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Pleasures of the Didactic
I am a little obsessed with genre, which is to say with expectations and how they are subverted or fulfilled. Contemporary American poetry is so dominated by Lyric that we often forget there are other modes: Narrative (nephew of venerable Epic), Pastoral (largely these days the province of country music), Epinician (the trumpeting of athletic victories), Drama—though it does seem to me that the rich vernacular rhythms of The Wire approach poetry—seeming sometimes almost Shakespearean (or Victorian?— hat tip, Ernie Hilbert).
But Didactic, whatever happened to Didactic? When did she fall into such desuetude and disrepute? Some of the greatest ancient poems were didactic: Hesiod’s Works and Days, the philosophy of Empedocles, Virgil’s Georgics, (“The best poem by the best poet,” as Dryden would later say– probably the best blurb ever), Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things. (Lucretius felt that verse was the spoonful of honey that helped the wormwood go down.) Arguably, “Paradise Lost” and “The Divine Comedy” are didactic epics. (One of the things I love about genres is they are rarely pure—an epic will contain lyric moments, an epinician ode might break out into narrative, a tragedy’s chorus hammer home didactic aphorisms.)
Didactic has loomed large in my mind lately because of our struggles with the Greek school curriculum. My son is in first grade. Each night, we–and believe me, it is we–have homework in five subjects (copy work, spelling, grammar—yes, grammar–, math, and reading), amounting to two to three hours a day. In first grade. The work is tedious, repetitive, and not age appropriate (diagramming sentences? Ancient etymologies? Multiplication?) I see a bright, creative mind with a love for words and stories being weighed down by bewildering drudgery. It’s clear we have to get out of the system somehow.
English is, not unsurprisingly, my son’s favorite subject (we speak English at home), partly because it is taught with less pressure, more games. In an effort to bolster his interest in English reading, and, yes, out of an ex-pat’s sentimental nostalgia for another time and place, I ordered some DVDs of the old, original Sesame Street (Sesame Street, Old School). I am amazed at how bright, optimistic, fresh and bursting with energy, they are. How my son finds them riveting, contemporary. The episodes have their lyric interludes and narrative arcs. But surely the highlights are the songs. The didactic songs.
I was suddenly aware how lucky my generation was in, of all things, television. My generation will remember, of course, School House Rock. And on the short-lived but also brilliant Electric Company, no less a luminary than Tom Lehrer was crafting songs, about such ostensibly dry topics as Silent E, and adverbs (LY). These songs do teach, and lay down knowledge in the memory, but they do so by the vehicle of pleasure. They have lyric moments, shades of darkness, comic touches, giddy invention. They are art. And surely we learned not only grammar and orthography from them, but unconsciously imbibed something about prosody, about rhetoric, about metaphor. About poetry.
(I should add there are modern masters of didactic songs for children, chief among them–er, head and shoulders above the rest?–, They Might be Giants.)
Though generally lighter, the Sesame Street songs are also works of genius. Possibly my favorite is Joe Raposo’s “Would you like to buy an O?,” in which a shady salesman (I love the innocence of Sesame Street—that is, real, not Barney-fake, innocence—where it is just a fact of street life that there are some shady characters in the mix) tries to sell Ernie an “O” for “just a nickel.” And I had also forgotten Steve Zuckerman’s haunting, eerily profound “Capital I” song: “We all live in a Capital I . . . ”
The anthem of the Lyric Poets.