Thursday, December 5, 2013

Teaching Poetry.


So I've been doing this for a quarter of a century.

A very brief survey of the use or poetry in high school since the 1980s,  poetry, with bookends…


Riding and Graves made the problem of critical readings obvious in A survey of Modernist Poetry (1927):
‘what in so many words’ ’the critic reader will ask, ‘is this all about’?’ Now to tell what a poem is all about ‘in so many words’, is to reduce the poem to so many words, to leave out all that the reader cannot at the moment understand in order to give him the satisfaction of feeling that he is understanding it. If it were possible to give the complete form of a poem in a prose summary, then there would be no excuse for writing the poem: the ‘so many words’  are, to the last punctuation-mark, the poem itself.’(p 67)  

In their discussion which follows, they describe and criticize the way in which the critical reader goes hunting for the meaning of the poem, or what Riding and Graves called ‘the prose idea’ which they say is supposed to have proceeded the poem. 

The idea that the poem is something to get behind or inside,  to find the ”prose meaning” that must underwrite it, has been the staple of English teaching in high schools and universities since the inception of literary studies.  Although the type of question changed, the movement was from “what the poet was trying to say” to “which discourses are evident in this poem” (whatever that might mean) the assumption that the poem is a carrier of something that can be separated from it remains.

In ‘Enjoying Poetry” (1981) a book that was ubiquitous in schools here,  Sadler Hayler and Powell, introduced their choice of poems:

‘Poetry like other fine arts, exists to be enjoyed and appreciated. The difficult task for any teacher is that of developing this sense of  appreciation and enjoyment in students who initially ‘don’t like poetry’…
Students must learn to examine poems critically and thoughtfully, to see what the poet is driving at, to consider how well he or she is saying it, develop appreciation of poetry.”  (p.xi)

Exactly why all students are supposed to learn to enjoy and appreciate poetry when 99.9 percent of the adult population don’t, is an intriguing and unanswered question.  The students, reading thoughtfully, must learn to see “what the poet is driving at”. How they learn to do this is by treating poetry as a comprehension exercise.  Reading a poem and Analyzing a poem are always treated as synonyms.

For the “Man From Snowy Rriver” (p15-20) part of a section called “Our Land” there are 13 questions and a discussion point. The first question sets the tone: “Why was Old Regret’s Colt Worth Chasing?’ but the questions get less factual and move towards critical statements which then ask the student to speculate about what the poet did and why.  Questions 11, 12,and 13 (p20), end respectively: ‘Can you suggest why it might have been written this way; why did the poet write it this way; can you say why?” 

The final discussion point, separated graphically from the questions, states: ‘The qualities of courage skill and endurance shown in this poem are still present and still needed in Australia today. Do you agree?’

The change in the class room, or at least in the Syllabus, can be seen in Miller and Colwill’s Queensland Senior English: Theory –practice connections’ (2003 Macmillan Education Australia, South Yarra) a book which was marketed as being a resource for the then new 2002 Qld English syllabus.

The authors quote the Syllabus document in their introduction:

Central to the study of language in this syllabus is the development of understandings of how discourse, genre, register and textual features interact and are interdependent in texts, and how they are used in making meaning or producing readings from, texts.
           Queensland Board of Senior Secondary school studies (QBSSSS) 2002 English, Senior Syllabus 2002.

And go on to say, “the main focus of this book is on developing understandings about the constructed nature of texts, with particular emphasis on how discourses shape and are shaped by, language choices.

The questions have changed, though the underlying assumption is still there. The poems are to be got inside and behind. But poems are no longer poems, they have become “texts” and the assumption was, and still is, that what the novel and the recipe and the poem as texts have in common is what is important.

Discussing Komninos ‘if I was the son of an englishman’:

There are five questions (p29), ironically framed in a box labeled ‘discussions’: the second: ‘In what way does the narrator position himself as being excluded from dominant discourses of Australian Identity’: the fourth, ’The poem, although it is satirical, still privileges masculinist discourses and representations of Australian Identity? How does it do this?’ (‘Ironic’ because in teaching terms these are NOT open questions which explore the text but closed. A statement tells the students the writer’s preferred answer and then forces them into proving it. We are in the world of Right Answer English. It’s called indoctrination when your enemies do it. Masculinist is always a negative term and whatever “discourse” might mean its presence is one of the markers that “Literary Theory has entered the classroom.)

Discussing two poems by Oodgeroo, there are four questions: Question one: ‘In these two poems consider how Oodgeroo constructs the impact of colonization on Aboriginal experience and identity’. Question Four; ‘What version of the dominant culture is offered in these poems and what discourses are mobilized to construct this version?” (p34)

In case I’m giving the impression that all this radical work was going on in Queensland alone    Insight, Literature for Senior Students, by Robert Beardwood Insight Publications  written with the VCE in mind..2006

The section on “the nature of poetry” which heads the section on poetry in Chapter 1-guide to literary technique and analysis (p47-62) ends ‘because of the condensed and often abstract quality of poetry, the meaning of many poems is not immediately apparent, and the skills of interpreting and analyzing poetry take a long time to develop’ (p47)

Having learnt the technical terms selected for attention, the student then learns  how to do ‘close analysis”,  which differs from the comprehension tasks of Enjoying Poetry in that the generic poetry worksheet (p92) now includes questions not only on “concepts and ideas’ and ‘major concerns: themes and issues”, and ‘values’ but ‘multiple readings: summarise alternative viewpoints you have read or developed” with references to Chapter Six: which includes a section on Theoretical Perspectives (p166=172) with subsections on ‘Practical Criticism and New Criticism’,  Marxist, Feminist, and Post Modern readings. (as though a few pages were enough to help a 17 year old understand and operate efficiently in any of those intellectual fields. )  Leading to the sample student response on poetry dealing with three poems by John Donne with the assessor’s comment:

This is rather a ‘safe’ discussion-the student allows the dominant reading of the poems to be the strongest voice in the this presentation. However, they do acknowledge that an alternative feminist reading could easily be performed. [The student writes: ‘Such a masculine perspective presents a challenge for some modern readers but would have been less of a concern for the readers of Donne’s time.’ The student writer offers no evidence for the latter claim but that’s ok cos in class she learnt they were all intolerant misogynist racists back in the day] This might have been more confidentially explored.  (p221)

(anyone used to the way such comments are phrased and read in the world of education will immediately realise the implication which is that ‘might have been’ translates as ‘she should have done this’.) 

The underlying concerns in this change in reading practices were not literary, and were made explicit in such books as Reviewing English (ed Sawyer, Watson, Gold 1999 St Clair press Sydney Rozelle NSW.) and Reviewing English in the 21st Century (ed Sawyer and Gold Phoenix education , Melbourne 2004)

In his introduction to the latter, Graham Little wrote:

However , to argue that a close reading of the eighteenth century poems of William Cowper and James Thompson for aesthetic purposes is more valuable and useful for students than a deconstructive analysis of advertisements for a McDonald’s Breakfast is the kind of nonsense we get from those with vested interest in socializing students in compliance with prevailing consumerist patterns of thought. The massive profits of the health degenerating fast food industry is evidence of the need for deconstructive work on a McDonald’s breakfast! p15

Not only is this paragraph is a good example of the use of language and level of argument  but it epitomizes the arrogant assumption that my students are so thick they can’t see through MacDonald’s advertising without my help.

In an attempt to explain and make sense of Post Structuralism, and show how it could be imported into the English classroom, Ray Misson wrote;

The theory of the discursive construction of subjectivity (i.e. the construction of our subjective selves through discourse) does give an urgency to work on examining how texts are positioning us, because these texts may in fact be quite powerfully creating us and our belief systems. We may need to deconstruct the texts in an attempt to defuse their potential power over us. (p99)  

The number of conditionals in this quotation illustrates the fragility of the base on which a teaching method was constructed. This historical shift to treating poems as carriers of ideological viruses, where the perceived politics of the poem and the poet became the subject of scrutiny, and where readers had to learn to insulate themselves with a prophylactic reading practice, ‘We may need to deconstruct the texts in an attempt to defuse their potential power over us’,  may have made some teachers who didn’t really care much about poetry in the first place feel as though they were doing something of earth shattering importance, but the reality was that we were dragging students through “texts’ they weren’t ever going to read so we could teach why they shouldn’t be reading them.

The absolute, obvious,  idiocy of the approach can be seen when the idea that poems are going to infect us ideologically is actually questioned. Outside the classroom where students do whatever they have to do to survive and get the marks they need on the way to somewhere else,  real people use ‘texts’ in whatever way they want.  

In The Intellectual Life Of The British Working Classes, 2001 second edition(2010)  Yale University press New Haven and London  (which is a beautiful and thought provoking door stop of a book) Jonathon Rose, having studied the evidence for what people read and what they did with that reading wrote:

The failure of political criticism, as it is actually practiced, is methodological , with some exceptions, it ignores actual readers. In this terrain, critics repeatedly commit what might be called the receptive fallacy; they try to discern the messages a text transmits to an audience by examining the text rather the audience. This blind spot is not easy to excuse or even explain, given that over the past two decades we have become used to the notion that readers make meaning: they may enjoy a wide latitude in interpreting what they read. We can discover how an Edwardian housemaid read ‘Tess of the D’Urbervilles but only if do some serious scholarly retooling. (p4)

Schools and universities can, and will, continue to use poems in whatever way is currently fashionable in the sealed acoustic of their own institutional needs, and it will always be academically fashionable to make claims for your preferred practice without ever having to validate it with what would pass for evidence in the daylight world. Pretending that your version is in some ways better than the ones it superseded is good for your career and your self-esteem.

The danger for the writer of poems is that with so few people reading poems outside the academy, a usage gets confused with the thing being used. 

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