Sunday, 28 November 2010

More on teaching poetry

In the last post that I’ve just put up I mentioned my perplexity when it came to ‘teaching’ formally simple, minimalist (unrhetorical, non-adjectival) poems like those that came out of Europe (and Israel) after the Second World War, or for that matter ostensibly ‘simple’ lyrics like Shakespeare’s songs or Blake’s Songs of Innocence.

I believed in the value of students reflecting on poems in small group discussions and in writing, but it was hard to get these to happen at a satisfying level with all but a minority of trusty regulars. In turning the students to talking or writing, what I wanted above all to avoid was the usual routine of asking questions, turning the thing into an exercise with tried recipes or a sort of comprehension exercise. In writing I searched for a genre that would encompass the sort of mixed, miscellaneous, affect plus intellect, association plus analysis that James Britton named (unfortunately because it was misleading) the Expressive. (The name was misleading but the thing existed all right -- he exactly identified a form of language use that was characteristic, perhaps dominant, in children of primary and early secondary school age -- that is, on those occasions when they were able to write what came naturally.) This would be a first step on a long transition from naive immediate response to the more specialised, functionally differentiated literary essay -- but one which the writer would as it were wear comfortably and have recourse to as productive means of discovering his or her own thoughts because the latter arose from his or her own responses, questions and puzzlements rather than from a teacher’s preemptive inquisition. My transitional genre would have educational value rather than being primarily a means of testing the student.

I set out my thoughts on this ‘missing link’ genre and reported on my attempts to get it to happen at Crofton Secondary Modern School near Wakefield (1973-77) in Finding a Language (1980) -- try the skip outside your nearest library. But I think I only once found what I was really looking for. A student called Karen -- forgotten her surname, sorry, probably 4th year (year 10) in a mixed ability class, wrote something in response to a (translated) poem by Karl Krolow. Karen’s writing delighted me because she wasn’t one of the reliable regulars on whom I could count because they were already by background or whatever inclined in a literary and studious direction; I think I’d hardly noticed her work before she came up with this.

I’ve put both the poem and Karen’s piece below. I used them quite a bit in talks, workshops and courses and somewhere in an article.

Now my question is this: was I the only English teacher struggling to find a genre in which students responding to poems could be expansive, intelligent, generative and undirected? I don’t recall (with my highly defective memory) reading any other examples of student writing that seemed like attempts to meet the same lack. Why wasn’t it, isn’t it, a huge issue? surely teachers don’t actually like the stuff most of their kids write about poetry? or think it’s of much value? or perhaps I've just forgotten or have been oblivious a body of good work on the issue.

Anyway, here are Krolow and Karen (bless her -- I owe her a few royalties):


Out of hiding it came,
Raised dead metal to life.
The last negotiators
Peeled off their gloves
And left. Their smiles
A coinage withdrawn

Out of hiding it came.
The place it looked at
Is lost.
The doors fly open,
The windows get smashed.
Ashes and mortar
Scatter into eyes.
Lips shut
Under thumps from fists.
The squalid night holds ready
Its attacks and black minutes.
Soon the hearts
Will stop beating
Behind the curtain of rust.

Out of hiding it came.
It will manhandle us.
We may still leave the house
And gaze into the sky of bulbs.
But in the suburbs
The slogans are posted,
Soon the street fighting
Will reach us.
Soon we shall be alone
With the muzzles of guns.
Which of us shall be
The first to fall forward
Across his table?

Karl Krolow
translated by Christopher Middleton

The poem I will write about is a very good and mature one. It is mainly about beating people up and murdering and all that sort of stuff. It has three paragraphs and the beginning of each one it starts off with the words `Out of hiding it came'. I think this is to express and make you want to reach out of the air and into the poem and it makes you feel as if you were there. It is about some men who have a job of some sort to do. They collect their weapons from a place unknown to be used again later.

They go, and like experts peel off their gloves with a serious look on their face. The quiet place now becomes a death scene. A door is kicked open and windows are smashed, the people, whoever they are set a fire going. The bits of ashes fly into open eyes and loudmouths with their mouths open. The experts thump and abduct limbs from their normal position. Pain, tears and blood and sweat mix together. It must smell like a slaughter-house, a sickly smell. The smell of death. The black and evil night sits quiet and still not moving a muscle. No police sirens sound, just a deathly and unearthly evil, smelly silence.

The fire is ablaze now, orange, red and then to crimson and a murky brown colour. The fire burns. Soon all will be left is a few bits of wood and metal and rust and bodies, cold and stiff - dead.

After this outside it can still kill. What is it? No body knows for sure. They can guess and say but they don't know for sure. It could kill you and mutilate you. You can leave your home, but it is still there, waiting, waiting. In the suburbs, posters stuck on walls, fences and around lamp-posts. Maybe they say, things like `Kill the mods' or `Down with the Protestants'.

Soon all the fighting in the street all around town will reach you. You don't know when, but it will, and it will hurt. You will soon be all alone with a cold stretch of metal under your chin and in your stomach then they will blast your guts to the other side of the suburbs. You will wonder which of you will be the first to lay dead in some dark alleyway or in a corner of a room or in bed asleep. That would be best. In bed asleep. But you will die in a scene of death. Everybody dreams of death. That's all everybody thinks about. What would be worse though is to die after watching your wife and her baby being shot in the head, and their eyes popping out. A lot of people would not tell on violent people because they would be scared of getting beat up. Most violence occurs in America and Ireland. I wonder if the writer, Karl Krolow, likes violence or has had any bad experiences.

The men that he speaks of in his poem sound like real smoothies or old time gangsters. I think more people are killed by violence than by accident. I expect there is more violence in the world than there was years ago. Violence starts in a lot of people when they are young, like squashing insects and grabbing cats tails. Parents start off violence sometimes, by telling their children to be big and to fight back. In the poem they write about violence as if it was an everyday chore. Which it is really. Especially with teens and people in the United States of America. In the poem violence happens at night-time. The night-time expresses the word insanity. I wonder if Karl was speaking about a certain race of people in a certain part of the world. The form of violence used in the poem is by murder. There are many more forms of violence. Violence causes devastation all over the world. Why did Karl write this poem? Maybe it was to show everyone what violence is doing to us and to the world. Maybe he is trying to teach us a lesson. I don't see any point in violence. Why can't people just accept each other's differences and make do with it? I believe in using violence in self-defence. How much longer will violence carry on? I don't know why but barking dogs remind me of violence. If we were all blown up by a few atom bombs, it would end all violence and you would not be able to feel a thing.

I suppose you could call it `violence ending in violence'. I think this poem makes you think as if there is something out waiting to get you. I like the idea of `violence ending in violence'.


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