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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Digital Poetry

Today I introduced poetry to my English 101 students. I walked in, asked "What is Poetry?" and we went from there. The first student who spoke said "boring," so okay, we started with that. What makes it boring, etc. What we finally got to, in terms of definition, happened about 2/3 of the way through class, after we'd read Mary Ruefel's "Kiss of the Sun,"* when a student blurted out: "Poetry is saying something that needs to be said!" I loved that definition. It seemed as good as any, and much better than that quote from Wordsworth about recollection in tranquility, though I do like the best words in the best order.

Then I showed them a bunch of digital poetry websites. Their favorite (or maybe my favorite?I'm not sure they were particularly impressed with any of it) was from a site called Secret Technology, which I'm so glad I shared because they helped me to figure out how to spin Jason Nelson's awesome cube around. There was this one piece called My Boyfriend Came Back from the War, which got to the crux of their incredulousness about this stuff being poetry: one student finally asked "but what order do you read it in?" and I said "your choice!" and she didn't sit well with that at all, so we talked a bit about linear constructs, structure, narrative, the expectations of what a poem should do, but that didn't make anyone suddenly become a huge fan of any of this stuff.

My favorite moment of the hour was when I said "yeah, poetry--it's not so straightforward. I mean, it's not like reading a newspaper . . ." and then went on to quote the famous WC Williams line about men dying "miserably every day from lack of what is found there," and the most diligent and hard-working student in the class turned to me and said, totally earnestly and without any hint of distain:

"But I don't need poetry."

And the sad thing is, though I go through most days thinking the opposite, he's right. He'll do just fine without poetry. He'll get a good job, get his teeth cleaned twice a year, have a beautiful wife in the suburbs--I mean, what's poetry going to do for him?

I left class feeling a little ridiculous for getting so excited and worked up (and for prepping for hours!) about a genre only 1-2 out of 25 of my students said they had one iota of interest in (one guy said he wrote seven haiku, but only because they were assigned). But still I walked out of class jazzed and sunny.

I'd given them a little taste of poetry. I'd emphasized that poetry isn't a locked safe that needs the teacher's key to be opened (understood, experienced), I hinted that finding meaning was sometimes beside the point, and, instead of pontificating all hour, I gave them a writing prompt and they wrote recipe poems.

Let's see what happens tomorrow, when I demonstrate The Oral Presentation of a Poem.

*"Kiss of the Sun"

If, as they say, poetry is a sign of something

among people, then let this be prearranged now,

between us, while we are still peoples: that

at the end of time, which is also the end of poetry

(and wheat and evil and insects and love),

when the entire human race gathers in the flesh,

reconstituted down to the infant's tiniest fold

and littlest nail, I will be standing at the edge

of that fathomless crowd with an orange for you,

reconstituted down to its innermost seed protected

by white thread, in case you are thirsty, which

does not at this time seem like such a wild guess,

and though there will be no poetry between us then,

at the end of time, the geese all gone with the seas,

I hope you will take it, and remember on earth

I did not know how to touch it it was all so raw,

and if by chance there is no edge to the crowd

or anything else so that I am of it,

I will take the orange and toss it as high as I can.

-- Mary Ruefle


Jason Nelson said...

Lovely really you showed some of my work to your students....excuse the unexpected hello, but noticed your site in my server stats

and yeah the cube can be a bear to twist and reform. I'm creating a smallish site with brief descriptions of around ten works with classes like yours in mind.

one thing that might inspire them, is to ask them to create google map fictions/poetry. they are simply to make and are using a metaphor interface they understand.

Kathleen said...

Thank you!

Kate said...

great lesson and great poem. I think I'm going to steal this idea for next Tuesday's ENG 131 class. Did you tell them how great poets steal, etc etc? ;)

emilyhall said...

golly, Mart--this poem is lovely.

Martha Silano said...

Thanks, Kate. I hope you do steal from my post. Heartily.

Martha Silano said...

Glad to make your acquaintance, Jason! Your stuff was the best digital poetry I found out there!!

Would you mind sharing a bit more about creating a google map fictions/poetry? Do you have instructions for how to do that? I might like to try it with my poetry students next quarter.