Poetry and teaching

Manually reblogging again.

To be honest, I don’t like Lang Leav. I always construed her poems as a sentence broken into poetry through line breaks.

(Oof. That sounds harsh.)

But I got smacked with the question of whether my dislike is wholly warranted when I got to read this. Two things:

One,

I do recognize the merit in her poetry. Her words are plain. Her rhyme and rhythm simple. Her metaphors and figurative language easily comprehensible. She is no Nick Joaquin, Vladimir Nabokov (have you read his love letters?), or Pablo Neruda, . . .

And two,

. . . BUT her poetry is able to reach people, which is more than I can say for Shakespeare, who, for all his brilliance, easily alienates potential lovers of literature.

Lang Leav’s work is great material for introducing people to the beauty of poetry. I accept that she’s not the be-all and end-all of poetry, but I believe it’s no reason to decry her work. My students have come to appreciate poetry because of her work, and they’ve opened up to the possibility of more complex literature because they weren’t immediately turned off.
THIS, my dear friends, is why I will always defend Lang Leav.

If this is a pure profession for my dislike of Lang Leav, I would piggyback on Number One and try my best to sound like a credible English professor dissecting her work through hyperlinks and Facebook Likes. And a horrible sophist by trying to discount, as much as possible, the merit of Number Two.

But I’m not here for that.

(And I’m not a sophist, much less a horrible one, so I’m not here for that either.)

What I’d like to say, though, is what these two things represent. For me they represent two different threads of judgment, either of which ends up with the conclusion that it’s not good to dismiss her work—or anybody else’s, that is—because of such subjective standards.

*

I’ll call Number One “skill” and Number Two “company.”

Lang Leav doesn’t employ the same skill that Nabokov, Neruda, or Nick Joaquin employ. She just doesn’t drown me with feelings the way Louise Glück or Danton Remoto would; she doesn’t baffle me in intricate metaphor and sophistication the way Allan Popa or Abner Dormiendo would.

But maybe I’m just not the audience for her work.

And that’s fine.

Because what she does really well is connect and be with people, which is why I termed Number Two “company.” If we’re talking about reach, then hell, in all likelihood, she reaches more people through her posts and her poetry than all those four latter names I supplied combined.

One Facebook post from her is influential.

And, right now, I call it company because it makes my students say: Oh, somebody else also feels this way, or, She took the words right out of my head!, or, better, She told me things I couldn’t have imagined saying!

Exactly, “introducing people to the beauty of poetry.”

And breaking through, I guess that’s what I’d call it, takes the form of company.

Company that “breaks through” is most important in teaching, in friendships, in opening up to one another, in therapy, in psychology, so forth and so on.

If you can break through to a student, then you’ve done your job well as a teacher. Sometimes that’s all you can do—they’ll do the rest on their own.

If you’ve done everything you can to reach out to somebody—through their skills, their interests, their hobbies, their learning styles, anything—yet you can’t break through, then you can’t.

You try anew next meeting. Next week. Next quarter. Next school year.

And if there’s anything I’m sure of, Ria is not some run-of-the-mill teacher—I doubt she would have lasted this long, this passionately, this rigorously, if her teaching is lukewarm at best.

So Lang Leav, as it turns out, is one of the most effective tools to break through people, in a way that the brilliance of William Shakespeare and John Milton just wouldn’t. (Yes, even I who appreciate literature so much can’t get my hands on an Oxford Classics Paradise Lost for fear of, literally, not understanding anything.)

Sure, Shakespeare and Milton provides for the building blocks of today’s English vernacular—e.g., many of the words in the English language came from Shakespeare’s imagination—but you don’t make a student who struggles discriminating between “visage” and “mirage” read Hamlet, for crying out loud.

*

An interesting wrinkle in all this:

[Students have] opened up to the possibility of more complex literature . . .

. . . because of easily accessible and understandable literature by Lang Leav and company.

And guess what? “More complex literature” is actually . . . those which fall under the “skill” category.

If students get satiated with Lang Leav, then perchance, in their search for more emotionally-devastating poets, they stumble upon Glück or Neruda, Remoto or Dormiendo.

Lang Leav is there to ease you into the sea; there is a whole new world beneath the surface.

But you won’t get to see the sea if nobody eased you into it.

*

“He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone,” Jesus is quoted in the Book of John (8:7), and certainly, I don’t know what “good poetry” constitutes of, so who am I to judge.

There’s just “what I like” versus “what I don’t like” versus “I don’t think this is how poems should look like??” which doesn’t make me an authority at all in this whole poetry business.

Nailing a definition for “poetry”—much more “good poetry”—is difficult, considering I’m not even familiar with the history of poetry or even basic rhyme and meter.

As Jessica Zafra is wont to say, “How can you think outside the box if you’ve never seen the damn box? Know what you are overthrowing, and then stage your revolution.”

So no, how Lang Leav breaks the convention—what I term “broken sentences”—is not even for me to pass judgment on.

I don’t even know how to judge or how to define what convention to judge in is.

*

In the end, can’t we just say that she caters to a (massively) different audience?

And it’s an influence that is being put to good use.

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