Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Poetry I Students: Insane?

I’ve heard it said that one definition of insanity is when an individual does the same thing repeatedly but expects different results each time. This expression essentially sums up the actions and expectations of about three-quarters of my 203 students. Every week these students submit poems that exhibit precisely the same errors and shortcomings that I have hammered them for time and again: “Don’t end-rhyme,” “Don’t omit punctuation,” “Don’t end lines on prepositions or articles,” “Don’t end-stop every line,” “Don’t tell, show,” “There’s no use of imagery anywhere in this poem—why?” “Don’t assume the reader knows as much as you do about the dramatic situation,” “What is the dramatic situation?” “This is not a narrative poem,” “Don’t write poems only your mama/grandma/girlfriend/etc. are going to care about or understand,” and so on. I could extend this list by a factor of 3, at least, believe you me.

It has gotten to the point where I spend a lot of time critiquing about five students’ poems, and the rest I generally write something like: Again, there’s no clear dramatic situation, no use of imagery, and I can find no discernible reason why a reader should care about this poem at all. Revise accordingly. Sometimes I don’t even give them that much; instead, I simply circle the entire poem and write “NO”. That may sound unduly harsh, but when you spend several hours each and every week commenting on twenty-two poems and, midway through the semester, you’ve still not seen any discernible effort to improve, it is easy to become short-tempered and downright cynical with your comments. For instance, here’s an excerpt from a student poem in the FINAL packet of the semester (which means this student has already submitted at least 14 poems thus far):

In the same ocean where we swam,

15 feet long, over 1,000 pounds.

Menacing eyes

dark and cold.

Rows of razor sharp teeth,

some the size of my hand.

The ultimate weapon,

the ultimate predator,

the hammerhead shark.

There are only seven more lines to the poem, which I’ll spare you, but suffice it to say that they don’t come close to redeeming those first nine. Now, I’m not suggesting that the student who wrote this should be writing quality (i.e., literary) poetry, by any means. But at this point in the semester, s/he should be composing narrative poems that have a very clear, concrete dramatic situation, and which attempt to employ a more sophisticated grasp of sensory imagery than “dark and cold.”

That s/he isn’t doing these things wouldn’t bother me so much if s/he represented an exception to the majority instead of the majority itself. And I would gladly take responsibility for this trend if I thought it was merely an issue of my not providing them with appropriate instruction regarding the craft of poetry or not giving them quality examples of contemporary poetry that illustrate aspects of craft, but that’s not the case. (Which isn’t to suggest that I’m some kind of badass poetry instructor, because I know that isn’t true, either.) And yet, week after week, they turn in more of the same. So the question I keep asking myself, then, is: Are these students insane? Or are they simply so little invested in the course that they don’t much give a damn one way or the other? The answer is probably the latter, of course, but sometimes I strongly suspect the former—if only because being insane makes more sense to me when all that is ultimately required to get an A in the course is material proof of having made an effort.


techsophist said...

This is one reason why using the Wallace and Bouisseau text for all sections of 203 is such a good idea. It will make Poetry a real subject to your students rather than a heartfelt hobby. I honestly think that because so few students have read good poetry pre-203, they really think the poem handouts you give are...well, it's hard to say exactly what they think, but it's not along the lines of "These poems are fabulous because they are doing certain technical things very, very well, things that I should recognize and try to emulate." No, it's possible they think Berryman's your cousin and he handed those poems to you on the way to Starbucks and that being published in Poetry magazine is the same as winning the local poetry slam. Now with a textbook and reading/writing assignments based on concepts, poetry becomes a subject to be learned, something real to them, like Physics. No one argues with the laws of physics because they interfere with how that person "feels" about them, and reading, understanding, and producing excellent (or even just good) poetry is just as exacting as Physics while being more difficult to define. Yes, I think Poetry is harder than Physics.

BeardedFury said...

I appreciate the good comment, techsophist. You're argument for the standardized use of the B/W text almost convinces me that it's the right thing to do. (I'm just ribbing ya, of course.) Mostly I just wanted to say that, though your point about the handouts is both valid and duly noted, I would never actually introduce 203 students to Berryman--or at least not to his Dream Songs. Can you imagine the kind of stuff they'd try to pass off as poetry with Berryman as a model? Their stuff might start looking like my stuff, only better, and that wouldn't do me any good at all. Hee hee!

The Typist said...

As a teacher of a creative writing class, I can understand the frustration of preparing handouts, discussing readings, and providing copious amounts of written notation on student writing, only to have some students not actually incorporate the lessons that they've been given (in the case of my particular students, they just don't show up for class, hence they're not in class to learn from activities and discussions). The best way to approach this situation might be to simply ask your students why they haven't incorporated these changes in their writing. Be upfront and ask them to defend their writing as an artistic product. Ask them to explain why their poems are "good." You can use this opportunity to show them the holes in their understanding of poetry and the different elements of craft that are absolutely necessary for their writing. I'll also say that some students aren't that good at taking straight-up honesty when it comes to critiques of their own work. However, that shouldn't be a valid excuse for them considering how detailed and thorough your commentary on their work is. It's not like you're going out of your way to say they're bad writers; you're just showing them the flaws in their writing in order to help them improve. They should be able to tell the difference.

LBusby said...

Good God someone invoked the name of BERRYMAN!! Run for the cover and your closest bridge, throw a sheet over your head, and pray to Henry that the Lord don't come raining down on your poor head!

Seriously though, I feel the biggest barrier to get through with 203 students is that it is a General Education course. Which has it's pros and cons, but mostly a large volume of students think it's an easy A, "I can write like Dr. Seuess and you'll never convince me otherwise." But for me the joy is in those one or two students that really "get" it. Or at least as much as one can "get" it in an introductory course. When a student embraces the narrative structure, I'm sure bells ring in Berryman's Heaven...

Animalistics said...

I saw that poem in POETRY last month. The kid who wrote it was on the cover holding up a real hammerhead he'd caught in the very same ocean in which we swim. It was amazing.

I didn't make it past 503 as an undergrad (my emphasis was short fiction), but I think this applicable to the goings on of English 110, as well. I think that you just have to keep pounding away at the lessons you want them to take. I know when I was an undergrad in my first short fiction class, I didn't understand shit, either, but one day, after my teacher had said the same things to me time after time, it clicked. And I mean everything clicked. A literal light bulb turned on inside my head and shot the most annoying yellow light you've ever seen in your life straight out of my ears and nostrils. My roommate at the time was pissed! But from that day on, I loved writing. I soaked up all the criticism and comments I could, because I finally understood. I hope there's a switch in every student, and thought it may not get flipped this semester and you may not be the one to trigger it, you're definitely stacking up the phone books to help someone else reach it.

BeardedFury said...

"I saw that poem in POETRY last month. The kid who wrote it was on the cover holding up a real hammerhead he'd caught in the very same ocean in which we swim. It was amazing."

That shit is funny, old boy. And I appreciate your anecdote and phone book metaphor: it lends some sweet to the otherwise bitter taste I get sometimes.

jenmurvinedwards said...

i can totally relate to this post after teaching 215 this semester. after the first round of workshopping, i had students do a freewrite in class, part of which was a response to the question, "what comments from the workshop will you use in revising your short story? how do you decide which comments to take to heart and which to ignore, if any?" i had a few students actually say that they would take no comments into consideration (except mine, of course, though i don't know how sincere this was) because, and i'm quoting, "i really think people are stupid and not used to reading this kind of thing and they just couldn't understand what was going on in the story." i had two other students pretty much articulate the same thing, though less abruptly. just goes to show, no matter how well you present or teach, sometimes people just think they know better.