For Teachers of Poetry, a Cautionary Tale

Yesterday I provided an excerpt from Rattle editor Tim Green’s interview of the poet Kwame Dawes. Today, a final excerpt, this time touching on the damage “education” can inflict on poetry.

“Part of the problem is that we teach poetry with a manual that is used for an exam. Just think about when people encounter poetry. As children you learn nursery rhymes, but slowly that narrows down, and you stop hearing poetry except in school and in a context that demands the dreaded ‘analysis.’ You don’t have the advantage of a poem being made into a Lifetime movie, which you have for fiction and plays. For poetry it starts to be all school. And in school the teacher stops one day and says, ‘What does it mean?’ But the teacher doesn’t say, ‘You’re going to spend the next 40 years of your life trying to understand what it means.’ ‘Next week there will be an exam!’ is what the teacher says. ‘So you’d better know what this means now.’ Poetry is not like that, but we learn poetry that way.

“Consequently, people come to a poetry reading to apprehend in the moment, because if they don’t, they remember their childhood experience when they felt like idiots for not understanding. If someone comes up to me after a reading and says a poem is deep, what they often mean is, ‘I didn’t understand a word of it, but I can’t admit it, so I’ll say you’re really deep.’ That’s the anxiety. That’s what we need to break. Here’s the thing: we do not put that pressure on music. I admit there’s some music that’s poppy, but look at how many songs are hugely difficult, and people will stay with them and will come back 30 years later and say, ‘You know, I’ve been singing this song for 30 years, and I never realized what was going on.’ … It’s because there’s no exam!

“Listen, I don’t want to stereotype cultures, but in Ireland poetry is read at bars and so on, and people don’t know what they’re hearing while it’s being read, but as they grow older they begin to contemplate it. They know it by heart, and eventually they begin to understand things that are quite complex, but at the time they had something to hold on to, and it was enough—they had the cadence, they had the prose, but they also had stretches that they understood, and they were allowed to have time, because that is not a school room. This also happens in griot cultures in North and West Africa where the griot carries the histories of the community. In cultures in which proverbs are cherished and valued, this also happens. We have come to ritualize this process of learning over time in American rural and urban cultures where ‘folk’ sayings and proverbs are granted the chance to be mysterious for a time. No exam next week. Heck, it happens in churches the world over. We accept mystery and the slow process of understanding.

“The problem with poetry today, even here in America, is what happens in the class room. That’s the problem with apprehending poetry, because we feel like we have to understand it right now—all of it, right now. And the only thing you can understand right now is the Hallmark greeting card—which, by the way, are very smartly written. [both laugh]

“Hallmark cards aren’t easy to write, if you think about what they achieve. My wife gives me a card, and it’s lovely, it tells me a lot. A guy in South Carolina gets the same card and thinks, ‘Wow, you found my soul.’ Same poem—wow, that’s pretty impressive, right? [laughs] So I do think that is the dilemma. That’s the heart of the dilemma: giving people permission to return, to learn and read and apprehend poetry over time. And I think, as we ease the pressure for immediate comprehension, we allow for the possibility of complexity. Because the technology of writing allows us to return and return and return. When there was no writing, we either memorized or we apprehended in the moment, and then the rest was the dew. But the technology of writing,  we can read to the bottom and go right back to the top. If we didn’t have an exam next week, we could keep doing that. If there’s any gift that our poetry community can try to inculcate in the culture, it’s that poetry is a life and life lived. I am not suggesting that we toss out the exam, but I am suggesting that we parallel that kind of learning with more open-ended approaches to encountering poetry. Because we do it with so much else. People go back to museums and do pilgrimages back to the same pieces of art once a month, and they come up with complex feelings and ideas about it. No one says they need a degree in art appreciation… But we rarely give poetry that space. I think that’s something that’s desperately needed.”


Nota bene: The entire interview can be found in the Fall 2019 issue of Rattle.


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