What Does This Poem Mean?: On the Politics of Core Knowledge and Reading Instruction

While I am skeptical of nostalgia, the mostly vapid good-old-days approach to anything, I want to return to my high school teaching years, mostly pre-Internet and smart phone years throughout the 1980s and 1990s.

One of the best parts of teaching English was forming bonds with students over popular music. Gradually, in fact, my entire poetry unit was grounded in the music of R.E.M., the alternative group based in Athens, GA.

R.E.M. achieved immediate critical success with their first album, Murmur, and then were college rock stars throughout the 1980s, with popular stardom coming more than a decade after they formed.

What made R.E.M. particularly fascinating for my students and me was that they typically did not release the lyrics for their earliest albums, and thus, we would spend hours listening and trying to figure out just what Michael Stipe was saying. In fact, some early jabs at R.E.M. referred to Murmur as Mumbles since Stipe had a signature way of being terribly unclear.

I can still recall wrestling with “You Are the Everything”—students puzzled by “eviscerate” and all of us thrown by “With your teeth in your mouth.”

The beauty of all this for me as a teacher of poetry was that we had to work diligently first on the what, the literal, of the lyrics before we could begin trying to tackle meaning.

Too often, I found, students felt compelled (a really flawed lesson learning in school) to jump immediately to “this song/poem means” without taking any care to read the poem literally first.

Ultimately, investigating poetry was yet more efforts at learning to read, a behavior that is always in a state of emerging (despite the technocratic view that we can reach proficiency).

These memories came to me when I read Carol Black’s excellent Twitter thread:

Black carefully and powerfully unpacks and discredits the E.D. Hirsch Core Knowledge argument about reading that is compelling to those so-called experts outside of literacy and especially to the media, politicians, and textbook publishers.

As Black details, the argument that some core or essential knowledge exists in an objective apolitical way falls apart once you unpack how facts are presented and, more importantly, who determines what knowledge matters.

A disturbing example of Black’s critique immediately surfaced, also on Twitter:

This example of whitewashing slavery further exposes that no knowledge is value neutral and that the details of knowledge are far less important than confronting the authority behind what knowledge counts as fact or true.

So let me return to my students and me trying to decipher Stipe’s mumbling so that we could start to imagine what those wonderful songs meant.

The essential flaw of Core Knowledge arguments is that it promotes the passive acquisition of knowledge (what Paulo Freire criticized as the “banking concept” of teaching and learning) instead of the interrogation of knowledge, the domain of critical literacy.

Yes, we listened to the songs over and over so that we could as a community create the text, and we also scoured the music press for any and everything we could find from the band members about those lyrics, especially anything Stipe might reveal.

And we also built knowledge about the band and Stipe himself to provide context for those interpretations. Once Peter Buck said his favorite line from Monster was “Oh, my kiss breath turpentine,” explaining that it didn’t mean anything, but sounded great.

In other words, lyrics, as Stipe also explained at some point, were a way for Stipe’s voice to be another instrument in the song, not necessarily always about coherent meaning in the traditional use of text.

We were not acquiring knowledge, but interrogating an audio text in an effort to discover and uncover meaning, even as that meaning was tentative.

Recently, Bertis Downs, long-time lawyer for R.E.M., posted “Photograph” to social media, where I listened again and read along to the lyrics:

Always a favorite song of mine, including the beautiful accompaniment of Natalie Merchant, I was struck this time by the lines: “Was she willing when she sat/And posed a pretty photograph.” The “willing” speaks to the #MeToo era in a way I had not noticed many years ago.

As well, this song reminded me of Margaret Atwood’s “This Is a Photograph of Me,” which I taught for many years in A.P. Literature.

As an entry point to think deeply about consent, the song has new meaning, a meaning that works beyond the text and resonates because of a changing time and new social awareness.

All text meaning is political, communal, and tentative—not a fixed or objective truth.

And then, Atwood’s poem always posed tremendous challenges for students. In short, the ambiguity of the poem was an ideal way to help students learn to ask questions as a pursuit of meaning, instead of looking for the meaning.

Other than being in lines and stanzas, the poem achieves its poetic form without many of the traditional elements students expect (rhyme, for example). Further, the poem’s second section in parenthesis asks readers to consider the implications of punctuation as that contributes to meaning.

“(The photograph was taken/ the day after I drowned” opens that section and immediately challenges the reader with the literal problem since the photograph appears to be of the lake: “I am in the lake, in the center/ of the picture, just under the surface.”

Moving from R.E.M.’s song to Atwood’s poem and then, for example, adding Stevie Smith’s “Not Waving but Drowning” builds for students a body of problematic texts that warrants investigation, and not simple knowledge acquisition.

These three texts certainly are better read when the reader is more knowledgeable, but let’s not misread “knowledgeable.”

To be well read, in fact, is having had many experiences interrogating text and knowledge which is also the process of acquiring knowledge.

The more R.E.M. I listened to, the better I read those songs. The more Atwood I read, the more I understood Atwood (her word play, her misdirection).

What does this poem mean?—this becomes a journey and not a destination, an interrogation, not a proclamation.

Black’s dismantling the Core Knowledge propaganda about learning to read, then, pulls back the curtain on how Core Knowledge advocates are themselves serving an unspoken politics by taking on a faux veneer of apolitical essential knowledge.

Unintended I am sure, Atwood’s poem itself speaks to this as well:

the effect of water
on light is a distortion

but if you look long enough,
eventually
you will be able to see me.)

Let us invite our students to “look long enough,” beyond the “distortion,” so that they will “be able to see.”

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Make America Great, Finally?: The Archeology of White People (Redux)

America has never been great. Including now.

The problem with such a claim is that a blanket statement  leaves too much room to discredit the argument, and of course, we must all agree on the definition of “great.”

Large-scale evidence that America has never been great is obvious: slavery, lynching, the Japanese internment, the Trail of Tears, the Tulsa massacre, and the bloody litany of mass and school shootings that characterize America in a way distinct from all other democracies.

At any moment in the history of the US, what can be called “great” for any group of people, when unpacked, can be exposed as the consequence of some other people’s suffering. It has always benefitted the winners in the US to keep everyone’s eyes on the winning so that we can conveniently ignore the necessary losing.

That is part of the message in Ursula K. Le Guin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas.”

That is what I confronted in the last stanza of my poem “the archeology of white people“:

Ignore the body in the road
we whisper in their tiny innocent ears
Isn’t that golden car spectacular?

In F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, America is great for Tom and Daisy, but if we refuse to look the other way, that comes at the expense of Myrtle, ripped apart and dead in the road; of George, dead at his own hand; and of Gatsby, perversely shot in his opulent pool.

This is America: “the wreck and not the story of the wreck/the thing itself and not the myth” (“Diving into the Wreck,” Adrienne Rich).

Or as Langston Hughes’s speaker challenges: “(America never was America to me.)”—the too often ignored voice of those who live the fact of America not being great.

To rally around “Make America Great Again” is a perversion of hope; it is delusion.

Delusion is not the result of a lack of knowledge, but a refusal to listen, to see because you are driven deaf and blind by a fear of acknowledging the truths that refute your beliefs.

The delusion of clinging to guns, instruments of death, as a symbol for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

On social media, I witness this daily—those for whom proof and evidence mean nothing, those who shout the loudest, know the least, and listen not at all.

While there is no credible greatness to recapture in America, I do not deny yet the possibility of greatness. In fact, I can rally myself around “Make America Great, Finally.”

Greatness is certainly a worthy aspiration, although that too requires that we agree on exactly what “great” is.

Let me pose two examples we may want to follow.

Teachers in West Virginia, a right-to-work (non-union) state, have demonstrated a quest for greatness by recognizing and then acting on the power of striking. If citizens would more commonly recognize and then act on the power of mobilized groups with common interests, unresponsive government and political leadership could be eradicated in the name of the greatness we claim to seek.

Students across the US, prompted by Parkland, Florida students, have also demonstrated the potential for the powerless to organize and assert power with the nation-wide walk outs demanding action on gun control. Even before the walk out, student activism had prompted large corporations to change gun sale policies without any policy changes from political leaders.

WV teachers without the legal right to strike along with children and teens with almost no direct political power have demonstrated that power exists where it appears absent and that greatness springs from community and not individual zeal, not necessarily reduced to a zero-sum gain.

The choice in the US does not have to be between Daisy and Myrtle, in fact.

That American dream is only a dream for some because it is a nightmare for many.

There is nothing great about wealth or the wealthy; there is nothing great about coaxing most Americans to develop the grit to overcome adversity.

Great is the absence of poverty, not the presence of wealth.

Great is the absence of adversity, not the presence of grit.

Teachers in WV and students all across the nation have played great first hands.

Your turn.

 

Ah, Love: A Reader

UPDATE: Love Poems Are Dead, Morgan Parker

Snow, Mary Ruefle

The Cinnamon Peeler, Michael Ondaatje

[i carry your heart with me(i carry it in], e.e. cummings

[love is more thicker than forget], e.e. cummings

Twenty-One Love Poems [(The Floating Poem, Unnumbered)], Adrienne Rich

Twenty-One Love Poems [Poem II], Adrienne Rich

Variations On The Word Love, Margaret Atwood

Wild Nights—Wild Nights! (249), Emily Dickinson

Knee Song, Anne Sexton

Parting, Jorge Luis Borges

Guilt, Desire, and Love, James Baldwin

Pyramid Scheme, Hera Lindsay Bird

This Is Just to Say, William Carlos Williams

Be Mine, R.E.M.

Lucky You, The National

Gospel, The National

City Middle, The National

You said “I think I’m like Tennessee Williams”
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in
I think I’m like Tennessee Williams
I wait for the click. I wait, but it doesn’t kick in

The Stuff of Poetry: My First Good Cry of 2018

Poet Tara Skuru, The Amoeba Game, posted her “Morning Love Poem” as a gift for the new year:

I responded that it brought my first good cry of 2018, and she shared a nugget about how the poem came to be:

The poem and exchange prompted more from me:

Teaching poetry can include focusing on poem analysis, using the poem as a model text for understanding poetry (what makes a poem, a poem?), or fostering poetry composing (how to write poetry).

In all of those contexts as a teacher and poet, I strive to help students unlearn their misconceptions about poetry while helping them become comfortable with the far more nuanced elements of understanding form, genre, and mode that contribute to being able to read or write well any writing form.

Skurtu’s “Morning Love Poem” is both a lovely poem and an ideal model for teaching poetry because it demonstrates the stuff of poetry that students often miss.

In an interview, Jason Reynolds confronts some of the essential aspects of that stuff of poetry:

One of my favorite poets is Countee Cullen, and he only wrote in tight form. But it’s powerful stuff. It hits you, every single one. And I think of Lucille Clifton who wrote these really short poems. She was the master of brevity. You may get five or six lines but it’s a gut punch. It may not be a particular structure like a sonnet or a sestina, but that also doesn’t mean that when structure doesn’t have a name it’s not structure. The danger in talking about free verse the way we normally do, we typically don’t complicate the structure of free verse. What it does is it strips the poet of agency and decision-making. There is a structure. That poet chose to break a line here or add a stanza. To punctuate or not punctuate. And that constitutes the structure of that piece.

About the common “fear (or intimidation) of poetry,” Reynolds explains “[i]t comes from the over-intellectualization of poetry from the classics,” adding:

It’s all over-intellectualized. But I think that the poet has always been seen as the intellect of the literary community. The poets were supposed to be the scribes of all the things. The poets were the leaders of the literary community for a very, very long time. And so, I think it just comes from the echelon this BS caste system that’s carried over. I think it’s that nonsense on top of racism, which is always there, on top of the undervaluing or de-valuing of diverse voices. The truth is Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool” should be considered a classic. “We Real Cool” is familiar, it’s accessible. It’s interesting.

Skurtu’s poem as a model for the stuff detailed by Reynolds is a powerful way to help students as readers or writers of poetry—coming to understand and embrace that poetry comes from poet purpose and not from some mechanical analysis, the over-intellectualizing too often common in English courses.

For students, “Morning Love Poem” upon first glance probably triggers their awareness of what a poem looks like (lines and stanzas), but their student-urge likely soon hits a wall against the mechanistic ways they have been taught—looking for narrow sorts of patterns in line/stanza formation, meter, rhyme, etc.

Yes, poetry tends to be grounded in purposeful line/stanza formation, and it depends heavily on pattern. But some of the most compelling poetry is driven by voice, concision, and a poet’s craft to render the language in a way that appears simple (as if anyone could have written it). Think Lucille CliftonGwendolyn Brooks, and Maggie Smith. Or even William Carlos Williams.

In just 14 lines, Skurtu creates a layered story (a couple and both a dream and their reality) and powerfully explores a bittersweet and enduring thing of being human: “It’s hard to say I need you enough.”

Students are well served to contemplate that this could just as easily have been a short story, or even a short film. But Skurtu chose poem, and that makes all the difference.

The line formation and stanzas guide the reader, influence the reading, and then, her diction (word choice) drives the concision: “cracked,” “nose-dived,” “poison,” and as she noted herself “get wet” (two simple three-letter words that rhyme)

And here, I think, is where over-intellectualizing, as Reynolds argues, raises its ugly head. Students become mired in mechanical and simplistic technique-hunts, but they also have (mis)learned that poetry is hard, inaccessible, something to be solved like an arcane puzzle (5000 pieces all blue).

But even when poetry is challenging, possibly inaccessible—think Wallace Stevens—the reductive ways students have come to think about poetry fails them; consider “[if seventy were young]” by e.e. cummings (yes, challenging).

Students can begin to play with how cummings uses pattern in unexpected ways—the dashes, the teasing with rhyme (see also Emily Dickinson), space and colons, wordplay and sound.

cummings becomes more accessible, in fact, if we resist over-intellectualizing, and choose instead to play along with him as readers.

Ultimately, I want students to recognize that, for example, Skurtu’s poem is rich with story (plot, setting, and character) and that it works because of concrete details, the triggering of the senses that Flannery O’Connor called for in the writing of fiction.

In other words, we read poetry not to calculate what the poem means but to share with the poet, often, what we feel, what we intuit possibly in ways that cannot be articulated beyond recognizing that the words shaped on a page are so beautifully bittersweet (“All the moments/we stop ourselves”) that we are looking at them through spontaneous tears.