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.


Blogger Lyle Daggett said...

Roger, you didn't really say so, but I'm guessing/assuming you're talking mainly about teaching poetry in the United States (as distinct from any number of other places). I'm thinking about various other countries and cultures around the world that openly value poetry at least somewhat more (sometimes much more) than the dominant U.S. culture does.

Japan, for example, where it's common for people to write poetry at least a little, whether or not they think of themselves as poets. I've read that there's a popular Japanese card game based on the poems in one of the better-known classic anthologies (I don't know any more details than that).

Or Russia, where huge crowds sit for hours listening to poets read (or say from memory) their poems. Or Greece -- a man I met years back who had come to the U.S. from Greece (he was probably in his late 30's when I met him) said that out of his school class (in Greece) of roughly 45 students, he was the only one who didn't write poetry.

As far as why poetry doesn't sell well in the U.S. (or not as well as, say, Tom Clancy novels or the latest self-help manual), what occurs to me is that for something to sell large-scale you have to market it (advertise it, promote it) large scale, and the people who do that kind of selling rely on easily recognizable and repeatable formulas. Think how many Hollywood movies seem indistinguishable from twenty other mediocre blobs that have come out in the past year.

One of my early poetry teachers commented that it's harder to experience or "take in" poetry passively than it is with, for instance, music or even painting. It's possible to listen to music as a "background" activity, not paying close attention but still getting something of value from it. It's very hard to do that with poetry; poetry requires attention in order to get it at all. This may have something to do with why the vast Moloch of the marketing industry hasn't yet come up with a way to sell poetry in the same quantities as it can do with cars or toys or movies or music.

One of the things obviously that happens when creative work becomes more standardized and formulized is that it tends to become more dull, less interesting. So far the literary-industrial complex (whatever comprises it these days) hasn't found a way to make vast numbers of readers want to read the kind of poetry few people would really want to read. And it's not interested in getting then to read the kind of poetry they really would want to read if they knew it existed.

This is just one aspect of what's going on, and I don't by any means have this all worked out. Really interesting post, it really provoked me to think again about the whole subject.

6:20 PM  
Blogger Billy Jones said...

Lyle pretty much sums up my thoughts as well. I do agree that the way poetry was taught when I was in school '60s-'70s had a large part in the near death of poetry here in America, but I've hope that we poets can save ourselves from falling any further.

5:50 PM  
Blogger The Hungry Writer said...

I don't think U.S. students are so much taught that poetry is stupid, bu rather that poetry is beyond their reach. too many times i have ssen poetry taught that was under the students inteligence or was to "present" for them to understand at their age. I do agree with some of your assertions, and would have to go further that in my younger years i always read the "western classics," but did not appreciate poetry's real impact until i read "Li-Young Lee. Good, thoughtful post, though. Thank you for sharing.

8:53 PM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Lyle,
I hope you're still returning to comments here. Believe it or not, it's been about a month where I've been wanting to tell you that you're totally correct that I was referring to poetry education here in the United States. That's where my primary "expertise" lies. But I have definitely read of the importance of poets and poetry in other nations.

Have you read the New Yorker where John Ashbery talks about being unable to make enough from poetry and having to sell his papers to Harvard? Sad.

6:44 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey BloggingPoet, thanks for visiting. Yes, I agree, Lyle sums up it very well.

6:46 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Hungry Writer, yeah, I actually think it's possible to state with absolute certainty which is which until poetry is actually taught to children at a very early age, using "taught" very loosely here -- you can just read poems to the youngest children. It would be interesting. Like I noted in an earlier comment here, and in several previous posts, poets don't really have much to lose, financially speaking.

6:50 AM  
Blogger The Blind-Winger Jones said...

What you wrote is pretty applicable to the UK as well. Poetry is viewed as being a bit embarassing, or something that belongs entirely in the past. The poets that are taught in school are generally all dead. It's quite different across most of the rest of Europe which is leading me to believe that this might be an "Anglo-Saxon" problem.

7:32 AM  
Blogger Roger Pao said...

Hey Martyn, yes, sooner or later, I usually get to all the comments. I agree that this problem isn't as prevalent in some other nations. I'd actually be interested in reading a cross-national comparison of poetry education, but I'm not sure if such a book exists out there. Thanks for the comments!

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