Entire Life in a First Line
Student poetry vs. the internet “explainer.”
BY PATRICK MCGINTY
[From the spring 2017 issue.]
I RECENTLY JUDGED a national student poetry competition. Then, when my colleague asked if I would judge his more localized contest, I judged another one. How could I say no? I love student poetry. (Perhaps this is because I interact with the genre infrequently.) (Perhaps it’s because I have low standards for enjoying poems of any kind.)
The point is, I love student poetry. I enjoy seeing a young poet explore his or her options, and I’m only partly referencing technique here. As I worked through the pile of entries, I envisioned the poets standing in a mall. The stores were their life experiences, rowed and tri-leveled and bejeweled with seductive signs. Which store should they enter? Which experiences should they revisit? Look, there’s that breakup. And that haircut! That band. My mom! My dad?
Often times, the resulting poems tried to wrap their arms around the whole mall. It was not uncommon for a piece seemingly about “home” to swerve to a boyfriend or girlfriend, nuclear holocaust, a pet snake, a pair of rollerblades, DEATH. Occasionally, a student’s poem concluded so vaguely that I had no idea what any of the three “it”’s in the final line was trying to signify
This vagueness is why I have always loved student poetry, sometimes even more so than “professional” poetry: there is often a haziness that inspires (or perhaps demands) interpretation. Whereas student fiction gets regularly dinged for telling and not showing, student poetry regularly foregoes both showing and telling. The reasons for why these poems wind up being the haziest of cave drawings are likely numerous and probably belong more to the realm of psychology than creative writing. I know that, in my own creative work, I’ve been afraid of copping to certain things. Sometimes I simply have no idea what I am talking about or am truly “after” until years later.
As I re-read the entries, I imagined that these were the two main reasons for the wispy vagueness snaking its way through certain poems, every single one of which, it’s worth noting again, I genuinely enjoyed reading. The contests were a chance to watch young writers think. Their poems were in many cases outlines of the many things they could be about.
WITH REGARDS TO THE POEMS I did not choose as winners, caveats apply. Maybe one of the poems I didn’t choose was a total knockout, a masterpiece. In a year I would likely read the batch again and choose differently. Poems do not need “topics,” regardless of my forthcoming argument. Based on content and the universities involved, I feel rather comfortable assuming that a large number of the poems were submitted by white writers, and that the writers were between the ages of eighteen and twenty, but maybe not! Who knows! Who’s to say whether the young poets wrote from within or from outside their experiences. I do think I still believe that personal experience is not a pre-requisite for art.
However, when you read large stacks of student poems, certain things become clear. When a student knows their angle of approach from the first line, the move stands out. When the poem then carries this obsession throughout the piece, the move leaps from the stack with troutty ferocity. The “immigrant” poem and the “gay” poem each knew what they were “about.” They announced their intentions immediately, right in the first line. With their subject matter clearly identified, each poet could then explore various technical avenues in an attempt to express this small hard knotty concern that had been rattling around inside themselves. They broke lines early. They ran long. They verbed around. The two poets were not bored by sticking to one “topic.” They chose and announced their topic, then got to the business of writing poetry about it, of exploring, of being risky. They went inside a store and started trying things on.
There’s an obvious joke here. Of course I chose a poem that grappled with immigration. Of course I chose a poem that explored sexuality. I work in an English Department. It’s in the by-laws: when you judge a competition of student poetry, establish your liberal agenda! Promote “diverse” voices!
But the resentment simmering inside the two poems I chose made it clear that each poet had been told a different, darker sort of joke by their country: I can’t believe you actually thought you were a real American. Dismissed to the margins of American culture, the young poets whose work I selected made a clear choice: to hone a point of view. America had pigeon-holed them, labeled them, tried to winnow and stereotype their experiences, told them they could shop at only one single store in the mall, and so these brave young poets did what brave poets do. They sharpened their linguistic knives. They walked into their one single store and threw all the loudest merchandise into their bag. Then they walked to the register, slid their poems across the counter, smiled, and said: I might shop here, but I’ll never pay.
I’VE THOUGHT ABOUT the winning poems whenever I encounter the internet’s innumerable “explainers.” I’m referring to the “what the new administration means for Cause X” type pieces, of which there is not a dire shortage.
I don’t know who coined the term explainer. I’ve seen Slate get the nod. In 2010 on PressThink.org, Jay Rosen of New York University’s Carter Journalism Center defined explainers as special features meant to exist separately from the daily news churn. In Rosen’s mind, a good “explainer” piece “addresses a gap in your understanding: the lack of essential background knowledge, such that items in the news don’t make sense, fail to register as important or add to the feeling of being overwhelmed.”
“Gap” is the key word here. Rosen’s “gap” concerns a reader and his or her chosen issue. As a reader, there is my own personal knowledge of an issue, and then, across an intellectual cavern, there is the complicated reality of said issue. The “explainer” seeks to close the gap.
Why the explainer genre bothers me, I think, has to do with this gap business. In Rosen’s largely accepted definition of the explainer, the gap resides between a reader and a topic.
But what about the gap between the writer and the topic? Too often, explainers act as though this gap does not exist. The explainer-in-chief often acts as though they were born on the same firm ground as the reality of the topic. They ignore any potential gaps they themselves had to cross, which makes sense, editorially. Explainers are about compression. They aim to deliver large amounts of information in easily readable amounts. There isn’t time to communicate the writers’ intellectual travels. I get it. I’m not ragging on journalists here. All journalists deserve praise and support. They deserve readership and subscriptions.
But: do I want to read the explainer written by the noble journalist who, when assigned an article on X, needed six hours of furious research to get up to speed? Or do I want to hear from a writer who has been grappling personally with X for longer than six hours and who can still write objectively and informationally about the subject? When I read explainers now, I find myself less concerned with my own winnowing knowledge gap and more interested in how hard the assigned writer had to work to establish a clear understanding of the issue from the first line.
This is, I suppose, a roundabout championing of newsroom diversity, which, as a concept, doesn’t have too many stated enemies. It’s a banal point I’m making here, very “White Guy Gets Woke, more at 11.” Some sleepy part of my brain and likely yours long ago recognized that newsroom diversity was a good and necessary goal, and then I thought about something else.
Yet the student poetry competitions helped clarify the importance of newsroom diversity. I have read good explainers by white writers. These particular pieces have informed my politics and my worldview. The effort to understand and outline a problem is worthwhile, as were the student poems I did not select. But if national politics continue to target identity-based issues, and if our reading habits privilege pieces which deliver takeaways with expediency, then it is something akin to simple math to hire, read, and promote writers who can bring an entire life to bear in a first line, as opposed to ones who pause when considering that other worthwhile question: If asked to respond, what would I write about?