Image by Thomas Guignard
You’re probably here at the Young Poets Network because you’re interested in poetry. Perhaps you’re also at the stage where you are considering what to study at university. It’s an important decision, especially when tuition fees are rocketing and the job market is so competitive. Many students feel torn between studying something they love, and studying a subject which they think will make them more employable. How’s a young poet to decide?
Creative Writing courses are popular and can be a great way to hone your talents and focus full-time on your writing. You will probably have classes with published writers, publishers and agents – a great way of making contacts for the future. You will meet other writers to bounce off and probably form lifelong friends who also double as workshoppers intimate with your writing. There is a readymade group of writers for whatever crazy writing ventures you plan to undertake! Generally, undergraduate creative writing courses cover a range of genres – fiction, non-fiction, drama, journalism etc as well as poetry. You need to be willing to embrace a variety of writing styles – it’s rare that you will be able to focus only on poetry. But you may well discover a new talent.
Many poets choose to study English. In a way, it seems the obvious choice – understanding how great writing works will always improve your own. You will be exposed to a huge range of literature, and often books you didn’t think you’d be interested in can be the most enjoyable and inspirational of all. A literature degree will force you to broaden your reading horizons. Didn’t think you’d be reading Gawain and the Green Knight in Middle English? Think again!
But of course, many of you will feel the tug of completely different subjects – maybe the sciences, law, nursing, medicine, engineering, politics… You may well know what career you want and what degree you will need to achieve it; more vocational degrees generally offer a more defined career trajectory to follow. These subjects might at first seem unrelated to poetry, and you might be worried that your writing will suffer compared to an English or CW student. Don’t! As the poets below stress over again, there is no such thing as reading too widely. All types of knowledge will enrich your poetry and foster diversity within the creative writing community. Imagine how boring it would be if every poet had read exactly the same books!
Here at YPN we can’t give you any definitive answers for what to study – everyone’s situation is different. But if you are staring at your UCAS form wondering what to do, take heart: we have gathered some insights from poets, students and tutors which should demonstrate that – whatever you chose – you can still nurture your love of poetry. You’ll also find some tips for investigating which university and degree course is best for you.
Some University Tutors’ Views
Deryn Rees-Jones has published four collections of poetry, the latest of which, Burying the Wren, has just been shortlisted for the TS Eliot Prize. She has also written numerous critical books, and is Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Liverpool. She is one of the co-founders of the University’s Centre for Poetry and Science. She says:
What I would say to any young person wanting to write is that poetry isn’t a career, it’s a vocation. That writing poetry is a way of thinking and knowing the world. To be a poet you have to love reading, and by that I don’t just mean reading poetry. You have to be hungry for looking at the world, and wanting to make sense – even for a moment within a poem’s form – of the world.
Lots of poets have come from a scientific background. But they were all great readers. And great readers who are poets are also aware of the importance of drawing on the different kinds of knowledge that are available to us, whether in biology, physics, history, politics, neurology…the list is endless…
Primarily though, it’s about attention, and attentiveness. . . being able to dwell with ideas and feelings…An English degree stood me in good stead at a time when creative writing courses were practically unheard of for undergraduates in the UK. The degree touched the surface of the wealth of writing there would be for me to explore throughout my life. An English degree gave me a road map. But there are lots of different maps you can use.
David Morley is a National Teaching Fellow and Director of the Warwick Writing Programme. Poet, critic and ecologist, he took a Zoology degree and is passionate about the fertile crossover between science and art. He teaches on Warwick’s English and Creative Writing BA and the MA in Writing. He says:
At Warwick, creative writing students can take modules in the sciences and social sciences. One underlying principle is to help these students begin to think more laterally in language and knowledge.
In return, we welcome science students on to our creative writing modules. The discipline of creative writing crossed over quite harmoniously into other forms of knowledge, for it helped to tell the story of those forms of knowledge.
Morley points towards one of the greatest nineteenth century poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who saw the fundamental poetry in science and what it could bring to his own writing.
Coleridge thought science, ‘being necessarily performed with the passion of Hope… was poetical’ and wrote in 1802 that ‘I attended [Sir Humphrey] Davy’s lectures to enlarge my stock of metaphors…Every subject in Davy’s mind has the principle of Vitality. Living thoughts spring up like Turf under his feet’.
Coleridge’s words chime with Deryn Rees-Jones’s – poetry does not reside only in ‘poetic’ subjects, it is a way of looking at the world and expressing what you see.
A Creative Writing Student
Martha Sprackland studied English and Creative Writing at university and has gone on to have her work published in Magma, The Cadaverine and The Salt Book of Younger Poets among others. She also co-edits poetry magazine Cake. She loved her joint degree.
I chose to study a joint degree – English Literature with Creative Writing – mostly because I’m chronically indecisive. I was always convinced I wanted to study English, thinking that was the closest I’d get to being able to do what I really love – writing and reading poetry – in an academic environment. Finding out at nineteen that there was a whole degree devoted to that made for a great day, and I jumped at the opportunity to combine reading and writing (my two favourite things!) into one programme of study. Interestingly, once it came to graduating from my undergraduate degree and moving onto the MA, I chose to drop the Creative Writing element and enrol onto the English Literary Studies option. This wasn’t because I didn’t love the workshop environment and the three years I spent doing Creative Writing – I did. Simply put, I got to the point where I had enough wonderful outlets for poetry (including extracurricular workshops, readings and events), and thought I’d love to pursue the academic pathway further.
The things which have offered me the greatest outlets for my work whilst at university are threefold – the Creative Writing degree itself, an extracurricular workshop I set up, and editing Cake magazine, the last of which allowed me to read hundreds of submissions by my peers, and keep an eye on the current poetry world! A Creative Writing degree is a fantastic thing – especially when supplemented by other methods of engagement with the poetry world – open mics, readings and events, workshops, writing opportunities and – my favourite – poetry parties on campus (cake, pizza and poetry – how could you lose?).
A Neuroscience Student
Another poet who appreciates the ‘different maps’ that Deryn Rees-Jones describes is Helen Mort, who has published three collections of poetry, won an Eric Gregory Award, been the youngest ever poet-in-residence at the Wordsworth Trust, and is now doing a PhD in poetry and neuroscience.
To be a good writer, you need a range of things to write about. The psychologist Jerome Bruner is not alone when he suggests there are ‘two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality.’ (1986) The implication is that these ‘modes’ belong to science and art. But if there really are two different kinds of knowledge in the world, surely the best thing we can do is to get them talking to each other, like any sulky couple? For me, science acts as an indirect source of inspiration, encouraging me to broaden my horizons. Nothing is off limits for enquiry. There’s no such thing as reading too widely.
An English Student
Kayo Chingonyi took a BA in English Literature and then an MA in Creative Writing. Kayo’s pamphlet Some Bright Elegance was published by Salt in 2012. His poetry has featured in Salt’s The Best British Poetry 2011, Bloodaxe’s Out of Bounds and The World Record, and the British Council’s Verbalized, among others. He has read at many venues and events all over the world, and as a creative writing tutor he has devised and delivered workshops for a range of institutions including the National Theatre and YMCA. Kayo was a joint winner of the 2003 SLAMbassadors UK spoken word championship.
In a lot of ways thinking and talking about books, during my BA, was helpful to my writing but occasionally I found that reading so many poems held up as great made me overly-critical of my own work. Luckily the course offered at my university was broad so I was able to study drama, philosophy and some modules in creative writing which all nourished my writing.
When I finished my BA I took two years out of education but decided to apply for an MA in Creative Writing because I wanted to focus on writing again (paradoxically working as a writer can require a lot of time spent securing new employment, leaving little time for the actual writing).
The MA was good in this regard as I knew I had to write or edit something every week and the weekly workshop and class in literary criticism meant I had one day in the week set aside for thinking about my own writing. Ultimately, I don’t think I had to do the course but I am glad that I did because when I started the course I needed the focus.
Since such courses cost a lost of money it’s worth weighing up whether you think the course is worth it. You should always be able to speak to someone at the university in more detail about what you will get in return for your money. Also, there is funding available at most universities which can allow you to study if you couldn’t otherwise afford to (this is, of course, very competitive).
Another thing to think about is that there are other options: you could join a workshop group (or start one with some friends), attend a residential writing retreat or take a short course with an organisation such as The Poetry School (all of these at a fraction of the cost of an MA).
A Mathematics Student
George Lewkowicz writes, composes and performs as Superbard, performing for Radio 4, Newsnight and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, among others. He is also the creative director of Tea Fuelled, a London-based arts collective. He is full of creative flair, but approaches poetry with a mathematician’s logical mind.
I studied Mathematics and Statistics and it was only later that I came to poetry. At University I spent a lot of time writing and acting in plays, and that gradually led to my storytelling style. I finally ‘converted’ to the arts with a Creative Writing masters at Birkbeck, but I couldn’t write what I write now without my knowledge of mathematics.
A lot of my ideas and thoughts come from a scientific angle, but it’s more than that, my whole approach to writing is logical. I have a fascination with structure and the way words play together which comes as much from my right side of my brain as my left.
I’m incredibly glad I studied mathematics rather than the obvious English Literature or straight creative writing. The wider knowledge it’s given me is essential to creating new work and I’d highly recommend studying an alternative subject before going into poetry.
A Philosophy and Sustainable Development Student
Another writer who knows about the value of alternative subjects is Harry Giles, a performance poet and theatre-maker who studied Philosophy and Sustainable Development at university. He found his degree both informative and freeing for his writing.
I never studied literature or creative writing formally in higher education, but poetry and spoken word was always something I actively pursued. I think it’s always important to have a community of writers around you, so I found that through working actively with my uni’s creative writing society. That gave me a bunch of experience in running events, which has been invaluable for my career so far – especially if you’re interested in spoken as well as written word.
I studied Sustainable Development with Philosophy – two big, wide-ranging subjects. I took that route because I’m insatiably curious and couldn’t stop wanting to find out new things. It also means I’ve got a bunch of areas of expertise outside of literature itself – so my poetry is knowledgeable about the world around me. Not studying Literature or Creative Writing formally is in some ways quite freeing – I’m not weighed down with concerns about where my poetry fits in the discourse, I’m not over-influenced by opinionated tutors, and I’ve never had to submit my poetry for a mark (the best way to kill the joy in doing anything). I also almost never write poems about poetry, which I think is a good thing. It does mean I’ve less knowledge of the contemporary publishing world, so that’s taken me longer to get on top of – but that’s easy enough to learn by yourself.
Whatever you study, it’s important that your interests are broad. If you choose to get your poetry kicks academically, great! – just make sure you’re finding plenty things to write about too.
When you’re looking into universities and courses, look carefully at the modules offered. Some universities give you the opportunity to take a course or module outside the specific subject area of your degree. For example, many English degrees offer a creative writing module as well.
Research the tutors at the universities you are considering – there might be writers teaching there whose work you admire. If there are writers you haven’t heard of – then research their work! Read it properly and see if you admire it. You might discover a new favourite poet.
Look into the extracurricular poetry scene at your university – is there an active workshop group, or a society that organises regular readings? Could you create your own society if you found other people interested in creative writing?
If there is an opportunity to talk to alumni of the course you are interested in – then take it. Ask them about the environment of the university and the course, and what opportunities there are.
If you are looking into a specific Creative Writing degree, look at who the university invites to give talks – are they writers you admire? Are they alumni of the course themselves? Do you get a chance to talk to publishers or are they just in and out?
The key messages here are that you can’t read too widely, and there’s no area of study which will throw you off course in your pursuit of poetry. Everything is grist to the mill! A creative writing degree will allow you to focus full-time on your writing, and that is an exciting opportunity that not many poets get. But if you don’t think a creative writing course is right for you, there are still plenty of options for continuing your poetic exploration. Don’t worry if you are swayed in a completely different direction! Politics will help you understand how the world works; law will raise fascinating questions of morality; veterinary science will give you an intimate understanding of the interconnectedness of the body; in engineering you will study the perfection of form – every field imaginable offers something valuable to a poet.
Whatever you decide to do, very best of luck – and we’d love to hear about the choices you’ve made!