How the Imagination Dies
Sarah Maguire writes in the Guardian in Britain about poetry:
“I defy you to find a Palestinian who can't recite one of Mahmoud Darwish’s poems. In August, when this incomparable poet died, the whole of Palestine, and much of the Arabic-speaking world, came to a halt. Stricken with grief, no one could talk about anything else for days.”
And then goes on to talk about bringing some poets from countries that really cherish their poets, to Britain:
“We’re bringing them here not only for the obvious pleasure they give, but also because I hope that translating their poetry into English will go some way to injecting something of their energy into British verse. Poetry in this country is our favourite minority artform, largely greeted with bafflement, often with dismay. And yet we live alongside people for whom poetry is a central, essential passion. My hope is that by attempting to make their poems at home in our language, we can also translate a little of their enthusiasm.”
And so she leads us to this question:
“If we could read the poets that move huge audiences elsewhere in the world, would it wake up our own?”
The answer is NO. It’s not the poetry itself that creates the interest in the poetry in other countries. It’s the way the culture reads the poetry. It’s how they associate with it. Britain, and now I’m going to make the leap to a culture I know much better and include America, has a huge diversity of poetry. It’s not the fault of something in the poetry itself that is the problem. It’s what happens in the culture.
My first point, that it’s not the fault of the poems themselves, is that there are over 3,000 books of poetry published in America ever year. Seriously, with that kind of production, it can’t possibly all be unworthy of moving people. The problem is this: with 3,000 books of poetry published every year, how much of it have you noticed? What I mean is, how much have you seen mentioned in newspapers or magazines or on TV? Have you seen any at Wal Mart?
I hold the position that if poetry were pushed as hard as other books are pushed, with inexpensive editions in check out lines, and talked about on general television shows and in general magazines, some poetry would find an audience nearly as large as fiction. And likewise, I feel that if we treated pop music and pop fiction the way we treat poetry in our culture, then it’s audience would go poof.
Why do I think this? Well, first, since it will never happen, I have the comfort of never being proved wrong. But secondly, poetry has the potential of having that same sort of quick interest and quick conclusion that songs have. You don’t need the kind of long-term involvement to read poetry that you need to complete a novel. But people don’t like to have to bring that hard focus to bear suddenly to puzzle through a poem, one might counter. I think that’s wrong. Whenever I see someone on an airplane playing SUDOKU, I am reminded that we like to be challenged. We’re just not allowing ourselves to bring poetry onto our list of available entertainment options. Why is this?
First off, I blame the No Child Left Behind philosophy of American education. The idea that all things that are important in learning and teaching are those things that can be assessed in the short-term by objective tests. We, as a culture, bring everything that we say we value down to a test score. I’ve seen this play out for years as I visit schools (and now that I have children I’m watching it even closer). When I meet kindergarten students, they are nothing but open imagination. Everything possible is real. We can say it’s because they’re just coming into language and just figuring out how to pair language with experience. OK. And that we need to teach them to transition into literate and functional citizens. I agree. But do we always need to have them color within the lines? We have all sorts of clichés aimed at helping us think larger, to think, forgive me for saying it, outside the box. We know, and people who get paid a lot of money to sit and think keep telling us, that to compete globally, we need to do this thing they’ve termed “thinking outside the box.”
I suggest that if we really believed that, we’d change something about the way we put thinking inside the box to begin with. When does it happen? How does thinking get in that box?
Poetry is a good example. When I bring poetry to children, especially when I bring real poetry, not children’s verse, but adult poetry (granted, poetry that is age-appropriate for language and image) to children, I’m greeted with pleasure and enthusiasm.
“Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” for example. Read that first stanza to children, evocatively, and with enthusiasm. They will enjoy it. You can even talk about it with them. It will be something for them to participate with. And then you can turn them over to a blank page, and they’ll write amazing things about seeing the world in thirteen different ways. At that point in their lives, they love poetry. They are on the road to participate in a culture that values art.
And then the philosophy behind No Child Left Behind takes over. It all becomes something to be correct or incorrect about. It’s no longer something to participate with. So that last week I visited a High School college prep class and asked them what they would think if I handed out “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” What would their reaction be? You can guess, can’t you? Yes? One said to me that he would think, “what’s the assignment going to be?”
The thinking, the experiencing of thought that was, just a few years earlier, just all over the place for students, has now been firmly sealed into its little box, thank you very much. We’ve taken art, the most human of our expressions, the expression of our inner, hopeless and beautiful and mysterious and glorious selves, and we’ve made it into an assignment. I don’t have a solution. I’m not an educational theorist, but I’ve seen the way we suck creativity and imagination out of ourselves in the name of education.
There simply has to be a better way.