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I Cock My Glock. I Head to the Store. I Ran Out of Broccoli and I Need Some More.

January 23, 2011

APROPOS OF NOTHING: Did you know that Marvin Gaye’s “Sexual Healing” is the only song in the English language that ends with the word “masturbate”? You have to crank your stereo/iPod/vinyl-o-trope waaaaay up to hear it, but trust me, you won’t regret the effort.

And now, the blog post. Since I began school three weeks ago, I’ve heard about 94 teachers allege, assert, avow, aver, etc. that it is at best inadvisable to teach poetry to ESL students. The most optimistic of these people (who are all great, by the way, except for this one annoying thing) counseled that “if you do make them write poems, you have to do it without them knowing that that’s what they’re doing.” With respect to this teacher, who I will reiterate is a great person, I know from experience that it’s challenging enough to write a poem when you do know that that’s what you’re doing. Self-awareness is the essence of creative writing, so if you’re going to take that away from people then you might as well just have them fill in the blanks on a worksheet and call it a day.

All this anti-poetry hoo-ha–no, wait, “hoo-ha” means “vagina,” doesn’t it? Let me pick a different word… All this anti-poetry codswallop gets my gears and grinds my goat because it seems like just an extension of the even more popular idea that it is at best inadvisable to teach poetry to anybody or for anybody to read it. The prevailing mindset is that it’s too difficult, it makes no sense, it’s useless, it’s unpunctuated, it’s archaic (viz., “old-timey”), nobody likes it, performance poetry events are just an excuse for a whole bunch of hipsters to put on their clunkiest shoes and their darkest shirts and get together and look for sex partners, and books are on the verge of being replaced by Facebook so who cares. Some of these arguments, for example the hipster orgy one, are kind of true sometimes. But the rest of them are evidence of ineffective high school teaching and ill-conceived curricula.

In one of my recent classes the teacher asked anyone who disliked studying poetry to raise their hand, and almost everyone did. Cinnamon cocks! There were two books of poetry in my backpack that day (I never leave home without something to read on the bus and to look at instead of people, and I couldn’t decide between two particular authors so I was like, Screw it, I’ll just take both of them). And then everyone had a really good time talking about all the things that make poetry terrible while I sat there trying to rock my sobbing identity into a less agitated state.

English is a kickass language. I think it’s the #1 most kickass, but I’m totally biased. Objectively, though, English is a language with a fantastic vocabulary, words from all over the world and from all over time, and intonation that combines stress, pitch, and syllable length into a musicality that allows it to handle the demands and nuances of forms as diverse as a stately, stoical Shakespearean sonnet and a remarkably fast-paced, wordplay-riddled Eminemian 3/4-time gangsta throwdown. It’s friggin’ unreal, this English of ours. Every language generates unique literary styles and devices that other languages can only dream of having. They are direct results of the language’s linguistic and prosodic constraints and abilities. They’re the reason why translation is always difficult and sometimes impossible. They’re the reason why good poetry is good. They contain and express the cultural history of the language. Kind of a big deal, in my opinion.

Prose can be the business too, of course, but poetry is a different kind of thing, a sort of prose from concentrate. The quickest path to the soul of a language. When I’m trying to get a feel for a new language one of the first things I do is screw with it in what I take to be poetic ways. I don’t give much of a shit if I’m getting the grammar perfectly right and I would hope that a teacher who came across my ridiculous experiments wouldn’t care either; perfect grammar is rarely the point of anything. At the appropriate time, my students will be introduced to modern, accessible poems and poets (of whom there is no shortage). And they will write and perform rap-style compositions about going to the grocery store. And they will like it.

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