Teaching poetry…(part 3 or more?)

I just started the poetry unit for my creative writing class. As usual, about half of the class expressed frustration with poetry because they feel like they have no idea what poetry is about.  This is the fourth time I’ve taught this class, and it’s been the same every time, so it doesn’t surprise me.

Now, on an apparent tangent, I’m doing an independent study on four major influences on contemporary poetics: l=a=n=g=u=a=g=e and post-avant, elliptical and hybrids, beats, and mainstream.  These are by no means the only “schools” of poetry, and the fact that I’ve suggested such limits on poetry will appall many a bard. Oh well.  End of tangent.

I read a post on the Harriet blog about the hoopla around a review of a book from a poet named Dickman. Seriously. I was amused by the…diversity…of the comments. Some people hate Dickman because his poems are too easy. Others hate him becuase Tony Hoagland praised Dickman in the introduction. Still others complained (I think) to hear themselves type. Another end to another tangent.

There are people that gripe about the “School of Quietude” ruining Christmas, Hannaka, and Kwanza with one fell swoop of accessible poetry. But what about those who see poetry standing outside the cafeteria waiting to beat them up and take their milk money? People don’t learn to hit a baseball by first mastering the double steal and how to hit the ball to the opposite field. There are fundamentals of a batting stance, swinging the bat, and follow through–with the ball on a tee!!

Go ahead and beat me up: I like Billy Collins. I like Ted Kooser. Yes their poems are (mostly) easy(er) to figure out than say Ezra Pound or Wallace Stevens, but they also provide a starting point for people who are scared of poetry. Michael Bugeja, in his book The Art and Craft of Poetry asserts that every poem should be either an experience or epiphany that intensely relates the poet to his surrounding world. The p-a would have a hay day with this, but again, oh well.

I teach this idea to my students–if there’s already anxiety about poetry, why pile on and kick them when they are down and talk about eliminating the self in writing a poem that has no meaning outside of a poem itself. In teaching kids who are trying to figure out who that self is, it’s assonine to ask them to eliminate it in the writing process.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m not saying the mainstream poets are only good for teaching kids an appreciation for a “smart-guy’s” craft. Instead I assert that various styles of poetry provide various degrees of pleasure for various readers. Here’s an example. Two years ago I would have barfed over reading a collection like Mad Science in Imperial City. I wasn’t ready for it as a poet. But after cutting my teeth on Billy Collins, and teaching TS Eliot and feasting on WC Williams, I stretched my poetic self to find importance in poetic forms that are way outside my arena of comfort. Still, I’m more thrilled by the image rather than the language. I may sound like a passifist, but it’s all good. Hate the mainstream, but they have an audience. Hate the post-avant, but they are pushing the limits.

When students are done with my class, they should have an understanding of the use of the line, the concrete image, sound, metaphor, stanza, and revision. No, I don’t think they’ll be reading Ron Silliman by the end of the class, but they will have the confidence to approach a poem and at least be willing to wrestle with it. As a teacher and a poet, can I ask for anything else?

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6 thoughts on “Teaching poetry…(part 3 or more?)

  1. They don’t always think so, but that’s alright. And yes, spring break cannot come soon enough!

  2. Our break is almost over and the board extended our school year because we had a week of snow days before Christmas. We don’t get out until your birthday and no breaks in April, it’s a long month. Enjoy your snow day(s).

  3. I wish I could teach a creative writing class at Pomona. But alas I don’t see it in the cards – nor any time soon. Dang 3A 3B not passing.

  4. Yeah, I want to do an advanced level creative writing class but things are so tight with budgets that I would have to lose my planning period (voluntarily, no extra pay).

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