A Way In: Teaching Contemporary Poetry, Difficult and Otherwise
I worked at two decidedly non-academic jobs while finishing my MFA thesis – one in an office, the other in retail. When my coworkers found out that I’m a writer, they were genuinely interested in my work. “You write poetry? What kind of poetry do you write?” they asked. “Prose poetry,” I responded. Most weren’t familiar with prose poetry, but listened as I went on about it. Some even said they like poetry, so I asked them which poets they like. I found that not a single one named a poet writing within the last 40 years. Frost, I believe, was the most contemporary and you can find all of the poets in an introductory anthology.
One coworker, in particular, was curious about what contemporary poets I like. I gave her the first two examples that popped into my head, the two I’d been reading: Rae Armantrout and Allison Benis White. I expected that Armantrout’s short, experimental poems wouldn’t be an instant favorite – considering some of my poetry classmates didn’t even like her – but I thought White’s prose poems might be a good way in. I was wrong. She told me she thought they were both “pretty,” but she didn’t really “get” them.
I’ve been wondering since then what this says about contemporary poetry. The short answer is that most of it is considered difficult. Even within the MFA program, non-poetry students aren’t that interested in it, if they’re even interested at all. “I don’t understand it” seems to be the common response.
Now that I’m teaching, I wonder what, then, is the solution to teaching contemporary – especially “difficult” – poetry in the introductory creative writing classroom?
In Poets on Teaching, Stephen Burt argues, “the appreciation of any art, the ability to get inside it and see how the work is put together, what it is trying to do, comes in part from our experience of prior, related – maybe distantly related – art, related art with which we feel more comfortable, art we think we in part understand.” If we understand Emily Dickinson or William Carlos Williams, he suggests, we can understand Armantrout.
Whether it’s other poetry, art, music, or film, we must find a way to make the seemingly unrelatable relatable.
“What you find difficult,” Burt claims, “depends on what you already find easy; what you find comprehensible or enjoyable depends on what you already know.” White, for example, probably doesn’t seem confusing if you’ve read Gertrude Stein’s collection of prose poetry, Tender Buttons. What we understand depends, in part, on what we’ve already been exposed to.
Burt also points out that to thoroughly enjoy a poem, we need to familiarize ourselves with what it’s representing. “Once you have figured out what might be represented in a poem … you are on your way to seeing how that ‘what’ gets represented, how the verbal and formal choices within the poem add, to that ‘what,’ a ‘how’ and a ‘why’ and a ‘who’.
Take, for instance, Armantrout’s poem “Errands” from her collection, Money Shot. If the reader hasn’t figured it out before, the line “The better to eat you with” makes the connection with “Little Red Riding Hood” apparent.
The poem’s connection with the fairy tale opens it up for discussion. How is the poem different from the tale? Why is the grandmother missing from the poem? What does her absence mean? What does the ending mean?
Discussing the poem through the tale also allows for a discussion of poetic language. The huntsman is now wonderfully named, “an ax-man.” The trip to grandmother’s house is “the old / to-and-fro / / … newly cloaked / in purpose.” Finally, the wolf becomes “a jumble / of hair and teeth.” We see how Armantrout uses language to make the familiar new.
Poetry shouldn’t be easy. It shouldn’t be something you can just skim through. If you can read it in the same way you read prose, then it isn’t really poetry.
What I think people mean when they say, “I just don’t understand it,” is that they don’t know how to read poetry. Contemporary poetry, in particular. Like my coworker, they want to just “get” it as they do prose. But I think they’d find some kind of contemporary poetry they’d enjoy – whether it’s mainstream or avant-garde or a hybrid of both – if they’d only try. They just need a way in.
To read more of Tiffany Monroe’s thoughts, visit Tender Buttons: http://tenderbuttonsonline.wordpress.com/
After completing her AA at Cypress College, Tiffany Monroe earned a BA and an MA in English and an MFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University. Her poetry has been featured in Elephant Tree and quarter after. She also served as co-editor of Elephant Tree and poetry editor of Litterbox Magazine. As a student, she presented at several honors conferences and was the first Chapman graduate student to sit on a panel at the AWP Conference. In addition to reading and writing, she watches far too much television and, slightly, fewer movies. Her love of England has led her across the pond twice where she developed an addiction to PG Tips and a desire to spell things with an extra “u.”