So, I recently woke up to the news that somewhere in Connecticut, a teacher resigned to “resolve” a dispute that started when he read a poem to his high school students. Obviously, this fascinates me as a writer.
The poem was Please, Master by Allen Ginsberg, and in all fairness, I read it for the first time when I was about the same age as the kids in that class. Okay. Probably a little bit younger. I didn’t read it in class, or at a teacher’s whim.
And I don’t believe it’s possible to experience Allen Ginsberg as a part of a classroom discussion. Dissect him, yes; but to experience… I think the spirit of the thing dies as soon as someone says “Take out your books and turn to page three sixty-nine. Quiz on Monday.” You cannot be subversive under teacher guidance. Something is missing.
And doubly so when we’re talking about Please, Master, which isn’t just a gloriously obscene poem, but a poem that celebrates joyous, enthusiastic consent. I have trouble reconciling that with the awkward, half-compulsory setting of a high school class. And more trouble making Please, Master work as a spur of the moment add-on.
Number of high school teachers and classmates I had? Hundreds. Probably thousands. Number that I’d consent to discuss rim jobs with? Helluva lot fewer. Not zero, but less than the twenty or thirty in my senior English class. And no one has the right to tell me who should be in that conversation with me. I’m not all that particular–I’ve taken classes dedicated to erotic poetry–but with forewarning, and with informed consent. (And without some asshole who thinks he’s John Keating. The worst teachers always think they’re teaching you to be an independent thinker when even a toddler can ask why.)
So, here I am, thinking about context, and about the conversation between a writer and his readers. And whether the Please, Master that’s sprung on an unsuspecting high school senior and discussed with an entire class full of friends and rivals is the same Please, Master that I read by choice, alone in the library, or the one I discussed with people I chose. Is the Please, Master that Ginsberg read for an audience the same one he read to Orlovsky, alone at night? I doubt it.
And what about reading context for my own work? Right now is interesting. The internet has made the Conversation actual, rather than just intellectual. For a limited time, only, of course. But for now, there is actual dialogue, in a way there wouldn’t have been in most of Ginsberg’s life.
So, writer friends, what are your expectations for you own work? Under what circumstances would you say, “If you’re going to do that to my poem, my novel, my short story, just don’t bother. I’d rather you didn’t teach it, at all.”