Personal Literary Anecdote

When a man fell into his anecdotage, it was a sign for him to retire from the world.

—Benjamin Disraeli

I generally distrust personal anecdote in literary criticism. It seems so subjective, so limited, indeed, so anecdotal. But sometimes stories can convey complicated information more easily than abstract argumentation. Let me illustrate my thesis with four short personal anecdotes. First, let me recall my childhood in Los Angeles. I was raised among working-class people, none of whom had any higher education and many of whom were born speaking Spanish or Italian. Yet most of them liked poetry—not exclusively or excessively, of course—but they considered it one of life’s many pleasures. They knew poems by heart and quoted them unselfconsciously. They also liked hearing poetry recited. These were generally people who were otherwise suspicious of intellectual things. But they quoted these poems, nearly all of which they had learned in school, with obvious pleasure and pride. Their education, however limited, had instilled an appetite and appreciation for poetry.

My second anecdote comes from my own literary education. By the time I entered high school in 1965, California teenagers were taught poetry mostly as close reading of a visual text on a printed page. We were never asked to memorize a poem. Indeed, we rarely even read complete poems aloud in class. Instead, we read and analyzed poems, line by line, word by word, as clusters of meaning on the page. The act of ‘reading a poem,’ at least in class, was to paraphrase and then comment on these small verbal clusters.

A few years later at Stanford, I saw close reading and other critical methods applied with fundamentalist zeal. If a student dared to make some personal remark or subjective observation about a poem, he or she was immediately corrected. Such comments were considered embarrassing amateur blunders. The only proper reading of poems was ‘objective,’ which is to say abstract, analytical, and disin-terested consideration of the printed text. That approach was often revelatory, but it was seldom rapturous. It is interesting to note the academic use of the term ‘reading’ to encompass both the experience and analysis of a poem as a single action (just as the earlier conception of ‘singing’ had combined musical and verbal creation as a single action).

My third anecdotal observation occurs twenty years later when I had my first stint as a teacher. I led a graduate seminar on poetic form at Sarah Lawrence College, an elite private institution just outside of New York City. The course had about 15 graduate students, all from good colleges, all studying for academic careers in literature. (Most of them wanted to become teachers of creative writing.) A few weeks into the course we arrived at the sonnet, and I asked each student to memorize one of Shakespeare’s sonnets. This assignment met with initial resistance and much anxiety from the students. Not one of them, I learned, had ever been required, at any point in their education, to memorize a poem. They also did not understand why it made sense for a student, even a graduate student of literature, to memorize a poem. Heartlessly, I insisted that they fulfill the assignment.

The next week when they recited their chosen sonnets, I was generally pleased by their accuracy. What distressed me was their delivery. Their awkward utterances hardly sounded like spoken English. It became obvious that they had memorized the poems on the wrong side of their brain—in visual memory, not auditory memory. When they recited, they seemed to be reading some internal visual text aloud. One student later said something that astonished me. She claimed she had never thought of poetry as something to be spoken aloud, only something to be read silently on the page.

Taken together, these three anecdotes suggest the changes that occurred across three generations—from the time of my parents to that of my students. At least in America, the literary curriculum had gone from a system in which students memorized and recited poetry to one which was so visual and analytical that it excluded memorization and performance.

My fourth and final anecdote is more positive, and it suggests that the literary culture is again changing. When I became Chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts in 2003, I hoped to make arts education a primary objective of federal cultural policy. American students needed to experience the arts as a natural part of their schooling. This was an immensely complicated and expensive goal, fraught with legislative, bureaucratic, operational, and financial challenges. We decided to start with a program that could be executed quickly on a large scale without a huge investment. What we conceived was a national poetry recitation contest for high school students that would begin at a class level, and then move on to school, local, state, and national competitions. We successfully tested the idea in Chicago and Washington D.C., but when the agency tried to expand it, the arts education officials in the 50 states initially refused to adopt it.

The state arts education experts had four major objections to the program. First, they believed that students hated poetry. (Am I wrong to suspect that this assumption suggests that the experts themselves disliked poetry?) Second, they maintained that memorization was repressive and stifled creativity. Some of them added that memorization victimized minority students since standard English was not spoken in their homes. Third, they unanimously felt that competition had no place in the arts. There should be no winners or losers. In arts education, everyone should win. Finally, there was a general feeling among the educators that poetry was too intellectual for the average student. It was not an accessible art. In 2003 this dismal diagnosis was what arts education experts thought of poetry. Is it any wonder they didn’t want the program?

It took a great deal of politicking, but eventually the NEA got all 50 states to try the competition for one year. We called the program Poetry Out Loud, and the Poetry Foundation of Chicago agreed to help fund it. There was a consensus among the state arts experts that the program would fail. We agreed that if it did not meet expectations, the NEA would give the state arts agencies the program’s modest budget to do other things in the following year.

What happened, however, was that Poetry Out Loud was a huge and immediate success. Even though the program was poorly funded and not fully available in most states, Poetry Out Loud soon had hundreds of thousands of American teenagers memorizing and reciting poems in thousands of competitions at a local, state, and national level. Students actually liked poetry once they took it off the page. Growing up in an entertainment culture dominated by hip hop, these teenagers felt more comfortable hearing and reciting poetry than reading and analyzing it. Sound and performance was the right entry point into the art. The competitive format also added a special energy to the recitals. At these competitions, the students not only performed their poems, they also heard the poems recited by others. The performers and the audience were saturated in poetry sometimes for hours. The administrators and arts consultants were openly astonished by the program’s popularity. Meanwhile the teachers were surprised that the best performers were usually not the best academic students. The winners were often problem kids—the class clown, the sullen athlete, the previously silent outsider. Moreover teachers noted that the energy of the competition spilled over into the rest of the course work, as students developed an increased comfort and command of literary language.

At the national finals I noticed another surprising thing. Year after year about half of the winners were first-generation Americans, kids from immigrant families who had been raised speaking another language until they entered school—Chinese, Arabic, Spanish, Portuguese, Hindi, Farsi, Creole, Russian. These were exactly the students for whom literature classes are usually most difficult. But memorizing and reciting poetry provided them with powerful means of assimilating and mastering English. Poetry proved educationally effective, just as it had for thousands of years when it was used to teach grammar, elocution, and rhetoric. This experience confirmed my conviction that there is actually a widespread appetite for poetry—if the art can be made accessible and engaging. It also demonstrated the power of performative knowledge in humanistic education. Poetry Out Loud has just celebrated its tenth anniversary. Two and a half million students have participated in the competition.

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  1. Three author anecdotes = prove for changes in poetry (memorization/recitation —-> reading/analyzing). Poetry Out Loud = success = a new change (widespread appetite for poetry).


  2. learning poetry changed, program = success


  3. MIP: 1) anecdote = useful; 2) poetry reciting is good.


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