“On Poetry’s Relevancy” and a Reading Poetry Exercise

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Class: Writing Poetry (Virginia Commonwealth University)

Genre: Poetry

Purpose: To encourage students to be generous, curious, and discerning readers of poetry and to consider poetry’s impact on culture.

Readings: Poetry‘s July/August 2014 issue that includes poems by Dean Young, Philip Fried, D.A. Powell, Traci Brimhall, Devin Johnston, Rosanna Warren, Amanda Calderon, Thomas Sayers Ellis, Rickey Laurentiis, Timothy Donnelly, and Alice Fulton

Sharing “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” Assignment
Several volunteers will share their “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” assignment (500 words, completed outside of class) in order to start a discussion on the topic. Students should feel free to debate this question, supporting and/or countering one another’s arguments. Some students may take a more person approach, answering the question “Why is poetry relevant to me, my life?,” whereas other students might consider macro reasons as in, “Why is poetry relevant to society? Our culture? Politics?”

ON POETRY’S RELEVANCY
In a class in which the term “relatable” is banned, it may be difficult to understand why the “relevancy” of poetry is, well, relevant to our discussion. Aren’t these two concepts synonymous? Don’t they both suggest poetry’s ability to appeal to our emotional, cultural, or intellectual needs? Let’s break it down. “Relatability” as a concept, used in comments like “The poem’s subject matter of a child’s dog being run over by a car is so relatable because we’ve all lost something or someone that’s close to us,” has the expectation that, as Rebecca Mead writes in The New Yorker, “the work itself be somehow accommodating to, or reflective of, the experience of the reader or viewer.” “Relevancy,” however, suggests that the work has social or practical pertinence or applications, meaning you can use the poem as a means to access other points of view and to understand your own role in society. “Relatability” is a connection between what you’ve already done and what’s happening in the poem. “Relevancy” is a movement between who you are now and how you can understand what’s going on in the world. “Relatability” is predicated on the past, whereas “relevancy” is predicated on the present and, for some, what’s to come. One looks backward, one looks forward. “Relatability” is passive, and “relevancy” is active.

Patricia Smith’s poem “Skinhead” is in the persona of a white supremacist who says things like:

I’m just a white boy who loves his race,
fighting for a pure country.
Sometimes it’s just me. Sometimes three. Sometimes 30.
AIDS will take care of the faggots,
then it’s gon’ be white on black in the streets.

Scary, right? It may be helpful to know that Patricia Smith is a poet of African descent. So, ask yourselves, why has she chosen to write in the voice of a violent white supremacist? Perhaps it’s an act of empathy, of trying to understand this person, but I imagine it would be incredibly hard to have any sort of tenderness toward such a person. Or: she has chosen to draw our attention to this kind of voice in our country so that we can know about this sort of threat. Or: she has situated herself in direct with white supremacists and saying, “See, I know what you’re thinking.” In that way, it may make her appear stronger for having gone through the writing of this poem, and in some ways, she may have triumphed over this point of view by bearing witness to it. Whatever the reason, this poem is certainly not “relatable” to Patricia Smith or, I hope, to you. But is it relevant? Discuss.

In-Class Assignment
Break up into groups of two or three. I will assign each group one poem from the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry that you read over the weekend. Read the poem, and then compare your “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” essays. Now, do the following:

  • Write down how this poems moves. Is it narrative (it tells a story)? Associative, meaning it jumps around a lot? If it’s associative, consider how the poet jumps between each line? For instance, in “Romanticism 101” by Dean Young, what’s the train of thought that has “Then I realized I hadn’t secured the boat. / Then I realized my friend had lied to me. / Then I realized my dog was gone” all on the same tracks? (How do the boat/friend/dog relate?) Is it literal, meaning it sticks to “Just the facts” or does it employ figurative language like simile and metaphor (as Rosanna Warren does: “still she offered each song, / she said, like an Appalachian artifact.”)
  • Now compare your “Why Is Poetry Relevant?” essays. Does this poem exemplify any of the points in your essays? Why or why not? Be sure to address points made in each essay.
  • If you didn’t think the poem exemplified some of your points, think of why other readers might find the poem valuable. If the poem did appeal to your points, think about why other readers might not think the poem is valuable? Consider multiple points of view. Write this down and type it up later as an addendum to your essays. Post it to Blackboard before Thursday, August 28th.
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