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Writing and Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from June Jordan with Bill Zavatsky

Writer and educator Bill Zavatsky offered the following remarks as part of “Writing and Teaching in a Time of Crisis: Lessons from June Jordan,” a panel presented at Poets House with the support of the June M. Jordan Literary Estate. Zavatsky was joined by Kay Ulanday Barrett, Taiyo Na, and Sofía Snow in honoring June Jordan (1936–2002), the acclaimed poet, activist, essayist, and teacher, whose projects included Poetry for the People, a workshop model for bringing poetry into diverse community settings. In this second annual panel celebrating Jordan’s work, poets and educators explored her essay “For the Sake of a People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us.” The event took place as part of What is It, Then, Between Us? Poetry & Democracy, the third annual initiative of the Poetry Coalition, a national poetry coalition working together to promote the value poets bring to our culture and the important contribution poetry makes in the lives of people of all ages and backgrounds.


Trying to understand the system responsible for every boring, inaccessible, irrelevant, derivative and pretentious poem that is glued to the marrow of required readings in American classrooms, or trying to understand the system responsible for the exclusion of every hilarious, amazing, visionary, pertinent and unforgettable poet from National Endowment of the Arts grants and from national publications, I come back to Walt Whitman.

—June Jordan, “For the Sake of People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us.” Originally published in Passion: New Poems 1977–1980, with a preface by the poet (Boston: Beacon Press, 1980). Reprinted in June Jordan, Some of Us Did Not Die: New and Selected Essays (New York: Basic/Civitas Books, 2002/2003), 242-253; and in We’re On: A June Jordan Reader, edited by Christoph Keller & Jan Heller Levi. Introduction by Rachel Eliza Griffiths (Farmington, Maine: Alice James Books, 2017), 311-323.

When June Jordan wrote this, it was plenty true. Even though her essay “For the Sake of People’s Poetry: Walt Whitman and the Rest of Us” was published in 1980, we and she were in the midst of an incredible period in American history that exploded stultified curricula in favor of the poetry she loved and wrote and encouraged. That period was called the sixties. You remember the sixties, maybe?—when everything was exploding—the Civil Rights Movement, black power, women’s rights, gay liberation, rock and roll, and (of course) poetry that expressed all of them.

The various poets-in-the-schools programs that took root in the late sixties and blossomed from coast to coast in large measure brought into the classrooms the kind of poetry that June Jordan didn’t see at all in her essay. And let’s remember that Ms. Jordan played a large part in bringing poetry (as taught by poets) into the schools. She worked with young children, with high school students, and with college students. She promoted their work and edited anthologies devoted to it. Back then (and even later), Whitman himself was missing from the curricula, or pressed into the tiny flowers of poems called “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer” and “A Noiseless Patient Spider.” When I began to teach high school back in the late eighties, I did a little survey of the textbooks around me for an article that I wrote about teaching Whitman. I called this part of it “A Polemical Aside”:

I have before me three poetry textbooks used in high school and college. Two of these texts, which incidentally feature substantial anthologies that “fill out” the books, offer poems by Walt Whitman. The first book (532 pages) reprints six Whitman poems, none of which is longer than twenty-four lines (the average poem is thirteen lines long): “Beat! Beat! Drums!,” “Cavalry Crossing a Ford,” “I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing,” “A Noiseless Patient Spider,” “O Captain! My Captain!,” and “The Runner.” An additional snippet, ten lines from “Song of Myself,” introduces the book’s anthology section. In all, the book contains eighty-nine lines of Whitman’s poetry.

The other anthology—564 pages—does much better: “Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking,” certainly one of Whitman’s greatest poems (183 lines); “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer”; “Cavalry Crossing a Ford”; “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the Lincoln elegy that is far superior to “O Captain! My Captain!” (and a poem of 206 lines); “A Noiseless Patient Spider”; and “The Dalliance of the Eagles.” Average: 70.6 lines per poem, though the four short poems here are ten lines or less. At least we are given a sense of Whitman’s heft as a poet in the longer works.

For comparison I went to a widely used poetry text currently in its seventh edition. It contained five poems by Whitman—“A Noiseless Patient Spider,” “Come Up from the Fields Father,” “Had I the Choice,” “There Was a Child Went Forth” (the “heavyweight” here, at thirty-nine lines), and “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.” Total: 103 lines of Whitman; average poem: 20.6 lines.

It doesn’t take a statistical genius to see that, if indeed Whitman is one of our nation’s major poets (and he is), and if he is one of the great poets of the world (a universally acknowledged fact), we are being shortchanged in the quantity (not to mention the quality) of his work that is being offered to our students. A quick tally shows what of Whitman gets anthologized—poems ten lines or less that don’t pack much of a punch or don’t contain much of Whitman’s philosophy. They are imagistic sketches, not even vignettes, and in them the poet simply does not have the opportunity to do what he does best—stretch out and soar. Of “O Captain! My Captain,” perhaps the most anthologized Whitman poem, his biographer Justin Kaplan has reported:

Sometimes [Whitman] regretted ever having written it. (“It’s My Captain again; always My Captain,” he exclaimed when the Harper publishing house asked his permission to print it in a school reader. “My God! when will they listen to me for whole and good?” If this was his “best,” he said, “what can the worst be like?”)

                  —Justin Kaplan, Walt Whitman: A Life (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1980), 29.

Poet Allen Ginsberg proved to be Whitman’s most outspoken contemporary champion, though Ginsberg’s long line was also shaped by the unrhymed poems of William Blake. In an interview, Ginsberg remembered his days as a college student at Columbia University (in the 1940s) and the attitude towards Whitman that prevailed:

He was taught but he was much insulted. I remember, around the time of the writing of On the Road [by his friend Jack Kerouac], a young favored instructor at Columbia College told me that Whitman was not a serious writer because he had no discipline and William Carlos Williams was an awkward provincial, no craft, and Shelley was a sort of silly fool! So there was no genuine professional poetics taught at Columbia, there was a complete obliteration and amnesia of the entire great mind of gnostic western philosophy or Hindu Buddhist eastern philosophy, no acceptance or conception of a possibility of a cosmic consciousness as a day to day experience or motivation or even once in a lifetime experience. It was all considered as some sort of cranky pathology. So Whitman was put down as a “negativist crude yea-sayer who probably had a frustrated homosexual libido and so was generalizing his pathology into oceanic consciousness of a morbid nature which had nothing to do with the real task of real men in a real world surrounded by dangerous communist enemies” [Ginsberg laughs] or something like that.

–Allen Ginsberg, Composed on the Tongue. Edited by Donald Allen (Bolinas, CA: Grey Fox Press, 1979), 69–70.

As a teacher I found that I had to assign an entire book by Whitman in order for students to “get” him. I used Malcolm Cowley’s edition of Leaves of Grass: The First (1855) Edition (New York: Penguin Books, 1976/1986). We read the Song of Myself out loud almost in its entirety, round-robin fashion, stopping to ask and answer questions, and a few other poems from the book. Students also had to write an imitation-Whitman poem. In order to accomplish this we drew up a list of twenty-five stylistic and thematic motifs that we found in Whitman’s poems that students could use in their own compositions, and I provided them with a number of techniques that would get them started writing. The poems had to be a minimum of three pages in length, and were revised (based on my written criticisms) at least twice.

It was the poets that went into the schools who brought contemporary poetry into their classrooms. (Kenneth Koch will spring to mind, I hope, who published Wishes, Lies and Dreams: Teaching Children to Write Poetry in 1970, as perhaps the most famous of these poet-teachers.) And I have already mentioned June Jordan. These programs succeeded because the poets carried with them work that they loved, which by example taught the students how to love poetry and get excited enough to write it. I don’t know how many poetry-in-the-schools programs are still alive (I know that the Teachers and Writers Collaborative, a wonderful group for which I worked for many years, is), and I am of two minds as to whether or not, somewhere down the line, programs like these will have to be reintroduced into U.S. classrooms. From the late sixties on, there was also a lot of work being done by poets with teachers to bring them up to speed about what had occurred in modern and what was going on in contemporary poetry, and poets who entered classrooms often served as role models for teachers as well as for students. The same poets often ran after-school workshops for teachers in the schools where they both worked.

The money for these programs came from the National Endowment for the Arts Literature Program and from state arts councils. It came from the schools. It allowed practicing poets, most of them young, to make an almost-living teaching young people how to write poetry. These poets edited anthologies of the poetry written by the students, and the anthologies were distributed to the students and around the schools.

Since June Jordan rightly links Whitman to Pablo Neruda in “For the Sake of People’s Poetry,” I can’t resist saying something about him. Neruda had this to say in an address given in New York City in 1972:

I was barely fifteen when I discovered Walt Whitman, my primary creditor. I stand here among you today still owing this marvelous debt that has helped me live…

Greatness has many faces, but I, a poet who writes in Spanish, learned more from Walt Whitman than from Cervantes. In Whitman’s poetry the ignorant are never humbled, and the human condition is never derided.

We are still living in a Whitmanesque epoch; in spite of painful birth pangs, we are witnessing the emergence of new men and new societies. The bard complained of the all-powerful European influence that continued to dominate the literature of his time. In fact, it was he, Walt Whitman, in the persona of a specific geography, who for the first time in history brought honor to an American name. The colonialism of the most brilliant nations created centuries of silence; in three centuries of Spanish domination we had no more than two or three outstanding writers in all America.

—Pablo Neruda, Passions and Impressions. Edited by Matilde Neruda and Miguel Otero Silva. Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Sayers Peden (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1983), 376–377.

Most of the foregoing is from Neruda’s autobiography, published in Spanish in 1978 but not available in English translation until 1983. I can’t say that I know if or how well Ms. Jordan read Spanish, but it’s possible that she didn’t see Neruda’s book until after she had written the essay that we are discussing today. And perhaps she didn’t see Neruda’s “Ode to Walt Whitman,” published in Nuevas odas elementales (1955), but not translated (as far as I can tell) until Ilan Stavans brought it out in 2013. Here are its opening lines, which leave no doubt about the direct connection between Whitman and Neruda; this translation is by Martín Espada:

I don’t know
at what age,
or where,
in the great wet South
or on the fearsome coast
beneath the brief
scream of the seagulls,
I touched a hand and it was
the hand of Walt Whitman:
I stepped on the earth
with bare feet
and walked across the grasslands,
across the firm dew
of Walt Whitman.

Posted on January 10, 2018, by Jerome Rothenberg in Jacket2:

In the same ode, Neruda says that Whitman “taught me / to be an American” (Espada translation). Join this to June Jordan’s assertion: “I too am a descendent of Walt Whitman” (“For the Sake of People’s Poetry,” 242). To wind up, I don’t think that today June Jordan would agree with the statement from her 1980 essay that I have quoted at the top of this piece. Poets from everywhere are publishing all over the place, winning prizes, teaching, appearing in the media, sitting on discussion panels. Rap and hip-hop have pushed new kinds of poetry to the forefront. Whitman and Jordan teach us how to be American poets and world poets. They teach us how to look at each other and how to see each other and how to listen to each other and how to talk through our poetry (and theirs) to each other. We can and are doing the same thing. What could be better than that!

Bill Zavatsky’s essay on Whitman, excerpted in this blog post, is called “Teaching Whitman in High School,” and may be found in The Teachers & Writers Guide to Walt Whitman. Edited by Ron Padgett (New York: Teachers & Writers Collaborative, 1991), 84-111.

Bill Zavatsky went to Columbia University, where he got his B.A. and M.F.A. degrees. There, he studied with Kenneth Koch, Adrienne Rich, and Stanley Kunitz. For ten years he published books under the SUN imprint. For twenty-four years he taught at the Trinity School. His most recent books include Where X Marks the Spot, Haiku & Co., and Earthlight: Poems by André Breton, which he translated with Zack Rogow. He was awarded fellowships in poetry by the New York State Council on the Arts, the MacDowell Colony, and the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation. He teaches a free walk-in poetry workshop every week at the Morningside Heights Branch of the New York Public Library.

Posted In: Essays