Tuesday, January 11, 2005

A Miseducation in Poetry

Like I inferred in one of my comments, I've been getting a bit too soft and mealy-mouthed in a few posts on this blog. I've promised "strange and outlandish" takes, and I want to deliver fun, excitement, and humor with a dash of intellectualism.

You know what I hate? I hate Robert Browning's "My Last Duchess." I think that this poem stands for everything wrong about my poetic upbringing, K-12. Harold Bloom can whine all he wants about "dead, white, male poets" getting sucked pale and thrown to the curb by vampirish feminists, post-Marxists, post-structuralists, multiculturalists, etc. but all I got out of my education in English were Browning, Poe, Eliot, Frost, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and (we must all kowtow here) Shakespeare. Our high school was over 30% Asian-American. I never read a single poem, short story, or novel by an Asian-American author in 4 years at my high school. I doubt if anyone at my school did.

But I'm digressing. The first poem that I would replace from the canon is "My Last Duchess." In "My Last Duchess," Browning writes about nothing that I can imagine anyone possible caring about in an obscure way that I had no interest in deciphering. I actually got the meaning of it back in high school, and I just reread and am getting it again, but sorry, I still don't care about Fra Pandolf painting some wannabe princess who rode around a terrace on a white mule and the duke who is now creepily ogling at her. A totally artsy-fartsy poem with no payoff. If I ever want to become an Italian duke with an interest in "Neptune...taming a sea horse," I'll let you know.

If I am right that control over the literary canon is about power, we must throw out unfashionable poems like "My Last Duchess" from the high school English curriculum. Theoretically, we can keep on expanding coverage of poetry in the K-12 curriculum, but eventually, we'll encounter difficult choices over which poets/poems to include and which to exclude. But I want to get real here. I won't sing "la la la, we'll just keep on adding poets/poems." In fact, with all the standardized testing in schools that is going on nowadays, my guess is that there is even less coverage of poetry than when I was a K-12 student.

Don't feel sorry for Browning or his fans, though. My guess is that there are more Browning admirers than admirers of all the Asian-American poets put together. Looks like Bloom is the one "playing" the victim of those whose views he dislikes.


Blogger Andrew said...

Is Bloom a big Browning fan? Ooh, alliterative! I can't say that I find it terribly interesting myself.

What did I get out of high school? I learned to appreciate Shelley and cummings. And both of those poets were culled from what was one of the best classes I've ever had, my AP English lit class.

Even though I started writing poetry my freshman year of high school, I never really read any on my own until I got to college. Most of the rest of my taste in poetry since high school has been influenced by the classes I took in college (none of which dealt with poetry specifically) and my own reading. And the tastes continue to develop.

12:38 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Andrew, yeah, I don't think that there's enough teaching of poetry, especially living poets and their poetry, in high school. I'm pretty sure that school districts also expurgate anything remotely controversial. It's too bad. I remember feeling like poetry was just a dead art form from the past when it clearly is not.

I'm not sure what Bloom thinks of Browning, but I know he ain't fond of J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books or Stephen King. :)

2:08 PM  
Blogger gina said...

Mmm. Not throw it out but re-read. I like the potential in that poem, the way in which women are revealed: their roles and invisibility. Seen and not seen. That's the heart of power and oppression. i think of this poem as one of the canonical starting points when I think of re-envisioning. It's actually sympathetic towards the oppressed, and THAT is a rare thing among canonical literature. We can always read outward when we have a point departure. Conventional as it is, it was radical for Brownings time both in form and content.

12:23 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Thanks a lot for the post! Nah, let's toss it. :) Seriously. Fair is fair, as some like to say. I've been around long enough to know that most teachers/professors of poetry have tossed out (or, more precisely, excluded) Asian-American poets and poetry from their teaching.

You make an excellent point that it is sympathetic towards the oppressed. Other poems are as well, though. Many are more overtly sympathetic. (I saw on your blog that you listed Marie Howe, and I feel like I must give a shout out to What The Living Do -- all the poems there run circles around "My Last Duchess.") I agree that "My Last Duchess" has historical value and may be useful reading in a 19th century American poetry college seminar.

The problem is that a teacher can only teach so many poems in a K-12 English class. High school is an important time when poetic tastes are formed. I'm saying that it is racist to exclude ALL Asian-American poets and poetry, as is often done. Just like having only blonde dolls in the toy store. Perhaps racial representativess of authors is not a goal of teaching poetry classes, K-12, but then it should be acknowledged as such.

1:50 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

By the way, just as a fun question (well, fun for me at least :) ), what poem(s) would you toss out of the canonical literature? It's a question for anyone out there.

1:55 AM  
Blogger Andrew said...

I don't know that I would toss out anything, because I think that those things that have made it, are there because they are good. That's not to say, of course, that some good things haven't made it. I would seek to add things to the canon, especially as it expands outward and futureward.

But if I had to toss out any poet, out of sheer dislike for the poetry he/she creates, ignoring their impact on other poets?

Whitman. I think he's overblown and not that interesting, really.

7:02 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Andrew, yeah, it's tough to toss poets/poems out. I'd much rather just add things to the canon. But one of my interests is the public school system, and I know that, for many reasons and to various effects, we have quickly become a "testocracy" in K-12 over the past decade or so. Teachers are teaching to the test.

It would be an interesting question whether and which poems are covered on state standardized exams, but I doubt if they're covered in-depth. I don't remember any poems on the exams. Besides, is that any way to enjoy a poem?! Let's see: Robert Frost wrote a poem entitled: "Stopping by the Woods on a Snowy ___ " (a) Coconut, (b) Aardvark, (c) Evening, (d) Aristotle, (e) Windy.

So I think that there is less room for poetry nowadays. I don't like it. If I were thinking larger, as others have done, I'd be thinking about ways for K-12 students to read and write poetry both in and out of the classroom.

12:51 PM  
Blogger Amy Unsworth said...


Actually I find that the easiest way to get the poetry into the school is by diving in and taking it there yourself. Most teachers I have known are delighted to have volunteers in their classrooms. The kids are delighted to see someone new and for the change of pace.

(And yes, I read them Li Young Lee, this very morning.)


6:51 PM  
Blogger Patty said...

I can't say that you're wrong. School curriculum is lacking in many ways, and I'm not a fan of standardized testing at all. I also recognize that Browning was your example, not your point. However, a lot of modern teaching is about thematic development: "My Last Duchess," from a female viewpoint, has a lot to offer. The Duke isn't just "creepy": "...she smiled, no doubt,/ Whene'er I passed her; but who passed without/ Much the same smile? This grew; I gave commands;/ Then all smiles stopped together. There she stands/ As if alive." The inference that the Duke had her killed because he was jealous of her too-quick smile? That's something best-related to by a lot of young women in today's world--far removed from the WASP male audience for whom it may originally have been intended. In the neighborhood where I was raised [45% Asian] we didn't get much Browning. However, there were a lot of Laotian, Vietnamese, and Filipino girls who would have understood the Duke of Ferrara's character, as depicted in the poem, very well.

I'm not sure why I felt such a strong urge to reply, but I just registered in order to do so. More Asian-American poets, by all means. Just allow that Browning isn't irrelevant yet.

12:47 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey P

6:32 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Patty,

Wow, you're the first poster (that I know of) who has registered with blogger just to reply. I must say that I'm quite flattered. :)

Yes, I was wondering what reaction my critique of "My Last Duchess" would get. So far, there have been no defenders of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan."

I agree with your assessment of Browning's "My Last Duchess." But I do think that there are superior female poets and poems about women, both Asian-American and non-Asian-American. They get unfairly overlooked in favor of poems like "My Last Duchess," IMHO.

Even though my first preference would be to include all aforementioned poets/poems, if there is a choice that must be made (and professors/teachers are always making choices), then I would choose Fatima Lim-Wilson, Adrienne Su, or Minnie Bruce Pratt over Browning.

6:47 PM  

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