Thursday, November 24, 2011

2:26 PM - No comments

Cindy Nichols' Dialogical Approach to Poetry

Cindy Nichols has been a creative writing teacher and English lecturer for 19 years. She has long battled the notion that poetry is highbrow and inaccessible. One of her noted articles is titled, "Down in the Body in the Undergraduate Poetry Course: Thoughts on Bakhtin, Hypertext and Cheap Wigs." The article asks an important question: What can teachers do to transform poetry's image from a source of fear and loathing to a meaningful genre that truly engages the soul?

Notes from Cindy Nichols
NDSU Magazine

I think it's fairly evident that, yeah, poetry is a marginalized genre in mainstream America. Even in its most popular forms, it simply doesn't sell the way that other genres do, the average person on the street doesn't appear to seek it out, and the great mass of my younger students have long reported feeling uneasy, dumb, indifferent, or occasionally even hostile to it.

Lyric poems tend to invite a lingering, concentrated attention to the way that words mean and feel, and this of course is not at all the kind of attention invited by most mass media, whose bombardment of disparate and shrill messages prompts something like stupefaction. I mean, we just can't sit there on our couches and watch a car bombing full of body parts and screaming children one second and a Viagra commercial featuring Bob Dole the next without overwhelming whatever faculty it is in our hearts and psyches that responds to lyric poetry.

. . . One big problem I see is the "academization" of poetry. Kids just love language patterns, textures and rhythms, they dig even how words and letters look. But somewhere along the line that pleasure is converted into distrust. Analyzing individual poems in the New Critical fashion, at least in the earlier grades, I think is extremely counter-productive. They learn that poetry is some sort of maliciously tricky genre imposed on them in the classroom, some kind of secret code they have to break to please a teacher.

. . .  Another problem is maybe the sheer number of poetry types. Really, the word "poetry" is just entirely insufficient for what falls under that rubric.

. . . In any case, I try to help my students with this by putting any given work in a literary, cultural and social context. On one hand, I try to demystify poetry - help students see that yeah, absolutely, they CAN understand it, it isn't written by Martians or the CIA, and, on the other hand, help them see that no one exactly knows what in the world this stuff really is. It's open and in flux, it's material for play, it's still ultimately mysterious even to the people who write it and write it well.

. . .  It's incredibly important to give students poems that matter to them and speak to them. For the most part, at certain points in their education, I think it's harmful to assign work which is centuries old, in an alien form of English.

I'd rather give them contemporary poems in the language they use everyday, help them see that poetry really does have to do with their lives. Once that foundation is established, they might be more receptive to classics. Once they're trusting and curious, they'll see that "translating" older material is just a necessary step to accessing the fabulous, screwed-up, weirdly familiar lives and minds of their own whack-job ancestors.

. . . I want to help students write and read poetry "dialogically." Maybe the word "conversational" is really enough. What I try to do is bring students into contact with a poem in a way that requires engaged openness. I don't want them observing poems, even though that can certainly be interesting. I want them to respond in kind; carry on a dialogue with a poem in its own language. I'm advocating, in other words, something like study by creative response rather than study by critical analysis.

My feeling in the classroom is: come on, you know you can do this. You think, speak and breathe the language of poetry all the time. It's part of the world. It's in Burger King commercials. It's in the language of your favorite sports newscaster, the wry crack of a dopey uncle, the line of a song that rips you to shreds. Write a poem in response to the poem. Talk back to the poet. Speak "poetry." Listen for the lower note, the odd resonance, the oblique meaning.

Just don't be a provincial and arrogant tourist (critic, theorist, scholar, student) who reads the guidebook, however long and hard, however 'intelligently,' takes a snapshot, and gets back on the bus.


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