The poetry of uncomfortable truths

Once a week I take an intermediate French class with Alice Ayel, a marvelous language teacher whose approach centers around providing language that is natural as well as easy to understand for her students. Perhaps you have seen her wonderful videos. Her live classes are fabulous. Today she read us a poem and, as I was enjoying her reading, I realized that it has been quite a long time since I have sat down to read a poem on my own for pleasure. In fact, that is how I often respond to her class; surprise and delight upon hearing a folk tale, a myth, or a fable.

This is exactly how I imagine the impact of the second conversation in the daily “Two Conversation Approach” outlined in the CI Master Class. The first conversation is student-centered; a student interview, a card talk or a creative activity like a One Word Image that inwardly explores the world inhabited by our students. The second conversation opens the door to a wider world. In neither conversation are students struggling to remember vocabulary or grammar; instead they focus on the delight of learning about each other (first conversation) and some small piece of human culture (second conversation). To make sure students focus on content rather than form, we end class with an easy four question exit quiz generated in the moment.

Enjoying the French poem reminded me of a poem that I read with my Spanish classes. This poem, by Chilean poet Nicanor Parra, seems to me perfect for an audience of adolescents keen to criticize the imperfect world they are inheriting. I preface the reading explaining, in Spanish, that in our world there are love poems and poems about beauty, but this poem is neither. Sometimes it is important to say an uncomfortable truth. “Eating with your mouth open is repulsive.” It hurts to hear that when your mouth is open & full of food. But of course there are far worse things in this world that need to be denounced: racism, gender stereotypes, class oppression, violence. In this poem Parra announces to the reader that he is not going to apologize for writing poetry that may offend you. Read at your own risk:

La montaña rusa

Durante medio siglo la poesía fue
el paraíso del tonto solemne.
Hasta que vine yo
y me instalé con mi montaña rusa.

Suban, si les parece.
Claro que yo no respondo si bajan
echando sangre por boca y narices.

You might ask why I explain the poem to my students before reading it. First of all, I agree that ‘explaining’ a poem cuts short possible student interpretations. Yet what I want to avoid is confusion. This conversation will last from 15 to 20 minutes and I want students to be amused by the imagery. I want them to understand the context in which Parra situates himself. I want to get straight to the delight of the poem. I don’t want my students’ first impression of Chilean poetry to be confusion. Rather, I’d like to present a window into another world, or possibly a mirror through which they recognize their own thoughts and feelings reflected in Parra’s poetry.

The second conversation is not always so grandiose, but when I am teaching really well I have tapped into my students’ sense of self in the first conversation and then, in the second conversation, provided a bridge, a window or a mirror so that they can stretch out and identify themselves in a broader human culture.