Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Voices and Who They are Talking to

I am teaching two classes that I really care about right now, intro to creative writing, and intro to lit. The two classes are at two different universities, so the student base is not identical, but both are private Christian schools, one Jesuit and one Presby. Most of the kids are upper-middle class, white, entitled, and ambitious (in capitalist terms). The lit class is for non-lit majors. And all was well. We spent eight weeks on short fiction and novels, during which time the students made complex analyses, struggled with Vonnegut (and didn't entirely like him, which should've been my first clue), but did okay overall. Spring break, come back, turn the page to poetry. I have twenty eight students in that class, some of them pretty smart. The first day of actual discussion, in a fifty minute class, there was probably a total of ten minutes of dead air. Twenty percent of class time was spent in silence, me looking at them for answers, them looking at me for answers. We weren't reading difficult stuff, and I wasn't asking much. At the end of the grossly unproductive class, I began to ask, "What is the problem here? Why are you so unresponsive?" For the most part, the answer was, "Because we don't care, we aren't the audience," and "It's too hard. Poems make us feel dumb." Okay.

We'd read, among other things, a graphic novel set in post-Revolution Iran. Read two stories dealing with the Vietnam war. They knew nothing about those things, beyond Iran is evil, and we won Vietnam. We started with Yeats' "Second Coming" (okay, not that accessible, but certainly not Wallace Stevens), and then looked at Hayden, Li-Young Lee, and Bukowski. All three poems about the speakers' relationship with their fathers. A broad variety of images, tone, diction.
"We don't get it," they said.
"You enjoyed books about Iran, stories about Vietnam, about which you know nothing."
"You all have fathers?"
"What don't you get?"
Dead air.

Okay. In case of emergency, the next day of class, this past Monday, I had printed out copies of "Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout" of the "would not take the garbage out" fame. I was even ready to say to the class, "This seems more your speed."
But I thought I'd try lecturing first, which I rarely do, preferring a discussion-based model for class. But I talked about World War I, the flu epidemic, and how it wiped out much of a generation in Europe, how Modernism was responding to all of this instability, and how that led to the destabilization of form, meter and rhyme. Heads were nodding, notes were taken. Vaguely encouraged, and knowing that I would never get them back if I passed out the Silverstein in anger, I dove into Wilfred Owens' "Dulce et Decorum Est," a poem that I've liked before, but not considered too important. A half hour later though, I had them and myself convinced that this was the quintessential bridge between 19th and 20th century sensibilities. It had rhyme, but no meter. The imagery was sharp, the diction Wordsworthian. The use of pronouns is compelling, and a choice made in revision (to drop the dedication to a specific person), which expanded the poem's scope to include the reader. Summing up a soldier's experience of war first-hand, I said, "Now what does this remind you of?"
"The Things They Carried."
"Still think poetry doesn't apply to you?"
Shuffle, shuffle.

To anyone who has struggled with being a poet, none of this is surprising. While this might be the sort of story a teacher would read and nod at, clucking their tongue, it got me to thinking about a question form both classes. My creative writing class, when talking about revision, and responding to my comment to have some voices in their heads telling them how to revise, asked, "What are the voices in your head?"

Later that week, when introducing poetry to my lit class, I told them how excited I was about poetry, being that I was a poet myself. This ellicted the question, "Why?" I didn't answer that question.

I did answer the other question, a day or two later, when I had thought about it. The voices in my head, when writing or revising:

~My mom, who loves me, but doesn't get poetry. I want her to get poetry, and her motherly love allows me to be an asshole sometimes, knowing I will be forgiven.

~My father, who loves me but isn't easily impressed by words. Its love I have to earn, and hopefully the right combination of words will impress him.

~A woman I am trying to seduce, usually Lani, because that's the only time it ever worked.

~A friend who likes the way I write, but wants it always to be doing a little more, in a number of different ways, pushing at boundaries, and never thinks I have it exactly right.

~Another friend, who doesn't seem to like the way I write, and is often concerned with compressing language down to essentials. This keeps my urge to wordiness in check sometimes. And gives me someone else to try and impress.

Whitman said great poetry will always find an audience. I don't want this to be yet another discussion about the diminishing poetry audience. But. I'm writing for five people, and I can't put into words for non-lit majors why I write poetry. I just do. So I'm considering a sixth voice for the revision gallery. One of my lit students, who is smart as hell, doesn't really like me, and just isn't interested by poetry. Yet. I want him to be. And I'm not sure what it will take at this point, what he will add to the discussion in my head about how to phrase something, about what images to include, of how to use pronouns. Maybe this is the first time I've honestly admitted to myself that maybe the audience isn't the problem, the poets are.

When we read "The Red Wheelbarrow," my smart student said, "This is why we hate poetry." Most poets will have one of two responses to this: "Fuck 'em." Or, "Hm." So. Hm.


  1. You do know we'll be discussing this, at length, tonight, right?

  2. Hm.

    If I wasn't so entirely exhausted, I'd respond more. Give me a while.

    Good blog, though.

  3. The Red Wheelbarrow started a heated argument between me and a friend of mine who was getting his Masters in English at the time (you don't know him) and, honestly, I don't think our friendship ever fully recovered.

    I'd never say I hate poetry. In fact, I like it quite a bit. Well, some of it. Definitely not all of it. But "The Red Wheelbarrow" is at the same time what I like and despise about poetry.

    What I like about it is that it fucks with the reader's conception of what poetry should be (at least I think it does). What I hate about it is that, taken alone and without context, it's void of any meaning. If you don't "know" poetry, then it seems like nothing.

    Context is the key that people lack when it comes to understanding some poetry. The context of the history of poetry, of why poetry exists in the first place, of the history of the author, of the period in which the poem was written... And since they feel that they're lacking that key they are either honest and say, "I don't get it," or they go on the defensive and say, "This sucks."

    I've done both. Thanks for suggesting that it might not be just my problem, but one with the author as well. It takes a big poet to suggest that.

    (For the record, I've rarely had either of the above reactions while reading your poetry.)

  4. After just reading Evan's brilliant (his description) post on The Office and following the links I realize that the thing I was writing about up there was Intentional Fallacy.

    I get where the New Critics come from. But at the same time I'm a fan of context and I think it's important. It's unrealistic to expect an author to supply every grain of meaning in the words he or she writes.

    Gaps will always be there for the reader to fill in, whether that be with the context the author hoped for, the reader's own personal context, or blocks of blank thought like place holders that keep the poem from falling until the reader finds a branch they can hold on to (that's how I feel when I read poetry that I don't "get").

  5. Thanks, Al, that makes a lot of sense, and I think you are right about context. I think we can see gaps between what is on the page and meaning, and sometimes that gap is too great to cross, or once crossed the answer is so vague and either personal or way out there that it essentially has no meaning. On the other hand, if it is ALL there, then the reader can feel force-fed (at least I do). Part of the poet's job then is to get us close, but maybe not all the way there, to leave the reader some wiggle room, some room for interpretation and personal context that coincides with the context provided by the poem.

    And thanks for reading.

  6. I reject the notion that people don't like poetry.

    People haven't fundamentally changed since the advent of language, and people did, do, and will always marvel at the beauty of language -- its power and shortcomings, its ridiculousness and its inadequacy and its perfection.

    Witness all the people who go to pop songs for poetry. Yes, they're missing out on better poetry. But they're getting some of the same things out of it.

    That context Al was talking about is important to the crafters and artisans of poetry -- poets who study what other poets have done in the past so that they might write new poetry. I'm not as big of a fan when that context is required for the non-poet to appreciate a poem.

    Sometimes, I think about these lines and nearly cry:

    ... And they did not
    because they had gone through a depression and a war that had left
    them with the idea that being a man in the eyes of their fathers
    and everyone else had cost them too goddamned much to lay it
    at the feet of a fifteen year-old boy.

    I only need the context of the rest of the poem for those lines to help me understand/fear/love my life.

  7. What people are liking in those pop songs is largely what is missing, though, Evan. And that is accessibility. For non-academics, or non-fans of poetry, what they are liking in those songs is not the poetry, because Poetry is something else, and it is inaccessible. It isn't for them. Yes they are missing out, and yes, "Body and Soul" might move them the same way it does us, because it is all there. But it is other, because it is Poetry (and that's how they think of it, capital P and other) and therefore not for them.