Thursday, August 04, 2005

A Box to Hide an Idea

There's a terrific essay by the great Ursula K. LeGuin on the CBC Books site. I cannot represent her meaning here (and if you are in touch with her opinions on the Earthsea miniseries, you know I shouldn't try!), but I'll try to capture the critical point:

Stories are not packages designed for the delivery messages. You don't start with a message, then build a story around it.

This is a fundamental truth in writing, and not a new one. But its presence on the Children's Book Council site reminds me, as I consider year 3 in the evolution of my hobby/passion to teach poetry to children, that I must avoid teaching them to learn what a poem really means, because it can really mean different things to different people. I get so disappointed when people tell me "that was a great poem; I really understood it". That, my reader friends, is not a tier-1 compliment. Of course, I want you to find great value and connection with the work. And I want it to touch you in a way that is meaningful and particular to you (what I've called "The Hmm."). But if what I was after primarily were your understanding, I certainly wouldn't write you a poem. I'd present you a rational case, with straightforward logic and a clear conclusion. The opposite of a poem.

LeGuin says: "The complex meanings of a serious story or novel can be understood only by participation in the language of the story itself. To translate them into a message or reduce them to a sermon distorts, betrays, and destroys them."


You can substitute any art form for "story". Now how to teach this? More to come.

1 comment:

ryan said...

This is so, so very true. It is such a strange phenomena with poetry (probably because our first poetic experiences are in the classroom).

If you ask someone why they like rock music, or jazz music or action movies...they could probably articulate some kind of response--but mostly the 'just like it.' They didn't set out trying to 'get' or 'understand' it--they just heard it or saw it enough and began to enjoy it.

The only good reason to read poetry is for fun. I've posted my poems in the bathroom stalls of my dorm. Most of the guys say they have no idea what the poems mean--but the one week I forget to post one, they are all on my case. They've memorized them, too--because they love the sounds.

I keep telling them, "This is it! You got it! You just enjoy it for the sake of its poetry--not because you can explain it!" Most people really do 'get' poetry--they just don't know it. They keep searching high and low when the lost coin is jingling in their pocket.