Wednesday Apr 25

hoppenthaler Douglas Dunn has said, in an interview, that he tells his students a good poem should work in the mind, in the heart and in the ear, and that "The reader has a right to expect these three things simultaneously."  This seems to me as good an explanation as any I’ve heard of what a poem ought to offer a reader, and these are the things I aspire to in my own poetry.  The famous closing couplet of Archibald MacLeish’s “Ars Poetica,” "A poem should not mean / But be", reminds us that a poem is a piece of art and that it should be experienced in the same way in which we might encounter a painting or sculpture; as Horace insisted: "ut pictura poesis", or "as is painting so is poetry."  This flies in the face of the way most young people have been taught about poetry in junior high and high school classrooms in our country.  That is to say, as curricula in secondary schools (as well as the primary schools) is more and more focused on the wrong-minded pedagogy of “teaching to the test,” the insistence that a specific “meaning” (and, hence, a specific value that can be easily adapted to a multiple choice question) be attached to a poem, a painting, or any other artifact seems more and more prevalent.  This undercuts the value of art, and it reduces artistic production to the level of reportage.  It also privileges a particular poem, one that appears to be easily understood and so neatly fits into the limited and limiting pedagogical model to which our children are subjugated.  But, back to Dunn’s assertion about what things constitute a good poem: he tells us that a poem should obligate a reader to think about its content with a certain rigor; that it should provide a reader with a musical texture that itself becomes part of the poem’s experience; and that it should be either poignant or otherwise emotionally affecting.

 

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Some years ago, while living in West Virginia, I had the opportunity to lead a workshop for area high school teachers.  Their poems were workshopped during the first half of the program, and during the second half I led a discussion of how poetry might be taught on the high school level.  I began that second part by asking these educators if they used the coal mining poems of West Virginia’s poet laureate, Irene McKinney, in their classes.  After all, most of their students would have had coal miners hanging somewhere on their family trees.  To a one, they all said no; and to a one, the reason given was that “it wasn’t on the test.”  No time was allowable for such an extravagance.

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In my undergraduate (and even in my graduate!) poetry classes at East Carolina University, I’ve encountered few students who have ever read the work of a living poet.  This is astonishing to me, but it probably ought not be so.  I mean, it wasn’t on the test, and so the only opportunity a student would have had to read a contemporary poem would be if she or he was blessed with parents who have an interest in poetry, or if the student was lucky enough to have attended a progressive private school.  Worse yet is the experience with poetry most of them DID have!

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Last month I visited my family in New York and had the chance to assist my nephew with his English homework.  His class (the school system is a good one, situated in the suburbs of NYC) was working on poetry, and he was assigned several poems to which to respond.  One was actually by a living poet, but certainly not her best work.  It was a poem easily understood to mean something specific and predictable.  The others were by poets long dead, including one by John Greenleaf Whittier.  I have nothing bad to say about the dead, and there is much to be learned from the work of long-departed poets; however, if part of the purpose of a quality education (and I’m insisting that it is) is to foster an appreciation for art, then using texts that are so far removed from a young person’s actual daily experience is, in fact, a gross disservice.  There is plenty of time for students so moved (especially if they are so moved thanks to a more generous and sensible first encounter with poetry) to seek out the works of these poets at a later time (in college or at the local library, for example).  What makes perfect sense—since, aside from an attractive first encounter with poetry, the pedagogical goal of an introduction to poetry at the secondary level ought to be to provide a student with the tools needed to properly engage with a poem—is to use poems that speak to their lives, poems that make use of contemporary diction(s), contemporary cultural allusions, and confront contemporary “problems.”  Furthermore, a student needs to be made aware of the fact that a good poem is a not a static object but, rather, one that is in flux, and that a reader has an active role to play in the making of the poem’s experience.  And they should learn that a poem shouldn’t mean but be.

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As poetry is taught at the secondary level today, there is precious little focus on the three elements Dunn identifies as crucial to a good poem.  “Meaning” is privileged, and in most cases, given what I’ve seen and heard, meaning seems to be considered as separate from a poem’s sonic texture.  Additionally, because poems that are remote from a teenager in time and space are most typically used as texts, much of a poem’s potential for emotional impact is reduced.  I’m not saying that a student cannot be moved by a Shakespearean sonnet (though the alien diction, allusions, and sensibilities create impediments for many students who may be so intimidated by a poem’s foreignness that they find it impossible to break through to its universal heart); rather, what I mean to argue is that our youngsters are best served by contemporary poems, those that tend to speak in a linguistic register that more closely resembles their own, that allude to period cultural phenomena with which they are familiar (and in which they may have a personal stake), and that are written by poets student might indeed have an opportunity to hear read at a local venue.  It would not be the worst thing in the world if actual poets (and painters, musicians, and dancers) are actually brought into the schools to lend expertise and example.

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While I am personally interested in the archeological work of autopsying poems from a removed past, this is not necessarily what is best for a developing young mind’s first encounters with poetry (unless such poems are placed in an appropriate context and used as texts to enlarge a particular historical moment; i.e., using Whitman’s civil war poems, say, to give texture to a discussion of that contentious event).  Our students would be better served, I’m certain, if poems by contemporary poets who are both reasonably accessible and culturally available were used instead:  Irene McKinney in West Virginia, Natasha Trethewey in Mississippi, Philip Levine in Michigan (or anyplace else in the “Rust Belt”), Dave Smith in eastern Virginia, etc.  But there is the additional problem of properly training English teachers in how to go about teaching their students how to read poetry.  They, too, have been the victims of an insufficient education, not to mention of the hand-tying “No Child Left Behind” atrocities inflicted upon them by a government more motivated to produce easily herded, surface-thinking drones rather than deep-thinking questioners of the status quo.  Many teachers have no idea how to go about teaching poetry in a way that might excite a student, and they themselves might have been deluded into thinking of poetry not as a dynamic piece of art but as a piece of writing with a very specific message that needs to be determined.  My students typically tell me of extremes.  Some received bad grades for not spewing back exactly what a teacher had told them a particular poem “means.”  Others have been told that a poem can pretty much “mean” whatever the reader wishes it to mean, the actual textual evidence contained in said poem be damned!  It’s no wonder that I hear so often from undergraduates that they “hate” poetry; in this context, we can understand “hate” to mean something like, “I don’t know the first thing about how to even approach a poem, so it’s intimidating and makes me feel inferior.”  The ear, the mind, the heart.  To hear, to think, to feel.  There are no greater gifts that a teacher can bestow upon a student than these, and few potential objects for study are more conducive to making these gifts possible than are poems.  The “test” to which we are teaching ought to be not some standardized test assembled by eggheads with dubious intent; instead, the test for which our children should be prepared is the one that measures the depth and intensity of their creative and critical thinking, their ability to be mentally competent and competitive and empathetic in a changing matrix that grows more complex and cruel every day.  The test isn’t standardized.  The rules keep changing.  The test has a name; it’s called life.