Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Jordan confirms my intuition that the only way to teach someone how to feel is by modeling affect. That's the brilliant basis of his Million Poems Show: the host sits onstage with the poet, listening and reacting and giving the audience permission to share the many facets of his enjoyment. He proposes that teachers can do the same thing, that teachers are like actors and performers. But there's a difference: while talk show hosts generally play the role of your appealingly goofy uncle or aunt, dismissable at a touch of the remote, teachers are in loco parentis, authority figures that students naturally want to please, defy, or elude. All three of these desires (each of which can easily occupy a single student simultaneously) inhibit the experience of the freedom or enlargement of perceptions that ought to be generated by the encounter with a poem. Or if they don't inhibit the experience of the poem they color it, sometimes indelibly. This is why I wonder if a teacher can ever do more than provide an opportunity for the expression of what's already in the student: if the student needs poetry (though he or she may not have known it before now) they will find it in a corresponding spirit of gratitude (yes, Milton, your Milton, teacher, resonates with me), defiance (so you're going to dis Bukowski? I claim him for my own!), or evasion (the most difficult affect to track; maybe this manifests as discovering the power of a poem the teacher sucked all the life out of twenty years later)

I'm reminded of a children's book I had when I was a kid with dark and spooky illustrations and little poems: I think it was called, "The Geranium on the Windowsill Just Died, but Teacher You Went Right On." I don't ever want to be that sort of teacher, and yet how can I not be? Life goes on for these students: their consciousnesses are crowded with academic responsibilities that my class can only be a fraction of, plus there's a complex and rapidly evolving social life, jobs, families, love and lust, and looking out the window to think about. All I know how to do is try to show that poetry for me is not an activity that fills a niche from 11:15 to 12:05 MWF but the fabric and weave of all those other things that are indisputably more important than papers and exams. Is that a genuine pedagogy? Does it really work? And if it does, how might it be transferred to other arenas—editing, maybe?—so as to further the art we love?

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