Saturday, February 04, 2006

Some thoughts...

This post is going to be an attempt to gather my thoughts on reading Emily Lloyd's recent post (and the subsequent comments) that started with poetry's accessibility and progressed through how to teach poetry to high school students. I'm going to start at the end, as is my fashion, at what and how we teach. (As an aside, let me state that I'm about as equally annoyed with those who run the accessibility theme up the flagpole and salute it constantly--folks, instructions to operate your VCR: those, should be accessible--as I am annoyed with those who don't want to admit to the fact that words do, in fact, have meaning.)

But I was thinking about high school students. My experience with teaching one starts and ends with my own son, who survived (that is, graduated) high school six years ago. He started out liking poetry, I think. At one point, as a child, he'd asked to hear Frost's Stopping by the Woods so many times that he inadvertently memorized it. (I believe it was the combination of snow falling, which he'd never seen, and a horse sleigh that he found magical.) But despite or because he went to the best public high school in our city, his English teachers drummed the love of poetry right out of him. They, with their mandatory five-sentence paragraphs, were as determined to extract meaning from those poems as someone cooking stones for soup. What symbolized death? What symbolized sex? Discuss the blinkin' metaphors. Though I would tell him there wasn't any right or wrong about these things, that all he had to do was back it up, they were fond of the triple underlined all-cap multiply exclaimed WRONG.

But I was a high school student once too. I remember clearly the moment I fell in love--with Edna St. Vincent Millay's "Renascence," followed by a tumble for everything written by Dylan Thomas. Neither the romantic abstractions of the Millay nor the convoluted metaphors of the Thomas were easily accessible (to me). I clearly fell in love with sound first, and to this day sound is most likely to be the way I enter into a poem.

I don't remember assignments connected with poetry. Well, wait, yes. As seniors, we had to talk for five minutes minimum about a poem or poet, and I brought in Caedmon recordings of Dylan Thomas from the library and my little phonograph. I talked for a half hour, maybe more. Clearly, teaching poetry is one way to learn to love it.

[So these are all disconnected thoughts at this point. I hope, but don't promise, to successfully connect them.]

I was interested in the comment on the post from the art teacher(?) who said that students need to learn to appreciate art and literature a lot less literally. I so agree with that, and yet, from my studies of Picasso's era, I know his contemporaries had a hard time seeing what he was doing. It takes time, distance, and education--an education of taste--to learn to see art and sometimes to read poetry.

So how do we get kids--and adults--to put in the time to pay attention? Well, I don't think there is ONE way. It doesn't come down to sound, to accessibility, to charm, to searing reality or incredible fantasy--or it does come down to ALL these things and more. The reason is: I'm not like you, and you're not like the next person, and high school students do not come in one flavor. So we need a diversity of approaches, not diverse as in one part your background and two parts mine, but diverse as in a little bit of everything, because we don't know what the next student is going to respond to.

We need to keep 'em awake, we need to keep 'em listening and we need to keep 'em reading. I don't think, despite the fact that many of my good friends make their living teaching poetry writing in the elementary schools, that teaching kids how to write at an early age is key. I do think memorization is wonderful. How else to make a poem truly yours, from your ears to your entrails?

Okay, a lot more went through my head when I tossed and turned last night, but I'll offer this up for now....


'Thought & Humor' said...
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Collin said...

I also posted at Emily's blog, although I took the slant of more of the so-called accessible poetry out into the reading world instead of moaning that there isn't enough.

Personally, I like Ted Kooser and his work. It is easy to read and it's always eloquent in a homspun sort of way. I don't think there's anything wrong with that.

I'm about to begin a two month rotation through some of Atlanta's public schools, helping high school kids get ready for the Poetry Out Loud competition, so I will be very interested to see what students are reading and what they "get" and don't get.

I was very fortunate to have teachers in high school who got my into poetry by starting with more modern poets -- Plath, Sexton, Frost, Rich, etc. and then started moving backwards in time to show us how these modern poets had been influenced. I instantly "got" Sexton and Rich and was eager for more. My teachers led me to Alice Walker and Margaret Atwood's poetry. Then I was ready to dig deeper.

This is how the poetry world was opening up for me. Teaching in a non-linear fashion.

Diane K. Martin said...

Seeing what your students are reading and what they get and don't get seems like a good idea -- better than any of our preconceived notions. I don't know much about that competition, but it seems like a good idea as well, a motivator. Passes a message that poetry might be something of importance (though not as much as football).

I met Ted Kooser at a conference once, and he's all right. I would like to see the next Poet Laureate be someone edgier perhaps.

Collin said...

I agree with you 100 percent about having a poet laureate with a bit more edge. Who would your suggestions be?

I'd choose Sharon Olds. I think I'd take out a loan to have her go to the White House and read "Satan Says" just to see the look on Laura's face. But I'm mean like that. :)

Diane K. Martin said...


It was pretty cool, when Sharon refused the White House invite. But she wouldn't be my choice for Poet Laureate. I don't know that I want to go into it here, though.

I would like to see a woman Laureate. Not sure who.

Robert said...

How about Anne Carson as poet laureate? OK, so she's Canadian and that might make it illegal. I'll bet we could get Bush to appoint her anyway. The law's never stopped him before.

Lyle Daggett said...

I vote for Joy Harjo as poet laureate. Or Adrienne Rich. Or Michael S. Harper. Martin Espada. Or Wanda Coleman. Or Nellie Wong.

Just off the top of my head.