Posts Tagged ‘teaching’

As the heart of a student-writer’s story, growing up becomes an almost craft-resistant subject. The narrative is often generated in a gush of feeling barely controlled by point of view, and the thrall of the compositional act obscures the banality of the product. That is, the experience of writing a coming of age story banishes doubt and becomes a writer’s first experience as an artist. Invariably that confidence is reinforced in the workshop; no matter how manipulative the story may be, the writer’s peers are bound to love it. And they’ll be right, because the writer has managed to tap into her own damp and dreamlike past to create her most successful, well-formed story ever.

So we wait for the next story, and it doesn’t come. Or if it does, it’s rambling and superficial, no scenes, no characters, no reason. The ideal trajectory in an academic workshop is that the writer improves with each submission, either technically or in terms of invention. But when a student writes a coming of age story he might just as well give birth to his own writers’ block—because coming of age stories are autobiographical, at least in the emotional sense. That writer is going to need time to recover, psychically.

But there is also another problem, and it’s a biggie. Almost anyone can write a coming of age story—and by “write,” I mean start, develop, and end it—without learning much about how and why it works. Technique comes naturally, for better or worse.

As in instructor, I don’t feel I’ve succeeded with the usual formal/critical approaches to coming of age submissions. The only traction I gain is when I ask my students to question their impulses—why do you want to write about someone who doesn’t know half of what you know? And what I mean by that is, why aren’t you interesting to yourself?

The risk of getting my message across is that I’ll end up reading more college cafeteria stories, but that’s okay. I’d rather read a dozen fragmented scenes of English majors trading smarmy quips over curly fries than one perfectly shaped story about a middle-schooler who learns To Love after her drunkle drowns the cat. That story might hold my attention, but I don’t think those skills transfer.

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For the last five years I’ve been teaching Introduction to Literature courses to non-English majors at small colleges and community colleges. Typically most of my students enjoy reading and discussing short fiction and, to a somewhat lesser extent they enjoy drama (although Oedipus Rex does not always go over too well). Poetry, however, is a different animal. From the first day of the unit, attendance dwindles by a student or two (or three). Some students plough through but with an outspoken disdain or frustration for the material—in ways they never allowed themselves to be frustrated by a difficult story or play. There are occasionally students who like to “write poetry” but, for whatever, reason these students are also those who least enjoy reading and discussing poems.  We still have, at least I hope anyhow, something of an agreeable time—there is laughter and there is (sometimes it resembles pulling teeth) learning. But, to me at least, there seems to be little interest or deep engagement.

I have, at times, wondered if this is because I do not consider myself a poet. As if some slight hesitation in my character peeks out. Not that I don’t enjoy poetry or am not passionate about poetry, but there perhaps there is some lack of complete confidence (on my end) in a way that does not exist with narrative literature.

I’m thrown that they tend to never like the same poems. Some semesters the Romantics are favorites. Some semesters they like Robert Browning and nothing else. Others enjoy Langston Hughes. Frost. Sylvia Plath. Elizabeth Bishop. Li-Young Lee. Other semesters these same poets are greeted with zombie faces and slumped bodies. Small pockets of interest and the rest is torment … sometimes for all of us. Is it the anthology that bothers them? My selections?

Or, perhaps, I have thought, this is simply the way it is. I am, after all, told by other instructors at these colleges not to “begin the semester with poetry” because it tends to ruin the entire semester. As if poetry is such a terrible note as to throw everything else off kilter. Perhaps most young people are scarred by Robert Frost in seventh grade (I remember how badly I hated poetry until I was fourteen and I read Jim Morrison’s biography which led me to Blake and Rimbaud) and have never recovered.

I have tried lectures and class discussions and videos and small groups and various creative assignments and dramatic readings and presentations. Some successes in there, but nothing really sustained from semester to semester.

This semester I brought in works by more contemporary poets… very contemporary—Gregory Sherl’s poems were a great favorite with the class—and began instituting more “creative projects”—which lead to some surprisingly strong poems culminating in a reading for the final session. Small successes, again. Hopefully I will be able to build off of these next semester.

In a way I appreciate how difficult teaching poetry has been—really teaching it—because it has forced me to seek new methods (and seek and seek) but I’m also hoping that it’ll eventually become easier. Or, at least, the successes will become more consistent.

So, the question comes: how do you teach poetry to 18 and 19 year olds? What poets do you teach? What works? What doesn’t?

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