Tuesday, May 17, 2005

On Teaching and "Impure Criticism"

One of the teachers in my upcoming NEH seminar "Say Something Wonderful: Teaching the Pleasures of Poetry," writes me to describe an interesting interdisciplinary activity with his sixth grade students.

In conjunction with reading Paul L. Dunbar's poem "We Wear the Mask," the kids worked on a mask and fabric design project with The Fabric and Workshop Museum in Philadelphia; in it, an artist visited the class to help students design masks, which they then transferred onto fabric. Students then took a the line "We wear the mask ..." and composed their own poems on the theme of wearing masks. The fabric will be exhibited, and the poems presented, at a multicultural fair in the city--and the poems will also be published in a class book, with the mask designs for illustrations.

What I love about this isn't simply the richness and variety of the projects involved: the way they link not only two or three arts (close reading, creative writing, and design), but two worlds, or maybe three (school and the city and the museum). It's also the underlying instinct that poetry matters most, comes most alive, when it's actively hitched to something else. That "something" can be a story, like literary history, or a set of personalities, like the Beats, or a cultural superstructure, like patriotism or gender or ethnic identity or religious tradition, or (as in this case) another art. How rarely I read poems entirely on their own--and yet, alas, how frequently I teach poems without the very "hooks" that actually hold me to them in my own life!

Neruda wrote a famous essay about the need for an "impure poetry." Maybe we need to own up to our private practice of an "impure criticism," too, in order to make our teaching really sing.

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