Monday, January 5, 2009

Poetry as Supplemental Text (or how poetry gets xeroxed for class use)


“In the 1980s and 1990s, as studies of the American novel became more historical, and as 'documentary' texts became the object of critical scholarship, the tendency to exclude poetry from American literature became only more pronounced. I account for this predilection by tracing the social form of poetry in the academy. But it is precisely poetry's social form that makes it important for cultural history . . . “ (19)

Joseph Harrington wrote these sentences, which you can find in his 2002 book, Poetry and the Public: The Social Form of Modern U.S. Poetics ; I am re-reading it in 2009, as I prepare for another semester of teaching. I am also reading through undergraduate and graduate course descriptions to get a sense of the departmental culture. While the culture of the UH English department is in some ways very different from that of other departments in other locations, at least in matters curricular (we are heavy on cultural studies, what used to be called “multicultural” writing, and on Hawai`i literatures), I assume that in other ways we are fairly typical. And so I come to realize that what Harrington claims for the 1980s and 1990s remains true for the 2000s. We are not bereft of courses in “poetry,” especially in creative writing; there are courses in Emily Dickinson, poetry as a genre, and in contemporary poetry and politics. What strikes me, however, is that courses labeled “literature,” rather than “poetry,” are almost exclusively given over to fiction, and sometimes to drama. Even if that statement is unfair, as it is to some extent, it is more than fair when it comes to demanding of students that they purchase books of poetry. Time and again, as I glance at course descriptions, I see—if I see poetry at all—allusions to a “course reader” or to “xeroxes” or to “on-line materials.” This is true even in many creative writing classes, where precious little reading goes on. Though our newish course 273, Creative Writing and Literature, is a welcome addition to the curriculum, because it emphasizes the necessary engagement between reading and writing, thinking about writing and doing it.

Far be it from me to criticize the distribution of poetry in any form, or to dismiss on-line resources, which are quickly becoming central to my own teaching praxis. But as the publisher of a small poetry press, I wonder why the support for poetry tends to be so ephemeral, so cheap. The poetry market, insofar as there is one, is hardly a beacon of successful capitalism, if such exists any more. Nor do we poets and readers want it to be so. But poetry does require resources to continue to appear in print. And those resources come in large part from the sales of books of poems, books whose authors have attempted a kind of coherence not to be found in a single poem, or even a small sheaf of them. (This is my argument against "shuffle play" on the ipod, too.) Xeroxes do not have the aesthetic force to bring more visually oriented students into poetry; unless the poet intends to present her work as xerox, she generally wishes to find her work in a visually stimulating package. A book, in other words. A book whose graphic designer worked to respond to the text, draw out its instigations.

Sometimes I write emails to colleagues to suggest works of poetry for them to include in their courses, and often they respond positively, saying that they don't read poetry and don't know where to begin to do so. Or they say they are “scared” of poetry, or simply more comfortable with the novel. As someone who is able to read a novel on Tuesday and forget the plot by Wednesday, then play charades with her classes on Thursday to elicit the plot from a student who reads better she does, I understand this sentiment in reverse. When I teach “literature” courses, I load them up with a lot of poetry, and I teach books of it, in large part because it's in my comfort zone. But I can't imagine teaching a survey of American literature without at least one book in each genre, and increasingly in mixed genres. Likewise, courses in literary studies per se, strike me as necessary places in which to include books of poems.

As my department moves into a greater emphasis on indigenous Pacific literature, I expect that poetry will enter the curriculum more fully. It simply must, when Hawaiian orature (as just one example) is rooted in chant, not in prose fiction. To understand issues of aesthetics, history, language in contemporary Hawai`i, it's necessary to read the poetry, whether published by Bamboo Ridge, `oiwi, Kahuaomanoa Press, Tinfish or other publishers. To measure the sometimes fraught conversations between groups of poets as they are often--too often--marked (Hawaiian, Asian, academic, and so on), we need to read a variety of poets. But I would argue that poetry needs to be read in quantity, as well as quality. The xeroxed poem offers itself up as an artifact. The poetry book can be something else indeed.


Michael Hessel-Mial said...

I think the fact that literature is taught on a cultural/political level rather than an aesthetic level is the key point here. Cultural studies courses, to survive the increasingly cash-strapped universities' funding choices, have adapted to focus on texts that have been given the most cultural/political/symbolic/economic capital, and though they implicate a lot of hidden power structures they also invent a literary history entirely along those lines. How this affects poetry is that, because it is rarely invested in any of the types of capital to the degree that prose (fiction or nonfiction) is, it has little value being taught as anything other than a blip on the literary radar.

G. M. Palmer said...

But as the publisher of a small poetry press, I wonder why the support for poetry tends to be so ephemeral, so cheap. The poetry market, insofar as there is one, is hardly a beacon of successful capitalism, if such exists any more. Nor do we poets and readers want it to be so.

Well you answer your own question here. If the poets and readers don't want capitalism or, rather, the market, influencing their work -- then there won't be a market for their work.

Which there isn't in poetry. Americans sell about 3 million books of poetry a year. That means poetry is consistently outsold by J.K. Rowling alone.

Online distribution can do a little to curb this but, honestly, unless we as (American) poets begin to take into consideration what the reading public (about 1/3 of America) would like to see in a poem -- and then apply our not insignificant craftsmanship to creating such an object, there never will be any poetry revival -- and American poetry will continue to wither and rot.

David Krump said...

Hello, Susan. Found this post via Silliman's Blog.

Interesting post.

I'm curious, is it even legal to xerox poems from a book and use them in the classroom setting?

I know this is standard practice among many departments; I came across a few of these xeroxed packets of poems as an undergrad.

I mean, as I understand it, there's perhaps a bigger question of copyright infringement. If a teacher copied a song by ________(popular band name here) and handed it out to thirty students, isn't that a violation of copyright?

Poets seem to avoid taking issue with their work being reproduced in university copy-rooms around the nation.

I wonder what would happen if English department lit instructors required their students purchase one book of poetry per year for an appropriate course. I can't see that this would be such an issue, considering students are often required to purchase massive Norton's at tremendous prices. And a book of poems costs, say, $15.

I remember a course I took on contemporary poetry where we purchased, I think, six books of poems. It was the cheapest book fee/course ratio I had all term, maybe my entire undergrad education. Especially since one science text can run to over $100.

What was I saying? O, right. So I'm going to be modest in my figures just to arrive at a number worth considering. Let us assume that there are 1000 colleges and universities in the country, though there must be more, right? (I don't know) Let us further assume that each institution teaches only one poetry course each year, and that there are only twenty students enrolled in each course, and that each course requires the individual student to purchase only three books of poetry.

According to this completely low estimate there would be an additional 60,000 books of poetry sold per year. If we say each university teaches two poetry courses a year, we jump to 120,000. If each university teaches two courses each term, we're pushing a quarter of a million poetry titles per year.

I'm not suggesting that most poets will ever become rich, but they might get to know that their work is at least being appreciated, that even though it is a fairly affordable commodity it still has a value.

I just wonder how most lit professors would feel if rather than requiring my students to purchase the book of essays they edited on, say, Melville, I just ran a few chapters off and passed it on to 20 students every year for my entire teaching career.

This is hypothetical altogether, but if we assume I got tenure around the age of thirty five, and taught this lit course until I turned 65, I would have stolen from that lit professor 600 times, and what's more, because it's standard practice, I wouldn't even feel guilty about it.

I suppose that my point is that if a work has educational value, then it has some value, and should be thought of as "valued" by those who encounter it.

But here in the real world, too many instructors consider their personal libraries their own intellectual property, and thus they photocopy from ten different books for their course and give away that which is not freely theirs to distribute. If it is free, the student might think, then what is its value?

As a (faltering) commercial society, we tend to value material objects which have been assigned a monetary value over that which is given away. But now I'm getting into an area I am not qualified to address. Actually, I've been there since I began this comment.

I just can't see where professors find permission to photocopy in the following language:

"All rights reserved. Except for brief passages quoted in a newspaper, magazine, radio, or television review, no part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying and recording, or by any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the Publisher."

--Taken from inside page of Baudelaire's Paris Spleen, New Directions Publishing Corporation.

In fact, according to the copyright notice, I think I just violated a copyright.


And sorry for the length.

susan said...

Thanks for commenting. It took me a while to figure out that there were comments to be "moderated."

Michael--I suspect that even IF poets gave an audience what they wanted, the audience would not know it unless they were educated about where to buy the book. That's why I think educators need to do this work of instruction. Often my students are enthusiastic about the poetry I teach--but they wouldn't have known it existed without my asking them to buy and read it.

David--I photocopy essays all the time. But poems!!!

G. M. Palmer said...

Susan -- that's a good point -- but generally it's not talked about as a two-headed attack. . .