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What the Kids Are Reading These Days

By Camille Dungy

Every week I introduce my students to a few poems I think speak to what they’ve tried to write themselves.  I do this hoping they’ll read more and, reading more, learn to write better and better.  Amen.  It being near the end of the semester, I’ve been interested in what resonated most.  As ever, the answers surprised me.

Sometimes students are attempting a particular style.  If a student made a stab at a villanelle, those of us who know it will recite Dylan Thomas’s ”Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” and I’ll show them Kate Northrop’s “The Place Above the River” then talk about mastered failure and show them Bishop’s “One Art.” Say their poems can’t seem to decide if they want to present themselves as prose or be broken into lines, I’ll share Robert Hass’s “The Yellow Bicycle.”  One student wrote about deprivation and it’s toll on the body. I gave the class Shane Book’s “The One.”  Another student was trying to figure out a way to describe a man’s private anatomy.  The class got Sharon Olds’ “The Connoisseuse of Slugs.”

Sixteen weeks, several poems a week, and I’m not near my notes or my office, so I can’t remember everything I’ve shared this semester.  And honestly, neither could my students.  During our discussion there were a lot of comments along the lines of “that one about the truck” (Steve Scafidi’s “To Whoever Set My Truck On Fire,” which they received either because they were writing a rant or because I thought they might try to sustain a sentence for the length of a poem), or “the Neruda poem” (good heavens, which one?), or “that one about the empire that they put out on the lawn like an old couch” (Kevin Prufer, “What We Did With the Empire”), or “that Tony Hoagland poem about America” (a poem which is, in fact, titled “America”).  Often their memory of the particulars of the poems is a little vague around the edges.

What draws them to the work they choose, though, is usually crystal clear.  Sometimes, students apprentice themselves closely to the work I’ve introduced to them.  One student, after I brought the class Cyrus Cassells’s “Down from the Houses of Magic” procured Cassells’s Soul Make a Path Through Shouting, Beautiful Signor, AND More Than Peace and Cypresses.  “I’ve made him into something of a poetry mentor,” she said.  This is, of course, what I want them to do.  I’d come to Cassells’s work in rather the same way, stumbling upon one poem and then reading, seemingly inexhaustibly, more and then more and then more.  I was awed by the incantatory nature of his poems, and I wanted to know how, exactly how, he managed to pull off repetition and figuration and song like he does.  Here’s a taste of the 10th section of his long poem, “Down from the Houses of Magic” from Soul Make a Path Through Shouting:

Let this earth become a heaven:
From the point of light within the mind of God,
The Earth hurling its roughhouse wills and lusters,
The Earth accruing poison—
Planet of joy, planet of crucifixion,
Piñata destined to be smashed—
Ashes, ashes,
All the mirrors of heaven blackening, imagine:
No lack, no lack, but in our human minds—

Let the clematis become a prayer
As clouds and canon-flowers ready
Sweet unguents of pollen and rain,
As God bellows, and a wild cavalry of wind sweeps
Down from the houses of magic
Down from the houses of magic
Down from the houses of magic

Two other poets came to my attention during these discussions because preference for their work was stated by students I would not have imagined would have similar tastes.  One of these poets was Harryette Mullen.  Her “Kirstenography” got students going, angering some and pleasing others but, generally, making them think.  One student mentioned Mullen’s work in the round up because, having been introduced to Sleeping with the Dictionary two semesters in a row, he found himself growing to appreciate her word play.  “K was burn at the bend of the ear in the mouth of Remember,” reads the first line of this Mullen poem.  “She was the fecund chill burn to her famish.  She came into the word with a putty smoother, a handsewn farther, and a yodder cistern.  They were all to gather in a rosy horse on a piety sweet in Alligator Panorama.”  The student who learned to love the word play has been taking more risks in his poems.  Another student, who appreciated the sentence “That was laughter they kissed their handsewn farther who wind sway to Cheap Cargo, Ill Annoy” because he immediately recognized in it his own life, is going to bring us a poem next week about how he wrecked his rented cargo van outside Chicago, Illinois.  Whereas one poet needed to branch out, become more imaginative in what he wrote about and how, another would benefit from being more grounded in his work.  This same poem, with its twisted language about a straight-forward life, served both their needs.

The other poet who surprised me with his broad reach was Patrick Rosal.  In this case, two poems from his latest book, American Kundiman, struck very different students’ interests.  One particularly philosophical student, taken to long, meditative narratives featuring professors, barmen, scatologists, etymologists, and priests who meet in far away towns, found himself drawn to “An Essay on Tango Composed While Listening to Adriana Varela” which begins:

“I swear to you I heard someone on Avenida Santa Fé shout my name but I ignored it Who knew me in this city anyway? I’d come here trying to forget the woman whom I’d made love with every night for three weeks in another August in another city whose once-in-a-lifetime dog-licking summer stewed the hot copper reek of coins right out of my palms But in this city I put my head down as I walked thinking of that story about the boy who remembered everything: every swelter of ascent every susurration of fire every etymology of touch”

And another student, apprenticing herself directly to Rosal’s work, turned in a poem modeled after “The Woman You Love Cuts Apples For You” complete with the second person, multiple story lines, unpunctuated sentences, and tasty sauces of the original.  She learned a lot trying to write like Rosal.  She learned, for instance, that she couldn’t write like Rosal.  In so learning she began to see some of the reasons why not, which lead her to understanding some of the things she could do in her own writing and also some of the things she still needed to work to perfect.

It’s nearly the end of the semester, the time of year when I wonder whether I’ve managed to help anyone at all.  Hearing from this batch of students what, of all I’ve introduced them to, they most remember, that’s instructive.  Knowing that my instruction has, even this quickly, encouraged their growth as writers, that’s rewarding.   Learning that some of them found, among the sheaves of poems I’ve distributed, poems that will continue to teach them long after their semester with me has ended, that is the most rewarding news of all.

Comments (4)

  • On April 23, 2009 at 12:43 am Tim Upperton wrote:

    “It’s nearly the end of the semester, the time of year when I wonder whether I’ve managed to help anyone at all.” It’s that time, and that feeling, for me as well. After reading your post, I don’t think you need to worry on that score. And thank you for introducing me to some interesting poets I’d never heard of – ones to whom I can now introduce my students, too.

  • On April 23, 2009 at 9:51 pm Kat Sanders wrote:

    Your article reminds me of how I fell in love with Walt Whitman. I had heard and read O Captain, My Captain in school a number of times, but then a English teacher in high school strayed away from the normal poems and showed us I Sing The Body Electric. From that day forward, that is my favorite poem and Whitman is my favorite poet.

  • On April 24, 2009 at 7:50 am mearl wrote:

    Camille,

    If I come to San Francisco can an I audit your class? I know the work of a few of these poets, but your list is really quite comprehensive. I love the quote from Harryette Mullen. At any rate, thanks for this lovely accounting of your semester (year?). It makes me realize in a certain way what I’ve missed, far from English language bookstores, out of the loop. I’m going to take your list and see what I can find on-line, start compiling a portfolio of what I don’t know – which is, obviously, more than I do know.

    Actually I never even had this kind of instruction…but there were not as many contemporary poets then. In an undergraduate workshop with James Tate (imagine such a thing – I was very lucky) there was a course list…I still read Louise Glück and Bill Knot, some of the very first contemporary poets I learned about, thanks to Tate. In my MFA, which I did mostly under John Ashbery’s tutelage it was much more laissez-faire than what you describe and he was rather reticent and not quite as interested in ultra-contemporary poetry. But he introduced me to tons of poets, most memorably Laura Riding, one of my all time favorites. But he’d mostly send us back to either the lost minor poets of modernism, or back to the eighteenth century. He almost duplicates his limid and whispered teaching style in his book Other Traditions (Harvard 2000).

    I’d be curious to know how large your classes are. I can remember one semester when C.K. Williams was filling in for Ashbery, he was teaching at Brooklyn and Columbia at the same time. At Columbia he had about twenty-five. We were five or six at Brooklyn. Williams steered us toward philosophy, theology, essays etc. He talked about poets, but was more interested in prose, at least at the time. I only had him for one semester, but he was huge influence both as teacher and a poet.

    Also, I was wondering if you send your students to previous centuries. Do you give them the old stuff?

    And, as a teacher and poet, do you ever get too saturated with poetry?

    Martin

  • On April 24, 2009 at 2:10 pm Camille Dungy wrote:

    Thanks Kat, Tim, and Martin, for your comments. Kat, I remember falling in love with Dickinson in a way similar to how you describe meeting Whitman again. As students we often make snap judgments about poets based on weak profiles, as if we were internet dating or something as shallow. It takes a good matchmaker, one who can see beyond the surface to what might foster fundamental attraction, to help us past the early stages of acquaintance into abiding love. I like to do that for my students, knowing, of course, that what moves one students won’t necessarily interest another.

    Yes, Martin, we read all over the map in terms of geography and chronology (and often also genre). The student who I turned on to Brigid Pegeen Kelly a couple weeks ago read James Wright and Hafiz with me last week. I suggested that the student to whom I recommended “The Yellow Bicycle” also read some Basho (and I was pleased to learn he already did). Every craft of poetry class I teach has on its reading list at least one book that’s presented as prose. Eclecticism fosters imagination, I believe.

    I’m interested, Martin, in your description of your teacher’s styles. We all have so many different teachers, don’t we, who approach poetry in so many different ways.


Posted in Uncategorized on Thursday, April 23rd, 2009 by Camille Dungy.