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Beautiful Imagination: Reading and Writing Alongside Cornelius Eady

posted: 9.27.10 by archived

For the students in my first-year writing course, contemporary poetry was a revelation. After all, Cornelius Eady’s “Brutal Imagination” tells the story of an event that most students are too young to remember, yet it happened in their lifetimes. They recognize Eady, the way he draws on pop culture, on Buckwheat from “The Little Rascals” and Uncle Ben. The way he uses slang, cusses. If poetry has, for my students at least, come to mean “timeless,” that is, uprooted from history (and from their lives), inhabiting the rarefied air of universal human values, what then to make of poems like Eady’s?

Students weren’t certain—these are poems not about “diversity” or some other school-worn phrase, but about blackness, whiteness, motherhood, murder, lying. But students were certainly curious. This isn’t to say they found reading Eady’s poems easy, or that they immediately “got them.” They didn’t. But the difficulty of poetry receded as students strove to understand the imaginary black man, Susan Smith, in Eady’s version of the story. Students sensed he had something to say.

I asked students to pay attention to perspective, particularly Eady’s use of pronouns. Who is speaking, and when does this shift change? We’d been chewing on questions of perspective all semester, considering how writers position themselves in relation to their subjects, to another writer or text. In class, we traced the pronoun “I,” considered “you” and “they.” Who do the nameless witnesses see? Who is me?

But it was our arrival at “Confession,” a poem made of short lines, single words, that revealed what contemporary poetry in a first-year course can do. We read the poem aloud, and then read the last lines again: “The sheriff/Hears/Me bitch.” How did they hear that last word? Verb or noun?

The next time we met, students had written a series of linked poems in the spirit of Eady’s project. One writer embodied Michael Jackson, but also created a chorus (the public) and spoke from the perspective of a boy at Neverland Ranch. Another writer, inspired by a series of interviews with wives of American soldiers, created a character—a young army wife—and wrote poems in her voice, as well as the voice of her absent husband. One writer extended “Buckwheat’s Ailment” into prose, a story about the actor who played “The Little Rascals” character, fleshing out Eady’s take on life after the show.

Many did their best writing in these projects, not because they were aspiring poets or short story writers, but because Eady had taught them something about what words can do. Students worked as hard, if not harder, on these pieces than on anything they’d written thus far. They wrote slowly, considered each word, moved line by line. We talked about a couple of their poem cycles in class, attending to the same things we had discussed in Eady: perspective, pronoun, word, emphasis.

Did all of this transform students’ writing that semester? No, but it did do something important: reading and writing alongside Eady awakened students’ imaginative interest in language. They began to see, I think, words as generative—material out of which you make something of your own, something sharp and fine. Words as a way to travel into unfamiliar territory, to entertain perspectives that seem at first perplexing, strange. That is, the imagination as a path to discovery, to understanding. The revelation of connection.

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Jennifer Lee teaches Composition and Nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also directs the practicum for new teaching assistants and fellows.

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