Teaching contemporary poetry

Book review: Poetry and pedagogy: The challenge of the contemporary
Edited by Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr
Palgrave Macmillan. 2006. 314 p.

You teach literature and you want to include more contemporary and experimental poetry in your next syllabus. How can you inspire delight and enjoyment in your students as they confront difficult and apparently impermeable writing?

While not blaming teachers themselves, this collection of essays does argue that methods of teaching poetry generally lag contemporary poetry by about half a century.

These 22 essays explore how teachers can alter values and practices in their classrooms to help their students enjoy the process of reading and understanding innovative and challenging work. The authors argue that the common complaints about the difficulty contemporary writing are also its strengths.

The first chapters address specific poetries and their implications for teaching. Alan Golding writes that “the younger generation of academically affiliated poet-critics … is not just producing alternative, formally investigative models of criticism (as poet-critics have historically often done) but seeking to redirect institutionalized criticism-as-usual.” Lynn Keller proposes that new experimental poetries invite a new model of reading, exemplified by what she calls the centrifugal classroom. The centrifugal classroom “relies more, and more fundamentally, on a collective rather than a privatized reading process.” Jonathan Monroe asks, “What if, not only in the university but earlier in grades K-12, the educational system were to use all its resources, including the teaching of poetry and philosophy, to question the dichotomies that currently structure university curricula between reading and writing, between the creative and the critical, between instrumental and playful uses of language?”

The second group of chapters discuss strategies for teaching new poetries in today’s classroom. These essays offer a spectrum of possibilities adaptable to a range of classrooms and institutions. Jerome McGann and Lisa Samuels follow up on Emily Dickinson’s proposal to try reading poems backwards. “It is a splendid model for what we would call deformative criticism,” they write. “Dickinson’s is a protomodernist strategy of estrangement … reading backwards short circuits the sign of prose transparency and reinstalls the text—any text, prose or verse—as a performative event, a made thing.”

Lyn Hejinian observes that difficult poems “provoke puzzlement and compel fascination in the drama of consciousness that difficulty (in poetry, as in all else) produces.” She advocates a “poetics of reading” that is procedural and investigative. “To make sense,” she says, “is not only to find sense but also to create it.” Difficulty may function as a distancing device (the “alienation effect”) intended to encourage the reader to think for herself rather than to submit to manipulation by the author.”

Jim Keller discusses a set of classroom exercises that let students write themselves into a poem, short-circuiting their attempts to interpret it, “and instead leaving the poem happily ever open to our interactive involvement.” Much of today’s avant-garde writing, he says, comes into its own through group renderings, like the workshop methods mentioned above, rather than silent, isolated reading.”

Jena Osman writes about a “poetics of detection” and points to the writing-through procedures of John Cage and Jackson Mac Low. “Only through freeing the poem of personal choice and intention can the writer and reader find possibilities that they wouldn’t find otherwise.” Derek Owens laments that it will take some time (if ever) for English Departments and fields such as composition studies to recognize that writing now implies working in sound, image, and movement. Yet “the Web and its attendant technologies have caused writing to mutate into something more and other than what it was.” His approach to a course in contemporary poetry is to think of it “as a large rhetorical tool box, thereby giving students permission to compose in unexpected ways. To study contemporary poetry meant writing it as much as reading it.”

Some of the best, and most challenging poetry today rarely reaches more than a handful of readers. One way to bring “difficult” poetry into wider discussion and appreciation is by teaching it in the classroom, and this book provides many ways to begin.

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