Tuesday, September 18, 2007

When the Best Golfer is Black...

When the best golfer is black, the best rapper is white, and a Nobel Laureate in Literature admits that he cannot appreciate poetry, it must be the end of the world. To quote the great man: "English prose was the object of my writing ambition, and such limited feeling as I HAVE NOW FOR THE POETRY came to me later, came through the practice of prose." The Laureate is of course Sir Vidia Naipaul (I use both the 'of course' and the 'Sir' advisedly) and so one should perhaps be on one's guard. There have been various commentators on "Caribbean Odyssey", Naipaul's article in The Guardian of August 25th. (BTW, Kwame, it's Francis Palgrave's GOLDEN TREASURY that PUT Naipaul OFF of his early love of "the rollicking children's verses in the junior reading books at school". Palgrave, a historian and lawyer, not a poet, edited the collection in 1861. It was limited to works by poets who were dead. There have been newer editions since.) It's a sad little piece, and not because of Naipaul's comments on Walcott, who hardly needs defending. I not only write poetry, including poetry for children, and publish poetry (Sandberry Press's Caribbean Poetry Series) but I'm a teacher passionate about how much poetry can do when it is taught well, and how much it can destroy when it is badly taught. QED. I am thinking of sending a copy of the SUNSONG anthologies to Sir Vidia, who imagines that he should be able to "manage" the "argument" of poetry. I fear Sir Vidia, that poems are like sex: abandon is the necessary condition. More on this anon.

22 comments:

FSJL said...

Naipaul is a bit too full of himself, and has been for years. As we know, Jamaicans speak the purest English in the Caribbean -- he said so himself.

Jdid said...

Naipaul's nobel prize doesnt make him keeper of the light or the supreme judge of everything literary.

I liked Miguel street but personally i found that being forced to attempt (and failing miserably) to read House of Mr Biswas for CXC english really killed any joy I could gain from his work.

FSJL said...

There's a difference between Naipaul's earlier works (Miguel Street, Biswas, The Suffrage of Elvira, the Mystic Masseur and even The Mimic Men, and his later work). The early work drew on his roots, the later work not at all. The early work has much more life than the later.

clarabella said...

For certain Naipaul isn't the supreme judge of everything literary, jdid. And sure he's full of himself, Fragano – but so are lots of people. (As for the purity of Jamaicans' language, and the difference between the earlier and later work, we've got to talk of those a next time. What of, say, A Bend in the River?) But jdid, like Naipaul himself, goes back to the school experience, and that interests me, as a teacher, and as a teacher of English. How the reader or hearer experiences a poem, a story, a song, a play, an historical account, a Bible story, makes all the difference. Francis Palgrave's GOLDEN TREASURY killed poetry for Naipaul, while jdid says being forced to read BISWAS killed "any joy I could gain from [Naipaul's] work". And there's the rub...

FSJL said...

Pam: You have a point. I learned my appreciation for poetry from the Faber Book of Modern Verse in my school library more than from the assigned texts (though some were enjoyable).

On the other hand, I tend to see A Bend in the River as a naïve outsider being depicted by a sore outsider.

Jdid said...

interesting point about the school experience and I concur. Actually fear that school would turn me off of history a subject i liked still like immensely made me drop that course before CXC. something about the whole school learning process and being forced to see things the way teachers wanted you to and come to the conclusions that were expected didnt receive well with me.

I am always of the opinion that when something is read each person gets his or her own personal interpretation and something in a passage that might be trivial to the masses or the mainstream can be the key point that another person grabs from that body of work. does that mean that that person is misinterpreting the work? I'd say not.

clarabella said...

Hi Fragano:
I'm glad you see some merit in the argument. (I'm going to forget Bend in the River – for now, anyway.) If we stay with the issue, push it back far enough, we end up with questions about teaching, learning, school, the purpose of education. What we've done with curricula in schools and universities over the last few decades has served a few students well, but many of them badly, some really badly. Given the extent to which the world has changed, we have failed to be proactive, or indeed responsive, to redefined sociological, ecological and economic contours, and in ways that are now proving to be disastrous. I'm going to try to write about this, but it's a huge and difficult subject, so I'll have to take it a little at a time, and there are clearly limitations to that approach. Still, I will try...

clarabella said...

Hi jdid:
I was just responding to Fragano's post when your comment came in. I think the three of us agree about the importance of HOW students – and by that I mean anybody, learning anything, at any age – learn what they learn. Your reason for dropping history as a CXC subject is instructive. I wish there was some way of telling the CXC History Board of Examiners! I know someone who said that his history teacher, a man named Leo Oakley (also an amateur calypsonian, writer and cultural commentator), made his class act out the historical events that they studied, and so he not only enjoyed the classes but also got a great mark in the exam, because what he studied was vivid and meaningful. I've no doubt that each of the students taking part in the acting exercises arrived at his own idea of the significance of the events, which is the other point I think that you are making. Educated people make their own meanings – that's what education is about, ENABLING people to acquire skills and knowledge, and arrive at their significance, not stuffing pre-established 'answers' down their throats. After all, many of the great discoveries were arrived at in the way you describe, by an individual who grabbed a "key point" that the mainstream missed.

FSJL said...

Hmm.

I see education as having as its central purposes:

(a) the preparing of children and youth for adulthood;

(b) their integration into society as active, thoughtful citizens.

I'd say (as someone whose business is education) that we're doing a dismal job at both of these.

Part of the problem is that the model of education we're using sees 'adulthood' as equivalent to 'employment' and 'citizenship' as identical with 'obedience to constitued authority', and while the latter categories have value (though certainly not as much as constituted authority would have us believe), they're about being robots (and not only in the original sense of forced labourers) rather than humans.

I was one of those pupils for whom the education system largely worked (though somewhere along the line it killed my interest in mathematics), but I see the point jdid makes (I learned history in spite of history teachers who were racist -- I remember a teacher in St Elizabeth telling us that the Taino were 'savages', and a historiography in which people like myself were objects rather than subjects) and, to a degree the one that Naipaul makes (though by the time I got to read Palgrave, I'd read a great deal of poetry and quite a few other anthologies, and the edition I have -- by John Press -- carried on into the mid-twentieth century, so that his rather heavy-handed Victorianism wasn't as offputting as it might have been).

I believe that my education owes as much to my own habits of promiscuous reading (which some teachers sought to discourage, but others fortunately encouraged)and the joy of discovery that this produced. Had I been given T.S. Eliot (for example) in the classroom I would not have found his work as palatable as I did reading it on my own.

geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com said...

Dear Ms Mordecai,

Why you must full up the blogosphere with nastiness like "I fear Sir Vidia, that poems are like sex: abandon is the necessary condition."

Why must everything be sex, sex, sex, sex?

FSJL said...

Because, Geoffrey, if it feels good it's a sin.

geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com said...

FJSL, you to with your promiscuity: "promiscuous reading"?
What kind of thing is that?

geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com said...

Seriously, though, this is a fascinating discussion about education and the way that we mis-educate, especially in the arts.
Part of the problem in teaching/learning/ appreciating the arts is the pleasure aspect, and school, as we all know, should never be a pleasure.

Peace,
Geoffrey

clarabella said...

Dear Mr Philp:
Here I come, gnashing teeth, wild hair, rushing to defend myself from introducing that offending word, sex, into our homey little discussion.

Again, I fear
that where
our laureate
in fiction
is concerned,
there's little we
can talk about
without
sex being
pertinent
to our argument.

Have a good weekend!

geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com said...

And I know you are certifiable...

Blessings,
Geoffrey

clarabella said...

Dear Fragano:
I agree with what you say overall about education, though we could talk more about the purposes you cite for it, tease them out a bit:

(a) the preparing of children and youth for adulthood;

(b) their integration into society as active, thoughtful citizens.

I think you are absolutely right about how the educational authorities see adulthood and citizenship, which is part of why I say that, since we agree that these interpretations are faulty, we should perhaps suggest better ones, be more specific about how we might improve on the ways to give young people life skills and induct them into good citizenship.

When I'm in a really mean mood, I feel like accusing all the people who've worked in the education field in universities in my two homelands of wasting taxpayers' money. Happily, I am not often in a really mean mood, and I am old and wise enough not to follow my feelings...

One way to begin the process, and I don't see why it has proved such a difficult challenge, is the one we all in this conversation agree on, which is to teach people to read, and make it a happy experience for them. Why haven't we been able to do that?

I really wish I could go visit Sir Vidia, and begin where he left off enjoying poetry, with those rollicking children's rhymes he remembers still with such pleasure. From what I gather from not a few English teachers, here and elsewhere, distressed at having to teach poetry when they neither enjoy nor understand it, they would quickly join Sir Vidia and me, and we might all end up employed in a happy, useful enterprise...

FSJL said...

Geoffrey: The sort of thing that leads one to greater evils, like scholarship and poetry.

FSJL said...

Pam:

On Sir Vidia, I suspect you'd be too late. There's a moment when you realise that poetry speaks and means -- William Carlos Williams's famous poem about the pears in the icebox being that moment for me back in 1969. And I read that on my own.

What do I mean by preparation for adulthood: that's been, I believe, the basic purpose of education from the beginning -- turning the child into someone ready to take on the responsibilities of adulthood, material and moral. For too long -- certainly under the influence of the factory -- it's been about turning the child into an employee, inculcating the kind of discipline that will work in the factory, or office, or military. That also means providing certain basic skills, the basic bureaucratic skills (reading, writing, counting), and a basic knowledge of a variety of subjects deepening into a more comprehensive knowledge of some of them as the child turns into an adolescent and then begins adulthood.

As far as that goes, that's not bad in itself, but it makes life and all things attendant on it into a chore. And then it saps the vitality out of much that is taught.

Education for citizenship is another matter. That should involve teaching the child to use his or her powers of reason, understanding what the world is about, and what the child could do in and to the world. This is after all what the great teachers have done since antiquity -- Plato, Aristotle, Confucius, Mo, the Buddha, Jesus, Mohammed, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Marx, and so on -- teach the pupil how to become and to be. Instead we get civics -- and the French get philosophy, which is what should be taught in the English-speaking world.

clarabella said...

Geoff:
Do you remember that description of the prostitute taking of all her clothes (in Mimic Men I think) to reveal a monstrous, unappealing creature? Would you say from Naipaul's books that he finds women attractive? Have you read Diana Athill on Naipaul in STET? For all I know sex is much more a part of this whole education business than we are allowing. There is currently a case in the courts here against four young men in a Toronto school who are alleged to have forced a female schoolmate to give them oral sex in the school bathroom. Whatever the verdict in that case, I understand that it's not unusual for young men (the person who told me, a famous, conscious woman poet, was very concerned about black youth) to use force to compel young women into sexual activity against their will. At school. Which I think gives me a handle on my next post, in which I will try to tie sex, and sexual behaviour to the purposes of a sound education! Wish me luck – and, as ever, thanks for stopping by!

clarabella said...

Hi Fragano:
I am still hoping Sir Vidia will find the joy and sustenance of poetry before he joins that Great Original Poet in the Sky! Thanks for the teasing out. It has helped enormously, as has Geoff's comment that school, as we all know, should never be a pleasure. I am about to embark on a new post in which I shall hope to tackle these things. Be well and have some R&R this weekend.

geoffreyphilp101@gmail.com said...

All the best with the next post. I'm looking forward to reading it.

Maybe it's not just sex, but perhaps love that's involved in this whole teaching and learning, especially between students and teachers. And when male teachers overstep the boundaries with the children in their charge, they need to remember Abelard...

Have a great weekend!

FSJL said...

Pam: Naipaul is, alas, too set in his ways. The Victorian education he got certainly couldn't help.

I can remember, the summer when I was 14 reading my father's complete Longfellow with great pleasure (and Longfellow, I gather, is not taught any more -- I wonder why)and stealing time to do so. Had a teacher tried to get me to appreciate it, I might have rebelled. But that's been my nature since childhood -- I love to read, and I've been obliged to spend a lot of time living inside my head.

On this theme that Geoffrey's started: Unlike some young men (and women)I was never sexually precocious (hard as that may be to believe of the son of a rural landowner in the Jamaica of the 1970s), and I'd never in my life dream of forcing someone to provide me with sexual satisfaction. Perhaps that's because I've lived too much in the worlds that books opened for me. I suspect that the young men to whom you refer, Pam, are caught in a bind: they're in the first flush of physical maturity and eager to try out their powers, but they have no comprehension of any satisfactions beyond the animal needs of the body. In a real sense (and here I'm just echoing the Marx of the Paris Manuscripts) they have been dehumanised -- and then they go on to dehumanise young women by turning them into things. The question for me is how to humanise them, how to bring them to a sense of the richness, complexity, difficulty, and beauty of what it is to be human -- made especially difficult in a world that doesn't want its lower classes to be human (though I think they arrange such matters a bit better in Canada than in the US).