Sunday, May 03, 2009

Poetry in the Schools, 60's Style

And so we return to school in the fall of 1965. The 9th graders of last year have vanished, they’re off to Woodbury HS. Now all of us are bound together for the next four years.

The school is now complete. The auto shop, the wood shop, the gym, the auditorium. All done. We’re settled in with our teachers for five long years.

I think, though I can be wrong because I am old, that this is the year teachers began teaching us with methods designed for the kids. You may ask, what are you talking about Jack? What I’m talking about is the horrible, misguided attempt by older men and women to relate to teenagers by incorporating various elements of the teenagers life into the education process.

In our case it was bringing Simon and Garfunkel into poetry. And as I write this I realize I’m off by one year (because my enfeebled old guy brain remembered the album came out a year later) but I’ll continue anyway because I just finished National Poetry Month and participated in dozens of examples of teaching for the kids. Not all misguided but all spotted a mile away by their charges.

In our English class the teacher and God alone can remember who that was brought out the Sounds of Silence by Simon and Garfunkel and played “I am a Rock”. Then she played “The Sounds of Silence”. Then she asked us what we thought the songs were about. I should note at this point I was an egghead. Which meant I had to have an answer or I was a failure. So were most of my classmates. We instantly shot our hands in the air and offered our various thoughts on the meanings of these songs. Keep in mind that before this moment I’d never thought a song meant anything other than some vague, undefined feeling, like being sad or happy or lonely or brave. Now I intellectualize shit like this all the time but back then I had no idea this might be important to anyone.

Suddenly like a bolt of lightning we all understood “poetry”!!!! It was full of secret meanings and codes and all we had to do was figure them out! The “Rock” was something other than a rock. The sounds of “Silence” weren’t just silence but something else that only we the smart kids could understand. Oh, and the artists who made the songs and poems.

We also got to swing away at Edgar Allen Poe and his “alliteration” (the bells, bells, bells, the tinkling tintinnabulation of the bells) and a couple other minor league knuckleheads. I suppose if we were older they’d have tossed in Dylan and Baez but for now we got Art and Paul.

Years later I found out that every kid in every NJ HS in 1966 had the same lesson plan. It felt like the Ed Sullivan Show had come to all our schools with one for the kids. Then they went back to the jugglers and Perry Como and Topo Gigio. No wonder we hated poetry. Our teachers had no idea how to teach it so they resorted to some cookie cutter technique that seemed hip (they were all young) that they learned at the teachers convention in Atlantic City that fall. Poetry was as alien to them as it was to us. They drove to work listening to the Dave Clark Five or the Beatles or if they were older Elvis and Sinatra and then had to find some way to talk about something that looked like it had just landed from Outer Space.


Bob Thomas said...


The female teachers of English at Gateway? Limited to Mrs. Bartow - who eventually bought a house on N. Monroe Ave - would have been 105 N. Monroe - the Wolfe family used to live there - Harry Shoemaker connected the Bartows with the Wolf family and was given the realtors cut of the sale as a finder's fee.

Making poetry real by connecting it to popular music was a great idea - kind of stole poetry away from the "Dead poets" - to the living "artists" that we could actually see "live" on TV or even go out to a concert and see totally actually live.

As you know from appearing before HS groups - when a live person - appears to "do poetry" the whole meaning of the "act" of poetry takes on another dimension.

Thanks be to "whomever".

Jim Maddox said...

Our Language Arts and Social Studies teacher in 65 was Miss Joella, but who we had in 66 is lost on me. I didn't "get" poetry until our Junior year when we were confronted by possibly the finest teacher we ever had - Mr. George Stoll.

carey said...

This crap continued into the 70s, in a jr. high English class called "English Through Rock Lyrics." Mr. Howard (who's a Wenonah councilman now, I think) taught it (he must have been right out of school then) and we learned all about Dylan and the Beatles and I forget who else--this was early 70s, so maybe Bread? Alice Cooper? lol. But I do remember one of my projects was based on a Robert Palmer song called "Get Outside."

I learned, from that song, that when the going gets tough, the tough go outside.

My English is much better now. ;)

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