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

( 4 of 10 )

POETRY STIMULATES DARING

At this point, perhaps, you may feel you are on the receiving end of a William Bennett–style sermon on Poetry as Moral Improvement. That intuition is only partially right. Not all of the twenty poems I’ve selected have “instruction” as their agenda. Their usefulness is not so constrained or predictable. Poems are existentially unconventional: though some may look like philosophical fitness equipment, designed for self-improvement, others may look like Siamese cats. Consider, as an example of something unpredictable, the following poem by Kerry Johannsen:

Black People & White People Were Said 

to disappear if we looked at
each other too long
especially the young ones —
especially growing boys & girls
the length of a gaze was
watched sidewise
as a kingsnake
eyeing a copperheadwhile hands
of mothers and fathers gently
tugged their children close
white people & black people were said to
disappear ifbut nobody ever said it
loudnobody said it
at all& nobody ever
talked about where
the ones who didn’t listen
went

Johannsen’s poem helps us to name a feature of the social landscape that every American will recognize; it drags into plain sight, and into our common vision, the mystery of race and the ominous way it plays out in our collective social life. It describes the haunted condition that results from repressed knowledge. Moreover, Johannsen’s poem does not avoid complexity in order to create agreement. It does not accuse or judge or cry out; it speaks from the position neither of the oppressor nor of the victim. The poem’s vocal tone is largely one of wonder, which makes it an unthreatening starting point for conversation about a touchy subject.

Alarmed by the rapid erosion of shared knowledge among Americans, the liberal scholar E. D. Hirsch, Jr. took on the role of cultural correctionist with his best-selling book, Cultural Literacy (1987). Hirsch argued that, without the propagation of a common vocabulary — Benedict Arnold, Sigmund Freud, King Lear, “revenue-ers,” the Cold War, Emmett Till, gerrymandering — the American cultural fabric would fray and fall apart. Indeed, unless we continue to renew and supplement our common intellectual property, we can and will get stupider, less comprehending of one another, more disconnected.

The scaffoldings of cultural identity can be either trivial or profound, toxic or sustaining, ephemeral or lasting. The celebrity culture that seems ubiquitous in our moment is a kind of fake surrogate for the culturally significant place gods and myth once held in the collective imagination. The saga of Princess Di, or Michael Jackson, or Amy Winehouse is a shallow substitute for the story of Persephone, lacking the structure to edify but charismatic to many people nonetheless. Just as junk food mimics nutritious food, fake culture mimics and displaces the position of real myth. Real culture cultivates our ability to see, feel, and think. It is empowering. Fake culture makes us passive, materialistic, and tranced-out.

Culturally important artworks establish new benchmarks of relevance, break icons, embody new recognitions for a people and a time. “Diving into the Wreck,” Citizen Kane, “Prufrock,” Glengarry Glen Ross. In poetry, as in other art forms, some works are of significance for cultural reasons, some for aesthetic. Both categories are legitimate, and, of course, they sometimes overlap. Artworks may sometimes lose their shape and resonance, their intensity and relevance, in five years, or ten, or fifty — and what’s wrong with that? The relative value of the “immortal” and the “contemporary” has been the subject of many intellectual battles, but why can’t these categories coexist?

The idealized America envisioned by Hirsch — one shored up by the deliberate revival of old and new traditions — would be one in which poems were part of the civility and pleasure of the dining table, in which guests and hosts staged impromptu readings, in which poems could usefully and naturally be worked into a conversation about anything at all. Is such a culture so far from possible?

More from Tony Hoagland:

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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.

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