PLAYING WITH DIFFICULTY: A HIGH SCHOOL CLASS ON ARTHUR SZE’S QUIPU OFFERS IDEAS FOR USING CREATIVE WRITING TO EXPLORE CHALLENGING LITERATURE

EDUCATING THE IMAGINATION


By Andy Fogle 

As part of the class described below, Fogle contacted Sze, asking if he would be open to responding to student questions about his work. Sze agreed, and his wide-ranging and incisive musings on poetry in response to questions from both Fogle and his class can be read in “Seeking the Silk Dragon: An Interview with Arthur Sze.” ~editors

I was scared—I had asked my supervisor for permission to teach Arthur Sze‘s Quipu to the high school seniors in my Contemporary Literature class, a semester-long elective, and he’d said yes. I wanted to do something new with poetry, and I am lucky enough to teach in a department that supports taking an occasional risk. But now that I had the go-ahead, I wondered if I’d taken on more than I’d bargained for.

Much of the poetry I’ve seen taught in high school makes only modest demands on students. In my experience, it is rare that students are given the opportunity for sustained study of an individual poet, especially one whose work resists easy understanding. This is a shame, because I’ve seen that this kind of serious engagement with a poet’s work can give students valuable tools and encouragement for exploring a wider range of texts.

In fact, my experience teaching Sze made me wonder just how far we could push students in terms of challenging literature. If, as I found, students are capable of handling something so far outside the scope of the mainstream high school English curriculum, then perhaps that curriculum should change. Perhaps we need to give students more credit.

My experience teaching Sze made me wonder just how far we could push students in terms of challenging literature. If, as I found, students are capable of handling something so far outside the scope of the mainstream high school English curriculum, then perhaps that curriculum should change.

I believe there is an ethical imperative to this approach as well. If, as David Ian Hanauer says, poetry “has the potential for promoting experience of the individual life and as such can provide moments of contact among individuals living in diverse communities” (86), then perhaps students who play seriously with reading or writing poetry can become more adept at sharing the experience of their individual lives and in understanding others’ lives as well. And if students can have positive experiences with difficult poetry, perhaps they can find ways to cope with other difficult experiences they face, learning to investigate and immerse themselves in these difficulties in order to find a way through them.

But none of this would be possible unless I could first get students to engage with the work at hand.

The Challenges of Arthur Sze’s Quipu 

Arthur Sze by Gloria Graham

Photo by Gloria Graham

Sze’s poetry is unlike anything students typically encounter in high school. The work is non-linear, and adopts principles from science, anthropology, and history into a multi-layered poetic texture. I chose Sze’s work because I wanted to broaden my students’ concept of what literature is, pushing them into strange territory, and helping them manage the metaphorical and structural phenomena Quipu presents.

In his book, Sze uses the quipu—an Incan device made of a main cord and smaller knotted cords used for record keeping, calculation, and even narratives—as a central metaphor.  His poems weave together lists, images, details from nature, philosophical inquiries, modern science, and the particulars of our day-to-day life into what Sze calls a “braided narrative.”

Although I planned and tried a variety of approaches to Sze’s work, over the course of the year teaching Sze’s book to two semester-long classes, I found what helped students most in understanding these complex poems was collaborating on imitations of Sze’s style. Using creative writing to respond to the poems engaged their interest while also supporting deeper explorations of Sze’s work. Students later said that these imitations, more than any other activity except for rereading, helped bring them into a closer and more enjoyable relationship with the poetry. I believe this approach presents a successful model for opening up the literature curriculum to more stylistically challenging works.

The Value of Difficulty

Poetry is a peculiar genre. Poems bend, break, create, and recreate rules all the time, and difficult poetry especially “disrupts the conventional unfolding of a reading,” presenting any number of “comprehension obstacles” (Yaron 136). In The Writer’s Chronicle, poet Reginald Shepherd notes three basic levels of difficulty—recognition, explication, and interpretation—and at one time or another, readers of Sze will face every one of these.

Poetry is a peculiar genre. Poems bend, break, create, and recreate rules all the time, and difficult poetry especially “disrupts the conventional unfolding of a reading,” presenting any number of “comprehension obstacles”

Still, as poet Robert Pinsky maintains in Slate, difficulty is not inherently negative:

Difficulty, after all, is one of life’s essential pleasures: music, athletics, dance thrill us partly because they engage great difficulties. Epics and tragedies, no less than action movies and mysteries, portray an individual’s struggle with some great difficulty . . . . 

Shepherd also observes “a whole industry of verbal challenges, from crossword puzzles to Scrabble, that the so-called general public relishes.”

Poet and critic Charles Bernstein de-emphasizes both the text’s difficult qualities and the reader’s struggles in a piece for Harper’s Magazine:

The difficulty you are having with the poem may suggest that there is a problem not with you the reader or with the poem but with the relation between you and the poem. Working through the issues that arise as part of this relation can be a valuable learning experience.

I came to believe that it is precisely this transaction—this interplay between poem and reader—that is primary to students finding meaning in even the most challenging literature.

Letting Poems Teach Us How to Read Them

During the first several days they encountered Sze’s work, my students repeatedly mentioned being puzzled by the language, frustrated by the lack of a linear narrative, and almost angry at the poems’ apparent pointlessness: they weren’t “about” anything; the language was random, scattered, arbitrary. I asked them to look at three short poems, select which one was “clearest,” and write descriptions of how they worked through it. Reading those descriptions, I found they worked through a poem more readily if it had a stable topic or a linear narrative—if they could “follow” the poem, see what it was “about.” Many valued simpler language for the same reasons.

When I’d surveyed these … students on the day I distributed Quipu, I was surprised to find not a single one reported having had a positive experiences with poetry since elementary school. Although very few students have ever entered my class as poetry fans, I’d never faced such a pleasure-void.

I explained that some poems teach us how to read them as we read them, then had students look for a few such moments (such as “Sipping mint tea / on the longest day of the year, I sense how / the balance of life sways, and a petal may tip it). Ever since working with middle school students in the late 1990s, I have been struck by how well even struggling students begin to handle (at times quite unusual) poetry if they learn to approach it with patience, flexibility, modesty, and a sense of play. At the mid-point of the unit, all of my seniors agreed—some strongly so—that Sze’s book made them read in a different way, and almost everyone agreed it was more difficult than other poetry they had read. The book was officially “out there” for students—difficult, unconventional, challenging—when compared to their typical reading, but they weren’t giving up.

quipuWhen I’d surveyed these same students on the day I distributed Quipu, I was surprised to find not a single one reported having had a positive experiences with poetry since elementary school. Although very few students have ever entered my class as poetry fans, I’d never faced such a pleasure-void.

This appalling finding made me recall the success Kenneth Koch had with his pioneering approach to teaching poetry in the classroom, where he treated “reading poetry and writing poetry as one subject” (3). His aim was to surround children with poems “that were worthy of their attention and that could give them good experiences and help them in their own writing” (8). With Koch’s simple innovation in mind, I quickly established a new goal for the class: giving my students positive experiences with poetry. To do so, I decided to return to something I used to do as a middle school writer-in-residence: imitations. 

Using Creative Writing Responses to Explore “The Poet’s Way of Knowing” 

We started with a few short imitations, based on some of Sze’s one-page poems. I gave students 10–15 minutes to work, usually using the first phrase of the poem’s lines as starting points, taking each line in whatever direction they liked. These shorter imitations rarely went beyond 5–6 lines, but the way the students started smiling, laughing, debating, and opening up their thinking was enough to sell me on the exercise. In weekly reflections, they described how they were beginning to see how Sze was working.

At the end of the unit, students wrote an “ultimate imitation,” a next-to-last activity that sprawled over two 43-minute classes. The ultimate imitation required them to attempt a short quipu poem, including the use of some of Sze’s various habits and organizational principles. I typed and displayed their poems on the LCD screen as students read the poems aloud, section by section.

Many of the students’ imitations prompted laughter or baffled delight. And even though the assignment was not intended to produce finished poems, some bits of both the ultimate and earlier imitations were very close to being stand-alone works.

Through these imitations, students began to perceive, as Shepherd asserts, that a “poem may not adhere to standard, linear logic, but it must have a logic of its own.” The imitations became what Linda Kucan, in her work with I-poems, calls “invitations for students to try out the poet’s way of knowing” (524). Kucan asserts that “writing can be a means for enhancing understanding” (518) or a vehicle for students’ exploration of their own identities. The writing exercises I gave the students helped them understand Sze’s work better by helping them understand themselves better.

There is some precedent for this. Amy L. Eva-Wood has studied how eleventh-graders react if they are “not only given permission, but also prompted to draw on their personal responses while ‘making sense’ of poetry” (174). In the study, a control group received poetry instruction emphasizing literary analysis, while an experimental group received instruction emphasizing the emotional and experiential facets of reading. When Eva-Wood analyzed both groups’ subsequent writing and “think-alouds,” the experimental group’s approach yielded more positive results: more questions, more sophisticated questions, increased interest, increased identification with the poems’ speakers, as well as an increased ability to analyze the poems.

Eva-Wood’s work suggests that approaching a poem from a personal stance actually increases the depth of student responses to that poem, and I also found that my students were more open to and aware of Sze’s craft after imitating it. My goal for the writing they did was not to help them learn new ways to write poetry, but to learn new ways to read it.  And it worked: Despite the difficulty of the text they were reading, despite its radical otherness, students firmly believed that collaborating on imitations was crucial to helping them understand Sze’s poems.

For some time now, it’s been common practice and conventional wisdom to use creative writing as a way to get students excited about writing, to help them forge an identity, to aid them in addressing the challenges in their lives, and to expose them to others’ perspectives. I have long been a believer in this approach, and continue to believe in it. But the ideas and experiences I’ve covered here—from my own and others’ classrooms—point to another use for creative writing: helping students learn to appreciate challenging and unconventional literature that they might otherwise reject as too hard, too dense, or just too much work by pushing them to read—and therefore think—in radically new ways. 

About the author:

Andy Fogle has five chapbooks of poetry, most recently The Last Apprenticeship (White Knuckle Press), and work including poems, translations, memoir, interviews, criticism, and educational research in Blackbird, The Writer’s Chronicle, RHINO, English Journal, Gargoyle, and Popmatters. He grew up in Virginia Beach, spent thirteen years in the Washington, DC area, and now lives in upstate New York, teaching high school and working on a PhD in education. 

WORKS CITED

Bernstein, Charles. The Difficult Poem. June 2003. Web. 26 Aug. 2011.

Eva-Wood, A.L. “How Think-and-Feel-Aloud Instruction Influences Poetry Readers.”
Discourse Processes 38.2 (2004): 173-192. 

Hanauer, David Ian. “Multicultural Moments in Poetry: The Importance of the Unique.”
The Canadian Modern Language Review 60.1 (2003): 69-87.

Koch, Kenneth. Rose, Where Did You Get That Red? Teaching Great Poetry to Children.
New York: Vintage, 1974.

Kucan, Linda. “’I’ Poems: Invitations for Students to Deepen Literary Understanding.”
The Reading Teacher 60.6 (2007): 518-525.

Pinsky, Robert. In Praise of Difficult Poetry: The Much-Maligned Art. 23 April 2007.
Web. 26 Aug. 2011.

Shepherd, Reginald. On Difficulty in Poetry. The Writer’s Chronicle (May/Summer 2008).

Sze, Arthur. Interview with Andy Fogle and high school students. The Writer’s
Chronicle, September 2013.

Yaron, Iris. “What Is a ‘Difficult Poem’? Towards a Definition.” Journal of Literary
Semantics 37.2 (2008): 129-150.

 


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