Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Language Arts? Pleasure and Song

English teachers in the elementary grades are now called "language arts teachers." But it's hard to feel as if you are teaching anything like "art" when all you do is drill kids on rules about commas, or make them memorize the definitions of vocabulary words like "ubiquitous."

I was thinking about this as I drove out to my tutoring gig in Katy, TX. I tutor a sixth grader who is preparing to take the ISEE test, which is a test that private schools require for admission. The ISEE test is your usual fill-in-the-bubble test: you match words with their closest synonym, or you find the words that "best complete the sentence," or you read a passage and make inferences. None of it has much to do with art. Or pleasure.

It's a long drive, so I burn CDs to play in the car, or I listen to NPR. On my way to Katy on Sunday, I heard a review on NPR of a new album by Miranda Lambert, an up -and-coming young country music star in my home town of Nashville. On her new album, she covers that great song by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, "Look at Miss Ohio."

Oh me, oh my, oh
Would you look at Miss Ohio
She's a-runnin' around with the rag top down
She says I wanna do right but not right now.

I thought that was one of the best hooks I've ever heard. I just kept singing it for days, out loud and in my head.

It turns out that my student is also a country music fan. She loves Taylor Swift.  Taylor Swift was recently described in a New Yorker article as a song-writing prodigy, of which there are not many in Nashville. She started writing songs as a young teenager, and she is a "poet of teen angst," as the New Yorker author says. Why don't we have more of these? Rimbaud wrote his entire oevre before the age of 21.

Maybe because school has drained all the pleasure out of language for young people. Getting back to that wonderful song by Welch and Rawlings: what makes it great is the alliteration, for example in the third line: "runnin' around with the rag top down." But the way they rhyme "oh me oh my oh" with "Miss Ohio" is pretty brilliant too. It's likely that the character in the song is not literally the winner of the Miss Ohio contest. But we can see her: a young woman, probably, running away from a small town in Ohio, headed for Atlanta and some adventures, the song implies, in her convertible with the "rag top down." Then, "I wanna do right, but not right now." The two meanings of "right" that create a wonderful irony: "right" as in morally right, and "right now," as in instantly. In other words, instant gratification is almost always in conflict with what you're supposed to do, and that little line captures that entire idea so economically and wittily. (It also conjures up that joke about "Mr Right" versus "Mr Right Now," and you can imagine the character pursuing the latter rather than the former.)

You don't need a big vocabulary to derive pleasure from this tiny poem. Or for that matter, from this one:

Full fathom five thy father lies;
Of his bones are coral made;
Those are pearls that were his eyes.

Again, a song with a great hook! By Bill Shakespeare, who would have made it big in Nashville had he been a singer/songwriter.

Again too, it's the delicious alliteration that makes it so pleasurable and memorable. In his memoir, Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt talks about how he rolled those words around just for the pure pleasure of how they literally felt in his mouth, and for the pleasure of the sounds. It's not just the alliteration: it's also the end rhyme and the rhythm of the words. Significantly, this is a song in The Tempest, not dialogue in the play, a song sung by a sort of fairy or sprite named Ariel. (A sprite sort of like Taylor Swift or Bjork.) Song lyrics are often more loaded with pure aural pleasure than poetry that is meant to be merely read or spoken. Nowadays, very little written poetry even rhymes. But songs do.

Young people love pop music and song--country music, rock, rap. Maybe English teachers should pay more attention to that and talk with their students about where the pleasure comes from: talk more about poetic devices like alliteration, end rhymes, internal rhymes, meter, etc. Poetry--even very academic, formal poetry that seems meant only to be read--comes from song. Epic poetry, even, was sung, and the long stories that epic poets told are the ancestors of short stories and novels. All literature, you could say, goes back to popular song. As they say on the classical music station, all music was once new music.

I could just say, put the "art" back in language arts, and then pleasure would follow. But it's not that simple, because pleasure has become suspect in most of the arts, including visual art. In academia, art teachers often chide students for making art that is too pretty. Continental theory has been at work for several decades now, on the project of making people feel guilty or somehow politically incorrect if they get pleasure from visual art. It's a bourgeois pleasure that we're supposed to feel ashamed of.

Well, enough of that. A lot of contemporary visual artists are now ignoring their art school teachers and making stuff that actually looks good. English teachers, take note: pleasure is back. It never went away on the radio, and your students know that. Throw away the lists of Latinate words and get out your good old Anglo-Saxon words. They're fine. They'll do. Write some songs with good hooks. Read novels aloud in class. Act out plays. No more bubbles and number two pencils!

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