Okay, I admit it. I really don’t have anything pithy to say along those lines–but I was teaching Dickinson today as sort of a reward to myself for not strangling any students so far in the year, and I had an epiphany. (No, it was not that all of Dickinson’s poetry seems to sing well to Yellow Rose of Texas–but I do understand that’s true!)
It was actually a literary epiphany. It was sort of cool.
The thing is, Dickinson tends write mini, twelve line, 65-75 word essays, and I totally got that today.
Don’t believe me? let’s look at that title piece.
The Soul selects her own Society —
Then — shuts the Door —
To her divine Majority —
Present no more —
Unmoved — she notes the Chariots — pausing —
At her low Gate —
Unmoved — an Emperor be kneeling
Upon her Mat —
I’ve known her — from an ample nation —
Choose One —
Then — close the Valves of her attention —
Like Stone —
The first line is a thesis– an oddly worded, richly imaged subject and opinion line. An essay thesis.
Okay. Wow. Is it true?
The Soul (like a queen) holds her own court (society) with her chosen people. And like a queen, She holds court in her own little chamber, behind closed doors. No one else can get in. The divine Majority was the mention that the kings and queens, got heaven’s vote–they literally had a ‘divine majority’ when working with a government. So, essentially, although reason may say, “that’s bullshit!” and emotion may say, “I’m lonely, bitch!” the Soul has made her choice–she votes them both down, and she wins.
The rest is all proof and explanation.
There’s the Soul, looking down from her little chamber window, and she sees the human traffic begging for her attention– the Chariots pausing– but really? She doesn’t give a shit. It doesn’t matter who’s asking to be let in, either. Kings, Emperors, fathers, lovers– screw ’em. The Soul is a divine Majority, and she just wins.
She’s given lots of people– like, say, the entire town of Amherst Mass.– from which to choose from, but she’s picky. One person will get in, and then the Valves of her heart-of-Stone attention are shut, and she tells the rest of us to piss off.
The Soul does, indeed, select her own Society.
And that’s short and pithy–but then, so is Dickinson. In a way, it’s not poetry–pretty much every tiny, calculated, perfectly crafted little word-piece I went over today had the same structure. The kids even recognized it– we teach them format from the cradle:
Thesis/ (or, in the case of one paragraph)Topic Sentence
That’s the paragraph structure we give them when we’re teaching them to write. If you consider that Dickinson’s metaphors serve as both concrete detail and (as you’re explaining them) commentary, you can feel the entire organic nature of the process.
It was a cool realization– especially because we’re in testing season, and I LOATHE testing season.
The thing is, we take hits for not exposing the kids to every standard on the state test–and they divide stuff into genre. My stand has always been that if you can interpret poetry you can structure an essay. It is all manipulation of language to this weird, hardwired format we have in our heads from the first moment we heard our parents bullshit on the back porch on a long summer night. Any guy on his second six pack can still remember– you make the idiot statement first, and then you have at least two pieces of proof to back it up.
“See, the thing is… we all… just build walls, man. That’s it. We build fucking walls to keep people out! And it’s true, man. See, for starters, once we get a friend, we can just watch the whole world pass by beneath us, dude. And it doesn’t fucking matter, because, we’ve got our peoples, don’t we? Yeah, buddy, I’m talking to you. So, like, the fucking King of Drunkaria could be on my fucking doormat man, and I’d like tell him to piss off, cause I’ve got my people, right? Man, and once that gate’s closed–man, it’s like a fucking stone wall! See man… like I said, we just build ourselves some fucking walls!”
So there you go. You’ve got a thesis, you’ve got proof and explanation, and you’ve got it in three languages. You’ve got it in the unparalleled minimalism of Dickinson’s poetry, you’ve got it in my half-arsed essay format, and you’ve got it in Drunken Idiot– and it’s all the same message and it’s all the same critical thinking skill, and that should be that, right?
Except we’re moving into Idiot Land with our testing now– where we treat kids like idiots and they’re sure we’ve lived in their land for all our lives. Every time we teach to THE TEST with TEST STANDARD’S A, B, AND C lined up in nice little ducks, we’ve just denied them the ability to make that jump from poetry to prose to drunken idiot all on their own. Every time we tell them they’re learning something because ‘it’s on the fucking test’ we’re denying them the intrinsic benefits of what we’re teaching, and we may as well be up in front of the class singing the goddamned Yellow Rose of Texas, because gods know, that’s going to be on the fucking test too.
So, the thing is, our school is offering extrinsic rewards for testing. If a kid gets an Advanced on the test, they can turn that in for a 10% grade increase in this semester’s grade. Now, personally, I think that’s kind of awesome. If we make the test the be-all and end-all of their educational carrot, there has GOT to be something in it for them. After all, we’re teaching to the fucking test because there’s something in it for us, right? Job, prestige, the right to hold up our heads at teaching bragging sessions or have spiffy T-shirts printed out with our API scores emblazoned on the front. (I shit you not, Chicken’s school does this. They also get specially made up pens.) We have systematically slaughtered every bit of intrinsic value in the subject that we teach by pinning the whole fucking shebang on the fucking test. Is it any wonder that our kids need an extrinsic carrot to find the purpose in things? We’ve taken the real purpose of literature right on out of what we’re doing.
Which, I guess, is a convoluted way of addressing a colleague (esteemed, but, I felt, not necessarily thinking things through) who felt that we were flushing our integrity down the toilet by offering the kids a grade incentive.
Buttercup, that turd done been flushed.
I’m going back to Dickinson now. She’s got this poem about Much Insanity is Divinest Sense, and that puppy makes me feel right at home.