"A Note To The Difficult One": How Reading and Writing a Poem Becomes A Teaching Essay
For most of my life, I've studied and known a great many modern poets, but I didn't know anything about W.S. Graham and wondered how he escaped my attention. When I read his "A Note to the Difficult One," I immediately liked the poem and wanted to learn more about the poet. A quick Google search brought me to a review of Graham's New Collected Poems in the February 29 issue of The Observer. John Kinsella helped me understand Graham's poetic status by explaining that:
There have been laments at Graham's lack of recognition and celebrations of his increasing recognition. But he has long been a poet's poet and justly admired. Living a life of little conventional employment, he moved from his birthplace at Greenock on the Clyde in Scotland, to London and then Cornwall. In the 1940s, he was wielding a lush, modernist poetry that tripped on its own intoxication with language. Though it is said Graham became 'clearer' … his work still cast complex shadows that the reader is challenged to see through. (Kinsella)
I easily agreed with the reviewer's last point because every time I read "A Note To The Difficult One," the poem seemed to uncover a new meaning about writing. Kinsella explains that "every one of Graham's poems is an ars poetica. He is entirely conscious of writing the poem, of the connection between poems he writes. There are references to his own works, familiar tropes, patterns of speech" (Kinsella). In other words, Graham is always writing about his writing, and Kinsella thinks there is an interconnectedness of this theme in every one of his poems, even if it doesn't always seem obvious. When I first read "A Note to the Difficult One," I imagined it as a poem haphazardly capturing my own desire to write on a rainy day, but as I reread the poem I began seeing it as an expression of how my first year writing students feel and think about writing academic prose in our composition class. I continued to read and imagined "A Note to the Difficult One" as a poem that will help me more creatively understand the art of teaching writing.
As I think and re-think some of the more complex issues involved in my critical/creative "crossover pedagogy," I depend on my students to help me see how academic genre issues reach the minds, hearts and spirits of their texts. I encourage them to use multigenre approaches while they are composing something important to say because good ideas don't always fit into one approach to writing. I've developed this pedagogy for decades, but Graham seems to have nailed it in the first two lines of his poem: "This morning I am ready if you are, / To hear you speaking in your new language." As I reread the poem, "new language" did not only encourage innovation (and trigger teacher jargon like "the multigenre essay"), it also began to mean that students understand academic discourse as a new or even foreign language while professors talk with "academese" naturally throughout their teaching lives.
On a website of Harold Pinter's work, I learned that Pinter once exclaimed, "W.S. Graham drank and ate poetry every day of his life" (Pinter). Nonetheless, my students show me that drinking and eating academic words every day isn't enough-listening to them and their need to shut off learning language is also part of what it means to be a writing teacher. Maybe it was the simple, straightforward language and tone in "A Note To The Difficult One" that made me think more about writing from my students' points of view or maybe it was the way the poem creates several layers of awareness, but something was rumbling and changing in my head. I thought of Jeanette Winterson because she might understand how art can really influence a change of perspective. In Art Objects, Winterson argues that "True art, when it happens to us, challenges, the 'I' that we are" and that "it is not essential to like a thing in order to recognize its worth, but to reach that point of self-awareness and sophistication takes years of perseverance" (Winterson 15). She seems to be saying that art changes us if we work to understand it better. When I read Graham's poem, I wondered if art and my essay about Graham's poem would change who my students are as academic writers. I thought that at least writing the essay assignment with my students helps, and I imagined Graham's art was helping me imagine even more immediacy-as though the poem was a way for me to exist inside of my student's minds and this essay was my report of what I learned.
When I focus on the following lines in the poem's third stanza, "This morning I am ready if you are / To speak. The early quick rains / Of Spring are drenching the window-glass. / Here in my words looking out," I imagined the metaphoric leap in that last line lets outside words in, and it also lets inside words out. With the fluid grace of the raindrops drenching both window glass and writers' minds, I could see how the poem's imagery could help my students and me to better understand each other's feelings and thoughts about writing. In her most recent book about how creative writing and academic writing can be synthesized, poet and professor Wendy Bishop introduced The Subject Is Story by explaining that her work was based on "an awareness of how a person's life outside college overlaps with what that person's life inside college-and how the outside/inside distinction is indeed more of a false story (a tall tale) than a true one" (ix). Graham's poem, as I read it, seemed to be a fine way to break through such divisions. Indeed, as I read "A Note To The Difficult One" it increasingly became a way to fuse my awareness of writing with my students with some awareness about learning to write in college.
Just as I think students can include story telling, poetry, and research into their papers to better express their ideas and feelings, I like to imagine I can fuse writing and teaching as one art in an essay like this one. Reading "A Note To The Difficult One" makes it easy for me to believe that I should teach writing every day of my life with an artistic passion similar to Graham's poetic passion. I love the way words come to me and I come to them, and receiving Graham's poem on email is beyond perfect--it's more like surprise perfect! Besides, I don't like to lecture classes so maybe writing this essay and sharing it with my students is a better way for me to "lecture" more powerfully?
Sometimes my word-love is concentrated and careful, and sometimes it is haphazard and fanciful. When I first read "A Note to the Difficult One," I was initially being a very light hearted reader. I was alone on a very rainy morning not really thinking very clearly about the writing ahead of me. The poem's first stanza echoed my morning feeling-I was about to be both a writer and reader of my own words. Graham wrote: "I think I am beginning to have nearly / A way of writing down what it is I think / You say." These lines were at first a direct challenge for me to divide my consciousness as both a writer and reader. In fact, that's how I first read the whole poem-as a writer talking to himself. This is something Kinsella and Pinter would probably agree with, but that interpretation didn't stick with me. As I read the poem again and again, I thought of how the idea of "new language" is difficult for anyone to learn, and how writing with quotes and sources is a complex, academic language that requires years of practice. Even with mastery, scholarly writing may fall short because it doesn't always address how writers feel about their own ideas. I could easily imagine laughing with my students when I read Graham talking about those "Terrible words nearly always just beyond me." Sometimes my students feel intimidated by words they don't understand, and sometimes they even feel a touch crusty when I push them to look up every word. So of course the use of "vocabulary" in the second stanza" made my "college level," teacherly interpretation of the poem become more solid. Don't students often feel that academic writing makes them do what Graham questions as difficult? Academic writing experiences often "translate natural occurrences / Into something beyond any idea / Of pleasure." Graham's poem and my interpretation made the rain and my thoughts about teaching writing seem a bit dreary. I want my students to experience pleasure in their writing and that's why I try help them to infuse their essays with creative writing that captures something of their feelings and ideas not always present in their academic essays.
"This morning I am ready if you are" Graham wrote in the beginning of the third stanza. I didn't exactly know I was "ready" to try to be a better writing teacher by writing my own assignment until I read "A Note to the Difficult One." Afterwards, it became clear I was "ready" with both my creative and academic juices flowing from Graham's inspiration. I didn't expect anything specific when I opened the email from CWUHM-L with the poem in it, but Graham's words gradually made me realize my morning's real work. When I started writing this essay, I knew that I was in for more writing than I had time for, but the art in Graham's poem had me in its grasp and I knew that writing would let me continue to feel each word in the poem more deeply. Winterson argues that "all art is the communication cord that cannot be snapped by indifference or disaster" (20) and I realized that I might use her idea of art's tenacity to link the art of teaching writing to motivate this writing. I know that student indifference and disaster is often what stops communication, and that's why I reflected that if I wrote well enough, I could show my attention to my students' writing difficulties within this writing simply by doing the writing. Sounds easy and instant but it wasn't-writing is never as easy as it seems.
Reading "A Note to the Difficult One" became a "re-visioning" catalyst for me to better understand my writing students. The day I planned and wrote an early draft of this essay, it rained all day. Maybe it's just haphazard synchronicity, but those "early quick rains / Of Spring" really did help me to see Graham's poem, this essay and my teaching through a very watery, multigenre lens. Reading, writing and living a good poem in the moment it shows up in my email's inbox was good luck, hard writing work, and a fine cosmic joke on a writing teacher who realized he must do his own assignment.
An ongoing process of collaboration between writers helps improve some of the communication between students and teachers, and when my students saw how seriously I took their criticism, they began to understand how help from others helps most writers revise. This essay, like Graham's "A Note To The Difficult One," is more writing about the difficulties of learning to write in school. As my ideas emerge through a simple desire to improve, through the inspiration of art, with revision, and with help from others, I'm certain we will continue to teach ourselves to write with more creativity.
What does it mean to be a "writing teacher"? Does this essay hiding a few poems do anything to answer the question? Am I a teacher who teaches writing, a teacher who writes all the time, or am I just a huckster and confidence man convincing students that there's a place for them in the word jungle if only they learn to splice self and language into my English 101 course practices? I was duped early on by J.D. Salinger himself. It wasn't even the Catcher that caught me-it was Nine Stories that did it. Seymour, Teddy and the Laughing Man gave me the big "come on, man, you can be here too" line. I learned later that I was lucky, really. I didn't need a teacher to tell me to write something. Literature talked to me, and sometimes I'm a wise guy-so I talked back naturally.
I teach my students to talk with what they read and write. I require marginalia to go beyond highlighting and scan their books before a discussion so that we have clearly noted the ways we get in and out of our texts. I encourage using bits of "wise guy spirit" as we read published authors by arguing that school makes all authors trying to make sense of ideas while we are discovering them.
We shuffle and hustle words and selves in English 101-and one of the best ways I can teach my students to have some courage and confidence is to see how writing is all about finding meaning while doing some of the tougher work together. After reading a draft of this essay in class, we (English 101, section 41at SCSU) decided to try a group poem (one line per person) to see if there was anything to be learned. Aren't the voices of writing students really this essay's only possible last word?
Schooling Spring's Poetic Vibe
One who lacks imagination
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Ballantine, Tia. "Re: W.S. Graham 1918-1986." Online posting. 6 March 2004 CWUHM-L:682. 6 March 2004.
Bishop, Wendy and Hans Ostrom, eds. The Subject is Story: Essays for Writers and Readers. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 2003.
Pinter, Harold. Haroldpinter.org. 2000-2003. 6 March 2004.
Kinsella, John. "Under the Surface." Guardian Unlimited. February 29, 2004. 6 March 2004.
Romano, Tom. Blending Genre, Altering Style: Writing Multigenre Papers. Portsmouth, N.H.: Boynton/Cook Publishers, Inc., 2000.
Winterson, Jeanette. Art Objects. New York: Random House, Inc., 1995.
With thanks to the students of English 101.41: Karl Arias , Karyn Choromanski, Joan Cisneros, Ethan Drozd, Robin Eisenberg, Melissa Ferrier, Minouse Fils, Kathleen Garvin, Ipakoi Grigoriadis, Christopher Kiley, Ryan King, Ariana Kripps, Lindsey Malmborg, and Bonnie Woodward
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