1. Confessions / Failures
A student tells me he wants to be a poet. I ask him what he’s reading, and he tells me that he doesn’t read poetry, since he wants to be original. Reading might influence him. I ask him how he can know if what he’s writing is poetry if he doesn’t read poetry. He finds this a sufficiently good reason to read some poetry, so we journey downstairs to the library. I pull some Kay Ryan off of the shelf. “She started out at community college too,” I tell him. We read a poem together. He can’t understand it.
During the short story portion of a multi-genre creative writing workshop, I literally forget which story about domestic violence we are discussing. There have been six stories about domestic violence, and each of them were essentially the same; the sort of thing you would write if your only exposure to narrative were made-for-TV-movies. I have no idea how the story ended. I reviewed it before class. I’ve written comments. He kills her or she kills him, but it doesn’t matter. The characters are always the same.
My family is in town, and after the successes of my first publications, I want to show off. I take them to the end of an evening at a slam poetry series, figuring I can read a poem or two, and we enter just before a collective of three high school girls perform poems about being, well, goddesses. My high school-aged brother is extremely amused by these three overweight girls with bad skin pronouncing their self-love and glory in cadences that seem to trace their heritage to Maya Angelou and Meryn Caddell. For years, whenever the topic of poetry comes up, he references those three girls in a voice that some might even call ridiculing.
A student workshops a poem about a bad break-up with an abusive boyfriend. The poem is sympathetic towards aspects of his mental illness, but snarky and acerbic about the aspects of his personality over which he should have control. My students are all discussing the content of the poem as a subject that is never broached. They are congratulating her on writing about something “that we all know what happens, but no one ever writes about.” I am confused. “Really,” I ask, “haven’t you ever seen a Jennifer Lopez movie?” They say, “well, yeah, but us, we don’t talk about it.” I say, “Wait, so your audience is only each other?” They look at me like I’m a little slow.
My students keep identifying the moral in each others’ poems, the sort of things that any sane person should learn somewhere between birth and the second grade. I start to call it “The Aesop Moment” in my head. I keep trying to articulate what’s so wrong with the Aesop moment—why it’s simplistic and reductive. I tell them that when I was in college, “Can’t we all just get along” was a punch line, because anyone who thinks it’s that simple has to be stupid, naïve, or just not paying attention. They look at me blankly. I tell them that poetry should be bad for them, that it should give vent to all the terrible things they feel. In desperation, I finally say, “Poetry should make you fat!”
I am teaching Raymond Carver’s short story, “Cathedral.” In this story, the sighted narrator is apprehensive about meeting his wife’s blind friend, but ultimately the narrator ends up having an intense and intimate relationship with the blind man. The students are very excited to tell me that the blind man wasn’t blind, the narrator was blind. So I ask my students, it’s wrong for the narrator to think that the blind man is deficient or less human for being blind? The students agree. And I ask, “So we shouldn’t use the word ‘blindness’ to refer to something that is wrong or deficient?” and the students agree, and I say, “so why are we naming the narrator’s inability to recognize the blind man’s full humanity as blindness?” and all of a sudden, I’m watching the lights go on. My students get really engaged. I offer up the phrase “beautiful on the inside” and my students seem to be discovering that sometimes, when we seek to overturn a value system, we end up reinforcing the very value system we set out to dismantle.
As I’m smugly packing my briefcase, two of my ESL students approach me and ask, “But in America you use “blindness” when someone doesn’t know something or can’t do something, yes?” Yes, I respond—colloquially, we do use it that way, but as you can see, there are problems with using it that way. A few more ESL students have gathered, all giving me a look I remember on my own face when I was studying in Russia. It says, Keep your prison house of language to yourself, egghead; I just want people to know what I’m saying.
2. The One-Legged Duck
There is no substitute for immersion. Imagine that you tell a friend that you are about to go duck watching. You explain that a duck is a sort of shimmering blue-green color, has two wings, two legs, a short neck, and a beak. You go to the pond, and your friend is doing a great job—he knows that a swan is not a duck, that a squirrel is not a duck, that children are not ducks. He consistently identifies ducks until a one-legged duck hops past. “Look at that duck,” you say, admiring the skillful hops that let it keep pace with the other ducks. “That’s a not a duck,” your friend says. “You told me that a duck has two legs, and that animal has one leg.” “Well, yes,” you say, suddenly realizing that you are about to sound stupid, “I said that ducks have two legs, but that’s a one-legged duck.”
Literature classes are confusing for people who are watching ducks for the first time. The fact is that those of us who study ducks all day are more interested in the outliers—it’s the one-legged ducks, the two-headed ducks, and the albino ducks that truly excite duck watchers. Somewhere between expert and novice, you have to recognize that all your descriptions of the duck were partial in ways that only another expert can understand.
3. I, Too, Dislike it
How seriously do we take William Carlos Williams when he tells us that people die for lack of what is found in poetry? It often gets tossed around as a form of self- congratulation, even if no one seems entirely sure of what it means. Like Audre Lorde declaring that you cannot dismantle the master’s house with the master’s tools, or Shelley declaring poets the unacknowledged legislators of the world, it feels like a mantra or a koan, the sort of thing we repeat because we hope it’s true, and believe it’s true, even if we don’t exactly have a grip on precisely what it means. I have always been a little afraid of Williams’ remark as a classroom teacher —I don’t want the burden of having to keep my students alive. I believe in interconnectedness; but I’m not a doctor, I do not want to be offering you something without which you would die.
And yet, in my own life, I have found that revealing to someone that I am a poet often results in the immediate (or slow) admission that they too, are a poet. And as a “published poet” (the phrase is often uttered with a kind of awe when I enter classrooms, although I find it a somewhat low bar) I am given permission to hold the yardstick that measures other poets. Even before I had any credentials whatsoever, I can remember one of my fellow data entry clerks telling me about their own poetic endeavors. To be honest, I have yet to see anyone cling to a poem in quite the way that young woman held tight to the poem that she recited to me over lunch. She was so relieved that I understood it—no one she had ever told it to before had.
I often think that poetry is like sex—it’s private and personal, and yet so foundational to who we are that a life without it feels impoverished. Politicians are humiliated on a regular basis for pursuing a sexual ideal of themselves that seems voracious and powerful, and in some ways, the humiliations of one’s sexuality going public feels akin to the humiliations of the poetic arts. Leo Bersani famously said that the big secret about sex is that most people don’t like it, and the same thing seems true about poetry—think of Marianne Moore’s most reliably anthologized poem. I disagree with Bersani, and Moore. I think that sex and poetry are two places in which people mark out a carefully loved territory and then look out on to all the territory that they don’t want to explore as being ugly and morally wrong. Reading poems that are wrong for you can be as awful as watching porn that’s not your kink. In both sex and poetry, what is normally gross or awful or humiliating can become sublime and intimate in ways that can carry you through the rest of life, even through eight hours of daily data entry.
When I first realized that I would take poetry as my calling and teaching as my vocation, I was entirely aware that poetry occupies a humiliated station in the United States. I set out to work with students of all ages. I wanted to find out who was telling Americans that poetry was this terrible thing (or worse, this easy thing) and when. I have not worked with anyone younger than seven, and since it’s unkind of single out older students, let’s just say that one of my dearest students spent her youth at Warhol’s factory. What I found is that most people have no sense of poetry’s expanses. The truth of poetry after 1890 or so is that we are the giant clearing house for all the writing that is not demonstrably something else. To those of us inside the world of poetry, the truth is that we can do almost anything.
After spending time with people of all ages, my conclusion is that very few people think of poetry past what was put in front of them. My own knowledge of certain subjects is limited to what I did in high school. I cannot do math past calculus, nor do I have knowledge of anthropology beyond my Freshman survey course. However, I have a strong sense that there is something that accomplished anthropologists and mathematicians do that I cannot. I have a sense that in those fields, advanced study and practice yields results that are exciting and interesting and worthwhile. Very few people seem to understand this about poetry. They tend to think that poetry is as simple and vacuous as the acrostics they wrote based on their own names in second grade. They tend to think that poetry is simply expressing whatever comes into their minds. I have not found a solution for this, nor have I been thanked when trying to get people to understand that poetry is in fact complicated, various, and (for lack of a better word) difficult.
The other side of this is that many people are desperate for their own words and thoughts to have value—and they cling to the idea that simply having written something they felt, it must indeed be a poem. Very rarely is anyone rewarded for actually expressing their own ideas. I was long confused by the student who wrote one of my first teaching evaluations, “In a poetry workshop, ‘That’s what I think’ should be a perfectly acceptable explanation.” I am sad that I failed to convince her that one’s emotional responses to a poem are a starting point, and not an ending point (yes, I recognized her handwriting). However, I think that in my zeal to prove my worth as a classroom instructor, I failed to see that she actively refused study because she regarded her poems as a referendum on her worth as a person. If I suggested that a poem needed revision, she heard me saying that she needed revision. She was probably the student closest to what Williams meant by a person who might die for lack of what is found in poems, and yet she didn’t know how to read poems, and she was so unsure of how to separate herself from her work that she couldn’t find it.
4. A paradigm for instruction
This essay began as a pedagogical presentation on how to work with students of variant levels, and what you have read so far came out of contemplating my classrooms. So here is my five-part proposal for designing classes that will allow the class to move forward together.
Return to foundations. If you can articulate the foundation of your practice and philosophy, you can teach it.
When I realized that my students had no idea what a story was, I realized that I also had no way to explaining it. I found a model from Heidi Hayes Jacobs that offers a narrative arc that is a combination of various narratological models, but works very well as a basic outline. The model begins with an equilibrium that is disrupted by the inciting event. This disruption creates a question (Will the Misfit kill the Grandmother? Will Kate Winslet dump Billy Zane and end up with Leonardo Dicaprio?) and the question will be answered in the climax. Falling action leads to a new equilibrium. I had the students map out their story on the model, and we were able to create what I considered a short story.The map also slowed the process, allowing the students to create characters and situations before they had to the work of scene setting or characterization. This did not slow down the more advanced students—it made explicit what had been intuitive—and gave them more resources to work from. I created models in all of my exercises, and gave the students foundational structures. This served two purposes. One—it allowed the students to generate work that I considered successful, and two—it allowed me to intervene at earlier stages when things went wrong.
Create shared knowledge.
I typically start poetry classes with a poetry exercise that I call “Inside/Outside” in which I give students a packet of diverse poems, and they have to choose one that they feel close to and one they feel far from. They have to list three things about the poem that make them feel close and make them feel far; only one can be content. Tristan Tzara’s “Howl”—which is the word “Howl” printed two hundred times before the line “Who still considers himself very likable/ Tristan Tzara”—usually comes in for animosity. They hate this poem, and it makes them angry and boy is he a bad poet. Usually one student will stand up for Dada, but not very well. I don’t intervene, and they vent their spleen. A couple weeks later, a student in the class will bring in a poem using the same structure, and the other students think its hysterical. They love what their fellow student has done with Tzara’s work. After they are finished congratulating themselves, I point out how they have formed a reading community and that someone who had just joined the class today would have no idea why they liked this poem—any more than they understood Tzara’s poem on the first day. They organically realize that they have built a community and a shared knowledge—and that the literary world is a macrocosm of the microcosm we’ve developed. The shared knowledge means that they all move forward together by necessity.
Development, not Deficiency
Give up a model of deficiency and develop a model of development. My students often approach reading as though they were life coaches who had been given a moral exercise: they are supposed to identify the good guys and the bad guys and say how the good guys should be rewarded and how the bad guys should be punished. Then they will say what the characters should have done differently in order to be successful. It is very frustrating to think of your students as unable to read Kafka because they keep trying to put together lists of things that K can do to fix his situation. However, if you think about them, not as being unable to read Kafka, but rather as being at a development stage that has not advanced to include Kafka, you will have a far more successful class. I often explain to my students that they are in a developmental stage that it is time for them to outgrow. Certainly, they can still read a book by finding the good and bad characters, but they didn’t need to come to college to do that—and at this point, they need to analyze the texts, not adjudicate them. I often ask my student why they are required to take a class that consists of watching fake people suffer, and they usually think I’m having a nervous breakdown. They assure me that literature is very important, and when I ask them to tell my why, they offer tremendously lame answers. One class told me that we had read Suzan-Lori Parks’ Topdog/Underdog because it taught them not to kill their brothers. I responded that if they didn’t know not to shoot their brothers before class started, it was probably too late. But by having identified their current practice as a developmental stage that will no longer work, I can set the stage for them to grow.
Stick to your values.
In the case of the narrative arcs, it wasn’t so much a developmental problem as a value problem. My students only knew the values of television story telling. I had to teach them the values of short stories, poetry, and plays. I started with basic foundational structures that truly insisted on different values. You don’t have to let anything go, but you have to offer a way to achieve your goals, and you have to be able to articulate your values when they are under attack.
I began by saying that this is an educational ideal — and I think that we need to do everything we can to bring everyone forward together; however, I think we need to have a sense of insurmountable barriers, and we need to stand firm on what is not negotiable (and have a very good explanation for why it is not up for debate). Poetry gets no respect and there’s still no cure for cancer. Don’t give up people!
This is the passage from Kay Ryan that the student was unable to understand. It’s from the poem “After Zeno,” an elegy for her father.
Where is is
when is is was?
I have an is
but where is his?
I had thought that with the fairly simple vocabulary, the student would be able to get it right away. I had thought that the play on language would would interest him and excite him. I miscalculated; he could only experience the poem in the way that you experienced the typo that I put in the sentence before this one. Even after what I thought was a fairly clear explanation, the poem just looked like nonsense to him. I keep forgetting the word for when a word is taken out of context—the technical term for when I say “flower” starts with an “f” sound and ends with an “r” sound—there’s a word for what happens to “flower” out of context, and I’ve lost it. But knowing it would not have helped this student.
In all of these pedagogical failures, there’s hope. Or perhaps, not hope, but a way forward. In every pedagogical failure is also the seed of discovery. Poets often remind each other that our best poems are the poems where we wrote our way to the middle, and truly did not how to move forward. That moment of finding yourself with no way forward is the essence of learning. It’s how you open yourself to the new; it’s how you stop relying on what you have already discovered and force yourself to discover what you need to know.
I didn’t learn to drive until I pretended that driving was writing a poem. I turned the red lights into stanza breaks, the stop signs into end-stopped lines, and yield signs into enjambments. After ten years of David Sedaris-worthy attempts at learning to drive, using the paradigm of what I loved to do (and could do) finally let me reach my goal.
I spend a lot of time in faculty trainings now, and we’re often so busy touting our successes that what began as sharing “best practices” can often turn into bragging. I wanted to include the concerns and failures that I still struggle with because none of us have all the answers, and it’s our questions and failures that make us exciting. Ideally, it’s what we struggle with that brings us together, and together, we can move forward.