Thursday, January 05, 2017

Why I've Never Been The Biggest Fan Of Poetry

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, I had a friend who got an MFA in Creative Writing.  He was a poet.  Part of the MFA program was "workshopping", where students took the "rough drafts" of their creative work to a group of fellow students and as a group they worked on improving the writing.  He used to tell me what other students would say about his poems, what they'd "get" from his writing.  I'd ask, "Is that what you meant to convey?", and more often than not he'd say something like "No, but poetry is about what you get out of it."  I would counter with, "As the writer, aren't you supposed to be conveying your thoughts, what you want the reader to get from it?"  The discussion would usually devolve from there.

*Sigh*.  Clearly I'm just not artsy enough.

That story came rushing back to me today as I read this piece in the Huffington Post, of all places:
When I realized I couldn’t answer the questions posed about two of my own poems on the Texas state assessment tests (STAAR Test), I had a flash of panic – oh, no! Not smart enough. Such a dunce. My eyes glazed over. I checked to see if anyone was looking. The questions began to swim on the page. Waves of insecurity. My brain in full spin...

Dose of reality: test makers are for-profit organizations. My poems are a whole lot cheaper than Mary Oliver’s or Jane Kenyon’s, so there’s that. But how would your vulnerable, nervous, number two pencil-gripping seventh grade self have felt opening your test packet to analyze poetic lines such as this: I’m just down with a sniffly case/of sudden-self-loathing-syndrome…an unexpected extra serving/ of just-for-now-self-hate.
Seriously? Hundreds of my poems in print and they choose THAT one? Self-loathing and self-hate? Kids need an extra serving of those emotions on testing day?...

Teachers are also trying to survive as they are tasked with teaching kids how to take these tests, which they do by digging through past tests, posted online. Forget joy of language and the fun of discovery in poetry, this is line-by-line dissection, painful and delivered without anesthetic. One teacher wrote to me last month, working after 10 p.m., trying to figure out the test maker’s interpretation of my poem MIDNIGHT, This poem isn’t quite as jarring as A REAL CASE, simply symptomatic of aforementioned neuroses: It’s about insomnia...

These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions.

Then I went online and searched Holbrook/MIDNIGHT/Texas and the results were terrifying. Dozens of districts, all dissecting this poem based on poorly formatted test prep materials.

Texas, please know, this was not the author’s purpose in writing this poem.
I KNEW IT! I knew the author was supposed to convey his/her own purpose in poetry!  But let's continue:
Meantime, here is my question:

37. Does this guessing game mostly evidence:

A the literacy mastery of the student?

B the competency of the student’s teacher?

C the absurdity of the questions?

D the fact that the poet, although she has never put her head in an oven, definitely has issues.

Let’s go with D since I definitely have issues, including issues with these ridiculous test questions.
The author then goes on an anti-standardized-testing rant, with which I cannot entirely concur.  But I like the conclusion, which is completely supported by the facts at hand:
My final reflection is this: any test that questions the motivations of the author without asking the author is a big baloney sandwich. Mostly test makers do this to dead people who can’t protest. But I’m not dead.
I protest.
That the author completely supports my side of the argument in the discussion with my friend of long ago is entirely ancillary.

On the other hand, because of that friend I understand the "head in an oven" reference, so all is not lost.  Perhaps I'm artsy enough after all.

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