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Thursday, November 13, 2014


Well, my "contest" elicited some wonderful stories, for which I thank you all.  The longest and the best came as an e-mail from Jerome Doolittle, novelist, former Jimmy Carter Speech Writer, and much more.  Here it is, with his permission:

One day in 1987 I announced a workshop on procrastination problems to my classes at Harvard, warning any afflicted students not to stall around. The deadline for registration was near, and "at my back I always hear time's winged chariot hurrying near."

The class chuckled appreciatively at this clever literary sally. Sure they did. Actually, the class sat there puzzled, as if I had broken into demotic Greek for some reason, waiting politely for me to revert to English.

Did anyone recognize what I just said? No. Did it sound like me? No. Was it, maybe, a quotation? Probably. Had anyone ever heard the first line of "To His Coy Mistress?" The title itself? Heard of Andrew Marvell? No, no, and no.

The next day I worked out the easiest poetry quiz I could come up with.  The students were to fill in the missing word or words from lines that they would be bound to have come across in their recent careers as high school over-achievers.

Wrong again. None of the freshmen got, "The boy stood on the burning _____." None got, "Half a league, half a league, half a league _____." One got, "Beneath the spreading chestnut tree the village _____ _____." One got, "I met a traveller from an antique _____." Only one got, "You're a better man than I am, _____ _____." (Two others guessed, "Charlie Brown.") The highest score was 14 right out of 20 questions; the lowest was two right; the average was seven. Nor was my class an exception. When a colleague, the poet Felicia Lamport, gave the same quiz to her students, they did no better.

Stupidity can hardly have been the reason. Harvard undergraduates are by no means as intelligent as the world imagines, but most of them are above average, many are very bright indeed, and a few are brilliant.

Nor were my students likely to have resisted or neglected their education in the poetry of their language. They had made it to Harvard by pleasing teachers, by doing the reading and handing in homework on time. If they hadn't learned poetry, probably no one had given it to them to learn.

And this turned out to be the case. One or two of my students had been made to memorize a passage from Shakespeare in high school. Most had been made to read a handful of poems; they seemed to have remembered the experience as a puzzling and unpleasant one. None of them had ever
memorized a poem on his own. When I told them I had done that very thing as a schoolboy, and more than once too, they couldn't see the use of it.

There they were then, empty of poetry but no more to be blamed for it than a glass is to blame for being empty. Nobody had bothered to fill them. On the other hand, nobody much had bothered to fill high school students back in the early 1950s, either, when I was one. A teacher named Jack
McGiffert, God love him, once went to the trouble of putting together a poetry study group in the prep school where we were both serving time. But that was about it.

To test whether there had ever been a golden age, I pestered other teachers of writing at Harvard to take my quiz. The scores pretty closely matched the teacher's age: the older they were, the better they did. The youngest teacher, who was working on his doctoral dissertation in English Literature, scored as poorly as my freshmen.

It may be that a shortage of Jack McGifferts has been developing over the years. Mr. McGiffert himself, come to think of it, had left teaching a few years after our poetry workshop to become a writer for television. Probably he wound up doing more teaching there, one way or another, than he ever had in school. His class would have been bigger, by a factor of millions, with most of them paying attention.

The only question on my quiz that everybody got right was a freebie I had thrown in: "This Bud's for _____."  Actually I thought I had thrown in two freebies, the second being, "Winstons taste good, like a _____ _____." But only four students knew the answer. This was puzzling until it occurred to me that the class of '91 was just out of diapers in 1973, when cigarette advertising disappeared from TV.

Well, what does all this mean except that each generation has its own language, its own poetry? After Felicia Lamport gave my test to her students, they made up a test of their own and gave it to her. Their quiz had questions like, "We all live in a yellow _____," and she only got two right. This misses the point, though. I could expect my father to be ignorant of Doonesbury, for instance, and he is. He could expect me to be ignorant of Krazy Kat, and I am. But neither of us is ignorant of Poe and Whitman, Keats and Shelley, and Harvard's freshmen are.

Still, what's the difference? Poetry is just the latest thing to have disappeared from our radar, after all; below our horizon it joins mythology, the classics and the King James Bible. And so what? What potato was ever better couched for knowing that the center, like Dallas's defensive line, no longer holds. And if you knew that ABC stole Golden Girls from Shakespeare, would it help you teach your pet stupider tricks?

Of course not, so then let me ask you something, Margaret. Are you grieving over Golden Oldies leaving? Of course you're not. Hey, who needs re-runs when you're living in the prime time. So, yo, Margaret - this crud's for you.


James Camien McGuiggan said...

This is fascinating and sort of sad, but, speaking as a young person who fancies himself pretty on it when it comes to art and brains and who didn't get any of the answers (apart from the Beatles one (oh, and the Ozymendias now I look back on it)), I want to suggest how the lesson could be less disturbing. (Aside from the excuse I can give myself that when I was in school we focused on Irish poets, my schooling being in Ireland.)

The alternative explanation is this: that youngins are more interested in songs than poems, and that this is, if partly to do with the ubiquity of music relative to poetry (what with portable music players and the like), also to do with the fact that black people, women, 'people like the listener' more broadly, are better-represented in music (both contemporary and pop-canon) than in the poetry canon. I can't compare how people listened to music and whether they memorised or could recognise lyrics in earlier times, but it's my experience that most of my peers are able to recite large chunks of plenty of songs. Most of the lyrics, to be sure, are rubbish; but that's another issue, and in any case, some songwriters' lyrics are frankly brilliant.

It's not, then, by this hypothesis, that the space in youngins' minds for poetry has been filled by rubbish; but that it's been filled by lyrics. This seems acceptable.

I put this out more in hope than in belief. Really, though, I wish that I knew my poetry better.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

James, an interesting thought -- the ancient Greeks would have been with you all the way. But here is something I have been thinking about. When I was young, the young and the old knew the same popular artists. Everyone knew whom Frank Sinatra was, whether they liked him or not. I don't think there was a youth culture and a grown-up culture [leave to one side Black culture -- another matter entirely]. By the time I was in the Army, in 1957, a split had occurred, and somewhat later, there really were two utterly different cultural worlds. This has nothing to do with high culture of course, just popular culture.

But I am painfully aware that when Susie and I, 80 and 81 years old, go to an early music concert, we tend to lower the average age of the audience! Will anyone go to a Baroque music concert in fifteen years?

James Camien McGuiggan said...

Hah, yes, I suppose they would! Actually I'd love to hear poetry recitation in the way that the Odyssey (or for that matter Beowulf) was recited. I hear the art is lost, though. (This, I gather, thanks to that devilry of modern technology, the printing press.)

You make the point about Baroque music rhetorically, I think; but let me pretend you didn't. It's certainly lamentable how few young people go to classical concerts. (I think I've related to you before that I'm often the youngest by several generations.) But it's also something performers and directors and so on are acutely aware of, and are trying very hard to remedy. No-one knows why it is, and everyone has their own crackpot theory and crackpot solution ("Increase the bass level" was one I heard put forward in earnest, "so that it's more like the club music they love so much"), and nothing's changing much, it seems. But I'm hopeful that the labour will eventually reap dividends. But then I'm a hopeful person. (I notice that I ended my previous comment with hope too, which just goes to show, I suppose!)