- Countering the Pedagogy of Regression
Poets on Teaching: A Sourcebook is an odd duck — part dabbling, part diving, both eclectic and typical by turns. As a teacher, I generally look forward to books offering new ways to think about the presentation of poetry in the classroom. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of my old battered copy of Robin Behn’s The Practice of Poetry (1992), both from direct appropriation of the exercises therein and through instigation to invent similarly effective prompts and pitches, at all levels of the game, from middle school to graduate school. The Practice of Poetry is now nearly twenty years old. Despite a glut in poetry publishing (as in every other field), very few general-purpose books with a practical focus on teaching verse and verse writing have appeared since The Practice of Poetry first landed on my desk in 1992.
In this regard alone, I was excited to see a new book tackle the subject head-on, and this by a young writer and editor whose work I admire. Wilkinson has been on my reading list since his first book of poems, Lug Your Careless Body Out of the Careful Dusk (2006), won the Iowa Poetry Prize. As this title suggests, his poetry is both sensitive and wieldy — its sympathies experimental, yet grounded in sentence-making, the dream-sounds of sense. [End Page 609] He has also edited, with Christina Mengert, a 2009 anthology titled 12 x 12: Conversations in Twenty-First-Century Poetry and Poetics. While not quite the companion to Robert Hass’s probing Twentieth Century Pleasures (1984) or Randall Jarrell’s Poetry and the Age (1953), 12 x 12 exhibits Wilkinson’s editorial preferences for the avant-garde, for so-called “difficult” poetry, for a poetry of social and political engagement, as well as his ear for the era-defining phrase.
All of which is well and good. Poetry is a conversation that drifts — rightly so — in many directions. I count among my favorites included in this new compendium poets from Rae Armantrout to Andrew Zawacki. As a “source book,” however, Poets on Teaching is something of a disappointment. This collection of a hundred or so fairly short essays on “approaches to teaching poetry” is skewed toward the theoretical. It has more in common with Poetry and Pedagogy (2006), Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr’s more intensive collection of essays addressing difficult, experimental poetry in the classroom, than with The Practice of Poetry. Teachers looking for practical suggestions and exercises will find a handful of inventive, useful techniques and suggestions, primarily in the second section, titled “Exercises/Praxis.” Would that the whole thing were so titled and executed. Wilkinson’s anthology seems caught between a sulky, post-MFA academic crowd still debating the legitimacy of their degrees and thoughtful, congregationalist approaches to setting up shop in the classroom. It is, as such, a mixed grab bag: open the book at random, and you may land on a delightful exercise for introducing poetry to beginners (Rae Armantrout) or more fodder for disputation in graduate school seminar rooms (Joyelle McSweeney and Johannes Göransson), which seems to me a missed opportunity. The world (read: blogosphere) is full of theoretical championing of one variety and another. Useful, playful, practical handbooks remain a rarity. Poets on Teaching scratches an itch but comes up short as durable salve.
Why critique a book for being something it perhaps never set out to be? In his introduction, Wilkinson cites an interview he conducted with Tyrone Williams about the challenges of teaching experimental poetry. Williams says:
The first thing most people want to do — given the way we are trained in our educational system — is to figure out a poem’s “meaning.” I tell them to look for patterns, for forms, for the internal logic of the poem. Those old standbys — alliteration, assonance, rhythm, etc. — come in handy. Pedagogically [End Page 610] I’m trying to do a kind of regression, to get them to shed years of reading habits, to return to a kind of play and...