Contemporary Poetry Review

Letters to the Editor


Editor's Note
The Contemporary Poetry Review is pleased to publish selected letters to the magazine, some of which have been edited for content and clarity. The editor can be contacted at editor@cprw.comPlease note: write "LETTER TO EDITOR" in subject heading.

Concerning: Previous Letters to the CPR

Mr. Hilbert, 

As a high school English teacher, I must admit that when I read your exchange with Thomas Lavoie (regarding Billy Collins) I bristled. Here’s the line that really caught my attention: 

“I agree that education has a deadening effect on art unless it is taught very well, particularly to those who have elected to learn it, as one is more likely to discover at a university, rather than having it forced upon them, as one finds in a high school.” 

My revulsion came from two sources. My defenses powered up as I thought “Dammit, that’s not me.” In fact, most of my coworkers are quite adept at exposing our students to a range of contemporary poetry. During my poetry study with my sophomores, I provide them with opportunities to read a cadre of poets, both inside and outside of the “cannon.” Robert Pinsky, Sylvia Plath, Mark Doty, Margaret Atwood, Albert Goldbarth, Mary Jo Salter, Edward Hirsch, Beth Ann Fennelly: these are just a smattering of the contemporary poets my 10th graders read. Of course, the usual suspects rear their heads. But after easing my students into poetry with the contemporaries, Wordsworth, Shakespeare, and Blake are taken with a little more ease. 

Of course, another reason for my reaction was the sad admission of the truth. A lot of high school teachers to a fantastic job of making people lifelong haters of verse. Had I not encountered Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, the damage my senior English teacher did might never have been reversed. However, I often perceive that high school teachers are cast as Grendels whose only purpose in life is to suck the life out of literature. Granted, this happens, but it’s not the norm. 

Combine all of this with my own desires to be a poet outside of the standard academic circle, and the heartburn reaches near inferno intensity. When I read about poets in cushy, tenured college positions, teaching a paltry forty students per semester and bemoaning their work environments, I cuss. Loudly. When I get through cussing, I dive back into the eighty term papers scribbled by my 16-year-olds. Then I leave to take up tickets at the football game. I get in late since I also get to chaperone the homecoming dance. Let’s not get into the mess that No Child Left Behind and all of its paperwork and useless requirements it creates for me. In between all of that, I find time to write poems till Monday rolls around, and the fun starts again. 

Ahh, that felt good. Thanks.


James Dickson

English teacher/ “Harvest” literary magazine advisor

Madison Central High School, Madison, MS 


Mr. Hilbert responds:


Mr. Dickson, 

First, let me say that I think your students are lucky to have a teacher like you. You seem to be exposing them to an impressive array of classic and contemporary poets, and I hope they are taking something of value away from the experience. 

Second, allow me briefly to defend myself by clarifying certain items. I’ve never criticized teachers themselves, merely the conditions they face. It is a known fact that it is easier to teach advanced material in any discipline to students who have freely, if not eagerly, elected to learn. This does not mean that general education is any less important, only that it is probably less enjoyable for all involved (I’m recalling my high school calculus courses). This is less a judgment than a bald statement of fact. 

Third, I offer my condolences on your chaperoning obligations and enormous workload. As someone with an office job—replete with its own tedium and frustrations—I can only imagine your exasperation, but I sympathize nonetheless. 

Finally, and I say this often: I may seem cynical and pedantic at times, but I am always happy to have my pessimistic assumptions corrected. I am glad you had a chance to expel some bile and haul your humors back into balance, and I am endlessly pleased to know that there are teachers like you out there. 


Mr. Dickson responds:

Mr. Hilbert, 

I didn’t mean to come across as hostile, and I hope I didn’t do so. Paranoia is among the things high school teachers master because the world is out to get us. And, like I said in my initial letter, a lot of my bristle came from the knowledge that teachers do a great disservice to poetry.  

Thanks for the quick and kind response. CPR’s correspondence is one of its many draws.  

(And, yes, my students are lucky to have me.)


Concerning: The Franz Wright Interview by Ernest Hilbert

Dear Editor, 

Ernest Hilbert's interview with Franz Wright is fascinating. Wright's latest book, God's Silence (as much as, or perhaps even more than, Walking to Martha's Vineyard) will establish him as a major poet in a spiritual tradition of wresting with God that includes Donne's "Holy Sonnets" and Hopkins' "Terrible Sonnets." (Though George Herbert appears to be the influence he acknowledges most readily.) One also wonders if Wright knows the tortured writings of William Cowper, poet and hymnist. In any case, Wright's work will last, and it is a comfort to the rest of us, who also undergo the blessed suffering of being loved by a terrible (in Hopkins' sense) and holy God. 

With gratitude,

Luke Hankins

Bloomington, IN


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