Monday, November 19, 2012

The promise and problem of relatable poetry

When I ask groups of my students about the poems we've covered that they are drawn to, they often highlight pieces that they describe as "relatable." Poems and poets that they can establish a connection with, they say, are the ones that move them the most. These kinds of poems are also the ones that they are most likely to concentrate on for their writing assignments.

Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou, for instance, are beloved based on how relatable their more known poems are. Students connect with the humor of Ishmael Reed's poem "Flight to Canada;" thus they find that piece especially enjoyable. Poems deemed less relatable receive less interest.

I have mixed feelings about the prevalence of relatablity in poetry matters. On the one hand, I'm pleased that, over the years, my students and I have identified so many poems and poets that allow for deep connections and thus serve as the basis  for extended conversation and writing topics. On the other hand, I worry that we are likely to dismiss important poetry that is presumably less or non-relatable.

While we express a fondness for poems that we can relate to, we often distance ourselves from language and language practices that we find difficult and unfamiliar. Poems that do not pass internal relatablity tests for readers are quickly circumvented for works that score higher on the scale. The extents to which students connect to poems can determine who, what, and how they read.   

It's too easy to get preachy here and assert the value of moving beyond the familiar and taking the time to explore that which is perceived as unknown and alien. However, perhaps we have not spent enough time understanding why students, for instance, would find so much value in relatable poems. Maybe the factors that make artistic language practices appealing and unappealing deserve more of our attention as well if we are to better understand the promise and problems with relatable poetry.      

Related:  A Notebook on Fear of Language

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