more on next to of course god america i

Yesterday, I was trying to explain to my musician friend about E. E. Cummings. I’ll kind of compose the conversation and you’ll see where it took us. I, of course, love Cummings. Steve, the friend, didn’t get it. This is why I showed it to him.

“What are you doing?” he said.

“I’m writing an analysis of a poem.”

“Why?”

“Because I’ve been getting loads of hits about it – more than the other poems in the Anthology – and I think it’s frightening people.”

“A poem frightening people?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“Well, they don’t get it.”

“Who? Teachers or kids?”

“Both. I don’t think the teachers get it. It frightens them. And English teachers don’t want to admit that something frightens them. So they research it, and most of the searches for next-to-of-course-god-america-i-analysis take them to REALLY BAD pages! Like pages written by idiots who talk shite.”

“Why don’t they know it’s shite?”

“They don’t want to think about it. It goes like this. I – English teacher extraordinaire – look at it. I’ve never seen the likes of it. Plus it’s American. I did ENGLISH Literature at Uni. I did Shakespeare and Dickens and Jane Austen. I did Books and Poems and Plays. I KNOW English Literature, but this might frighten me a bit, if I were easily scared…” *I’m not easily scared*

“So why don’t you study it?”

“Well, it’s a bit like Jazz or modern art.”

Steve hates Jazz. Well, he hates some of it. At least, he thinks he hates it.

“I hate Jazz.”

“See. You say that, and that’s what most kids and teachers do. ‘I hate poems that don’t rhyme and look a bit freaky’.”

“What even are we talking about here?”

I showed him another E. E. Cummings poem – my favourite – Buffalo Bill’s defunct.

“What the hell is that about??!”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?”

“What’s going on with the lines? They’re all over the place!! And it doesn’t make sense.”

“You mean it’s not in sentences. It makes sense! And you’ve just described exactly why most teachers and kids are frightened of it.”

I started to explain what it’s about.

“That’s what’s wrong with it.” he said. “It needs ‘interpreting’ like modern art. It’s not for regular people. And it could just be a load of rubbish. You’re like those people who comment on jazz. You say ‘Nice!’ and you don’t even know! It could be rubbish.”

“You’re right. It could be like the Emperor’s New Clothes. People could just be too afraid to say it’s rubbish. Some of them might even believe it’s good, like the people who said the Emperor had fabulous clothes on. But I like this poem. And I’d not have been afraid to say the Emperor was naked. And what a fashion statement THAT is! Recognise it for what it is, and if you like it, say so!”

“Well, I’d say he was naked too, and this poem doesn’t make sense and I don’t like it. It’s junk.”

“No… it’s marvellous. Look at this bit about the stallion cutting through the pigeons who flew off ‘onetwothreefourfive pigeons just like that’ – genius! If I write it one, two, three, four, five pigeons – well, it’s punctuated and spaced right, but it’s not how those pigeons flew off. They flew off onetwothreefourfive – all together.”

“You’re wrong. They weren’t all together. They were one after each other. Otherwise the words would all be on top of each other. Now I’m educating you Miss English-teacher-Extraordinaire! They were one after each other one-two-three-four-five. But they took off very close to each other.”

“See… it’s perfect! It describes much more perfectly what happened. And you didn’t need me to ‘explain it’ to you…  you got that yourself.”

“yeah, but you’re still like one of those people who stand about looking at modern art saying ‘oh, it’s a profound statement about the brevity of life, the transience of things. It’s magnificent!’ whilst Average Joe just thinks ‘what’s that about then?'”

“Maybe. But let’s compare it to music. You don’t like jazz.”

“I hate it.”

“And if you had to teach it to a group of reluctant fifteen year olds who are more interested in blackberrys and iphones?”

“I wouldn’t do it.”

“What if you had to?”

“I’d tell them it was crap.”

“Well, you can’t. You still have to sell its virtues. You have to explain why some people like it. My step-dad loves Jazz. You can’t ignore that. Just because you think it’s crap doesn’t mean you have the right to tell a whole bunch of teenagers it’s crap.”

“Well, I’d get your step-dad in to talk about Jazz.”

“Yeah, but teachers can’t just ‘find’ someone who likes it and can teach it. Imagine if you’re an artist and you love Monet and Impressionism, and then you’ve got to teach Picasso, or Damien Hirst. Or if you’re a food tech teacher who loves Mrs Beeton and Delia Smith and you have to teach about Heston Blumenthal. Or a metal-loving-MachineHead fan who has to teach about Disco. You still have to do it. So you do one of several things. 1) you ‘forget’ to teach it and cost your kids exam points. 2) you teach it reluctantly and your hatred is evident to all your class who then hate it just because you do. 3) you ‘research’ it on crappy sites and you can’t be bothered to think about it so you teach it badly and teach mis-information.”

“Like what?”

“Like all those crappy teachers who told kids to turn a poem on its side. ‘Oh, it looks like waves!’ or ‘this one looks like it’s flipping the bird’ (the American ‘finger’) What a load of crap!” I picked up a random poem. “I turn this on its side and it looks like a big turd. In fact, most poems look like turds. Bah! I HATE that style of teaching. It’s SOOOOOO WRONG!”

“Why’s it wrong?”

“Well, this Simon Armitage one… I read four papers from four different schools that said it looked like he was sticking up a finger when you turn it on its side. Crap! He’s from Huddersfield. He wouldn’t do an American one-finger gesture, he’d flick the V sign. Two fingers. People in Huddersfield wouldn’t do a one-finger insult. Plus, I asked him. Just to be sure. He hadn’t even thought about it. What a load of shite. And that’s potentially 1,000 kids who’ve been taught that! It’d look like this:

uocusu xuyuslsl

xuxululd;d aoslislttyyc==ici8u cyysyff,n fygylutj6tioy

ccyycycy, siirlry6th,ta; ayydhflt tl ghulu5yy tfyffklh

auulddvyvy ffy

fufufyeln chyvc

“And not just have one long line, but two. If that’s what he was doing. Which he wasn’t. That’s just lazy teaching. And that’s what’ll happen with this poem too.”

“Okay, I get that.”

“So it’s like you, if you had to teach Jazz. You’d either a) not bother b) make everyone hate it because YOU don’t get it c) do a bad job.”

“Fair enough. So what do you have to do then?”

“Think about WHY people might have thought it was good.”

“I don’t know why ANYONE would think Jazz is good.”

“And you’re just having a knee-jerk reaction, like most people do to E. E. Cummings or modernist poetry.”

“No, I’m not!”

“You are. Because you like SOME Jazz.”

“No I don’t.”

“You do. You like Victor Wooten. And he’s got lots of Jazz bits. It’s unstructured, it’s not always a jaunty harmony.”

“He’s not jazz.”

“He IS! Bits of him are very Jazz. He takes a lot from Jaco Pastorius. And he was Jazz.”

“I don’t like Jaco Pastorius. Pretentious crap.”

“Well, that’s as may be, but you can’t deny that Victor is a bit Jazz. So what do you like about him? If you had to explain to a class of 30 bored teenagers, what would you say?”

“I’d say… ‘look at this kids… this guy is awesome!'”

“And? Why?”

“Because just look what he’s doing! He’s like a musical genius. He takes it all to another level. He doesn’t even think like other musicians. He goes where they haven’t before. It’s shock and awe.”

“And I could say precisely the same things about E. E. Cummings. I might say ‘that Victor Wooten… that’s just tuneless nonsense. I can’t tap my fingers to it. The rhythm’s all over the place… it doesn’t make sense…’ and E. E. Cummings is the same! So why do you like Victor Wooten? Why do I like Cummings? Why do people like Picasso? Because it’s different! Because it’s clever in a way you haven’t even thought of. Because it’s a bit experimental. Because it allows people like your friend Viaceslav Svedov (A great bassist) to do stuff… I didn’t know you could get those sounds out of a bass, I didn’t imagine you could get those words out of a bass. It’s just impressive – I don’t know if humbling is the right word – that somebody can be so good at something.”

“And that’s how I feel. I didn’t know you could do that with words. I didn’t imagine you could get words to work in that way. There. I didn’t imagine by stringing together a whole load of crazy bits from bits of songs and bits of The Star-Spangled Banner that you could get such a great effect. It would never have occurred to me. It’s just a perfect way to make those words sound hollow and fragmented. E. E. Cummings has the shock-and-awe factor to me. Just like you and Victor. Just like John and Jazz. Just like Damien Hirst’s half-a-dead-pig art. I never even thought you could do that, never mind that somebody would. It’s bold and brave…”

“Hmmm. You still sound like a pretentious Jazz commentator. ”

“I can live with that. You said it’s about the WOW factor. And this has it. And you agree that Buffalo Bill is a great poem.”

“I never said that.”

“But at least you know why I think it’s a great poem.”

“Yes…”

“And that’s what kids need to know. That some people think this is a WOW! poem, and why they think that.”

Of course, you need analytical and evaluative skills. You need to know what you’re talking about. You need to know what works and what doesn’t. And that’s a whole other kettle of fish. But at the very least, you can see perhaps from this dialogue Steve and I had why this poem is WOW!

Because no other poem in the anthology is quite like it. No other poems take language and structure to another level that I didn’t even think you could go to. And it makes you talk, even if you’re a poetry-hating metal-loving bass player, and a crazy English teacher.

You can buy a copy of my ebook on Amazon, including an analysis of all of the AQA GCSE English Literature Anthology Pre-1914 poems. Phew. That was a mouthful.

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