Students Don’t Like Poetry? Teach Turns

26 04 2009




In “Why Students Don’t Like Poetry,” a Chronicle of Higher Education blog post from April 19, 2009, Mark Bauerlein argues that students don’t like poetry largely because they are introduced to the wrong kind of poetry: difficult poetry by the likes of John Ashbery, the kind of poetry it’s hard to understand “the basic meaning” of, poetry to which students “can’t relate.”


According to Bauerlein, when he “tried a different kind of verse, this one with rhyme and regularity and narrative,” the students took to the poetry.  The poem Bauerlein uses as an example of more student-friendly work is Dana Gioia’s “Summer Storm.”  According to Bauerlein, Gioia’s poem worked in the classroom because it “had rhyme and music,” and because it “had a subject they [the students] all could understand…”


While Bauerlein’s post gave rise to many interesting comments (especially by teachers telling about what they’ve done in the classroom to convey to students the pleasures and the discipline of poetry), many of the comments also are predictably polemical.  Some say Bauerlein is right on: poetry should be accessible.  Others argue that he is dumbing-down the real demand of difficult poetry merely to appeal to a generally uninformed audience.


Now, I don’t want to say that applying the turn to this conversation would offer a kind of cure-all for teaching poetry, but I do think that some judicious thinking about the turn can offer some helpful insights and ideas about and for pedagogy.


Thinking about the turn is called for in this case.  While Gioia’s “Summer Storm” does have “rhyme and regularity and narrative” it also has a clear and distinct turn: at the beginning of the third-to-last stanza, the poem turns from a memory to a consideration of the meaning of memory and the past.  However, as so often occurs in poems with turns, the turn goes by unrecognized as a significant feature in the poem.  (In fact, though he includes a link to the full text of Gioia’s poem, Bauerlein’s citations and summary of the poem include nothing of the poem after the turn.)


But, of course, I think the turn should have been mentioned.  Mentioning the turn is simply descriptively accurate: the poem in fact has a turn.  And the turn could have been one of the things the students liked and “got” about Gioia’s poem: Gioia’s poem offers something accessible to many 19 year olds: a story with a moral.


But focusing more attention on the turn could have offered even more to the conversation.  If not a cure-all, the turn at least could build bridges, including:


1) from the student’s own language to the poem’s maneuvering (students use turns in their own language; they easily can be shown how poems employ turns);


2) from a focus on a poem’s meaning to its being—showing students that poems are things that turn is one of the clearest and most succinct ways to show students that poems are more enactments and less easily-paraphrased statements; and


3) from accessible to more difficult poetry—aware that one of the key things that poems do is turn, students become better readers of all kinds of poems.  (The turn is at the heart of not only so many of the poems in Billy Collins’s Poetry 180: A Turning Back to Poetry but also the poetics of Rae Armantrout and Jorie Graham.  (For a glance at the turn’s presence in Armantrout and Graham, click here.  Scroll down to read the quotations from Jorie Graham and Hank Lazer on Rae Armantrout.))


While Bauerlein’s choice of Gioia as an alternative to Ashbery is polemically fraught, raising specters of the ol’ American poetry wars, and in fact might depend on those old dichotomies (intentionally or not, it pits New Formalism against the Post Avant, and suggests that one way you figure out if a poem is accessible is if it rhymes), focusing on the turn could help to erase those dichotomies: what about teaching some (accessible?) poems that have clear and distinct, easily spotted and discussed turns and then teaching some (difficult?) poems that incorporate more complex movements, twists and turns that the students could work to map out and work through?  In this way, the turn can be used to link seemingly different kinds of poetry rather than contribute once again to problematic and predictable binaries.

Structure & Surprise: Recommended for Geniuses

22 04 2009



Cool news: Structure & Surprise is listed in the “Recommended Reading” section of Kim Addonizio’s new guide to poetry writing, Ordinary Genius.

For some time, Kim has been a supporter of Structure & Surprise, recommending it on her web site, but it’s terrific to get this kind of additional recognition.  Thank you, Kim–cheers!

The Build-and-Activate Structure

13 04 2009



I’ve added a new page to the “Pedagogy” section of this blog: “The Build-and-Activate Structure.”  Below is the content of that page (links are inserted on the page):

In “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises,” the final section of Structure & Surprise, I offer the following suggestion to help generate a poem:


“Invent a new kind of turn by taking your writing further than it might usually go….[W]rite a poem in which you construct a fantastic object or machine, a magical mechanism called ‘The Desire Vaporizer’ or ‘The Memory Box.’  Employ lots of odd, specific details.  At the end of the poem, turn the machine on and say what happens.  Of course, it could be interesting if nothing, or something very unexpected, happens.  If so, you may have a draft of a poem employing the ironic structure.”


Here, I’d like to provide an example of a poem which employs just such a turn from building to activation.  It is, in fact, the poem that inspired me to write the above suggestion.  Here it is:



Scale Model of Childhood



Who can say what calls me to work

these late hours

by lamplight and magnifying glass?


After the ladybug

retracts its long,

knife-point wings beneath its red shell,


I use the brush of one hair

to connect the black stars

stippled on its back:


Canis Minor,

who licks its teeth,

muzzle still red with Acteon’s blood,


Canis Minor,

waiting at the feet of the Twins

for crumbs to fall from their table.


In another room,

my parents sleep lightly,

never dreaming,


mouths open

as though ready always

to call my name.


When my constellation is finished,

I pierce it with a pin,

my little dog,


and place it

in a miniature box,

size of my thumbnail,


a window for the shoe box diorama

I assemble each night

from tidbits no one will miss.


When I was a child

feral dogs ran the woods

beyond our door.


Even the hound my father shot

slipped away by morning,

a line of blood pocking the snow.


My parents instructed me,

never stray outside.

Nights, my back on the bed


and my head tilted back,

I watched stars scroll past

my narrow window’s frame.


Once I thought I’d step from childhood

as from a doorway

into a night blazing with stars


so numerous

they defied constellation.

I’d stride into the revealed world


away from the house

and my parents framed by a window

as they sat at a table


holding forks

with no morsels pierced

near parted lips.


Pull the lever on the side of the box

and their forks will scrape

empty plates


while an unseen dog

howls for its dinner

in an almost human voice.



—Corey Marks


From Renunciation (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois, 2000).  Reprinted by permission of the author.


In “Inspiration, Guides, Exercises,” I suggest that poetic structures can be used by working poets in many ways: from inspiration, to drafting, to revision.  “Scale Model of Childhood” seems to me to offer a really inspiring structure for poets and for teachers of poetry, one that has a lot of creative and pedagogical potential, but one which (largely because turns have not been a systematic part of our discussions of poetry and poetry writing) has yet to be as widely employed as it can (and perhaps should) be.


A few notes on this poem:


First, I have included “The Build-and-Activate Structure” in this blog’s “Pedagogy” section and not in “New Structures” because I’m reserving “New Structures” for structures which have been more widely employed.  (If there are other build-and-activate poems out there, please do let me know.)


Second, note that while the turn from construction to activation is vital in “Scale Model of Childhood,” it is not the only poem’s only turn.  The construction section has many important turns in it, as well (including from construction to the sleeping parents to the maker’s ideas of what he thought his childhood would lead to…).  If you’re going to try to make your own “build-and-activate” poem, consider employing some smaller turns within your own “build” section.


Third, note that if you like this poem by Corey (who is, among many other things, the author of the chapter on “The Descriptive-Meditative Structure” in Structure & Surprise), you might like to read his poem “Portrait of a Child,” which I’ve included on the page in this blog which I call “Voltage!,” a page that features poems that take particularly thrilling turns.  And if you like these poems, of course, check out Corey’s book Renunciation.  That is, after you write your own “build-and-activate” poem.