An Issue With History
It's scary how little history my students know. I'm a largely self-taught dilettante, but I think I must come off as some sort of history god the way I have to explain context to these kids. For instance, in class today, while covering 3 poems in 80 minutes (and I had to push it a bit), I went from the Easter uprising in Ireland, 1916 to the socialist movement in the US in the 1930s to Vietnam--Yeats, Cummings and Levertov and mostly I got blank stares. And these were poems the students had read in advance (supposedly).
Now for the first, Yeats's "Easter, 1916", I had to do a bit or work myself. My knowledge of the period is largely informed by the film Michael Collins, which I remember as being fairly interesting, but have no idea as to its accuracy. I suspect any bio-pic and this one was no different, but even a rudimentary google search found enough to inform the poem on a basic level, especially the closing lines:
And what if excess of love
Bewildered them till they died?
I write it out in a verse -
MacDonagh and MacBride
And Connolly and Pearse
Now and in time to be,
Wherever green is worn,
Are changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.
Yeats is of course speaking of the execution of these four men (among sixteen total) and how that turned them into martyrs which served as a rallying point for the Irish republicans and swung political power toward them and away from the nationalists.
Of course, this received blank stares.
So I guess it should be no surprise that my students had no clue that a Socialist had run for President and had won as much as 6% of the vote, or had ever considered that for Denise Levertov's adult life, her nation was almost perpetually at war (thus the title of her poem).
That's the bad part of the story. The good part was that they were sufficiently moved by the poems themselves to be bothered by them, especially the images of Olaf being sodomized with heated bayonets or Levertov's mothers whose breasts are broken open, milk spilling onto their breathing yet unborn fetuses.
You take what you can get some days.