Wednesday, July 06, 2005

NEH Seminar: Week 1 Wrapup

I'm a few days behind in my seminar blogging, for which I hope you'll forgive me. After three hours of discussing poetry, and another hour or two of lunchtime conversation, I seem talked out these days. At night I'm more likely to curl up with the new Julia Quinn or stalk an oud on ebay than post about poetry--BUT I do have a few minutes here before the kids get home to catch you up on the seminar in progress.

After we finished our Koch discussion, we turned to three books that introduce poetry to students and teachers at the elementary, middle / high school, and college levels: to wit,

  • Sharon Creech, Love that Dog
  • Baron Wormser / David Cappella, A Surge of Language, and
  • Helen Vendler, Poems, Poets, Poetry (2nd edition).
Of these, the first is a novel in verse, the second a fictional "teacher's diary" from a "poetry-centered classroom," and only the third a textbook per se. We tried to talk about all three in a single day, which was something of a joke, but we've kept coming back to ideas from all three since, and all deserve some attention here.

Let me start with the Creech, and come back to the others tonight or tomorrow, as the evening allows.

For those of you that don’t know it (and I didn’t), Love That Dog is an 86 page novel in verse for kids—although, if that sounds intimidating, you should know that the verse is free verse mostly of the thinnest and chopped-prosiest sort, and the book is in the voice of a boy named Jack whose teacher, Miss Stretchberry, has begun a unit on reading and writing poetry. The book seems to me extremely interesting, both for what it says about that unit (the poems read and quoted in the book) and for what it says, explicitly and implicitly, about poetry as an art.

The book starts like this:


I don’t want to
because boys
don’t write

Girls do.
This is, I think, a very interesting and provocative way to start the book. Certainly the modernists struggled with this question of poetry’s gender (“boys / don’t write poetry”), and my sense is that this anxiety goes back much, much farther. (I’ve seen it talked about in Sidney’s “Apology for Poetry,” for example.) Where did the boy get this idea that poetry is what girls write, I wonder? Will the plot of the book resolve this tension so that Jack realizes that boys do write poetry? Or will Jack be “feminized” over the course of the novel, so that the opposition between boys & girls begins to break down? (We don’t know yet what age or grade we’re dealing with…) Such questions stay in the back of my mind, although they're never addressed directly in the book itself, which moves on to other matters.

(I'm curious, though, whether this remains part of your students’ response to the art. Have the worlds of performance poetry, rap, or Shel Silverstein and Jack Prelutsky, etc., changed matters somewhat? Does it vary by age? Come to think of it, is poetry cast as feminine, or literacy in general? I know I got my start as a writer—imagined myself as a writer, a poet, etc.—by crossing genders; I identified with Jo March and Harriet the Spy, and didn’t start associating writing with masculine achievement until I hit, I don’t know, Robert Heinlein. Is this, though, a thing of the past? If not, how do you address it?)

In any case, the question of gender drops out of view in the novel, to be replaced by questions of aesthetics. The teacher, it seems, has assigned Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow.” “I don’t understand / the poem,” Jack complains; “If that is a poem…then any words / can be a poem. / You’ve just got to / make / short / lines.” He then writes a poem of his own, about a blue car, modeled (at least slightly) on the Williams, only to have his teacher ask him why, in his poem, so much depended upon the blue car. “The wheelbarrow guy / didn’t tell why,” he objects.

We spent a good deal of time in the seminar talking about this episode, although I was left with a couple of lingering questions. We talked about using “The Red Wheelbarrow” as an early poem—a poem for those unused to poetry. (Some teachers in the seminar do this all the time, and swear by it, others never would, and swear AT it.) What is served by teaching it? What do we, and our students, get out of it?

I don't think any of the seminar participants knew the poem in its original context, Williams's Spring and All, or in the context of WCW's quarrel with T. S. Eliot. We focused our discussion instead on how one could find, and demonstrate, the artistry of the poem--lessons I learned from Hugh Kenner decades ago, although I'm not sure I've ever been entirely convinced. (I’ve long wished that this damned wheelbarrow wouldn’t cart off other, better, more interesting and moving Williams poems, like “This is Just to Say” and “Waiting” and any number of others.)

In Creech's novel, it seems to me the primary “lessons” of the Williams are 1) that men (as well as “girls”) write poetry; and 2) that “any words / can be a poem” as long as you write them in lines: which is to say, that students don’t have to write in any particular diction (flowery, “poetic,” etc.) and don’t have to use meter or rhyme (which are, God forbid, rather HARD to do well).

I notice, in regard to the latter of these, that the teacher seems not to have said anything about Williams’s linebreaks or stanza breaks. Jack’s poem breaks up “depends / upon,” as the original does, but then shifts into simple phrasal units (“splattered with mud / speeding down the road”) in a way that Williams studiously avoids. What art and interest there is in the Williams, at least formally, vanishes from sight. What replaces it is an issue of meaning—or, rather, of biographical “hidden meaning”: the “why.” For Jack, as the novel will reveal, something specific and biographical depends upon that car, and the novel will move on to pin that “something” down through future poems. Is the implication, then, that the same is true of Williams, but he plays hide the ball?

Damn! Must run. More soon, when I get back from being a house elf. --E

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

More on Vendler!