How Poetry Can Matter to a First-Year Composition Student

Olga Dugan

The following is a guest post by Olga Dugan, PhD, whose poetry appeared in Issue 12 of Typehouse.

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To be truly educated is to resist the easy certainties of deeply ingrained and unexamined ideologies of soundbites and clichés in favor of an ongoing pursuit of knowledge, of truth, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you.

–Natasha Trethewey1

The value of one student’s life more than her death made painstakingly clear how poetry could matter to my first-year composition students. A week prior to her untimely demise, the thirty-year old described an experience that clarified for me what Trethewey’s work continues to do for students learning to write. In mixing the generic traditions of poetry and history, Trethewey creates poems of cultural consciousness that prompt student writers to explore the historical roots of their own voices and where their voices can take them in their writing. Presenting the public nature of very private ideas, notions, and experiences, conveying how we are more similar than different, her poems challenge beginning writers to think about themselves as historical beings, and to write from sources of knowledge that include their individual and collective memories. For my student in particular, the study of historical representation in Trethewey’s poetry led to writing in which she recognized her own voice as reader and storyteller of the fuller version of American history that Trethewey aptly insists we all share.

During an office visit, my student’s questions about an upcoming paper gradually intensified to thoughts on what it means to do this thing called ‘living’ and do it well. Our composition class was discussing this topical question raised in Trethewey’s second book of poetry, Bellocq’s Ophelia, the main character of which undergoes a journey of psychological exile that resonated all too well with my student. She admitted to dreading the essay assignment because the book required her to write out of a personal history from which she complained of feeling exiled. She offered no reasons for her sense of loss about where she came from and where she belonged. But acknowledgement alone betrayed her understanding and fear of the interdependence of cultural identity and historical memory pervading Trethewey’s poems which exhort readers to participate in an “ongoing exchange and honest, inclusive remembrance of the past.”2 And given her recognition of this call to active reading and the writing it induces, no wonder the continued heft of my student’s last words to me.

While regretting that she lacked the character’s courage, my student praised Trethewey’s Ophelia for this very act, seeing as hopeful and plausible Ophelia’s final moment of aggregation in which she looks back, sees where she’s been, where she is, then walks away from Storyville and prostitution. My student equated this act with walking away from the marginal places where social, political, cultural, and historical forces greater than ourselves can thrust us, and into a new life, albeit, a life unplanned and uncharted. She ended with a promise to write, ‘not a great paper, but at least one in search of truth.’ Trethewey’s poetry had invited my student to consider what in its historical representation could teach her to remember and examine about her own “presence” and cultural work in the world. Four years later, her presence is remembered, and the work she did during that office visit continues to inspire student writers in their own efforts to live and do it well.

1Natasha Trethewey, “Commencement Address by Natasha Trethewey, 19th Poet Laureate of the United States: June 07, 2014,” Knox College (web), http://www.knox.edu/news/news-archive/knox-college-commencement-2014/ commencement-speaker-natasha-trethewey.

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Olga Dugan is a Philadelphia-based Cave Canem poet. Nominated for a 2018 Best of the Net and 2019 Pushcart Prize, her poems appear in several journals including Typehouse Literary Magazine, Virga Poetry, The Sunlight Press, E-Verse Radio, The Peacock Journal, Origins, Kweli, The Southern Quarterly, Tipton Poetry Journal, Pirene’s Fountain, and Scribble. Olga’s articles on the work of U.S. Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey (2012-2014) appear in The North Star, the Journal of African American History and in Emory University’s “Meet the Fellows.”

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