In: For students, Real Simple

Someone who truly has no prior experience with poetry

At a recent job interview, I was asked the following question: "How would you explain what you do in your own writing to someone with no prior knowledge of poetry?" For whatever reason, this caught me off guard. I don’t even remember how I answered at the time–something vague and inadequate, I’m sure. But the question has continued to gnaw at me, making me rehearse various reasons for my difficulty in responding, and various ways in which I might have responded more effectively. It does, after all, seem like an important question for someone who claims to be qualified to teach people to read and write poetry!

One thing that might have tripped me up is the difficulty of imagining someone who truly has no prior experience with poetry. This may be overly literal on my part, but I imagine some blank-faced Eloi looking at me with glazed eyes, saying "Po-etry? What is this … po-etry?" In reality, nearly everyone has some idea of what poetry is or should be–or shouldn’t be. For quite a few of my students in the past few years at both Stanford and UC Santa Cruz, the first poets who come to mind are Shel Silverstein and Dr. Seuss. I kid you not. Other names that have come up frequently include Jewel, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, e. e. cummings, Allen Ginsberg and other Beats, Charles Bukowski, Sylvia Plath, Henry Rollins, Dylan Thomas, Rumi, Pablo Neruda, and T. S. Eliot, just off the top of my head. A very mixed bag, but with this obvious common factor: most are available in texts produced by major publishing houses. Some are taught widely in high school. Some are celebrities outside the context of poetry. In short, they are easily accessible, if not always on the level of content (though all the poets listed above have at least some very "reader-friendly" poems), certainly on the level of the marketplace. Readers whose experience is limited to all the poets listed above might not have an inclusive sense of the wide historical range and diversity of poetries, but they would at least be likely not to be completely thrown for a loop on first confronting the work of, say, Louis Zukofsky or Joan Retallack. They might be puzzled by specifics, and resistant to perceived difficulties, but they would almost certainly recognize it as poetry, and proceed from that assumption to whatever further conclusions they should happen to draw. Dr. Seuss and e. e. cummings both ably demonstrate that "nonsense" can become sense, and vice versa. Sylvia Plath and Henry Rollins both show how rage and frustration can be expressed textually in terms of emotive sound as well as rational argument. Jewel and Maya Angelou both … um, well, I’m not sure what they do. But you get my point.

The real challenge comes with students who already have fairly clearly defined poetics–that is, strict notions of the difference between good and bad poetry, serious and light, academic and popular. These students, who might make up anywhere from 5-20% of a given class, will be more likely to name poets such as William Stafford, Adrienne Rich, Seamus Heaney, Sharon Olds, Derek Walcott, etc.–poets they have encountered through other classes or anthologies or self-motivated efforts to make themselves familiar with the contemporary literary landscape. They are on average more scholastically ambitious than the former category of students, and more likely to be resistant to work that does not meet their expectation of what "real" poetry should look like. So the instructor navigates a double hazard: on the one side, a vast choppy sea of readers with reasonably open minds but less-than-advanced senses of literary history, tradition, formal analysis, etc.; and on the other, a reeflike cluster of readers who pride themselves on their powers of discernment and sophisticated tastes, and thus are more suspicious of and hardened against new definitions of form, beauty, meaning, poetry itself. The problem, then, is usually not explaining "what I do" to those with no notion of what poetry is in the first place, but to those who already have their own damn good idea and won’t part with it without a fight.

To the first group I generally only have to say, "Here it is, let’s go, let’s see what we can do with it, you can do it too, good job!" To them, it is a given that poetry has no one correct definition. So much a given, in fact, that the challenge is less getting them to see that certain kinds of poetry do in fact count as such, than it is getting them to be specific and rigorous in their accounts of what exactly that they are experiencing on the page, getting them to move beyond an "it’s all good" response. This can be frustrating at times, but in general, it’s rewarding just to know that one more roomful of students is leaving a course with an expanded sense of what’s out there. With the second group, however, the tone can be confrontational: they may see me as a charlatan who wants to sell a spurious tonic, one of those perverse academics with disjunctive agendas that they’ve heard about. My own work, should they happen to come across it, might not be likely to dispel this suspicion. They might see it as anti-literary, insufficiently "crafted," a hoax. Such, at any rate, is often their reaction to much Beat, New York School, Language, and other poetry that falls outside the standard Norton-Anthology-approved categories.

Since this second group is more likely to go on to pursue advanced work in poetry and/or academics, they’re the ones more likely to influence future generations of students and readers and writers, so I feel that they are crucial points of focus in the classroom. Other students’ responses may be affected in one direction or the other by theirs, so they become litmus tests. My responsibility is to meet their objections fairly and honestly, and to walk a thin line between constructive debate and aggressive confrontation. I may have strong feelings against some of the poets they hold up as indices of poetic value, and the temptation is always there to leap into attack mode. I have succumbed on occasion. And in fact, I’m not sure this is always a bad thing: the value as theater for other students, and the rebellious intellectual energy that this sometimes inspires in them, has something to be said for it. But generally, it’s more productive to be diplomatic, to say, Well yes, this poet does fearlessly explore the volatile topics of sexual violation and family violence in a very powerful way, but is this the only voice in which such explorations can be made? Yes, this is a profoundly moving poem about some guy hitting a deer with his car on a country road, but what is he really saying when he says he thinks hard "for all of us"? Are we all really that unified "us"? Could there a poem from the point of view of the deer, or the car, or the road? What language would it be necessary to invent to do this? Yes, the language of this other poem is exquisitely well-modulated and euphonious in its description of laundry hanging out the windows of a tenement house; but can’t there be another kind of poem that uses ugly, sloppy, vulgar language to test and critique the ways we imagine the function of poetic and political and social communication in general?

At the end of the day [now why did I consciously use this phrase I despise?], I have to make the compromise of potentially encouraging a suspect liberal pluralism in order to promote open-mindedness in persons whose minds, should they remain closed, could do more harm to poetic culture than other minds, remaining too wide open to too many bad ideas from all quarters, could do to culture in general. At least I hope that’s a compromise worth making. I may be wrong. But I can’t go that other way.

So what is it that I do exactly? If anyone is still reading this, I guess what I might have answered if I had been more prepared is that I write poems to see what kinds of new things I can do with words and ideas. I want to find different places that poetry can come from, and to put poetry in places it hasn’t been before. It may not always work, but even when it doesn’t, the process of doing it makes me think in interesting ways, and I hope the act of reading it does this for others too.

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