We will read the interview in its entirety as well as some of Troupe's poems. Moyers asks him why his words hang out "apart from any apparent meaning, existing just for the experience of the sound of them." Troupe responds that that is what poetry is supposed to do, "because one of the things we have to remember is that poetry at first was song - it was the troubadours, the griots, the singers." He further describes the griots as "African troubadours, men who sang and brought songs to the villages." My point to my students is this - we are the griots. We have to carry on our songs and sing them through the village, in this case the village of New Haven.
I intend to use music to hook them and get them interested. Since music is a main part of their lives they will understand the connection between poetry and music.
In his book
Making Your Own Days
, Kenneth Koch put it well when he said, "poets think of how they want something to sound as much as they think of what they want to say and in fact it's often impossible to distinguish one from the other." He says further, "the poetry language is used by persons who have things (known to them or not known) that they need to say, and who are moved by this need and by a delight in making music out of words."
HIP HOP AND RAP
To bring this point home, and to essentially hook them, I intend to start with rap and hip hop music and compare them to the griots of old. To this end I will use
The Rose that grew from Concrete
, a collection of poetry by Tupac Shakur that he wrote before he was famous. Tupac, named after a South American rebel fighter from Peru, Tupac Amaru, is a favorite of my students. He seems to reach them in places that resonant deeply for them. He is their hero, their icon, their John Lennon. Shakur, born and raised in Los Angeles and a former street kid and gang member, expresses his angst about his past and asks forgiveness of his mother and tries to explain his actions in his songs.
This year will be the 30th anniversary of Mayday, 1970. I wasn't in New Haven then but people tell me it was quite something. The whole of the New Haven green was filled with people of all ages and races demonstrating against the war in Vietnam and the racism that filled our country. Bobby Seale, the former secretary of the Black Panther party was there speaking about equality for all African Americans.
Out of that movement came a young woman named Afeni Shakur. She joined the Black Panthers when she was 20. By the time she was 22 she had been arrested and charged with conspiracy to bomb several public areas in New York. Pregnant (with her son Tupac) she was sent to The Women's House of Detention. On June 16th, 1971 Tupac Shakur was born. Tupac is an Inca word that means serpent. We will discuss his life, and try to make connections between his lyrics and his experiences. Thinking of him as a modern day griot we will decipher and analyze his message through a variety of his poems and some of his songs.
In one of the poems
In the Depths of Solitude
he ponders his true goal of trying to find peace of mind:
Trying 2 find peace of mind
And still preserve my soul
I found this particularly striking because I am very aware, living as I do in the city, of the chaos in my students' lives. Poverty comes with many costs and one of them is noise. Poverty is loud and in your face. Often my students do not have the luxury of a room of their own to ponder anything. They do not have time to write papers or relax. They have after-school jobs. Because they cannot afford a car they use public transportation, they help out welfare mothers and sisters, so the idea of "quiet" time is almost unheard of.
A few times this year I turned off the lights and lit a candle and put on classical music and told them to just write anything at all. At the end of class they usually give me a hug or a handshake and thank me for a good class. Solitude is a luxury for most of my kids. I read the above Tupac poem with them and they asked me what the word solitude meant. I said it meant really quiet alone time. They wish they had that. I am amazed by what my students produce within the circumstances they live. I hope to create a kind of writing laboratory, a creative safe space next year.
A former student e-mailed me recently about a lecture he attended in college given by the author Cornell West. He was pleased because West referred to his generation as the hip-hop generation. He quotes West as saying that "hip hop essentially evolved both musically and culturally from jazz and specifically the blues, and that just like the jazz age, our age is defined by our refusal of either cynicism or sentimentalism."
West also spoke about gangsta rap and how it's criticized for its rampant use of homophobia, sexism and violence. He argues that while these things should be criticized they should be seen as a product of the society that perpetuates it and that the music cannot be blamed for reflecting the conditions of our environment.
At one time, said west, black people could turn to church for comfort but now the church, too, is corrupt and spiritually bankrupt. Some turn to crack, some to suicide and some to the music studio. Those who channel their voices towards music become part of strengthening their culture by expressing their freedom to speak. The personal becomes the political and democracy is preserved.
"Live by your mind and be a slave; live by your heart and be free." Joshua Erlanger
I won't even pretend to enjoy listening to rap music but I do appreciate that it expresses real life and emotions for many of my students. In addition to analyzing some of Tupac's lyrics and some of his poetry we will watch his performance in John Singleton's movie
. Although there is a fair amount of sex and violence, and it is only suitable for older students, it does a good job of portraying street life and poetry and the everyday chaos of our kids' lives. One of the main characters, played by Janet Jackson, considers herself a poet and writes her own poetry. It is, however, the poetry of Maya Angelou, which I will use in connection with the movie.
The great poet Nikki Giovanni says in the foreword to Tupac's book, "People will stand up and say really stupid things like 'I don't think profane language should be used, and I think they can make their point without bad language.' But I always think bad language is school vouchers, lower taxes on capital gains, don't ask, don't tell, and language that silently kills people who are different. Mostly I keep seeing the emptiness of lives that have nothing better to do than judge and condemn. Tupac once said, Only God can judge me. He has taken that step to understand that no matter what anyone says you have an obligation to follow your own muse."
An assignment that I will give to my students at this point will be to write about the tension in their life or in their city following the style of Tupac's music or poetry.
I will then share
The Journey is the Destination
, the journals of Dan Eldon, with them. Eldon was a young photojournalist who was killed while on assignment in Somalia. He kept many years of journals (even though he died at 23) and his mother, in honor of her son, published them. My students love his book. We dedicated our school's literary magazine to his memory last year, and we modeled our magazine after his style: part poetry, part diary, part collage, and part scrapbook.
Last year's editor of the Literary Magazine described Eldon's work as " an amazing collection of Dan's pictures, writing and experiences. He shares his life in Africa where he took safaris and incredible pictures. His book is amazing. As one turns the pages of his offbeat journal it seems more like turning the pages of a flipbook. Each page contains a new world of people and cultures." It is this idea that I want to replicate.
I will also introduce another book to them along the same lines by a young woman, Sabrina Harrison, titled
. Like Eldon's book it contains drawings, poetry, and random messages to herself like "we all at our own age have to claim something even if it's only our own confusion" and "I am in the middle of growing up and into myself."
She explores many facets of love and friendship, growing up, art, truth, identity intimacy and self-expression. Coincidentally and conveniently she starts her book with a quote and a tribute to Walt Whitman.
Students who do this unit with me will be given their own hardcover journal that they can hold in their hand and feel good about. I will pass out the spiral bound hardcover journals to my students and tell them by the end of the year this has to be full - full of gap ads, poems, original or otherwise, drawings, graffiti art, photographs, watercolors, telephone messages, notes they passed in school - because it will be their book, and this collage of their life will represent them. Their grade will be based solely on the effort, originality and creativity they put into this book.
A traditional poetry section will begin with Walt Whitman. Whitman was a true American poet. He was born in 1819 on Long Island and loved his country. He cried when Lincoln was shot and he became disillusioned with the rapidly growing materialism and corruption of his country.
His best work is considered by most to be "Song of Myself" in which we are told that we all possess something of the divine within ourselves and that the holiest thing we can do is to listen to and learn from all, regardless of how humble the source "And there is no trade or employment but the young man following it may become a hero…In the faces of men and women I see God." Whitman was a free spirit like many of the men and women he influenced who came after him.
Whitman loved life, he loved children, loved to have a good time, loved good company and he was open about his sexuality. To continue with my theme of singing we will concentrate on "Song of the Open Road", "Song of Myself" and " I Hear America Singing."
This is a perfect segue into Langston Hughes' poem, "I too Sing America, I am the darker brother. They send me to eat in the kitchen…Tomorrow I'll be at the table when company comes. They'll see how beautiful I am and be ashamed-I, too, am America".
We will read biographical information on Hughes and the Harlem Renaissance, sections from his autobiography
The Big Sea
, and write a poem about ways in which my students feel disenfranchised from our country.