Monday, April 11, 2005

It's the Subject Matter, Stupid

From the irresistably titled "Poesy Galore" blog of Emily Lloyd--whose last name, thanks to my daughter, I now know to pronounce with the proper Welsh soft "th"--this reminder about why most of us read poetry in the first place.
We lose poetry consumers (or readers, depending on your beef) after elementary school. If we want masses of people to love (and buy) poetry into adulthood, we need to change the way it's often taught in middle and high schools. And to be honest, while I'm all for exposure to the classics, I think it's often their subject matter (and yes, some inaccessibility) that turns young adults off. Very few kids are going to give a flying fuck about some ancient mariner, however archetypal. Does this mean we have to replace Coleridge with Tupac, as some are now doing? Absolutely not. This means, instead of focusing on Poe's "The Bells"--maybe even "The Raven," at this point--focus on his "Alone." Sheesh, I copied that poem into my diary as a preteen. Crane is great for teens, but stress "In the desert," not "War is Kind." My heart is bitter; I'm eating it--yippee! Frequently-taught poems often seem Other to kids--do not speak to them--and that's what dulls them on it, I bet, before the accessibility of the language or the "tie the poem to a chair and torture it" (according to Collins) method. A teaching listserv I belonged to gave good evidence that pretty much ALL high school kids dig "Richard Cory" (he's popular; he's gorgeous; he's rich; he hates himself)--great. But must the lesson continue on with "Mr. Flood's Party," which almost none of them like? (Note to self: propose anthology of dead people's poems with teen-friendly subj matter to educational publisher for teachers who want to teach canonical verse that doesn't deaden kids' nerves forever)
Now if only I could find that "teaching listserv" she mentions....



Emily Lloyd said...

Hi,Eric--thanks for the compliment. I can't remember the name of the listserv, though I'm sure I just found it by googling "high school english teacher listserv" or something similar. And it wasn't necessarily a strong listserv, just one where the whole Richard Cory phenom came up.

Great to find your blog--I've added it to my roll. Funny about an earlier post of yours on Moore's "Poetry"--I used "I, too, dislike it-there are things important beyond all this fiddle. Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers in it, after all, a place for the genuine" as an epigraph to a poem called "Pornography." Oh, Miss Marianne, I have abused ye sore... [grin]

E. M. Selinger said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
E. M. Selinger said...

I love it, Emily. You know, maybe we should just give the Moore a quick make-over: change the title, do a quick global search-and-replace... Yes! Here we go. (Pardon the messed-up layout.)


I too, dislike it: there are things that are important beyond all this fiddle.
Reading it, however, with a perfect contempt for it, one discovers that there is in
it after all, a place for the genuine.
Hands that can grasp, eyes
that can dilate, hair that can rise
if it must, these things are important not because a

high sounding interpretation can be put upon them but because they are
useful; when they become so derivative as to become unintelligible,
the same thing may be said for all of us, that we
do not admire what
we cannot understand: the bat,
holding on upside down or in quest of something to

eat, elephants pushing, a wild horse taking a roll, a tireless wolf under
a tree, the immovable critic twitching his skin like a horse that feels a flea, the base­
ball fan, the statistician --
nor is it valid
to discriminate against "business documents and

school-books": all these phenomena are important. One must make a distinction
however: when dragged into prominence by half pornographers, the result is not pornography,
nor till the pornographers among us can be
"literalists of
the imagination" -- above
insolence and triviality and can present

for inspection, imaginary gardens with real toads in them, shall we have
it. In the meantime, if you demand on one hand,
the raw material of pornography in
all its rawness and
that which is on the other hand
genuine, then you are interested in pornography.

I love what happens to lines like "Hands that can grasp, eyes /
that can dilate, hair that can rise / if it must" and (even more) "holding on upside down or in quest of something to / eat," and "present for inspection." Who knew?

Reminds me of that Oulipo rewriting of "I wandered lonely as a cloud," in which "daffodils" was replaced by "imbeciles," with the rest of the poem left untouched. "A poet could not but be gay / In such a jocund company"--"And then my heart with pleasure fills / And dances with the imbeciles."

Thanks for making my morning, Emily!