Thursday, March 23, 2006

Once we'd both permitted the snark to subside, Eric Selinger comes back with some very reasonable ideas for fostering a larger audience for poetry. I think he's absolutely right about how the site that needs the most attention is K-12 education: if poetry were on the curriculum and if it were taught unsadistically (for how else can you describe the usual process by which poems are vivisected in search of "meaning," and by which students are made to feel that reading poetry is an unpleasant test to be circumvened whenever possible?), its audience would expand tremendously. (Though I'm still skeptical as to whether a mass audience could be so generated, at least not for the kind of social formalism I'm most engaged by.) The trouble with this conclusion is that its left me feeling like there's little that I can contribute toward solving the problem, since I doubt I have the temperament for teaching younger students. Eric's comments are useful because he points out the crying need for essays and texts on the teaching of poetry—because of course if the teachers of poetry are intimidated by it they're going to pass on that intimidation to their students. Perhaps we really do need a new Brooks & Warren devoted to contemporary small press work (sometimes I think Steve Burt is embarked upon such a project, albeit in piecemeal fashion: consider his Believer essay, "Close Calls With Nonsense," which carries the subtitle "How to Read, and Perhaps Enjoy, Very New Poetry").

It's a tricky negotiation: the teacher and the poet don't necessarily share many concerns. The poet has to preserve his or her own freedom of aesthetic movement (which includes the freedom to associate or not), which means most poets are at least half-invested in poetry's marginality and the freedom that the margins afford. That, better than simple snobbery, I think explains the reluctance of many poets to focus on the task of audience building. It also goes some way toward explaining the confusion evident in the last several days' posts between poetry as a practice with a vexed relation to capitalism and the marketplace and poetry as its own semiautonomous political economy. The teacher's investment is necessarily in his or her students—in readers—and in ushering them into a safe space for trial and error, with the ultimate goal of empowering them to fly on their own critical wings. As I have often said, I'd like to see the gap between poets and readers erased, and I believe that poetry—particularly poetry that demands some degree of labor—has a vital role in fostering negative capability, which is the dialectic's next-door neighbor and as such the possible key to a mode of enlightenment that also has room for mysteries and doubts. A poet contributes toward this by writing; I think a teacher could contribute by helping students to read the way writers do, with an eye toward the emotional and intellectual effects of particular techniques. Which probably also necessarily means encouraging students to write their own poems—not that young people really need such encouragement. Maybe I've got it backwards: we all start as writers, but only a few of us become readers. If so, I'm not sure how to proceed. I know that reading for me was essential to imagining a community of thought and fellowship to which I might belong. Reading is a product of loneliness, but you have to feel lonely first. There are maybe too many distractions, too many alternative simulacra of fellowship, to foster that kind of passionate reading today. Am I of the last generation to have a real choice between literary nerddom and computer nerddom? Surely if I'd been born even five years later I'd be somebody's webmaster today. But then where did all these twentysomething poets come from? Not all of them have blogs.

On this, we should agree: readers are made, not born. Perhaps readers should be seen as the ultimate product of our poetry assembly line.


RL said...

There are books that are created to be assigned and there are books that are created to be read. Both have their places -- but since anthologies are so often used in classrooms when teaching poetry, I'd like to see more anthologies be geared towards reading and not so much a snapshot or representation or a failed attempt at all encompassing. Those can be valiant goals -- but I think that often doesn't work so well with the general "literary" reader. There are lots of intelligent and thoughtful readers who read novels and non-fiction on a regular basis -- they could read and enjoy poetry too -- if their introduction to it wasn't so sterile and removed and unengaging. Teachers play a role, the poems play a role, as do editors and publishers.

John said...

My 3-year-old demands that I read to him. Daily. He loves rhythm & rhyme & wordplay. He constantly produces spoonerisms. My wife instructs him at bedtime: "Tell your dad you love him." He says, "I kuv you kerry kuch."

I encourage all of these things -- but it's coming from him too. (I just realized I'm poking at the "made / born" "nurture / nature" continuum.

Arts education, yes! For poetry? When I think of high school, my heart sinks. High school is too late. Require journal-writing, with an emphasis on synthetic thinking and empirical observation. Require it early, and often.

I very much agree that there's nothing snobbish about not caring about an audience. It's respectful. To quote FOH, if people don't need poetry, bully for them.

Jordan said...

Couldn't agree with you more.

John said...

Since Jordan weighed in I'm curious to know what people think of Kenneth Koch's "teaching kids to write poetry" books. I have found studies where teachers have encouraged students to develop their observational and cognitive skills by journaling "one new idea each day" to be more exciting, inspiring, and poetic. Koch's results by contrast strike me as treacly. (Memory speaks: I haven't actually read the books for many many years.)

XANTIPPE said...

This has been an interesting discussion, Josh. I agree that high school is too late; elementary school is where to start. CPITS (California Poets in the Schools) was founded at SF State in the 1960s and is still around(see a near-demise in the early 90s when state funding was slashed.

If the CPITS model could be replicated in all 50 states-- and be given adequate funding, of course-- perhaps a larger/more diverse audience of readers would result. And if that doesn't necessarily translate to the sales of more poetry books, so be it. At least there'd be fewer people who'd look at you crosseyed when you tell 'em you're a poet.

E. M. Selinger said...

A long response to you, Josh, up over at Say Something Wonderful. Thanks for the tip about Steve Burt.

Any "Hands on Stanzas" members out there reading Josh's blog? Lee? If so, what goes on in the Chicago version of PITS? Any insights to offer from that end?

Jonathan said...

Koch's books are very far from being treacly. They are the antidote to all things treacly. I have used them with success in the classroom. I don't care much about "cognitive skills" and "journaling." What I care about it poetry, not educational jargon. "Studies have found..." indeed. Thou shalt not commit a social science when talking about poetry.

Jonathan said...

Sorry, that sounded snarky.

When Koch's books first came out, poetry writing for children was in fact extremely treacly. The older approach still holds sway in some places, to disastrous results. Koch's pedagogical books were designed to do away with cutesy approaches, and the results bear this out. It is disturbing to find him accused of exactly what he was opposing. Look what some children in Africa wrote using his methods--the appendix to a new edition of Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? It is amazing stuff, free from sentimentality and cuteness. He was also amazing in giving children real poetry to read rather than treacly crap written for children. Herrick, Blake, Rilke, Basho, Lawrence...

And, to be snarky again, "journal" is not a verb.

E. M. Selinger said...

Well, Jonathan, neither was "snark" until recently. Damn, I love this language!

I agree with you about Koch, though. His books are among the best things I've run across, not only for teaching poetry to kids, but for adults as well. (See "Making Your Own Days," his book on "The Pleasures of Reading and Writing Poetry." A gem.) Many of the other books available offer warmed-over Wordsworth; they're all about "the heart," and lack both the smarts and the love of language-play that are everywhere in Koch.

The trouble I've found "selling" Koch to teachers, when I've found it, has to do with the need to equip students to do well in later pedagogical settings: i.e., to write essays or take exams on poetry. This isn't a mark against him; just a sidenote to point out how far his approach lies from the model of poetry reading that has been institutionalized outside of poetry writing circles.

John said...


well, if poets are going to go around telling me what is and what is not a word, bleeahh.

I'm not an educator; this is hasty whatever-ness, and while I agree that "journaling" and "cognitive skills" are unattractive verbal constructions, if they're jargon, it's coincidental. But don't punk me no style points, please, I mean, come on.

Love your blog, btw.

You really don't care about kids exercising their faculties to observe and think? Really?

I didn't write "studies have found"; I wrote "I have found studies" -- which was disingenuous; it was a lonely book in a university library, by a 6th grade teacher who assigned a journal recording "one new thought a day" to his students. The examples he published showed kids getting turned on by their minds and engaging with their world, unmediated by the question of whether a splash of words is or is not a poem. By contrast, "Wishes Lies & Dreams" seemed easy & sweet & paradoxically encumbered by product rather than process: "Making a poem," with the injunction, "honor thy whimsy."

You hit on one thing though: I care more about thinking than I do about poetry. Particularly in school.

You know, Jonathan, I love dictionaries, use them all the time. But they don't have the final say on what constitutes a word. English has a long tradition of verbificating nouns. It's part of the language's ugly vitality. Snark if you feel like it, but you're wrong.

Anyway, thanks for weighing in on the Koch. I'll check out the Rose book; it sounds better, maybe. I'm doubtful, though: When kids ask "why is the rose red," while I'm happy that Neruda may have an answer for them, I'm curious to know a scientific answer too. Maybe Koch includes science in his poetry; I hope so, if the context is pedagogy.

John said...

Sorry to be so windy.

And to so pugnaciously defend my tangent and my ugly verbalizing.

jwg said...

I am glad that poetry was not taught in High School. I think of my high school English teachers and remember what they did to the prose, and am glad they didn’t get a good chance to do it to the poetry. finding poetry is where it is at. Not having it passed down from the institution. I like that it is outside. makes it more dangerous.

jwg said...

ps. but after found, it was nice to go to Naropa and see other lovers of poetry.

just dont think that the high school english teacher is cut out for it (there are exceptions). Where is Hollo when you need him?

Susan Denning said...


The metaphors you choose for writing about poets, teacher, and poetry, are very interesting to me. You talk about teachers making "investments" in students - as though students were little bank accounts - and teachers having "goals", and poets as "laborers". It all sounds like sheer drudgery to me.

It would be lovely if more people read poetry, I agree, but I'm not sure if I'm comfortable with poetry as "product" metaphors that come along with your discussion. Are we all just worker bees? If some of the worker bees are trying to subvert the hive, then do they really have a function in the hive? It seems like one of poetry's purposes is to subvert the language - subversion is dangerous. It seems to me that since most public school teachers are hired by institutions, supported by the government, to socialize and educate students to become good worker bees - to fit in, to become "productive members of society" - that unless poetry is affirming that society and that culture, educational institutions aren't going to have much interest in furthering poetry's readership. And I'm not sure I really would want to leave it in their hands.
Unless, of course, you are talking about poetry as a merely decorative art - which I don't think you are.

Jonathan said...

I also recommend Ron Padgett's "Creative Reading." That's a good book.

Having children journalize or journalate one thought a day might be a valuable exercise, but it is hardly a substitute for a highly developed and efficacious poetic pedagogy. There is more to Koch than whimsy. There is, in fact, attention to process and product.

The point of Koch's books is not to teach children to take the SAT test.

John said...

Jonathan, To argue that the question of the source of the rose's redness does not warrant an accurate answer is to endorse whimsy above knowledge. I understand that it is not a science textbook.

But thanks for the book tips; I'll follow up.

John said...

"endorse whimsy above knowledge" is too dismissive, and wrong.

To argue against a knowledgable answer to the question of the rose's redness is to believe that knowledge is inimical to poetry, a belief which does no service to poetry.

Henry Gould said...

Maybe one thing to keep in mind is that compartmentalization affects all forms of work & social activity these days.

Thus it might make sense to go back to Montale's notions of the "second life of art" and "dilettantism". This fits in with my ancient experience, growing up in 50s & 60s. That is, poetry, music, art, science & history were all in the mix, in the background, in the town library with the spiral staircase along with the Cowboy Bob books.

& remember, it all starts way BEFORE kindergarten. It starts with reading & telling stories to children. The most idyllic events of my life were lying in the dark telling impromptu stories to my preschool kids. I learned this from my mother, who made up stories about a tiny person named "Frisbee" & his adventures.

This is where poetry begins to be inculcated - blended in with everything else.

Henry Gould said...

p.s. & I'm wondering now if this is where the brand name "Frisbee" came from, since my mother was doing this in the mid-50s. My father, a lawyer, patented the first "frisbee". My brothers & I threw the prototype around the yard, in the early 60s.

But I'm getting off-topic here...

Jonathan said...

Of course, the title of that book (Rose, where did you get that red?) refers to a poem a kid wrote based on Blake's Tiger. Do you think Blake was wrong not to ask for an "accurate," scientific answer to the question of "what immortal hand or eye / dared frame thy fearful symmetry?" ? It's simply the wrong answer to expect in this context. This has nothing at all to do with whimsy. It's not a scientific question, but an existential one. I think children understand the difference quite easily, although it seems to confuse very literal-minded adults.

It's easy to dismiss poetry writing by children as sort of whimsical and not as serious as what might happen in some other part of the curriculum. But I think Josh's post was directed at how poetry can be taught.

E. M. Selinger said...

For a poet interested in the scientific answers to Blake's questions--and to the one about the rose--there IS always Ron Johnson: a poet some of my high school teachers have brought to their scientifically-inclined students with good effect, or so I gather. The first 33 sections of ARK are on point here--certainly Beams...hang on...don't have it handy. 10, of course, and the prose ones about the eye and ear and mind. Josh, you could fill this in, I'm sure.

Speaking of poetry and schools, Vachel Lindsay wrote a piece in 1926, I think it was, in the Saturday Review, arguing that the best possible thing that could happen to poetry in the US would be for it to be thrown out of school curricula entirely. Far better to encounter it as the alternative to one's formal education than to meet it on the terms and terrain of (in our time) test-oriented schooling.

The one, ONE question about a poem on the standardized test for would-be Illinois teachers a few years back was a name-that-figure question (multiple choice, of course) about the line "the sea that bares her bosom to the moon" in Wordsworth's "The World is Too Much With Us." Was that hyperbole, personification, simile, or antithesis? Congratulations! Go and teach poetry.


Jonathan said...

Josh, Eric, and I are in agreement about the virtues of Ronald Johnson, I think.

Sisyphus Walking said...

Poetry is not spinach. I repeat: poetry is not spinach.

My major concern, and this is related to the comments more than Josh's post, is that forcing children to read poetry, to "journal," etc, is not going to be very productive.

If poetry were shoved down the throats of children, the likely result would be a backlash against poetry. Poetry is not spinach. No. And, poetry is not, despite Gerstler's admirable book, medicine to force-feed people.

A manifest goal of poetry is to "feel" imperative, essential: to make the whimsical feel necessary. That young people do not connect (forgive the New Age feeling language) with poetry is not the fault of the children, nor the educators. It is a systematic problem.

The American educational system was not intended to educate: it was modeled after the Prussian schools that had produced an army efficient enough to crush the French in the 1830's. Disciples of Comte (ie Dewey) set up our schools with the intention of replicating the Prussian efficiency, the intention of creating efficient people: not sensitive or feeling people, not people with abstract thought capabilities.

The underlying problem is that our schools are designed to create thoughtless zombies who will stay in line and raise their hands before going to the bathroom. To attribute the decline in education to teachers, to poets, or to students is to misunderstand the "principals" which govern our educational system, and our society.

As we move increasingly toward ease and efficiency, as the "bottom-line" becomes more and more the measuring stick for all things, that which is not convenient, financially profitable, or socially presented as essential to keeping up with the times will be overlooked. How else could a technocratic, materialistic, "progressive" society survive? It must erase must erase self-contemplation: it must erase poetry.

Many props to Caffiene Destiny and many apologies for the soap-boxing. I get fired up easily.

John said...

I love Ronald Johnson. And Blake. Who rebukes my quasi-scientism.

Jonathan, I've said nothing to indicate that I have a problem with non-scientific answers to the question of the source of the rose's redness. All I've tried to say is, poetry should have room for such answers if a kid asking such a question desires it, or a poet desires it for other reasons. It doesn't feel like a controversial (contra-verse-ial) position.

After posting my previous comment and before reading yours, it struck me that I'm tripping over the post-Cartesian split between reason & imagination. I'm not arguing for Augustan verses on the circulation of blood where scientific truth is allegorized as Daphne and the scientist-poet as truth-seeking Apollo. I'm trying -- probably vainly -- to argue against the split.

"Whimsy" is how I remember the poems from the "Wishes Lies Dreams" book -- but since all I remember is my general impression, it's an unfair, dismissive characterization.

Right now, with my 3-year-old, the white middle-class culture of his upbringing values his colorful improvised drawings a lot more than his noisy musical improvisations or his energetic wordplay. All share surface qualities with 20th century aesthetics, but Kandinsky has gotten absorbed into the decorative arts in ways that Cage and Mac Low haven't. I feel a commitment -- usually an intense concentrated commitment -- to the "moment of exploration / expression" no matter the medium he's "playing" in. I felt that same commitment in those 6th-grade students' journals in a way that I didn't in Koch's students poems; but again, it's the general impression of a very old memory.

So I'll stop now!

Except to say, I'm delighted to read an origin story of the Frisbee! Revealed in the comments of this blog post! Thanks, Henry!

Jordan said...

Hi John - Have we met?

It's not clear to me why a daily "new idea" composition would be incompatible with the "poetry ideas" Kenneth outlines in Wishes Lies and Dreams and Rose Where Did You Get That Red, except that there's only so much time in the day and there are god help us increasing burdens on teachers to get children over standardized-testing humps.

Educators love to debate the relative merits of different approaches - I'm not opposed to the Lucy Calkins method or the New Zealand Whole Language movement, though I do have a problem with Myra Cohn Livingston's charges that Kenneth's work leads children into cuteness and formulaic thinking.

I would argue that any pedagogical method is only as inspiring to students as it is to the teachers who take it up. The point is to bring to the classroom some energy and curiosity about the subject, some impatience, even.

As for the children's poems printed in Wishes Lies and Dreams, Jeff Morley's "The Dawn of Me" is one I keep in my private anthology of poems I keep going back to, safe among Herrick, O'Hara, and Herbert.

John said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John said...


We've never met, though we have corresponded. I'm a fellow blogger who finally got around to enabling my blogger profile after not having done so for no particular reason other than I don't remember it having been a feature when I first started blogging.

Thanks for mentioning that I'm not the first to have a "cuteness" reaction to "Wishes, Lies," and for mentioning you disagree and why.

I agree that teacher enthusiasm is a factor, but I still would not discount the "nature" factor in the "nature / nurture" continuum; sometimes material lights students' fires even when lit by a wet-blanket teacher. I have no doubt that the Koch books have lit students' fires.

Jordan said...

Wondered if that was you!

If you get the chance, sneak into a convention of the National Council of Teachers of English some time, and compare KK's books to every other book on offer there. No contest.

I like the daily composition model (hence my blog) but as a pedagogical model it smacks of Coue.

Or maybe I'm just being more combative now I know who you are. :)

John said...

Hi Jordan,

Coue has nothing to do with it. If, though, a student does perceive him- or herself to being better and better every day, that would be a legit. topic for journalizing (which is a dict.-approved word), as long as it was backed up. But the results I read had nothing to do with that: it was all about the students' relationship with the world-outside-oneself.

I'll take your word for the Eng. Teach. Conv. And, as I said, I'll check out the Koch books.

marybid said...

I taught in the Hands on Stanzas program in Chicago, years ago (five, maybe).

I think Koch is a great place to start, or Mark Statman's Listener in the Snow, but wherever you're teaching poetry to young folks you have to be flexible. There's little room for rigidity if you want them to be creative and run with it. You can ask them to write their own version of a Lorca poem, but if suddenly a hippo enters that poem they should be able to harness it. For me that was the toughest part.

More so than trying to create an appetite for poetry, I think the goal of these programs is to get kids thinking in new ways--or rather, keep kids thinking in new ways: visually, abstractly, contrary to what popular culture feeds them. It's certainly different from teaching the right answers to a test. Call me idealistic, but I think teaching poetry and writing to kids is good for our society as a whole, if only for its ability to show pleasure in strangeness & unexpected places.

Anonymous said...

>Perhaps readers should be seen as the ultimate product of our poetry assembly line.


This is a frightening thought!

Though in a funny way...


Anonymous said...

Greetings. Thanks for the interesting notes. If you don't mind, here's my take:

I've started a new magazine -- PRACTICE: NEW WRITING + ART. The debut issue returns from the printer in early April. I'm telling you this not to spamvertise in your comments box but because I think it pertains to the discussion. I created the mag with a different audience in mind -- Readers, not just writers -- and either the idea works or it fails. We'll see. (I would argue that most editors of online and print journals out there -- the types of journals most folks reading this blog would probably agree are worth reading -- have given up on the notion that you can create such a mag for an audience of non-writers. They are read almost exclusively, I would guess, by folks who would like to be published in their pages... Not an original observation, and fraught with generalizations that are bound to irritate, I know, but one I make anyway.)

In the editor's note I say that I am starting yet another lit journal to create exposure not just for writers and artists but ultimately for readers. (Yes, we are all readers. But you know the type I mean here.) I say that, no matter what the style, genre, aesthetic, or whatever, exposure to this type of writing/thinking/communication is worthwhile. Even if you don't "get it" right away. Even if it takes longer to process than the evening news. As I wrote the note it struck me that most writers and poets (those I'd like publish in later issues) would probably find the sentiment naive, silly, obvious, call it what you will. But I said it anyway, I think it is an important and worthwhile point to make to folks who do not live inside the world of contemporary poetry & poetics. A simple point that I happen to believe: it is good to witness art and writing being created outside of the box. Doesn't matter what box, though I'm sure we all share an idea of what that means.

In this magazine -- 160 pages perfect bound w/ 16 pages of color art and additional black & white, including poetry by Cole Swensen, Rod Smith, Peter Streckfus, Janet Holmes, Graham Foust, Aaron McCollogh, Dan Beachy-Quick, and many others -- every poet and artist has a page in which they're given a chance to explain themselves/their work. In general or specifically. The range of responses (I did not constrain except in size) is exactly that: a wide range. Peter Streckfus wrote something wildly wild that is now part of his manuscript excerpted in the magazine. Aaron McCollough talked, among other things, about the process of chance and will and I-Ching that produced his amazing piece. And so on and so on. My testing ground is the board of directors who are friends who are doing this -- publishing the magazine -- only because they have an interest in supporting (me and) the arts. They don't read much poetry. In many cases, this is their first exposure to work of this type. And what they've seen they love. Each statement is a point of entry, incomplete but a start, into the work. And they are willing to give it time. I have also combined the work with traditional essays (and in future issues, fiction) that is, dare I say, easier to read. Operating on the principal that if the journal has accessible work in it, work that is easy to read and enjoy, a trust is built that might push the reader into the harder work. Etc. etc. I specifically wanted a journal that combined "traditional" with "experimental" and treated each as belonging within the same space. Because it does and it should... (GRANTA meets jubilat? The Sun meets Typo. Hope so. Eventually, maybe.) And then work like an essay by Betsy Andrews -- writing about experimental poetry at a time of war -- and an interview with Semezdin Mehmedinovic are what I think of as "crossover pieces" ... the prose and form is familiar (gasp!) and the ideas contained within the work are new. And they are ideas that inform some of the poets who are published in the mag, etc etc etc.

I am not saying all of this as a proud boast (though I am proud of the magazine) -- I say it as a way to add to the conversation. This, above, has been my way to bring the excellent poetry many of you write to more folks. My impression/experience tells me there are many folks with an appetite for the work. They just would like a little help getting into it.

Please submit your work. If you email I'll send a free copy. Can't beat that price.

Adrian Lurssen

Laura F. Walton said...

Thanks, Joshua, for both the entry and the discussion you've generated! I recently had an experience as a "visiting poet" to a group of college freshmen at a local community college. My day with them taught me two things: one, that public education is in a sad state of affairs, and two, that these kids are being grossly underestimated.

I read John Ashbery and Bill Kushner to them, and didn't allow much in the way of "explication." I tried to get them to respond on an intuitive and/or emotional level; it really worked! They brightened and became interested in puzzling things out for themselves, once they understood that I was not going to grade them in any way...there were no right answers.

Anyway, I blogged about it, and added a link to your entry here:

Thanks again, and thanks to everyone who is contributing to the solution!

Laura F. Walton

Rob said...

I'm fairly new to this. I started doing a weekly workshop with children at a local Edinburgh primary school (children aged about 11).
I used some ideas from Koch and they worked very well. The children particularly enjoyed creating images to illustrate abstract moods, and created some very good ones.

Two things then became clear to me.

Firstly, the children couldn't understand the concept of a "line". That was a challenge, as I didn't want to explain it in technical terms, so I got them writing in syllabics, and imposed other rules (they also contributed to the rules), so that they could begin to see for themselves how lines work in poetry. I had been concerned that imposing such restrictions might have led to frustration, but it didn't seem to.

Secondly, they enjoyed surprising themselves, and they did that with some of the group poems they wrote together, as one idea connected up with another.

We also read a children's poem by Carol Ann Duffy, and discussed why we liked it (everyone did like it, except for one boy who told me he didn't like reading poetry - although he had never previously read any. I'll work on it). Interesting that the children responded so positively to reading a poem, an activity none of them had taken part in before. They liked it because it was funny, and because they could relate to the central character.
I'd say that if poetry - both reading and writing - can be taught in a way that enthuses children, there's no reason why a fair proportion shouldn't regain a love for it that's largely absent from the adult population today.

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