Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Kingston Trio and Teaching Poetry

This is an odd time for me. I've finished a draft of my current novel, The Whole Show, and am waiting to begin editing on the novel that comes out in the fall, Listen All You Bullets. It feels like there's nothing to work on right now, though I know there always is.

The shift from long work to short is difficult sometimes, and this seems to be one of those times. My reading is all over the place, too. I just got Peter Campion's first book in the mail, Other People. It's quite good. I became a fan of Campion before I'd read his poetry because of his response to a paper presented by Tony Hoagland at the AWP in Boston, which I wrote of previously.

Anyway, what is interesting so far is how Campion's poetry seems in no way to argue overtly for his stance (probably because it's one of many positions, whereas Hoagland's stance seems to be his one position and in his last book each poem in some way argues for it).

I am thinking, for instance, of a poem in which a middle-class African American family encounters a foreign maid in an upscale hotel. The poem seems to argue that racism is all over, or maybe that it has nothing to do with race, that everything is about class. Whatever it argues, the reason it fails is because the speaker's position is not critiqued in any way. The tone is patronizing because the white speaker constructs this scene to show two marginalized groups (the individuals are meant to stand for their group) acting poorly toward one another. It seems to be a rationalization of discrimination: "See, it's natural! They do it too!"

It is the worst kind of poetry to me, the kind that wants to teach you a lesson, but the lesson has been accepted long ago. It's what I hate about most historical fiction, especially what I know of Canadian historical fiction: it takes a story from history and tells it from the point of view of some marginalized person. There is never any doubt about the marginalization being morally wrong, because now, safely in the 21st century, we know that slavery is wrong, for instance. It is a soporific and causes readers to ignore what is wrong right here and right now. It's also a bit odd sometimes to see the pleasure a writer seems to get in describing indignities and horrors, and alarming to see the pleasure readers get in the depiction of the same.

And all the while, the writer and the reader are at a safe historical distance and in agreement from the start. In Hoagland's poem, the reader and the writer are safely excluded because they are white and the characters are not; they have dealt with their historical racism and are living in a post-race world and they only hope the others will follow their lead.

It's like that old Kingston Trio song with a chorus something like "They don't do things like that anymore, do they?" (In the song it's ironic, of course.)

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