In fall of 1987 I was in my first semester of an English MA program at Iowa State, and was taking a seminar in contemporary American poets. The class was an eye-opener for me, as I’d not read many poets later than Dylan Thomas, and if you’re going to be a real writer it’s always helpful to know a thing or two about the present day, right?
One of the writers we were reading was Charles Wright, a fellow Southerner who’s won a lot of awards and prizes, up to and including the Pulitzer. I have come to regard him as our finest living poet (although I have to admit that since I still don’t read as many contemporaries as I should, there may be somebody out there better that I just haven’t found yet).
I was having trouble, though. Wright’s work can difficult – dense, complex, and not at all shy about immersing itself in terrain where the reader can quickly become lost. That’s where I was – lost. I loved the vibrancy of his language – he reminded me of people like Thomas and Gerard Manly Hopkins, writers with a knack for turning mere words into visual art and music – but I had no clue what any of it meant.
Then one of my fellow students, David McWright, spoke up: “I don’t what it means, but I feel something.”
And in that moment the light went on. I felt something, too. So I let the intellect drift and stepped back into The Other Side of the River and poems like “Lonesome Pine Special,” which is one of the most remarkable things I’ve ever encountered in literature. (It’s the last poem here, and it’s worth the read.) Once I let go of the need to parse every line rationally it began to make sense in ways that are difficult to express.
I came to grasp how the word “meaning” has been wholly colonized by the intellectual. If it is to mean, it must be subject to rational description, right? But Wright’s work taught me how meaning can transcend the rational – a poem can mean spiritually, intuitively, emotionally.
How many times in my life have I come across people who “don’t get” poetry, and therefore avoid it? (Including my wife.) As my Wright epiphany settled in I began probing the response, though. “Why don’t you get it?” A pattern emerged. People hit high school and there have their first encounters with poetry and the official teaching thereof, and then something goes wrong. Too often, high school poetry is taught like biology. You have your poem, and it’s laid out like a frog on dissection pan. It’s carved open, subjected to a methodical disembowelment, its sundry parts are extracted and set to the side, and in time the student comes to “understand” the poem.
Sadly, the poem is now like a dissected frog. It won’t croak. It won’t hop around. It won’t snap flies with that marvelous sticky tongue. In short, frog and poem and now both thoroughly dead. The process by which poetry is taught in too many places robs the work of its passion, its vibrancy, its very life.
I was lucky. I had a very good high school English teacher. We analyzed in the traditional way, but not in a way that was alien, distancing and ultimately fatal to the metaphorical frog before us. I suspect that if more people had learned about poetry the way I did, at the hands of a geniunely skillful teacher who understood how to bring verse to life, the form might not be such an arcane curiosity today. I don’t know that we’d have poets doing stadium tours, exactly, but perhaps it would be at least as popular an enterprise as detective fiction.
So here’s to Charles Wright, for writing things that transcend logic and language. Here’s to Jim Booth for teaching me to love poetry. And here’s to David McWright for feeling something and having the wisdom to raise his hand and say it out loud.
If you had a great teacher, we’d love to hear about it. And please, name names….
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