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October 26, 2003


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Michael Wells
Good final point tonio. I recently was at a panel discussion on poetry and asked Robert Bly this question. "If someone comes up to you and says they have just read one of your poems, what is your feeling when they tell you what they saw in it, but they obviously arrived somewhere other than where you were when the piece was written?" Bly's response, "I'm delighted!" How important it is for us all to remember that poetry is a collaborative effort between writer and reader.
Deeply sorry to double post. A moment's reflection: I guess I'm saying that I think there's sometimes too much emphasis on getting things right when it comes to poetry. And it's forgotten that, even when a reader grasps only a small part, perhaps misinterprets what's there even, that reader is still engaging in the conversation, still communicating *something* in his or her love of a particular work. I'm not talking about pandering to an audience at all, though. Just the thought that poets aren't just dribbling out pearls of wisdom or delight for a silent but appreciative audience. It's a completely open two way street.
First off, I'll apologise for the caustic tone of my earlier comments. I was still annoyed by Silliman's review of _Another South_. John Erhardt [] managed to alleviate much of that, however, by articulating what I couldn't quite form properly into words myself. I was annoyed because I greatly respect Ron and it bugs me to see what, at least *from the outside*, looks like just another example of "My poets are good because yours are crap" (which we all got to see in finest form during the Houlihan Affair) argumentation. This kind of thing is, as you point out, a great turn-off. People enjoy fights they understand. Hence the popularity of WWF wrestling and other brutal sports. But no one likes to watch a conflict that makes little sense. And while an ascerbic back and forth amongst The Thousand of whom you speak may well be entertaining for those taking part, for the spectators, it gets old after a while. As a teacher of literature, I never felt it instructive to point out what was bad about a work. It's very demoralising to anyone who might confess to himself he enjoyed that particular piece. When it came to dealing with kids, I found myself working just as hard on their issues of self-esteem as on the literature itself. One of the things I did was to first off recall that when I was a kid, I saw poetry as something to be *endured*. Others have had it worse. I was never forced to recite "The Charge of the Light Brigade", for instance. But many of us have memories of trauma connected in our minds with poetry. So I tried not to commit the same crimes. No forced recitations. Ever. No forcing shy kids to read aloud when it was obviously the most painful thing to ask of them. And so on. Beyond that, I used to experiment with letting kids choose their own poets from piles of books and journals, covering the whole range. A couple of hours of classroom time during which I required the kids to do nothing but scan through books looking for the poem they wanted to write about was always good for catching up on grading anyway. And we'd start off with a simple question: "Why do you like this poem?" Forget talking about prosody, devices, poetic traditions for a minute. Just whydja like it? It looks cool on the page. It's stupid and made me laugh. Whatever. Sometimes surprising if you approach the issue with the assumption that all responses are valid. Needless to say the Beats always scored well, as did Roger Waters and David Gilmour. Kids love poetry. They probably write it far more than adults, too. It's when they begin to feel unequal to the task of enthusiasic deconstruction, I think, that a lot of them lose heart. There's always a kid that's resistant. I remember one in particular who didn't want to talk in class, which was okay. Sometimes you don't want to admit publicly why you like something. It's intensely important to teens that they not feel foolish for liking something everyone else will think is just plain dumb. (Heck, it's important to adults). She came to me with her finger marking the spot in an anthology of Plath's collected poems ("Lady Lazarus") and the hesitant statement "Mr. Savoradin, I don't know why I like it but I feel that way sometimes." Not a surprise, really, even if it is by some standards a difficult poem. But this student was also using the opportunity to communicate something else: her own anguish. She needed help. She got it. It's in that context that political battles over the primacy of one school over another or the justness of its influence seems just plain trivial to me. In short, I prefer to begin without the assumption that our poetic tradition contains an a priori set of conditions which make certain poems good. The way a work resonates for an individual, which may have nothing to do with the poet's technical prowess, seems more important to me when considering how and why people do or do not like poetry, or specific poems. At least as a starting point. As for poets, well, I loved it when locals did in class readings (although it was far too rare). It took a lot of pressure off me and the students, most of whom felt very awkward reading poetry aloud, nevermind syntactically challenging work. It meant allowing some unknown (and probably mediocre in some cases) work into the classroom. But a mediocre poem which is received well and is felt as intensely relevant to the kids seems a better beginning than a great poem that's ignored. You go from there, I guess.

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