Sunday, October 01, 2006

For the poetophobes or poeto-poseurs

David Orr has an excellent review in today's Times of Stephen Fry's The Ode Less Travelled, a book apparently intended to demystify poetry for the layperson by introducing him to some of the basics of meter and form.

At some point I'll have to check out Fry's book to see if it might be appropriate for use in my sophomore-level "introduction to the English major" class, but I'm photocopying the first half of Orr's review, immediately, to give to my Brit Lit students as we start working on lyric verse next week.

Here's an excerpt:

The difficulty of teaching poetry to a lay audience can be summarized by a single, diabolical name: Robin Williams. Williams, as you may recall, played the free-thinking English teacher John Keating in the 1989 movie "Dead Poets Society," a film that established once and for all the connection between learning about poems and killing yourself while wearing a silly hat. In the movie’s first depiction of poetical pedagogy, Williams as Keating instructs his students to open their textbook--a dry, dully diagrammatic primer by "Dr. J. Evans-Pritchard"--and then, with the insouciant panache of Lord Byron (or possibly Patch Adams) tells them to rip out the introduction! Yes! Riiiip! "Armies of academics going forward, measuring poetry," cries the righteous Keating, "No, we will not have that here!" Instead, the class is told to embrace a philosophy of carpe diem, and sic transit J. Evans-Pritchard. Significantly, however, while Keating subsequently teaches his students how to stand on their desks, how to kick a soccer ball with gusto and how to free-associate lamely about Walt Whitman, he’s never shown actually teaching them anything about the basics of form--basics they’d need in order to appreciate half the writers he’s recommending.

[. . . .]

While it’s true that some aspects of poetry transcend the nuts and bolts of technique, it’s equally true that many more do not. Consequently, only rarely do lay readers experience poems as a cross between an orgasm and a heart attack; usually, the response is closer to "What?" or "Eh" or at best "Hm." This doesn’t mean that other reactions aren’t possible; but such reactions generally come from learning what exactly is going on. And you don’t learn what’s going on by kicking a soccer ball and shouting a quote from Shelley. You learn what’s going on by reading carefully, questioning your own assumptions and sticking with things even when you’re confused or nervous. Then you can kick the soccer ball.

Damn straight.


lucyrain said...

Fantastic! Hilarious!

If you let poetry into your heart, it will make you shoot yourself in the head.


What Now? said...

Ooh, the Fry book sounds really interesting. Let us know what you think of it for classroom use. And thanks for posting that awesome review; I've been chuckling as I read it.

muse said...


Bardiac said...

Well, Fry's a SMART guy, so maybe the book's really good! We can always hope!

I had to laugh about Robin Williams because while I detest the film, I almost always start my intro lit or intro poetry classes by putting one of his "poems" on the board and asking students if it's a poem.

Here it is:

Red sand between my toes,
Summer vacation in outer space.

He calls it a "Martian Haiku."

It works brilliantly to get them to tease out what they think poetry is, and just cracks me up when I tell them that it's by that great American poet, Robin Williams.