Recommended Essay: “Twenty Little Poems That Could Save America,” by Tony Hoagland

Tony Hoagland’s piece in Harper’s, which you can read here, is long and worth the length. His opening salvo is a lament for the state of poetry in schools, and an argument for poetry’s necessity:

 . . . poetry is our common treasure-house, and we need its aliveness, its respect for the subconscious, its willingness to entertain ambiguity; we need its plaintive truth-telling about the human condition and its imaginative exhibitions of linguistic freedom, which confront the general culture’s more grotesque manipulations. We need the emotional training sessions poetry conducts us through. We need its previews of coming attractions: heartbreak, survival, failure, endurance, understanding, more heartbreak.

He’s certainly not the first to suggest that students (and sometimes teachers too!) have a difficult time engaging with non-contemporary poetry, but I like his concrete proposal for building a common American cultural vernacular: teach twenty contemporary poems to all students.

Now, I know there’s a lot of talk out there in the education world about Common Core standards, and I’m not going to get into it here (I have my doubts, to put it mildly.). But I do think it’s essential, as does Hoagland that we all share at least some cultural references in common. I’ve written before about the all-university summer reading requirement at Ohio State, and how wonderful that was.

As I used to tell my students, you’ll be awfully embarrassed at your in-laws’ cocktail party/barbecue/mini-golf outing/gallery opening if you don’t know who Hamlet is.

What I especially like about Mr. Hoagland’s piece is his suggestion that we do not jettison the classics, but rather work backwards toward them:

The cultural chain has been broken, as anyone paying attention knows. Moreover, the written word always needs renewal. Art must be recast continually. “Dover Beach” and “My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun” are not lost, but instead are being rewritten again and again, a hundred times for each new generation. Culture is always reanimating itself, and when it does so, it validates, reorganizes, and reinvigorates the past as well as the present.

If anthologies were structured to represent the way that most of us actually learn, they would begin in the present and “progress” into the past. I read Lawrence Ferlinghetti before I read D. H. Lawrence before I read Thomas Wyatt. Once the literate appetite is whetted, it will keep turning to new tastes. A reader who first falls in love with Billy Collins or Mary Oliver is likely then to drift into an anthology that includes Emily Dickinson and Thomas Hardy.

Brilliant. And true; pairing contemporary poems with older poems is an excellent teaching method, in my experience. Students are surprised (and thrilled) to learn just how sex-filled John Donne’s poetry is (oh is it ever), and that a good number of Shakespeare’s sonnets were written to a man.

You’ll find the list of twenty poems that Mr. Hoagland recommends at the end of his essay.  I’d add Gwendolyn Brooks’s “We Real Cool” and “Ecstatic in the Poison” by Andrew Hudgins. Which poem or poems would you add?

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