June 17, 2015KR BlogBlogEnthusiamsReadingWriting

Teach This, Not That!

I don’t mean that, of course. Whatever “this” and “that” are, I probably believe in teaching both of them. (This post’s title is really just a silly tongue-firmly-in-cheek reference to a series of “no-diet” diet books called Eat This, Not That!, as I’ve always found that title distressing when it floats across my pop-cultural consciousness. The combination of panicked imperative and unclear antecedents feels–oxymoronically–so transparently manipulative.) This post has nothing to do with food, but it does have to do with what I “reach for” as a teacher of poetry.

There are certain poems that are “staples” of the poetry curriculum, appearing again and again and again in anthologies and poetry workshops. One reason for their re-re-re-appearance is that these poems are “good.” Another is that they are “accessible.” Another is that they are “teachable.” All three of those words can sometimes feel, in the context of teaching and discussing literature, as distressing as the words “Eat This, Not That!” in a bold sans serif font, though it would take me much longer to explain why I feel that way about them. Ubiquity can sometimes actually do the poems themselves a disservice, rendering haunting lines (“Because I could not stop for Death” . . . .”And that has made all the difference” . . . ) temporarily toothless through repetition. The lines themselves don’t lose their punch in any inherent way, but they can become sanitized and domesticated in a repetitive classroom context. Ideally, we’d all read an entire poet’s body of work, but in the context of the classroom, this isn’t always possible. I want to use this blog space to provide some alternatives from various poets’ bodies of work, if you’re a teacher who feels like your photocopies and anthologies are getting a bit faded from re-use.

A poet whose re-re-re-read poem might like some company in the spotlight is Robert Hayden, whose poem “Those Winter Sundays” is gorgeous and eminently anthologizable. In David Biespiel’s Poetry Foundation “Poetry Guide” to “Those Winter Sundays,” reprinted from The Oregonian, he writes, “If there were a Top of the Pops for poetry, Robert Hayden’s ‘Those Winter Sundays’ would be on it.” The poem is “good” (strong sensory details and imagery, subtle use of diction and sound, moving reflection and characterization), “accessible” (plain-spoken, straight-forward syntax, clear narrative, clear point of view), and “teachable” (subtle echoes of the sonnet form, final rhetorical question). I love this poem. Please keep teaching this poem. But–please, please, please consider also introducing your students to Hayden’s “The Ballad of Nat Turner” and/or “Night, Death, Mississippi.”

Both of these alternative Hayden poems are vivid poems based in historical contexts, one written in the electrifying voice of Nat Turner, the other channeling the terrifying voices of white supremacy. All three of these poems were published in Hayden’s 1962 collection A Ballad of Remembrance. In the past year, I have had students specifically mention “The Ballad of Nat Turner” and “Night, Death, Mississippi” as “breakthrough poems” for them in their end-of-semester reflections. They are, indeed, a bit more challenging, as their narratives and points of view are perhaps less immediately clear to every reader, but framing these poems as historical narratives and “re-imaginings” can give students a kind of permission in their own writing that only introducing them to poems “like” “Those Winter Sundays” cannot. Introducing these alternative Hayden poems complicates the dictum to “write what you know” with a provocation to “write what you imagine,” “write what you don’t want to know,” “write what history didn’t write,” and more.

The poems are more disturbing, and perhaps more “controversial” than “Those Winter Sundays”; if the recent treatment of award-winning English teacher David Olio sets a precedent, perhaps we shouldn’t even share “Those Winter Sundays,” or young people might be tempted to make “banked fires blaze” without proper supervision. But the classroom conversations I’ve had about “The Ballad of Nat Turner” and “Night, Death, Mississippi” are why I get excited about teaching poetry in the first place. The questions my students ask about these poems are often questions I can’t answer definitively, but they make all of us think and feel. More on these questions soon. For now, please read, or re-read, or re-re-read all three of Hayden’s poems and pass them on to someone else. Or just pick up his Collected.

Those Winter Sundays

The Ballad of Nat Turner

Night, Death, Mississippi