Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Reconsidering Poetry

I know I have been remiss in posting anything other than a couple of twinkies for well over a month now. It is not for lack of ambition or lack of ideas, but more for lack of time. It is very difficult to find the time, not so much for the writing, but for the amount of editing I do! I am obsessed with punctuation which is simultaneously a curse and a blessing. In short, forgive my flaky blogging and I promise I will continue to post when I can slide it in.

For those who are familiar with my blog, you know that I write a lot on the topic of teaching English and about the literature taught in English courses. I love to talk about it and currently, have very little outlet except for you, dear reader. So, I beg your pardon, while I indulge myself, once again.

In October, National Poetry Day came and went. I was happy to find that Peterman posted about it and I considered posting about it myself though other obligations took precedence. Suffice it to say, I'm pretty sure that National Talk Like a Pirate Day recieved more attention than National Poetry Day. Not to diminish Talk Like a Pirate Day in any way, but I wish the American public would reconsider poetry.

I think poetry recieves a generally bad reputation for a couple of reasons. The first, the people who supposedly "read" it and "write" it. OK, I admit I went through a really pretentious stage in college when I would go to the "Dog and Duck" (the local coffee shop) and listen to the owner of the place read Shakespeare. He read with a goofy inflection and, as pretentious as I was then, even I knew that the girl wearing the black lace gloves and velvet cloak wasn't really as close to swooning in ecstacy as her ardent sighs might lead one to believe.

Though Shakespeare's words are lovely, that particular reading was hideous though instrumental in giving me a much needed slap before I, too, donned a pair of lace gloves. Yes, it was crap and, as such, very detestable (not to mention, my tolerance for it was probably 95% higher than the average non-nerd's).

I can't blame people for steering clear of these kind of scenes. But, I submit, not all poetry is as old as Shakespeare and, for certain, none of it should be mangled by the sort of linguistic stylings I witnessed that night.

Despite the beatniks and wierdos who have given poetry a negative stereotype, I think it is time for the public to reconsider poetry. Many modern poets, like former Utah Poet Laureat, David Lee, embrace the vernacular and culture of common people while dealing with themes every bit as poignant as Shakespeare or Milton.

Which brings me to the next major barrier the general public has with poetry: they just don't "get it." Poetry, like most worthwhile pursuits, demands some knowledge and some exertion to befully appreciated. How many students have been required to read and comment on a poem in a text book? (If you took high school English you should be probably be raising your hand right now.) Don't get me wrong, I love many of the poems included in high school anthologies: e.e. cummings, "in just," Shakespeare's, "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" Dylan Thomas', "Fern Hill," and Elizabeth Bishop's, "The Fish." All are wonderful poetic specimens and I am glad to know they are still taught in the classroom. But are they really? Do the students silently read poetry to themselves instead of out loud as it is intended? Does the teacher share the relish of the the words, . . ."when the world is mud-luscious and the little lame balloonman whistles far and wee. . ."? Or do the students just answer, in complete sentences, canned questions about why the balloonman is lame?"

Assignments like that are lame (but still not as bad as the teacher who chooses to gloss over the whole unit by playing an Alanis Morrisette song and talking about its "literary merit") and I think largely responsible for volume of detestation people associate with poetry. I will concede; very few high school teachers do poetry justice (mostly because they "don't get it" either- but that's a secret.)

Poetry is an ancient and increaslingly rare form of art. You don't think so? Try to conjur the name of one living poet. Try to consider one poem you have read that was written in the last decade. IF you can do so, you are certainly in the minority.

Monarchs and statesmen have long known the power of the poem. Shakepeare's most famous patron was Queen Elizabeth. Even in our modern world, the United States always has a congressional poet on hand to write when the occassion requires it, so, for all of its value why is it a dying form of art?

I think the answer lies in the question so many of my students have asked me, "Why do we have to learn about _____________ (poetry/ Shakespeare/ sentence diagrams. . . you get the idea)? I'm never going to use it. I'm going to be a ____________( porn star/ computer game programmer/ mechanic. . ." It seems to me that the entire educational system is setup to try to appease this question. The emphasis of public education is no longer simply to open doors and horizons of knowledge. It has turned into a way to make a person lucrative; a financial asset.

While it is very valuable to produce a trained and highly efficient work force, I think that sometimes we lose focus on the most significant role of education: to make us better, more compassionate people; to help us find commonality and value in our human experience. As the focus of education shifts to standarized testing and proficiency testing, we are losing that which is most vauable of all: our humanity and individuality. Perhaps, it is time to realize what the monarchs and statesmen have long known: people need poetry.

e.e. cummings said it best:

anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hoe and then) they
said their nevers and they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt for forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
wish by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain

Thank you, Mr. Cummings. My sentiments exactly!


laura said...

wonderful entry marie. lace gloves, ha! me: billy collins; so there. i couldn't agree more about education. the classes that have inspired the most compassion in me have been english classes. i can still remember the names and faces of those english teachers and they still have a place in my heart.
you probably don't remember this, but you sat and discussed that particular e.e.cummings poem with me while i was in high school at the kitchen counter on barstools.
great memory. thanks. you are wonderful.

Marie said...

Wow! Thanks for reading all that. I'm glad English made an impact on you. If so, you had good teachers. Of course, I remember talking to you about tht poem. Good times!

Carroll said...


I love your passion! You are a wonderful teacher. Don't compromise, continue to teach your heart. In this world today we are constrained to wallow in mediocracy or worse. We need to be uplifted, to consider that which is beautiful, as we realize the sublime we realize that which is sublime in ourselves. Continue to lead. Help make us better!

Carroll said...

I think the word should have been mediocrity. Am I right?

mim said...

Albert Goldbarth.
Maybe blogging will help revitalize poetry. It seems to be revitalizing writing as a form of communication.

Aston said...

It's funny, just the other day I had a discussion on this exact subject about our education system, standardized testing etc. I dear friend is pretty sure her daughter has ADD and is at a loss as how to proceed. We talked for a while about options and ideas but mostly how do we keep creativity, art, even public speaking in our children's education with the technology and testing. There is a fine line and I agree some things are getting pushed aside ... like poetry.

CarpElgin said...

I was about to write a comment, but then it started getting really long... so now it's turning into a blog entry of it's own. ( :

Marie said...

Oh, do share!

Tom said...


Thanks for the great post. Let me share a little secret. A lot of the time I rush around so much that my mind can't function at full capacity. Once a year or so, when I slow down a little, I get a strong urge to read poetry. Yes, it may be poetry that you don't find very compelling, such as Longfellow. Recently I have had Milton's "On his Blindness" stuck in my head. Maybe that's because I am about to get laser eye surgery... Anyway, thanks for the post.

Oh, by the way - In spite of your punctuation obsession, there is an unpaired parenthesis in the post. I knew you would love me to point that out.