Burt: What you find difficult depends on what you already find easy
I’m finding Poets on Teaching: a Sourcebook, edited by Joshua Marie Wilkinson to be continually useful, both in the classroom and in my own thinking about poems. Some conceptualizations I agree with, some I disagree with, but so far all have been interesting and worth the candle. This week I’m thinking along with Stephen Burt’s “How To Teach ‘Difficult’ Poetry and Why it Might Not be so Difficult After All.” I’ve long felt that presenting the history of poetry chronologically, especially in an introduction to literature course, to be less interesting, and less successful, than starting with the very recent present and working roughly backwards in a hopscotch fashion.
But what might this also mean in talking about the writing of poetry in a creative writing workshop? One doesn’t want to simply rehearse the present, but one must start there, as, well, obviously the students are writing their poems in the present.
It’s all about context. What context the students come from and what context they make together. That can be a problem as well as a benefit, depending on what that context allows or disallows for experience. But managing that context is part of the job of the mediator.
Anyway, I found Burt’s piece to be interesting as it raises several questions as it makes it’s major point: “What you find difficult depends on what you already find easy.”
So here are a few paragraphs snipped from his essay (These are pulled bits, as I didn't want to post the whole thing. Now you have something to look forward to when you get the book.):
What you find difficult depends on what you already find easy; what you find comprehensible or enjoyable depends on what you already know. Randall Jarrell used to say that when he taught in Austria, his students found “The Waste Land” easy and Frost hard because they were used to Eliot’s moves, having encountered them in other languages, other art forms (e.g., modern painting), or in daily life: Europe as rubble, the world as disillusioned collage, the poet as Tiresias, helpless latecomer to history. Frost’s people, Frost’s world, and even Frost’s kinds of poetry (American eclogues, dramatic monologues, and neo-pastoral lyrics) were not what the Austrians thought modern poems could be. The most difficult poets for moderately well-prepared undergraduates to appreciate are not contemporary poets of any sort: they are the poets from before 1800 who fit neither modernist, nor Romantic, nor “confessional,” nor avant-garde, frame-breaking, shock-the-audience modes. Among all the poets who have exerted a great deal of influence over the course of the English language, the hardest to teach now is almost surely John Dryden.
All poetry is difficult if you don’t have a way in, a sense of what’s represented how (which allows you to ask why); all poetry can be enjoyable, if not easy, if a teacher can make clear that way. I have seen West Coast poets with impeccable “experimental” pedigrees declare with some pride that it’s easier to teach beginners how to read Stein, or Williams, or Armantrout, than to teach the more advanced students schooled, or deformed, by reading (say) Heaney or Frost: the poets who say such things think that they are making a point against older forms of poetry, older modes of education, but really they are just demonstrating that teachers give students (among other things) expectations, and that students, in our culture, pick up few expectations about poetry outside of class.
That means that the analogies most useful in teaching many contemporary poets are not analogies linking one poet to others, one kind of page-based poetry to another kind, but analogies between a kind of poetry, a book of poems, and some other kind of art form—kinds of pop songs, kinds of non-song-based pop music, kinds of prose (love letters, op-eds, satire a la The Onion, blogs), kinds of film, or kinds of scenes in films. You shouldn’t stop with those analogies, since all good poems use tools specific to poetry, but they can make the best places to start.