Poetry Friday: Teachers

This will be brief, since I have plenty to do, but I promised you a poem this week, and I’ve been thinking about a slam poem by Taylor Mali.  It’s been on the Internet a while—maybe you even saw it before somewhere—and I want to tell you why I chose it, and offer some thoughts and questions about it.  But first, go watch the Youtube video of his performance (there’s a little strong language…but all of it justified, I think—you are warned): this is a poem entitled “What Do You Make?”

Taylor Mali’s poem about teachers

So, I chose this because teachers and what they make is in the news now again.  And there seem to be a shockingly large number of people in the country who think that $50,000 and a good benefits plan is too much for a teacher with an expensive graduate education.  I’m going to refer to them as “ignorant people” because I really would rather not use vulgar language.  People go on the television and say “yeah, they only work 9 months a year and they’re free by 2:30! what an easy job!”  I won’t launch a diatribe here.  But I will say that if it’s that easy, A) you go do it, jackass, B) why do 50% of teachers, having gotten their expensive education, burn out and leave the profession within 5 years, C) have you ever in your life actually met a teacher who worked 8 to 2:30, no work taken home, and not an hour of work outside the classroom?  Because if so you met someone who should be fired.  I know not every teacher works as hard as I did when I taught.  I know I was in a school of particularly motivated teachers, and that the bar’s lower elsewhere.  I’m not saying there don’t need to be alterations to our system of education.  But the colossal ignorance about teaching as a profession, and the pathetic attempt of a bunch of rich pundits and “journalists” to cast aspersion on one of the most denigrated and simultaneously most vitally important professions in the country really got my dander up.  And then I remembered Taylor and thought I should post it for you to think about.

But what I’m partially interested in here is what you think of his poem as a “poem”.  Slam poetry, and performance poetry, are increasingly big.  Maybe you’ve encountered it before, and maybe not.  I won’t ask you if it’s poetry—I’m sure it is, and if you think it isn’t, I figure you’ll tell me without my asking.  But I wonder if it can be looked at and thought about the same way as, say, something by Robert Frost or Countee Cullen.  Do you think that what Mali does in this poem is something I can compare with T. S. Eliot, not in quality, but as two similar things that work in the same way?  Or would I be comparing apples to aardvarks?

And do you think his poem would work as well if you read it?  Would it change much?  What about it would change?  Frankly I don’t think this would be a good read for me if it was on the page, but I might be wrong.  I know I prefer poems that read well both silently and aloud, but is that a personal preference/bias, or is it just a truth that poetry is better when it does both things well (although poems can still be good at one thing and bad at another)?  Somehow it feels like cheating that Mali can make me understand his poem because I hear his tone of voice and see his expressions….it would be a lot harder to do that using only the words on the page, wouldn’t it?  As much as I respect “slam” as poetry, and think some of it is really enjoyable, I don’t think I am sustained by it in the same way.  And I think, if I’m totally honest, that a poet who only ever writes “slam” is not pushing themselves to be all they can be.  Which maybe is a problem and something I should change about myself.  What do you think?


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