On a panel I attended at the AWP Conference in Minneapolis, poet Jericho Brown addressed the notion of balancing the canon with more contemporary works. Brown noted that he often does incorporate poems he “loves” into the classroom, but admitted that he would feel bad if one of his students mentioned in a conversation that he/she did not know Robert Lowell or Elizabeth Bishop. What I took from Brown’s comment is that he balances the canon with more contemporary works that he loves, and even in the poems he doesn’t necessarily love, Lowell’s “Skunk Hour” was mentioned, he could at least cover the poem’s techniques with the students.
I thought about this panel again as I finished poet Tony Hoagland’s newest essay collection, Twenty Poems That Could Save America. Hoagland declares in the final chapter, “Somehow, we blew it. We never quite got poetry inside the American school system and thus never quite inside the culture.” Hoagland is right. Poetry often draws frowns and sighs from students, even at the college level. He blames this primarily on the way poetry is taught, adding, “Let us blame instead the stuffed shirts who took an hour to explain that poem in their classrooms, who chose it because it would need an explainer; pretentious ponderous ponderosas of professional professors will always be drawn of the poems that require a priest.”
Hoagland’s solution to this problem is to offer students more contemporary work, and his list includes Anne Carson, Sharon Olds, Alan Feldman, Mary Ruefle, and others.
I thought of Jericho Brown and Tony Hoagland’s commentary in the context of my own teaching. I will note that what I teach now is mostly literature and composition. In my literature courses, primarily American literature and African American Literature, the old is balanced with the contemporary, since we move forward in time as the courses progress. That stated, I thought of poetry in terms of composition and creative writing classes, where I am less bound to historical timeframes as I am in a literature class. In those classes, composition especially, students are quite tentative about poetry. Because of that, I include a lot of contemporary work, including Natasha Tretheway, Robert Hayden, James Wright, Phil Levine, and other poets whose language students can understand. For a lot of them, it makes the poetry experience more pleasant. Furthermore, I agree with Hoagland that if a student really becomes invested in poetry, then he/she will go back and see and read what influenced those contemporary poets. In addition, I group the poems by subject matter, so we can examine the way two poems explore the loss of a parent, for instance.
Now, that said, in upper-level classes, it would behoove an instructor to ensure those students, especially if they plan to enroll in an M.F.A. program or Ph.D. program, have a grasp of the tradition. This is where personal reading lists come However, those introductory composition and creative classes are often a student’s first exposure to poetry since high school, so contemporary poetry is a way to make the experience more pleasant and allow the poet to be an ambassador for the craft as an instructor.