Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America
Imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse — and a new canon
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Imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse — and a new canon
What went wrong? Somehow, we blew it. We never quite got poetry inside the American school system, and thus, never quite inside the culture. Many brave people have tried, tried for decades, are surely still trying. The most recent watermark of their success was the introduction of Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg and some e.e. cummings, of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “In a Station of the Metro” — this last poem ponderously explained, but at least clean and classical, as quick as an inoculation. It isn’t really fair to blame contemporary indifference to poetry on “Emperor of Ice-Cream.” Nor is it fair to blame Wallace Stevens himself, who also left us, after all, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” a poem that will continue to electrify and intrigue far more curious young minds than are anesthetized by a bad day of pedagogy on the Ice Cream Poem. Let us blame instead the stuffed shirts who took an hour to explain that poem in their classrooms, who chose it because it would need an explainer; pretentious ponderous ponderosas of professional professors will always be drawn to poems that require a priest.
Still, we have failed. The fierce life force of contemporary American poetry never made it through the metal detector of the public-school system. In the Seventies, our hopes seemed justified; those Simon and Garfunkel lyrics were being mimeographed and discussed by the skinny teacher with the sideburns, Mr. Ogilvy, who was dating the teacher with the miniskirt and the Joan Baez LPs (“Students, you can call me Brenda”). Armed with the poems of Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Richard Brautigan, fifteen-year-olds were writing their first Jim Morrison lyrics, their Kerouacian chants to existential night.
But it never took. We flunked. We backslid.
Sure, there would always be those rare kids who got it anyway; who got, really got “We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!,” got it because they were old souls, preternaturally, precociously alert to the pitfalls of grown-up life, the legion opportunities for self-betrayal, the army of counterfeit values surrounding them. They were the ones who memorized “Dover Beach” and throatily recited it to their sweethearts, in the back seat of a Chevrolet on the night of junior prom, and then once more for select friends at the after-party.
But largely, c’mon — you and I both know — real live American poetry is absent from our public schools. The teaching of poetry languishes, and that region of youthful neurological terrain capable of being ignited and aria’d only by poetry is largely dark, unpopulated, and silent, like a classroom whose door is unopened, whose shades are drawn.
This is more than a shame, for poetry is our common treasure-house, and we need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling about the human condition and its imaginative exhibitions of linguistic freedom, which confront the general culture’s more grotesque manipulations. We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its previews of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak.
I have met, over the years, many remarkable English teachers, God bless them, who make poetry vivid and real to their students — but they are the exception. By far the majority of language-arts teachers feel lost when it comes to poetry. They themselves were never initiated into its freshness and vitality. Thus they lack not only confidence in their ability to teach poetry but also confidence in their ability to read poetry! And, unsurprisingly, they don’t know which poems to teach.
The first part of the fix is very simple: the list of poems taught in our schools needs to be updated. We must make a new and living catalogue accessible to teachers as well as students. The old chestnuts — “The Road Not Taken,” “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” “Do not go gentle into that good night” — great, worthy poems all — must be removed and replaced by poems that are not chestnuts. This refreshing of canonical content and tone will vitalize teachers and students everywhere, and just may revive our sense of the currency and relevance of poetry. Accomplish that, and we can renew the conversation, the teaching, everything.
But, I hear some protest, aren’t the old poems good enough? Aren’t great poems enduring in their worth and perennial in their appeal? Love, death, strife, joy, loneliness — aren’t these the recurrent, always-relevant subject matter of our shared songs? In catering to the tastes of the present, wouldn’t we be lowering the caliber of the art we present to our youth? Isn’t this a capitulation to a superficial culture and the era of disposability?
Such questions are beside the point, since poetry is not being transmitted from one generation to the next. The cultural chain has been broken, as anyone paying attention knows. Moreover, the written word always needs renewal. Art must be recast continually. “Dover Beach” and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” are not lost, but instead are being rewritten again and again, a hundred times for each new generation. Culture is always reanimating itself, and when it does so, it validates, reorganizes, and reinvigorates the past as well as the present.
If anthologies were structured to represent the way that most of us actually learn, they would begin in the present and “progress” into the past. I read Lawrence Ferlinghetti before I read D. H. Lawrence before I read Thomas Wyatt. Once the literate appetite is whetted, it will keep turning to new tastes. A reader who first falls in love with Billy Collins or Mary Oliver is likely then to drift into an anthology that includes Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy.
The second part of the fix is rather more complicated: in addition to rebooting the American poetic canon as a whole, we must establish a kind of national core curriculum, a set of poems held in common by our students and so by our citizens. In the spirit of boosterism, I have selected twenty works I believe worthy of inclusion in this curriculum — works I believe could empower us with a common vocabulary of stories, values, points of reference. The brief explications and justifications I offer below for nine of these poems are not meant to foreclose the interpretive possibilities that are part of a good poem’s life force. Rather, I hope they will point to areas worthy of cultivation in that mysterious inner space, the American mind.
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“Shelby is waiting for something. He himself does not know what it is. When it comes he will either go back into the world from which he came, or sink out of sight in the morass of alcoholism or despair that has engulfed other vagrants.”