Thursday, March 20, 2014

Poetry gets a bad rap but could be a rap

Poetry. Even some adults who might know better make a face when people want to talk about poetry. I guess too many associate poetry with feelings, maudlin and romantic. Maybe they remember their own adolescent-poetry-writing days and cringe because of the recollection of the kind of stuff they wrote. Or maybe it's because far too often they are asked to dissect poetry to the very last scansion and examine closely, far too closely, every possible hidden meaning in a poem. Or maybe it's because they only poetry to which they've been exposed is difficult stuff written in a different century and because their teacher believed they "ought" to know that work. Bosh and balderdash.

Joshua Block, a regular contributor for Edutopia (@edutopia)offers some very good strategies in his article "(Re)Creating Poets: How to Teach Poetry in the Classroom."

One of my favorite poets is William Carlos Williams and I've always loved introducing students to "The Red Wheelbarrow." It's short. Kids like that. But then they read it and think about the figurative language and then that first phrase "so much depends upon." And then there's an entire story that begins to unfold. What's the right story? Who know? Who cares? But there are plenty of people who will force students to trudge through a great deal of criticism and analysis. There is a place for trudging through criticism and analysis, but it can kill any budding interest in poetry.

Two of the giants of 18th century were Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth, who gave us magnificent story poems including "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan." For many a high school student, however, they are known for Lyrical Ballads (1798).

Wordsworth wrote
It is the honourable characteristic of Poetry that its materials are to be found in every subject which can interest the human mind. The evidence of this fact is to be sought, not in the writings of Critics, but in those of Poets themselves.
The majority of the following poems are to be considered as experiments. They were written chiefly with a view to ascertain how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure. Readers accustomed to the gaudiness and inane phraseology of many modern writers, if they persist in reading this book to its conclusion, will perhaps frequently have to struggle with feelings of strangeness and aukwardness: they will look round for poetry, and will be induced to enquire by what species of courtesy these attempts can be permitted to assume that title. It is desirable that such readers, for their own sakes, should not suffer the solitary word Poetry, a word of very disputed meaning, to stand in the way of their gratification; but that, while they are perusing this book, they should ask themselves if it contains a natural delineation of human passions, human characters, and human incidents; and if the answer be favourable to the author's wishes, that they should consent to be pleased in spite of that most dreadful enemy to our pleasures, our own pre-established codes of decision.
Readers of superior judgment may disapprove of the style in which many of these pieces are executed it must be expected that many lines and phrases will not exactly suit their taste. It will perhaps appear to them, that wishing to avoid the prevalent fault of the day, the author has sometimes descended too low, and that many of his expressions are too familiar, and not of sufficient dignity. It is apprehended, that the more conversant the reader is with our elder writers, and with those in modern times who have been the most successful in painting manners and passions, the fewer complaints of this kind will he have to make.
I will resist the temptation toward pontification and leave you to take what you will from the text. Consider, however, the time in which it was written and that it is entirely possible that Mr. Wordsworth was being polite, acutely aware of his patrons, and yet taking advantage of the opportunity to take a few jabs at those who held Poetry in High Esteem.

In his Preface to Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth addresses the response to the first volume of the poetry. One of my favorite observations in this text is:
The principal object, then, proposed in these Poems was to choose incidents and situations from common life, and to relate or describe them, throughout, as far as was possible in a selection of language really used by men, and, at the same time, to throw over them a certain colouring of imagination, whereby ordinary things should be presented to the mind in an unusual aspect; and, further, and above all, to make these incidents and situations interesting by tracing in them, truly though not ostentatiously, the primary laws of our nature: chiefly, as far as regards the manner in which we associate ideas in a state of excitement. 
If you're interested in poets have to say about poetry, poets, critics, and life in general, you might enjoy this Paris Review interview with Robert Frost.

One of the best known quotes of William Wordsworth is, "All good poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility." The latter part has not always been true for many poets, but the former is often the case, even if those feelings are expressed more cerebrally than viscerally.

Sure, rap can be tough to listen to because of the language, but it's intended, I think, to capture those powerful feelings that come from where those rappers come from, who they think they are, and who they think they are becoming. Or, you can just groove along with Pharrell Williams's Happy, though I think for Pharrell, so much depends on that hat.

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