Giving Poets a Bad Name

by Matthew Koslowski on April 30, 2010
in Anecdotes, Essays

We sat in the small square of chairs set before a microphone and two tables, one with two books on little stands and the other piled with books. Three women walked from the escalator over to the table and one of them, our poet, sat down at the table between the two books.

The time was not yet 3:30pm, the appointed time.

I chatted with my girlfriend. She asked me what I knew of Louise Glück’s work. I admitted I knew little besides her The First Four Books of Poems, which sat on my lap waiting to be signed.

I had bought the book largely for the silver sticker that read, “U.S. Poet Laureate.” While I lived in Chicago, I wanted to get acquainted with contemporary English-language poetry and would regularly peruse the book shelves there. When I saw that sticker, I figured there were worse poets with whom to get acquainted. A few times I thumbed through her work but it did not much resonate with me.

“What will you be reading today?” a member of the small audience asked.

Louise looked startled. “Reading? Why did you think this was a reading? I am not reading today. If you’ve got a questions, I’d be happy to have a conversation with you all. And, of course, I’ll sign.”

On the little table, just beside her with her books, a sign said, “Reading & Signing.” There was a collective sigh of disappointment.

She looked at our blank faces. “Please understand, that I hate to read my work. I think the performance cheapens my poetry. My poems, when spoken, get transformed into a linear progression of words that only happens once. I apologize if there was a misunderstanding, but I clearly told Barnes&Noble that this was to be a signing event.”

When Homer, and the singing minstrels who sang his epics, gave voice to his poetry, did that cheapen the work? When Shakespeare’s actors gave voice to the grand poetry in his plays, did that cheapen the work? I thought these questions but did not dare give them voice.

She added, “I only read if my publisher demands it. Or if there is a huge financial incentive.”

No, Ms. Glück. It is not the performance of your work that cheapens it: it is your attitude.

Motivation and Incentives

by Matthew Koslowski on April 23, 2010
in Anecdotes

In This Essay

“Should Kids Be Bribed to Do Well in School?” by Amanda Ripley, TIME Magazine, Volume 175, Number 15 (April 19, 2010)
On the Surprising Science of Motivation by Dan Pink, TED
Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us by Dan Pink
Punished By Rewards by Alfie Kohn
 

I stopped dead as I looked at the magazine racks in my local Barnes&Noble about two weeks ago. On the cover, a little girl was sitting at a desk in front of stacks of cash, with bills falling from the desktop to the floor. The title asked: Should Schools Bribe Kids?

I felt revulsion.

Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards was one of the first books on education that I read. Although Kohn’s book focuses strongly on the effect of rewards and incentives in the rearing of children, he also discusses incentives in the workplace. His arguments were compelling and I could see their relevance in my own life. As I wrote in “Racing to the Test”, my pay-for-performance incentive plan doesn’t motivate me.

After reading Alfie Kohn’s work, I saw Dan Pink’s TED Lecture On the Surprising Science of Motivation. His work was congruent with the work of Kohn, though I didn’t see the nuances at first. I’ve watched the video perhaps four or five times now. At first, I focused on his arguments that incentives inhibit creative thinking. Pink also talks about how incentives actually boost performance for production of unit-driven tasks, such as Adam Smith’s example of creating pins or in the reading of a number of books.

Even with these two works in mind, I bought the TIME Magazine. I hoped to find that the work of the economist was one more piece of evidence supporting my conclusions.

The article describes four experiments designed by Roland Fryer Jr., the Harvard economist who wanted to test market forces in learning. The experiments were:

  • in New York City, paying fourth- and seventh-graders for earning higher test scores;
  • in Washington, D.C., paying sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders for certain behaviors, such as attendance;
  • in Chicago, paying ninth-graders for earning As, Bs, and Cs;
  • and, in Dallas, paying second-graders for each book they read.

And my predictions were mostly right. I thought they would all be failures, but one surprised me.

The schools with pay for performance did boost some test scores but not consistently. And the improved performance on specific tests did not translate to improved performance on the national tests that determine America’s international standing in education. If I were to pay you — well, most of you — right now to solve a second order differential equation, most of you could not do it because most of you have never learned to solve second order differential equations. Paying a student to get a better grade without teaching the student the techniques of how to get a better grade is much the same.

But the one program that seemed to have the most effect was paying second-graders for each book they read. The students earned their money after taking a short quiz on the book. I balked, thinking that such a program would kill a child’s natural inclination to read. Alfie Kohn makes a strong argument for incentives killing internal motivation. He describes a reading incentive program they had when I was a kid. After reading so many books, a child can earn a pizza from Pizza Hut.

And then I remembered something. Something very important that I had forgotten while reading Alfie Kohn’s book. I participated in that Pizza Hut program. I studied literature in high school and college; I love to read for pleasure; and I am well on my way to becoming an English teacher.

As much as I hate to admit it, maybe there is something to these program after all.

* * *

PS: You would think Dan Pink was paying me, considering how often I have mentioned him on Literature&Literacy. He’s not, but I like his areas of interest and research. Though I wouldn’t mind if he were to pay me.

Pen to Paper

by Matthew Koslowski on April 14, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

The Mystery of the Messy Notebooks: Why Agatha Christie’s method was utterly deranged by Christine Kenneally, Slate, April 12, 2010.
Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks: Fifty Years of Mysteries in the Making by John Curran
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Letters on Life: New Prose Translations by Rainer Maria Rilke (Ulrich Baer, ed. and trans.)
 

On Monday, I was reading Slate. What inspired me to read it that day, I am not sure: it has not been one of the sources that I regularly turn to for my news.

Perhaps because I want to be a writer myself, I have always found it fascinating to listen to stories about how artists, musicians, and authors create their work. Without any real study, the descriptions of the creative process stick with me.

For example, years ago I listened to part of an interview with Michael Stipe of R.E.M. (Perhaps the entire band was being interviewed, my memory is vague.) I remember nothing about that interview, save this one thing: R.E.M. records the music without Michael Stipe present and then they give him the rough cut on a tape. He walks around listening to the tape again and again until he is able to put words to the music.

But I am glad that I decided to read Slate this week. Otherwise I would have missed a great article about the writing process that Agatha Christie employed. If you can call how Agatha Christie wrote a “process.”

Read more..

How the Writing is Smarter than the Writer

Last night at Porter Square Books in Cambridge, I saw a joint reading of Andre Dubus III and one of his mentors, Thomas E. Kennedy. During the question and answer session following the reading, Andre answered questions about his forthcoming memoir.

One thing that he said really caught my attention and I have been thinking about it since he said it.

That’s the wonderful thing about writing. The writing is smarter than the writer. I set out to write an essay and then realized this would take a book to tackle. I learned more about myself and the history of my life. My only hope is that I write something useful that people can relate to. Besides my wife.
– Andre Dubus III, with the poetic license that is memory.

Not too long ago I stumbled across Everett Bogue’s blog Far Beyond the Stars and Colin Wright’s blog Exile Lifestyle. Both blogs are very, very good. Even before reading these two advocates of minimalism, I had thought that I would like to reduce my belongings to a trunk worth of clothes and a trunk worth of books. They make the goal seem even more worth pursuing.

Today, while the idea that the writing is smarter than the writer was rolling around in my head, I was reading Everett Bogue’s free ebook How to Create a Movement and Colin Wright’s free ebook How to be Remarkable.

Both ebooks talked about the importance of having passion.

So, I stopped to ask myself, “What is my writing telling me? Where is my passion?” I thought about Literature&Literacy, about the post that generated the most interesting discussion. What did I come back to again and again?

Poetry.

My real passion has always been poetry. I love to read novels and probably have read more novels than poems in my life time. But there is something in the poetry that strikes me, something I retain from poetry that I don’t as much with a novel.

Perhaps that’s not entirely fair. I remember my Senior Directed Readings in the Humanities at Ohio Wesleyan University. I studied the development of the sonnet from Petrarch to John Donne. One of the first things I read was Sir Philip Sidney’s Defense of Poetry along side his sonnet cycle Astrophel and Stella. When Sidney defends “poetry” he’s defending what we would now call literature, novels as well as poems.

I have read novels like Tahar Ben Jelloun’s novels The Sand Child and The Sacred Night which were poems. And I have read and heard recited “poems” which were not even prose.

So, I am going to start following my bliss. I don’t know how that may change my writing. But Sir Philip Sidney might have an idea.

I.

Loving in truth, and fain in verse my love to show,
That she (dear she) might take some pleasure of my pain:
Pleasure might cause her read, reading might make her know,
Knowledge might pity win, and pity grace obtain,
I sought fit words to paint the blackest face of woe,
Studying inventions fine, her wits to entertain:
Oft turning others’ leaves to see if thence would flow
Some fresh and fruitful showers upon my sun-burned brain.
But words came halting forth, wanting Invention’s stay,
Invention, Nature’s child, fled step-dame Study’s blows,
And others’ feet still seemed but strangers in my way.
Thus great with child to speak, and helpless in my throes,
Biting my truant pen, beating myself for spite,
“Fool,” said my Muse to me, “look in thy heart and write.”
–Sir Philip Sidney from Astrophel and Stella