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Teach This (Part V)

[Continued from earlier posts on teaching poetry]

Robert Hayden’s “Night, Death, Mississippi” is a poem that horrifies me. Each time I encounter the domestic scene and colloquial voice, it feels like an illustration of Arendt’s banality of evil. When I share it with a class of students of poetry, I provide a version of a trigger warning, not for students to opt out of reading the poem, but simply to prepare them for what is coming. I want them to engage with the poem without feeling like I’m testing them (or worse, titillating them with shock value). I do the same with Patricia Smith’s “Skinhead.” These two poems both employ and then go beyond the craft concept of “unlikable” or “unreliable” narrator or character; Hayden and Smith give us voices and minds that are sick, loathsome, and terrifying.

This past semester, I taught “Night, Death, Mississippi” and “Skinhead” in a unit on voice, tone, dialogue, monologue, and persona poetry. I taught those two poems alongside “My Last Duchess” by Robert Browning (another chilling voice), “West-Running Brook” and “The Death of the Hired Man” by Robert Frost, “Mother to Son” by Langston Hughes, “Lady Lazarus” by Sylvia Plath, “The Boarding” by Denis Johnson, “Track 5: Summertime” by Jericho Brown, and “Lord, Make Me a Sheep” by Greg Alan Brownderville. Each of these poems incorporates the voice of a character/persona or characters, raising questions more often addressed in fiction writing workshops than poetry writing workshops.

In poetry writing workshops, I talk a lot about how reading and studying certain poems can give students of poetry writing the “permission” to try new techniques and explore outside their aesthetic or thematic comfort zones. Each of the aforementioned poems gives its own kind of permission and provocation, but “Night, Death, Mississippi” and “Skinhead” raise particularly big questions about the responsibilities of author-ity. I don’t know the answers to all of those questions, of course.

How (and why) does a poet take a reader or listener to a horrible or uncomfortable place, a place that might implicate one reader’s ancestors or “affinity group” while (much worse, of course) dredging up another reader’s personal trauma or the shared trauma of ancestors or affinity group? When these readers are my students, these questions become even more charged. What is a teacher’s responsibility to “protect” or expose? What would “protect” even mean in this context? What I do know is that, in my teaching experience, the conversations that have come out of reading these poems have brought questions of craft and questions of social engagement and writers’ responsibilities together into one space. Teaching and studying creative writing, we can sometimes lose sight of the forest for the trees, the “why” for the “what.” While we’re focused on how to become “better” readers and writers of poetry, we can lose sight of why we write in the first place. Yes, I can teach techniques that might “improve” a student’s ability to write and read poetry, but to what end? I am not ashamed to say that I am not entirely sure, and won’t stop asking. Poems like these won’t let me not ask.