Poetic injustice

I always thought I was an open-minded guy, but once I started teaching I had to prove it.

A salient example:

In an interview, Charles Bukowski, maybe the finest unknown American writer, was asked to name the three worst poets. Without hesitation, he said, “Rod McKuen. Rod McKuen. Rod McKuen.”

I’d agree with his assessment, except I think when it comes to crappy poets, almost all of them are tied for the worst. But as a teacher that’s irrelevant because inevitably, when discussing poetry, one of my students would say he or she absolutely loved poetry – especially Rod McKuen’s.

And there you have me — Mr. Open Mindedness, Hisself.

No way would I criticize the kid’s taste in poetry – or in anything – for the simple reason that teaching goes far beyond merely presenting material and correcting papers. It also involves a relationship. And, as with any relationship, you want it to be mutually pleasant and beneficial. And that will not happen if the teacher starts criticizing students’ pasttimes, fashions, tastes, or much of anything. Nor should it.

I recall a relevant example from my days at Old Siwash, in an American Lit class.

The teacher was a classic. He never prepared a lesson, he assigned readings he didn’t discuss, and all class time was taken up by him talking about his early childhood in Alabama, his marriage to a nudist, his days in the barracks, and so on. He was adored by one group of students  – those who didn’t want to do any work and knew they’d get a C if they showed up and looked like they gave a damn about his babblings. I hated the waste of time and had nothing but disdain for him, as a result.

Anyhow, one day he asked who our favorite writer was and which of their works we liked best. At that point I’d been a compulsive reader for years, my favorite author was John Steinbeck, and I’d read all his stuff, some of it a bunch of times.

I raised my hand, he called on me. “Steinbeck,” I said. “For ‘Of Mice and Men.'”

He shook his head and rolled his eyes as if he was dealing with a mental defective. After a significant pause for effect, he said, “No universality.”

That was it for his critique.

That was also it for my disdain for him. It instead morphed into seething contempt.

But it was a great learning experience.

I’d always wanted to be a teacher and studied my teachers as much as their course material. It was a mixed experience. While I knew what made the good ones good, I also knew I couldn’t simply imitate them. The bad ones, on the other hand, were great models for what to avoid. For instance, the guy who pretended to teach American lit. From him I learned not to go into class without a specific lesson and lots of examples to explain it, and to never criticize a student’s taste.

Neutrality patrol

I’m sure I failed with my vow not to criticize, but I certainly tried not to do, and for the most part succeeded. Basically, it required some slick acting on my behalf.

If a kid said his favorite author was some mono-dimensional hack who couldn’t write a plausible plot if his life depended on it, I’d nod my head and say something neutral like, “Yeah, he sure is popular with ______” (fill in the blank: Young people, Lovers, Military types, etc. ).

But student/teacher interactions weren’t only about writing; in fact, most were not. Routinely, students would mention a band or a comedian or a guru they liked but that I’d never heard of. When I told them I wasn’t familiar with whoever it was, they always offered to lend me a CD, DVD, book, article, something, for my enjoyment and enlightenment.

Almost always, I found the music discordant (or in the case of rap, unintelligible), the comedians making up in obscenity what they lacked in wit, and the pundits just vapid hustlers. But I got pretty good at squirming my way out of an honest (and hurtful) pronouncement. Generally, all it took was The Magic Word of Faux Criticism. Which, in case you didn’t know, that word is “interesting.”

It’s a great word for not describing anything specific, while at the same time sounding downright positive.

It was an interesting song … because it sounded as if it was written by a nitwit, performed by musical incompetents and recorded in a machine shop.

He was an interesting comedian … because he could talk nonstop for 40 minutes without every saying anything funny or even mildly insightful, and managed to do it with every other word being either blasphemous, scatological or just downright juvenile.

As for the wise man? Interesting, because he’s an obvious con, but gets supported in a lavish lifestyle by a bunch of sheep who think his endless string of cliches reveals The Wisdom of the Ages.

Fiction without friction

But while sounding positive (though actually being neutral) about things the students liked, what was a real challenge was doing the same thing with things the students wrote on their own — especially fiction and poetry.

Seeking High Art, they violated writing’s first rule, which is Write What You Know. So if you’re a kid from Syracuse who’s never been out of Syracuse and who’s writing a short story, it better take place in Syracuse and involve for the most part, kids.

But to young people in search of literary fame and fortune, this would be dull, boring and stupid. So they’d write about war or life on other planets or medieval royalty, or sometimes a combination of the three – a war on some planet that was like medieval Ireland or some such. And as you might imagine, all of it fell flatter than a latke.

With that stuff, I’d first critique the technique — sentence structure, paragraphing, dialogue, and so on – and tell the kid to correct it. After he brought in the rewrite, we’d talk about plot and character development and what could be done to improve that. And after that … nada, because there was no after that: No matter how much I said the essence of writing is rewriting, almost none of the students ever actually did it. So, mercifully, their fiction died a death far more ignominious than their characters, leaving both of us off the hook.

Rhyme and punishment

Student poetry was something else.

I like poetry and have read a fair amount of it. But I like good poetry, which is as easy to find as a unicorn. As far as I’m concerned, most poetry isn’t even poetry, so much as a few sentences written vertically. And beyond that, it’s usually so self-conscious and overwritten that it takes a strong stomach, more than a discerning ear, to slog through the stuff. And the poetry I’m referring to is what you see published.

So if most published poetry is, as we say in French, tout a fait dreck, what chance does a student have of writing anything good? The answer, with an exception every 15 or 20 years, is none.

But I had a good dodge with poems. After the kid asked me to read his stuff, I’d say yes but always added a caveat: I’d tell them that I liked poetry but really didn’t know enough about it to critique it. Inevitably, they’d still ask me to read it, which I did. Then I’d tell them it was obvious the student invested a lot of feelings in it and it showed commitment, the hallmark of a writer. Though vague, both things were true, and better yet, they got me out of having to say anything about the quality of the poem itself. Plus, the students always seemed satisfied with my “critique.”

While my way of dealing with student poetry was adequate, one of my colleagues had an approach that struck me as brilliant.

Ken Youngblood taught writing at North Country Community College and beyond, for a grand total of at least 40 years, and was a first-rate teacher. Beyond being diligent, concerned, skilled and tireless, Ken cared deeply about his students as people, something not lost on his students. Ken also has a rippin’ sense of humor and can laugh at his own foibles, as well as the rest of humankind’s.

Aside from all the Mr. Chips’ drag, Ken always dealt well critiquing students’ writing without hurting their feelings.

But one day a kid handed him a poem so bad, he found himself at a loss for words. The rhymes didn’t rhyme, the rhythm wasn’t consistent, the proofreading was lousy, and the sentiment was, as we Elizabethans say, much o’erdone.

But being the guy he is, he sat there with the kid and read it. Then he reread it, trying to think of what to say. Finally, in the third reading, he came up with a comment that was diplomatic and kind and should be engraved on the door of The Cop-out Hall of Fame.

“Well,” he said, “you really love to write, don’t you?”