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What We Lose When We Rip the Heart Out of Arts Education

It's National Poetry Month, but if the Common Core has its way, our children will hardly know what poetry is.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Aaron Amat via Shutterstock.com

 

“No, no. You’ve got something the test and machines will never be able to measure: you’re artistic. That’s one of the tragedies of our times, that no machine has ever been built that can recognize that quality, appreciate it, foster it, sympathize with it.” —Paul Proteus to his wife Anita in Kurt Vonnegut’s  Player Piano

“So much depends upon a red wheel barrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens” is, essentially, a grammatical sentence in the English language. While the syntax is somewhat out of the norm, the diction is accessible to small children—the hardest word likely being “depends.” But  “The Red Wheelbarrow” by William Carlos Williams is much more than a sentence; it is a poem:

so much depends
upon

a red wheel
barrow

glazed with rain
water

beside the white
chickens.

A relatively simple sentence shaped into purposeful lines and stanzas becomes poetry. And like Langston Hughes' “Harlem” and Gwendolyn Brooks’ “We Real Cool,” it sparks in me a profoundly important response each time I read these poems: I wish I had written that. It is the same awe and wonder I felt as a shy, self-conscious teenager when I bought, collected and read comic books, marveling at the artwork I wished I had drawn.

Will we wake one morning soon to find the carcasses of poems washed up on the beach by the tsunami of the Common Core?

That question, especially during  National Poetry Month, haunts me more every day, notably because of the double-impending doom augured by the Common Core: the rise of nonfiction (and the concurrent erasing of poetry and fiction) from the ELA curriculum and the mantra-of-the-moment, “close reading” (the  sheep’s clothing for that familiar old wolf New Criticism):

We have come to a moment in the history of the U.S. when we no longer even pretend to care about art. And poetry is the most human of the arts—the very human effort to make order out of chaos, meaning out of the meaningless: “ Daddy, daddy, you bastard, I’m through” ( Sylvia Plath, “Daddy”).

***

The course was speech, taught by Mr. Brannon. I was a freshman at a junior college just 15-20 miles from my home. Despite the college’s close proximity to my home, my father insisted I live on campus. But that class and those first two years of college were more than living on campus; they were the essential beginning of my life.

In one of the earliest classes, Mr. Brannon read aloud and gave us a copy of “[in Just-]“ by e. e. cummings. I imagine that moment was, for me, what many people describe as a religious experience. That was more than 30 years ago, but I own two precious books that followed from that day in class: cummings’ Complete Poems and Selected Poems. Several years later, Emily Dickinson‘s Complete Poems would join my commitment to reading every poem by those poets who made me respond over and over , I wish I had written that.

But my introduction to cummings was more than just finding the poetry I wanted to read; it was when I realized I was a poet. Now, when the words “j was young&happy” come to me, I know there is work to do—I recognize the gift of poetry.

***

As a high school English teacher, I divided my academic year into quarters by genre/form: nonfiction, poetry, short fiction, and novels/plays. The poetry quarter, when announced to students, initially received moans and even direct complaints: “I hate poetry.” That always broke my heart. Life and school had already taken something very precious from these young people: