Wednesday, October 15, 2008

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.


At 10/15/2008 8:24 AM, Blogger moiety12 said...

I’m quite sure we know how you feel about Billy Collins, John (and I too, often share an aversion for what he alone has done with poetic accessibility) however, that said, I must congratulate him for instituting the 180 Poetry Project during his tenure as Laureate.

For anyone unfamiliar: The 180 Project (coinciding with an estimated 180 day school year) was the notion that a poem-a-day would be read over the loudspeaker every morning in middle and elementary public schools across America. Just that, reading a poem; Without any analysis or strings attached.

I have no idea how many schools participated or what, if any, lasting impression this Project created, but I do think it relates to what you are getting at, John, when you mention “assignments”--and I agree that if today’s youth become further engrained with this impression, then we might see pejorative repercussions on their creativity and imaginative capacities.

If America continues this paradigm (largely fueled by the liberalizing “No Child Left Behind” doctrine) society’s memes might lower to the point whereby even reading itself will be viewed as a chore.

Who knows? I too am not an educational theorist.

I only know noble accents
And lucid, inescapable rhythms;
But I know, too,
That this is involved
In what I know.

At 10/15/2008 8:52 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Hah! Yeah, I hear you about Collins. But you know, just because I don't like his poetry, doesn't mean I dislike everythgin about him (and others). There are a lot of good ideas floating around (Dana Gioia as well as done things to help matters), but the institutional pressures are enormous.

At 10/15/2008 9:08 AM, Blogger Paul Gibbons said...

Hello again,

Kids who are really young -- those who can't read yet -- are fascinated by learning to read. It's a code that they see operating around them with their parents (hopefully!), on TV, etc. So in first grade, they are enthused about the discovery of how letters can transmit meaning. But by third grade, it's the last thing they want -- another book report? No thanks.

Having taught poetry in high school, I know what a good job looks like -- and it's a lot of work to get students back to loving the act, the performance of writing, and to look to others' writing (of all kinds) for insiration and modeling. I eventually had to leave this teaching because it was too engrossing, too much bloodletting vis-a-vis bureaucracy and grading and planning lessons that worked. But I still have students who write me, saying that the best writing of their lives was in those literature classes . . . I often feel that college professors should do a stint in high schools -- private or public -- before coming to teach at the university. It teaches you how to teach writing like nothing else. And in that teaching can be the seed of the emphasis that poetry can have in the world -- if one has a history that's positive and interesting with a media, then one is more likely to keep up with it (assuming contemporary poetry is taught more in high schools, etc).

Sorry to take up so much space here. Guess I had more to say than I thought this morning.

At 10/15/2008 10:31 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

1. Agreeing with Paul Gibbons about college professors teaching high school (or even grade school)(or both). Agreeing completely.

2. Agreeing with moiety12 about Poetry180 with the stipulation that the poems should not be read over the loudspeaker, but by a student in each class each morning. The loudspeaker is too much the monotonous voice of authority on other days, and the presence of poetry does less towards undermining that bland authority than making poetry just another part of it. Poetry as participation requires interactivity, not just listening.

3. Do we want poetry to be found more often? Or do we want it to be that secret knowledge that somebody searches out on his or her own (more or less)? To stand in contrast, explicit contrast, to pop-whatever?

My own related but not equal example - I started and ran the poetry slam in town for five years. The first year, I worked with a university-based group to make it happen. The other four, we moved further from campus and broke any official ties with the university (though we teamed up from time to time with, for example, the Africana Studies program to showcase to the community a poet it had brought in). While there were academic poets who showed up (myself included), the slam specifically countered the top-down hierarchy of the academy. Students from other English classes who showed up for extra credit or whatnot tended to return and/or evince an interest in poetry for the first time in their lives, not just because of the blatantly-performative nature of the verse, but because it was "underground." In other words, we became one end of a spectrum on which these students realized they could place themselves.

Not the be-all-end-all answer, of course, and itself subject to a number of problems. Especially since I do teach officially-sanctioned creative writing courses (maybe I'm a hypocrite?). Putting it out there anyway.

At 10/15/2008 11:05 AM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

I wonder, if it were approached differently in school (if such t a thing were possible), if perhaps it wouldn't need to be undergournd to find it later in life?

Oh, I don't know. My experiences with elementary and High School classes has been scattershot, to say the least.

"Loving the act," well, that would be great, but most days I'd settle for "not loathing the act."

At 10/15/2008 11:09 AM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

Ah, I think I'm giving a roundabout argument for the need for an underground. If not poetry, then we'd have to create/adapt/adopt something to fill that space.

At 10/15/2008 12:00 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

How about we send American Idol underground, along with everything else I get too much of. Rush Limbaugh, maybe. Or the Spears girls.

At 10/15/2008 12:14 PM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

FOCL, as they say. I now have images of teenagers hiding Limbaugh tracts under their mattresses or social outcasts gathering in dark bars to recite Britney Spears lyrics.

At 10/15/2008 12:58 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

FOCL, as in Fiber Optic Cable Locating?

You kids with yer lingo these days, I tell ya.

At 10/15/2008 1:43 PM, Blogger moiety12 said...

Fellowship Of Confessional Lutherans?


At 10/15/2008 2:24 PM, Blogger M. C. Allan (Carrie, to most) said...

I’m now envisioning Britney Spears doing her own bump-and-grind rendition of Roethke’s “I Wake to Sleep.” (I make joke, of course, but actually, Kurt Elling does a vocalese version of that poem that is just killingly beautiful. Unfortunately Elling’s not likely to drag in the kids.)

To John’s original post: I think most Brits could probably quote (and would express an affection for) a great deal of Larkin, and certainly many college-educated Americans could cite some Frost and Whitman and mock some Dickinson, but in terms of contemporary poetry that’s widely read, you’ve got Collins and … I falter.

It’s a problem, but I also think that on some level it seems unrealistic to take the example of Darwish and Palestine and move that cultural template onto a country like the U.S.—for a lot of reasons, but take geography as number one: with Palestine you have a country that takes up about 10,000 sq. miles (compared to the U.S. which takes up nearly 4 million), and much of the shared national/cultural identity is taken up with the idea of struggle—for identity, for land, against Israel, etc. Darwish’s poetry took up many of those issues, which was one of the main reasons he was so beloved—it was largely as a nationalist rather than as “just” a poet.

That Americans have no poet whose death would inspire national mourning is certainly an indication of the place of poetry in our culture, but it’s also an indication that America occupies a huge geographical space, and that our national identity is such that we don’t feel a need for a poet to assert our soul or our right to exist to the world (we’ve already taken over large parts of it). And we’re also so culturally diverse that a poet who speaks to one part of our population may not resonate with another. I’m sure that each one of those 3,000 books of poetry spoke to a group of people. That none of them spoke to ALL of us says something—but not all of what it says is entirely negative.

Just some thoughts—I entirely agree with your take on the education side of this. Great post.

At 10/15/2008 2:45 PM, Blogger JeFF Stumpo said...

F**king Offal C**ksucker Literature?

Sorry, been watching lots of Deadwood lately. Feel free to delete :-)

Oh, and +1 to M.C. Allan (avoiding bad emcee puns in reference/deference to Spears & co.)...

Oh, and [spoiler ahead]: Fell Off Chair Laughing.

At 10/15/2008 3:08 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...

Jeff: Ha! I don't delete posts. You're on your own, dude.

M.C.: Very good point. I wasn't thinking about geography and population as much as I should. That does change the nature of the critique a bit, or at least it flavors it. Still, though, I would say that within each region or population sub group, I'd bet it still holds. Poetry just isn't something our culture values, we get our nationalism from, ahem, other places.


At 10/15/2008 4:11 PM, Blogger Steven D. Schroeder said...

I agree with about 90% of what you're writing here, John. Very insightful and interesting. One item that I don't see mentioned that I think is important is technology, which provides so many alternatives in terms of fast food entertainment (it's not all necessarily bad, but it's certainly easily digestible) as opposed to something that takes a little more thought. (While poetry may have an immediate impact, I don't think it's as immediate as a pop song, and the puzzling you do isn't as guided or solutions-oriented as Sudoku or a crossword.)

These media technologies are certainly more advanced and widespread in the countries where poetry isn't as popular--maybe not causal, but definitely related. Technology allows a much wider distribution for poetry and talk about it (witness me being here to comment on this blog), but I think it can damage this thing we think of as poetry, too. Hell, even written pop fiction is suffering.

At 10/15/2008 4:35 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


Oh, you're right. They are not the same. I'm frustrated though, by the critique of poetry that says it's too "difficult," too other, and yet we have no difficulty seeing SODUKO (and other things, like sports and Solitaire, etc) as enjoyable puzzles without real, final conclusion. Or somethign like that.

At 10/17/2008 10:10 AM, Blogger M. C. Allan (Carrie, to most) said...

John: Yeah, absolutely. in fact, I think it's pretty interesting that most American poets are probably highly suspicious of nationalism (I'm theorizing here, but with some justification, I think). My guess would be that a nationalist American poet might win the hearts of some of the crowd that currently doesn't read poetry, but I'd be terrified of him/her. I think the most we can hope for 'round here is a poetry that follows marketing rules: say something to somebody rather than nothing to everybody.

Anyway, I think the geographical/spread-out population issue is germane to the Darwish comparison, but it doesn't get at the overall problem of poetry's place in this country -- certainly not as germane as the difficulty/accessibility issue. Maybe we should figure out a way to "pitch" poetry as a kind of Sudoku. :) There are comparisons, but when someone finishes a Sudoku puzzle, they can look and see a visual representation of what they've accomplished. We're a very outcome-oriented bunch -- which is why your No Child analysis is right on the money.

At 11/16/2008 7:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

i don't disagree with your pedagogic suggestions,

but if just a few of those three thousand poets publishing books every year

would commit acts of civil protest (sit-ins lie-ins pickets boycotts etc)

against the cultural powers and institutions (foundations/media/et al) who ignore and underfund poetry . . .

Poetry is the least supported, the least funded, the least honored and rewarded of all the major arts——

In the class system of the arts, poets are the proles . . .

Why can't poets do what other underclasses have done: rise up in revolt against those who oppress them?

Where is the young Gandhi or ML King who will organize and lead poets to seize their proper recognition and rights——

At 11/16/2008 12:00 PM, Blogger John Gallaher said...


I agree that poets are the underclass of artists, in regards public funding, but I don't see that as something to protest over.

Most of the poet's I know protest things like Prop 8 in Cali, etc., and this idea about protesting for more money from arts agencies seems, to me at least, well, not the best use of protest time.


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