colleagues who have links with the British Council, lots of contacts in the Arts and experience of working with professional artists. I got their advice and they encouraged me onwards. They suggested that I should be very clear about what I was asking the poet for and draw up a detailed and costed proposal. They also said that I should research the kinds of funding streams available, as some of these require you to show you’ve involved the wider community box to apply. I basically had to think through why an artist might want to be involved in my module.

“I also knew whose work I admired and I had thoughts about who might be able to work with University Students. I sometimes do reviews of contemporary poetry collections and I was in correspondence with one of the artists, so I asked him if he might like to be involved. I was incredibly fortunate in my choice, since it turned out that the poet I approached was writing a book about creative writing and was keen to test out some of his ideas.

“I applied for funding for the new module to the old Learning and Teaching Development Fund so I knew I had real money to offer the Poet. I had to write a detailed proposal of what the money would be for, who would benefit and why it was an academically valuable thing to be supporting.

The New Module
“Initially I saw the module as being 7 weeks of Lecture / Seminars in the traditional format interspersed with 3 weeks working in workshops with the poet. They got 7 weeks of work on important modern poets such as Yeats, Plath , Auden etc., and me trying to communicate the importance of form to big questions of history or politics in criticism. Then came the creative writing sessions with the poet. These were 3-hour long workshops in which the students were able to see into the process of creativity through asking the poet about their works and through a series of creative writing exercises. The exercises provide different ways into the creative process – creative springboards. For example, they had to take the first line of a poem they were studying with me, and then use that as the first line of their own poem before taking it in a completely different direction. Or they would write the same poem in three or four different formats to see what difference longer or shorter lines made. Some poems were begun simply through generating artificial sound patterns (using poems built from words involving the consonant-clusters in the student’s own name, others through trying different kinds of writing process (writing a poem which starts from free association and turns into something ordered, for instance, so that you don’t begin with a mental meaning which you later express, you create a meaning from what you find in your mind).

“Not all the students chose to do the creative work with the poet. From my class of about 30 students roughly half went to work with him and half worked with me doing additional things. We worked on different poets and stuck to poetry criticism, although always with an ear for how the form was working.

“During the first year the feedback from the students was that they preferred the workshop structure and so I quickly converted my Lecture/Seminars of the first 7 weeks into the more interactive workshops. So we now have workshops throughout the course, which they like as they feel they can get really into the topic (and we have a tea break half way through).

Workload and Costs
“There is more organisation involved in running this module. It was very important to brief the poet carefully so that he understood what I was trying to achieve with the link between creativity and criticism. The first year I was very nervous, and so was the poet. We didn’t know if it would work. The poet was not used to working in an institutional academic setting, and I wasn’t used to working with creative writers. However, I do feel that Nottingham students can cope with anything you throw at them and compared to the frustration of the students just not understanding poetry, these didn’t feel like huge extra costs. Also when the poet was there I was only teaching half the group which was nice – felt more like an MA group, and the students are very motivated.

“I did sit in on some of the earlier workshops with the Poet. I was interested to see how he worked and enjoyed seeing his approach. I also satisfied myself that the students were OK. When it came to the students producing their own poems I left them to it, feeling that my presence would not help real creativity at that stage.

“The students really liked the module: “what I came to University for”, I remember one of them saying. Generally I think they loved a chance to be recognised for creativity in a way that doesn’t happen very often in the rest of their life. One of the most rewarding outcomes for me, though, was seeing students realise that when they read their poem out loud to their peers it takes on a life of its own. Being asked, “Did you mean this?” and answering “no but I can see how you thought that” helps them see how the poem has some qualities beyond their designs for it. This feeds into their understanding of literary criticism. I mentioned the persistent idea that understanding a piece of writing is to find out what the author was feeling when it was written. When they experience the reactions to their own poetry and see their creations take on another life in relation to other readers, they are more able to see how this matters in the way we treat famous works of art. For my purposes, this was the best thing about the module, because it directly linked creativity with some of the issues that were central to some of the literary theory elements of the English curriculum.

‘The reflective accounts given in the students’ portfolios gave an insight into their experience on the module.

‘I was beginning to look at the world from a fresh perspective’

‘Finding a new way of writing about scenery you have looked at all your life forces a re-examination of your feelings – it’s a power and force which can shake the consciousness in such a way that it may change perception of the world’.

‘Sessions with DP really helped me to get to grips with metaphor and has helped my understanding of Plath’s metaphors much more successfully’

‘I have come to understand that every word of a poem counts’

‘Writing poetry has made me pay much more attention to words and their huge range of possibilities and so has increased my enjoyment of reading poetry as well’.

‘I had previously thought the two disciplines of creativity and criticism were separate, but has made me realise how they feed into one another and opened up new perspectives’.

“The external examiner was impressed by the quality of the students’ work saying, that this was a really good way of teaching poetry and should be an example elsewhere.

“I think that working with a professional poet, someone working and making their living in the Arts, energised the students and made them work really hard. They were using the values and the standards that apply in that world while also being protected by the institution to be as wild as they liked. I think leaving them with the poet when they were creating their own works gave that interesting dynamic. The students could say things that normally can’t be said. I think that was also a great outcome. If we limit what art is to what can be said about it in examinations, it’s very depressing.

Dr Peter Howarth
School of English Studies


  • Peter has presented some reflections on the creative-critical divide at the 2005 Higher Education Academy conference in Edinburgh and the full conference paper is available, entitled “Integrating Creativity into the Curriculum”
  • Creative writing in a contemporary context” is a third year module in the School. Produced June 2005
Posted in Curriculum designStudents' academic development