What does poetry teach us? A new way of seeing, I think. But we rarely teach it that way. Often, pedagogically, a poem is interchangeable with a news story, an essay, or a controversy. We use poetry to spark debate and to air our feelings. The words themselves recede as we discuss the cultural themes we’ve imposed upon them. Poems melt down in the classroom foundry into much the same stuff: our students will say that the poems are “interesting,” that they are “real,” or, occasionally and succinctly, that they “suck.” Finally, one student “relates” to the poem, and a procession of personal anecdotes burble out and into the center of the world.
It’s good to have students discuss their feelings. The problem is that the students aren’t there to learn how to feel. They’ve got feelings in spades. What they need is to learn how to turn their thoughts, opinions—and, occasionally, their emotions—into solid writing. As teachers, we need to get at what’s preventing this from happening.
Let’s start with the typical student: a red herring, if there ever was one. If your classes are like mine, there is no typical student. At Parsons The New School for Design in New York City, I teach inventors and designers in a master’s degree program. These students don’t want to be writers at all, but want to, say, embed a postmodern narrative about a flying object in a Frisbee. They want to tell stories in anime about 40-foot-long mechanical sharks. In downtown Brooklyn, I teach a completely different type of student: single mothers on welfare, many of whom speak French or Spanish as their first language. In my late-night fiction workshops I have students who are ballerinas, architects, programmers, bartenders, and, recently, out-of-work lawyers and bankers; I have students with PhDs and students who don’t have a GED. In all my classes, I’ve also seen an increasing number of students challenged with ESL issues. More and more students come from overseas to take classes that require some understanding of narrative, or of general writing in English.
Thankfully, the type of student is irrelevant. Because all have one thing in common when it comes to writing: fear. This fear manifests itself in many ways: timidity, for some; arrogance, for others; poor essays and stories, for most. This type of fear is insidious, sapping the creative spirit, sabotaging sentences, and, most importantly, inhibiting the brain’s ability to learn.
What causes this? Well, writing is, next to money, still the currency of power. We still have the marriage certificate, the alimony notice, the US Constitution and the New York Times. For students on the downward fringes of the socioeconomic spiral, they’re very likely to have never seen good news in print. Good writing, whether it’s a law brief or a novel, is still the territory of the elite. But more crucial than this, I believe, is the way writing has been taught.
Students wait (as they do with everything) until 4AM to begin an essay or story due the next morning. They toil away on it like nocturnal gnomes. Sometimes they pour their heart out; sometimes they just grind out whatever they can. With that unique pallor in their tired faces, dull from lack of sleep but zippy from caffeine, they turn in their writing to a teacher. A week later, they get a grade and, if they are lucky, a few comments. Written work is seldom shared, rarely exposed to the light; it is a solitary, mostly misanthropic communiqué. Those who are not A students grow to dread this process: they write in secret, and they are punished in secret.
It is very difficult to learn from such a black box. And because students are inured to this system, any student who wishes to learn must surmount a tremendous amount of trepidation. Tackling this fear is essential to empowering new and underequipped writers. Kindness and patience go a long way—but they will not beat back the demons.
Students don’t understand, most of them, what qualifies as good writing—they don’t have the ability to see it. If you want your students to improve, they are going to have to see good writing; they need to get inside the black box. Writing can no longer be simply “good” or “bad” or “interesting”; it must be demystified. And when I say see, I mean see: as in visually. To get there, I start with close reading. We do it together, as a class.
I often start with Langston Hughes’s poem “Theme for English B.” Begin with the title. I ask, “What the hell is ‘English B’?” The students ponder, there is silence, but this is a gimme. “It’s not English A,” pipes some wiseass. “Exactly,” I say. And we are off and running. Then we move on to the first line:
“The instructor said . . . ”
“Whoa,” I say. “Let’s just stop right there. ‘Instructor’? What other word could the narrator have chosen?” “Professor!” says one student. “Teacher!” shouts another. “Good,” I say. “Real nice.” And then I draw this big wacky speedometer on the blackboard and call it a “respect-ometer.” “Okay,” I say, “if ‘professor’ is way up here”—and I point to the highest end of the respect-ometer—“what would be way down at the bottom? What is the worst thing the narrator could have called the instructor?”
“Dude! Honky! Milquetoast!”
“Cooking with gas now!” I say. “So where would you put ‘instructor’ on this respect-ometer?”
“In the middle!”
“And where would you put ‘teacher’?”
And there is our first debate. What is the difference between a teacher and an instructor? How is this crucial to the poem? How is this difference crucial to the narrator? The general issue of race no longer predetermines the discussion of this poem—it’s still a major part of the poem, but its images and word choice have provided a more specific entry into the issue. We are taking the poem on its specific terms, rather than imposing our own terms on it.
We go through the entire poem, and I don’t let the students skip a single word. We talk about the pipe in line 23. What’s the difference between a pipe and a cigarette? What type of people smoke pipes? Who else in the poem might smoke a pipe? In line 24 we talk about the difference between Bessie and bop, and about the experience of African American musicians returning from the world wars. We talk about the slangy double negative in line 25. Would a genius like Langston Hughes actually speak like that? Did Hughes ride the New York City subway and shout crazy things like “I ain’t no ho!”
You’ve probably all done close reading in your classrooms. If you haven’t, I strongly urge you to try it. There is some pain—when students realize they must analyze at such a slow speed—but enthusiasm soon replaces the pain. Why? Because this is a new skill and they can do it. This isn’t about intelligence, it’s about taking your time—there is no real mystery. And I find that close readings’ zoomed-in view is just as practical to ESL students and writers with poor skills as is it to David Foster Wallace aficionados and PhD candidates.
But close reading is not new. The trick is making it stick. Here’s the next step in my method: draw. Draw out the narrator’s journey in “Theme for English B.” Draw with chalk, with marker, with a mouse, with whatever you have. Draw the college up on the hill. Draw the little lonely narrator; draw the white students and professors surrounding him. Draw the steps leading down into Harlem, the trees of Morningside Park, and the cruel avenues of St. Nicholas, Eighth, and Seventh.
Students’ eyes will widen. They are seeing the poem. Most of the time they will stop you and begin to point out actual metaphors and themes. “Jeez,” they’ll say, “it’s like he’s descending into a different world.” Even if they don’t, keep drawing. Draw the YMCA. And then, ever slowly, draw that elevator and the solitary narrator up in his penthouse hovel, typing away on line 78.
What a queer, trivial-seeming elevator—until you draw it out! Suddenly, students see the gulf between the typical Columbia University student and Hughes’s narrator up in his off-campus room. They see the parabolic shape the poem draws. Right then, I take my chalk sideways and connect the narrator with the classroom. The classroom invariably gets quiet—their jaws slack. That’s the response I get, young or old, rich or poor.
Many of the students have suddenly understood why a poem is good for the first time in their lives. It’s not just a pile of words; it has a shape, and they can see it: a system of words, translated into symbols, translated into imagery. It takes you on a journey, however brief, from one way of seeing things to another way. The students did it independently; I shepherded, but didn’t put words in their mouths. We took words as symbols, and drew out those symbols to see the world of Langston Hughes. It’s a true moment of learning.
Epiphanic moments like these are precious, but if you stop there, it too becomes an exercise: limited to one poem. It is important to make an orthogonal leap from demonstration to tool. Here’s how I do that: let the students “close read” an object they are familiar with. Have them rely on their eyes, not their words.
For my budding designers and inventors, I hand them a second- and a third-generation iPod nano—or, as we call them, “skinny” and “fatty.” They visually analyze every single button on these devices, every nook, and every user interface element, as well as the weight, the feel, and the colors. How does the shape affect how the iPod sits in my pocket? Why a chrome back? Why rounded edges? Why put the “hold” button on the bottom? They “see” their critical ideas and then write. This creates a direct link between their strength (design) and their weakness (writing), creating a foundation for future improvement. The result is a brief paragraph, usually one of the best pieces of writing they’ve done: filled with detail and the power of intense observation.
You don’t have to use iPods: use anything that the students are comfortable with. If you have a lot of film buffs, it is a great exercise to have them closely “read” the first four minutes of the very first Star Wars film, from 1977. Then do a close reading of the atrocious 1999 opening to Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menace. The excitement in the former—the rebel ship fleeing the almost incomprehensibly large Imperial Star Destroyer; the resolute, porcelain face of Princess Leia; the terrifying mystery of Darth Vader—is palpable. The dullness in the latter—the sniveling collection of tired and vaguely racist aliens, the labyrinthine plot that hinges on “trade routes to outlying star systems,” the uninspired dialogue that relies on knowledge of the earlier movies—is stifling.
With graphic design students, I bring in the temporary alteration of the Tropicana orange juice containers, thankfully abandoned in 2009. These students throw up their hands at the nipple-like screw-cap, intended to look like an orange, but bravely soldier on to decode the clean modern lines of the redesign, adroitly sussing out the narrative hidden in the packaging and what it conveys to the consumer.
For literary students, I may have them analyze “The Hunter in the Snow” by William Carlos Williams and “Winter Landscape” by John Berryman, without telling them they are ekphrastic poems. After they have written up their conclusions and completed their drawings, we compare them to the Bruegel painting Hunters in the Snow.
I have had students visually analyze Amare Stoudemire’s low-post basketball moves, Rothko’s colors, Eames’s chairs, a local taqueria’s burritos, Charles Wright’s R&B song “Express Yourself” versus the rap group N.W.A.’s,“Express Yourself,” women’s boots, the video game Metroid, a collection of raccoon bones, and an episode of Glee. Find anything that the students can relate to—more importantly, anything they’re good at.
Next, I make sure the first assignments I give them are short. Why? Because now I do a close reading of their work. This is crucial: I hold my students accountable to the same level of inspection we gave Langston Hughes. This creates a direct link between writing of genius and their own work, and a link between me (instructor) and them (student). We share the same tools of analysis, so nothing is hidden or mysterious. The editing is visual and comprehensible—words are crossed out and rearranged, there is little to interpret and much to do.
And finally, as soon as the students are strong enough to handle it (a cannoli or another incentive can greatly aid your first guinea pig), I put their own work in front of the class, using a projector or overhead. Again, I’m inevitably greeted with that slack-jawed silence of true learning. The majority of students have never seen their peers’ writing. Many see that their classmates aren’t that much better than themselves; those who already see themselves as superior exult and experience a surge in confidence. Fear still lurks, but we now are actively doing something about it: the students become editors. Their editorial scrawl spiders across the blackboard. Rhetorical fallacies, lack of parallelism, circular logic—all these advanced errors can be brought up practically, humbly, all built on a solid foundation of understanding, writing one word at a time. They don’t have to hold ideas and insights in their heads: it’s all up on the board, where everyone can see it.
And that’s really the trick to dispelling students’ fears and misunderstanding about writing: get that black box busted open and put its inner workings on display.
Poetry is certainly a valid conversation starter, but so are many other things. Deconstructing words visually—for comprehension and critique—we can activate new pathways of learning for students. We can rely not only on their brains but on their senses. Students no longer fumble through the dark void of intellectual abstraction. We can focus on an essential truth of poetry: poems simply put words together in interesting, surprising ways. This seemingly prosaic lesson always secretly points to a most profound and hopeful future: that we can rebuild, reconsider, and reconfigure ourselves through creative and innovative thinking of our own.