Suggestion — April 11, 2013, 5:15 pm

Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America

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.

This essay will appear in Tony Hoagland’s collection of essays on poetry, forthcoming in 2014 from Graywolf Press.

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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’s books include What Narcissism Means to Me (Graywolf). He teaches at the University of Houston, and through the organization The Five Powers of Poetry.

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  • Wes

    It seems that we still have yet to break ourselves from Plato’s message in the Republic that poetry only serves to arouse the passions of the polis

    • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com/ David J. Bauman

      Excellent suggestion, Wes!

  • thoughtsarefree

    Thank you for writing this article. This is relevant for non-American readers, as well. I feel that the teacher’s failure to guide students into seeing the beauty of poetic language has made studying poetry into an awful bore. I’d include Carolyn Forche’s The Colonel in the list — it’s a powerful poem that resonates with each reading.

    • http://twitter.com/confettifoot confettifoot

      Amazing that you’d say that – I’d just been sitting here thinking the same thing.

  • Zach Mathews

    I agree with the sentiment, but I’m and English teacher in Vancouver and I’m not teaching the old canon described. I teach poems that interest me, that are recent, and that I think my students will like. It’s not much more complicated than that. Also, at least around here, this approach isn’t unique.

    For instance, I typically teach “Heartbeat” by Jose Gonzalez and the students dig it. Then I put on the “The Knife” version and the kids say “wow! Wwwhat is this?” Get them to guess which is the original and you can blow their mind!

    Anyhow, I guess I saying, “come on, give us teachers a little credit!” Hopefully the people teaching Frost are retiring.

    • thoughtsarefree

      Sounds like an interesting lecture! I love both versions of Heartbeats. How do you tackle it?

  • April Ossmann

    Excellent, on-point, beautifully clear, and leavened with characteristic good humor (in both senses), thank you, Tony Hoagland! I will quarrel only with the statement about popular culture:

    • Kathleen Cain

      Ditto on the Princess Di story. Your words echo those of an essay by Camille Paglia (remember her?) on the same topic. The mythology’s constantly being updated.

    • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com/ David J. Bauman

      I love this article for many reasons, and I cheer on Tony Hoagland for even more reasons, but he does have a tendency to overshoot the mark in his passionate enthusiasm. I think you are right here. He says, “Just as junk food mimics nutritious food,fake culture mimics and displaces the position of real myth.” But at the same time supports a poem with a fake flower rather than a real flower. There is beautiful commentary worth discussing, and arguing about, not just about aesthetics, in that piece. I support you, Tony, and I marvel happily that you have this bravery to charge forward into the fray as you do, despite critics among your contemporaries, but your bent toward overstatement sometimes gives them too much ammunition against you.

  • Susan

    Thank you for this essay. Like the commenter from Vancouver below, I teach poetry that interests me and the students, and if at times I feel like abandoning it because of a few students who just won’t come along, there are many, many occasions that remind me poetry does reach people. This essay is one of those occasions, and next time I feel like quitting I will go back to it.

  • julie ann

    So good!

  • will08smith

    Holy ED Hirsch Batman! It’s a wheezy breezy rootin’ tootin’ rebootin’ of the canon!

    And almost complete sanctimonious nonsense. One doesn’t even know where to begin.

    • DrunkenOrangetree

      Maybe one could enlighten us simpletons?

  • will08smith

    Doesn’t this essay presume too much: “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.”

    Dickinson is for sale in every bookstore and Mary Oliver in a smaller number for a reason: ordinary readers buy and read her poetry. It’s almost certainly true that more people in 21st-century America have gone on to read Oliver by first reading Dickinson than the other way around.

    Oliver’s new and selected poems: Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #28,238 in Books.

    Dickinson’s Collected Poems (only one of the dozens of out-of-copyright versions): #8,932 in Books

    • Kathleen Cain

      An interesting point but numbers alone can’t tell the full story. Dickinson’s bound to be required reading in more places than Oliver is, thus more sales. Just sayin’.

  • courtney

    a compelling and terrifically written piece – thanks, Tony.

  • Kathleen Cain

    I appreciate the care and thoughtfulness – as well as the knowledge of poetry – that went into the writing of this article. After teaching genealogy many years ago, I’ve long since thought that poetry (and literature) should be approached the same way: work from what you know back to what you don’t know. I’ve been spoiled, though, in having a chance over the years to work with the fine teachers at the Denver School for the Arts, where daily infusions of poetry are fresh and synergistic and the canon is renewed like spring run-off in a good year; and also to be acquainted with the work of another high school instructor in Lincoln, NE whose slam poetry team just won the state championship (now there’s a team that deserves a full field house and sold-out season tickets for the next 20 years!). With a fellow poet I’m in the process of organizing a round of “conversations” on behalf of a local literary magazine, The Bloomsbury Review. I don’t think it will take much convincing, since my co-facilitator is also a poet, but I hope we can feature your article as a centerpiece for one of our discussions and get those who attend involved in this effort. P.S. I love your audacity to imagine that poems could/can save America. Bravo!

  • Rex

    Perhaps Mr Hoagland (and a few others) should look at Omaha and Lincoln, Nebraska – for two years, the Nebraska Writers Collective, and Louder than a Bomb Nebraska, in affiliation with the enthusiastic support of many high schools in Nebraska, have exploded performance poetry into the classroom and stages here – check out http://ltabomaha.org/ and http://newriters.org/ .. AND, the NE Writers Collective funds trips into the classrooms by Nebraska poets, which produces ENthusiasm for writing, editing, reading, reviewing, and reciting — POETRY ROCKS in Nebraska!!

    • http://dadpoet.wordpress.com/ David J. Bauman

      I’ve seen this in Poetry Out Loud via some of our local schools, and it’s exciting. I do think Tony has some points though, even if he generalizes a bit in his exuberance. We certainly need more changes like what has been happening in Nebraska. Thanks for the great links!

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Christina-Stopka-Rinnert/1168070351 Christina Stopka Rinnert

    Thank you for choosing poems from such a wonderful cross-section of American poetry. Gorgeous article.

  • Charlene

    I don

    • Krystin

      So glad to see someone bring up LTAB and Poetry Out Loud. Here in Alabama, the Poetry Out Loud competition has an original work component as well, which actually does away with any kind of “canon” or “curation” of already-existing poets, at least from the beginning. I think the beauty of this program is that it brings young readers to poetry via the creation of it. As a teacher/coach, my favorite part of POL is looking at a student’s work and giving them recommendations based on what they’ve created. They figure out their own poetic lineage, their own personal canon, who inspired them before they knew they were inspired, who thought and felt and expressed ideas just like them. Not only does this instill a personal commitment and accountability to poetry within the student, I find it is more “American” in nature, that personal journey, culling from a great expanse of time and place. I still “curate” a “canon” for the student in the same way Hoagland has here, except the standards with which I choose poets I think a student will like are geared more towards the student rather than some arbitrary definition of what I think “American” is.

  • tiojo

    Really interesting opening for a discussion! At one point Hoagland mentions the scaffolding of cultural identity. What about the scaffolding of the poem itself? I did not see much discussion here about poetic craft

  • http://www.facebook.com/raymmax Ray Max

    Twenty-First. Night. Monday

    Twenty-first. Night. Monday.
    Silhouette of the capitol in darkness.
    Some good-for-nothing — who knows why–
    made up the tale that love exists on earth.
    People believe it, maybe from laziness
    or boredom, and live accordingly:
    they wait eagerly for meetings, fear parting,
    and when they sing, they sing about love.
    But the secret reveals itself to some,
    and on them silence settles down…
    I found this out by accident
    and now it seems I’m sick all the time.

    Anna Akhmatova

  • DxRachel

    “But largely, c

  • Weldon Goree

    Did I really just read 10 pages about the death of poetry among the young in which hip hop was not mentioned once?

    • DxRachel

      ^ my sentiment, also, but expressed more crisply by you.

  • Marija Liudvika

    The article by Tony Hoagland has refreshed my mind, highlighting American poetry in particular. Thank you.

  • Ken Bullock

    “As for public relations, Yeats said, They do not like poetry; they like something else. But they want to think that
    they like poetry.” ~ Pound, ‘Confucius to Cummings

  • teaching English in Paris

    I will be the first to buy your Anthology of Contemporary American Poetry for the classroom. When will it come out?

  • heyitsgogi

    Why is Tony Hoagland being so awful? The idea that literature should edify or instruct us morally is 19th century era outdated and sadly myopic. Do people pick the five movies everyone in ‘Murica needs to watch to be ‘Murican? Or the ten trees we all need to climb? How about we don’t give people a list of poems they can check off their to-do lists before getting back to office, and instead we all read a lot, and share poems a lot, and not worry too much if we’ve read the right ones or the wrong ones or what ever.

    • DrunkenOrangetree

      Go back and read the essay again.

  • Dee El Bach

    It is sad that poetry seems to be dying, especially in American schools. My sister home schools my niece and as it is a mandate in the curriculum she taught it. I tried to help as I a a poet, however, I believe my sister has allowed her distain for poetry (even though she claims to love songs) to influence her daughter to where she feels the same way at 13 years old.

    I do not recall really having any lessons about poetry until 7th grade in junior high school. Our English teacher taught poetry for a quarter semester. This is when, as a very shy and backward girl, found my voice and my place to belong. In 45 years I have written more poems than I can count and even have one book of poetry published on Amazon. My work ranges from simplistic to involved. However, I have had many tell me that, in general, they do not like poetry, but find something in mine for them them to hold onto.

    Failing to teach our nation’s children this vital genre of creativity will only hinder growth and moral perspective. Had my teacher not taught poetry to my class, I would be completely lost. I would not be the woman I am today.

    National Poetry Writing Month (NaPoWriMo) should be observed in every school around the world to help children to better understand what poetry is all about and develop a deeper understanding for themselves and the world around them. Just a thought.

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