Beyond the Blurb: On Critics and Criticism. Published by Cow Eye Press

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Jonathan  Mayhew

That argument is not going to have that much traction with those of us who teach literature for a living. That is to say, the idea that literature is something to be taught is an unquestioned assumption because a lot of us engaged in the debate are teachers of literature. We're not going to argue for abolishing what we do. (Josh is graduate student at Cornell.) So the argument tends to be about how to do it better, how to find a better justification for what we do, etc... not about whether we should be doing it at all.

The merits of the literary patrimony argument are another matter. I'll have to think about that one a little more. Literature as a form of nationalism. Can "literature" be unlinked from the idea of a "national" literature? Even comparatists compare between national traditions.

Dan Green

I'm not suggesting that all literature courses be abolished, not in the university at least. Only those that are compulsory. The poetry-as-national-patrimony approach is the worst kind of compulsion.

I teach (have taught) literature, and generally find the required lit course very unpleasant and mostly useless.

Jonathan  Mayhew

I agree that the idea of a patrimony sounds deadly. In real life, I doubt that states are going to renounce this idea. Will the governmnent of France tolerate a generation of kids not knowing who Racine is? It almost seems a part of Ameican "civics" to know a little Whitman and Emerson.

R. J. Thomson

One difference between a physicist and a poet is likely to be income. Physicists don't worry about readership because they get a decent wage just for being in a position in which they might publish. Even 'successful' poets don't make a steady living.

Perhaps taking poetry out of the classroom could (in time) give the medium some of the rebel cool pop music has for kids. A poet with just a microphone stands to take a more generous cut than a band. Even a relatively tiny pop music audience could make you a fair bit.

(I know it sounds ridiculous to talk of the 'rebel cool' of pop music. It should be a joke, against what you see when you turn on the TV. Weirdly, I think people still believe in it as an 'alternative'. Writers (with muscle) ought to muscle in.)


And then there's Walker Percy's approach: give the biology student a sonnet to dissect and leave a dead fish on the English student's desk.

Jordan Davis

Kick poetry out, huh? I'd be curious to know what exactly you'd let remain in the curriculum, Plato.

Dan Green

Plato wanted to keep poetry out because he perceived it as dangerous and subversive. As if to prove him wrong, poetry as part of the "curriculum" has made it safe and toothless--especially when it's served up as "national patrimony."

Brendan Wolfe

Dan, you write that poetry has always been a minority taste. Is this true? I think of times when poets wielded extreme political power (among the ancient Greeks or medieval Celts, for instance), or when poetry was widely popular on the stage (Shakespeare's time).

I agree that making poetry part of the "national patrimony" is not necessarily the answer. The Irish are plenty nationalistic, but when they tried to tap into that nationalism to save the Irish language, they failed miserably. They put it in the schools, said you have to learn this in order to graduate and in order to get a civil service job -- why? because it's part of being Irish. Now high school kids resent the language.

One last comment: You write that to study poetry as poetry requires special training for teachers. Literature in school, I think, is best approached not as something you need tons of special skills to handle. We all have special sensitivity to language: we speak & listen & decipher ads and dialects adn accents and all the crap on TV . . . all day. We just need to learn how to be sensitive to poetry, too. Maybe that's not so different from what you're saying. But making poetry accessible is not to make it more American. It's to make it less academic and more a part of our real & shared experience.

Dan Green

I would argue that both Greek and Elizabethan drama were popular as dramatic spectacle, not as poetry per se. Although surely the audience for both had more "sensitivity to language" (at least in its spoken form)than the modern mass audience seems to have.

I also don't see why we have to label that audience that does exist for poetry (that audience that actually likes it already) "academic" as opposed to the "real" people who might be brought to tolerate it.

Brendan Wolfe

I'm totally unqualified to speak on Greek & Elizabethan drama, so you may be right. As for the audience that already exists for poetry, I was just reacting to what you wrote: "To study poetry as poetry requires a sensitivity to language and to the possibilities and purposes of aesthetic form that, frankly, most teachers lack and most students have no interest in developing." I wasn't meaning to suggest the difference between academics and real people; only that poetry could be taught in a context that doesn't emphasize (or at least doesn't emphasize right away) the special skills of an academic (aesthetic form, etc.). To be honest, though, I'm talking out of my butt here. I have no idea how to interest students in something that I myself rarely showed any interest in.

Jonathan  Mayhew

No, I'm afraid you can't ignore or defer the aesthetic concerns, because those are the whole point. They aren't "academic" but poetic. How could you interest people in sculpture without talking about what makes it sculpture in the first place?


This may not be an issue only about the teaching of poetry but about the teaching of anything as "compulsory."

I recently had the opportunity to share photos of Tom Friedman's sculpture with a few people who lacked a lot of experience with sculpture. The results were interesting and electric. It was a gettogether with students outside of the classroom. Most left wanting to know and experience more. They grew into the work, not away from it.


"A taste for poetry has always been a minority taste" -- unsubstantiated rubbish, Mr. Tennyson.

Where do you get these arguments, Encore Books?

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The Art of Disturbance--Available as Pdf and Kindle Ebook
Literary Pragmatism--Available as a Pdf