Monday, February 21, 2011

Conversation with abstraction

Today, with no warning at all, was a poetry day.

That is rare. I'm not a poetry kind of girl. I mean, I don't hate it – I just don't seek it out. I'm not good at sitting with something brief and complex and mulling it over. Give me bricks of prose, that's what I want.

But today I ended up reading Ally Condie's Matched, which revolved around both the importance of poetry AND the importance of memorization and internalization. I also ended up discussing several canon Russian poems about St. Petersburg, one of which just begs to be memorized and recited. And then I remembered snatches of t.s. eliot, and snatches of Pushkin, and there I was: inside a poetry day.

Now Russia – Russia asks something different of its literate public than does America. Poetry in Russia is the be all and end all of creative expression. Poetry is king, as is rote memorization.

Bakhtin, who I have mentioned before, saw the world in binaries, and one of the binaries he focused most heavily on was of monologic versus dialogic reading.

The first is what the Russian education system is predicated on: that the text is king, and there is only one interpretation valid – nothing is read between the lines. This is a system that values rote memorization, and dramatic recitation. Studying Russian actually involves a dedicated course on intonation patterns, and a person can "read poetry" as an artistic, creative hobby. No joke.

The American system is not like this. Ours is more dialogic, it is a conversation with the text – both in poetry and in prose. Interpretation does not depend so much on the author's intention as it does on the reader's state of mind, and does not need to be universal. We are rarely asked to memorize anything.

This is a shame, I think. There is a lot to be said for memorization, even if we still allow for broad interpretation. Because you know what memorization gets you? A shorthand for cultural knowledge, a shorthand that lets you say a hundred more things than you are actually saying, that lets you make jokes and draw conclusions and paint pictures without having to lift a finger.

It is the ultimate show vs. tell, and would be even stronger in American literature – YA or not – if we had a more solid foundation for rote memorization in school.

I mean, just look!

It gets you Catherine Tate and David Tennant hamming it up for charity:

And it gets you adorable three-year olds reciting Billy Collins and making you swoon:

And it gets you dystopian societies wrapped up in pretty green silk dresses and carefully measured language, societies that can be dismantled by the single subversive act of memorizing and internalizing a long-forgotten poem.

In fact, it's almost making want to add eliot as an epigraph to my own WIP.  Almost.

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