By Brian Staveley
POETRY FOUNDATION SYNDICATE
In a recent issue of Poetry magazine, Kay Ryan mused, "Who can read [Gerard Manley] Hopkins's 'The Windhover' and not feel welling up inside a kind of giddiness indistinguishable from the impulse to laugh?" Well, every single one of my 11th-grade poetry students, for starters. "I don't have the slightest urge to laugh when I read anything by Hopkins," says Becca. "And why does she keep saying we and us?" Her comment is not unique. After reading Elizabeth Bishop's "Filling Station," a poem that ends with "Somebody loves us all," Sammy commented indignantly, "A: that's bull, and B: it sounds like something from Barney."
I find these responses funny if I happen to agree with the assessment. When the poem being trashed is one I cherish, it's more difficult. My students gave "Ode on a Grecian Urn" a score of 5.8 out of 10. In high school terms, that's an F. "To Autumn" earned a D+. "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" failed. Clearly they have not yet mastered the subtle art of grade inflation.
I like Keats, and when his poems get snubbed, I erect defenses. After a year of teaching these students, however, I'm starting to think that irreverence for poetic authority is vital to the appreciation of poetry. The more "professional" we become as readers, the more myopic we grow. Who else but a poet steeped in the craft could have asked Ryan's question without realizing its absurdity?
It would be easy to rescue Keats (and Ryan) by dismissing these kids as philistines, the mindless automatons of popular culture. But they aren't. Despite the fact that they didn't like Keats, they did like Berryman, and Wyatt, and Dickinson, and Donne. The list goes on.
I teach at a high-pressure private day school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I'm used to students working diligently, no matter how much they dislike a subject. I was nervous, though, the night before we began Paradise Lost. I wondered if I should start looking into other career paths. After all, here are lines from the opening:
Sing Heav'nly Muse, that on the secret top
Of OREB, or of SINAI, didst inspire
That Shepherd, who first taught the chosen Seed,
In the Beginning how the Heav'ns and Earth
Rose out of CHAOS: Or if SION Hill
Delight thee more, and SILOA'S Brook that flow'd
Fast by the Oracle of God;
Nothing sets the teenage mind afire like gnomic references to the Hebrew scriptures couched in heavily enjambed lines of Latinate syntax. I need not have worried. Milton won them over. I did my best to illuminate shifts from Germanic to Latinate syntax, the perfect placement of a chiasmus, the flexibility of Milton's pentameter, and the theological underpinnings of the poem. They thought these features were "cool," but what they loved was Milton's epic imagination, the scope of the drama, the complexity of the characters. By the time we concluded, the kids wanted to make T-shirts with Satan and the quote "Only in destroying I find ease / to my relentless thoughts."
I was less encouraged when only a couple of kids liked George Herbert. The kids listened politely to my best defense of my favorite poet. Although they tried not to hurt my feelings, they just didn't really think Herbert was up to snuff. "Up to snuff," as I was to discover, means "as good as John Donne." In every end-of-year conference, the kids listed Donne as one of their favorite poets. "He's a pimp," according to Hilary. Sammy holds a slightly more nuanced view: "I'm like, 'John, you're such an asshole.' But I mean, I love him." When asked to write her epitaph, Alex composed a single couplet:
Here I come.
I like Donne as much as the next guy, but I hadn't meant to start a cult. These responses suggest that students in the 21st century can still have an intense and dynamic relationship with poetry, even old poetry. There is real value and insight in the first impressions of readers who have no axe to grind, no schooling to see past. I can't look at Herbert without hearing Eliot's voice in my head whispering, "Brilliant poetry. Brilliant." It makes me wonder if some of my favorite emperors are really wearing clothes.
My high school students are willing to put down a Wordsworth poem halfway through just because, well, it's not that great. They don't want historically significant poetry, or metrically unusual poetry, or undiscovered poetry on which you might write a decent dissertation; they want great poetry. At a time when so many poets are fretting about the state of their art in our culture, this should be profoundly reassuring.
Brian Staveley currently lives in southeast Asia and is working on a novel.
© 2007 by Brian Staveley. All rights reserved.
Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at www.poetryfoundation.org.