Sunday, May 23, 2010

On teaching poetry to first-years, and other purgatorial endeavours

WARNING: long, rambling, thinking-out-loud blog post that has been written over several days ahead. Those wishing to cut to the chase are recommended to read the first four and last three paragraphs. I promise I won't be offended.

I realized on Friday that I was past due submitting my book orders for the fall term ... which means I was past due in figuring out what texts I want to teach next year. The first selection is fairly easy: English 2213, "Twentieth Century U.S. Fiction." I always have fun making a series of lists, and finally winnowing it down to six novels (the most I can realistically teach in thirteen weeks) that ideally cover a broad swath of time and include a range of authors across history, gender, and ethnicity.

The final list for next year, if anyone's interested—or planning on taking the course and want to get your reading done over the summer—is as follows:

  • Willa Cather, My Ántonia
  • John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath
  • Richard Wright, Native Son
  • Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita
  • Toni Morrison, Song of Solomon
  • Junot Díaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

It perhaps goes without saying, but I love teaching this course. It's a pretty popular course too, though that has less to do with me than with the fact that students look at the title "Twentieth Century U.S. Fiction" and think to themselves "I like all of those words!" Twentieth century? Score! American? Right on! Fiction? Sweet!

It is of course the last word in the title that seals the deal. If I were instead to teach "Twentieth Century U.S. Poetry," my enrolment numbers would drop off precipitously. Because here's the thing: English students are generally reluctant to read poetry. Sad, but true. Even a bit counterintuitive, perhaps. I mean, if people dedicated enough to literature to make it their major area of study at university don't want to read poetry, who will?

(That question, by the way, is rhetorical. I know there are many, many poetry enthusiasts out there—they just don't tend to take my classes, at least not in numbers large enough to make a difference).

However, at least with English majors one does not really have to justify the inclusion of poetry in the curriculum. They may bob and weave all the way through their degree, avoiding classes with poetry as much as possible, but they do accept—however grudgingly—that an English degree entirely sans poetry is lacking. They may not like it, but they deal with it, much like sociology students suffer through their required stats courses.

It's an entirely different ball game with first-year classes. Here at Memorial, every single student is required to take first-year English. At the very least, they have to take English 1080, a general introduction. Most faculties and degrees also require a second first year English, either 1101 (fiction), 1102 (drama), 1103 (poetry), or 1110 (advanced composition). Guess which course is most in demand?

I'd taught 1101 a few times before finally teaching 1080 this past autumn. I don't mind admitting, the course pretty much kicked my ass—teaching a course that is part literature survey and part introductory composition to a class of students who, on the balance, have no interest in literature and at times are actively resentful of the course, is an entirely different kettle of newts than anything else I have ever done. Even 1101 is substantially easier to deal with—the students have choice in which second-term first-year English they take, and at that point have a semester of university under their belt.

Plus, in 1101 I'm not requiring them to read and analyze poetry.

Poetry may not be the focus of my own research and scholarship, but I am a devoted believer in its educational value. The potential for experiencing the sublime when poring carefully over Donne or Adrienne Rich or Seamus Heaney should not be understated, but films like Dead Poets Society do literary study a disservice by dwelling exclusively on the romantic dimension of personal emotional gratification; as a friend of mine once observed, of the many reasons John Milton wrote Paradise Lost, wooing women was probably not high on the list.

It's a nice thought to imagine going into a classroom of recalcitrant first-years who plan to major in business and engineering, and opening their minds to the inspired beauty of great poetry, but any teacher going into a classroom with only that goal in mind is going to end up pandering and probably not teaching anything of any substance. I want my students to appreciate the aesthetic pleasures of poetry, and I hope they learn to do so, but more important is the intellectual exercise itself of reading, critiquing, and understanding the text.

To put it another way: Why study poetry? Because it is complex and subtle and nuanced, and offers multiple interpretations simultaneously. What literary study offers is not breadth, but depth. What it offers is an opportunity to pit your mind against some of the greatest linguistic creations of the past five centuries—difficult at times, frustrating, but ultimately more rewarding than reading something facile and one-dimensional. To use a sports analogy, you don't get better by playing with or against inferior players.

I always encourage my students to think about not just what readings are on the course, but why those readings—why Native Son and not Invisible Man? Why this writer and not another? What does this course leave out? What is the significance of what it includes? Along similar lines, I encourage them to think about what the use of a given course is. Why do an English degree? As someone who has spent now half his life answering that very question (or the common variations like "So what kind of a job will that get you?" or "So ... I guess you're going to be a teacher?"), I encourage them to be self-reflective in this way partly out of self-interest—a class full of engaged, reflective minds is infinitely preferable to a class full of apathetic students majoring in English as a default. If you're doing this degree simply because you like to read novels, I always say, join a book club and save your tuition.

Obviously, I wouldn't be doing what I do if I didn't believe rather passionately in its worth and value. Making a case for the liberal arts however has to thread a needle between its practicality and its worth simply in and of itself. On one hand, the value of studying arts and humanities is always going to be rather more nebulous than such professional degrees as engineering and medicine or anything that has immediate, practical application. Study for the sake of study and learning for the sake of learning benefit you in uncounted intangible ways. On the other hand, I like to make my students aware of the concrete, valuable, and marketable skills literary study teaches: clarity of expression, critical acumen, sophisticated analysis, and the ability to present a cogent and lucid argument.

I don't have to work too hard to sell students on the applicability of essay-writing and composition. But they balk at reading writing about poetry.

Teaching English 1080 for the first time this past year, I tried a strategy of starting gently and gradually ramping up the complexity and difficulty of the texts. We started with straightforwardly persuasive writing: political oratory, and then polemical essays. We moved from there to satirical essays, personal essays, and then into short fiction. We finished with poetry, and my hope had been that the students would see it on a continuum of rhetorical strategies.

Starting gently didn't help. Somewhere around the middle of the fiction unit, we foundered, and hit a wall with poetry.

I've come away from the course with two conclusions. The first is that next year we do poetry right out of the gate. Leading a horse to water didn't work; perhaps we'll drop the horse in a pool from a great height and see if that makes more of an impression.

The second is a clearer personal conception of poetry's contemporary significance. There have been a host of defences of and apologies for poetry over the centuries, from the Roman poet Horace who gave us the still-relevant assertion that poetry's twin mission is "to delight and instruct," to Shelley who held that poets are "the unacknowledged legislators of the world." What, however, is the role of poetry in the digital age, of instantly accessible information, of media sound bites, political talking points, viral YouTube videos, "brand recognition," and endless PowerPoint presentations?

Next year in 1080, while I will completely reorganize the readings, I'm keeping my theme, which is that all language is rhetorical. All language is designed to convince us of something. In moving from political oratory to poetry, I hoped to illustrate how that "something" is not necessarily specific, and can in fact possess a multiplicity of meanings—and that very multiplicity resides an exercise in reimagining the world.

That is the value, and necessity, of poetry to the contemporary moment: poetry is the antithesis of propaganda. The same can of course be said of literature more broadly, but poetry is the most overt expression of this principle. Propaganda reduces, flattens, simplifies; its main purpose is to reduce language to the narrowest number of meaning possible. It is not just anti-intellectual, but anti-thought—it aims for instinctual and visceral responses, whether those be hatred and fear or the desire for the lifestyle depicted in Nike ads. For in the democratic West today, advertising is the most pervasive and pernicious form of propaganda to which we are exposed; the practices of advertising have infected political discourse, something we witness when pundits straight-facedly opine that this or that political party needs to improve its "brand." Poetry resists simplistic interpretation, and demands that we tease out a host of sometimes contradictory ideas, thoughts, meanings. And as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously asserted, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." Propaganda creates illusory clarity; poetry values ambiguity, ambivalence, and contradiction. Like Orwell's Newspeak, propaganda wants to limit meaning; poetry seeks to multiply meaning.

It's like I tell my students: you will never be asked to analyze Wallace Stevens' use of surreal imagery or the conceit of aging and the seasons in Shakespeare's sonnets in a job interview (unless, of course, you are applying for a job as an English prof). But serious time devoted to doing those things over the course of an English degree does train your mind to be alive to the subtleties and nuance of language, and imparts a talent to read and write with a greater sophistication than you would otherwise develop.


=Tamar said...

Thank you for this column. I may be quoting from it the next time I try to explain why I read certain authors.

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