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Saturday, October 25, 2008

Which Would You Choose?

This Halloween, as it so happens, I'm introducing my composition students to the world of poetry. 

I do this with my students quarter in and quarter out. Last time I taught English 101, I began by showing them a video of Hector Hernandez Cruz reading "Problems With Hurricanes," a poem that ends "beware of flying mangoes / And all such beautiful sweet things." 

I think we also read a Simic poem (the one about being stolen by the gypsies), and I showed a clip of Clifton reading that poem that ends "here lies, here lies. Here. Lies." 

For some reason choosing which poems to begin the poetry unit with is the most daunting task of all. Why is this? Maybe b/c I'm so afraid of turning them off. Maybe b/c it's so hard to decide which handful of poems would best introduce a skeptic to the language of poetry. Maybe it's that I so love so many damn poems I'm incapable of figuring out just which few might turn on a light bulb for someone born when I was--like--thirty years old. 

Okay, so no two students will react the same to whatever I choose. So, odds are if I pick four poems, most of them will like maybe one of them, but the one poem they like will be liked by 25% of them. 

I don't want to play God. I don't want to think too hard about what my criteria are.

Okay, but assuming I'm playing God, I would aim for:

A  poem with lots of musicality;

 A poem with a little muscle, a little weight (not "gotten" on the first try); 

A poem that does it job quietly and gracefully without much show of strength;

A poem that veers away from the mainstream--is experimental;

At least one poem outside of mainstream (white) culture;

A very loud and boisterous poem;

A very quiet poem (I would like to put a loud and quiet one together so they could talk about what makes them so);

A poem very dependent on allusion and or a certain historical fact;

A poem that is not tethered at all to a canon or any historical place and time;

A surrealist poem;

An obscure Emily Dickinson poem;

John Berryman's "The Ball Poem," 

A Sexton, a Plath, a Stafford, a Ginsberg, an Espada, a Berry (as in Wendell)  . . .

And why not Keats? And why not Yeats? And why not a little Shakespeare? That sweet John Clare? 

And they really need to read some Harryette Mullen! And how about Adrian Louis? 

But really, that's what happens. If I let one guy in, I gotta let in the whole damn circus.

So this is what I'm asking: if you had to choose four poems to show a group of non-poetry-people what poetry is (or begin to give them a sense of what's possible, what's been done), which would you choose? 


rams said...

While dodging the question just for a minute (eyes shifting wildly) I thought this might be the right time/place to mention that the Geraldine R. Dodge Festival's starting a YouTube channel with readings taped over the last 23 years. There are only teasers up so far, but much more to come (This, because I might include Martin Espada's "For the Jim Crow Restaurant..." as one of my four and he read it, but who knows it it will ever make the cut...)

rams said...

Okay, this is so much fun. One quarter:

"A Poem About Bluegills" by David Dodd Lee ( Downsides of Fish Culture

"Death Comes to Me Again, A Girl in a Cotton Slip" Dorianne Laux

"For the Jim Crow Mexican Restaurant in Cambridge, Massachusetts Where My Cousin Esteban Was Forbidden to Wait Tables Because He Wears Dreadlocks"

"One Art" Elizabeth Bishop


"Julie Ann in the Bone Marrow Unit, Zion, Illinois" We Bed Down in Water

"Mortal Shower" Bob Hicok Insomnia Diary

Death be Not Proud -- Donne

"3 a.m. Feeding" Ellen Bass

(Still not ideal. Let me think...)

Karen J. Weyant said...

I try to think about the population of my students -- in general, I like Jim Daniels, Jan Beatty, Sherry Fairchok, Jeannine Hall Gailey, Allison Joseph, Todd Davis, and Juila Kasdorf.

David Graham said...

I'm starting my own poetry unit in my comp class tomorrow. For what it's worth, I'm beginning with Williams's "This is Just to Say" vs. "The Red Wheelbarrow," and a discussion of A) do you think these are poems? and, if so, B) which one is "better," and why?

From there we do Emily D's underappreciated "Drowning is not so pitiful."

Next up some short lyrics by Frost, Roethke, Rbt. Hayden, and Yusef Komunyakaa.

Martha Silano said...

Oh, rams--what fun. I am going to check all of these links out, just as soon as I get a little shuteye and then teach my 9:30 research paper class. Espada is one of my favorites these days. I heard him read at AWP last year . . . a highlight, for sure.

Karen, good line-up. Kasdorf, Gailey, and Joseph are up high on my list.

David, what a fine coincidence. I've used those WCW poems before, but never to talk about whether they're poems and which is better. Cool!

Pamela said...

I use Cavafy's "Waiting for the Barbarians," in the comp unit on Power and Government (as a counterpoint to Machiavelli), Kumunyaaka's "My Father's Loveletters" and Crane's "My Grandmother's Love Letters" in the unit on narrative and exposition (the FRE reading experience novel is Clay's Quilt, which is told partially in letter format), and "The Fish" by Bishop for the unit on narrative and descriptive writing.

My favorite poems to teach in Comp are "Permanently," which breaks the ice in the first class and "Those Winter Sundays," which closes out the class.