Monday, April 3, 2017

How to save America(n poetry)

This is day three of National Poetry Month. The third of thirty things we can do to celebrate is "Sign up for Teach This Poem, a weekly series for teachers." If you believe that the best way to learn something is to teach it, signing up for "Teach This Poem" might well be worthwhile even for nonteachers. Or, you could look into starting your own poetry course through a local arts organization or "adult" education program.

You were young once, don't let them tame you
You were young once, don't let them tame you
Photo by J. Harrington

Tony Hoagland, in Twenty Poems That Could Save America, writes:
Nonetheless, it is common knowledge: real live American poetry is absent from our public schools. The teaching of poetry languishes, and that region of youthful neurological terrain capable of being ignited and aria'd only by poetry is largely dark, unpopulated and silent, like a classroom whose door is unopened, whose shades are drawn."
I was raised at a time, in a place, that preached and practiced making sacrifices to improve life for the next generation. The American Dream I grew up with was that the kids would have a better life than the older generation. I don't see much evidence of that kind of thinking these days, do you? Do you have a clue where it went? When it disappeared?

I'm again reminded of one of my all time favorite quotations, from one of the few politicians I've admired. Robert F. (Bobby) Kennedy, in remarks at the University of Kansas, March 18, 1968, noted:
... But even if we act to erase material poverty, there is another greater task, it is to confront the poverty of satisfaction - purpose and dignity - that afflicts us all.  Too much and for too long, we seemed to have surrendered personal excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things.  Our Gross National Product, now, is over $800 billion dollars a year, but that Gross National Product - if we judge the United States of America by that - that Gross National Product counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage.  It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them.  It counts the destruction of the redwood and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl.  It counts napalm and counts nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities.  It counts Whitman's rifle and Speck's knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.  Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play.  It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials.  It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country, it measures everything in short, except that which makes life worthwhile.  And it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.  [emphasis added]

unused skills deteriorate
unused skills deteriorate
Photo by J. Harrington

I believe that we as a nation, as a people, will not, can not, confront our poverty of satisfaction without poetry playing a much larger role in our national life. One of our country's greatest contemporary artists, from Hibbing and Duluth Minnesota, has just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, "for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition". If a reformed folkie, rock and roller winning the Nobel Prize does not bring poetry into mainstream America, I have real concerns about whether we can be saved, or should. Hoagland tells us that "the list of poems taught in our schools must be updated." He's correct, and Dylan's lyrics are, in my opinion, a better place to start than anything else available.

The Times They Are A-Changin’

Written by: Bob Dylan 

Come gather ’round people
Wherever you roam
And admit that the waters
Around you have grown
And accept it that soon
You’ll be drenched to the bone
If your time to you is worth savin’
Then you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone
For the times they are a-changin’

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’

Come senators, congressmen
Please heed the call
Don’t stand in the doorway
Don’t block up the hall
For he that gets hurt
Will be he who has stalled
There’s a battle outside and it is ragin’
It’ll soon shake your windows and rattle your walls
For the times they are a-changin’

Come mothers and fathers
Throughout the land
And don’t criticize
What you can’t understand
Your sons and your daughters
Are beyond your command
Your old road is rapidly agin’
Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand
For the times they are a-changin’

The line it is drawn
The curse it is cast
The slow one now
Will later be fast
As the present now
Will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last
For the times they are a-changin’ 
© 1963, 1964 by Warner Bros. Inc.; renewed 1991, 1992 by Special Rider Music

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