The Problem(s) with “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America”
Essay by Jacob Victorine
Let me first point out the obvious: Tony Hoagland is an award winning, established writer who has been crafting poems since before I was born. I, on the other hand, am a twenty-seven-year-old poet who has yet to receive my MFA (only a month away!), still getting my feet wet within the academic poetry community. With that said, I would like to explore some of the issues I see with Hoagland’s recent essay in Harper’s Magazine, entitled “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America: Imagining a renewed role for poetry in the national discourse — and a new canon.”
Over the course of the essay, Hoagland laments that the “fierce life force of contemporary American poetry never made it through the metal detector of the public-school system,” that “real live American poetry is absent from our public schools.” His solution is quite simple: that we (he) create an updated canon of twenty American poems to be taught as a “national core curriculum.” He then goes on to name and defend a twenty-poem list (of his creation), each offering a lesson or message that students can carry beyond the classroom and into the future. This intention seems all well and good, but it is also a vast oversimplification of poetry, history, and the current place of poetry within America and the American public school system.
For starters, Hoagland completely ignores the work of spoken word and slam in and around the public school system over the past fifteen to twenty years. Instead, he chooses to indulge his own personal nostalgia and paint the 1970’s (a time when he was a young man) as an almost-breakthrough point for poetry. In fact, one of my first access points to poetry came in 2003 through the slam and spoken word unit that my high school teacher, and poet, Emily Moore, taught in her poetry class at Stuyvesant High School. Moreover, I can say for certain that I wasn’t the only teenager drawn to poetry through performance, because at the time, my classmate, Ed Chen, was slamming at The Nuyorican Poets’ Café on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. And this was nearly ten years ago! I might have been lucky then, but nowadays spoken word and slam are a significant (if not smallish) part of American high school culture.
Just look at my current city, Chicago, where Louder Than a Bomb has been operating since 2001. For those unfamiliar, LTAB (as it’s commonly known) is an annual youth poetry slam developed by the organization Young Chicago Authors. A number of high schools in the Chicago area have actual slam teams, and the Young Chicago Author’s website even offers guidelines on how students can start an LTAB team if their high school doesn’t already have one. In fact, LTAB has been so successful that it has garnered a documentary film, and has spread to places such as the DMV (District of Columbia/Maryland/Virginia). This is not to mention Youth Speaks, another poetry organization (founded in 1996 in San Francisco), which holds a national youth slam that has grown large enough to earn a 2009 series and a 2010 special on HBO, both entitled Brave New Voices. There is also America SCORES (where I worked as a poetry coach for a year and a half), a non-profit organization that promotes fitness and literacy in a number of US cities through an after-school program, which combines poetry and soccer. (I’m sure there are many more noteworthy organizations that I could and should mention, but I’ll move on for the sake of brevity.)
|Patricia Smith. Credit: Andrew Miller, The Star Ledger|
The second issue I see with Hoagland’s essay is that he chooses poems written by poets who are, for the most part, either dead or elder-states-people, specifically after arguing for an updated canon (a bit ironic, no?). I love Muriel Rukeyser (especially her “Book of the Dead” from U.S. 1), but I did not fully engage with her work until after reading collections that operate within a similar (yet current) poetic spectrum, such as A. Van Jordan’s Macnolia, Mark Nowak’s Coal Mountain Elementary, and Patricia Smith’s Blood Dazzler, just to name a few. If we’re going to truly update the canon, shouldn’t we offer a range of poets who represent the current ethnic, aesthetic, political, etc. landscape of American poetry? I’m dismayed that Hoagland didn’t consider someone such as Naomi Shihab Nye, a poet whose work offers a similar political and social scope and weight as Rukeyser’s, or someone like Terrance Hayes, a youngish poet (at 41-years-old) whose work is formally innovative, socially aware, and often offers accessible narratives. Or yet still, poets such as Patricia Smith or Patrick Rosal who embrace performance and craft poems that resonate both on and off the page. To be blunt, Hoagland’s list, for the most part, looks very old, very white, and very academic.
Furthermore, Hoagland claims part of the challenge in teaching poetry in the public school classroom is that teachers “lack not only confidence in their ability to teach poetry but also confidence in their ability to read poetry.” I would agree with this sentiment (for the most part), but instead of discussing how we can offer teachers (and others outside the academic poetry community) accessible ways to read poems, he simply makes a “national core curriculum” that narrows poetry to the narrative scope of traditional prose. Most poets (I would hope) recognize that a poem (even a narrative one) cannot and should not be minimized to “aboutness.” A poem is sight and syntax and rhyme and rhythm and image, and still, much more; it is the feel the words make in the mouth when read aloud and the way they echo in the ear when heard. Hoagland reduces poems to digestible lessons students can take with them, instead of engaging poems as material art.
Even in a kindergarten arts and crafts class, the teacher does not simplify painting or drawing or sculpting to what the artwork “is.” Instead, teachers engage their students in the process of creating something, so they (hopefully) understand the “finished” object is more than a product. When I was in public school I don’t remember a teacher ever pointing to a painting and simply asking the class what it was “about.” If we show teachers (and students) that language is not just narrative meaning but physical material, we break open the door that limits the public’s understanding of much of the current poetic landscape. Not only that, but we also offer a tool to poke holes in the racist/classist misnomer that Edited American English (EAE) is the only correct or proper form of English, instead of what it really is: a standard. How empowering would it be for a young African American student to have her teacher acknowledge the ability of African American Vernacular English (AAVE) to communicate just as well as EAE? Or a Mexican American student to have a teacher tell him that writing in Spanish and English offers a play of sound and symbol that a single language cannot? And so on.
I understand what I’m asking for is not simple or easy, but why should we look for the simple and easy solution to education? Has national and statewide standardized testing truly helped the teaching of English? Shouldn’t we attempt to offer poetry to public school teachers and students as what so many writers know it is: another mode for operating in and engaging with the word and the world around us?
I know I don’t offer definitive answers to the issues Hoagland identifies, and I honestly don’t believe definitive answers exist. However, I do believe the programs I mention have already begun to make poetry more accessible—and will continue to do so. I believe small acts, such as poets returning to their grade schools or high schools to teach occasional workshops (as I have done at my alma mater the past four years), also offer students a bridge. Finally, although I disagree with many of Hoagland’s proposals, I too believe that opening and entering the discussion of poetry and education through writing is another way to make our beloved art form more accessible.
|Justin Woo and Jacob Victorine performing at the 2011 National Poetry Slam in Cambridge MA.
Credit: Mark Skrzypczak
Jacob Victorine is a performance poet and MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. Nominated for a 2013 Pushcart Prize, his poems appear or are forthcoming in places such as DIALOGIST, Columbia Poetry Review, Phantom Limb, PANK and Muzzle Magazine,for which he also writes book reviews.