Why I Don’t Teach Milton at Perimeter College
I fell in love with High Modernist English literature. The venerable poet T.S. Eliot wrote The Waste Land in several languages, including Greek and Sanskrit. The brilliant Ezra Pound treated his readers to obscure allusions to Thomas Jefferson’s private correspondence. The encyclopedic wordsmith James Joyce’s masterpiece Finnegans Wake acts as a door jamb for many an English professor’s office, but seldom does it regale our students in the hallways or at the vending machines. Although the High Modernists delighted in learning and learnedness, their admirers aren’t freshmen attending two-year college in Atlanta, Georgia. They’re hoary-headed dudes in tweed jackets.
The distance created by such texts is deliberate. True, they establish a wondrous world of language to those willing to become fluent in it. But they fill my classes with dread. These masterpieces often leave our students feeling left out. It’s true, many anthologies have taken pains to include new sections with diverse authors, and this is praiseworthy. But many professors still cling to the old reliables, the stuff in the back, the texts we fell in love with when we were young, impressionable bookworms who loved a good pun in, like, Old High Norse.
Just this past semester I tried to teach the lovely sonnet “When I Consider How My Light Is Spent” by 17th century polyglot John Milton. Like all of you, I’m very busy, and every few years, for whatever reason, I forget the lesson I planned for that day. This one was supposed to be about how literary form can produce meaning, but my notes were nowhere to be found. Luckily, I carry with me a dust-ridden warehouse of back-up lesson plans right here in my noggin!
I have the Milton poem by heart and love it dearly, so I begin class by reciting it aloud. And with gusto! Some students are still finding their seats, and I let them know that this poem we are studying today is truly a masterpiece. After my recitation, I project the text from the computer to the white screen in front of the room.
Geez, they aren’t saying much.
“Yes, yes, it’s challenging, I know. The language sounds really archaic,” I explain.
I start giving them some information about the author, hoping that will inspire them somewhat.
Nope, nothing doing.
“Isn’t it fascinating the way Milton uses the same word to mean multiple things? Look, how brilliant, what could he mean by ‘light’ in this line? Is it the same as, say, here,” I say, pointing to the screen wildly. Come oooooon, I’m thinking.
Our first unit on short stories had gone so well! And now they are giving me nothing. We’ve built up a strong rapport—I think, anyway—so I decide to ask them why they don’t seem to have any energy for Milton’s piece today.
One of my outspoken students is pretty frank. “I just think that’s asking a lot.”
“That?” Mon dieu.
“It’s in a weird English from a long time ago and God knows what he’s talking about.”
People are nodding. And I understand too. It’s just not working today. Thankfully, my bag of tricks has more than the Milton inside, so I pull up a piece on YouTube by a local spoken word artist named Ayodele Heath. He had visited Perimeter some years ago to emcee a poetry slam and the students had really connected with his work. I feel like the Heath poem is reconnecting me with my class too.
I know what some canonists may be thinking, but Heath’s poem is just as analytically complex as Milton’s. As a matter of fact, Heath is also fascinated by etymology and wordplay. But this work is current, and it is speaking to many of them. For more than half the class, it bridges a crucial distance to see that the writer is African-American. He’s from the South, something others in the room are connecting to. It is a spoken word piece, and Heath’s performative gestures also build bridges to their understanding of the poem. It uses some English slang, and some Black vernacular, and it uses those words and phrases in complex, freighted ways; but there isn’t anything truly out of reach in that room. After getting the students to discuss the piece in small groups, and then as a class, we all feel like we understand the heart of the matter for Heath.
Look, I do think that John Milton is worth reading. Absolutely. Shakespeare, Chaucer. The High Modernists—though I roasted them above—totally worthy of reading and studying. That stuff truly spoke to me in my upper middle class predominately privileged white private high school, and kept speaking to me in my upper-middle-class predominately privileged white private undergraduate institution.
But I want our students to know that literature can speak to them, too. I want them to see that literature is written by people like them, people who have something in common with them, who have something to say to them and talk to them about. I would assert that there is too much distance between our students and the traditional canon. For me teaching literature at Perimeter College, I believe I need to select—or, perhaps even better, to let the students select—a diverse body of literature that is trying to bridge the distances between us.
A List of Non-Canonical Texts for Honors and Non-Honors Sections
Jhumpa Lahiri—stories, “Hell-Heaven,” “Interpreter of Maladies,” “The Treatment of Bibi Haldar”
Mia Alvra—In the Country
Junot Diaz—stories in “Drown”
Sherman Alexie—”This Is What It Means to Say Phoenix, AZ,” “What I Pawn You Shall Redeem”
Gwendolyn Brooks—especially “The Mother” (her poems are also in Pipeline)
Hitomi Kawakami—The Nakano Thrift Shop, Strange Weather in Tokyo
Gene Luen Yang—Boxers and Saints
Amy Tan—“Two Kinds”
Amiri Baraka—just about anything
Theresa Hak Kyung Cha—Dictée
Haruki Murakami—The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles
Tommy Orange—There, There
Cristina Garcia—Dreaming in Cuban