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CASLL-L  February 1997

CASLL-L February 1997

Subject:

Anthony's goad

From:

Russ Hunt <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Thu, 13 Feb 1997 17:52:32 AST

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (70 lines)

Because Anthony has address trouble (I'm working on it), here 'tis:

Okay, consider me mildly goaded, although Jamie's question seems to me
more like a career-question than a mere goad. Before making yet
another superficial stab at it, however, I have a question of my own.
After dropping what I hoped would be a provocative comment or two into
the initial memorization discussion, I sat back and waited for the
heated debate I was sure would ensue. I am surprised Jamie and I have
managed to generate so little heat (and possibly less light) in the
CASLL community. There were some very thoughtful and reflective
responses from Leslie, Marcy, and Russ (did I miss anyone?), of course,
but no fire-breathing, Norton Anthology-burning tirades, as I'd hoped
and expected. Is the canon discussion over? Or, is this not a canon
issue?

I think it's both a canon issue and a pedagogical issue. First, on the
canon issue, to Jamie's question: "Without some common culture, how do
citizens in a polity work toward (or even engage in) a civil society?"
This, Jamie says, "is one key question dodged by canon bashers." I am
happy to be identified with "canon bashers," and deeply uncomfortable
with the idea of a "common culture."  I grew up in a "common culture";
it was called the suburbs, and I never want to go back. I might be less
disdainful of a "common culture" if I knew better what Jamie had in
mind. Common as defined by the past, the common culture of Canada (or
just Toronto), circa, say, 1990? Common as defined by majority or power,
the common culture of white, middle-class men? I'm a lot more interested
in the notion of moving toward (but never arriving at) a future common
culture, one which blended the rich traditions, attitudes, and beliefs
of all participants, rather than one that sought to impose  traditions,
attitudes, and beliefs on minorities, newcomers, or the otherwise less
powerful. Why, at this time and place, would we go back to a poem from
W.W. I in an effort to bring a refugee from Zaire into a "common
culture"? As Leslie pointed out, there are contemporary poems that might
speak to something more shared, more mutual, more identifiable. "In
Flanders Fields" brings a lump to my throat not because of some
stand-alone, inherent power in the text, but because of a million
complex strands in a web of meanings and associations - other texts,
photographs, dead relatives - a sense of place and time built up over a
life time. This isn't to say that the poem would not resonate for the
immigrant from Zaire - I'm sure it would - but only to point out that
entrance to a common culture cannot come through the artifacts of that
culture. I don't think culture is learned or taken on by reference to
its by-products. As genre theory suggests, text and context are
inseparable - one is not figure and the other ground. "In Flanders
Fields" is not one "piece" of culture which, when combined with some
critical mass of other "pieces," leads to membership in the "common
culture" that produced the poem (and accounts for whatever common
readings there might be). But here I'm beginning to ramble and feel I've
said either way too much or way too little, so on to the pedagogical
issue. Let's face it, we do not graduate crowds of poetry lovers, eager
to buy poetry books, attend readings, or try their own hands at iambic
pentameter. In my case, I managed to overcome the hatred of poetry
instilled in me by English teachers, some of whom made me memorize
poetry, and I now read (and even write) the occasional poem. But I
suspect I would be far more positively disposed to poetry if I'd had it
introduced to me via contemporary, Rosenblatt-inspired methods, such as
Pat Dias has developed over the past two decades. And though
memorization was not the only reason I turned away from poetry, it was
one of the chief weapons in an arsenal of strategies used to wage poetry
on my generation. The message was clear: poetry was important culture
and, like cod-liver oil, good for me despite my aversion to it. But I am
willing to be convinced that I am an anomaly in this regard. Are there
many on this list who believe memorizing poetry led them to a love or
appreciation of it? We're dealing. of course, with a skewed sample,
since there are many English teachers on the list, a profession likely
to attract the type of student who enjoyed memorizing poetry and pulling
the wings off butterflies (okay, just kidding). Well, I've unloaded and
ungoaded, so I'd better get back to what McGill underpays me for.
Anthony.

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