Friday, October 07, 2005

No Money in Poetry and Poetry Education

Why is there no money in poetry? I still don't get it. It makes absolutely no sense that books of fiction, books of non-fiction, autobiographies, cookbooks, comic books, etc. all outsell books of poetry. Or maybe I do get it.

As I've discussed here before, at a very early age, we are taught that poetry is stupid, non-essential, and frivolous. Short stories are ok. Novels are substantive. Well, guess what, I've read The Brothers Karamazov and don't remember anything about it, except that it went on and on and on, and my English teacher told us that we'd all enjoy it more as we grew older, which is the same thing that one of my aunts once told me about durian and boiled spinach.

It's strange, in a way, that poetry doesn't sell. The world's moving faster. Individual poems don't need as much time as novels, in this sense being like ice cream or a bag of Skittles or a chocolate chip cookie, and as the "new" Cookie Monster has learned, "A cookie is a sometimes food." I understand that childhood obesity is a problem, but really, I'm not sure whether a naked blue monster with no table manners has too many body image issues.

In addition, I think that some teachers also teach us to hate poetry. To take an example, if I was teaching poetry to K-12 students, I would NEVER make them memorize and recite poems. I had to do it myself, and I don't remember any of those poems. The primary purpose that it served was to make most students hate poetry by making students associate it with a laborious chore. A subsidiary purpose was to publicly humiliate them -- that's what we call a "marginal benefit." I think that I usually recited the poem correctly, but I remember being intensely nervous about it, and I remember many students who couldn't and felt really bad and ashamed about it. (Of course, my critique does not apply to teachers who have memorized The Brothers Karamazov word-for-word and have publicly recited it in front of their students.)

Seriously, though, the practice of making students memorize poems may serve the anti-poetry goal of rote memory retention. I know I've picking on Hitler lately, but really, I think that he would approve of this practice to turn society into mindless drones who know the actual words of texts but nothing else about language, art, or humanity. Hmmm...maybe I should start picking on Kim Jong-Il. I'd pay to watch him recite John Ashbery's "Daffy Duck in Hollywood." But the way, do poetry lovers and poets need to have good memories? Umm...remind me again what this post was about.

As far as my affirmative agenda goes, I think that K-12 students should be encouraged to discuss poems in an open-ended format. Teachers can assign and grade essays as long as they spare students the imposition of their own views, that is, as long as they don't grade according to the conclusions that they themselves have drawn with the expectation that students reach the same conclusions. More time should be given to poetry, of course. By the way, you know, William Shakespeare and William Blake wrote poetry -- but remarkably they weren't the only people who've written poetry in the past one thousand years. Imagine that!

Also, teachers could have students write poems of their own, though they should check with the bylaws of their own school districts. In many jurisdictions, it's not yet a misdemeanor to allow students to use their imaginations, and not a felony to have students write poetry.