The latest National Endowment for the Arts survey of literary reading found a welcome rise in fiction among old and young adults, but poetry continued its slide. (Go here and click on the pdf “Reading on the Rise.) In 2002, 12.1 percent of adults read a poem on their own in the preceding 12 months. In 2008, the rate slipped to 8.3 percent.
That goes with my experience teaching literature to students over the years. More and more, they groan when it comes to poetry days. Often I teach a lower-division survey course in American literature from the Civil War to the present, and when it comes to post-1960 verse pieces, well, the freshmen and sophomores can’t wait to get past them. They like the fiction — standards such as “A & P,” “Lost in the Funhouse,” “Good Country People” — but lines such as these by John Ashbery leave them cold:
“. . . The sky calls
To the deaf earth. The proverbial disarray
Of morning corrects itself as you stand up.
You are wearing a text.”
What’s a “proverbial disarray?” they wonder. And how can you wear a text? Yeah, yeah, we can interpret all kinds of ways, but it doesn’t seem right when you have to work so hard to get a grip on the basic meaning.
Other anthologized poems seem equally foreign and inaccessible and just plain boring and senseless to the 19-year-old mind. This poem by Merwin has a subtle haunting power, but not for them:
“What is unseen
flows to what is unseen
passing in part
through what we partly see
we stood up from all fours
far back in the light
as long as there is day
and part of the night”
And what does this opening from Levertov mean to them?
“Who’d believe me if
I said, ‘They took and
split me open from
scalp to crotch, and
still I’m alive, and
walk around pleased with
the sun and all
the world’s bounty.’ Honesty
isn’t so simple:
a simple honesty is
nothing but a lie.”
What the heck do you mean when you say that simple honesty is a lie? asks the young man or woman who wants clarity and straightforwardness from adults.
Or this from Anne Sexton:
“My friend, my friend, I was born
doing reference work in sin, and born
confessing it. This is what poems are:
for the greedy,
they are the tongue’s wrangle,
the world’s pottage, the rat’s star.”
When 19-year-olds they read those lines, they think, “Huh?” Or, “Rat’s star?” Plus, when poets write poems about poetry and texts, teachers may find it intriguing, but kids who don’t plan to major in literature couldn’t care less. They can’t relate.
So last year I tried a different kind of verse, this one with rhyme and regularity and narrative. Here were the first lines:
“We stood on the rented patio
While the party went on inside.
You knew the groom from college.
I was a friend of the bride.”
I read the lines aloud, and an unexpected thing happened. Instead of the customary blank stares, the students’ heads lifted and their eyes focused in. Apparently, they liked what they heard. It had rhyme and music, for instance, the fluid and balanced assonance of “You . . . groom” and “I . . . bride.” And there was also a man and a woman at a party.
I read more to see if the attention would last:
“We hugged the brownstone wall behind us
To keep our dress clothes dry
And watched the sudden summer storm
Floodlit against the sky.
The rain was like a waterfall
Of brilliant beaded light.
Cool and silent as the stars
The storm hid from the night.
To my surprise, you took my arm —
A gesture you didn’t explain —
And we spoke in whispers, as if we two
Might imitate the rain.”
Yes, the students were still there, and they wanted to hear more. The poem had a subject they all could understand, these young and largely unsuccessful romantics in the lecture hall, and it promised a dramatic moment outside the humdrum flow of time.
The occasion was a lesson in poetry teaching. Don’t choose poems so difficult and remote from young students, especially the non-humanities majors. They may be brilliant and powerful, but if their brilliance and power requires too much guidance and contextualization on the teacher’s part, they won’t work.
And don’t assume that because a poem has regular cadences and rhyme, tells a recognizable story, and is accessible to the 19-year-old sensibility that it doesn’t achieve the brilliance and power of the difficult, oblique, intense poetry of the anthology pieces.
In fact, I think that the moral meaning of this last poem exceeds that of the previous ones.
Here are more stanzas:
“Then suddenly the storm receded
As swiftly as it came.
The doors behind us opened up.
The hostess called your name.
I watched you merge into the group,
Aloof and yet polite.
We didn’t speak another word
Except to say good-night.”
You can read the rest of the poem here.