Thursday, April 23, 2009

Poetry, for Amy.

Who is getting into National Poetry Month quite a lot. I have a story to share, that will hopefully make her smile.

During College Part Two, I was in my mid-thirties (with white hair, no less), surrounded by kids whose average age was about twenty. Luckily, they thought I was 'cool' and treated me, if not as an equal, then usually as a friend and classmate. I really enjoyed hanging out with the best of them; smart kids with their acts together is always a pleasure, regardless of age difference. Occasionally they would ask for help or advice, and when appropriate, I would help them out (within reason). One favorite topic was homework; more specifically, how to make it interesting. I had a reputation (also among the faculty) for turning assignments on their sides and making them, if not entertaining, then at least interesting enough that they weren't painful.

So, one day, a kid in my Cultural Geography class explained he was taking Poetry Appreciation and his assignment was to memorize and recite a poem. Did I have any suggestions for poems? Something easy to remember, or interesting?

This pisses me off, you see, because nowhere in the term "Poetry Appreciation" is the word MEMORIZATION used or implied. And what is more guaranteed to turn a twenty year old kid off poetry than making them memorize some tedious piece of crap? (Hell, it turns me off poetry, and I'm a former English major!) They're supposed to learn to APPRECIATE the poetry, not find it annoying.

I told him the answer was Beat Poetry. (Amy Lane is laughing right now, I bet you.) I explained that I consider Beat Poetry the forerunner of rap music, and it was originally written to be as much a performance as words on paper - maybe more emphasis on the performance. He was interested. Then I pulled him over to the library, found a poetry anthology, looked up one in particular, and laid it in front of him. "Do this."

HOWL, part I, by Allen Ginsberg
[this is extremely long, so I'm publishing just the first portion; for the whole poem click on the Howl link, above]

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,
dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,
angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night,
who poverty and tatters and hollow-eyed and high sat up smoking in the supernatural darkness of cold-water flats floating across the tops of cities contemplating jazz,
who bared their brains to Heaven under the El and saw Mohammedan angels staggering on tenement roofs illuminated,
who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,
who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull,
who cowered in unshaven rooms in underwear, burning their money in wastebaskets and listening to the Terror through the wall,
who got busted in their pubic beards returning through Laredo with a belt of marijuana for New York,
who ate fire in paint hotels or drank turpentine in Paradise Alley, death, or purgatoried their torsos night after night
with dreams, with drugs, with waking nightmares, alcohol and cock and endless balls,
incomparable blind streets of shuddering cloud and lightning in the mind leaping toward poles of Canada & Paterson, illuminating all the motionless world of Time between,

I suggested he also find video of Ginsberg on the internet, performing the poem. Then to go into class and scream it while beating on the walls and rolling on the floor, as is appropriate.

He did. (See what I did?? Got him to APPRECIATE POETRY. Clever, no?)

He got an A, though his professor complained (grouchy old bat). The whole campus talked about it. And when MY English professor got wind of it, and my involvement, I'm told she laughed so hard she nearly fell out of her office chair (she was one of the Good Ones).

Video of Ginsberg performing Howl on YouTube, here. This is SO totally not safe for work.


amy said...

One of my favorite "ah" moments is when I realized that you could draw a line from Walt Whitman right to the Beats. And how utterly American Whitman was, and the Beats are. Love it. And the story, too.

I bet that kid really lived that poem, though, didn't he?

walterknitty said...

You never cease to amaze me. For some reason I would never have thought Beat poetry would move you. If you're at all interested you may want to check out "The Source" It's a documentary about Kerouac, Gingsberg, and Burroughs. There is an interview with Gingsberg (shortly before he died), poetry re-enactments with Dennis Hopper as Burroughs, John Turturro as Gingsberg, and Johnny Depp as Kerouac, footage of the Kerouac Festival in Lowell MA, interviews with singers and authors their poetry touched and inspired. My soft spot was Kerouac. I loved him best and still do even though I do so appreciate Gingsberg. He opened my eyes to see that poetry didnt have to meet rhyme and rhythm standards. It could just be. After reading the "Dharma Bums" I wanted to leave Iowa and be a fire lookout in the Pacific NW for a summer. Then my Biology teacher (one of The Good Ones as you say, I had him for several classes) told me it doesnt work that way anymore. I was disappointed. That kid will remember reciting "Howl" for the rest of his life.

Amy Lane said...

WHHHEEEEEEE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I ADORE you! It sounds like an assignment I would give HOPING for that exact result.

In your professor's defense, I make my kids memorize lines from plays we are reading as we are working our way through the play, and here's why:


Part of appreciating something is feeling a connection to it. I make the kids memorize 2-4 lines of Shakespeare or Arthur Miller and then EXPLAIN what's happening in those two lines, and number of things happen:

A. The kid has to internalize the poetry to translate it. True understanding--not just appreciation.
B. They have to analyze the little bit of poetry--to understand it.
D. They apply the quote to the play's events and prove they're following along in the plot.
E. In the more advanced form of the assignment (connecting the quote to a pre-studied theme) they're doing some SERIOUS critical thinking
F. They're forced to evaluate different bits of poetry to decide which is the most meaningful and important (to them, at the very least.)
and G. (my personal favorite) I don't have to correct a single freaking paper--and they don't have to wait for a grade.

They also remember the quote forEVER--beyond graduation in a lot of cases. They'll have all sorts of useless crap floating around in their heads by the time they graduate--commercials, text messages, porn urls, forgettable slang--but they'll also have something that's lasted a while and an appreciation of why it was important and powerful. If you apply that idea more widely to any poetry, it can be a very useful assignment. (And if I do it right with follow-up questions and specifications, it covers the learning hierarchy--know, comprehend, analyze, apply, synthesize & evaluate.)

(Sorry--eduspeak lecture... wake up now, Julie... call me any time you have insomnia!!! But seriously--I would have LOVED to have had a kid do Howl for me!)

Leonie said...

That kid probably became a legend amongst his peers for having the guts to attempt it and the ability to see it through! As Walterknitty said, he will remember that poem for the rest of his life! Good work you educator you!!

Emily said...

That story is the best one I've heard in a long time! Wow. Absolutely wow.

MLJ1954 said...

Very cool. You are an incredible font of information and never cease to surprise me. Although I assume that because you continue to surprise me, I shouldn't be surprised. Okay.