Monday, June 08, 2009

is billy collins killing poetry? and the poetic line


over at first thoughts and siris they're having a small informal symposium on a question that essentially boiled down to this: is billy collins writing slam poetry for the upper middle class? you can say what you will about billy collins, whether you think he's killing poetry or not. i believe poetry has a pretty high tolerance level for bad writing (it's been happening for years), and if billy collins is the end of poetry as we know it, it would certainly not be for the reason that he is writing slam poetry for yuppies.

i cannot, however, let the post by the blogger at siris go by without response. he urged us to consider the collins poem 'another reason:
The neighbors' dog will not stop barking.
He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark
that he barks every time they leave the house.
They must switch him on on their way out.
You could take the same thing and write it all together with no change, and it would be part of an essay, or of a novel, or of a letter home:
The neighbors' dog will not stop barking. He is barking the same high, rhythmic bark that he barks every time they leave the house. They must switch him on on their way out.
And you will have lost nothing. It is a poem, in the most basic sense that it is crafted language for the sake of the language, but the differences between Billy Collins and (say) Garrison Keillor, setting aside topics, are entirely incidental.
he is actually making this point along the way to his inverse point, that scattering whatever random sentences you find around a page does not necessarily make it poetry (an advertiser could do this, he says), but the fact remains that changing these lines does change this poem fundamentally. siris mistakenly thinks that because a poem is endstopped at normal breath points, therefore it would be the same were it in paragraph format. this is simply not true. all that an endstopped breath means is that the poet wanted the momentum of the line to end there, and not carry on into the next line. to say that collins in a paragraph form is the exact same neglects completely the possible elements of tone embedded in lineation. and with a poet like collins (or keillor) , it's not a stretch to say that tone is 9/10ths of the poem. for a helpful essay on tone, check out real sofistikashun by tony hoagland

siris also makes what i think is an unhelpful distinction between verse and poetry. i suppose it's helpful if you want to have a term that refers only to a relatively strict formal aesthetic, but this seems based more on a bias towards aesthetic rather than helpful distinction. especially when you consider the fact that someone who would fall under siris's category of "poetry" but not "verse" would be robert lowell. if you look at lowell's most famous poems, however, it would not be hard to turn them into his definition of "turns and returns of language":
Thirsting for
the hierarchie privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
becomes:
Thirsting for the hierarchie privacy
of Queen Victoria's century,
she buys up all
the eyesores facing her shore, and lets them fall.
you can see that lowell does indeed have a very simple rhyme scheme at work here, but he has chosen to deliberately lineate this poem differently.

poetry, is not only, as he concludes, "the craft of making excellent language" (and therefore great prose can be effective in the same way that a poem is ultimately). there is a deliberateness in poetry that does not exist in prose. a writer of prose does not intend to do anything except write in paragraphs. a poet, however, always has the options of writing in more than just a paragraph. therefore, the decision to write in lines or paragraphs, or in hypertext even, is a deliberate decision (and therefore, indicative of a reason, or at least the potential of a reason).

this is distinguished from ads, however, because an ad is, more or less, limited by the page on which it is printed. hence line breaks come from another necessity than the decision of the poet (though such a necessity can sometimes be parallel in reasoning to poetry, as for instance, in the timing and pace of text on an ad). in this sense, form poems are more likely to share a relationship with ads, because their limitation is, in some sense, imposed upon them (though again, by the deliberate choice of the poet). this stands in contrast to free verse, which 'ideally' allows the poem itself to determine its 'form' (the meandering and occasionally anxious timing and rhyme scheme of "Prufrock" being the perfect example of this).

A Whole 'Nother Reason Higher Education is Collapsing...

From Edge Magazine:

"Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning", he writes. "There is fundamental challenge to the foundational modus operandi of the University — the model of pedagogy. Specifically, there is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn."

The old-style lecture, with the professor standing at the podium in front of a large group of students, is still a fixture of university life on many campuses. It's a model that is teacher-focused, one-way, one-size-fits-all and the student is isolated in the learning process. Yet the students, who have grown up in an interactive digital world, learn differently. Schooled on Google and Wikipedia, they want to inquire, not rely on the professor for a detailed roadmap. They want an animated conversation, not a lecture. They want an interactive education, not a broadcast one that might have been perfectly fine for the Industrial Age, or even for boomers. These students are making new demands of universities, and if the universities try to ignore them, they will do so at their peril.

Contrary to Nicholas Carr's proposition that Google is making us stupid, Tapscott counters with the following:

My research suggests these critics are wrong. Growing up digital has changed the way their minds work in a manner that will help them handle the challenges of the digital age. They're used to multi-tasking, and have learned to handle the information overload. They expect a two-way conversation. What's more, growing up digital has encouraged this generation to be active and demanding enquirers. Rather than waiting for a trusted professor to tell them what's going on, they find out on their own on everything from Google to Wikipedia.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

The Collapse of Higher Education?


As you may have noticed, I am a sporadic blogger. I will post incessantly for a week, and then nothing at all. It is all related to my level of down time, in which I am able to just be lazy and ponder possibilities. As we speak, despite my insane amounts of work to do, I am doing a bit of self-imposed laziness. It's good for the soul. Tomorrow, though, I hit the books hard.

In the meantime, you may have noticed (if you follow my Google Reader share feed) that I've been posting articles about the collapse of higher education...or at least one. This particular article notes a series of disturbing trends that anyone who has ever been involved in higher education over the past few years will have noticed:
With tuitions, fees, and room and board at dozens of colleges now reaching $50,000 a year, the ability to sustain private higher education for all but the very well-heeled is questionable. According to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, over the past 25 years, average college tuition and fees have risen by 440 percent — more than four times the rate of inflation and almost twice the rate of medical care.
I'm all about working hard to pay for your education. I'm all about waiting tables, being a teaching assistant, working construction during the summer. But those are pretty bad figures...tuition and fees at four times the rate of inflation and twice the rate of medical care?? That's just insane, my friends. Nothing can sustain those sorts of increases.

I suppose I could just say, let the markets decide, but we all know it is the trend of the government to prop up failing institutions, especially those deemed "too big to fail." So what is the college's options? Fail...OR expand at such an exponential rate, push through students during the sugar rush of false growth, that by the time the numbers don't add up, you've become too big to fail, hired too many people to fire without serious consequence, given out too many degrees that may become worthless. Conspiracy theories beside, I don't think I have to argue you into the belief that the consistency of these degrees would have been worthless long before the institution backing them failed. But degrees have become such a commodity, to not have one would render you useless to society, apparently.

This is not to say that I did not benefit from higher education. Indeed, I did. I received public funding as well (it really wouldn't have been possible otherwise these days). But there is no doubt in my mind that our current education system, given the title "bedrock of democracy," have come to mirror our own federal government: bloated, disconnected, and vacuous. Yet I am told, there is no other way! And education must continue! What would we become without education?? So, I read this with interest:
You probably haven't heard of the Ukrainian Catholic University - but I suspect that is going to change. For this wonderful institution offers a philosophy of teaching in radical contrast to the moribund model of Catholic further education found in this country and much of the West.

"You must look into this place," my (Anglican) friend Edward Lucas, author and Eastern Europe correspondent of The Economist, told me. "It's quite amazing." And it is. This university, run on a shoestring, teaches not only the liberal arts and trains Eastern-rite Catholic priests, but also places a community of mentally and physically handicapped people at the centre of its spiritual and social life.

Issues of affiliation aside, I suspect there is a passion at the center of this university that makes it a wholly different sort of place than our modern academy, which has, as Paglia has pointed out over and over again, become a four year booze-fueled, sex-infused resort town funded by mom and dad.

What has changed our current education system. I don't think I've ever been in a class (grade school to my masters) where I did not have a teacher or professor NOT complain about funding. Don't get me wrong. I have no doubt that most of the money that should go to the teachers and programs, gets sidelined into other 'ventures.' But just from this short description, I sense a passion for learning (and the scopes to which learning should reach, that is, compassion) that I desperately wish had been present in my undergrad. Again, this is not to say I did not have a good experience in undergrad or grad school. I felt like I had a better lot than most. But I know my experience is a rarity.

OK, so what this boils down to is my feelings on what should drive higher education, and I'll just state it outright. We have made higher education too education focused! This might seem to contradict what I've said. But the ancients used to consider education a sort of soul-formation. Until we come to understand the place of education in the scope of the rest of society, it will become bloated by self-righteousness and then later collapse in a heap of irrelevant drivel.

Socrates would have said it better, I know.